The Necessary Dark Night?

Yeah I basically am, except instead of being a PacekkaBuddha, it would be a PacekkaArahant. And that sutta sounds the same to me, it says the path is “born in him.” I think that’s what it’s talking about, someone just coming to awakening naturally and on their own. Although it may not be someone who has no knowledge of the Dhamma, but still, it is someone where it just happens naturally for them without really any volitional direction toward it. They just naturally flow to it.

On the other forum they have a whole subsection dedicated to this “Dark Night” phenomenon:

I read some of the stuff there and I find it quite disturbing. I haven’t seen descriptions of practice going that bad in the suttas, so either they are doing something wrong or I didn’t read the right suttas.

@sujato - sorry to summon you here, but would you dare to comment on this? :wink:

That is the group I was referencing in my previous post. The only time I have ever heard “dark night” used in a Buddhist context was from someone who had a relationship to that particular group/forum

Yeah, I don’t want to say anything too judgemental, but dharma overground, well I’ll just say there is a lot of very misguided ideas over there. I stay away from there at all costs. You are right though, they really focus in on the dark night phenomenon, and you’re also right that it seems they are definitely missing something, probably most importantly, a good teacher.

What about the numerous suttas on the observance of Uposatha??

See for example AN5.179, Snp2.14, AN8.41, AN8.42, AN8.43, AN8.44, AN3.70, AN10.46, AN3.37, AN10.94.


I’m not sure what I’ve got to contribute. But generally speaking, it’s true that in the spiritual path, and especially when meditation starts to cut deep, it is common, probably normal, to go through some dark patches. I’m not sure whether this is essential or not, but if you look at, say, the description of the Bodhisatta’s depression after seeing the three signs, it’s certainly present in the archetype of Buddhist praxis.

One of the great problems is that Buddhist practice in modern times attracts a large percentage of people with psychological disorders. I’m not sure if this is the same through history; I suspect it is to do with the marginal place of Buddhism in modern culture. But in any case, many of the people who are undertaking retreats and long term monastic practice have disorders of one kind or another. When these are diagnosed and treated properly, it is often manageable. But in my experience, it is only a minority who are really honest and straightforward about their condition. Many of the people with disorders who end up in Buddhism do so as a way of avoiding therapy, either after disappointing encounters with therapy, or else just avoiding the very idea. It is absolutely normal to find people with all kinds of disorders, who believe themselves to be awakened, practicing jhana, or otherwise spiritually advanced.

It seems to me that discussion of such issues on the web is an open invitation to promote such delusional thinking. This is one of the reasons I have been reluctant to start a practice corner on this site. If you start talking about the “dark night” as a stage in spiritual practice, it will resonate with many people who are, in fact, suffering from clinical depression. And be clear: a dark patch in the spiritual path has nothing to do with clinical depression. But a depressed person, especially one without guidance or support, often doesn’t know this, and can be led down an even darker path. The problem is that in a shallow context like an internet forum, it is impossible to know the difference. The internet is an inappropriate context for that kind of discussion, and the very fact that someone doesn’t get that is already a red flag.

The problem of people suffering mental breakdowns on intensive retreats is a genuine one, and is gravely serious. I’ve been in a group of a dozen or so experienced Buddhist therapists of all kinds, and when this subject came up, they all recognized it and acknowledged it, and gave examples. When I teach a retreat, I require that the students inform me if they have any pre-existing conditions. I ensure that there is a psychiatrist or other mental health professional available during the retreat. I try to personally speak with each retreatant every day, and take seriously any possible symptoms.

I would strongly recommend that anyone with a pre-existing psychological condition not attempt any intensive retreat. And if they want to practice meditation at all, they should only do so under the close supervision and guidance of a mental health practitioner who is experienced in the field.


You contributed more than I expected, so thank you very much for open and honest reply.

Are these problems linked mostly to insight practice? Could concentration / one pointedness / jhana practice be considered [more] safe? Or is it just not possible to separate the two?

I’m not sure if it makes any difference. The problem is mostly in the intensity and abruptness of the practice. The problem is that in many vipassana retreats you’re thrown into a super-intense retreat with little or no preparation or support.

Having said which, it is true that vipassana approaches tend to disperse and break down the “self”, while samatha practices are soothing and healing. I would generally recommend that people get a solid foundation in metta and/or breath meditation first of all; and that would apply double in the case of anyone facing unusual psychological or emotional struggles.


The whole phenomenon is just unfortunate. (Stable or unstable) people deal with spirituality no matter if we like it or not, and after reading enough books that cater their lurking fascinations with the supernatural they solidify a view about themselves in connection with ‘spiritual truth’, that they ‘totally get it’.

Generally people with psychological issues already have had a heightened awareness that they are ‘different’. And often they come to the conclusion that their suffering gives them a privileged access to spiritual understanding. A Sujato or a shrink might pull them out of a retreat, but it’s so much harder to make them question this part of their self-identity and ‘superior understanding’.

In the supermarket there are many brands of the same product, and they’ll have no issue sneaking in just the next retreat. (Mind you I’m talking about the sub-type that spends years in esoteric contexts)

Well, part of the answer surely must be the basic economic and community support monasteries provide to their permanent residents. In a society in which one must compete and struggle and function “productively” to earn a livelihood, then people who, for whatever reason, have difficulty functioning in that productive sector will seek places in which they can live without fear of homelessness, abandonment and destitution.

This is very true. In Asian countries, monasteries often serve as a refuge for the lost or desperate. You can always find a place to sleep, something to eat, a kind word. It’s not a permanent solution, but it’s something.


I also don’t know how much of a factor this is, but in American society at least, where life is highly driven and competitive and goal oriented, there is a powerful normative regimentation pervading everything, and a functionalist outlook on human beings and their proper role in the world. Consequently, behaviors and people are all classified as being “functional” or “dysfunctional”. If you are dysfunctional, according to these strict societal standards, that means there is something wrong with you and you are “mentally ill”. Someone who in another culture might just be regarded as different or unique, or even peculiarly blessed, is thrown here into the psychological “defective” bin, and singled out for special treatment. So in addition to having to deal with the normal stresses of just being different, they also have to deal with the added stigma and humiliation of being classified as sick and defective, which redoubles the stresses they have to deal with. It is no wonder then that people who might, in more tolerant circumstances, be able to navigate through their differences and quirks, end up “freaking out” or having a “break” or an “episode” - or what used to be called a “nervous breakdown”.

I don’t doubt that their are types of mental impairment that would be regarded as illness in almost any country, but there must also be pretty powerful cultural differences in the ways the different and exceptional types are classified.

I was thinking about this in reference to that poor girl who had that "dark night " business. If someone is a prototypical “good boy” or “good girl” in society, happily well-adjusted as long as their mind flows within narrow socio-normative boundaries, then if they become aware of even slightly novel psychological deviations from those old patterns happening in their minds, they might go right into a panic and think, “Oh my God! I’m going craaazzy!” These thought intensify their panic, which leads to more powerful deviations, etc. in an accelerating cycle.

Four 24 hr periods, once a month? Interesting idea- it certainly would diffuse any mental health issues, as there would be ‘normative’ period in between.

Also Uposatha was suggested to the Buddha by lay followers, as the Nigantas followers were doing it successfully!

with metta

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What just occurred to me, that back in the days if someone needed ‘psychotherapy’ where else would people go than to brahmins and samanas after friends and family could help no more? And the Buddha would not just send them away, or tell them about nibbana, I guess he would have given some practical advice.

I don’t know if we could identify a ‘genre’ in the EBT, but it might explain why some suttas don’t deal with cessation all the time but are more down-to-earth psychological.

Take e.g. AN 5.50

Now on that occasion King Muṇḍa’s [wife] Queen Bhaddā, who had been dear and beloved to him, had died. Since her death, he did not bathe, anoint himself, eat his meals, or undertake his work. Day and night, he remained brooding over Queen Bhaddā’s body.

My impression is that most people do not say that a “dark night” stage is 100% necessary.

Since you didn’t cite any examples I’m at a loss to know what you people you have been listening to or reading.
I’ll adventure the position that if we looked at writing on the internet that ascribed a number or percentage to this phenomena we would find few claims of necessity and a majority of claims that it is common.

I would also say that it’s important to distinguish between:

  • the observation that many people go through a time of “dark night” (if even for one one night)
  • the theory that a dark night experience is a necessary stage towards some kind of enlightenment or progress towards insight.
  • and finally a kind of dissatisfaction that calls us to a different path.

I’m talking about those insight knowledges 5-8/9. I always got the impression that a lot of people follow that progress of insight model. Those that do, you have to go through those stages, they can’t be skipped. A lot of people who talk about this dark night phenomenon consider it those stages.

Right. This corresponds with the three step nibbida, viraga, nirodha from EBTs - repulsion nibbida being the issue. It can vary in intensity from ‘unease’ to running away from the temple. Actually I have some doubts whether, at least in the examples mentioned, this was the cause. This might be rather controversial but I see a samatha process and not a vipassana process (i.e.- there is no taking of _tilakkhana as the object of meditation) in a body scan as taught by Goenka-ji. I believe it is not possible to get to nibbida using the body scan, which is what is practiced 90% of the time at his retreats. However as Ajhan Sujato said it is a sudden change and quite intensive. The retreat setting itself may cause problems in people prone to mental ill health.

With metta

Hi Jimi, thanks for this topic.

I looked briefly at some other replies.

For me, this comes from what I believe is the wrong understanding of the First Noble Truth (and therefore the rest). I see two lines of thought in popular Buddhism on this topic, based on the summary sentence of the First Noble Truth:

  1. The Five Aggregates are (life is) suffering, which is supported by the doctrine of the Three (Universal) Characteristics: all things are impermanent, suffering and not self. (both misquotes, imo) ‘early texts’ can be found to show that things are suffering because they are impermanent, without any mention of clinging.


  1. the Five Clung-to-Aggregates are suffering, which I understand to mean: life with clinging is suffering. So what we have to do to end suffering, is to end clinging, which I believe the Buddha did under the Bodhi Tree and realised full awakening (pari-nibbāna). Note here that pari-nibb* is mostly used for a living arahant by the Buddha in the early Pali texts.

Maybe you can see from this that, those who follow the first line of thought will tend to follow the philosophy ‘no pain no gain’. Such as the story of a respected teacher of Western monks asked a western monk how things were going where he was, and the monk said something like, ‘they are going along quite well’ and he replies something like ‘there won’t be much insight development then’.

Maybe you can see from this how such a belief or expectation could arise.

I have found it true that, the great majority of suffering is eradicated on realisation of Right View. There is a simile the Buddha gave teaching that, something like the amount of water on a dipped finger to the rest in the sea. So one would take more and more pleasant births (for me, the arising of a new more wholesome identity) in more and more pleasant states (controlled by positive emotion), i.e. not the lower states of: hell (controlled by negative emotions: demon - hatred/revenge, titan - seeking power) or animal (controlled by bodily needs - greed/lust)…

It would seem to me one could develop insight into cause and effect, dependent origination (DO) in either unpleasant or pleasant births or experiences, but after Stream Entry, it is more pleasant than unpleasant, since Morality is the first perfection for Noble Ones, producing higher births, then concentration, giving clarity of mind to investigate DO and then Insight.

Others have spoken of the place of joy on the Path. For me, it is an essential marker of progress. I have compared various discourses of the Buddha which seem to be teaching the Path, which mention joy/happiness: (PDF) Joy in the Buddha's Teaching (Dhamma) From Comparative Studies of Pali Texts | Joe Smith - This is mainly compiling and comparing teachings of the Buddha to show how they inter-relate.

best wishes


I call it samadhi sickness. Got it bad from some great nuns chanted blessing in the southern highlands a month ago. Hope they are well, but feels a mighty unpleasant consequence.

People might enter a period in which the spiritual knowledge, insights, the practices, the discoveries, the experiences, the rituals, the beliefsystem, the ideas, do not work anymore. While earlier they were nourishing of nature, like nice food, inspiring, seemingly leading to the end of suffering. But at a certain time it might loose its sustanance, and it does not feed anymore. It does not stop the inner hunger, the poverty, the suffering. It seems to have become even more worse.

Religious leaders might see this as a problem. They advise the person to even study harder, practice more intense, pray more often etc. They threat it as a shortcoming. John of Cross understood this might be wrong. Ofcourse one must not be just depressed, but in a sense it is very normal that the things one does become not nourishing anymore, also in a religous context. One arrives at the truth that this way of dealing with suffering (by seeking mental food, by seeking an escape in the conditioned) is a blind alley.

When one is only seeking nourishment, one is not yet a spiritual person, and not yet concerned with really honouring Truth, Goodness, God, Dhamma, but ego. One just wants to have good feelings, also from religion.

John of Cross does not say this is evil but one must not mistake this with seeking Truth and honouring Truth and Goodness. One must also not be suprised there comes a time that all this does not work anymore. To feed oneself this way. Things might loose their former sustanance.

While ons enters the dark night one is now at the treshold of becoming a spiritual person. Not fighting this inner darkness and povery anymore, not seeking for pleasure in whatever, also not in religion,
the light in the darkness can transform oneself and cure the hunger and poverty. One must become more and more stilled, inactive.

In this sense John of Cross threats the Dark Night of inner povery, inner desert, inner desolation
not as shortcoming but more as something natural and a phase. The crux is to become inactive, not fight the darkness like one is used to do, and let the soul cure oneself in stillness.

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