The 8 Liberations are Brahmanical

Greetings and welcome back to another post on the relationship between Brahmanism and Buddhism! This installation will be on the attha vimokkha, or eight liberations, found for instance in: DN 15, MN 77, AN 8.66, AN 10.29, etc.

The 8 liberations are as follows:

A couple things of note here:

  • No explicit mention of jhāna
  • Heavy emphasis on formless attainments (and a relationship to ‘form’ in general)
  • Quite rare in the suttas generally, and lacking explanation
  • Connected to the kasina practices
  • Connected to the brahmavihāras

Right off of the bat, most of the above all indicate “this is pre-Buddhist, and probably Brahmanical!” Formless attainments are acknowledged as pre-Buddhist and practiced by contemplative Brahmins. The fact that they lack much explanation and context indicates they were already known in the time by the audience to whom they were taught. The lack of mention of jhāna explicitly is reminiscent of the fact that the division and analysis of the 4 jhānas as such seems to be a Buddhist development based on analyzing states of consciousness relevant to sense restraint (as opposed to a formless Unmanifest Absolute in Brahmanism, for instance).

The connection to the kasinas is made explicit in MN 77 and AN 10.29. Here, the kasina practice explains (part of) the second liberation: seeing forms externally and not internally. Alexander Wynne, in ‘The Origin of Buddhist Meditation,’ argues that the kasinas were a pre-Buddhist, Brahmanical style of meditation; and I find his argument quite convincing. Note that the last of the kasinas (totality, whole, [immeasurable] ) are ‘space’ and ‘consciousness.’ “The limitless totality of space,” and “the limitless totality of consciousness”—sound familiar? These too lack much attention and explanation, pointing to them being pre-Buddhist and just silently absorbed as a side practice one could do, perhaps for the people coming to Buddhism from these practices previously. Wynne argues, on the basis of later Brahmanical treatises, that they were used for a practice of refining and deconstructing the Manifest / created world—from the coarse elements down to pure consciousness—and then transition into the Unmanifest. This would, naturally, be the domain of nothingness (what the Buddha’s first teacher saw as the goal of the holy life) or, if not, neither-perception-nor-non-perception (what the Buddha’s second teacher saw as the goal). Not only does it make sense within the Buddhist canon, but it’s also consistent with tangential evidence relating to Brahmanical cosmogony and metaphysics; all the evidence seems to point to this being the story behind the kasinas.

The connection to the brahmavihāras is slightly more subtle. It is not made explicit in these lists, but we do get some fascinating clues as we dig deeper. In SN 46.54, the apex of mettā is said to be “the beautiful”—the same as the third liberation. But wait, there’s more! The apex of the next three brahmavihāras are: infinite space (the 4th liberation), infinite consciousness (the 5th liberation), and the domain of nothingness (the sixth liberation). So we see a clear connection between the brahmavihāras and the formless attainments, and we see the same terminology being echoed in the 8 liberations in the same context. Now, the brahmavihāras—like the formless attainments—are openly acknowledged as pre-Buddhist and clearly related to Brahmā—a Brahmanical deity. Again, we have a Brahmanical / pre-Buddhist connection to these liberations.

There’s another interesting clue as well! The form and formless kasinas make perfect sense, but what about the colors? Well, AN 10.29 says that the white kasina is the most refined of the 4 colors. There are four colors, and the fourth—white—is the most refined. The 4th jhāna is characterized by equanimity—the fourth and likewise most refined brahmavihāra—and the similes describing it use the terms ‘white cloth’ and ‘pure bright mind’ (like a white light). So we have four colors, four brahmavihāras, and the final of each related to the color ‘white’ and ‘equanimity.’ Moreover, the kasinas are described as being practiced boundless/immeasurable, radiating/covering all directions—nearly identical to the brahmavihāras again.

Then there’s the order of lists. Piya Tan, in this article, points out an interesting detail. The 8 liberations often occur with the “8 domains of mastery” and kasinas, and there are many similarities between them. It would appear that the 8 liberations are the goal (to abide in them), the 8 domains of mastery are the practices one masters for abiding in these liberations, and the kasinas are the tools one uses for mastering these. This further justifies these being Brahmanical if kasina practice was Brahmanical as well, and it also fortifies the theory that the color kasinas directly relate to the brahmavihāras; I do know people who use colors with their brahmavihāra practice even today—perhaps it goes back to before the Buddha.

Finally, I’d like to point out the relevance of this list being included in DN 15, which I consider a highly brahminical text. Very briefly, it’s list of nidānas shows a strong familiarity with Brahminical concepts while also responding to them with Buddhist ‘corrections.’ The sutta is said to be set in Kuru, the Brahminical heartland. The sutta goes into detail about more philosophically complicated notions of an attā characteristic of contemplative Brahminical / Upanisadic ideas, just as the nāmarūpa section responds to contemplative Brahmanical soteriological ideas while also showing a familiarity with the concept of nāmarūpa in these pre-Buddhist circles (as that which the subject uses to further cognize more nāmarūpa, i.e. both the conscious internal nāmarūpa and the external nāmarūpa for contact [phassa]). It also mentions the term ‘nāmakāya’ which only otherwise appears in conversation with a Brahmanical contemplative who is also familiar with similar soteriological ideas and practices (Snp 5.7). It echoes Snp 4.11, which too seems to be a conversation with someone knowledgable of certain Brahmanical ideas considering their discussions of nāmarūpa and formless meditative states / their question about what appears to be neither-perception-nor-non-perception. Add in the fact that the 8 liberations are here with all of the prior discussion of them, DN 15 is highly responsive to Brahmanical ideas, and so these being Brahmanical fit right in.

Also, of note is that in MN 77, the Buddha talks about these to ‘well known paribbājjakas,’ which many scholars believe refer to Brahminical ascetics often (but this is debated). The first people the Buddha considered teaching after his awakening and who had the least ‘dust in their eyes’ were his first two teachers; according to the 8 liberations, all they were missing was the very last one-two, primarily cessation. It would make sense that these practices, if early/Brahmanical, would not be very popular or well-described—and this is precisely what we see. Compared to the satipaṭṭhānas/four jhānas, the plain brahmavihāras, and even the normal formless attainments (which already have lost a significant amount of popularity by now but perhaps were more common in the earlier days), these get almost no attention in the suttas. I’d imagine these more uniquely ‘Buddhist’ meditations were more popular as the Buddhist identity grew, and the community was more independent from other groups of pre-Buddhist samaṇabrāhmaṇa-s who had practiced these beforehand. The earlier strata of Buddhism continues to reveal the Buddha’s flexible teaching style and affinity for adopting previous meditation practices (especially Brahmanical/proto-Upanisadic, considering they seem to be the primary deep meditators of the time as far as I can tell).

The goal of kasina and formless meditations (plus brahmavihāras potentially in certain respects) in these contemplative circles was to strip away one’s ties and perceptions to the worldly Manifest, and gradually refine consciousness, deconstructing that Manifest into the Unmanifest. The missing link though is the Buddha’s key insight: cessation. And the final liberation is … the cessation of perception and feeling! So for contemplatives/brahmins already familiar with these practices, they could still be quite useful on the path when adapted to lean towards cessation, as the Buddha taught in DN 9 and other suttas leading up to the cessation of perception and feeling. It would be a great bridge for these converts and a useful practice even for Buddhists who felt so inclined. It’s pre-Buddhist origins and then adaptation to the Buddha’s crucial insight is quite apparent with this information.

If you have any more interesting information on these, experience with practicing them, etc. let me know!
Mettā

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To me, it seems post-Buddhist, i.e., later Ashoka Buddhism providing its sectarian view upon Brahmin principles. MN 77, in particular, seems to clearly be a type of Buddhist propaganda or competitiveness, where the Buddha is described as comparing his Dhamma’s attainments with the attainments of non-Buddhist sects.

The “escape”, “noble disciple” & “noble eightfold path” are mentioned many times, for which jhana seems explicit. MN 77 explicitly refers to jhana.

MN 106 and other sutta refer to different ways of attaining what became known as “the formless”. Therefore, the formless attained via jhana seems more sublime than the state of nothingness, etc, described in MN 106 thus probably also MN 26 (as taught by Gotama’s two teachers).

I don’t have any standard ‘information’ by Theravada commentators however I offer the following suggestions for some original exploration:

  1. In DN 15, how many features of the eight vimokkha are previously referred to as objects subjected to self-view? For example, just quickly browsing DN 15, it refers to “describe the self” as physical and limited; physical and infinite; formless and limited; formless and infinite, gods of streaming radiance, etc.

  2. In DN 15 and the other suttas, why is the term “vimokkha” used rather than “vimutti”? What is the difference between “vimokkha” and “vimutti”?

  3. About the eight vimokkha, is their entire content a state of liberation? For example, is “having physical form, they see visions” a state of liberation? :thinking:

  4. Or to the contrary, do the eight vimokkha more simply refer to being liberated towards those states? For example, when a person, having physical form, sees visions (via the Divine Eye), does vimokkha here mean that person is liberated towards that state while in the state? :thinking: For example, when a Noble Disciple attains the Divine Eye, they view the Divine Eye dispassionately as not-self rather than develop the view “I am a God” or, worse, “I am God”.

  5. If the above is not clear, MN 43 refers to states of liberation of mind, such as animittāya cetovimuttiyā, suññatā cetovimutti, etc. These seem to be states of liberation. But my impression is the Eight Vimokkha are different; that they are liberation/non-clinging towards/from the eight objects. Thus the Brahmin clings to these objects while the Buddhist is non-attached towards these objects.

  6. In short, are these Suttas are reprimanding/criticizing Brahmanism rather than embracing/imitating Brahmanism? :saluting_face:

In summary, while the content may be Brahmanical, I think the intention of the Sutta teaching needs to be reflected upon. My initial impression is, while these may be Brahmanical concepts, the purpose of these Sutta teachings is to say these Brahmanical states are commonly objects of attachment & self-view; thus when a Noble Disciple experiences these states the Noble Disciple remains liberated from attachment & self-view while their mind dwells in these states. :dizzy:

Well, I think looking at the Padīpopamasutta (SN 54.8) this particular meditation is designed to prepare someone for death. It gives a very accurate description of what’s called Cheyne-Stokes. And yes it is designed to keep them present-minded so that they do not suffer out of fear. And it’s obviously available to renouncers who worry about whatever may be in the ending of that particular life.
Realistically, when someone’s in Cheyne-Stokes the autonomic nervous system has taken over, but they are conscious. It’s hard work. They sweat. It can be a very frightening time, and it is a very sad and upsetting time. Doctors usually heavily sedate now using compassionate care. It’s a good meditation to know. Especially if both the person dying, and the person accompanying them so they aren’t alone, know it.

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This is a great sutta, but actually a different set of meditations!
Mettā

I don’t think so. I think it’s all about the formless meditations, and drawing the mind to cessation with particular relevance to the end of life.

It seems the term attha vimokha, and as a set of meditations, are not found in SN/SA? If so, the eight vimokkhas as a set of meditations are likely later development in early Buddhism, but not necessarily Brahmanical. This is because the development of the nine progressive states of mediation as a set of meditation system is found only in Buddhism, not in Brahmanism, e.g. the Vedana Samyutta of SN/SA:
Page 122 from The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism Choong Mun-keat 2000.pdf (73.2 KB)

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The formless meditations are of course found elsewhere and used similarly, but my point is specifically the 8 liberations, which include a unique method for entering the formless meditations and which seems to be a pre-Buddhist meditation development. That sutta mentions the repulsive/unrepulsive variations, and then entering jhānas, and then the formless—it’s the standard Buddhist meditative progress.

This list is specifically not the 9, it’s a separate list of meditative developments different from the standard Buddhist one, which is precisely part of my point.

The fact that it is not in the SN does not mean it must be later—this is not how dating of teachings works. In fact, it’s inclusion in the DN, MN, and AN puts it in 3 of the major nikāyas, and very often in a Brahmanical context. If the teaching were pre-Buddhist, it would not be very popular among Buddhists as they formed their own practices and identity (as opposed to recent converts using old adapted practices before Buddhism had such a distinct identity), and thus we would not expect to find it throughout the texts very much. Given the context and where the list is situated in relation to other meditative lists that are almost certainly pre-Buddhist (like kasinas and brahmavihāras connected to formless realms), it is almost certainly earlier, not later—but this is still merely speculation and we cannot be 100% certain.

The SN is comprised of almost all Buddhist texts, structured around the bodhipakkhiya dhammas, noble truths, and other ‘mainstream’ Buddhdist lists. The fact that the Buddha didn’t come up with the 8 vimokkha or teach them as a major Buddhist meditation series later on would easily exclude them from the SN texts, leaving them behind in the narrative and anecdotal suttas or the ones concerned with responding to other ascetics and brahmins.

Mettā

The Mahaprajnaparamita sastra has a nice section on them from a Sarvastivadin Abhidharmic and Mahayana POV.

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Do you know what these mean? an10.29

  1. Perceiving form internally, someone sees visions externally, limited, both pretty and ugly.
  2. Perceiving form internally, someone sees visions externally, limitless, both pretty and ugly.
  3. Not perceiving form internally, someone sees visions externally, limited, both pretty and ugly.

Is it corresponding with:

  1. Make the kasina object (a disk,…) and look at it.
  2. Imagine to expand the kasina when look at the physical object
  3. Close the eye and imagine the expanded kasina

Similarly, DN15

  1. Having physical form, they see visions. This is the first liberation.
  2. Not perceiving form internally, they see visions externally. This is the second liberation.
  3. They’re focused only on beauty. This is the third liberation.

Similar with 3 steps above, but step 3 focus on the beauty of the kasina object in the mind?

Thanks.

I don’t think so. The formless meditations are included in the eight liberations: beyond all form, beyond all infinite space, beyond all infinite consciousness, beyond nothingness. The formless world is definitely vedic. It doesn’t make sense, because the infinite isn’t a domain, it’s valueless and so can’t be entered into, but it can be visualized.

Nothingness is about the only one that rings true, and then its meaning has to be negotiated, so as not to fall into things like the vedic asat or nirrti.

The only difference I see in what you mentioned is that visualization is of some subject of desire as beautiful and visualization of some things as colours (which is definitely found in the Upanisads), which I think is related to localization/non-localization, i.e. visualization.

I’m not really clear on what you’re disagreeing with. I agree the formless realms are pre-Buddhist and Vedic; it’s one of the reasons we can point to the 8 liberations as being the same. All of what you’re saying, I agree with. But in the sutta you mentioned, the formless meditations are put into a Buddhist scheme—four jhānas, and then into the formless realms, and then into cessation. This is how these practices were brought over into Buddhism in a much more characteristically Buddhist way, despite still originating from contemplative Brahmanical praxis. The formless attainments appear everywhere all over the place in this exact schema, but they don’t appear in the formulation of the 8 liberations in the same way.

The 8 liberations have not been neatly re-ordered into a mainstream Buddhist schema; the list maintains a pre-Buddhist character that is much less orthodox and familiar to the now Buddhist identity of praxis, but which still fits into Buddhist practice so long as it is oriented towards cessation as the Buddha taught it. There’s only so many ways to become enlightened, especially in regards to the formless attainments, so the fact that this aspect is similar is no surprise; it’s simply the way it is done. What I’m pointing to though is the earlier formulation and list that is much more wholesale pre-Buddhist and seemingly a convert-friendly pedagogy.

That sutta also repeatedly mentions ānāpānassatisamādhi, which is a late term even within more orthodox Buddhist praxis. It’s a sign of editing / compilation in the sutta which further points to that formulation of meditative progression fitting into the already developed Buddhist scheme, not a presentation that has been adopted over (besides the underlying adoption of the formless attainments beforehand).

EDIT: I think I understand the miscommunication. I wasn’t saying the formless meditations were different, just that the list and ways t arriving to them is different in the 8 liberations as a whole, pointing to them maintaining a more explicitly Brahmanical identity as a practice sequence.

Hi @kaccayanagotta. So then I take it, yes, we both agree that the formless world is part of the eight liberations. Whether the list you have selected reflects something earlier than the sutta I have been looking at, if that’s what you think, then I don’t know. Breath is the very foundation of upanisadic contemplation on the absolute, there is no question ānāpānassatisamādhi predates Buddhism. As well, the internal evidence of the sutta indicates

Before my awakening—when I was still unawakened but intent on awakening—I too usually practiced this kind of meditation. And while I was usually practicing this kind of meditation neither my body nor my eyes became fatigued. And my mind was freed from defilements by not grasping.

That’s quite a redaction, suggesting the construction of internal coherence across several sutta. I’m not sure. Buddha was a yogi, he would have developed his own meditation based on his training, experience and own ends.

And here’s something else. Let’s suppose a fabulation.

One of Buddha’s disciples was the brahmin who prophesized that he would either be a … what was it, world-turning king, or sage. Maybe that’s a crazy story, but I have friends in Japan who still go to the soothsayer to get their child’s name and so forth, so people really do this. Obviously then, if Buddha good parents went and did the good thing, then Buddha would have been cultivated in these two vocations.

Now, when exactly the highest priest became the Brahma (as opposed to Hotr, in the main I suppose) I can’t give you a date, except to say before the turn of the millennium. But, at any rate, that Brahma was expected to know the three veda (which are familiar to the EBTs), and eventually, that Brahma took over the preserve of the Atharvaveda, which is an encyclopedia of medicine. There’s clean (pure) and unclean, and the brahmins maintain purity, so they would restrict themselves to the rites that make medicine efficacious.

The sutta I am looking at exhibits very precise “medical” information, and yet obviously isn’t involved in the magical stuff of the Atharvaveda. It’s dealing with something very different.

As well, there is a sutta, and I would have to find it, in which Buddha says, Ok the formless world, fine, but you need to be aware that you’re playing games with yourself.

I’m not going to draw these threads into a conclusion for you, because I am just looking at this stuff, but I think you can get the gist of what I am saying.

I don’t think this is unreasonable. The Upanisads show clear emergence of the kshatriya over the brahmins, to the point where they are teaching key doctrine to stupid students (brahmacarya) who were never taught by their father-sages (acarya). You have to realize that the brahmacarya lived an ascetic lifestyle until they became householders and lit their own fires.

In my study of scriptures. The difference is about the right understanding of how things appear to be in the world. The removel of speculations is important to letting go, and going deeper. You can attaint states and still attached to bliss etc

Most that time didnt know they can go deeper.
As our modern world, which thinks mindfulness is all. The currect time reflects the past in some ways.

If I’m understanding you correctly, you’re saying the Buddha is likely knowledgable, to some degree, of Brahmanism. And yes, that is part of this post and something I already assumed in writing it; this may be a shortcoming on my end. The Buddha was likely trained in an Upanisadic-esque circle of contemplative brahmins-become-ascetics, and this is likely where he would have pulled the Eight Liberations from, as well as the formless attainments, brahmavihāras, and other practices from (as well as certain terminology, theory, etc.).

As for more classical Vedic training or the Buddha being in a Brahmanical family, I think this is less likely and either way much less possible to know. The Buddha was not in a politically or socially brahmanized region, and his sub-region/homeland (Sakya) even less so. This isn’t to say there weren’t brahmins, but the caste structure and social hierarchy and whatnot was not at all fixed or conceived of in the same way as the Vedic heartland at this point in time.

As to your point about khattiyas in the Upanisads, Olivelle has discussed this and how it is likely a politically motivated presentation style that is not directly representative of reality; there were certain motivations and reasons that this would be helpful to include in the texts. That is not to say that khattiyas, women, and sramanas were not major contributors to contemplative Brahmanism, but one has to take caution in coming to conclusions based on the sheer text itself.

My point is that:

  • The term ānāpānasatisamādhi is demonstrably later when we look at the sutta from a philological perspective. I’m not saying that the concept itself is later.
  • The list in this sutta of meditations is a very established Buddhist formulaic listing. This is in contrast to the eight liberations which are a much less established or common list, a much poorer defined list, and a list much more associated with Brahmanism as far as internal evidence is concerned with the suttas.

I’m sure the Buddha practiced the jhānas and formless attainments before his awakening, as well as mindfulness of breathing (ānāpānasati). This is no surprise at all and part of what became universal Buddhist praxis. My claim, though, is that the Eight Liberations seem to be a practice more directly borrowed from Brahmanism (like the brahmavihāras or formless attainments) and less adopted into Buddhism as the religion gained its own identity; I think they likely were of most use for teaching early converts familiar with them from previous meditative traditions, and the other lists (like in the sutta you linked) were much more common for the average Buddhist. Moreover, I think the formula of 4 jhānas 4 formless attainments (+ cessation) is a Buddhist-specific list and thus later than the 8 liberations which I believe pre-date the Buddha. I think his psychological analysis of jhānic states was relatively unique for the time.

Mettā

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You do realize that I was the person who shared Kosalan Philosophy in the Kāṇva Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa and the Suttanipāta, right. And directed Ajahn Sujato to Stephen to help him connect with Lauren Bausch? I definitely read that paper before you did. And I’m very glad that you summarized it for everyone. Thank you.

The term ānāpānasatisamādhi is demonstrably later when we look at the sutta from a philological perspective. I’m not saying that the concept itself is later.

So what you are saying to me is that because the Ānāpānasati Sutta is a later addition, you think the term ānāpānasatisamādhi is late and that it has been inserted into the sutta that I am looking at, and so that indicates the sutta is also late, and highly redacted. And you are also saying to me that you think the eight liberations were practiced by brahmana, specifically one of Buddha’s teachers among, likely, many others, since possibly, or even likely, Buddha was born.

Thank you for sharing it, though my comment wasn’t necessarily in regards to that paper. I think if anything Lauren Bausch would tend to attribute more education in Vedic Brahmanism to the Buddha than I feel comfortable with. I personally think he was much more knowledgable about contemplative and fringe (pre)Upanisadic ideas from the Brahmanas than he was everyday Brahmanism—and we even see him asking householder brahmins about holidays and rituals every now and then as though he did not know them personally.

I’m sure the Buddha knew about mainstream Brahmanical ideas as is obvious from the suttas, but I don’t think he was particularly educated in the everyday brahmin lifestyle, personally, or I at least think we have much less evidence to point to that.

It could be that you are intentionally misinterpreting. That’s OK. We’ll leave off with conversation, and maybe some other time we can find better understanding and less combativeness.

No, I think there was just a miscommunication here. I’m referring specifically to the compound ānāpānasatisamādhi, not the term ānāpānasati nor the concept of samādhi. What I’m saying is that the compound of these is not attested and there is a clear explanation for its inclusion in this sutta—it consistently appears from a starting point through to the end of the chapter and appears to be some kind of redactor’s or compiler’s edit due to a misunderstanding of one of the preceding suttas. Bhikkhu Anālayo discussed this in his book on the development of Early Buddhist meditation IIRC, but I’m not 100% of the reference. I can dig around for it and re-edit it in if I find it though.

And this yes I am hypothesizing seems rather likely for the reasons in my post. Of course we can’t be 100% certain but it seems highly plausible to me. Everything else I’m not saying is later or invalid, I just was not addressing it specifically and was focused on the pre-Buddhist origins of this list I saw.

I’m sorry that you feel this way. I can assure you I’m not intentionally misinterpreting nor am I trying to be combative. I feel that there have been some miscommunication errors, probably due to the platform/internet as a medium, and I honestly was quite confused by some of your comment and was trying my best to respond based on what I understood. You said that you weren’t going to explicitly state what you were thinking, so I tried to draw out the meaning to be able to respond and understand further. Your remark on reading the paper first seemed aggressive to me to be honest, and so I’m assuming we have misinterpreted one another.

Mettā

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