Roderick S. Bucknell - Reinterpreting the Jhānas (1993)

Since I noticed that the jhāna factors have come up again, and whether one-pointedness is one of the factors for the first jhāna. There is an article written quite a long time ago by Roderick Bucknell on exactly these matters.

Reinterpreting the Jhānas (1993)

The ideas and materials are really fascinating and interesting to consider. One thing that I like is that he addresses both interpretations in some depth.

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Oh, dear. From my perspective this is a very flawed article. Ven. Analayo has replied to some of the points made by Rod Bucknell (The First Absorption (Dhyāna) in Early Indian Buddhism – A Study of Source Material from the Madhyama-āgama), but unfortunately his article is not freely available. Here is a brief summary of some of the problems with the article.

  • This is one of the best examples I have seen of reading one’s meditation experiences back into the suttas, that is, interpreting the suttas based on one’s own experiences. Ideally it should be the other way around: one should interpret one’s meditation experiences based on a careful reading of the suttas. In practice I think both approaches will have to work together, but in this case Bucknell has been far too one-sided.

  • He makes a number of unsubstantiated claims, such as claiming that certain suttas are late, for instance in footnote 48. It is just too convenient to dismiss the suttas that contradict your thesis in this way, without providing any evidence for their lateness. Moreover, he does not mention a number of other suttas that contradict his ideas.

  • The suttas contain an abundance of evidence that Bucknell has failed to consider. The matters discussed by Bucknell are subtle, and they require a very careful reading of the evidence before one can draw clear conclusions. Here are a few examples: (1) The evidence from the suttas that the first jhāna is ekaggatā (one-pointed) is actually quite strong; (2) kāma in the formula for the first jhāna quite likely refers to the five senses and not desire; (3) point 2 is reinforced by a sutta (AN 10.72) that says hearing has to disappear before one can enter first jhāna; (4) kāyena, as used in the third jhāna, does not mean “with the body”, but “directly”/“personally” (see Bucknell’s note 34); (5) the overcoming of perceptions of form mentioned in the first immaterial attainment does not relate to the five senses but to the echo of these senses as experienced by the mind; (6) the division of jhāna into five stages is sufficiently attested in the suttas; (7) the sutta formula for the second jhāna makes it clear that vitakka-vicāra ceases completely in that state; that vitakka-vicāra in the first jhāna should therefore refer to a very refined aspect of thought - a mere movement of the mind - seems quite natural.

This is just a summary. All of the above can be substantiate from the suttas, but for the moment I will leave at that.


Great summary, and thanks very much for posting this.

(1) The evidence from the suttas that the first jhāna is ekaggatā (one-pointed) is actually quite strong

Are there some examples of this?

(6) the division of jhāna into five stages is sufficiently attested in the suttas

Is this referring to the “five masteries” as used by Buddhaghosa? Examples?

Your summary is really helpful, but I’m curious to read some of these for myself. It would probably also help people at some later time. For example, if someone says that the first jhāna does not have ekaggatā, we could point them to this thread, which contains the original claim and also sutta evidence against that claim.

Well, I am glad I posted this article in the first place, because otherwise I would not have received such a helpful reply. I’ve looked into the book that Ven. Analayo published the article in, and it looks very interesting, but it appears to have gone rapidly out-of-print.

Sorry to butt into your conversation, but I was wondering if this is the book you checked, looks like it’s available here

Also, MN 43 and MN 111 actually use the word ekaggatā (as in cittekaggatā–unification of mind) and SN 40.1 uses it in a different form.


Hi Linda, anyone is welcome to join the conversation. Thanks for the link to the book! Hopefully I can check it out in a few weeks…

The references to the suttas are also very helpful. :anjal:



I’d written in another post something about this ekaggāta (一心 in MA 210) business -

Perhaps ekaggāta was not restricted to the jhanas. Some other variants on the theme -

cittaṃ ekaggaṃ (the mind [was] unified) in MN 4, MN 19

cittassa ekaggatā (unification of the mind) in MN 44, MN 117, MN 125, SN 45.28 (mirroring MN 117), SN 48.9 – 11, SN 48.50

ekaggacittā in SN 47.4 and AN 2.43 in the context of satipaṭṭhāna,

In fact, its occurrence as cittaṃ ekaggaṃ (the mind was unified) in MN 4 and MN 19 within the context of satipaṭṭhāna just before the 1st Jhana would suggest that it is not a quality that shows up only in the Jhanas.

I think there might be a slight difference in the sense being carried by ekaggāta compared to ekodibhāva. If the former is shared by both satipaṭṭhāna and the jhanas, it might suggest the singularity of perceptions (for satipaṭṭhāna , that would be the 4 loci of sati, for the jhanas, the singular perceptions as per DN 9). In that case, ekodibhāva would relate more to the fading away of the vacīsaṅkhāra.


Yes, I realise my presentation was too skeletal. It just takes so much time to write detailed arguments. Anyway, here is some of the evidence from the Pali suttas:

(1) At MN 44 samādhi is defined as cittassa ekaggatā, one-pointedness of mind.
(2) At MN 117 ariya sammāsamādhi is defined cittassa ekaggatā equipped with the other seven factors of the eightfold path. This definition is repeated at DN 18, SN 45.28, and AN 7.45.
(3) At SN 48.9 the samādhindriya is defined as follows: “having made a foundation through letting go, you gain samādhi, you gain cittassa ekaggatā.” Here samādhi and cittassa ekaggatā are evidently equated. This is repeated at SN 48.10, SN 48.11, SN 48.50, and AN 1.345.
(4) In the Iddhipāda-saṃyutta, at SN 49.13, samādhi and cittassa ekaggatā are again equated.
(5) There is also the expression samāhitaṃ cittaṃ ekaggaṃ (“the mind was concentrated, one-pointed”) which occurs in a number of suttas, for instance, MN 4, MN 19, MN 28, MN 29, MN 30, SN 35.134, AN 3.40, AN 3.130, AN 4.12, and AN 8.11. In all these cases samādhi and ekaggatā are used synonymously.
(6) On top of this we have the instances mentioned by Bucknell, but which he regards as late. These are MN 43 and MN 111, which mention the five jhāna factors, and SN 40.1.

(In all of the above, first jhāna is included whenever samādhi is mentioned, since it is part of the definition of sammāsamādhi.)

It is possible that Bucknell’s unease with ekaggatā as a factor of first jhāna is a result of reading too much into the term. At one point (footnote 10) he says that it is equivalent to cetaso ekodibhāva, the “unification of mind” achieved in the second jhāna. But this is far from clear. In fact, in the suttas the term ekaggatā is used quite broadly, even in contexts outside of meditation practice. A particularly instructive example is found in AN 5.151, where it is said one should listen to the Dhamma with one-pointed mind, ekaggacitta. This presumably means that one is continuously attentive. The same sutta further qualifies the listening as avikkhittacitta, “with a non-distracted mind”, which makes it fairly certain that ekaggacitta here means “continuous attention”. This, then, is how I would understand ekaggatā: one-pointedness in the sense of not being distracted.

The term cetaso ekodibhāva, however, which describes the second jhāna, is used much more narrowly, and refers specifically to unification of mind. (Ekodi means unified.) This is quite different from being non-distracted, and it implies the non-changing perception of a unified object of attention. It is in the second jhāna that samādhi reaches its pinnacle and that is why the pīti-sukha of this attainment is called “born of samādhi”, samādhi-ja.

This is actually more evidence than I had realised was there! Once you start looking, it is surprising what turns up.

This refers to the alternative division of the jhānas into five rather than the standard four. In the fivefold scheme the first two jhānas are instead divided into three: (1) jhāna with vitakka and vicāra, (2) jhāna without vitakka but with vicāra, (3) jhāna with neither vitakka nor vicāra. The fivefold scheme thus adds a jhāna between the first and second jhāna of the fourfold scheme. The third and fourth jhānas are the same for both schemes.

It is true that the fivefold scheme become more prominent in later literature, especially the Abhidhamma, but it is by no means missing from the suttas. For instance, it occurs in the following suttas: DN 33, DN 34 (both of which are considered late by Bucknell), MN 128 (and in its Madhyama-āgama counterpart, MĀ 72), SN 43.3, SN 43.12, and AN 8.63. I am happy to admit that the evidence here is not particularly strong, especially so since both SN 43.3 and SN 43.12 are part of a repetition series and insubstantial in content. Still, I think the evidence is strong enough to regard this as part of early Buddhism, at least until a detailed study shows otherwise.


Bhante, is there a kind of samadhi without jhana, eg. upacara samadhi (access concentration) or khanika samadhi (momentary concentration), in the early suttas?

Hi seniya,

I believe the particular terms upacara samadhi and khanika samadhi are later, but there certainly appears to be samadhi in the suttas that is not jhana. See AN 4.41 for example. Here the first of four cases relates to the usual jhana forumula:

“Monks, these are the four developments of concentration (samādhibhāvanā). Which four? There is the development of concentration that, when developed & pursued, leads to a pleasant abiding in the here & now. There is the development of concentration that, when developed & pursued, leads to the attainment of knowledge & vision. There is the development of concentration that, when developed & pursued, leads to mindfulness & alertness. There is the development of concentration that, when developed & pursued, leads to the ending of the effluents.

Ven Analayo discusses the issues surrounding samadhi, samatha, and vipassana in great detail in his series of talks on Tranquility and Insight.

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There are other kinds of samādhi mentioned in the suttas, but they are fairly marginal compared to the jhānas. Most importantly perhaps, the samādhi of the eightfold path, sammāsamādhi, is defined as the four jhānas.

And, as Mikenz says, upacāra samādhi and khanika samādhi are not from the suttas.


Bhante @Brahmali,

What about samadhi possessed by a Sotapanna? If I don’t mistake, Bhikkhu Bodhi said Sotapanna has a kind of samadhi, but not jhanic samadhi, which will eventually become jhanic samadhi (sammasamadhi) when he/she progress to Arahantship. What do you think about this?


Do you mean what sort of samādhi is required for stream-entry? The suttas come close to saying that jhāna is required for stream-entry. The standard sequence of dependent liberation (e.g. at AN 10.3) says:

When there is no right concentration, for one deficient in right concentration, (8) the knowledge and vision of things as they really are lacks its proximate cause.

Right concentration is jhāna, and stream-entry is knowledge and vision of things as they really are. This is almost tantamount to saying that jhāna is required for stream-entry.

In any case, I think the whole debate about whether jhāna is required for stream-entry is a bit of a red herring. As you practice the noble eightfold path, stream-entry eventually happens. If it doesn’t happen before you attain the jhānas, then you just continue to practice the path, including the jhānas.


Hi Bhante

I think the person undergoing Stream Entry has an almost jhanic-like samādhi.

The difference seems to hinge upon the different understandings of what constitutes a jhana. I’m with the camp that interprets the First Jhana as having 2 rather distinct seclusions, namely-

  • seclusion from the hindrances (vivicca akusalehi dhammehi); and
  • seclusion from the kāmā (vivicceva kāmehi).

The second seclusion is quite distinct from the first, given the presence of eva, which emphasizes the intensity of this seclusion. This therefore throws doubt on the Abhidhamma definition of kāmā in this pericope as referring to sensual desires, since it would mean that not all of the hindrances are equally allayed. I would follow the reading in MN 13 that kāmā refers to all of the 5 sense objects, be they pleasant or unpleasant. Plus, AN 9.37 confirms the point about the absence of the 5 sense contacts in the jhanas.

Is there therefore any samādhi that is almost jhanic-like? If we look at this Stream Entry pericope -

Yadā bhagavā aññāsi (SO-&-SO) gahapatiṃ kallacittaṃ muducittaṃ vinīvara­ṇa­cittaṃ (free from the hindrances) udaggacittaṃ pasannacittaṃ, atha yā buddhānaṃ sāmukkaṃsikā dhammadesanā taṃ pakāsesi—dukkhaṃ, samudayaṃ, nirodhaṃ, maggaṃ.

eg MN 56 - When the Blessed One perceived that the mind of Upāli, the householder, was prepared, pliant, free from obstacles, elevated and lucid, then he revealed to him that exalted doctrine of the Buddhas, viz. Suffering, its Cause, its Ceasing and the Path.

In fact, the other adjectives are all closely associated with the jhanas.

I think, the only thing distinguishing this samādhi from a full jhana is the absence of the other seclusion factor, ie seclusion from the kāmā (vivicceva kāmehi). In other words, during the period when the Teaching is being given, that auditor at that time would feel the 5 sense contacts; how else would he/she hear the Buddha? :smile_cat:

Plus, we also have a post-jhana samādhi that is mentioned in AN 9.35, where one exercises the supranormal powers after exiting any of the attainments.


doesn’t in the sutta Ven Ananda speak of formless attainments? first he mentions the ‘dimension of the infinitude of space’ and from his statement it may follow that sensory perception only ceases in the formless attainments


Yes, Ven Ananda does start off by discussing the formless attainments when replying to Ven Udayin.

BUT, after going through the standard listing of the formless attainment, he then “slyly” works his way back by recounting an earlier encounter with the nun who lived with the matted-hair ascetics. She had asked -

yāyaṃ, bhante ānanda, samādhi na cābhinato na cāpanato na ca sasaṅ­khā­ra­nig­gay­ha­vārita­gato, vimuttattā ṭhito, ṭhitattā santusito, santusitattā no paritassati. Ayaṃ, bhante ānanda, samādhi kiṃphalo vutto bhagavatā’ti?

I am not furnishing the English translation for now, but may I ask that you refer to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation? I will address Ven Thanissaro’s odd translation later and its unfortunate outcome.

Now, in BB’s translation, kiṃphalo has been translated as a bahubbīhi compound, meaning “of what fruit?”. See his footnotes offering his grammatical reasons for doing so.

So, what is this concentration that the matted-hair nun was enquiring about that is -

na cābhinato na cāpanato na ca sasaṅ­khā­ra­nig­gay­ha­vārita­gato, vimuttattā ṭhito, ṭhitattā santusito, santusitattā no paritassati

Let’s zoom in on the aspect of this concentration that is said to be na sasaṅ­khā­ra­nig­gay­ha­vārita­gata. Where else does this phrase pop up in?

In the DN 34 listing of the five knowledges associated with sammāsamādhi, we find at #4 -

Ayaṃ samādhi santo paṇīto paṭippassaddhaladdho ekodibhāvādhigato, na sasaṅkhāraniggayhavāritagato’ti

The same refrain is made in AN 5.28. I believe both DN 34 and AN 5.28 are referring to the same thing, namely the jhanas.

Furthermore, in AN 3.101, the meditator first reaches a stage in her meditation that is sasaṅ­khā­ra­nig­gay­ha­vārita­gata, before finally attaining a state that is na sasaṅ­khā­ra­nig­gay­ha­vārita­gata.

It is only when the meditator has attained to the state that is na sasaṅ­khā­ra­nig­gay­ha­vārita­gata, does the sutta suggest that the supranormal powers are available to the meditator. That implies strongly that the samādhi which is santa paṇīta paṭippas­sad­dhi­laddha eko­dibhā­vā­dhi­gata na sasaṅ­khā­ra­nig­gay­ha­vārita­gat is a jhana, given that the same listing in made in DN 34 and AN 5.28.

If you have the time to spare, you should be able to trace the occurrences of these epithets in the other suttas -

pac­cup­pan­na­su­kho ceva āyatiñca sukhavipāko - MN 45;
ariya nirāmisa - too many to cite
akāpuri­sa­sevita - see Thag 649
santo paṇīto - these appear in several contexts, including mindfulness of breathing
paṭippas­sad­dha­laddho - in the context of jhanas
eko­dibhā­vā­dhi­gato - well-known in the 2nd jhana contexts

So, coming back to Ven Ananda’s reply to the matted-hair nun, this concentration is said to be aññāphala. If we follow BB in parsing this (and kiṃphala) as a bahubbīhi compound, this would mean “of what fruit” and “with knowledge as its fruit”. At the end of that sutta, Ven Ananda then tells the monks that this (ie the jhanas) is another way of not being percipient of the 5 sense objects.

Unfortunately, Ven Thanissaro translated kiṃphala as a genitive tappurisa -

As she was standing there, she said to me: ‘The concentration whereby—neither pressed down nor forced back, nor with fabrication kept blocked or suppressed—still as a result of release, contented as a result of standing still, and as a result of contentment one is not agitated: This concentration is said by the Blessed One to be the fruit of what?’

“I said to her, ‘Sister, the concentration whereby—neither pressed down nor forced back, nor with fabrication kept blocked or suppressed—still as a result of release, contented as a result of standing still, and as a result of contentment one is not agitated: This concentration is said by the Blessed One to be the fruit of gnosis.’ This is another way of being percipient when not sensitive to that dimension.”

I don’t know if you noticed it, but the consequence of Ven Thanissaro’s translation and interpretation leads us to conclude that an arahant, in order to access this concentration, would have to go through non-agitation over and over again! This to me, is pretty silly, since everywhere else in the suttas, non-agitation is the prelude to full awakening.


Thanks for the great reply Sylvester, that analysis was very helpful. However, I want to understand why this is done in such an indirect way. Ananda is very direct about the formless attainments, but then as you say he ‘slyly’ goes back and then indirectly includes the first four jhanas in his story.

As I am aware this sutta is one of the most clear in indicating that one is cut off from the five senses in jhana. If it is possible to come to any answer, why is the sutta direct in regard to the question of the five senses and the formless attainments and then indirect with regard to the first four jhanas?

I wish I knew, but I can only guess here.

I think this may be a literary device similar to the MN 44 discussion on anusayas and feelings. That discussion starts off with an identification of the different types of feeling and their respective anusayas, followed by an injunction that the anusayas be abandoned. Then, the final bit suggests that not all anusayas need to be abandoned, as certain feelings do not engender their anusaya anuseti-ing.

I do realise that the MN 44 structure is different, ie it starts off with a generalisation and then discloses the exceptions. AN 9.37, on the other hand, starts off with a detailed list and almost as if to say “Oh, by the way, these too are…”.

I tried consulting a professor of literature to see if he could pin this as a literary device, but no luck.

Can you think of any other sutta that uses such a “Oh, by the way…” device?

Ven Ananda’s conversation with the nun in AN 9.37 appears to be old, as it is also attested in its partial parallel SA 557. Unfortunately, the Chinese does not have na sasaṅ­khā­ra­nig­gay­ha­vārita­gata but it seems to have animitta cetosamādhi (無相心三昧).

Now, I’m going to be bold and offer the suggestion that what happened in SA 557 was that it simply took on what was discussed in its immediately preceding sutra SA 556 which also discusses 無相心三昧 in the context of 何果 (of what fruit? : interesting that the Chinese also took this to be a bahubbīhi ). Perhaps, SA 556 suffered a textual corruption and lost the na sasaṅ­khā­ra­nig­gay­ha­vārita­gata. This phrase does in fact appear in SA 1246, the parallel to AN 3.101, where it is rendered as 不為有行所持.

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Compounds of the type kiṃ + always seem to be bāhubbīhi compounds (that is, they are adjectives), see Cone’s Dictionary of Pali. And so Ajahn Thanissaro’s translation is almost certainly wrong.


Yes, I did mention this briefly in my first post above. It is an important point that I think is rarely properly appreciated. And I believe a strong case can be made from the suttas that this is indeed the correct interpretation. Perhaps this is a good time to look at this in a bit more detail.

My case will be based on the following arguments:

(1) In the suttas, kāma in the plural almost always refers to the objects of sense pleasure, not to sense desire.
(2) The Critical Pali Dictionary, the most thoroughly researched and scholarly of all Pali dictionaries, supports this position.
(3) Words that mean desire, or sense desire, almost always occur in the singular. One would expect the same for kāma if this was its meaning.
(4) In the first phrase of the standard formula for the first jhāna – “fully secluded from kāma, secluded from unwholesome qualities” – sense desire is already included in “secluded from unwholesome qualities”. It is therefore likely that “fully secluded from kāma” must refer to something else, or at least something more.
(5) Despite the Abhidhamma Vibhaṅga’s definition of kāma as “sense desire”, the commentarial tradition includes “objects of sense pleasure” (vatthukāma) in its explanation of the first jhāna formula.

I will go through these points one by one.

(1) To start with we need to distinguish between kāma in the singular and kāma in the plural. In the suttas the two are used quite distinctly. The use of the singular kāma tends to be idiomatic. For instance, the accusative singular kāmaṃ almost always means “willingly”. The nominative singular kāmo, on the other hand, sometimes seems to mean “love”, as in DN21. There is also one context where kāmo means sensual desire (SN 1.34 and AN 6.63). And this is pretty much it as far as kāma in the singular is concerned.

It is the plural form of kāma which is predominant in the suttas. In a number of contexts the meaning can only be “objects of sense pleasure”, not “sensual desire”. Here are a few examples:

  • “I have enjoyed human objects of sense pleasure; now is the time for me to seeks divine objects of sense pleasure”, bhuttā kho pana me mānusakā kāmā, samayo dāni me dibbe kāme pariyesituṃ; (DN24, DN26, and MN83)
  • “The objects of sense pleasure that are dear to me will abandon me, and I will abandon the dear objects of sense pleasure,” piyā vata maṃ kāmā jahissanti, piye cāhaṃ kāme jahissāmī’ti; (AN 4.184)
  • “A monk who has made an end of the corruptions is incapable of storing and then using objects of sense pleasure”, abhabbo khīṇāsavo bhikkhu sannidhikārakaṃ kāme paribhuñjituṃ; (DN29 and DN33)
  • A large number of contexts speak of enjoying or seeking kāma, all of which must refer to the objects of sense pleasure, e.g.: “they do not pursue the objects of sense pleasure”, kāme na sevati (MN47); “you would enjoy the objects of sense pleasure”, kāme paribhuñjeyyātha (MN58); “when pursuing the objects of sense pleasure”, kāme paṭisevante (MN75); “to enjoy the objects of sense pleasure”, kāme paribhuñjituṃ (MN76); “enjoying the objects of sense pleasure”, kāme paribhuñjanto (MN82); etc., etc.
  • “A monk is without desire for the objects of sense pleasure, without want for them, without liking for them, without thirst for them, without fever for them, without craving for them”, bhikkhu kāme avītarāgo hoti avigatacchando avigatapemo avigatapipāso avigatapariḷāho avigatataṇho; (MN16)
  • “Sir, while a monk is attending to the objects of sense pleasure, his mind does not leap towards them, nor does he acquire confidence in them, become steady and focused on them. However, while he attends to renunciation, his mind does leap towards it, and he acquires confidence, becomes steady and focused on it. His mind is well-departed, well-developed, well-emerged, well-liberated, well-detached from the objects of sense pleasure. He is free from the corruptions, distress, and fevers that arise due to the objects of sense pleasure; he does not feel that feeling; this called the escape from the objects of sense pleasure.” Idhāvuso, bhikkhuno kāme manasikaroto kāmesu cittaṃ na pakkhandati na pasīdati na santiṭṭhati na vimuccati. Nekkhammaṃ kho panassa manasikaroto nekkhamme cittaṃ pakkhandati pasīdati santiṭṭhati vimuccati. Tassa taṃ cittaṃ sugataṃ subhāvitaṃ suvuṭṭhitaṃ suvimuttaṃ visaṃyuttaṃ kāmehi. Ye ca kāmapaccayā uppajjanti āsavā vighātā pariḷāhā, mutto so tehi, na so taṃ vedanaṃ vedeti. Idamakkhātaṃ kāmānaṃ nissaraṇaṃ. (AN5.200, DN33, DN34)

This is just a taste! There are many more passages where kāma can only mean the objects of sense pleasure.

There is, however, one passage where kāma in the plural must mean “sense desire”, found in AN6.63. This passage is important since it is presumably this that the Abhidhamma Vibhaṅga relies on for the definition you mention above. It reads as follows:

And what, monks, is the diversity of sense pleasures? Desire for visual objects is one thing, desire for sounds another, desire for odours still another, desire for tastes still another, desire of tangibles still another. This called the diversity of sense pleasures.

Katamā ca, bhikkhave, kāmānaṃ vemattatā? Añño, bhikkhave, kāmo rūpesu, añño kāmo saddesu, añño kāmo gandhesu, añño kāmo rasesu, añño kāmo phoṭṭhabbesu. Ayaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, kāmānaṃ vemattatā.

This definition is prefaced by another, which is even more unusual:

Nevertheless, these are not kāmā; these are called ‘objects of sense pleasure’ (kāmaguṇā) in the training of the Noble One. A person’s sense desire (kāmo) is desirous intention.

Api ca kho, bhikkhave, nete kāmā kāmaguṇā nāmete ariyassa vinaye vuccanti, saṅkapparāgo purisassa kāmo. (AN6.63)

Here it is flatly denied that the plural form of kāma means objects of sense pleasure! This is rather absurd in the face of all the evidence from the suttas to the contrary. It is possible that this passage has borrowed from a verse found at SN1.34, where the idea that kāma in the plural refers to sense desire perhaps can be justified from the context. In the present sutta, however, the idea is misleading. I can only conclude that this passage is at odds with the suttas as a whole, and as such it cannot be given much weight. This also makes the corresponding passage in the Vibhaṅga seem rather dubious.

There are also a number of cases where the context does not allow us to decide whether the plural form of kāma refers to the objects of sense pleasure or sense desire. I would guesstimate that the number of these cases is roughly the same as the cases where it can only refer to the objects of sense pleasure. Given the large number of cases where kāma must mean refer to the objects, it seems reasonable to assume that this is also the meaning in cases where the context does not allow us to decide.

Finally, kāma occurs in a large number of compounds. Many of these compounds have a word that is closely connected to desire as their second member. Examples include: kāmagedha, kāmacchanda, kāmarāga, kāmanandī, kāmasneha, kāmamucchā, kāmapipāsā, kāmapariḷāha, kāmajjhosāna, kāmataṇhā, kāmapariyesana, kāmabhogī, kāmarati, kāmāsava, kāmupādāna. All of these compounds make much better sense if the first member, kāma, is read as plural and refers to sense objects rather than sense desire.

Overall, it seems to me that the evidence from the Pali suttas that kāma in the plural refers to sense objects rather than sense desire is quite overwhelming. It is possible that sense desire is also implied, but the underlying reference seems to be to the five kinds of sense objects.

(2) The Critical Pali Dictionary supports the above finding. Here is what it has to say:

“Kāma … 1. (mostly in sg.) wish, desire, pleasure; 2. (in pl.) the objects of sensual pleasure …”

It then provides exactly two examples from the four main Nikāyas of the former (one of which seems wrong), and a very long list of the latter.

(3) Words in the suttas that mean desire or greed almost always occur in the singular. Examples include:

Lobha, usually translated as “greed”, only occurs in the singular.
Rāga, “sensual desire”, only occurs in the singular, with the exception of a single verse (MN91).
Taṇhā, craving, is mostly found in the singular, except when it specifically refers to the three kinds of craving (kāmataṇhā, bhavataṇhā, and vibhavataṇhā) that lead to rebirth.
Chandā, which refers to desire in a slightly more general sense, occurs only in the singular except in MN21, where it used to refer to “the desires of the household life”, gehasitā chandā.

In other words, although desires are obviously multifaceted and take a large number of things as their objects of interest, they are still generally spoken of in the singular in the suttas. The fact that kāma is mostly found in the plural would therefore seem to mean that it does not simply refer to sense desire.

(4) The standard formula for the first jhāna begins with the following phrase:

“Fully secluded from kāma, secluded from unwholesome qualities …”, vivicceva kāmehi vivicca akusalehi

Unwholesome qualities must include “sense desire”, the first of the five hindrances. This makes it unlikely that kāmehi should refer to exactly the same thing.

Rod Bucknell, who in this context interprets kāma as “sense desire”, tries to explain away the resulting redundancy in footnote 9. He says: “… the factors said to be eliminated in the transition from ordinary consciousness to jhāna 1 are sense desires and unwholesome images. This would explain what otherwise appears an unnecessary repetition; for ‘vivicc’ eva kāmehi, vivicca akusalehi dhammehi’ would then be referring to two different mental elements.” I cannot see that interpreting dhammā as “images” makes any difference. An unwholesome image would still be one that is associated with one or more of the five hindrances. In any case, the idea that dhammā should here mean images is hard to make sense of.

To avoid the inexplicable situation where sense desire is singled out as the only hindrance to occur twice in the standard passage on first jhāna, it seems preferable to read kāma as referring to the objects of sense pleasure.

(5) Finally, the commentarial tradition agrees with understanding kāma in the first jhāna formula as including the objects of sense pleasure. This is presumably a considered position, since it appears to contradict the explanation found in the Abhidhamma Vibhaṅga. After giving the explanation found in the Vibhaṅga, the commentary (the Samantapāsādikā, commenting on the introduction to the Vinaya) says:

Even so, without the commentary, it is not clear. We will explain it by the method of the commentary … For when this is so, the meaning of ‘secluded from kāmā’ also includes secluded from the objects of sense pleasure.

Tathāpi aṭṭhakathānayaṃ vinā na suṭṭhu pākaṭoti aṭṭhakathānayeneva naṃ pakāsayissāma … Evañhi sati ‘‘vivicceva kāmehī’’ti vatthukāmehipi viviccevāti attho yujjati.


What a hair-raising exposition! Thanks Bhante!

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