Question On Sammā Samādhi (One samādhi, blue samādhi, we samādhi, who’s samādhi?)

This is a thread about inquiring into sammā samādhi. Specifically, in relation to what many people know as the meditation ‘nimitta.’ It’s not the typical thread where we argue about the existence or use of the word. I am curious to understand some of Bhante @sujato ’s footnotes and comments here on the thread, as well as other’s ideas and insights. The basic question is something like this:

Are the four jhānas always experientially and phenomenologically the same state, no matter when or by whom they are attained, or is there variation in some of the experience and other factors that are consistently in common?

Specifically, I’m wondering on people’s thoughts and sutta references for: in jhāna, do different people perceive different meditation “nimittas,” i.e. mental experiences of rūpa (pure form), or is jhāna a state in and of itself separate from the form/lights stage.

It’s a question about the meaning and experience of ‘rūpa’ in relation to the four jhānas.

For example: When the suttas talk about, say, the limitless attainment of mettā, or the non-dual state of a kasina meditation, or the first liberation (perceiving internal form one perceives form externally), or the jhānas: are these all talking about equivalent states in terms of the jhāna factors and samādhi level, but with different perceptory components? Or are the jhānas somehow beyond the ‘nimittas’ described in the other states, and the “object” (only theme in the mind) is always the vedanā of the jhāna factors, no matter how one entered the jhāna?

Some commentators, like above and in other translation notes, seem to indicate their opinion that the various perceptions of rūpa (“nimittas”) can vary from person to person or jhana to jhana. Others, like Ven. @Sunyo , have mentioned that they would say there is no possible diversity of ‘nimitta’ within jhāna, and therefore that the kasinas in the suttas are pre-jhāna states.

It is not clear to me if the above comment is saying that these various states are different ways of describing how one enters jhāna, or if it is saying they are describing actual jhāna attainments. Obviously, the mind is very delicate and subtle, and our memories and reflections will strongly affect the. way we describe, relate, and assign meaning to a profound spiritual experience. Sometimes differences in things are not so clear cut. Other times, though, differences are clear.

This has obviously been debated in Buddhism for a long time. I’m curious if @Ceisiwr has any thoughts or references. It seems the Sarvāstivādins thought one could contemplate different qualities of kasinas within the same jhāna state. So, one could be in fourth jhana and perceive the blue kasina, or be in fourth jhana and instead the fire kasina. And still they would be in fourth jhana despite other experientiam differences in the samādhi state.

I also would like to get some clarification on the traditional Mahāvihārin opinion on this.

What I understand is that the Pa-Auk system says the ‘patibhāga nimitta’ is present in jhāna; it’s the mental states related to it and their stength that are the jhāna factors. Is this made clear in the Visuddhinagga? The Visuddhimagga also says certain themes can lead to certain jhānas (or even only upacāra samādhi); this seems to imply the commentators thought distinct themes were maintained within the jhānas and affected their progress, rather than mere primary entries.

I believe Ajahn Brahm(?), teach that there is no ‘patibhāga nimitta’ in jhāna proper, and that the former would still be pre-jhāna. (Perhaps others familiar with these different teachings could clarify.)

One potential point of discussion is if the non-nimitta proponents are really just taking up the feeling-nimitta or the limited space nimitta, and therefore leaving open the possibility of there still being distinct potential perceptions present in jhāna. Thoughts?

I find this an important question about sammā samādhi that seems to go by hardly noticed while people argue about walking alms in jhāna vs. sitting down. But what about this very ancient and modern debate? What exactly constitutes a jhāna and sammā samādhi? If someone is at the patibhāga nimitta or experiencing the limitless kasina, do they need to get beyond it? If one is experiencing the brahmavihārās, do they need to use it as a gateway to a separate experience of jhāna, or are they equally capable? Etc.

I have some interesting passages from the suttas, like for example, the space and viññāna kasinas seeming to be identical to formless attainments, thereby opening the question about the former color/element kasinas being various states of jhāna. Or mettā-cetovimutti and the jhānas being separate ‘doors to liberation’ in some places. Or the four brahmavihāras being equivalent in rebirth to the corresponding four jhānas. But I’d like to leave this more open for now to get a sense of people’s comments and clarifications.

Again: This is not a post about debating or convincing. It is inquiring to clarify what the various opinions and voices are saying and the references for them, as well as textual reasons to say one or the other.


Apologies for the formatting. Footnote and page numbers are intermingled.

From The Way of the Path, by Luang Poo Tate:

At the same time as one is training the Citta in the ways mentioned
above, some things may arise that are strange and wonderful. Even
though one does not intend such things to occur they still happen.
This is the Citta withdrawing from external objects, coming together
to be a single mass. It lets go of SAÑÑĀ (recognition) and attachment
to things in the past and future. At this time there will just be “the
one who knows” as one of a pair with the object of the present. This
is something that is neither external nor internal but is a condition
that is a characteristic peculiar to the Citta.
This is like the practice of giving up everything and is namely, ‘THE
CITTA ENTERING THE BHAVANGA”. Everything that is there at this
time will be of the Citta exclusively. When the Citta has reached this
level, even though one is still alive, it will give up all attachments to
the body. The Citta will come to experience its own disposition while
being separate from this state47. This is called “The World48 of the
This World of the Citta still has the five KHANDHAS (which are subtle
and internal) perfectly complete. Therefore, the Citta of this level still
has becoming13 and life49, causing it to be re-born again later on.
The characteristics that have been spoken of are similar to those of
someone who falls asleep and dreams. Therefore, the case of the
Citta entering into the Bhavanga (through the training mentioned
above) may have varying symptoms, depending on whether there is
much or little Sati.
When this occurs at first, someone with Sati and of keen intelligence
will be aware of what they are and what they are seeing and will not
be scared. Someone who has little Sati and who is generally easily
47 Translator’s Note: This point is an important point but the text is difficult
to translate simply as there are two valid, yet subtly different, ways of
interpreting the original Thai. The first being that the Citta experiences the
state it is in yet remains separate to that state. The second being that the
Citta experiences the state it is in by means of being separate to that state.
Both statements are valid.
What the author is referring to is the notion of the “pair” mentioned in the
previous paragraph, where the Citta, “the one that knows”, is one of two
things that exist at this time; the other thing being the object and, in this
case, the object is the nature of the Citta itself. Effectively, the disposition of
the Citta and the “one who knows” that disposition are both are aspects of
the Citta yet separate from each other.

48“World” is the usual translation of the Thai word ‘Pop’ which is used as the
Thai translation of the Pali word ‘BHAVA’, which in English is often translated
as ‘Becoming’.
49 This is a translation of the Thai word ‘Chart’ which is derived from the Pali
word ‘JĀTI’ which is usually translated as ‘Birth’ in English.
taken in will be like someone sleeping and dreaming. When they
wake up, they may become scared or delusional, believing in their
Nimittas. However, when these people train and are like this often,
to the extent that they become experienced, Sati will improve and
these conditions will disappear. Paññā will then gradually arise,
investigating the causes and conditions of those Dhammas –
knowing and perceiving the reality of Sabhāva-Dhammas.
Even if the characteristic expounded in Item 7 does not give rise to a
vast amount of Paññā (clever research into cause and effect) it is still
the preliminary stage of training the Citta. It is an instrument that
can dispel the five Nivarana and cause peace and happiness in the
present. If this training has been done properly and has not
deteriorated, it will make for rebirth in a joyful state (SUGATI) in the
future in a manner that corresponds to one’s level of training.
Visions and Nimittas of various kinds generally arise in these
moments that are being discussed here. However, this does not
mean that visions and Nimittas must arise or arise to every person
when the Citta has reached this level. With some people they
sometimes arise and with others not. It depends on one’s
personality and on circumstances.
If one were to say that visions and Nimittas that arise in meditation
were good things, then this would only be true for people who see
them with Sati. These people will see them as just Nimittas, as tools
to anchor the heart, and will discard them. They will not deludedly
grasp hold of these Nimittas and take them to be a ‘self’ or take them
to be ‘theirs’.
If one is not very clever and one’s Sati is not very good and one is a
SADDHĀCARITA50 also, when such Nimittas arise one will be very
excited. One may even become mentally abnormal51. This is because
the heart credits these Nimittas with being true. (The way to treat
Nimittas is explained later in Item 10.)
In addition to this, the opinions of people who have trained to this
level are generally radical because of the power of the Citta’s energy.
That is, when they think about anything they usually see only one
side of things and so do not believe people easily because they
believe their own opinions are reasonable. Despite the fact that
these opinions are deeply rooted they still lack reason and so are
likely to cause VIPALLĀSA52 and misunderstanding can easily occur.
No matter what, if visions and Nimittas arise or not, they are not
what is desired here. This is because, apart from the fact that they
are hindrances, concealing Paññā, they are also obstructions to the
development of Vipassanā53
The intention regarding this training is to forsake the five Nivarana
and then to investigate the Khandhas, seeing them clearly in
accordance with reality, so that one is tired of them and has
50 One who has a faithful nature.
51 Here mentally abnormal refers to someone who is “caught up in their own
little world” i.e., mild psychosis.
52 Corruptions of insight.
53 Insight into impermanence, suffering and non-self.
diminished sensuality. One will then be able to discard these
Khandhas, never again to be attached to them!
When the Citta is trained to be firmly established and concentrated
in Jhāna-Samādhi, so that the five Nivarana have been suppressed,
one should develop Vipassanā. Vipassanā may arise at the same time
as one is developing Samatha. That is, in the moment that one is
developing Samatha, Paññā may arise as a bright light, knowing
clearly and seeing the truth that:
“All SANKHĀRAS 54 that become manifest tend to perish and
deteriorate; they are unable to last; they do not belong to us and
are not ourselves; they are just their own Sabhāva-Dhammas; after
they have arisen, they break up in accordance with their nature.”
When knowledge like this has arisen, it will cause the Citta to be tired
of, and will diminish sensual desire for, all Sankhāras. There will be
just sorrow and remorse anchoring the Citta. No matter what one
sees and hears these symptoms will be there throughout. This is
called, “Vipassanā arising together with the development of
If Vipassanā does arise like this, then, when one has developed
Samatha so that the Citta is firmly concentrated, one should just take
any part of the body (e.g. bones, large intestine or small intestine) or,
54 Conditioned phenomena.
take the object that the Citta is thinking about at that moment, and
investigate it. Consider that the nature of all these things that the
Citta latches onto, believing them to be truly permanent and the
cause of Sukha (happiness) is, in truth, the Ti-Lakkhana 55 . The
suppositions that we make in accordance with our own imagination
i.e., this is this and that is that, are not real at all.
All Sankhāra arise from their own causes and conditions (namely
Avijjā, Tanhā, Upadānā and Kamma). When their causes and
conditions are exhausted, they pass away in accordance with their
nature; without anyone forcing them to. Even ourselves, our bodies,
are of this nature. They are able to survive because they have
conditions such as air and food. If these conditions become
exhausted, then things become meaningless.
Investigating in this manner depends on having complete
peacefulness of the Citta as one’s support. Afterwards, one shall
reach the end of the path of “body training Citta”. This is to say, the
brilliant light of Paññā, which constitutes the reasons that the Citta
has investigated, will arise in a way specific to oneself. One will not
latch on to Saññā, namely that which is remembered from other
people, as being one’s own knowledge. This will be knowledge that
arises specifically from probing inside one’s own heart. The Citta will
never again be deluded by, attached to, desire or be pleased or
displeased with any Sankhāra Dhammas.
55 The Three Characteristic of Being: ANICCA (impermanence); DUKKHA
(suffering); ANATTĀ (not self).
If it were said that a Citta that still does not know the reality of the
KAMMATTHĀNA56 that it is investigating (as has just been explained)
is one that one that is not truly collected, the reason for concluding
that this was not Vipassanā would be because the Paññā of such a
Citta is still weak and lacks circumspection.
Summarising the meaning of what has been dealt with so far:

  1. Cleansing of bodily actions and speech must be done by a
    method of training that has Sila as the first stage.
  2. Cleansing the Citta, to make it pure, must be done by training
    to the extent of Jhāna-Samādhi (Samatha) so that the Citta
    has vigorous energy and can suppress the five hindrances.
  3. When the Citta is skilled and clever in entering and staying in
    Jhāna-Samādhi in accordance with one’s wish, only then
    shall Paññā (namely a bright light, knowledge of the reality
    of all Sabhāva Dhammas) arise. It will arise together with the
    causes and conditions of the becoming and ending of those
    Sabhāva Dhammas in a way that is of great splendour.
    It may be that the knowledge that has been spoken of here will only
    arise in this way and only with some people. But it does not matter
    how! If the trainee has reached this level, they should know that they
    have and that the Citta is ready to be trained in Paññā and Vipassanā.
    One should then just take a part of the body or an object that the
    Citta is absorbed with and examine it using the Ti-Lakkhana as one’s
    basis. As has been explained already, one shall then obtain the bright
    56 Literally, the foundation for action. Colloquially, the meditation subject.
    light of Paññā (seeing clearly that all Sankhāra Dhammas have the
    same characteristics) and one shall root out all attachment to
    Even though the Citta has no body and cannot come into contact
    with things, it has power that is superior to the body and anything
    else in this world. It has the ability to make everything in this world
    come under its influence. However, the Citta is not so cruel and base
    that it does not know what is good or bad.
    When someone who means well comes to train the Citta in the
    correct way, following the teaching of the Lord Buddha, the Citta will
    be easily trained and will become clever. It will have the Paññā to
    bring the wickedly behaving body back to behaving well. Apart from
    this it will also have the ability to make itself pure and clean, free
    from blemishes. It will know clearly and see for itself the truth in
    deep and profound ATHADHAMMAS58. At the same time, it will be
    able to bring to the world (which is shrouded, making it dark)
    brightness and clarity.
    This is because the real substance of the Citta was bright and clear
    from the beginning. However, it is impregnated by moods which
    taint it. These moods make the brilliant light of the Citta completely
    dark in a single moment and consequently make the world dark also.
    If the Citta had been completely dark since the time of its origin59
    then probably there would be no-one capable of cleansing it and
    57 Mind and body.
    58 Synonymous with Dhamma, but also refers to the headings for various
    groups of Dhamma.
    59 The Lord Buddha said the Citta’s fundamental nature was bright and clear
    but this has been compromised by the defilements.
    making it clear and clean; causing the brilliant light of Paññā to
    emerge. Therefore, whether this world shall be dark or whether it
    shall be bright, whether it shall receive happiness or whether it shall
    receive sorrow, depends on the Citta of each individual.
    It is thus appropriate for people to first make their own Citta well
    trained and then to train the Cittas’ of others afterwards. Then, later
    on, this world will be free from turbulence and confusion.
    The case of Visions/NIMITTAS which arise to meditators because of
    their training is strange and amazing. These visions/Nimittas may
    easily fool someone of little Paññā into believing in them. One can
    be deluded by them, taking them to be real thus forgetting oneself
    and losing Sati. Therefore, one who trains in meditation should be
    careful and contemplate on what the author will explain next.
  4. When the Citta becomes concentrated and is in the
    Bhavanga, visions may appear as pictures. For example,
    someone who investigates ASUBHA (loathsomeness of the
    body) may see their own body as being Asubha, completely
    rotten, or they may see it as simply being a skeleton, or they
    may see it as a heap of ashes. They may see this to the extent
    that it is a cause of weariness, and they commit suicide.
    Sometimes one may see visions of DEVAS, INDRIYA,
    BRAHAMA, hell, PRETA or BUTTA60
  5. With these Nimittas, when the Citta has become
    concentrated, then maybe a whispering sound will manifest
    itself. Maybe it will be the sound of someone whom one
    respects reminding one to investigate Dhamma or to be
    cautious. If it is not like this, then maybe it the sound of an
    enemy with wicked intent who will endanger one. This
    Nimitta highlights the flow of the Citta, the two being
    connected to each other.
    The opposite, a well-wisher, is of a similar manner.
    Sometimes the sound floats up and illustrates an
    Athadhamma which is worth thinking about and
    investigating. This is in keeping with the meditation idiom
    that, “ Dhamma is an incentive or an ABHIÑÑĀ”.
    Visions/Nimittas are not something that
    appear to all meditators everywhere.
    With some people, no matter how
    concentrated their mind becomes,
    visions and Nimittas never arise. Some
    people, however, only have to be
    concentrated for a very short time and
    many visions/Nimittas appear. Be
    careful; do not try to make them
    60 Devas – heavenly beings; Preta – hungry ghosts; Butta – ghosts of the dead
    This is all to do with the different characters that people have.
    Generally speaking, a gullible person, not given to reasoning, will
    have visions/Nimittas occur quickly and will usually expand on them
    beyond their limit. These vision/Nimittas thus become a cause for
    such persons to become engrossed, forgetting themselves and
    losing Sati. Sometimes these people become unbalanced. Because
    of this visions/Nimittas are something with which one should be
    Are visions/Nimittas real?
    One can answer that by saying that some are and some are not. This
    is because these visions/Nimittas arise from Jhāna and Jhāna is
    LOKIYA (mundane) and therefore uncertain. This is the same as
    when the Cittas’ of some meditators become collected, attain the
    Bhavanga and are in Jhāna, the meditators themselves do not know
    where they have arrived, nor at what level they are on, nor what they
    are investigating, nor their own disposition.
    If visions/Nimittas arise intentionally or not, they are still comprised
    of a lot of Sankhāra and Upadāna so one cannot be certain of them.
    Because these vision/Nimittas occur in the Bhavanga there is a
    comparison between this state and someone asleep or someone
    who is dozing off and dreams. Therefore, when they occur at first,
    there are generally some that are real, but this is the minority.
    Is Jhāna Lokiya or LOKUTTARA (supramundane)?
    One can answer that Jhāna has only 12-13 factors61 and these are
    Lokiya. However, if the person who enters Jhāna is an ARIYA (noble
    one) using Jhāna as a tool, as their VIHĀRA DHAMMA (place for the
    mind to rest), they are able to use that Lokiya Jhāna at will and with
    certainty. This is similar to someone experienced in firing a gun
    compared to a beginner. It is like a king carrying an ornate sword
    while the commoner carries a plain one62
    Are Nimittas good things?
    One can answer that they are only good to someone who is able to
    use them. This person is able to use them in a way that is proper and
    fitting, not being deluded by them or addicted to them.
    Nimittas are no good to people who are unable to use them or, are
    unable to use them correctly. To such people Nimittas become the
    cause of delusion because they take them to be real. When Upadāna
    has seized hold of the vision/Nimitta, Sankhāra expands on it,
    making it pervasive, until it makes the meditator incapable of
    retaining Sati. It is therefore appropriate to be careful with regard to
    visions/Nimittas in the way that will be explained next.
    Visions/Nimittas appear by the power of Lokiya Jhāna and continue
    because of Sankhāra-Upadāna. They therefore have the
    characteristics of the Ti-Lakkana i.e., they are Anicca (impermanent,
    being unable to last), Dukkha (suffering) and Anattā (not self, not
    61 The factors of all of the first four Jhānas added together.
    62 In Thai, the Royal language is different to the common language so, in the
    case of this simile, the word for a king’s sword is different to that of a
    commoner’s sword. However, in English they are both swords so, showing a
    good comparison in this simile is difficult.
    belonging to you or anyone). They are always in the condition of
    arising and passing away and it is proper to examine them in this way
    (in accordance with reality) and to let go of them.
    Do not be deluded and put your faith in these vision/Nimittas which
    are the end result, instead practice the primary cause i.e., Jhāna.
    Become experienced and able to enter Jhāna at will, then
    visions/Nimittas will arise by themselves.
    One should also see the harm of these visions/Nimittas. If, when
    visions/Nimittas arise, we are absorbed and deluded and attached
    to them, Jhāna will deteriorate. As a simile, visions/Nimittas are like
    sound waves which tend to hinder someone who is trying to become
    calm in order to examine subtle and profound Dhammas; or they are
    like waves which prevent us from seeing our reflection in clear water.
    When visions/Nimittas arise to trainees who are new to Jhāna, they
    will be very strange and marvellous and Sankhāra-Upadāna will tend
    to latch onto them tenaciously. Those visions/Nimittas will then be
    constantly impressed upon one’s (inner) eyes and Citta. If one
    cannot resolve this situation by the methods mentioned previously,
    then prevent the Citta from entering Jhāna by being inattentive or,
    by not allowing the Citta to become calm or, by not allowing oneself
    to be pleased with those Nimittas. One should eat and sleep
    contentedly and undertake many other activities so that the body
    becomes exhausted. Send the mind to objects that that give rise to
    the Kilesa, such as beautiful shapes and pleasantsounds, so that such
    things as love and strong desire arise in the Citta. When the Citta has
    receded from Jhāna, all the visions/Nimittas will disappear by
    When the pupil cannot resolve things himself, as explained here, it is
    fitting for their teacher to try to help in a similar way. The best and
    quickest way for a teacher to resolve such a situation is for him to
    find a subject that:
  6. incites the pupil addicted to the visions/Nimittas to recede
    from Jhāna, or
  7. gives rise to vehement anger.
    The visions/Nimittas will then disappear completely.
  8. When people interested in meditation come to develop any
    of the Kammatthāna subjects, their Citta gradually becomes
    peaceful and free from external objects. They become
    collected just at the Citta but are not completely free from
    all objects; there is still feeling, thinking and consideration.
    When they try to forsake these subtle objects but are still
    unable to do so completely, this is called Upacāra prior to
    attaining APPANĀ.
  9. The Citta becomes subtle until it completely forsakes the
    object that it is investigating. Even the breath that one
    breathes in and out will be indiscernible. This is called
    Appanā. With these symptoms there is, however, complete
    Sati, which does not take anything as its perch but it is aware
    of itself. When the Citta withdraws from this state and
    investigates objects and reasons about all Athadhammas,
    this is Upacāra after withdrawing from Appanā.
    Upacāra Samādhi of both kinds is the best foundation for knowledge
    of Athadhamma and various conditions. This knowledge, however,
    is different to the knowledge that arises from visions/Nimittas,
    which has been dealt with already. This is because visions/Nimittas
    arise from Lokiya Jhāna and so are uncertain. In the case of the
    knowledge that is being referred to here, even if it arises from Lokiya
    Samādhi, the results are still certain (scientist use this level as their
    means of intellectual reasoning). If the knowledge arises from
    Lokuttara Samādhi it will bring about the extinction of the ĀSAVA
    (taints, such as sensual desire and ignorance).
    To sum up, the knowledge that arises from visions/Nimittas and the
    knowledge that arises from Upacāra Samādhi is different in both
    value and grounding.
    A subject that is worth further explanation here is “Appanā
    Samādhi”. Appanā Samādhi is Lokuttara63. Most people who enter
    Appanā generally contemplate the in and out breaths as their object.
    When one gazes at the breath as one’s object and one comes to see
    the arising and the passing away or just the passing away, the Citta
    will gradually become finer until it successively lets go of all objects.
    It then comes together and is Appanā, as has been explained.
    This state of Appanā puts an end to the breath being the measuring
    stick. Sometimes this is referred to as “Appanā Jhāna” because when
    63 When used by an Ariya.
    the Citta is concentrated at this spot, there is no breath but there is
    complete Sati. At this stage the Citta is extremely pure and so one is
    unable to investigate anything.
    Later, when the Citta has receded and is in Upacāra, as has been
    explained, it will be in a position to examine things. It will know all
    SABBA-ÑEYYADHAMMAS64 clearly and other things as well. It will
    have no visions/Nimittas, which were explained at the outset, but it
    will have knowledge which has reason as its foundation. This can be
    compared to relieving doubts completely.
    Meditators sometimes attain Appanā Jhāna by investigating subjects
    other than ĀNĀPĀNASATI (mindfulness of the breath) as their
    Kammatthāna. This is because when they focus on the breath as
    their object Appanā Jhāna does not happen. Later, when the Citta
    has become collected to the extent that the breath has disappeared,
    this is Appanā Jhāna.
    This is the opinion of the author. It is not appropriate, however, for
    all meditators to take the opinion of the author as their guide
    because the ideas and opinions of everyone in the world are
    different. Even if people see the same thing at the same time, they
    may have varying understandings or make different suppositions
    about its description. This is then the cause of quarrels and
    arguments which have no end. The author thus begs you to train
    your meditation to the extent of Appanā and then compare this
    experience –with a Citta that has Dhamma – to the many ordinances
    laid down in textbooks. Do not be prejudice! The comparison will
    64 The five neyyadhamma, i.e. conditioned phenomena, the distinctive qualities
    of certain material phenomena (nipphanna), the conditioned characteristics of
    mind and matter, nibbāna, and concepts.
    then be Paccattaṁ, arising just for oneself. This is the wish of the

Hi Venerable,

Thanks for being interested in such matters. I think that’s a good question. First of all, I also don’t want to debate or convince anybody, so please read all I’ll say as being my opinion, according to how I understand things at the moment. I also don’t know everything, and like you would like some clarification on some of these point.

I’m aware the suttas don’t use the term nimitta in the way it later was employed by the commentaries, but I’ll use this term regardless, because it is so common nowadays.

To answer the question, the jhanas are states which are very hard to describe, which makes me wonder to what extent people may be talking about the same thing with different words, disagreeing only on the surface. However, there is a very distinct shift from the nimitta stage into the first jhana, much more distinct than any perceptive change that happened prior. In first jhana the object is the pitisukha, no longer the lights or shapes (or sounds or whatever) of the nimittas. This doesn’t mean the jhana is a black darkness, it just means that all perceptions of color and of light/dark are abandoned. They are of no more relevance to the mind at that point.

To give some textual support for this, in MN128 the Buddha says he developed immeasurable lights and forms, but only afterwards developed the jhanas. AN8.120 & DN16 speak about eight liberations, where between the formless attainments and “perceiving forms” (which are the same as the kasinas, i.e. nimittas), there is “focused only on beauty”. I take this beauty to refer to the four jhanas. The amount of beauty (i.e. amount of pitisukha) can still vary from individual to individual, determining the strength of the jhana. But the focus isn’t on colors or shapes anymore.

Though it is a bit inferential, we can also derive this from the description of the jhanas themselves, which don’t mention form or lights but do mention piti and sukha. I see these discriptions—which are repeated all over the place with little to no change—as being very complete. The jhana similies, like at AN5.28 (links to my translation) also say: “You drenched, suffused, filled, and pervaded your experience with delight and bliss caused by the separation, so that there is no single part of your whole experience that is not pervaded with it.” Hence the object is just piti sukha, not lights. This is also indicated in other places, but let me leave it at that.

Rūpa’s fundamental meaning, from which all others were derived, is things seen, i.e. appearances/sights. When we speak of “the four elements” nowadays we might think of physical stuff, but Chandogya Upanishad 6.4.1 says the color red is a form of the fire element (rohitaṃ rūpaṃ tejasas), and the color white a form of the water element. The vedas have more such references like this that clarify that “form” isn’t physical matter as we think of it nowadays. In case of nimittas these forms are seen with the mind, although they can be almost indistinguishable from actual physical lights/colors, which is why I think the suttas sometimes call them “external forms”, like in the eight bases for mastering [samādhi]. They can definitely feel as if they are external to the meditator. When building a meditation center, some monks even made sure the meditation hall contained no windows, so the meditators don’t think nimittas are the sun shining in their eyes.

The eight bases are described in detail in MN77, DN16, AN8.65, and AN10.29 (so they’re actually more common than certain famous passages in the satipatthana suttas) and in the first two they precede the jhanas in order. These eight bases mention seeing (passati) forms, which are certain limited or measureless colors, dull or bright. However we interpret this, it is definitely not about feeling form “with the body”. The commentaries are a bit terse but call the external form here nimittas, the internal form being parts of the body, and I agree with that. I interpret the eight bases as follows:

There are these eight bases for mastering [samādhi]. What eight? Perceiving form internally [i.e. still feeling the body], someone sees forms externally [i.e. “sees” nimittas], which are limited in size, both shiny and dull [i.e. nimittas that have edges and are not bright all the time]. Mastering them, they perceive: ‘I know and see.’ This is the first basis for mastering.

Perceiving form internally, someone sees forms externally, limitless [i.e. nimittas which have no edges], both shiny and dull. Mastering them, they perceive: ‘I know and see.’ This is the second basis for mastering.

Not perceiving form internally [i.e. now no longer aware of the body, which is a deeper state of meditation], someone sees forms externally, which are limited in size, both shiny and dull. Mastering them, they perceive: ‘I know and see.’ This is the third basis for mastering.

Not perceiving form internally, someone sees forms externally, limitless, both shiny and dull. Mastering them, they perceive: ‘I know and see.’ This is the fourth basis for mastering.

Not perceiving form internally, someone sees forms externally that are blue [and now no longer dull or small], with blue color, blue hue, and blue tint. They’re like a flax flower that’s blue, with blue color, blue hue, and blue tint. Or a cloth from Bāraṇasī that’s smoothed on both sides, blue, with blue color, blue hue, and blue tint. In the same way, not perceiving form internally, someone sees forms externally, blue, with blue color, blue hue, and blue tint. Mastering them, they perceive: ‘I know and see.’ This is the fifth basis for mastering.

Not perceiving form internally, someone sees forms externally that are yellow, with yellow color, yellow hue, and yellow tint. They’re like a champak flower that’s yellow, with yellow color, yellow hue, and yellow tint. Or like a cloth from Bāraṇasī that’s smoothed on both sides, yellow, […] This is the sixth basis for mastering.

Not perceiving form internally, someone sees forms externally that are red, with red color, red hue, and red tint. They’re like a scarlet mallow flower that’s red, with red color, red hue, and red tint. Or like a cloth from Bāraṇasī that’s smoothed on both sides, red, […]’ This is the seventh basis for mastering.

Not perceiving form internally, someone sees forms externally that are white, with white color, white hue, and white tint. They’re like the morning star that’s white, with white color, white hue, and white tint. Or like a cloth from Bāraṇasī that’s smoothed on both sides, white, […] These are the eight dimensions of mastering.

For clarity, the colored cloths and flowers and such are not literally the things you see. These are just metaphors, or ‘imagine it’s like’ (seyyathāpi). They just try to describe the purity of the color of the nimitta. (On the order of colors see Wynne - Origins of Meditation p31: they were considered to be gradually more pure.) These limited and unlimited forms are also described in MN128, where they precede the jhānas, as I said.

So if this is all pre-jhana, how about form in the jhanas?

Along with the four primary elements, some suttas include in “form” also a fifth, namely space. In the jhanas “form” refers to a perception of this space (which in Indian thought is intrinsically connected to the four elements), not to colors or lights. Space is the most subtle of all forms, and in the formless attainments all form is abandoned, including the most subtle, hence the prior form in jhanas is that of space.

This is also why the first formless attainment is that of “unbounded space”. Here, as I conceptually understand this very deep state, the “concept” of space loses its meaning, so it’s also a perception of no-space. We could say it borders the form and formless, although it’s closer to the latter. In Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond, Ajahn Brahm describes it as: “In this absolute one-pointedness, space is perceived as both infinite and empty, a sort of no-space. […] The first immaterial attainment, then, is the mind-base of unlimited space, perceived as both infinite and empty, immeasurable and undefined.” I am even tempted to translate anantākāsa as “undefined space” instead of “unbounded space”, which isn’t even that crazy linguistically speaking.

Sue Hamilton’s Identity & Experience, which contains the most in-depth canonical study of rūpa I’m aware of, also makes a distinction between rūpa as the body and more subtle forms of rūpa such as lights and space. She also concludes the “form” of the jhanas refers to space. I’m not in full agreement with all she says, but I mention this to indicate that these kind of ideas about rūpa are not limited to a specific group of jhāna practitioners or the commentaries. You can come to this conclusion through a scholarly route also.

In sum, this is how the first stages of meditation happen: you focus on the nimitta, which starts off limited in size and dull. It becomes brighter and its edges start to disappear, becoming unlimited and measureless. During that process the body starts to fade away from awareness as well. Once you enter the jhana by letting go of the final subtle hindrances (which is a sense of self), you in a sense “enter” the nimitta. You leave the coarse perception of lights and shapes behind, only focusing on the most beautiful aspect of it, which is the pitisukha (which, rather than two different things, at that point is experienced as one thing with two aspects). There is still a subtle grasping of the mind at this pitisukha, the vitakkavicāra, which gets abandoned in the second jhana.

Then what I envision happens, is that the pitisukha, being at that point the coarsest aspect of the experience, gets abandoned as well in the third and fourth jhana. However, the “container” of that pitisukha, which is the space in the mind in which it occurred, still remains. In the formless attainments this space starts to fall apart too, hence the name ‘formless’. In the final formless attainments consciousness also starts to lose its meaning and fade away, into a perception of nothingness, then the state of neither-perception-nor-non-perception (i.e. so little perception you don’t even really know you’re aware or not), and finally then the cessation of all perception/awareness.

Since you ask, this absence of lights in jhanas is also what Ajahn Brahm teaches, though even if he didn’t, this would still be my view on the matter. I actually only found out his take on it after I already came to this conclusion myself.

I’m also not just echoing the commentaries, for these do seem to describe colors inside of jhanas. However, as far as I know they are rather terse on the matter, nor are they always 100% consistent. Their terminology is also somewhat alien to me (“such as jhana-eye”, what is this, jhana proper or just meditation in a more general sense?), so I won’t rule out completely that they disagree with me. I may just misunderstand what they’re saying. Or it may just be a disagreement on terminology but not on the experience.

Finally, to clarify again, since in the past I’ve gotten some not-so-kind private messages about these matters, all that is just my interpretation of the texts in light of my own practice. Anybody else’s meditation practice is not my concern here. :slight_smile:


Nimittas CAN appear in Jhana, as referenced above. I say CAN because not all meditators experience them. When Luang Poo Tate was a young monk, he first learnt how to distinguish which Jhana he was in by noticing subtle differences in the quality of the nimittas that he experienced. The level of Jhana was determine by how the Factors of Jhana influenced the quality of the nimitta that appeared.

Here, Nimitta, does not just refer to lights or colours, it could appear like a dream or a movie.

This transcript of a Q&A between Luang Poo Tate and some of his monks may also be of interest.


“The heart ‘entering into the Bhavanga’ is called JHĀNA isn’t it?”


“Yes, it is called JHĀNA. Sometimes Nimitta may appear at this stage. As I have said before, when you enter the Bhavanga you completely lose awareness of the body, but there is an awareness peculiar to this state. Sometimes a Nimitta may appear, and it could be about anything. ONE CAN SEE ALL SORTS OF THINGS IN THIS STATE; it is just like seeing things the way we do in our ordinary wakeful state. Sometimes you may see a panorama, or you may chit-chat with your friends, or you may see something fearful, or you may see something which is fun and exciting. All these kinds of things can occur at this time. Bhavanga translates as the ‘World of the heart’ and so it is similar to the ordinary world that we live in. However, in the Bhavanga one has cast aside this gross body and comes to be in the Bhavanga’s own peculiar dimension. This kind of Nimitta is like sight-seeing in the ‘World of the Bhavanga’.

Such Nimitta are not the sort which displays a set of circumstance, i.e., the kind which causes you to know something. This latter kind of Nimitta occurs as soon as the heart lets go of EKAGGATĀRAMMANA. For example, as soon as EKAGGATĀRAMMANA has been released, one may see an event that will take place in the future, or some aspect of DHAMMA may manifest, or a voice may be heard. All these kinds of things arise the instant after EKAGGATĀRAMMANA has disappeared. After they have arisen, the heart grasps hold of them and looks into them.

Because the Bhavanga is the ‘World of the heart’, the first kind of Nimitta is just like experiences to be had in this world. However, the second kind, which causes knowledge to arise, arises because the heart has been firmly established in EKAGGATĀRAMMANA. Then, as soon as EKAGGATĀRAMMANA is released, they spring up. This kind of knowledge is classified under the six ABHIÑÑĀ (Higher Knowledge).”


“When you talk about the Bhavanga you say that it has three levels, that is BHAVANGUPPĀDA, BHAVANGACARANA and BHAVANGUPACCHEDA. The first two are EKAGGATĀRAMMANA, aren’t they?”


BHAVANGUPPĀDA is EKAGGATĀRAMMANA but it only lasts for a very short time.

Bhavangacarana is also EKAGGATĀRAMMANA but lasts some time. The nature of Bhavangacarana is such that when you enter it, you are still not completely severed from all external objects; it is still associated with an external object. Bhavangacarana is on the balancing point between external and internal objects.

If the heart goes into Bhavangupaccheda then there are absolutely no external objects at all!

The way I am explaining things does not stick to the pattern which others have laid down, but nevertheless, this is how things truly are.”




U PACĀRA S AMĀDHI is also EKAGGATĀRAMMANA but it is associated with

DHAMMAVICAYA. That is to say that there is PAÑÑĀ examining things. In the APPANĀ SAMĀDHI, there is no investigation whatsoever. SO IT IS HERE IN UPACĀRA THAT KNOWLEDGE ARISES; IT’S HERE THAT YOU SEE INTO CAUSE AND EFFECT. In A PPANĀ there is no way which one could come to know such things’.




“That’s right, A PPANĀ S AMĀDHI is EKAGGATĀCITTA. In A PPANĀ S AMĀDHI the heart has discarded and gone beyond EKAGGATĀRAMMANA to become EKAGGATĀCITTA.”


“Normally when you talk about EKAGGATĀCITTA, you say that there is nothing there at this time. However, when I came to you last, you said that the Nimitta that I saw was also at a time of EKAGGATĀCITTA. What I would like to know is, what is the difference between EKAGGATĀCITTA which has Nimitta and EKAGGATĀCITTA that seems empty?”


“What you described then is called APPANĀ JHĀNA. As soon as you enter this state, visions of all sorts may arise. It is at this level that you see all kinds of views and scenery, etc., just as you can do now. At this time, you can talk to your friends, go here, go there, and have all kinds of fun and games, just as you can do at any time. However, you cannot call this Nimitta an object, as it is something intrinsic to this state.

When you lose all awareness or there is just an empty, blank state, this is also classified as A PPANĀ J HĀNA. You can stay in this state for several hours without even knowing it.

Before entering J HĀNA the Citta must direct its attention to calmness and happiness. After being pleased and satisfied with this happiness, it loses awareness. This is not only the build-up to J HĀNA , but is also the hallmark of JHĀNA*.*

In the case of A PPANĀ S AMĀDHI , the Citta investigates and examines things, looking for cause and effect, right from the time of being EKAGGATĀRAMMANA but, because the energy of the Citta is powerful enough, it releases EKAGGATĀRAMMANA and becomes Appan ā Citta, i.e. EKAGGATĀCITTA. EKAGGATĀCITTA is blank (void), there is nothing there, and investigation ends here. However, the Citta may switch states at this time, for instance a vision or Nimitta may appear, thus become A PPANĀ J HĀNA. So, as I have always said, these two can alternate. But never mind, whatever happens just let it happen. You will know about it afterwards. Just as I have always said, you must make mistakes first and then you can come to know your errors. In another sense, let yourself be stupid first and clever afterwards. If you are clever before you’re stupid, you will never be familiar with what ‘stupid’ means.

Translator’s Note:

One may, for instance, be one-pointed on the breath but, when one sees the Nimitta, the awareness of the breath will be gone.

Translator’s Notes:

Here “object” means things external to the heart which the heart goes out to grasp. These Nimitta, however, are entirely internal; belonging to the “internal world”.

As in deep sleep. After one has become experienced, some awareness will be present but this is not what is commonly understood to be ‘awareness’. This kind of awareness is peculiar to this state.

Namo Buddhaya!

As i understand it,
There are various states that qualify to be classed as jhana.

All lights & visions of form are classed as jhana.

Not all jhana are associated with lights & visions of form.

Not all jhana are associated with kasina.
Eight kasina are classified as jhana; space kasina and consciousness kasina are not classified as jhana.

Not all jhana are associated with kasina or lights & visions of form.

The jhanas which are neither associated with kasina nor with lights & visions of form are all with jhana factors. There is some diversification in the exact sense impression as to the intensity & stability of jhana factors.

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Hello Venerable and thank you for your response! :slight_smile: :pray: I’m sorry to hear that

If people are debating samādhi to the point of cultivating anger and losing basic principles of kindness, it would seem they have lost the entire point of this in the first place!

But to get to your very thoughtful and detailed post:

Yes, I agree, and I agree that this is good to keep in mind. The idea of ‘body awareness’ can of course vary quite a bit or be conceptualized and recalled differently. So even simple things like “is there the experience of the body?” have been debated for millenia in Buddhist circles, while still not necessarily describing entirely separate experiences. I find refined points like these require compassionate reading to understand where the other people are coming from.

Rather than respond point by point, I will mainly respond to your post as a whole. Your position is essentially what I am calling the “jhāna is always phenomenologically identical” view, and I think there are many good reasons for this. I will distinguish between the two potential camps on jhāna relevant here:

  1. “The four jhānas are always identical experiences where vedanā is the theme of the mind.” [“Identical jhānas”]
  2. “The four jhānas always have identical experiences of vedanā and accompanying mental factors, but there is experiential variety in the perceptions that those factors accompany.” [“Diverse jhānas”]

The ‘third option’ which is somewhere between the two is that the description of the brahmavihāras, kasinas, etc. are describing jhānas which one enters in based on those things. This is my understanding of Ven. @sujato ’s footnotes and commentary. The limitless, non-dual kasinas are describig jhāna attainments themselves, not the pre-jhana stage, but doing so based on what was developed to enter the jhāna.

Likewise, Ven. Sujato’s notes on the eight liberations and dimensions of mastery are different from your understanding. Rather than being a description of a progression from coarse nimitta, to refined nimitta without body awareness, to jhāna, he notes that each of the first three is describing the four jhānas but from the different types of nimittas used. It is less clear to me if this means that the nimitta is present within the jhāna in this view, and I would appreciate clarification (but either way both cases could be and are made).

Some, like @cdpatton , have mentioned elsewhere that the jhāna similes were understood to be different attainments from the four jhānas by the Sarvāstivādins. It would be really interesting to learn more about this, as I believe they also understood the jhānas to be contain nimittas which could vary, and the state of no-nimitta and vedanā only as a separate attainment(?).

The strongest argument for the identical jhānas view is simply that people do experience this, and is described as quite distinct from the nimitta stage (as you mentioned). So it has to be classified somewhere, and it clearly lines up with the jhāna factors and similes.

But textually, I see some difficulties with it. Maybe you or others have comments.

  1. Where is there indication that ‘space’ is the rūpa present in jhāna, and not any of the other four elements? Nearly every time the elements are referenced and used as symbols for jhāna, space is left out and only the four elements are mentioned.
  2. If the descriptions of the four full brahmavihārā states are pre-jhāna nimittas, why are they said to correspond to rebirth in the equivalent brahmā realms? (I.e. mettā corresponds to the same kamma as first jhāna, and so forth).
  3. Why are the kasina attainments described as advya if one has not dropped the sense of separation between the meditator and nimitta?
  4. Why are the kasinas used as stand-ins for descriptions of jhāna? At AN 10.26, Mahākaccāna gives exegesis on a verse about the Buddha using jhāna to awaken, going on to talk about understanding the kasina attainments and the escape from them.
  5. The last two kasinas — space (ākāsa) and consciousness (viññāna) — seem to correspond well to the formless attainments of infinite space and infinite consciousness, as also pointed out by Ven. Sujato. The four perceptions (at AN 10.29) go from limited, to expanded, to limitless, to nothingness. As the kasinas are indeed ‘limitless,’ then it makes sense that after the pinnacle of ‘limitless’ is ‘nothingness’ if infinite space and consciousness are included there. Essentially, this suggests that the kasinas may be actual jhāna attainments even into the formless sphere rather than only pre-jhāna nimittas. This would have implications for the rūpajjhānas by extension.
  6. At MN 128, it never says the Buddha went beyond the light and forms. It talks about working with the hindrances that were arising from and in relation to the light and forms in samādhi. Once the hindrances were given up, he says he then went on to develop samādhi with various factors. This does not indicate that the perceptions dropped away, it simply indicates that the mind was made stable and then various mental factors were developed. So it doesn’t seem to shed light on the question.

I’m not arguing these points against what you’ve presented, just raising them to get more clarity around this issue. To me there are places in the suttas where it seems they indicate something beyond ākāsa being the only aspect of form present. It does make sense though how this could be the case, and the vedanā would pervade the space where the mental perception of the body would be.

My understanding of the Visuddhimagga’s description of samādhi is that there can be a diversity of possible nimittas within the jhāna attainment, and that this is why it says certain ‘themes’ can only take one as far as certain jhānas. Like mettā, which it says can go to only the third jhāna (because the fourth is pure upekkhā so the mettā nimitta would have to shift to something else). So this does seem to be the case in the Theravādin commentaries. I’m not sure how or if they classify the samādhi experience where the nimitta falls away (or one falls into it). Maybe someone else knows.

I do think your hypothesis about the eight liberations/masteries is compelling and more convincing than the commentaries or some others. The formless attainments are clearly progressions, so it makes sense to me that the first three are not all valid forms of the same thing, but refinements of a single process. And the dimensions of mastery describe mastery over more and more refined experiences.

I also think that the view of ‘identical jhānas’ is most likely the understanding of the jhānas in the early suttas, and the ‘object’ is the jhāna itself, not whatever one was applying their mind to to enter it. But other very experienced meditators in ancient times and nowadays seem to claim there is a nimitta in the jhānas, and there is some justification for this view in the suttas, so it’s helpful to dive deeper into investigating it.

Hope the conversation is beneficial to others and leads to more clarity. All the best!


Thank you @Sunyo for your detailed response and @Vaddha for your well written and detailed posts. I am very interested in this topic, and I would like to offer my thoughts, but on the other hand I am conflicted about responding. There has already been a lot of ink spilled on this issue (often in the form of a debate). I do not know how much value my voice will bring to the conversation because I have far less personal experience with these states than many of the other people who have weighed in on the topic! On the other hand, perhaps having less personal experience makes me less biased? It is easy to imagine how experiencing a profound state of meditation could lead one to believe that, “this has to be jhāna.” Then another person could experience a different profound state of meditation and conclude “this has to be jhāna.” When the two meditators compare notes, they find that they are describing different things!

Okay, with all of that being said, let me wade in. Although I will be making some arguments I don’t want to enter a debate. To that end, I probably won’t respond to counterarguments, so anybody who wants to reply can feel free to have the last word. What follows merely reflects my current understanding of this at the time being and is liable to change.

  1. The question title asked about the nature of Sāmma Samādhi. The OP then clarified that the basic question was “are the four jhānas always experientially and phenomenologically the same state?” Replies to the OP then discussed this question. However, there is an interesting unasked question here: Is Sāmma Samādhi identical to the four jhānas? On the one hand, this is an easy yes, as SN 45.8 shows:

And what is right immersion? It’s when a mendicant, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful qualities, enters and remains in the first absorption, which has the rapture and bliss born of seclusion, while placing the mind and keeping it connected. As the placing of the mind and keeping it connected are stilled, they enter and remain in the second absorption, which has the rapture and bliss born of immersion, with internal clarity and mind at one, without placing the mind and keeping it connected. And with the fading away of rapture, they enter and remain in the third absorption, where they meditate with equanimity, mindful and aware, personally experiencing the bliss of which the noble ones declare, ‘Equanimous and mindful, one meditates in bliss.’ Giving up pleasure and pain, and ending former happiness and sadness, they enter and remain in the fourth absorption, without pleasure or pain, with pure equanimity and mindfulness. This is called right immersion.

On the other hand, I think there is room to argue that Sāmma Samādhi is a broader category.

  • (1a) In general, when I see statements like the above in the Suttas it is never clear to me if they are intended to be exhaustive. I raised the same point in this thread What are bodily fabrications? over the meaning of the term bodily fabrications. In the pre-literate society that the Buddha lived in I am not sure if the average person the Buddha would have been teaching had the attitude that definitions were rigorous categories with clearly defined boundaries. I studied mathematics as an undergraduate and so I am quite familiar with giving precise definitions to terms and then extrapolating based on these definitions. Western education in general offers useful training in this style of thinking, but maybe we forget that the minds of our ancestors operated a little differently.
  • (1b.i) Specifically, MN 117 potentially gives a broader definition:

And what is noble right immersion with its vital conditions and its prerequisites? They are: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, and right mindfulness. Unification of mind with these seven factors as prerequisites is what is called noble right immersion ‘with its vital conditions’ and also ‘with its prerequisites’

  • (1b.ii) DN 13 also potentially hints at the broader meaning. It is interesting reading DN in order. The general pericope of the path gets described, with the four jhānas occupying their usual position. In DN13 the Buddha is instead describing the path to Brahmā. The pericope remains the same, except that where the four jhānas were previously located there is instead the Brahmāviharas.

It’s when a Realized One arises in the world, perfected, a fully awakened Buddha … That’s how a mendicant is accomplished in ethics. … Seeing that the hindrances have been given up in them, joy springs up. Being joyful, rapture springs up. When the mind is full of rapture, the body becomes tranquil. When the body is tranquil, they feel bliss. And when blissful, the mind becomes immersed.

They meditate spreading a heart full of love to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of love to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will.

Suppose there was a powerful horn blower. They’d easily make themselves heard in the four quarters. In the same way, when the heart’s release by love has been developed like this, any limited deeds they’ve done don’t remain or persist there. This is a path to company with Brahmā.

Furthermore, a mendicant meditates spreading a heart full of compassion …

They meditate spreading a heart full of rejoicing …

They meditate spreading a heart full of equanimity to one direction, and to the second, and to the third, and to the fourth. In the same way above, below, across, everywhere, all around, they spread a heart full of equanimity to the whole world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will.

Suppose there was a powerful horn blower. They’d easily make themselves heard in the four quarters. In the same way, when the heart’s release by equanimity has been developed and cultivated like this, any limited deeds they’ve done don’t remain or persist there. This too is a path to company with Brahmā.

This suggests that the Brahmāviharas are not technically the same things as four jhanas (although the fact that both of them are four states and the final state is purified equanimity is suggestive). However, they are still unification of mind based on the wholesome, the Buddha encouraged their development, and so they probably deserve to be called Sāmma Samādhi.

  • (1c) I think it could be very useful to look into how the term Samādhi was used prior to the Buddha, and how it was used during the Buddha’s lifetime by his contemporaries. This might give a lot of insight into the questions initially raised by the OP.

  • (1d) I propose the following definition of Samādhi: Samādhi is a blissful state of mind which occurs when the mind drops perceptions of multiplicity/diversity and instead becomes wholly unified in a single perception. Sāmma Samādhi has two additional things: the other 7 factors of the N8FP, and the unified single perception of mind should be based on the wholesome (things like renunciation, non-ill-will, non-aversion, etc.)

  • (1d.i) Given that Wrong Samādhi is discussed in the Canon, it is possible to enter a (possibly blissful) state of mind wholly unified in a single perception where that perception is not wholesome. For example, folk magic which concentrates the mind for the purposes of casting a spell is Wrong Samādhi.

  • (1d.ii) If one accepts this definition, then there is still room for both interpretations of jhāna to fit. If jhāna is always phenomenologically the same, then it is just a particular (and the best) type of Sāmma Samādhi. For the other interpretation, the jhanas refer to a deepening of whatever particular type of Sāmma Samādhi a meditator is currently in. (This point is relevant to 1b.ii).

  • (1e) Even among meditation teachers who teach that jhana is always the same state, it does not seem as if they remain fully consistent with that viewpoint. Ajahn Brahm, for example, says that the jhānas can be entered through the Brahmaviharas and that when doing so this gives the jhāna a different “flavor” - so there is some room for difference.

  • (1f) The point here is not to say “gotcha! - your question title and OP are slightly inconsistent.” Just that sometimes one can find answers to their original question by actually trying to answer a broader question.

Indeed, I agree, this is the strongest argument, and I think it is a quite persuasive argument that needs to be taken seriously. I am going to raise some objections to this argument, but again, read this in an exploratory tone please. I hope in this lifetime to get to these states and decide for myself at that point!

  • (2a) See 1e again. If you really press those with the identical jhāna view I think it is quite likely many of them would concede that yes there can be at least some variation.

  • (2b) The argument maybe becomes less convincing when you consider that there are, in my opinion, expert meditators who have been focusing almost exclusively on “jhana” for 30+ years who describe different varieties of jhāna. See, for example, at 47:10. I only speak English, and I am a Westerner, so my sample population is biased, but my impression is that the majority of ordained monastics who I regard as experts are of the view that jhāna admits diversity. Here is an analogy: expert golf or tennis players develop highly refined strokes as they master their sports. There are clear factors in common that all professional golf and tennis player share with regard to their strokes, but there is still diversity between the players. However, if you look at professionals who have been trained by the same coach you notice that their strokes are close to exactly identical! Does this mean that there is one ideal platonic “perfect stroke” for that sport? No, not necessarily. It just means that that particular group of students all learned the same stroke (more on this later in 2d). Furthermore, those of the “jhāna is identical” view seem to deliberately enter a type of jhāna which by its very nature could not possibly admit much variation. By dropping the five sense, focusing purely on a nimitta, and then staying in the state of one-pointed focus on vedana, how could this not lead to nearly identical state? It just seems to be that this type of jhāna is closer to the formless states; states which do seem identical. On the other hand, if you try to stay with the meditation object and “merge” the nimitta with the body/meditation object, you would naturally get more diversity. See, for example Awareness Itself by Ajahn Fuang:

“Adjust the breath until it’s perfectly even. If you see a white light, bring it into the body and let it explode out to every pore. The mind will be still; the body weightless. You’ll feel white and bright all over, and your heart will be at ease.”

  • (2c) AN 4.41 implies that there are at least four different types of immersion/concentration/Samadhi. I think the most straightforward reading of this sutta is that all the four different types of concentration are still jhāna, but slightly different flavors of jhānaand different uses. The third development, for example, occur after one has already mastered the first development of using jhana for a pleasant abiding. Once one has mastered this, they can “lift-out” just a tiny bit, not too much to destroy the jhāna, to analyze the jhāna itself. (As Ajahn Geoff describes it). The second development looks like it describes using visual nimittas to develop the divine eye and some of the other psychic powers. Meditation on “light” also gets described elsewhere in the canon as being useful for getting rid of drowsiness.

  • (2d) Okay then, so what is the “identical jhāna”? One of the hypotheses I have considered is that it is one of the eight liberations. I think a better hypothesis is that it is the “imperturbable concentration”. The imperturable concentration has been interpreted by the commentary as referring to the fourth jhāna or the formless states for a few reasons:

  • (2d.i)The phrase in AN 4.198 and elsewhere, “When their mind has become immersed in samādhi like this—purified, bright, flawless, rid of corruptions, pliable, workable, steady, and imperturbable”

  • (2d.ii) MN 66, “Take a mendicant who, giving up pleasure and pain, enters and remains in the fourth absorption. This belongs to the imperturbable.” (Edit: on rereading of this sutta I think it implies my theory below is less plausible)

  • (2d.iii) MN 106 is relevant as well, though it doesn’t describe what the imperturable means.

  • (2d. cont) None of these strike me as conclusive though. MN 66 says the fourth jhāna “belongs to” the imperturbable, potentially suggesting a broader class. (See point 3 below)

  • (2e) I believe there is a sutta where the Buddha enters the “imperturbable concentration” and jhāna were always imperturable like this though, then there would have been no reason to be confused. I could be wrong about this one though.

  • (2f) If you haven’t read it, Thanissaro gives a long argument at’tMandatory.pdf . Thanissaro, in his usual style, makes in my opinion a very detailed and compelling case (though I understand he rubs some people the wrong way). Analayo takes up the issue in on page 137 and concludes that sound cannot be heard in jhāna; however, he claims that it is true in a narrower technical sense “by definition,” and on closer inspection Thanissaro and Analayo are in a lot of agreement. I think Analayo is probably correct here, but the general picture that emerges gives a broad viewpoint about jhāna. I also get the impression that Analayo thinks that jhāna is not always phenomenologically the same, but I have not read most of that link, and so I could be incorrect.

  1. Here is a fun little graphic which maybe makes my viewpoint easier to understand:

    Or, instead of saying “noises can potentially be heard,” according to Analayo, the better way to put it would be that the less concentration there is the less stable the attainment, and so one might might briefly pop out of and then back into jhāna.
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Namo Buddhaya!


It is not obvious to me that this is what the texts say.

In short

He was developing samadhi.

  1. He struggled to maintain lights & forms.
  2. He struggled invoking one of the other.
  3. He struggled with them being limited.
  4. He developed samadhi with applied & sustained thought etc.

You are asserting that #1-3 are referring to one practice perfected at #3, and #4 is a different practice.

However it is possible to assert that all 4 are referring to a single practice where he first develops samadhi mastering the invoking of unlimited visions of light & forms and further masters the modes of perceiving these visions, with sustained & applied thought; without sustained & applied thought; with pleasure; without pleasure; with gladness; without gladness; with equanimity.

Hi Venerable, thanks for the thoughts. Very interesting.

To jump straight to your excellent points:

Where is there indication that ‘space’ is the rūpa present in jhāna, and not any of the other four elements? Nearly every time the elements are referenced and used as symbols for jhāna, space is left out and only the four elements are mentioned.

The four elements and space seem to be intrinsically linked. If there are the four elements, there is space and vice versa. It seems the addition of space is a non-standard way to enumerate the elements, which I think explains why we usually don’t find it. It’s even missing in “formal” definitions of rupa in other contexts, even though in less formal places it’s included here and there.

These ideas of elements are also very outdated and hard to relate to, let alone when they are used to describe deep states of meditation. That is part of the problem we have interpreting these things.

If the descriptions of the four full brahmavihārā states are pre-jhāna nimittas, why are they said to correspond to rebirth in the equivalent brahmā realms? (I.e. mettā corresponds to the same kamma as first jhāna, and so forth).

The simple answer would be that they lead to such rebirths as well.

But also, the development of the brahmavihara’s can lead to jhanas, so we could assume it is their full development that leads to such rebirths. A measureless perception of mudita, for example, I don’t think is distinguishable from pitisukha, which peaks in jhanas. Sometimes I’m also not sure whether I’m experiencing metta or joy; these things seem to go together. Metta and letting go are also very similar emotions. Even more clearly, the fourth brahmavihara is equanimity, which is only fully developed in the fourth jhana. So there is a lot of overlap between the brahmaviharas and jhanas.

I’m also cautious to draw too much from such cosmological connections. Those kind of teachings are often very mythical and dialectic. I mean, even the name Brahma is almost surely an adoption from Brahmanism. In some text the Buddha also says he has “become brahman”, and so forth. I don’t want to infer too much about meditation from these sort of teachings, which are very culturally laden. (Even more so than the four elements.)

Why are the kasina attainments described as advya if one has not dropped the sense of separation between the meditator and nimitta?

That’s interpreting advaya (non-dual) in the sense that it is often used nowadays, as the dropping of identity in some way. It doesn’t have that sense in the suttas. In this case non-dual I think means that there’s only one perception, not two (dvaya), like only blue for example, not blue and red. This separates these experiences from the nimittas which aren’t singular. Just as the surrounding terms describing the kasina’s, advaya describes the wholeness of the perception. It’s not about the sense of self.

As to points 4 and 5, it might be that the language and descriptions overlap to some extent between pre-jhana and jhana. “Measureless form” for example would apply also to jhana, although that form isn’t a color, in my view. I would also agree that the space and consciousness kasinas indeed are, or blend into, the respective formless states (although it is interesting that the Visuddhimagga replaces these two with something different, namely light and limited space kasinas). But that doesn’t necessarily mean all the preceding kasinas refer to jhanas. I mean, it’s not unusual for the suttas to not always fit everything into an exact framework.

Given the connection between jhanas and the four elements, the four elements kasinas may be an allusion to jhanas too, as well as being pre-jhana states. At present I just don’t see how the color kasinas would be jhanas.

However, again, it could also be talking about the same perception with different words. Many people can’t even describe the color of their nimittas because they are unworldly, so how are we to describe jhanas? If perception of color loses its meaning, can that be described as a measureless, unlimited perception of the color that existed prior to entering jhana, perhaps? I don’t think so, but I’m not ruling it out 100%.

On point 6, MN128 may not specifically say the Buddha abandoned the lights and forms, but he also didn’t stop there and developed the jhanas only afterwards. That indicates that even the unlimited lights and forms aren’t jhana yet. Of course, technically that doesn’t prove that these things don’t continue to exist in jhanas—and form surely does in some way (as space, is what I think). But it also indicates that they aren’t the same thing as jhana.

I’m not arguing these points against what you’ve presented, just raising them to get more clarity around this issue.

More clarity would be nice. :slight_smile: I must admit I haven’t thought about all this too much and am not 100% settled on these matters, textually speaking. There also isn’t much writing on the matter I think, which doesn’t make it easier to interpret these texts. Which is surprising, considering how much writing there is on most other texts on meditation. Perhaps some people wiser than me can chip in as well.


Yes, I agree—space seems implied either as an element in-and-of itself that’s included by extension, or of ‘derived matter’ in that space is derived from the absence and gaps between the other elements. And I agree there is room here for subtlety in that we cannot be exactly sure how all of these pieces fit together because of the different cultural lenses. But the suttas say, for example, that one meditates dependent on earth, [or] water, … [or] the dimension of infinite space, etc. (c.f. AN 11.9). I think it’s clear enough that the examples listed after the four elements are all different meditative experiences, and the same can be said for the kasina colors or abhibhāyatanāni experiences: the experience of the colors are specific states. What I mean is that the blue kasiṇa and white kasiṇa clearly do not metaphorically stand in for something else, but actually refer to a meditation that developed based on those colors (or elements). So I see no good reason to think that the four elements are just a ‘stand-in’ for absorption in the space element alone. It seems like a bit of a leap, based on all of the other relevant contextual clues. That said, I keep in open mind in this regard and don’t think it says anything definitive about the jhānas per se.

According to the Theravādin commentaries, mettā for example can only take one to 3rd jhāna. According to Bhante @sujato in A History of Mindfulness:

… vigatābhijjho, vigatābyapado, asammuḷho, sampajāno, patissato mettā- sahagatena cetasā…

The passage on loving-kindness is obviously referring to jhāna, and the similarity of the two passages suggests that jhāna, rather than being a pre-requisite, is part of the complete fulfilment of satipaṭṭhāna.”

If we look at AN 8.63, it says:

‘mettā me cetovimutti bhāvitā bhavissati bahulīkatā yānīkatā vatthukatā anuṭṭhitā paricitā susamāraddhā’ti. Evañhi te, bhikkhu, sikkhitabbaṁ.
Yato kho te, bhikkhu, ayaṁ samādhi evaṁ bhāvito hoti bahulīkato, tato tvaṁ, bhikkhu, imaṁ samādhiṁ savitakkampi savicāraṁ bhāveyyāsi, avitakkampi vicāramattaṁ bhāveyyāsi, avitakkampi avicāraṁ bhāveyyāsi, sappītikampi bhāveyyāsi, nippītikampi bhāveyyāsi, sātasahagatampi bhāveyyāsi, upekkhāsahagatampi bhāveyyāsi.

This is the same as the passage in MN 128, but here it is also more specific in saying ‘imaṁ samādhiṁ,’ seeming to refer back to the state of mettācetovimutti. So this sutta advises developing mettā with vitakka, with vicāra, etc. up to upekkhā. It then applies this instruction to the other brahmavihāras individually. So to me there is no indication that there is a transition here. It’s describing the accompanying mental factors one develops along with the specific meditative perception of form.

Of course, as @Soren pointed out in their post, DN 13 puts the brahmavihāras in the same place as the jhānas in the gradual training.

I also understand, as I mentioned before, that the Sarvāstivādins believed that jhāna contained various visions or forms that one could change (for instance, a jhāna with the white kasina, or the blue, etc.). So the Theravādins and Sarvāstivādins agree on this, and Bhante Sujato seems to opine in his book above that the brahmavihāra descriptions are describing states of jhāna as opposed to pre-jhāna nimittas. You can see why this is something I find worth investigating more.

I also agree with this. And personally I think there has been a fair bit of later speculation and mapping out between meditative states and domains of rebirth which weren’t necessarily taught by the Buddha but were done by later commentators. This is not to say they are invalid or incorrect — but they should not be taken as primary evidence on which to understand meditation in and of themselves.
I think the relationship between the feeling tones of the brahmavihāras and the jhāna factors is certainly relevant, and this is most obvious with upekkhā as you mention. It’s also important to point out this sutta:

The apex of the heart’s release by love is the beautiful, I say, for a mendicant who has not penetrated to a higher freedom.
Subhaparamāhaṁ, bhikkhave, mettācetovimuttiṁ vadāmi, idhapaññassa bhikkhuno uttarivimuttiṁ appaṭivijjhato.
The apex of the heart’s release by compassion is the dimension of infinite space, I say, for a mendicant who has not penetrated to a higher freedom.
Ākāsānañcāyatanaparamāhaṁ, bhikkhave, karuṇācetovimuttiṁ vadāmi, idhapaññassa bhikkhuno uttarivimuttiṁ appaṭivijjhato.
SN 46.54

So here the ‘uttarivimutti’ of mettācetovimutti is the beautiful (which seems identical to the third of the eight vimokkhā), and that of karuṇa- is the dimension of infinite space — also the same progression as the eight liberations (beautiful → infinite space). This may support your hypothesis that the subhavimokkha is referring to the four jhānas. Though if this were the case, it is a bit strange that karuṇā culminates in infinite space muditā in infinite consciousness, etc. if they just end up going to the jhānas. One would think that, once in the jhānas, if they are always ‘the same,’ then one would be able to move onto the formless dimensions from the fourth no matter what. So it wouldn’t matter if one started with mettā or muditā or what have you. To me, this implies that there is something more going on here, but the trail ends abruptly because there is not much more related evidence surrounding this.

Thank you — I think you may be right. ‘Advaya’ is probably less about absorption in the experience and more about the experience being a single totality (kasiṇa). That said, this doesn’t mean that one is not absorbed in it, and in order for this to be a stable release of the mind worth talking about rather than a fleeting perception we would expect it to be accompanied by a strong absence of hindrances and presence of samādhi factors.

My understanding is that the Visuddhimagga’s use of kasiṇas is primarily as an object of one meditation that one uses to gain a nimitta, then extend it and enter jhāna (where one still perceives the unlimited kasiṇa). It is hard to do this with consciousness, if not impossible, so that is changed to ‘light’ (which can be observed and picked up as a visible object in the mind). Similarly, space has to be made to be ‘limited space’ so one can contemplate or visualize, say, a key-hole rather than the unbounded spaciousness which would not serve for this kind of practice and would be pointing rather to the formless states.

It would be quite strange to my mind, all things considered, that the last two refer to formless states and potentially the elements on to jhana, but not the colors. Especially when we add in the fact that, as you mentioned before, colors are derivative of the elements in this system; they are ‘derived form’ as I understand it, or perhaps some understood them as simply expressions of the raw elements themselves.

I think the ‘compromise’ between the view that one can perceive colors in jhāna and the kasiṇa descriptions being pre-jhāna states would be to propose that the kasiṇas in the suttas are talking about a state of jhāna where one falls into or completely absorbs into the limitless perception so that there is no separation between the observer and the observed perception experientially. This would be like one ‘becomes’ the limitless form, rather than one observing it ‘externally’ (inside the mind). But it would be dependent on and based in the perception of a particular element/color, and so the kasiṇa description would apply. The same could be said of meditation on e.g. mettā or an asubha vision — if one absorbs into it and is in absorption dependent on the form, but there is no sense of ‘watching’ the form externally, this would probably leave the emotional factors (pītisukha, etc.) as the primary experience in the mind.

I’m interested if anyone has references to Ajahn Brahm discussing:

If there are any writings or talks where he discusses this they would be helpful, though I’m sure he probably does not go into much technical detail on this point.

But if one enters a jhāna (assuming it is an experience without potential diversity of percepts) based on e.g. universal white or universal water, it’s possible that they too — assuming someone is very skilled, familiar and discerning — have slight ‘tones’ to them that come from the meditator being one with the original object, despite not perceiving an external form or light in the mind with separation.

I think it is important to factor in the above point as well: if someone is not very familiar and comfortable with attaining jhānas, it’s possible that the mental factors are simply so overwhelming and strong that there is not much room for discerning or describing what went on and the details of it. So there may be more nuance to these states that go by without much reference because the average meditator isn’t attaining jhāna in the first place. The steps leading up to that point are the important part, rather than the details within the experience.

That said, these two are obviously related, hence this thread which is not intended to be not just intellectual but practical. In the Pa-Auk system, for example, which is just based on the Visuddhimagga instructions and descriptions, there is definitely an experience of the nimitta (specifically, the ‘paṭibhāga-nimitta’) in jhāna, and this is unmistakable and clear to their meditators, from what I’ve seen. I’ve heard instructors talk about how the distinction between upacāra samādhi and appanā samādhi is a matter of the strength of the jhāna factors, and that at first it’s common that people not even realize they had reached the level of jhāna until reviewing after how the factors were working compared to before. This is obviously different from what @Sunyo mentioned above, where the difference between upacāra samādhi and jhāna is described as drastic and obvious. So there are pretty stark differences in the actual practices being described and aimed at, I would say.

This brings me to another sutta that seems relevant about all of this and also mentions Ven. Anuruddha: MN 127. I won’t quote all of the relevant discussion; it’s quite long and the sutta has a lot of depth to it. But here is an example of one section that I wanted to highlight:

Suppose an oil lamp was burning with impure oil and impure wick. Because of the impurity of the oil and the wick it burns dimly, as it were.
In the same way, take some mendicant who meditates determined on pervading ‘corrupted radiance’. Their physical discomfort is not completely settled, their dullness and drowsiness is not completely eradicated, and their restlessness and remorse is not completely eliminated. Because of this they practice absorption dimly, as it were. When their body breaks up, after death, they’re reborn in the company of the gods of corrupted radiance.
Suppose an oil lamp was burning with pure oil and pure wick. Because of the purity of the oil and the wick it doesn’t burn dimly, as it were.
In the same way, take some mendicant who meditates determined on pervading ‘pure radiance’. Their physical discomfort is completely settled, their dullness and drowsiness is completely eradicated, and their restlessness and remorse is completely eliminated. Because of this they don’t practice absorption dimly, as it were. When their body breaks up, after death, they’re reborn in the company of the gods of pure radiance.
MN 127

I think that one can use this passage to defend the view of e.g. the Theravādin commentaries, that the distinction between upacāra samādhi and full jhāna attainment is a matter of intensity, but not radically different perception. Both examples are talking about meditation that leads to rebirth as a brahmā deity, and both use the term jhāyati in a positive context (rather than as a form of wrong meditation). It is simply the quality or intensity of the jhāna that is discussed: if one still has some very subtle upakkilesas, the meditation will not be perfect and will waver some, like an unstable flame; but once all of the subtle upakkilesas are gone, it will be like a steady burn. In both cases, there is a flame and it is giving off light; it’s just that the light is not perfectly steady or radiant.

So this would seem to support the idea that there is a perception of the nimitta, but that it will not be perfectly radiant and stable until all of the subtle hindrances are gone, and one can then develop immersion in various ways in relation to it (as in MN 128). Textually, I have a hard time seeing how this passage would support the other view of jhāna. Any thoughts, alternative interpretations, or feedback?

Yes! And this is why I am grateful for contributions here. Thank you for your time :smiley: :pray:


Hello Soren! Thank you as well for your contributions. What you’ve written is very clear and well structured. I won’t respond to every point for the sake of time and concision. I’ll instead address the two main points I see:

As for sammā samādhi — yes, this is an aspect of the exploration which I did not draw out explicitly, but am glad you’ve picked up on it. I wanted to keep the conversation relatively centered and on-topic, but it is something that is important to this discussion.

Briefly speaking, I think it is worth questioning if sammā samādhi is only the jhānas. Bhikkhu Anālayo has written on this, as have others (I believe Bhikkhu Bodhi?, Bhante Sujato, etc.) I would say that it would not make sense for the Buddha to teach samādhi practices which aren’t sammā-samādhi or leading there. So the brahmavihāras and kasiṇas automatically should fall into this, as well as every thing else, even if they are pre-jhāna. And there are suttas that make explicit that one can attain liberation based on the samādhi of the brahmavihāras (cf. MN 52, AN 11.16). From a textual perspective it seems the kasina attainments are equivalent in caliber to the brahmavihāra attainments. So it seems that if the brahmavihāras are sufficient, it follows that the kasinas would be as well. And this is hinted at more or less explicitly in AN 10.26 on attaining freedom by understanding the kasiṇa attainment to be able to let go of it.

I won’t dive into this further here though, as I think we should not be asking ourself what the minimum samādhi required is, but as @Sunyo has beautifully said above, we should be asking ourself how much we can let go and how we can cultivate wholesome principles that further letting go all the way. So either way, we keep practicing until it’s enough. While the question is relevant to if these states are equivalent to jhānas, or if they are types of jhāna experiences, I don’t think there is a lot of definitive discussion to go off of in the texts beyond a few cases. I will follow up a bit more below.

I think that this is where the jhāna similes come in. They seem to describe a state which is a ‘pleasant abiding,’ i.e. one is not contemplating or developing anything other than the bliss and pleasure of letting go of more coarse realms and abiding in the realm jhāna. ‘Samādhibhāvanā,’ then, takes samādhi and develops it in various ways. Whether or not one considers this ‘jhāna’ becomes a matter of language/terminology at that point, which is less interesting to me. I’m more interested in understanding the actual experience of the pleasant abiding itself. Everything else described (e.g. seeing the five aggregates, developing the divine eye, etc.) would fall more under ways of using the mind once it has been developed. But the suttas are rather consistent in describing the jhānas as ‘pleasant abidings’ which purify and clarify the mind but are not the same as the other usages of a purified and clarified mind after and empowered by the experience.

Fundamentally, as in the above section, this boils down to how the term ‘jhāna’ is understood. In this context, there are two options:

  1. Jhāna is a broad term for meditative states which are characterized by a powerful, unified experience of particular jhāna-factors. Therefore the presence and quality of jhāna-factors is what allows a particular experience to be called ‘a jhāna’.
  2. Jhāna is the term for a specific more-or-less identical experience available to the mind, and the jhāna-factors are simply a list of some of the main qualities that characterize that state. Therefore the presence and certain intensity of jhāna factors is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for something to be deemed the experience of a jhāna.

If the presence of jhāna-factors (say, pīti, sukha, vitakka, vicāra, cittekaggatā) makes something ‘a jhāna,’ then one could call a range of experiences within the realm of nimittas and contemplations and so forth ‘jhāna’ with a more inclusive terminology. But based on my reading, the suttas are talking about the jhana factors as kind of hints, tastes, or the major sign-posts of a jhāna attainment which is not equal to the simple presence of the parts mentioned.

Suppose a cake has flour, eggs, sugar, butter, and salt. If we take these five ingredients, throw them in a bowl, whisk them all together and then eat it — can we call that experience ‘eating a cake’? Well, if a cake is defined simply in terms of the main components that make it, sure. But in reality, ‘cake’ is a term for a specific experience, and the parts are just the sign posts and pieces that went together that are necessary, but not sufficient, for something to result in being ‘a cake.’

But many of us will also know that even when we take the same ingredients for making a cake, different cakes will come out tasting slightly differently. Despite the fact that there is a clear difference between the taste of ‘cake’ and of ‘hot garbage on the streets of NYC’ or ‘sourdough rye bread.’ So even if a cake is a specific experience that is not reduced to a mere list of parts, it still is not always the same experience despite the parts that do go into making it being identical. The person making the cake, the environment, source of the ingredients, etc. are a factor.

In the same way, it may be as you say that there are

and that the variety in their descriptions still falls under ‘jhāna,’ without falling into reducing a jhāna to its mere parts either. There is clearly a broad diversity of experiences one can have in cultivating the mind, and a lot of this is extremely personal. This is where the ‘parts’ are useful for establishing the core commonality. It seems a lot of the variety is in terms of the ‘objective’ side — what one is focusing the mind on, and how one is relating to that experience.

As you say, if someone starts focusing the mind exclusively on the vedanā arising during meditation and settling into that, then if the vedanā is the same it’s going to result in more or less the same experience. If someone focuses on the mental impression of, say, a kasiṇa that is filling the mind with vedanā, they may become equally absorbed in that experience with an equal amount of bliss, but the mind is more centered on the perception of the kasiṇa than it is on the perception of the vedanā. This would result in a diversity of perceptions between meditators who may in fact be experiencing the same strength of mental unification and bliss.

It seems the main question, then, is: does the mind need to make the vedanā (e.g. pītisukha) the main focus of the mind for something to be considered a full-blown, pleasant abiding jhāna attainment according to the suttas? And it would seem to have relevance to the actual practice, because if one is under the impression that they are to maintain the perception of the kasiṇa and strengthen their absorption/pītisukha with it, that will be shaping the resulting experiences.

Thankfully these inquiries can be an inspiration to push us forward towards cultivating these principles.

@Vaddha :upside_down_face:

I keep in open mind in this regard and don’t think it says anything definitive about the jhānas per se.

I also think it doesn’t say anything about jhanas per se, because meditation on “earth” (or solidity, let’s say) can start off as a distinct contemplation or object, but like metta and mudita can develop into jhanas. So the jhana still depends on “earth”, even if that is not the primary object inside of jhana itself—which, as I said, in my view is the pitisukha. I think the suttas overall are pretty clear on that. DN9 for example says, vivekajapītisukhasukhumasaccasaññīyeva tasmiṁ samaye hoti, “at that time one is just (eva) percipient of a subtle but true pitisukha born of separation”.

It’s [AN8.63] describing the accompanying mental factors one develops along with the specific meditative perception of form.

To repeat myself, metta and other brahmaviharas can develop into jhanas. However, it would be wrong, in my view, to think the jhana is significantly different in experience dependent upon whether you arrive there through metta or karuna, or anapanassati, say. In this way, I do not see many issues with suttas like AN8.63 for my interpretation. To me, it reads like a list of things that can lead to jhana. I suppose it hinges on whether we read “this concentration” as a specific object or the samadhi that results from that object. I read it as the latter. For example, it doesn’t say “this concentration” is just any loving-kindness, but “the liberation of the mind by loving-kindness”. This liberation caused by the highest form of metta, at which point the distinguishment between the four brahmaviharas also falls away.

In the Pa-Auk system […] I’ve heard instructors talk about how the distinction between upacāra samādhi and appanā samādhi is a matter of the strength of the jhāna factors, and that at first it’s common that people not even realize they had reached the level of jhāna

I never looked into Pa Auk’s system much, but if indeed it teaches this, I wonder whether like many other systems it is mistaking the actual jhānas to be formless states, whether it too has a downgraded idea about “jhanas” (compared to my ideas). Because even if we leave the interpretation of “form” in the jhanas aside (whether it’s light or space or depending on the meditator’s perception in a way that I don’t understand), there still remains a very distinctive shift when one enters jhana as I see it. No meditator is going to miss that something very significant happened at that point. I can imagine how someone can confuse a jhana for a formless state, but I can’t in any way imagine they’ll miss the distinction between nimitta and jhana proper. Along other things, that’s because in jhana all control has disappeared.

I wonder what the Pa Auk system says about this, whether you can control anything inside of jhāna. If, for example, inside of “jhana” you can decide to come out again or can decide to stay or move to other jhanas—things like that. If it does, I am 100% sure we’re talking about different experiences.

The MN127 passage is interesting but again largely a cosmological connection. Also, it has a lot of word play. So I would be very hesitant to give it much weight myself. I’m not sure whether it’s talking about jhana proper, even. It mentions the abandoning of the hindrances, but there are other passages that talk mention this without being about jhana proper, in my opinion.

this is why I am grateful for contributions here. Thank you for your time.

Likewise, Venerable. Your contributions are much appreciated. Always very sharp and thoughtful. Also helpful for me, even (or especially) when I have a disagreement.

Also, I do realize (and I think you realize that I realize) I’m reading the suttas from a specific framework. When it comes to things like meditation, though, I think they were meant to be interpreted from subjective experience, not as standalone texts. Still, also when I come from it with a more objective view, I do not see my ideas of jhanas specifically refuted by the suttas. That’s not denying that there aren’t difficult passages, but I think that goes for any view of jhana.


Yes, this is my understanding as well. I believe the four elements stand for the jhānas primarily because the jhānas are (1) based on meditating dependent on experiences of the elements, and (2) within the realm of rūpa still, however we understand the details of this, and therefore within the realm of the four great primaries. Meditating on the breath, or on the parts of the body, or on air, or earth, or water, etc. the trajectory goes from using sense-experience to access more refined layers of materiality and perception through mental purification away from sensuality. Then, of course, all of the material boundaries are ‘unbounded’ with the formless attainments, then, separating them from the realm of defined shape or form and these are instead dependent on perceptions of immateriality.

So I would agree that it is still ‘dependent on X’ without X necessarily being the main experience present. And I think this is where what I mentioned before comes in, i.e. that the kasiṇa description is, like ‘mettācetovimutti,’ talking about a jhāna experience that has been entered into and arrived at via the kasiṇa perception, thereby fulfilling it. Thank you for pointing out the ‘vimutti’ aspect potentially indicating release through or by way of mettā — that’s a helpful perspective and put into more concrete terms what I am getting at.

You’ve mentioned DN 9 in reference to pītisukha being the only ‘object’ of jhāna. Here is Bhante Sujato’s footnote to DN 9 for the fourth jhāna and into the formless attainments:

Tassa yā purimā rūpasaññā, sā nirujjhati. Ākāsānañcāyatanasukhumasaccasaññā tasmiṁ samaye hoti, ākāsānañcāyatanasukhumasaccasaññīyeva tasmiṁ samaye hoti.
“This is the vision of light that later came to be called a “sign” (nimitta ). In the first four jhānas this persists as a “subtle” (sukhuma ) reflection or echo of the “substantial” (olārika ) material basis of meditation, such as the breath or the parts of the body. Even though it is a purely mental phenomenon, it is still “form” (rūpa ) since it has physical properties like light or extension. … The “light” (obhāsa ) of jhāna grows from “limited” (paritta ) to “limitless” (appamāṇa , MN 128:29.1). Then the perception of even this limitless light vanishes, leaving only infinite space.”

So when the sutta gets to the perception of form (rūpasaññā) and the transition to infinite space, it is understood as the same limitless light or vision as in MN 128, now being dropped away. This is my understanding of how Visuddhimagga-based meditation schools teach the transition as well: the paṭibhāga nimitta is said to be shifted out of view into the space itself, either surrounding or within it.

So, point being, while pītisukha being the main theme makes sense to me, clearly there are other textual reasons with support from senior practitioners/scholars that the perception of the form that arises in the mind continues through the four jhānas. One sutta that comes to mind too is MN 121. The transition goes from meditating dependent on a solid perception of earth → the domain of infinite space. There is no mention of changing the perception to become empty of the earth before the formless perception. And that seems to be a description of the paṭhavī-kasiṇa.

If you’re interested in understanding their perspective, I recommend checking out the book ‘Knowing and Seeing’ by the Ven. Pa-Auk Sayadaw. It goes into a lot of detail about his method of developing meditation and samādhi and so forth. They definitely talk about, say, attaining fourth jhāna and then from there using the light of that samādhi to analyze the parts of the body or what have you. But he says there are the four access-jhānas (upacāra) and four absorption-jhānas (appaṇā), each with roughly the same jhāna factors. The difference is that in the actual absorption attainment, the mind stays completely on the paṭibhāga nimitta developed without any gaps whatsoever and without taking on any other object of attention. In upacāra, the mind is predominantly aware of the paṭibhāga nimitta, but the jhāna factors are not in full force, and so the mind may occasionally slip from the object and have subtle thoughts or potentially hear a sound, etc.

So my understanding of their system is that absorption jhāna is when the mind is in a continuous stream of attention with the jhāna factors on the paṭibhāga nimitta — the same one that one is aware of in upacāra samādhi, but with more focus and one-pointed ‘absorption.’ When they talk about investigating from jhāna and so forth it seems that they are talking about doing it from upacāra samādhi. Considering the mind cannot move from the paṭibhāga nimitta in their view of jhāna, it wouldn’t make sense for one to be able to investigate in there. And they closely follow the Visuddhimagga’s instructions and descriptions, which as I understand is clear about jhāna being a stable state that one investigates on emerging.

This is just a summary of how I understand the writings. I have not practiced in this system nor am I familiar with all of their literature. The PDF is available online for free in various formats/editions.

I’m not sure if they would understand the formless attainments to be equivalent to the non-nimitta jhānas, because of the vedanā aspect. They do, of course, call them ‘jhānas’ and treat their development very much like developing the kasiṇas. Maybe understanding this point could shed light on this matter too, now that you’ve drawn attention to the potential mixing.

I think they understand it as written above in Bhante Sujato’s note. Here is an extract from the book:

Even though a fourth fine-material jhàna surpasses gross physical materiality, it is still based on it. Thus you need to surmount the kasina materiality. Having considered this, and with no desire now for the kasina materiality, you should re-establish the fourth jhàna with one of the nine kasinas, such as the earth kasina. Emerge from it, and reflect on its disadvantages: it is based on materiality which you no longer desire; it has joy of the third jhàna as its near enemy; and it is grosser than the four immaterial jhànas. … Then expand your nimitta, say, of the earth kasina, so that it is boundless, or as much as you wish, and replace the kasina materiality with the space it occupies, by concentrating on the space as ‘space, space’ or ‘boundless space, boundless space’. What remains is the boundless space formerly occupied by the kasina. If unable to do so, you should discern and concentrate on the space of one place in the earth kasinanimitta, and then expand that up to the infinite universe. As a result, the entire earth kasina-nimitta is replaced by boundless space.

This is also how Ven. Bodhi describes the commentarial view and the progression in MN 121.

In context, though, the sutta begins specifically with a question on samādhi practice, and is all about the details of various ways of developing samādhi and so forth. So it’s very different from a stray cosmological equivalence; it’s a detailed exposition on the mind states involved in meditation. I don’t think it can be dismissed because of ‘word play’ with jhāyati which is specifically about light and radiance in meditation (not that you are dismissing it per se). This is an extract of what the aṭṭhakathā has to say about it:

yāvatā ekaṃ rukkhamūlaṃ mahaggatanti pharitvā adhimuccitvā viharatī ti ekarukkhamūlapamāṇaṭṭhānaṃ kasiṇanimittena ottharitvā tasmiṃ kasiṇanimitte mahaggatajjhānaṃ pharitvā adhimuccitvā viharati. mahaggatanti panassa ābhogo natthi, kevalaṃ mahaggatajjhānapavattivasena panetaṃ vuttaṃ. esa nayo sabbattha.

Yours as well! I’ve found what you’ve presented helpful, and I want to reiterate that I am not holding a different position than you. I am just trying to see the different perspectives and get more clarification around this. There may be more of a divide than I anticipated in the various meditation methods, or they may be more similar but focus their mind in particular ways.

And I agree that the suttas seem to pre-suppose a living, oral tradition with commentary. It really only makes sense this way: the idea of “just reading the suttas” for the authentic Dhamma doesn’t make any sense in a culture where you only have access to the suttas through a teacher(s) who recites them and explains them to you as they have learned them in their community, from their experience, and from the various teachers around. I think many of the suttas are more like the ‘notes’ from the Buddha’s sermons and teachings meant to encapsulate and summarize his main points, rather than the detailed personal expositions and analyses (though there is a variety, of course, and sometimes a lot of specific detail).


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Just a follow up.

I would love to hear input from someone very knowledgable about both the suttas/Early Buddhism and the commentarial understanding of samādhi practice. Pinging Bhante @sujato in case he is willing to chime in here, as some of his footnotes and translations have been discussed. If someone could tell me if my understanding is correct, or where it could be supplemented, I would very much appreciate it.

It seems like there may be a fundamental different idea of what jhāna is in the Visuddhimagga and Theravādin tradition as opposed to the jhāna which is experiencing only the corresponding vedanā. The difference seems to be that the developed Abhidhamma systems say that jhāna has an object which the mind is fixed onto — namely, the paṭibhāga nimitta — with stable jhāna factors and no wavering off. Others say the nimitta and mind merge so that there is no more awareness of the nimitta itself. This means that the jhāna state does not need to have a nimitta present; only that they are useful in entering the jhānas.

This leads to the commentarial system claiming that buddhānussati, for instance, cannot lead to jhāna — because in jhāna the mind must be fixed onto the paṭibhāga nimitta and buddhānussati as described in the commentaries does not produce a nimitta (according to them). This seems to contradict what the suttas teach about samādhi, where any practice that leads to wholesome joy, pīti, passaddhi, and sukha can allow one to immerse the mind into that for a jhāna experience.

Not only does this shape how one approaches meditation, it also effects the resulting states. If the mind is not supposed to lose a sharp awareness of paṭibhāga nimitta or ‘absorb’ into it, then the jhāna experience in the commentaries seems to be short of what others would consider jhāna, including potentially the formless attainments — which, based off of the descriptions of the practice in the commentaries, would simply be a limitless (appamāṇa) paṭibhāga nimitta of space, consciousness, etc.

Maybe I’m misunderstanding how the commentaries understand jhāna. Maybe they do teach a system where one absorbs into the nimitta in a sense that the mind is not taking the color/shape as its focus but rather the jhāna factors themselves. Any citations or passages would be helpful.

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Warm greetings, Vaddha. I was waiting to reply hoping to find where he said this. I found an instance of somebody else on the forum claiming this, but still have not found a primary source, and so I hope I wasn’t misspeaking when I said that. I didn’t do too much digging, but if I ever find it, I will share.

Indeed, I agree with this wholeheartedly, and so I worry I may have initially given the wrong impression. I think it is interesting to look at the broader category of Samma Samadhi not so that we can get away with a lesser concentration, but instead because there actually may be more to do even if we have already attained jhana, a brahmavihara, or whatever. And I think that in order to understand what jhana is, you may need to understand the general definition of Samadhi, because jhana is a special (highly refined) type of Samadhi.

Yeah, I think it depends on how you view the simile. One explanation of the jhana factors which is contrary to the second option and what you have written above is that, “right mindfulness (+right effort) is the recipe and instructions, the jhana similes are the ‘restaurant review’.” So if jhana is like a meal, then the jhana factors are saying that it is “delicious.” But clearly there is a wide variety of meals that exist. I think this interpretation ties in nicely with the descriptions of jhana being “food” on the path. I do not know if this is the correct explanation, but I offer it as food (haha) for thought.

So with that in mind,

And here you have also used a recipe analogy as well, but you have placed the jhana factors as the ingredients!

Yep, agreed, that is the main question. I am paraphrasing, but I have even heard that one shouldn’t focus on the vedana specifically, because one should instead keep putting effort into the cause of that vedana (the bringing of mind to a meditation object), and by learning to not focus on the bliss and be overwhelmed by it, one trains their mind not to cling to pleasure in general. Unfortunately, like you said, this is not just an academic question, it has relevance to practice. Fortunately though, at least at the beginning of one’s practice, there is no difference. It only starts becoming an issue at the “threshold,” and at that point you can hopefully experiment for yourself. I hope that you can get to that point, experiment and form conclusions, and then let me know (without breaking your vinaya rules, of course :laughing: ).

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Yes, either way one is going in the right direction, as in the domains of mastery.

As of now, the impression I get from the suttas is that the kasinas probably describe a specific approach to the development of jhāna based on limitless light/forms (as in MN 128) , whereas the domains of mastery (abhibhāyatanāni) describe the skill in manipulating and deepening one’s mental experiences and perceptions, similar again to what is described at MN 127 or MN 128. That is, perceiving different things in different ways, limited/expanded or limitless, for cultivating samādhi. I think these are probably covering both jhāna (absorption into the perceptions) and the pre-jhāna perceptions to some extent, similar to the brahmavihāras (which seem to stand both to jhāna [cetovimutti] gained on account of them, and the mental experience of the limitless mind states [corresponding to what are called “nimittas”]). They are not categorized super precisely in the suttas.

This would seem to be because they include, for example, the development of knowledge and vision, i.e. the divine eye/ear/etc., which is understood to be dependent on developing an expanded, radiant mind which is aware of a particular scope of experience. Usually the suttas describe this as developing light, and the commentaries talk about extending the kasina (i.e. nimitta) out to the area one wants to comprehend with the mind (as in MN 127 again). So these perceptions and masteries would seem to refer to the bases of jhāna and psychic power, but could also idiomatically stand for the jhānas attained on account of them as well.

As for the commentarial understanding, it’s still unclear to me and I’ll see if someone informed knows.

And so following up, I agree that this is the best explanation of what rūpasaññā means in the suttas. It is the defined shape or container of the experience, which we could call defined/limited space. When this is unbounded there would be no more clear sense of shape or even “space” really as we think of it (because we relate to it with qualities of form, like extension/directionality/etc.) I think it may also have to do with the mind being one with/absorbed into a light/form as well, beyond just space, but it’s all details at a certain point. I feel the gist is clear enough that there are remnants of subtle form in this way.

I think your interpretation of the abhibhāyatanāni makes the most sense of it and is also practical, though I think the ‘ugly’ forms could include visions of say body parts and corpses, not just dull lights/colors. I think the last four becoming “pure colors” is about the refinement and simplification of the mind. So for example, going from seeing a skull, to it becoming shiny and taking up your awareness, to it becoming just pure white. This is how the Theravādins and Sarvāstivādins seem to have understood this and eight liberations (vimokkhā), but the terms ‘suvanna/dubbanna’ seem to make more sense in terms of the quality of the thing. Either way the gist is the same.

By the way though, @Sunyo if you have a link to the page number in Sue Hamilton’s book on space being the rūpa, I’d like to see it. I don’t think that’s what she concluded from reading this section. She uses the term ‘jhāna’ for form and formless attainments, and based off of what I read, she said that ‘space’ is in the formless jhānas. It seems she thought that color/shape was in the four ‘form’ jhānas, but I may not have read carefully enough. That’s a useful academic resource, though I too don’t agree with everything I saw there (only read a few excerpts here and there).

Always very insightful contributions from the people here on the forum :smiley:

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