The jhanas in the Kāyagatāsati Sutta

Hello dear all,

I’d like to share with you some thoughts on the jhanas in the Kāyagatāsati Sutta (MN119), in the hope of getting some useful comments, perhaps references to past studies. In brief, I think the jhanas not an original part of this sutta, and I will explain why. I will do so mainly on a text critical basis.

This is an important matter, because it is mainly on the basis of this particular sutta that some, like Richard Shankman, have argued the jhanas contain bodily awareness. But others disagree with this assertion.

First some apologies for the style of this post. I typed this quickly, and without rereading, so there will be typos and mistakes. Maybe in future I will make a better version, but first I’ll wait for your thoughts, so I can incorporate those.

The Kāyagatāsati (Mindfulness of the Body) Sutta is very similar to the first of four sections of the Satipaṭṭhāna (Establishing Mindfulness) Suttas (MN10 & DN22). In both we find the following 14 practices of body contemplation:

  • mindfulness of the breathing (1)
  • awareness of the four postures (2)
  • clear awareness regarding activities (3)
  • contemplating the body’s anatomical parts (4)
  • contemplating the four elements (5)
  • contemplating nine stages of decomposition (6-14)

The Kāyagatāsati Sutta is different in some major ways. First, to these 14 practices it adds the four jhanas together with their similes. Second, it adds a refrain after each practice, including after every jhana. Third, after all practices are finished, the Buddha mentions 10 benefits these practices can give us.

The refrain repeated after every practice goes as follows:

As he abides thus diligent, ardent, and resolute, his memories and intentions based on the household life are abandoned; with their abandoning his mind becomes steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness, and concentrated. That is how a bhikkhu develops
mindfulness of the body. (Bhikkhu Bodhi translation)

The phrase “his mind becomes steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness, and concentrated” is a standard way of referring to entering samadhi, that is, the jhanas. “Memories and intentions based on the household life”, found also in other suttas, seems to be a synonym for the five hindrances in meditation. So the Buddha says here that doing mindfulnees of the body practices leads to the jhanas. This corresponds well with the suttas as a whole, which repeatedly say things like (paraphrased): “mindfulness should be developed to abandon the five hindrances” (AN 9.64, Cf. MN44), “right mindfulness leads to right samadhi” (AN10.121). The Kayagatasati Sutta itself also mentions the four jhanas as one of the ten benefits of practicing mindfulness of the body.

I see a few inconsistencies here:

  1. The jhanas are here explicitly mentioned as part of the path factor of sati, which to my knowledge is unique in the suttas. The jhanas are normally always part of samadhi.
  2. The refrain after each jhana says that it leads to abandoning the hindrances, in other words to jhana. This is going in circles. It appears to say that the jhānas (the removal of the hindrances and the attainment of samādhi) lead to the removal of the hindrances and the attainment of samādhi (the jhānas).
  3. The 10 benefits include the jhanas, but the jhanas are also mentioned as a practice. A practice does not have itself as a benefit. The purpose of the jhanas is never mentioned to be jhanas themselves; the purpose is said to be knowing and seeing things as they truly are (E.g. AN11.2).
  4. After each jhana the refrain says “that is how a bhikkhu develops
    mindfulness of the body”. But the development of jhanas is not the development of sati; it’s the development of samadhi. Two suttas even explicitly state that the jhānas are the development of samādhi. (AN4.41 & AN5.28)

We could also question why the very complete Satipatthana Suttas do not include the jhanas and their similes, if these where indeed part of satipatthana. Also, Elizabeth Harris, according to Analayo, wrote: “[the Kayagatasati Sutta] changes mood completely after the cemetery meditations are described. From meditation on corpses, it suddenly turns to joy and rapture.” I agree, and take this as another indication that the jhanas do not really fit in.

Yet another indication comes from the commentary to the Kayagatasati Sutta. Interestingly, it seems to be unaware of the jhanas, and just says “All the practices in the Kayagatasati Sutta were addressed under the fourteen body-centered meditation practices in the Satipaṭṭhāna [Sutta].” … This is very odd, especially because I would expect the commentary to pick up such a glaring inconsistency.

On a more pragmatic note, in the experience of many meditators the jhanas also don’t fit in with mindfulness of the body because they are experiences where the body is no longer felt or even thought about. I think this is also supported by many suttas, but to keep this short I will not include my thoughts on this here.

So far I’ve identified some problems with the jhanas in the Kayagatasati Sutta. They seem to not fit in for several reasons. Could it perhaps be that they were added later to a more original text on kayagatasati? According to Sujato, Analayo and others, the Satipatthana section on kayagatasati is already a later expansion. They have come to these conclusions by comparing various different editions of the text. Mindfulness of the breath, for example, seems to not have been a part of it originally. These sections are added because of the obvious connection with the body.

But why would the jhanas be added? It seems to be on the basis of the word ‘kaya’ which is used in the similes. Here, however, the word kaya means not ‘body’ but something like ‘person’. This is comparable to how English uses the word ‘somebody’. The pleasure mentioned in the jhanas is obviously a mental pleasure (physical pleasures are always to be avoided), so it can not be spread through the “body”, but has to be spread throughout one’s whole awareness, i.e. throughout oneself.

There is a Chinese parallel to the Kayagatasati Sutta, MĀ81. (Kuan has made a translation.) Both it and the parallel to the Satipatthana Sutta (MA98) include the jhana similes, but NOT the jhana formulas themselves. It’s quite obvious that the jhana similes are later additions to these texts, in part because they include many other additions not found elsewhere, such as fighting mental states “with the teeth clenched”, and perceiving light, among others. Like the jhanas, these are also not about bodily awareness. I don’t read Chinese, so unfortunately I can’t say whether these other pratices are included because of a particular word corresponding to “kaya”.

My preliminary conclusion is that there was a root Kayagatasati text, perhaps derived from a root Satipatthana Sutta. It did not contain the jhanas and their similes as practices of kayagatasait, and therefore was consistent. The refrain made sense, and the mention of the jhanas as one of the benefits of kayagatasati was also consistent.

However, at some point the jhanas were added to the root Kayagatasati text–or perhaps only their similes. This happened simply because these similes also contain the word kaya, even though its meaning is very different in this context.

That’s how far I’ve come. Perhaps you guys and gals can take this further. Some questions I’ve not answered are:

  • Do the other added practices in MA81 also include a word corresponding to “kaya”? Is there another reason why these practices may be added?
  • Are there other instances where the commentary seems to be unaware of certain passages in the suttas?
  • Are there other indications of tampering in the Pali Kayagatasati Sutta? Inconsistencies? Errors?

Thanks for reading, and thanks in advance for your replies.

Much metta,



The luminous mind and visualization practices in MA 81 don’t mention pervading the body with anything. The body is only mentioned in the intro and outro of those sections asserting that they are mindfulness of body practices.

I’m personally a little wary of associating the four similes with the dhyanas in MA 81, but the Abhidharma tradition identifies the phrase “pleasure born of seclusion” with the first dhyana, etc. The interesting thing about it is that MA 98 (MN 10) includes these four similes under the mindfulness of the body section in the Chinese, but they aren’t in the Pali. So, apparently, in the Madhyama Agama this was considered part of that practice. Still, neither of these Agama sutras include the dhyana formulas. So, I have to wonder if they really are same meditative states. The Theravada tradition may have decided they must be the same and added the formulas to MN 119, but cut them out of MN 10, or the Agamas may have added them to MA 98 because of MA 81.

I tried finding an Abhidharma analysis of the mindfulness of body that mentions these four similes, but no luck on a first sweep of search results in the Chinese. I would think that the Sarvastivada Abhidharma would have it since the Madhyama was apparently Sarvastivada, but I don’t see it so far.



Exactly. That indicates they were probably later additions to MA98, and therefore likely to MA81 (and thus MN119) too.

They are found in about 4 other suttas together with the jhanas (DN2, MN39, MN77 & AN5.28). Having had a preliminary look, it seems that at least in the MN suttas the jhanas+similes could be late, because the chinese versions don’t seen to have them. Not sure about DN2 yet.


An interesting argument in the ever-divisive Jhana Wars.

What’s your take on the formless attainments and their “having completely transcended perceptions of form”? (or if that even has any relation to jhāna)

The parallel for MN 39 is MA 182, but it only has the first sections on ethical conduct. MN 39 appears to be much enlarged compared to the Chinese Agama. There’s no mention of the dhyanas there.

The parallel for MN 77 is MA 207. Again, it’s a similar situation. The Pali includes all sorts of standardized doctrines from the four noble truths to the four jhanas, but none of that is in the Chinese. It really looks like, again, the Pali version has been expanded greatly. There’s no mention of the dhyanas in the Chinese.

AN 5.28 doesn’t appear to have an Agama parallel.

DA 27, the Dharmaguptaka version of DN 2 doesn’t mention the dhyanas, either. As with the other comparisons, the Agama isn’t nearly as expanded with doctrinal lists.

It would be interesting to sit down and do some text searches looking for the four similes in Agama sources and see if the pattern holds that they aren’t associated with the four dhyana formulas. The Agamas and Nikayas aren’t nearly as parallel when it comes to where they have these types of standardized teachings dropped into the original narratives. The Nikayas are sometimes expanded when the Agamas are not, and vice versa.


This is not so, there are plenty of Suttas which show in direct way that sensory experience disappears by going from jhanas, into immaterial attainments:

“Again, with the complete surmounting of perceptions of form, with the disappearance of perceptions of sensory impact, with non-attention to perceptions of diversity, aware that ‘space is infinite,’ a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the base of infinite space. MN 52

with the complete surmounting of perceptions of forms, with the passing away of perceptions of sensory impingement, with non-attention to perceptions of diversity, [perceiving] ‘space is infinite,’ AN XI 16

Phrase…with the disappearance of “perceptions of sensory impact”, later translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi as “perceptions of sensory impingement” is quite unambiguous. Moreover, as you know, there are two kinds of upekkha or equanimity, first one is connected with sensory experience -equanimity that is diversified, based on diversity- and such equanimity is given up not by jhanas, as it should be if there was no sensory experience in them, but by immaterial attainments: Therein, relying on equanimity based on unity, give up equanimity based on diversity. That’s how it is given up.

“And what, bhikkhus, is equanimity that is diversified, based on diversity? There is equanimity regarding forms, sounds, odours, flavours, and tangibles. This, bhikkhus, is equanimity that is diversified, based on diversity.

“And what, bhikkhus, is equanimity that is unified, based on unity? There is equanimity regarding the base of infinite space, the base of infinite consciousness, the base of nothingness, and the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. This, bhikkhus, is equanimity that is unified, based on unity.
MN 137

Very interesting. Thanks for the discussion, Charles.

So if we were to base ourselves merely on a comparison with the Agamas, it seems all the mentions of the jhana similes in the MN and DN are late.

It could be that AN5.28 is the original source of the similes. Of all the Pali texts, this sutta seems to be the most like a “complete” and “coherent” text (lacking better words). Strikingly, this text also mentions the reviewing of jhanas, which, if my memory serves me correctly, is also found in the Chinese Kayagatasati (MA81). This seems a random addition there, unless perhaps it was copied from a predecessor to AN5.28.

It would be interesting indeed to search the Agamas (and other languages perhaps) for the similes, but I don’t have the skill for that.

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Hi Knigarian,

It depends on the translation and interpretation of things like “sensory impingement”—terms that are not clear-cut, not unambiguous at all in Pali. However, in this topic I’d like to focus on the Kayagatasati sutta. If you’d like to discuss it in another topic, please do, and I’ll see if I can find the time to respond.

Rupa (“f orm”) is often equated to the body or to matter, but such definitions are too limited. Rupa includes things like boundaries, colors, appearances, and shapes (=forms), all of which can exist in the mental realm.

Anyway, as I said in the post above, I was hoping to focus on the Kayagatasati sutta here. Hope you don’t mind.

This goes back to a general suspicion I have, namely that when the texts were finalized the practical knowledge of the jhanas was not directly known to the transmitters, editors and scribes. They might have been real for individual ‘forest’ meditators, but the urban scholars - so I suspect - only had the old lists and more recent commentaries…

Stuart-Fox, Jhāna and Buddhist Scholasticism, 1989, p.79


Before you come into the conclusion, have you considered the fact that the Buddha conducted his speaches according to the audience. Sometimes brief pointing out of the facts was enough (see. Dārucīriya) and sometimes not (Mālukyaputta). So here we can understand why it was necessary to change the way and the content of the discourses.

When Abhayarājakumāra was asked by Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta to ask the Buddha a question (a dilemma) the Buddha answered with no problem. And at the end of the sutta the Buddha said “In the same way, when clever aristocrats, brahmins, householders, or ascetics come to see me with a question already planned, the answer just appears to me on the spot. Because the Realized One has clearly comprehended the principle of the teachings” (MN58,Ven. Sujato translation).
Therefore I believe the Buddha had the ability to see what is best for the listeners. And also the Buddha used amazing similes; sometimes whatever appears before eyes or sometimes related to their life.

In the same sutta the Buddha take the baby boy who was on Abhaya’s lap. And there are similes on the listener’s profession (see Kesisutta).
When Kesi the horse trainer came to the buddha he explained how he trains bhikkhūs, using his profession as a simile. There are number of examples to this unique and beautiful way of using similes all over the tipitaka.

Thus, before comparing two different suttas we should consider the fact that the listeners were not the same. The Buddha knew how his listeners was.

DN25 explains what is the Buddhas role is

buddho so bhagavā bodhāya dhammaṃ deseti
The Buddha is awakened, tamed, serene, and he teaches Dhamma for awakening (DN25.

Therefore the main goal was to teach eight fold path to achieve nibbāna and it was well planned according to the character, knowlage, and the wisdom of the listener. Therefore most listeners understood dhamma at the seat. To do that the Buddha spoke meaningfully and truthfully in a well-timed manner to decipline his pupils.

Iti kho, cunda, atītānāgatapaccuppannesu dhammesu tathāgato kālavādī bhūtavādī atthavādī dhammavādī vinayavādī, tasmā ‘tathāgato’ti vuccati.
And so the Realized One has speech that’s well-timed, true, meaningful, in line with the teaching and training. That’s why he’s called the ‘Realized One’ (DN29).


Of course I don’t mind. While shape, colour, smell, as I see it should be classified as nama, it is only my opinion :slight_smile: While what is “my opinion” not necessarily has to be wrong :slight_smile: I agree that is no point to discuss such things in this topic.

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Ven Anālayo’s Comparative Study of the Majjhima-nikāya (freely available at Hamburg Uni) may be of help for answering this question. :slightly_smiling_face:


Jhānas explained in Mahāsatipaṭṭhānasutta under Dhammānupassanā > saccapabba > maggasacca > sammāsamādhi.

And what is right immersion?
Katamo ca, bhikkhave, sammāsamādhi?
It’s when a mendicant, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful qualities, enters and remains in the first absorption, which has the rapture and bliss born of seclusion, while placing the mind and keeping it connected.
Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu vivicceva kāmehi vivicca akusalehi dhammehi savitakkaṃ savicāraṃ vivekajaṃ pītisukhaṃ paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharati.
As the placing of the mind and keeping it connected are stilled, they enter and remain in the second absorption, which has the rapture and bliss born of immersion, with internal clarity and confidence, and unified mind, without placing the mind and keeping it connected.
Vitakkavicārānaṃ vūpasamā ajjhattaṃ sampasādanaṃ cetaso ekodibhāvaṃ avitakkaṃ avicāraṃ samādhijaṃ pītisukhaṃ dutiyaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharati.
And with the fading away of rapture, they enter and remain in the third absorption, where they meditate with equanimity, mindful and aware, personally experiencing the bliss of which the noble ones declare, ‘Equanimous and mindful, one meditates in bliss.’
Pītiyā ca virāgā upekkhako ca viharati, sato ca sampajāno, sukhañca kāyena paṭisaṃvedeti, yaṃ taṃ ariyā ācikkhanti ‘upekkhako satimā sukhavihārī’ti tatiyaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharati.
Giving up pleasure and pain, and ending former happiness and sadness, they enter and remain in the fourth absorption, without pleasure or pain, with pure equanimity and mindfulness.
Sukhassa ca pahānā dukkhassa ca pahānā pubbeva somanassadomanassānaṃ atthaṅgamā adukkhamasukhaṃ upekkhāsatipārisuddhiṃ catutthaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharati.
This is called right immersion.
Ayaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, sammāsamādhi.

That’s a good point that the jhanas there are mentioned under dhamma instead of kaya.

Earlier I suggested AN5.28 could be the original source of the jhana similes in the Pali. There are two other similarities between this sutta and the Pali Kayagatasati Sutta (MN119):

  1. The suttas both have the same three similes for “realising any state that may be realised”, in identical order and wording.
  2. They mention six identical benefits, in exact same order, although with slightly different wording.

The suttas mention the following similes (apart from the jhana similes):

MN119 & MA81 (Kayagatasati Suttas)
Similes for “included within himself whatever wholesome states”:

  • ocean

Similes for “Māra finds an opportunity”:

  • heavy ball thrown at clay
  • dry wood
  • empty jug

Similes for “Māra finds no opportunity”:

  • light ball thrown at door
  • wet wood
  • full jug

MN119 & AN5.28 (not MA81!)
Similes for “realising any state that may be realised”:

  • full jug
  • full pond
  • readied chariot

The suttas mention the following benefits:

MN119 & MA81 (benefits of kayagatasati)

  • conquer of discontent and delight
  • conquer of fear and dread
  • bear cold and heat
  • the four jhānas

MN119 & MA81 (benefits of kayagatasati) and AN5.28 (benefits of samadhi)

  • supernormal powers
  • divine ear
  • mind reading
  • past life recollection
  • divine eye
  • enlightenment

The three similes for “realising any state” are found as a set only in MN119 & AN5.28 (in the Pali Canon at least). This strongly suggests a connection between the two texts. As some scholars have said, it isn’t rare for a reciter to have stringed together the otherwise unconnected passages by mere similarity or identical key words (e.g. “kāya”), whether intentionally or by mistake.

But what makes the connection even more certain, is that the Chinese Kayagatasati Sutta (MA81) does not have the three similes! Even though it has all the other seven similes of MN119 (ocean, heavy ball, etc). So these three similes seem to be later additions to the Pali.

Moreover, the passage on “realising any state that may be realised” elsewhere in the Pali Canon always follows the jhanas, never mindfulness (C.f. AN3.101, AN3.102, AN5.23, AN5.28, AN9.35). So the whole passage is out of place in MN119.

It seems clear to me these three similes don’t belong in MN119. They seem to come from AN5.28, which makes it likely the jhana similes come from there too.

As to the six identical benefits found in both AN5.28 and MN119, these are also found in the Chinese parallel. Contextually they are a bit out of place there too, as these results normally also follow the jhanas, not sati. It could be intended here not as a direct benefit of sati, but as an eventual benefit, which happens only after the jhanas, which are also mentioned as a benefit of sati. Perhaps these six benefits are what MN119 and AN5.28 originally shared. They may be what made the reciter include the rest of AN5.28, along with the similarity of the word “kaya”. Or perhaps these six are later additions to a root text, that found their way into both MN119 and MA81.


Any available MA 81 English translation?

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This is because, the jhānas are not about the body but mind. They are literally, well, you would say practically states of mind. Mana (mind) goes with dhamma(principles/ doctrines) (manaṃ ca dhammaṃ ca). Thats why those are explained under observing principles. All the factors that belong to jhānas are mind related factors (name) not the form.

So to get a clear picture about the difference between Kāyagatāsati sutta and Satipaṭṭhāna sutta we have to understand the perpose of the suttas.
Satipaṭṭhāna sutta is to explain all possible ways of Kāyagatāsati practices up to the end (enlightenment). But on the other hand MN119 is to explain not only the way of starting the Kāyagatāsati meditation but the importance of Kāyagatāsati (Vipassanā).

Practicing samatha (samādhi) meditation helps you to achieve higher knowlages (vijjābhāgiyā : vijjā + bhāgiyā (connected to)- literally results or connected to higher knowlages) But even with those knowlages you will not be safe.
Eventhough jhānas are capable of temporarily suppress kilesas ( depravities / impurities) those kilesas are still there as anusayas (underlying tendencies).
There are seven of them

The underlying tendencies of sensual desire, repulsion, views, doubt, conceit, desire to be reborn, and ignorance.
Kāmarāgānusayo, paṭighānusayo, diṭṭhānusayo, vicikicchānusayo, mānānusayo, bhavarāgānusayo, avijjānusayo SN 35.59

When a person have these there is a possibility to pervade (arise) and lead to a bad deed. These are like the ember under ashes; there is a tendency of making fire when ever wind comes. Therefore without attaining fruits there is no security. Thats why Māra finds vulnerability as explained in MN119 with similies.

when a mendicant has not developed or cultivated mindfulness of the body, Māra finds a vulnerability and gets hold of them (MN119)

To eliminate kilesas both samatha and vipassanā are needed. Eventhough satipaṭṭhāna is not about samatha, it is always connected with samatha.

About this idea:

As you already know jhānas arenot direct benefit of sati. According to AN 4.170 there are only four ways to attain fruits. Each of them consists with both samatha and vipassanā. And to achieve fruits one should develop sattabojjhangas (samādhibojjhanga).
Explained under dhammānupassanā.

Jhānas and other higher powers are benefits of kayagatasati. There is a difference achieving them just by samatha and Kāyagatāsati. When it is achieved with the development of Kāyagatāsati, the person has no risk of losing those powers. People with higher powers who are common worldling(puthujjana) has a risk of loosing the privilege when ever the Māra finds a loophole.
I believe thats why those are especially mentioned as benifits of Kāyagatāsati.

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Luckily the phrase “happiness born of seclusion” is generally translated the same way in the Agamas, so a text search is not too difficult.

I can only find these similes in MA 81, MA 98, and DA 20. In DA 20, the passage is almost identical to that found in DN 3 (Ambattha sutta).

EA doesn’t have the similes or the rapture experience beyond the statement of abandoning bad qualities and having an inner mental happiness. I really can’t find the standard dhyana formulas in EA, but it might be a translation issue. It’s hard to tell. EA is simpler and older reading overall despite the Mahayana material that it contains.

SA 484 has something like the first simile, but not the complete parable. It just has the body being filled with rapture. It’s actually part of a different list of attainments that are analogous to being reborn in the Brahma heavens and formless realms. There’s a similar passage in the cosmological sutra at the end of DA, where the gods send up a shout when someone attains this rapture state.

I think it’s possible that the rapture experience was originally an alternative treatment of the dhyanas which thought of them as ways into rebirth in the Brahma heavens. In SA 484, Ananda chides another monk for thinking about rebirth in the higher realms, saying he should be working on liberation instead. But it’s the only sutra I’ve seen (so far) that puts it in a deprecated light.

All that said, it looks like the Ambattha Sutta and Kayagatasati sutta are the only overlaps I can find with the Agamas in terms of the four similes. DA does equate the dhyana formulas with the similes, but MA doesn’t. For whatever reason, MA applies them in the context of the mindfulness of the body but not the four dhyanas. DA is considered to be part of the Dharmaguptaka canon, while MA and SA are Sarvastivada.

It’s a good example of how the sectarian canons do differ from each other in significant ways.


Thanks all. Interesting thoughts & findings!