Revisiting jhāna and samādhi (again)

Here is a preposition that will sound strange, and you’re welcome to take it apart (with good arguments I hope)

Basically the idea is that samādhi is complete in the second jhāna and that further on (in jhāna 3 & 4) sammā-samādhi progresses into a higher observation.

I’ll bring some arguments below. But my basic reasoning comes from 1. the fact that the set of four jhānas is so fundamental for the path and sammā-samādhi 2. the meditation masters, especially some in the thai forest tradition stress the experienced reality of samādhi, but not of jhāna. Why would the Buddha make such an elaborated point out of it if there is no experiential reality to it?

First some quotes from Thai teachers:

  • Ajahn Chah, Unshakeable Peace: “There aren’t any billboards which announce which level of samadhi we’re experiencing. The reality is completely diefferent.”
  • Tan Ajahn Dtun, This is the Path: “‘Is this the first or second jhāna…?’ Believe me, there are no signs that come up and tell you, so don’t look for any.”
    (LP Maha Boowa and Ajahn Anan talk about the jhānas more conventionally though)

Text arguments for the absorption to be completed in the second jhāna:

  • the only place the word samādhi appears in the standard stock paragraph is in the second jhāna: avitakkaṃ avicāraṃ samādhijaṃ pītisukhaṃ
  • so literally with sampasādanaṃ cetaso (I translate as ‘in complete sunkenness of consciousness’) when the mind stops moving (avicara), where is there room for a further stabilisation of the state?
  • in the third jhāna we have upekkha (which is also the order in the bojjhangas) and which does not mean equanimity. upa+iks = close observation
  • I don’t know if we can read what we nowadays take as ‘vipassana-practice’ into upekkha, but it might not be very far away. Anyway in the 3rd jhana we have upekkha and sati (upekkhako satimā). Sati related to what? sukhañ-ca kāyena. Of course I would like a clearer text here, but is it too far-fetched to see a kaya & vedana sati here?

To quote again some venerable ajahns here (hopefully I don’t distort the words of the ven. Ajahns…):

  • Ajahn Anan, Seeking Buddho: "If samādhi has not reached the level of Third Jhāna, then the investigation will be unable to demolish and destroy the attachment to the elements as one’s self. "
  • Ajahn Thate, The Autobiography of a Forest Monk: “When I had the opportunity to ask advice from Ven. Ajahn Singh, he recommended that I concentrate my contemplation much more on the un-beautiful, loathsome aspects of the physical body. He told me to focus there until I could see its rotting away and decay and the final disintegration into the four elements. I broke in with my misgivings: “Surely when the mind has already let go of rupa and only nāmā remains, isn’t going back to bodily form too coarse an object of contemplation?””
  • Ajahn Dtun, The Sacred Equation: “Once your mind has been made free of all moods and emotions, turn to investigating your body.” (placing it at the fourth Jhana though)

The fourth jhana finally, pubbeva somanassadomanassānaṁ atthaṅgamā (‘just after the disappearance of the pleasant and unpleasant minds’), what sati is there left for upekkhāsatipārisuddhiṁ? only citta and dhamma sati…

Sorry for the lengthy text, but I guess you get the point: the idea is for the four jhanas to have not just changes in subtlety but very much in quality

  • Jhana1 would be with volition, i.e. ‘functional ego’
  • Jhana2 complete stillness of mind without volitional mind movements
  • Jhana3 emerging out of no.2 and doing the kaya and vedana work (incl. upekkha & the completion of the bojjhangas)
  • Jhana4 completing the path with cittupassana

For samādhi I would accordingly propose the translation ‘accomplishment’ or ‘completion’ (supported by Monier-Williams) to highlight its final place in the eightfold path.

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Are the four jhānas so fundamental to the path, and to sammā-samādhi? In the SA, I see only around 8 sūtras that even mention the 2nd jhāna (二禪), and two of those are in enumerations that are likely to be “late.” So at least in the SA, it is quite rare to mention the individual jhānas.

When I search for sammā-samādhi, in the SA it is never defined as the 4 jhānas. In fact it does not appear to be defined anywhere in the collection (from what I can tell). Most of the mentions of the 4 jhānas seem to be concentrated in the saṃyuktas for vedana, and the nutriments.

By comparison, mention of samādhi is everywhere throughout the collection. There are over 200 instances of the transliteration “samādhi” 三昧 alone, and likely hundreds more using the generic term for concentration 定.

So at least in this collection, the main emphasis is on samādhi, not on the four jhānas (as such). In this collection there is probably more emphasis on even on something like the Four Nutriments, than there is on the Four Jhānas.

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Again a very interesting perspective from the Chinese, thanks for that!
So at least in the pali canon I don’t see a way around the jhanas as a defining term for samma-samadhi
Two things would interest me here

  • obviously: how is it in the other Agamas? (does for example the Buddha in the parallels of the Parinibbana Suttas not leave his body by going through the Jhanas like in the pali version?)
  • and how would you render the (literal) connotations of the term for samadhi?

Ah, I may have written too soon! After looking into this a bit more, it appears that the formula for the dhyānas is rare within the SA, but mention of the 4 dhyānas collectively is more common, appearing some 30+ times, sometimes in illuminating passages.

I don’t see “correct samādhi” defined as the Four Dhyānas for the Noble Eightfold Path, but “samādhi” is clearly defined as the Four Dhyānas for the Five Roots and the Five Powers. This can be found in SA 647, SA 655, SA 658, SA 675, SA 691, and SA 698. For the Seven Factors of Bodhi, the “nutriment” of samādhi does include all of the Four Dhyānas (SA 715).

A typical statement for the Five Roots is (SA 655):


For the root of mindfulness, you should know the Four Bases of Mindfulness. For the root of samādhi, you should know the Four Dhyānas. For the root of prajñā, you should know the Four Noble Truths.

And for the Five Powers in SA 698:


What is the power of mindfulness? Abiding observing the inner body as the body… as previously stated. What is the power of samādhi? The Four Dhyānas. What is the power of prajñā? The Four Noble Truths.

Pretty interesting and clear statements here. For the above quote, the “inner body” bit comes from a variant of the formula for the Four Bases of Mindfulness, which divides the contemplation into inner and outer aspects, as in SA 610.

In response to your question about samādhi, I would use its most common synonym of “unity of mind,” or even “oneness of mind.” I think the common gloss as “concentration” is not necessarily wrong, but has connotations of narrowness and duality that are potentially misleading. Maybe “focus” is slightly better?

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How about this:

“And what, bhikkhus, is right concentration? Here, bhikkhus, secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion. With the subsiding of thought and examination, he enters and dwells in the second jhana, which has internal confidence and unification of mind, is without thought and examination, and has rapture and happiness born of concentration. With the fading away as well of rapture, he dwells equanimous and, mindful and clearly comprehending, he experiences happiness with the body; he enters and dwells in the third jhana of which the noble ones declare: ‘He is equanimous, mindful, one who dwells happily.’ With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous passing away of joy and displeasure, he enters and dwells in the fourth jhana, which is neither painful nor pleasant and includes the purification of mindfulness by equanimity. This is called right concentration.”
(SN 45.8)

Hmmm… I see the parallel of SN 45.8 in SA 784, it indeed doesn’t mention jhana at all (I can’t read Chinese, but SC Chinese-English lookup tool there is much help for me). But I found in MA 31 (Pali parallel: MN 141), it mentions of 禪住 (abiding in jhana?) as the definition of samma sammadhi.

It means the same as AN 5.14 which defined samadhi power as jhanas:

“And what is the power of concentration? Here, secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the first jhāna, which consists of rapture and pleasure born of seclusion, accompanied by thought and examination. With the subsiding of thought and examination, he enters and dwells in the second jhāna, which has internal placidity and unification of mind and consists of rapture and pleasure born of concentration, without thought and examination. With the fading away as well of rapture, he dwells equanimous and, mindful and clearly comprehending, he experiences pleasure with the body; he enters and dwells in the third jhāna of which the noble ones declare: ‘He is equanimous, mindful, one who dwells happily.’ With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous passing away of joy and dejection, he enters and dwells in the fourth jhāna, neither painful nor pleasant, which has purification of mindfulness by equanimity. This is called the power of concentration.

Just to understand correctly: There are two levels of the meaning of a word

  • the meaning in synonyms, given by the context etc.
  • the literal meaning, e.g. samadhi = saṁ+ā+dhā = putting together (who can do it more precisely?)

now this second literal meaning opens two possibilities for the word to be understood

  • as putting the mind together, i.e. unification, concentration, etc.
  • and putting the path together, more like conclusion, accomplishment (in the sense of a final step)

in sammā-sati for example we have 4 satis. In sammā-samādhi we don’t have ‘4 samādhis’ and the term samādhi hardly appears in the details of this 8th step. And since we have a path that leads to the end of dukkha, well, this path should come (as promised) to an end, and I wonder if we can understand the term samādhi in this sense (at least in the context of sammā-samādhi), hence ‘conclusion’, ‘accomplishment’.

And now I wonder, when the chinese translation was made, if in the literal meaning of (sammā-)samādhi the translators used a chinese term that allows the understanding in both ways, or if they chose a term that exclusively forces us to translate it in the meaning of ‘mind-concentration’ ‘unification of mind’ etc.

Interesting. SN 45.8 clearly identifies the Four Dhyānas as equivalent to Right Samādhi. In the SA, though, we just get a few descriptions with no mention of the dhyānas.

In MA 31, abiding in dhyāna is just one small part of a much longer passage describing different ways to contemplate being mindful of suffering, cessation, the path, formation, afflictions, the peace of Nirvāṇa, the liberation of the mind, etc. It seems to be using “abiding in dhyāna” in a pretty generic way here, in a list of descriptions of abiding in meditation.


So in MA 31, Right Samādhi has a far broader definition than what we see in SN 45.8.

There are two classic ways the term was translated into Chinese. One was as a transliteration such as sanmei 三昧, or less commonly sanmodi, sanmoti, etc. The other way is to translate the meaning, which is usually ding 定, which means “fixity.” For “Right Samādhi,” the term used is 定 while in other contexts, when used as a noun, it may be transliterated instead. In the 7th century when Xuanzang came back with all his texts from India, his translation bureau mainly just translated the term as 定. The āgamas that we have pre-date all of that by 200 years or so, and so the terms are more variable.

But just as I was typing this, I realized that I have Three Texts on Consciousness Only sitting on my coffee table, which includes Xuanzang’s long treatise on Consciousness Only. That would define samādhi in some way, which would be interesting to look at as well, since he was one of the top scholars at Nālandā.

What is MEMORY (smṛti)? Its nature is that of causing mind to record clearly and not forget an object that has been experienced, and its activity is that of supporting samādhi, because it steadily holds an experienced object and prevents its loss, thus inducing samādhi. […]

What is SAMĀDHI? Its nature is that of causing mind to be absorbed in attention on a contemplated object and not become distracted, and its activity is that of supporting knowledge. When contemplating the virtues, defects, both, or neither [of an object], samādhi causes the mind to be absorbed and prevents its distraction. Supported by it, knowledge that is certain is born. The words “absorbed in attention” show that [mind] dwells where it wishes to dwell, not just on one object. Otherwise, there would be no uniform maintenance of attention on the path of insight when one contemplates various truths in a sequence, with differing objects. If the mind is in a state where it is not fixed in attention on the object, there is no samādhi, and therefore it is not included among the universal mental activities. […]

There is another opinion that samādhi is in essence mind itself, because a scripture says that [samādhi] is mental training, or mind united with an object. But that is not a convincing proof. It says that in the sense that samādhi unifies the mind and causes it to unite with an object. Samādhi, included among the faculties (indriya), powers (bala), aspects of awakening (bodhyaṅga), and aspects of the path (mārgāṅga), etc., is not mind, just as memory, discernment, etc., are not mind.

There is some pretty clear information here about his views on the relationship between mindfulness and samādhi. I included that last paragraph for the interesting bit about samādhi unifying the mind and causing it to unite with an object.

  • Cook, Francis H. 1999. Three Texts on Consciousness Only. Berkeley, CA: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.

Here is quotation of the MA 31 English translation from Bhante Analayo’s The Madhyama Agama:

What venerable friends, is right concentration? When the noble disciple is mindful of suffering as suffering, … of its arising as its arising, … of its cessation as its cessation, and mindful of the path as the path; or when he contemplates his former actions; or when he trains to be mindful of all formations; or when he sees the tranquility and calm of nirvana; or when he free from attachment, mindfully contemplates the mind as liberated - whatever therein is the mind’s stability, its being established in the absorptions [i.e, jhānas], established accordingly, being unwavering and not scattered, being focused, stilled, and rightly concentrated - this is called right concentration.

The italic sentences are repeated for the definition of all factors of Eightfold Noble Path in MA 31, whereas the bold ones are core definition of right concentration. I think this is clearly saying that jhānas are important element for right samadhi.

While it may not be common in the Pali texts to use jhāna in the singular, generic sense, it is fairly common for dhyāna 禪 to be used that way in the āgamas. Examples are contemplating in dhyāna 禪思, sitting in dhyāna 坐禪, dhyāna concentration 禪定, waking from dhyāna 禪覺, etc. Here is an example (SA 474):

At that time, Venerable Ānanda was alone in a solitary place, contemplating in dhyāna, and thinking, “The Bhagavān has spoken of three types of sensations: sensations of pleasure, sensations of pain, and sensations of neither pleasure nor pain. Moreover, all of these sensations are spoken of as suffering. What does this mean?” After thinking this, he arose from dhyāna and went to the place of the Bhagavān.

There is nothing in “abiding in dhyāna” 禪住 that would indicate multiple dhyānas, so making it plural is adding something not in the original text. If the original translators wished to indicate “the dhyānas”, or the “Four Dhyānas”, then they could have done so. That is not to say that the English translation is “wrong”, but maybe it is following some modern Pali-inspired ideas about what 禪 “ought” to indicate (i.e. dhyāna = Four Dhyānas).

In any case, the various descriptions of “correct samādhi” have already demonstrated to some extent that “correct samādhi” not simply defined as the Four Dhyānas. Rather, the definition was not fixed.


Indeed, there is a sutta in Pali canon that use jhāna as singular (to denote common meditation practice) as well as jhāna as meditative absorptions, i.e, MN 108:

“The Blessed One, brahmin, did not praise every type of meditation (jhāna), nor did he condemn every type of meditation. What kind of meditation did the Blessed One not praise? Here, brahmin, someone abides with his mind obsessed by sensual lust, a prey to sensual lust, and he does not understand as it actually is the escape from arisen sensual lust. While he harbours sensual lust within, he meditates, premeditates, out-meditates, and mismeditates. He abides with his mind obsessed by ill will, a prey to ill will…with his mind obsessed by sloth and torpor, a prey to sloth and torpor…with his mind obsessed by restlessness and remorse, a prey to restlessness and remorse…with his mind obsessed by doubt, a prey to doubt, and he does not understand as it actually is the escape from arisen doubt. While he harbours doubt within, he meditates, premeditates, out-meditates, and mismeditates. The Blessed One did not praise that kind of meditation.

“And what kind of meditation did the Blessed One praise? Here, brahmin, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the first jhāna…With the stilling of applied and sustained thought, he enters upon and abides in the second jhāna…With the fading away as well of rapture…he enters upon and abides in the third jhāna…With the abandoning of pleasure and pain…he enters upon and abides in the fourth jhāna…The Blessed One praised that kind of meditation.”

Yes, of course, I can not disagree anymore :slight_smile:

I would like us to be more cautious with the word ‘meditation’ as we don’t have a clear equivalent in pali. Let the public have a fuzzy idea about meditation, but I hope we can try to be more precise. When I read a translation and see ‘meditation’ I never know what word is behind it (samadhi? jhana?).

If there is a term that has this general scope it’s probably bhāva­nā
jhāna is not meditation but represents very specific states based on specific conditions. A genereal problem is that we don’t know what jhāna literally means, its etymology (the sanskrit dhyana is also not helpful as we don’t find literal meanings in the vedas)
Then we also have the saññās (e.g. aniccasaññā, for example in AN10.60)
And we have the satis (like maraṇassati)

I’m surprised which information this discussion brings. For me as a palicanon reader it was so clear that samma-samadhi = 4 jhanas, and it’s enriching to see the differences. We find dhyāna only as singular also in the yoga sutras (dhyana culminating in samadhi…), in the Theragatha (as far as I can see) and I wonder if it’s not specific knowledge that went lost over the centuries. I thought it would me more controversial to propose the jhanas to be radically different in character/quality instead of just being more subtle absorptions, but now we have these different traditions regarding jhana and samadhi.

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Right, I think the differences and the diversity are interesting. They show that these texts come down to us with a long history behind them. The Sarvāstivādins were known for their detailed systems of meditation, and their dhyāna teachers in Kashmir. They certainly did adopt some of the ideas and culture from yoga, most obviously in terms such as yoga, yogācāra, yogācārya, yogācārabhūmi, etc. I’m not sure if their use of the terms dhyāna and samādhi are related to that, though.

Here are a few bits about Right Samādhi that I was able to find in the Saṃyukta Āgama, in the saṃyukta for the Noble Eightfold Path. The translations may be a bit rough, but they should give some basic idea.

SA 784


What is Right Samādhi? That is to say, abiding with the mind not scattered, firm and collected, with tranquility, samādhi, and unity of mind.

SA 785


What is Right Samādhi? Right Samādhi has two types: there is Right Samādhi that is worldly, with outflows, with grasping, oriented towards a good destiny, and there is Right Samādhi that is noble, supramundane, without outflows, not grasping, correctly extinguishing suffering, oriented towards the end of suffering.


What is Right Samādhi that is worldly, with outflows, with grasping, oriented towards a good destiny? If the mind abides without disorder, without movement, and collected, with tranquility, samādhi, and unity of mind, then this is called Right Samādhi that is worldly, with outflows, with grasping, oriented towards a good destiny.


What is Right Samādhi that is noble, supramundane, without outflows, correctly extinguishing suffering, oriented towards the end of suffering? That is to say, a noble disciple contemplates suffering, accumulation, cessation, and the path, contemplating the path, contemplating without outflows associated with mental dharmas, abiding without disorder and without scattering, collected, with tranquility, samādhi, and unity of mind, then this is called Right Samādhi that is noble, supramundane, without outflows, without grasping, correctly extinguishing suffering, and oriented towards the end of suffering.


Hmmm… perhaps this indicated that early Theravadins are jhana-practitioner, unlike modern Theravadins who are vipassana-based practitioner.

I have found a paper on Sarvastivada method of practice here. May be this can help…

In my view, it’s also useful to examine our preconceptions about these texts.

Why do we think that correct samādhi should be defined as the Four Dhyānas? Where do we get that idea? Is it true? Is it representative of the contents of these collections, and does it hold across collections? Did early Buddhists use terms like samatha practitioner or vipassanā practitioner? Was it relevant to their view of Buddhism?

For example, in the SA and SN, the Seven Factors of Bodhi have a very important role for meditation. Yet perusing modern Buddhist discourse, it appears to have been almost completely neglected. As for the Five Roots and Five Powers, both of which also have their own saṃyuktas within the SA and SN (and must have had considerable importance during the compilation), few people ever bother to even learn what they are, much less read their sūtras.

So why do we believe that Buddhism should revolve around ānāpāna and the dhyānas, or distinctions between samatha and vipassanā? Is it because early Buddhists conceived of these things as the very core of Buddhism, or because some modern Buddhists do?


You are right that we don’t have an awful lot of definitions of samma-samadhi in the main four Nikayas. I collected the definitions below. There are only two types of definitions though, one as the Jhanas, the second as ‘One-pointedness of mind equipped with [the first seven parts of the noble path] with its supports’ and with its accessories.’, i.e. the culmination of the path. Interestingly AN, DN, SN, all have one of each definitions respectively.

MN 141 as the four Jhanas
AN 5.28 as the Jhanas, but with an additional fifth one
AN 7.45 as culmination of the path
DN 18 as culmination of the path
DN 22 as the four Jhanas
SN 45.8 as the four Jhanas
SN 45.28 as culmination of the path

So as a conclusion, we have only very few definitions of samma-samadhi, but when it is defined with actual content, then as the Jhanas. How is it in the Agamas?


There is no dichotomy for samatha-vipassana in early suttas. Both are not treated as two distinct methods of cultivation, but they are two qualities of mind which are supporting one another for achieving the end of dukkha. This is described in AN 2.31, SN 35.245, and AN 4.94

Samatha is a quality of samma-samadhi and vipassana is a quality of samma-ditthi, but meditation methods (eg. anapanasati) are included in samma-sati or satipatthana. There is no something like samatha meditation or vipassana meditation at all in early suttas!

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Hi Seniya,

I agree that samatha and vipassana describe results, not methods. However, I’m not sure what you mean by “no dichotomy”, since they are clearly not the same thing. Also, in AN 4.94 it certainly sounds like they are not necessarily developed together, or in any particular order, so one might presume that some practices emphasise one or the other.

Suttas such as MN 27 and MN 107 describe the Gradual Training sequence, where various skills are developed sequentially. However, from suttas such as AN 4.94 it seems that the development is not necessarily so linear.

AN 4.41 describes several different types of Samādhibhāvanā, the first being the jhanas, and the latter two observation and insight into the rise and fall of phenomena. It’s hard to see how those could be practised at the same time.

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Oops. Thank you for your correction, but I’m not a native English speaker, so maybe my English is not very good to express my opinion. :slight_smile:

What I mean is “dichotomy of samatha-vipassana as two distinct methods”

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I was always intrigued by how, in AN 5.176, the Buddha admonishes Anathapindika that he should “periodically enter & remain in seclusion & rapture.” “Seclusion & rapture” sounds like a coded way of saying, “1st and 2nd jhana” to me. So, was the Buddha saying here that laity need not push their progress at all beyond 2nd jhana; or, on the other hand, was he simply defining citta-bhavana–at least in this instance–as, or in terms of, seclusion and piti, or with those as its defining characteristics? In my estimation, the latter is the more likely. I don’t know what you might make of this.