"The formless attainments are not included in the earliest teachings..."

Bhante @sujato , this is a break-off from the thread on Early B vs. Theravada based on some peripheral comments which were made in passing regarding the four formlessness attainments.

You said…

It’s not at all a thick question, and there are indeed those who would argue that the formless attainments are not included in the earliest teachings. To be clear, they are found, very widely, in the EBTs, and I disagree with the arguments that they are a later addition. Still, there is no doubt that the four jhanas are the central aspect of samadhi in the EBTs.

Might we discuss this a bit further? I’d like to hear your thoughts on the evidence and why it has brought you to these conclusions and the others to theirs. I am in school and the four formless attainments are a central part of my dissertation. Unfortunately, most of what scholars (perhaps mirroring the tradition) write about them is quite dismissive. I propound the “How … bested/worsted …” arguments perhaps more radically and vehemently than either yourself or Prof. Gombrich. Nevertheless, I would love to hear your (surely better informed and possibly more sober-minded) opinion on the matter.

(To all list members: although I have addressed Bhante specifically, I invite any and all textually-supported and/or scholarly offerings.)


Well, I don’t have a lot of details at hand, but I have heard arguments to the effect that:

  • the arupas were taught by the Buddha’s former teachers, so they’re not really Buddhist.
    • (Others argue that what they former teachers were teaching were not really arupas. Which is equally implausible.)
  • the arupas are not in right samadhi (and the five faculties, etc.)

As to the first argument, the former teachers first taught faith, energy, mindfulness, samādhi, and wisdom. So are we to argue that none of these are Buddhist either?

Obviously the Buddha respected his former teachers, and was quite happy to draw upon their ideas and practices. He rejected them, not because he had a problem with the practice, but for the reason stated quite explicitly in the text: because that “dhamma” (i.e. the teaching or system as a whole) leads only to rebirth in the formless realms, not to the ending of rebirth.

‘This teaching doesn’t lead to disillusionment, dispassion, cessation, peace, insight, awakening, and extinguishment. It only leads as far as rebirth in the dimension of nothingness.’
‘nāyaṁ dhammo nibbidāya na virāgāya na nirodhāya na upasamāya na abhiññāya na sambodhāya na nibbānāya saṁvattati, yāvadeva ākiñcaññā­yata­nū­pa­patti­yā­’­ti­.

As to the second argument, this is the problem I identified in my “Early Buddhism and Theravada” article of thinking of the path as 2-do list that you have to check off, rather than a spiritual journey that one undertakes.

Any particular teaching is merely a summary, which identifies a few key points. But the path itself is rich and complex, and can’t be fully captured even in the canon as a whole, much less in any one formula.

There are countless things that are taught throughout the suttas, yet which are not found in the bare lists of the eightfold path and other key doctrines. The Buddha, like any teacher, had to find a balance between clarity and comprehensiveness.

Some things may be necessary for some people and not others. Some things may apply in certain life circumstances and not others. Some might not be really necessary, but still helpful. And so on.

Clearly, the arupas are not felt to be a central requirement of the path like jhāna. Yet they are still taught very often, and in many contexts. And where they are taught they are firmly placed within the context of progress on the path, not as something extraneous or dubious.

I’m looking for a little nuance here!

Anyway, there may be other arguments in this space, but this is what I’ve got right now.


Textually speaking, I would say the strongest argument for the arupa samadhis being “later” would be their inclusion in the nine samadhis that we see well developed in Abhidharma and the Dirgha Agama. It’s not that it doesn’t appear to belong in Buddhist doctrine, but Buddhist doctrine may have been developed to include it. It seems to be related to the seven abodes of consciousness and nine abodes of sentient beings to me, in that the nine samadhis represent a progressive movement through the form and formless heavens, which then are transcended by the ninth samadhi of cessation.

I’m more agnostic that skeptical about what predated existing canons, so I assume the arupa samadhis pre-existed the Buddha if we take the simplest stories of his time as a bodhisattva at face value. They seems parallel to the illimitables as meditative practices of non-Buddhists in those stories.

The inclusion of these practices in later EBTs and Abhidharma may have also been part of a larger pattern of embracing all sorts of ways to describe samadhi practices in Abhidharma (which in turn exploded without much constraint in early Mahayana texts). Outside of the Theravada Abhidhamma, the Sarvastivadins and Dharmaguptakas wrote chapters on samadhi topics separate from their discussions of dhyana. See for example the chapters on the arupa samadhis and other samadhi topics in the Sarvastivadin’s Dharmaskandha (T1537.488b22 ff) and in the Dharmaguptaka’s Sariputra Abhidharma (T1548.701b7 ff). The dhyanas do look like they were there first in the Sariputra Abhidharma, being embedded in a list of core path topics. The samadhi chapter is tacked onto the end of the entire collection like an addendum.


What I can see is that the later traditions tend to dismiss the 4 formless attainments, whereas, in the suttas, it’s very clearly taught. Just search for the terms: base of nothingness, so many suttas integrate them seamlessly.

What I heard from my teacher is that the formless attainments don’t have wisdom, the 4 form jhanas has wisdom. I asked where is it from, he said Abhidhamma. (might be also from Sarvastivada Abhidhamma.)

However, the Buddha did mention the basis for insight includes up to the base of nothingness.

SuttaCentral AN11.982

SuttaCentral SN46.54 Brahmaviharas, leading to ever higher formless states, up to equanimity leading to base of nothingness.

SuttaCentral AN9.31 letting go step by step into the cessation of perception and feelings goes through the 4 formless jhanas.

Might be that this line:

“Well, knowing and seeing thus, do you have direct meditative experience of the peaceful liberations that are formless, transcending form?”

“No, reverend.”

which is asked by Susima to the arahants shows that the formless attainments are optional, so the later traditions might discourage such practices. From SN12.70 SuttaCentral


fascinating, i had not seen the connecting of the brahmaviharas to the aruppas before (or if i did i had forgotten) It does make me think couldn’t all three systems be related in a similar way? the jhanas being a fourfold attainment from the perspective of the body progressing through conditioned cessations while the viharas are the same form a more emotional perspective, and the arupas the same again from a more cognitive perspective?

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Thank you for all the wonderful responses!

Very nice point! Hidden in plain sight!

Here’s “a little nuance,” Bhante…

I always cringe at the word “reject” in this context (and it’s thrown around a rather lot) because he didn’t reject them outright: he actually preserved them.

Rather, we should say he rejected them as… what?

We cannot say, " He rejected them as leading to liberation," because of course they lead to liberation; if they didn’t, they couldn’t be part of the nine samadhi scheme, as it does end in liberation. I am not desirous to argue about the translation of saṁvattati, but simply to point out that this is truly a situation where ignoring the nuances–which is what I think many scholars are doing–can be problematic. They were not rejected, and they do lead to liberation. That is the meaning, I think, of the qualifications pariyayena and nippariyayena: nuance


Am I the only one who finds it odd that all the pre-Buddhist, “heterodox” meditative practices (which the Buddha nevertheless adopted, adapted, and promulgated despite the fact that they presumably continued to be shared with those same “heterodox” schools) are the ones which tradition tells us do not liberate and are fairly useless.

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If I’m not mistaken, Bronkhorst in Two Traditions of Meditation in Ancient India argues that the four arupayatanas and cessation of perception and feeling are assimilated from Jains and other sramana tradition…


Incidentally, @dougsmith posted a video on the corresponding topic, a few hours ago.


I find it noteworthy at least. It shows a certain sentiment in parts of the Buddhist community, namely: Buddha = good, non-Buddha = bad.

If for example Jains had access to the first Jhana before the Buddha, that would yuck the yumm a bit, wouldn’t it?

Or I showed for example how much the Buddha took over the notion of his monasticism, i.e. brahmacarya, from the Vedic tradition, including going on alms food, probably also the sleeping routine. That also doesn’t feel right, and the orthodox reflex responds with “but he made it better”.


The book is available free in PDF here.

The preface gives an excellent summary of his conclusions. I read this book awhile ago, but had forgotten this part. He seems most certain with regard to these states:

Returning to the Stage of Nothingness and the Stage of neither Ideation nor Non-Ideation, it will hardly be necessary to add that in my opinion they comply with the criterion of foreign intrusion into the Buddhist texts formulated above.

but does eventually say all four probably were brought in later.


To facilitate the comparison of the different progressions of samadhi in the canon, I have put together the table below. There may be more, but this is what I found. I did not see where ideation ceases.

MN119 AN10.72 AN9.31 DN9
vitakki and vicara present vitakki and vicara present vitakki and vicara present vitakki and vicara present
vitakki and vicara absent vitakki and vicara absent vitakki and vicara absent vitakki and vicara absent
rapture absent rapture absent rapture absent rapture absent
(see below) breathing absent breathing absent pleasure and pain absent
x (see below) perception of form absent perception of form absent
x x perception of the dimension of infinite space absent perception of the dimension of infinite space absent
x x perception of the dimension of infinite consciousness absent perception of the dimension of infinite consciousness absent
x x perception of the dimension of nothingness absent perception of the dimension of nothingness absent
pleasure and pain absent perception and feelings absent perception and feeling absent perception absent (note the absence of feeling here and the mention of pleasure and pain being absent above. When does neutral feeling cease? )

I wonder if having converts from other traditions who practiced other types of meditation lead to some political compromises. Initially, it would have made traditionalists happier to deprecate the techniques brought in by non-Buddhist converts. We see those issues being addressed in DN/DA in several sutras, such as when non-Buddhists convert and are told they’ll be subjected a probationary period.

I also think there’s a subtle point in Buddhist sutras that goes over modern people’s heads. We don’t think of meditation as a way of winning birth in a heaven or to create the same experience that gods in heaven have while in an earthly body. But this seems to have been a common belief that Buddhists encountered and tried to argue against as an ultimate goal of religious practice. There are a few sutras that make these arguments regarding dhyana practice, not just these other techniques, but it’s when a practitioner is trying to get into heaven or have an experience of the heavens. Buddhists considered that just more craving and karmic existence. An example I remember ATM is SA 484, in which Ananda questions a monk and is disappointed when the monk thinks the form realm is the highest goal.


What, like “mindfulness”, “samādhi”, and “wisdom”, which the very same narrative tells us were practiced among the same teachers as the formless attainments?

In this respect, the arupas are not dissimilar to the psychic powers. Popular and fun; useful maybe; essential, probably not. But definitely a motivation for lots of people, ancient and modern.


I think I have to disagree with both of you here. I do see deep samadhi meditation as a way to a transformative experience that will lead to a healthier way to live with suffering in the world and especially, a healthier way to look at our own mortality. When the Buddha says

SN 2.26
The end of the world can never
be reached by traveling.
But without reaching the end of the world,
there’s no release from suffering.
So a clever person, understanding the world,
has completed the spiritual journey, and gone to the end of the world.
A peaceful one, knowing the end of the world,
does not long for this world or the next.”

I think he is saying just that.


One of the crucial things, in my opinion, is that meditation attainments do not stand in isolation. It is when combined with Right View that they lead to Liberation. In regards to the formless Jhanas, I think it is easy to see where people draw ‘wrong’ inferences from the experience - eg the experience of Infinite consciousness - being ‘interpreted’ as a range of things based on existing views. It is only with Right View and as part of the overall practice that specific things relating to Liberation are understood. The early teachers of the Buddha, did not have Right View, and as such the meditative experiences as they taught them, would not lead to Deliverance.

So just like Bhante @sujato said, it is like the psychic powers, in that ‘of themselves’ they do nothing to lead to Liberation, but with Right Understanding, they are instructive demonstrations of how Mind works and can lead to greater wisdom and confidence.

For example, if one experiences neither perception nor non-perception, and has Right View - then ones confidence must increase - it enables a better appreciation of cessation. Then if one goes even beyond that, to experience Cessation itself, then ones confidence must become unshakeable - it has become a REALITY to be experienced, not just a possible/likely theory. There is no going backwards from this - so yes it can lead to Liberation… but not without Right View.

As with all things in the Buddha Dhamma it is dependent on conditions


Let me clarify. My expectation is that deep samadhi will lead to a transformative experience that will lead to direct knowledge of right view as opposed to conceptual knowledge of it.

Note: I said deep samadhi, not any particular level. Whatever level the Buddha had in mind when he said it. We’ll find out when we get there. In addition to the first seven steps in the path, I try to train to take the elevator of samadhi down far enough to get there. I am not so much interested in the levels debate as much as I am in “reaching the end of the world.”

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Yes, but I think the tendency is to make too much of this point while, conversely, you rarely hear, for example, that “Right Understanding” or “Right View" “of themselves” don’t lead to Liberation either. In fact, I don’t know of anything that liberates in isolation; however, this is only really ever emphasized when discussing samatha practices, or I should say, “practices popularly associated with samatha” (and consequently devalued accordingly).

The fact is that, for Liberation, meditative practices (broadly defined) are just as important to Liberation as wisdom exercises. And we hear it reinforced all the time that the formlessnesses (or even whatever level of jhana) are not necessary. Yet no one says, “Watching the rise and fall of the aggregates is not indispensable to Liberation, you know.”

So, again, @Viveka , what you said was absolutely correct, but so is what I said. I am just remarking about how much our discourse is still shaped by biases against devotion to meditation.

Had a good laugh over that - thank you :smile: I think there is another reason for this as well, given that in our current society intellectual understanding is so highly valued, that people could actually believe that Right view/understanding alone can lead to Liberation :smile:

I don’t think the problem is that too much is made of the point that right view is a necessary co-component for meditative attainments to lead to Liberation - but that the necessity and interdependence of all the factors on the Path is often underplayed, dismissed or ignored. Many under-estimate the Sila factors for example - they are indispensable, just like mindfulness and samadhi are each indispensable - The Buddha himself states that there are no superfluous factors! They all work together - and form the basis for causality - Dependently Arising conditions for successfully moving along the path.

With regard to the role of the Arupas specifically, I still stand by my above answer - They can lead to Liberation - but not in isolation - it’s dependent :smiley:

with much metta and best wishes for your studies.


Thanks for your response, @Viveka . I am going to reply to your points not in the interest of quibbling, but because I feel the point I’m making is one which is generally overlooked. Also, it’s a very subtle one, and I wonder if it was understood.

Of course. Picture someone saying, “Well, yes, right view is good and all, but it won’t liberate you on it’s own; and becoming too attached to your right view could lead you away from the path/goal.” It is indeed laughable.

But we often see people saying the same thing in a knee jerk reaction whenever certain meditation practices are mentioned. It’s like saying someone “happens to be” Black, or saying so-an-so’s gay, “and I am fine with that.” There’s a nervousness about it, in my opinion: it seems furtive. (And, like the examples I gave, painfully PC!)

Yes! And I wouldn’t limit such a characterization to contemporary times. I think this has been a trend humanity has been following for several thousand years now. (Anyone here into Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary? He builds off Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind.) In fact, I view Buddhist history as an ebb-and-flow between intellection and a reaction to it because, yeah, traditionally, wisdom was thought to be the primary or even sole vehicle for most of Buddhist history on every continent on which it has existed.

Neither do I. I think the problem is that too much is made of (so-called) samatha practices being insufficient when, the truth is, it’s all insufficient. Really, though, how often is wisdom–not some specific brand of wisdom, but general, unqualified wisdom–spoken of as something negligible or, even worse, to be leery of? But, with meditation, we accept this narrative as a matter of course–even if we push back, we don’t question the hierarchy.

Yes, thank you for mentioning this. I used to think of the three trainings as primarily temporally sequential; I now no longer do. Now I see them as dependently originating concurrently.

So do I. It’s correct. I’m questioning why we feel the need to say it when we don’t feel the need to similarly qualify any other practice that I can think of.

Again, to use the dynamics of group discrimination as an model (because I do feel there is traditional prejudice, discrimination and bias here), If every time we mentioned a particular group, we accompanied our discourse with remarks about pressures they’re facing, disadvantages they have, and so on; while, when mentioning another group, we mentioned none of those social ills even though they were affected by them just the same, one sure result is that, in public discourse, the former group will always be less than while the latter will be above reproach.

This is the state of affairs, as I see it, in both academic as well as traditional Buddhism, with regard to wisdom and meditation.

Just to be pedantic here - this is one of the problems, one needs to relinquish/suspend ones own views and adopt the Buddhas Right View to start with. Then over time, through practice, as one begins the transformation, one begins to see things as the Buddha saw them and that is where the deeper knowledge comes in to confirm the RV of the 4 Noble Truths.

Yes, I’m not quite sure what you are getting at, especially in this post :slight_smile:

Well I certainly don’t feel the need to say it, do you? :smile: So who are the people who are saying it? Practitioners? Academics? Noble Ones? Choose who to pay attention to, depending on what your aims are :slight_smile:

If coming from a practitioner perspective, the Buddha made it very clear that one should associate with the wise (having RV) and not the foolish (those with wrong view) as per the Dhamma. There is wrong view all over the place in our daily lives. Tune it out :slight_smile: It is part of wise attention and discrimination of what will lead to good states and progress and what will lead to the opposite, and making choices appropriately. Of course, this is the advice if one is a practitioner… but there are many reasons why people engage with the Buddhist texts. - but in the end, I’m a firm believer, that one will not really be able to ‘convince’ someone who is determined to follow their own view by engaging in intellectual arguments or arguing philosophy … I’m thinking of the Brahmajala sutta here … you could literally argue forever with all those views … The nature of the Dhamma is practice based - it must be experienced, it provides a mechanism by which we can by-pass the proliferating mind and get a look behind the scenes :smiley: Which then demonstrates just how unreliable and unsatisfactory it is :smiley:

Way enough from me on this. Good luck and best wishes, and hopefully others will have more to contribute that you’ll find useful :slight_smile: :pray:

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