The Four Foundations versus the First Jhana, an argument for the relative lateness of SN

The Pali phrase

diṭṭhadhammikañca vajjaṃ samparāyikañca vajjaṃ
(The fault apparent in the present life, and the fault to do with lives to come.)

Occurs once in the entire Sutta/Vinaya Pitakas. (at AN2.1)

Whereas the phrase

paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ
(the first jhana)

Occurs 268 times. ( for e.g at DN2)

It can reasonably said from this fact that for the Buddhists of the Pali Canon the first jhana was a more important concept than the faults apparent in this life and the next.

How about we compare something else to the first jhana? What about the four foundations of mindfulness?

paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ V 46 D 24 M 52 S 24 A 61 T 268
cattāro satipaṭṭhānā V 3 D 10 M 11 S 48 A 18 T 92

So in the entire Sutta/VInaya Pitaka first jhana is mentioned almost 3 times as often as the four foundations of mindfulness.

Lets try one more thing and remove the Samyutta from the equation.

Now we have

paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ V 46 D 24 M 52 A 61 T 244
cattāro satipaṭṭhānā V 3 D 10 M 11 A 18 T 44

So if we leave out the Samyutta, first jhana is mentioned more than 5 times more often than the four foundations of mindfulness.

The Samyutta is the only collection to mention cattāro satipaṭṭhānā more than paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ, actually doing so twice as often, in contrast to the other four collections where first jhana is always mentioned at least twice as often as the four foundations.

This strange clustering of the four foundations of mindfulness in the Samyutta however is even more striking than it seems, because if we remove the occurrences in the standard formula listing dhamma subjects known as the 37 factors of awakening, that is the phrase “cattāro satipaṭṭhānā, cattāro sammappadhānā, cattāro iddhipādā, pañcindriyāni, pañca balāni, satta bojjhaṅgā, ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo” then the Vinaya has no mention of cattāro satipaṭṭhānā at all. This is somewhat troubling, recall that the Vinaya mentions the first jhana 48 times.

3 of the 10 mentions of cattāro satipaṭṭhānā in D are also the 37 factors formula as are 2 of the 11 in M and 1 of the 18 in A.

Of the 48 mentions of cattāro satipaṭṭhānā in S none of them occur in the 37 factors formula.

Controlling for the 37 factors formula we have:

paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ V 46 D 24 M 52 A 61 T 244
cattāro satipaṭṭhānā V 0 D 7 M 9 A 17 T 33

paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ S 24
cattāro satipaṭṭhānā S 48

So if we disregard the list of 37 factors S mentions the four foundations of mindfulness twice as much as the first jhana, while D, M, S and V mention the first jhana more than 7 times as often as the four foundations.

I have also spent some time looking at “kāyānupassī viharati ātāpī sampajāno” (observing an aspect of the body) which we will call the aspect formula, which reveals no occurrences in V,

kāyānupassī viharati ātāpī sampajāno V 0 D 9 M 7 S 46 A 6
vitakkavicārānaṃ vūpasamā ajjhattaṃ V 1 D 8 M 32 S 15 A 13

Once again we see S mentioning the aspect formula more than twice as often as the rest of the Sutta/Vinaya combined.

In conclusion there is a noticeable divergence in the ratio of mentions of the first jhana and the four foundations between the Samyutta and the rest of the Vinaya and Sutta Pitaka.


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just as a summary for those interested; here is a rundown of first jhana in SN

Jhana in SN

6.15 mentioned in relation to the parinibbana.
16.10 and 16.11 are both mahakassapa boasting to ananda
28.1 is sariputta boasting to ananda
36.11 has;

For someone who has attained the first absorption, speech has stilled.
Paṭhamaṁ jhānaṁ samāpannassa vācā vūpasantā hoti.

this phrase is repeated nowhere else in the canon except in SN 36 using stilled, ceased, and other synonyms at 36.15 and 36.17

36.18 is given by Venerable Udāyī and contains the standard jhana formula

36.31 contrasts the spiritual rapture/pleasure experienced in the jhana with sensual raptures/pleasure of the 5 senses.

“sāmisā pīti” is mentioned nowhere else in the canon.

40.1 has moggallanna giving the standard formula
41.8 and 41.9 has citta doing the same

So 45.8 might be the first time the jhana is spoken by the buddha (discounting 36.31) and occurs in a standard vibangha expansion of right samadhi.

48.10 is another vibangha giving the right samadhi formula

48.40 gives the standard formula with another unique to SN modification

And where does that faculty of pain that’s arisen cease without anything left over?
Kattha cuppannaṁ dukkhindriyaṁ aparisesaṁ nirujjhati?

SN 53 is jhānasaṃyuttaṃ which simply repeats the standard formula in permutations

SN 54.8 gives

Now, a mendicant might wish:
Tasmātiha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu cepi ākaṅkheyya:
‘Quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful qualities, may I enter and remain in the first absorption, which has the rapture and bliss born of seclusion, while placing the mind and keeping it connected.’
‘vivicceva kāmehi vivicca akusalehi dhammehi savitakkaṁ savicāraṁ vivekajaṁ pītisukhaṁ paṭhamaṁ jhānaṁ upasampajja vihareyyan’ti,
So let them closely focus on this immersion due to mindfulness of breathing.
ayameva ānāpānassatisamādhi sādhukaṁ manasi kātabbo.

So as can be seen from above, the standard Jhana formula is mentioned rarely in SN, when it is mentioned it is most often mentioned by followers not the Buddha, and in several places where it is mentioned the language used around the standard formula is found nowhere else in the Sutta Pitaka or Vinaya.

Stay tuned for my analysis of Sattipathana in SN :slight_smile:

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These are indeed interesting observations. Another thing — I’ve long wondered why the Samyuttas on the Jhanas are so repetitive/formulaic/meh, as if they were an afterthought.

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I don’t understand why the first jhana and the jhana formula would be decisive here. The thing with formulas is that they might be old, but they can also be easily be inserted without much ‘cost’ to the text.

Why shouldn’t it count when jhana appears in SN 2.7, SN 2.11, SN 2.15, or in so many other suttas in the SN in non-formulas?

Another point: If jhanas are mentioned by followers, or when it says in SN 2.7: “The Buddha who discovered jhana”, couldn’t that be equally a hint that jhana is older than the conception of the text? If it was always the same follower, like Anuruddha for example, that would be suspicious. But references by different people seems more like a confirmation of an older source.

So I feel a solid argument which involves jhana needs to be based on stronger legs than the formula only

I mostly used the paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ and cattāro satipaṭṭhānā to make sure I was comparing apples with apples, i.e the standard formulas for very specific teachings, comparing jhana with sati would be impossible becuase sati occurs in dozens, maybe even hundreds of different contexts and jhana is also often mentioned in passing. using “paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ” always gives the formula, it is never used in any other context.

My argument is not that jhana where imported into SN, just that the focus on jhana has diminished in SN as compared to DN and MN (and even AN). whilst the focus on satipaṭṭhānā has increased compared to the others.

If anything my theory is that satipaṭṭhānā is imported back into MN and DN rather than Jhana being imported into SN.

Just one more; people often say that AN might be a more “lay follower” focused text than SN, and yet AN mentions the jhana formula, supposedly the very peak of the 8FP 61 times compared to SN 24 times. Why would a lay follower text mention a complex meditative formula 3 times as often as a text allegedly for “monastic specialists” of comparable size? Why does SN mention the fr foundations more than all of AN, DN and MN combined?

I have recently been reading some of Mun Keat-Choong’s explinations of Yin Shun’s arguments for the primacy of SN and at least one of those arguments seems to me to be actually strenghten the plausibility of my position; basically a part of the yogacarabumi gives a list of materials that are suggestive of the structure of SN. But if SN represents the phase of pre-sectarian Buddhism just before the Abhidhamma, that would make perfect sense; we start with a disorganized and ever growing collection of narratives in DN and MN, over time the collections grow into lengths where the doctrinal content becomes difficult for any one person top keep traack of, therefore a need is felt for a more systematic/thematic collection, and so the SN is born. Over time the SN then provides the matrix for the scholastic development of the Abhidhamlookma, then Abhidhamma influenced texts like the yogacarabumi look back to SN as their proximate ancestor.

This picture would explain the change of emphasis in SN from jhana to satipathana, as well as things like the prominence in SN of monks like koṭṭhika who do not feature in DN of MN.

this picture of the strata would basically be:


  1. the atthakavagga, parayanavagga and kagavisanasutta layer
  2. the sekkha patipada and the first parts of the patimokkha
  3. the start of DN and MN
  4. the start of AN
  5. SN
  6. the influence of SN on DN MN and AN
  7. the closing of SN DN MN and AN
  8. the start of Abhidhamma

SN is quite clearly arranged around the four noble truths and the eight fold noble path. This is itself an argument for the relative lateness of SN, as these two doctrines don’t rise to the point of dominant principles until at least after stages 1 and 2, and are at least not the only framework presented on equal footing in 3.


Oh, and one more thing, I think that it is just the formula for cattāro satipaṭṭhānā that is later than the jhana formula, that is that the one rose to prominence later than the other, I actually think that its pretty clear (as much as anything can said to be clear this far back) that in the atthakavagga/parayanavagga phase of development it is sati that is consistently advocated as the basic method of overcoming clinging, not jhana, which on my reading is mostly indicated as a common practice of deep meditative attainment both in Buddhism and in other communities.

The Jhana focused practice seems to me to rise to prominence in the next layer, especially in its role as part of the sekkha patipada formula, before sati makes it’s comeback in SN, restoring sati to pride of place.

I should also say that I think the formulas are probably often just as old as the atthakavagga/parayanavagga but that their wording became fixed later due to the verse forms constraints on terminological evolution.

Also I think it is not surprising that “popular” verse would form the earliest layer of “canon” - there where almost certainty trained monks teaching other monks memorized pieces of technical instruction already at the time of things like the atthakavagga and the sekkha patipada, but it makes sense that these would not be as quickly canonised as the more uplifting and easily recited, not to mentioned shared by laity and monastics alike, poetry.

So on this picture I take it as entirely possible that the Buddha taught the four foundations formula but that it entered the canon later than the jhana formula, I imagine that all sorts of things where like this, with many communities of monks passing down genuine teachings in memorized form that took time to find their way into “caononical” collections.

Anyway, I would mostly like to defend the need for this type of discussion/speculation/research against those who would like us to believe that there is not stratification in the Pali canon. I think that position is not tenable on the evidence, and it is therefore valuable to continue to explore this material on the assumption that it does in fact have a history, and that that history does extend past the lifetime of the Buddha.


I think it is important to remember the audience of each text. To me it seems the Atthakavagga/Parayanavagga is preached to already highly attained individuals, with ‘little dust in their eyes’, so we can assume that they were very familiair with (Arupa) Jhana. When the beings with more dust in their eyes start to join the community, it becomes necessary to start from square one, the gradual path.

Anyway, thank you @josephzizys for all your research and asking questions. :wink:

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Thanks Danny, you make a good point, however I think we need to be careful with arguments about the audience defining the text. Firstly we don’t really know who the audiences where, we have very little historical or physical evidence about the community outside of the texts themselves until many hundreds of years after the Buddha. Secondly there is a danger that the argument becomes circular- almost any feature of almost any of the texts can be explained by the appeal that the feature or lack of it was because of the “specific” audience it was directed to. Basically any presence or lack is then explained as an intentional act of the authors of the text so no arguments about evolution and change need to be accepted.

Lastly it’s sort of hard to imagine that the sages themselves where too much taken up with poetry- they surely where mostly out in the hills, sitting in Jhana and being unattached, so I suspect that the early poetry was always for a “popular” audience as well, meant to inspire the laity as much as instruct the trainee sage.

Quantifiable criteria have to be used with a lot of care, especially since it is trivial to multiply suttas via formula, or reduce them via abbreviation. And in addition, a naive search cannot discern mere lexical variations. In this case, for example, the gradual training includes the phrase satiṁ upaṭṭhapetvā, which is merely a verbal resolution of satipaṭṭhāna.

Having spent a lot of time over twenty-five years, memorizing and then translating the Aṭṭhakavagga, I believe it’s a mistake to use the Aṭṭhakavagga as the basis for a substantial revision of Buddhist teachings. Yes, it is early. But there’s no reason to suppose that it is any earlier or more authentic than the bulk of the prose suttas, and in fact, it clearly relies on the prose suttas to make sense.


Thank you for your reply Bhante! I would just note that my argument is definitly not for any substantial revision of the Buddhist teachings form my posited “atthakavagga layer” to my posited “SN as proto-abbhidhamma layer” rather that the language used to describe the teachings evolved and changed, as well as sometimes the emphasis. As I have said in other places, I think that not only the Theravada but a great deal of the Mahayana material as well shows a remarkable consistency of thought across a very long period of time and a very wide scope of geography.

My argument is very much more along the lines that we see evolution in things like the bare statement of “suffering arising ceasing the path” to “the truth of suffering the truth of arising the truth of cessation the truth of the path” to “the noble truth of suffering…” This to my way of thinking makes no substantive difference to the doctrinal content but perhaps allows us to make more sense of the different ways it was expressed at different times. that is why i focused not on jhanas or mindfulness but rather the first jhana and the four foundations of mindfulness, these being specific pedagogical formulas for the learning of jhanas and mindfulness, rather than the ideas themselves, which as I point out, are evident in different phrasing all across the canon. Also I would just reiterate that I see no reason why all of these formulas in some form couldn’t go back directly to the Buddha but have made their way in their standardized form into the canon at different times.

Finally I am absolutely in agreement that my “research” at this stage is hardly rigorous, lacking anything like a proper methodology or connection to contemporary academic studies or anything of that sort, its just me typing stock phrases into Digital Pali Reader and browsing what comes out and then speculating on what it might mean, and my posts here are more meant to document my journey and thoughts and hopefully provoke discussion and engagement with the canon, which I hope is a net positive thing.

I certainly mean no offense to those who take the whole of the Pali canon as buddhavacana and respect their approach to the material.


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