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

I think, 4 formless attainments is a fourth jhana itself. They has all factors of fourth jhana, namely - onepointedness of mind, nor-pain-nor-pleasure feeling, but an object is changed to a formless things - space, consciousness, nothing, feeble perception.

Formless stait is’nt seperate level of a jhana(there is not 5th jhana) because an object doesn’t determine level of a jhana, but a factors does. One rupa object could give fuel for every of the four jhanas - that mean that object doesn’t determine it.

1 Like

In the book Compassion and Emptiness Anālayo gives the opinion that perception/ nonperception slipped into that text later during the transmission process and wasn’t there at all originally.

Just to note that Bhante @Sujato has just been teaching a course on the Pārāyanavagga, where the Brahmins question the Buddha about how to progress. As Bhante says, the Buddha does not tell them to give up the formless attainments that they have been practising and do something else, but gives advice on how to use those attainments to progress.


It is strange that after attaining the formless states under his former teachers, saying their practice does not lead to enlightenment, some years later the Buddha-to-be instead recalled the first jhana he attained long before that, and then realized that is the path to enlightenment. And then he asked himself: why do I fear that pleasure of jhana?

If he had really attained the formless states, which you can only reach by going through the jhanas, then why did he still fear the jhanas? And why does he declare jhana as the path to enlightenment, but the formless states apparently weren’t? I don’t have an answer to these questions other than to say something in the texts, whatever it is, seems historically inaccurate. I do appreciate Wynne’s attempt to argue these formless are later additions (I think in 'The Origin of Buddhist Meditation), but as Ven. Sujato said, they are just too central to the suttas to be rejected as such.

Other than that, although it is said in a sutta or two that the first jhana can lead to full awakening, perhaps these suttas are inaccurate. It would make sense that the fourth jhana is required for awakening because at that point the sukha (bliss/happiness existing in the mind) is abandoned. If the mind can let go of that, then perhaps it is ready to let go of everything. Also, the fourth jhana is the purification of mindfulness and equanimity, and it does make some sense that you would need that for full enlightenment. If you actually need that fourth jhana, it may explain why the noble eightfold path (and samma samadhi) stops at the fourth jhana and does not include the formless. The fact that the Buddha seems to have needed it is quite telling as well. If enlightenment could be achieved through the first jhana, then why didn’t the greatest meditator of all just do that?

Although perhaps just abandoning the hindrances is good enough.


Your whole puzzlement is based on this, and this appears to be a pretty big assumption. How well supported is it by the texts? other than the fact that it’s always presented in that manner. Sure, in their final, polished, Buddhist version, that’s the paradigm. But aren’t we kind of acknowledging that all those chains (4 jhanas + some combination of formlessnesses and cessation) are probably later in origin? Did pre-Buddhist formless meditators enter them through jhana? If not, then that means jhana isn’t necessary. If so, then the question becomes, “How, then, do we define jhana?” Lots of questions; not necessarily a lot of answers.

I think the idea of attaining nibbana directly from the first jhana (presumably, by reflecting on the impermanence of its constituents) is a part of the movement towards non-jhanic, panna-vimutti and the general devaluation of Samantha practices altogether–a movement which begins in the suttas (despite the contemporary exaltation of those same practices by other suttas) and eventually swept up almost every Buddhist school, including the Mahayana.

I say this to say that you can be completely right in saying that the fourth jhana is necessary for all the reasons you listed, while elsewhere there’re paths to nibbana stemming from the first jhana, any subsequent jhana or attainment, or even a sub-jhanic level of concentration. The Buddha’s consistency doesn’t imply the texts’ consistency.


It really isn’t. I already explained this in my first answer in this thread, and have spoken on this many times over the years. You mischaracterize the texts, as is done by almost every commentator on this point. They don’t reject the practice of formless attainments, but the system as a whole including theory and practice.

When he first studied under these teachers, the text is careful to say that Alara Kalama spoke of the efficacy of “this teaching” (ayaṁ dhammo). The bodhisatta then began his path by memorizing “that teaching” (taṁ dhammaṁ pariyāpuṇiṁ). He then thought that Alara Kalama didn’t speak from mere faith about “this teaching” (imaṁ dhammaṁ), but has realized “this teaching” (imaṁ dhammaṁ) in his meditation. And when he left, he did so by saying “this teaching is inadequate” (taṁ dhammaṁ analaṅkaritvā).

This is not a game of “what attainment do I have to get”. It is a story of how a person’s spiritual path is shaped by the preconceptions of their philosophy. The narrative drama is not, “Boy, those meditations were a waste of time.” Rather, it is, “Even the very highest and most refined of meditation states will not bring you freedom if you have wrong view.”

Stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. What happens at the end is shaped by what happens at the beginning. That’s how narratives work; it is the reason why we tell a narrative. Any story-teller knows this, and in the very first detail plants the seed for all that follows. So when the story begins by emphasizing the memorizing of text-based philosophy, it means that this detail is crucial to understand everything that follows. This is why these events are told in narrative form.

Any account that does not consider the narrative form should be rejected out of hand. It’s like someone who reads a cake recipe, then puts all the ingredients in a heap :butter: :egg: :milk_glass: and expects to get a cake. :birthday: There’s a process that has to be followed.

This is why, when it came time for the Buddha to formulate his own conception of the path, he put right view at the beginning. Without it, nothing leads to liberation. He himself had started his meditation practice under these teachers by learning wrong view. That was the problem. And that is also why, through the suttas, the Buddha does not criticize the meditation attainments of other yogis—take for example the Parayanavagga, where he is more than happy to support a group of brahmins to continue to practice the dimension of nothingness—but relentless rejected their theories, primarily of course the atman.

Yet pretty much everyone who talks about this event simply ignores all this and proceeds as if the Buddha had said, “under my former teachers I practiced formless attainments and they didn’t lead to enlightenment”. I mean, all due respect, but go back and look at this thread: not a single person considers the narrative context at all, even after I repeatedly drew attention to it. :person_shrugging:

His problem was not with the meditations, which he adopted into his teaching, but with the philosophy, which he rejected. And that is the crucial point of difference from his experience as a child. He was a child, he had no theory.

My previous discussion here.

This is a prime example of the problem of engineering vs story-telling:


I believe Buddha realised those meditative states of his teachers were only temporary states, conditioned, subject to arising and ceasing, volitionally produced. I think the Buddha did not search for something like that which is again not stable, inconstant, not reliable, produced, and so cannot function as a real refuge. Is that the narrative you refer to?

But i also ( like @Sunyo) do not see exactly why the memory of first jhana during childhood became such an important moment. Maybe because he realised that he could be happy here and now and use jhana as basis for developing insight? Does it in fact say that Buddha was unable to feel pleasure and meditate and develop insight without jhana?

Because it was the moment he realized that the key wasn’t pleasure/pain, but wholesome/unwholesome. Like many other ascetics, he had previously believed that all pleasure was bad, because sensual pleasures are bound up with unwholesome mind states.

But when he remembered his experience of the first jhana, he realized that it was a pleasure that was not connected with any unwholesome mind states, like greed and lust. So he realized that pleasure that doesn’t increase unwholesome states, pleasure that leads toward nibbana, should be pursued.

I considered: ‘I recall that when my father the Sakyan was occupied, while I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, I entered upon and abided in the first jhāna, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of seclusion. Could that be the path to enlightenment?’ Then, following on that memory, came the realisation: ‘That is indeed the path to enlightenment.’

I thought: ‘Why am I afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensual pleasures and unwholesome states?’ I thought: ‘I am not afraid of that pleasure since it has nothing to do with sensual pleasures and unwholesome states.’


That’s not a narrative, it’s a realization. The narrative is the story of the Bodhisatta’s spiritual quest, starting with leaving home, but especially the episodes under Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta.

Buddhist concepts enter mainstream culture:

The Book of Form and Emptiness

Ruth Ozeki

“Themes of love, family, grief, substance abuse and mental health are touched upon with great compassion by the author. As the narrative progresses, the author paints a compelling portrait of how our interpersonal relationships are impacted by the importance we give to material belongings and the clutter we allow in our lives. Our inability to comprehend the “impermanence of form, and the empty nature of all things” often costs us our human connections.”—good reads

whispers (Buddhism has been mainstream for 2500 years …)


At least since Ashoka!

But, I do agree with Ajahn Geoff that there’s something perennially counter-cultural about reclusion.

Hi Bhante, thanks for your reply. :hugs:

Perhaps I mischaracterized the text in that way before, but I did consider your opinion, and when I said “their practice does not lead to enlightenment” I actually meant their whole system, the practice being whatever complete path they taught, not just the practice of the formless meditation. Sorry, I should have made that more clear. Because I agree, it is clear that if the Buddha did indeed attain the formless attainments under his teachers, as the text do say, he did not reject these states per se. He taught them many times. So then he must have rejected something else.

But that still leaves me with questions. If it was just their theory which was wrong, why did the Buddha not realize before his awakening, “Ah, right view (or vipassana or whatever) is the path!” Instead he specifically said he now realized jhana is the path to awakening. (MN36) If what was new to his approach was not the samādhi but the view, this statement to me is just out of place. The way I read it, it also feels very much like the jhana was contrary to whatever else he had tried during his quest, including whatever he did under Alama Kalama and Ramaputta.

To me it also doesn’t answer why he recalled the jhana of his earlier days, not the meditation under his former two teachers. I can’t agree with your assessment in the other thread: that what was different about his earlier attainment of jhana was that it wasn’t couched in theory. Because we’re never told this anywhere, nor are we told what theory Alara Kalama or Ramaputta would have taught, only that they taught the formless attainments. Again, if the theory is what made the difference, why did the Buddha not focus on that? Both the former-teachers story and his account of how he did discover enlightenment seem to focus on samadhi, not view. His recollection while his father was working also states nothing beyond the standard jhana formula. And if right view was made all the difference, when sitting under the Jambu tree he apparently had no right view either, so that’s doesn’t seem to be the point. (PS: For those interested, in the sutta it never says he was a child at the time. I think that’s from the commentaries.)

And it also doesn’t answer why, if he indeed was so proficient in the formless attainments to the extent he was asked to lead his former teachers’ followings, he still feared the jhanas later.

In the other thread you say:

If it’s a narrative detail, then perhaps in reality he didn’t actually attain these states. Let’s assume his former teachers were indeed brahmins. What if he just understood the theory? Because for brahmins theory or conceptual knowledge was generally deemed enough, as we tend see in the Upanishads (yo evaṃ veda). Then to me the story would make sense.

To perhaps support this a bit, the Buddha does not literally say that under his teachers, “I entered the state of nothingness”, or “I entered the state of neither-perception-or-non-perception.” He just said he realized that dhamma that his teachers declared. His conclusion that these dhammas only lead to rebirth in those states was made before his enlightenment, so could simply have been wrong. In other words, his teachers taught rebirth in such a state based on a certain theory, but it wasn’t really the case, and they didn’t really attain the real formless states.

To put another engineering theory out there. :smiley:



Eh, well, that’s how well it is supported in the texts… that it’s basically always presented in that manner!

Maybe. It would be interesting to list which suttas actually state this as a possibility and then see how explicit it is. It could just be editorial oversights rather than doctrinally motivated. It would have been very easy, for example, to accidentally insert a standard passage somewhere it doesn’t really belong or switch the order around—things like that are not at all uncommon in the suttas.

I know these suttas make such a statements:

  • MN52 and its parallels
  • AN9.36

On the other hand there are suttas like AN6.68 that say: “It is impossible that one who does not fulfill right concentration will abandon the fetters,” where fulfilling right samādhi seems to mean the fourth jhāna. Also the seven awakening factors culminate in equanimity, which is in is highest sense is usually reserved for the fourth jhāna. Or even just the definition of the path factors. Just like right action involves not killing, not stealing, and no sexual misconduct (or in SN45.8, no sex at all), and not just one of those, it seems like right samādhi must involve all four jhānas, not just the first.

But perhaps that’s all a bit off topic.

1 Like

There are a number of descriptions of the Buddha’s awakening. With, as Bhante Sujato said, different stories, i.e. emphasis on different aspects of what he was teaching.

In MN36 he was answering the question:

“Surely you must have had feelings so pleasant or so painful that they could occupy your mind?”

In MN26 the theme was:

“Bhikkhus, there are these two kinds of search: the noble search and the ignoble search. …"

In Snp4.15 he talks about the motivation for the search in quite a different way from MN26 or MN36.

I saw this population flounder,
like a fish in a little puddle.
Seeing them fight each other,
fear came upon me.

In SN12.65 the story of awakening revolves around dependent origination.

Then, through proper attention, I comprehended with wisdom:
‘When rebirth exists there’s old age and death. Rebirth is a condition for old age and death.’

It seems that story has the “vipassana” aspect.

Just speculation on my part, but, getting into the story-telling theme, this makes a much better story than “I realised that my teachers had it 90% right, but they were missing a bit of right view”. How pedestrian, how disappointingly derivative :rofl:. Much more impressive to use the story of childhood jhana, which emphasises “I discovered (rediscovered in SN12.65) the way myself, not because of my teachers.”

Furthermore, the formless attainments (and higher jhanas) are based on equanimity, leaving behind pleasure (as well as pain), so would not fit into the question addressed in MN36, which had to do with pleasure and pain.


The only real story is…i do not know really what happened.

I am not even sure he really looked for the end of rebirth. Yes, i know this is said in many sutta’s but it is also said in the very early texts he was in fear seeing the world and sought a home for himself, which i understand as a refuge , safety. Looking for a safe place. Just finding oneself again after one has becoming very anxious realising one is about to decay, become seriously ill and die.

I personally believe Buddha’s story is all about ending fear. Fear is the real disturbance.
Fear of life, fear of sickness, fear of change, fear of living, fear of pleasure, fear of fettering, fear of instability, fear of violence.

MN26 describes how the Bodhisattva visited Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta in search for the supreme state of sublime peace. My story is…the unconditioned…because only the unconditioned, i.e. that what is not seen arising and ceasing, can be a supreme state of sublime peace, certainly not some state that can cease. That’s why he was not satisfied with the peace of those sublime states of his teachers.

But during jhana he met a sublime peace and probably he understood that this peace is intrinsic to the nature of mind without defilements. Now he started to focus on removing defilment in a definitive sense and not only supressing them via jhana. That is the Path to the Unconditioned, the supreme state of sublime peace.

1 Like

Why do you separate fear and rebirth?
If no rebirth, then no further bhava and no fear can arise. How can there be fear if nothing is born?

Regarding the “unconditional” you write about, same thing. If there are no conditions then there can be no bhava, rebirth, fear, death, etc.

1 Like

Why not? Do people or other beings who do not have any clue of rebirth, do not fear change, fear decay, fear violence, fear death?
Most people have no clue about rebirth, at least in my part of the world, but fear is very present.

With respect, my response was not about folks who might not “have a clue about rebirth” but about the Buddha’s teachings on it and the importance of rebirth.

Rather than “fear” being the basis for the Buddha’s quest and teachings, as I understood your post to be about, the response offered was how there can’t be fear if there’s no birth or rebirth in the first place. :pray:

1 Like

I have a personal view that Āḷāra Kālāma & Uddaka Rāmaputta were annihilationists. There are subtle hints at this in the suttas. For example the suttas say that out of all the non-Buddhadhamma doctrines, annihilationism was the best

‘I would not be, neither would there be what is mine. I will not be, neither will there be what is mine.’

This view is said to be close to non-clinging and out of all of the speculative metaphysics doing the rounds at the time, this is said to be the foremost view:

(8) “Bhikkhus, of the speculative views held by outsiders, this is the foremost, namely: ‘I might not be and it might not be mine; I shall not be, and it will not be mine.’ For it can be expected that one who holds such a view will not be unrepelled by existence and will not be repelled by the cessation of existence. There are beings who hold such a view. But even for beings who hold such a view there is alteration; there is change. Seeing this thus, the instructed noble disciple becomes disenchanted with it; being disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate toward the foremost, not to speak of what is inferior.

AN 10.29: Paṭhamakosalasutta—Bhikkhu Bodhi (suttacentral.net)

We are then told elsewhere that upon his awakening the Buddha wanted to find Āḷāra Kālāma & Uddaka Rāmaputta, his former teachers, as they would easily grasp the Dhamma and awakening. Sadly, they had already died but the fact that he sought out Āḷāra Kālāma & Uddaka Rāmaputta first could perhaps be because they held the foremost view among the ascetics, namely the annihilationist doctrine. This would match the general character of the annihilationist doctrine, which is close to non-clinging, and would explain their use of the formless attainments. The suttas also associate the formless attainments with annihilationist views, as Venerable Anālayo points out

DN 1 at DN I 37,1 and its parallels DĀ 21 at T I 93b20, T 21 at T I 269c22, a Tibetan discourse parallel in Weller 1934: 58,3 (§191), a discourse quotation in the *Śāriputrābhidharma, T 1548 at T XXVIII 660b24, and a discourse quotation in D 4094 ju 152a4 or Q 5595 tu 175a8. The same versions also attribute the arising of annihilationist views to the immaterial attainments (for Sanskrit fragments corresponding to the section on annihilationism see also Hartmann 1989: 54 and SHT X 4189, Wille 2008: 307).

We see this again in MN 140, where it suggests that entry into the formless is to tend towards non-existence

“He understands thus: ‘If I were to direct this equanimity, so purified and bright, to the base of infinite space and to develop my mind accordingly, this would be conditioned. If I were to direct this equanimity, so purified and bright, to the base of infinite consciousness…to the base of nothingness…to the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception and to develop my mind accordingly, this would be conditioned.’ He does not form any condition or generate any volition tending towards either being or non-being. Since he does not form any condition or generate any volition tending towards either being or non-being, he does not cling to anything in this world. When he does not cling, he is not agitated. When he is not agitated, he personally attains Nibbāna. He understands thus: ‘Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being.’

MN 140: Dhātuvibhaṅgasutta—Bhikkhu Bodhi (suttacentral.net)

When we look at the parallels, the parallel to SN 47.31 even explicitly states that Uddaka Rāmaputta was an annihilationist:

"Uddaka Rāmaputta had this view and taught like this, “Existence is an illness, a tumour, a thorn. Those who advocate nonperception are foolish. Those who have realized [know]: this is tranquil, this is sublime, namely attaining the sphere of neither-perception-nor-nonperception.”

The Discourse on Uddaka [Rāmaputta] - MĀ 114

With all this in mind then, if the Buddha’s two teachers were practicing a form of annihilationism I think we get the following narrative from these texts. The Buddha-to-be, recognising the suffering inherent to existence, sought out a way to end “his” existence. However, after practicing with the foremost annihilationists of his time (Āḷāra Kālāma & Uddaka Rāmaputta) he came to realise that that Dhamma merely leads to another subtle form of existence, and so suffering would still be. Next then he attempts to master pain, as through mastering pain his mind will be untroubled and nibbāna obtained. Pain however is always pain. It cannot be anything else but pain. It can be tolerated, but mastering pain still does not bring about the total peace the Buddha-to-be is looking for. Next then he tries the Jhāna which, interestingly, are associated with the eternalists. With being, rather than non-being. Through this he finds refined states of mind which are peaceful, but even these lofty states are impermanent. They cannot be maintained, and so are still subject to dukkha. Finally then, upon realising the conditionality of all of these states he lets go. When the narrative then tells us, with these assumptions, is that the Buddha first sought out non-being. He then tried asceticism and forceful control of the mind. Finally he then tried blissful states of being. Finding all three to be unsatisfactory (non-being, being and asceticsm) he finally let go and found true peace which doesn’t depend on any conditions, namely nibbāna.

Now with all this, what was wrong with the formless attainments isn’t so much the attainments themselves. It’s as Bhante said, the view and so the clinging to these attainments. As such, for those who incline towards them, they can also be a basis for liberation if viewed correctly. One can understand that there never really is someone there who suffers to begin with, and so following the dimming and annihilation of the mind (via Nothingness and Neither perception-nor non-perception) merely creates more of the same suffering one was trying to escape from to begin with. Āḷāra Kālāma & Uddaka Rāmaputta then were so close to nibbāna. It was merely their subtle clinging to conditioned attainments, because of the view that “they” were real and so suffered, which held them back.