As is well known, the Pali term jhāyati, better known in noun form as jhāna, draws upon two distinct roots, which take the same form in Pali. The two roots are to “burn, glow, illuminate” and to “consider, ponder, ruminate”.
It seems that the term samādhi, which is usually synonymous with jhāna in the EBTs, also draws on dual roots. This seems so obvious that I am surprised that I am surprised; probably someone has written about this; heck, I’ve probably done it myself!
The PTS dict acknowledges two main senses for the verb form samādahati, to gather or assemble, and to kindle a fire. The first sense is clearly the primary one in the context of meditation. However the second sense is well attested in Bhikkhu Pacittiya 56, which lays down an offence for a monk who lights a fire. Unfortunately, the rule analysis does not define samādahati.
In the past I have thought—and taught—that here it meant to “assemble” or put together the materials for the fire. However, this is incorrect, so I apologize to those I have misled. The rule states that it is an offence to samādahati a fire, and this must be “kindling” the flame, rather than merely assembling the materials.
While this dual sense is correctly acknowledged in the dictionary and translations, the dictionary gives only one etymology, to ādahati1, which itself derives from dahati1. Here the root is similar in meaning to the derived form, meaning to “put” or “place”.
However there is also a term dahati2, to burn. This must be the sense that is prominent in the “kindling” of fire. Thus samādahati should be acknowledged to have two roots, or perhaps to be two distinct words. However in samādhi the two senses would seem to be combined, in agreement with the very widespread use of imagery of light and radiance in the context of deep meditation.
The text that triggered this inquiry was SN 7.9. There, the Buddha is criticizing a brahmin for thinking that purity comes from lighting the sacred flame.
Mā brāhmaṇa dāru samādahāno
When you’re kindling the firewood, brahmin,
Suddhiṃ amaññi bahiddhā hi etaṃ;
don’t imagine this is purity, for it’s just an external.
This is of course part of the standard Buddhist critique of meaningless rituals. The ritual persists today; brahmanical priests still perform the agnihotra.
Sorry, my bad, that’s Buddhist monks in Thailand performing the agnihotra.
Moving on! In the next verse, the Buddha says:
Hitvā ahaṃ brāhmaṇa dārudāhaṃ
I’ve given up kindling firewood, brahmin,
now I just light the inner flame.
Here dāhaṁ must belong to dahati2, and since this echoes the previous verse, samādahati there must draw on the same root. The next lines emphasize this even more:
Always blazing, always converged (=“akindle”),
Arahaṃ ahaṃ brahmacariyaṃ carāmi.
I am a perfected one living the spiritual life.
Wow, so being on fire is directly paralleled with being in samādhi!
As so often in verse, the exact sense is a little ambiguous. In some cases, the past participle samāhita is said to have the sense of “comprised of” rather than samādhi in the sense of deep meditation, although I can’t find strong support for this. (See AN 8.59, SN 2.6) It is possible, I guess, that the term here means something like “always steady in oneself”. If it does refer to actual samādhi, it must be somewhat of a poetic expression, because the Buddha was obviously not literally in samādhi all the time.
Still, regardless of the exact interpretation, the connection between samādahati and fire is clear and strong. This is a rather interesting counterpoint to the whole nibbāna as the going out of the flame thing. And another interesting question: I wonder whether samādhi in the Hindu tradition retains the “fire” sense at all?
Incidentally, in the same sutta we have a clear allusion to one of my favorite Upanishadic dialogues, Brihadaranyaka 4.3.
In SN 7.9, after the previously-discussed verses, the Buddha goes on to develop a set of correlations between a brahmin’s ritual equipment and various ethical qualities. Such point-by-point analogies are highly characteristic of the Upanishads, as they endeavor to evolve a higher spiritual sense of the Vedic rituals. By itself, however, this is not really remarkable enough to conclude there’s an Upanishadic parallel. However, we find the Buddha saying:
Attā sudanto purisassa joti
The well-tamed self is the light of a man.
This is a very close analogue with the Brihadaranyaka, where King Janaka asks:
yājñavalkya, kiṁ-jyotir ayam puruṣa iti
Yājñavalkya, what is the light of a man?
Given that the terms for “light” and “man” here both have multiple possible synonyms, their concurrence here is unlikely to be an accident. The text enters into a playful dialogue between the king and the sage, until finally Yājñavalkya is made to divulge that the self (ātman) is a man’s true light. As to what that self is:
yo’yaṁ vijñānamayaḥ prāṇeṣu, hṛdy antarjyotiḥ puruṣaḥ
It is that man made of consciousness among the vital energies/senses, the inner light of the heart.
As always, while the language is clearly related, the Buddha avoids the metaphysical implications, preferring a practical and ethical teaching.