Very misleading translation of DN 33 on Suttacentral

As pointed out by Aminah, these are old translations. In fact, however, every translation has its issues. That’s why we have a forum for you to discuss them!


What?! You mean your translations won’t be 100% perfect?! :anguished:

I guess I have to reconsider:


Certainly it won’t suffice as a form-equivalent translation. But in calling it “very misleading” and “very bad” do you mean to say that it’s doctrinally misleading too – i.e. that an āruppa in the EBT’s was something other than a jhāna?


I find it significant that the formless attainments are not called jhānas in the EBTs. I do not know what specific conclusions to draw from that, although it is a topic which I am very interested in. I also find it significant that jhānas seem to be regarded as necessary for arahantship in the EBTs, but not the formless attainments. And I think that imposing commentarial classifications onto the EBTs where such classifications are absent, is a truly bad idea, and gives great potential for misunderstandings.


Independent to whether or not we can call them jhanas, the formless attainment are, at least as per AN9.47 (and other suttas of the AN9), crucial for the fruition of liberating insight and bringing about of non-provisory nibbana (nippariyāyenā nibbānaṃ). In case you are interested in exploring that subject, check this topic:

[quote=“Senryu, post:8, topic:5609”]
I find it significant that the formless attainments are not called jhānas in the EBTs.[/quote]


It’s actually in the Dhammasaṅgaṇi (Ds2.1.3) that the āruppas first came to be called the cattāri arūpajjhānāni, so it’s a coinage that pre-dates the commentaries by quite a few centuries.


Sorry, and thanks for the correction! So corrected I should say:
And I think that imposing abhidhamma classifications onto the EBTs where such classifications are absent, is a truly bad idea, and gives great potential for misunderstandings.

Yes I have come across some such suttas. It looks to me as if there may be two opinions on this within the suttas. Right Concentration in the 8fold path seems to be usually (can anyone contradict this?) defined as the 4 jhānas only. And some suttas seem to specifically say the formless attainments are optional extras, if my memory serves me correctly. That seems to be one view, whereas some suttas seem to say the formless attainments are also necessary.

Anyone have any clarity on this? Is there enough evidence to say that there are definitely these two opposing views within the EBTs? And which one is older? And does anyone know @Sujato’s views on this?

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In the EBTs the āruppas are, as per the OP, not called jhāna; why this is so is not entirely clear, but it probably just a matter of terminology.

They are regarded as helpful for liberation, but not essential.


Bhante, what about the liberating insight model found in suttas like AN9.47?

It’s cool.


Not just AN9.47 but AN9.41 ~ AN9.61 this theme runs throughout. @Sujato, does this not show, in your opinion, a view that all 9 attainments are necessary for arahantship? At least according to these suttas, even if this view is not the main view in the suttapitaka?

For example in AN9.41 the Buddha states:

" So long, Ananda, as I did not attain and emerge from these nine attainments of progressive dwellings in direct order and reverse order, I did not claim to have awakened to the unsurpassed perfect enlightenment in this world with its devas, Mara, and Brahma, in this population with its ascetics and brahmins, its devas and humans. But when I attained and emerged from these nine attainments of progressive dwellings in direct order and reverse order, then I claimed to have awakened to the unsurpassed perfect enlightenment in this world with… its devas and humans."

And the common theme to these suttas which only state after the 9th attainment, not the previous ones,

Again, by completely surmounting the base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, a bhikkhu enters and dwells in the cessation of perception and feeling, and having seen with wisdom , his taints are utterly destroyed.

And the common theme that regarding the first 8 attainments resulting in provisional liberation (or in AN9.52 and 53 ‘security’, and other variations in the following suttas), only the 9th resulting in non-provisional liberation, for example in AN9.45 regarding the first 8:

To this extent the Blessed One has spoken of one liberated in both respects in a provisional sense.

But regarding the 9th,

To this extent, friend, the Blessed One has spoken of one liberated in both respects in a non-provisional sense.


That’s the summary of my last comment. No input since June but I was wondering if anyone has any input on this now. Is it really the standard view that the suttas only say the 4 jhānas are necessary? I am well aware of that view being in the suttas, but it seems to me to be not the only one. As I tried to demonstrate in my long comment directly above, many suttas seem to say that all 9 attainments are required.

If I am wrong about this, somehow misunderstanding, I would sincerely love to be corrected. And if I am correct, I would love to know why this is not widely understood, or widely disagreed with.


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This thread might be useful: Stillness and liberating insight

I think there is some confusion about the amount of samadhi required- it seems to me that a degree of samadhi above the first jhana is essential for nibbana. After entering that territory getting off of at any of the stops along that train line, you are still going to nibbana (in the land of nibbana, if you like), having crossed the border, of the first jhana samadhi.

These jhana states are called ‘temporary nibbana’. However this is not to say that everyone who attained jhana (ie those recluse before and in other religions at the time of the Budha who attained jhana) were entering nibbana, as the insight element was absent in those other teachings and it would have lead to heavenly planes of existence, rather than nibbana ‘proper’.

with metta

I am unaware of even a single mention of any specific non-Buddhist individual during the Buddha’s time practicing jhāna. Nor of any mention of anyone at all practicing jhāna before the Buddha trained himself in jhāna practice after his rose-apple tree memory recall.

If you have any evidence to the contrary, I’m happy to hear it!

You might like to check out Venerable Anālayo’s book Early Buddhist Meditation Studies. Click the link for a free PDF version. If you go to page 163, where the section “Pre-Buddhist Absorption” begins, you’ll find his evidence-based argument for the jhānas being practiced before the Buddha.


Nigantanataputta questions the ability to attain the second jhana, but not the first SN41.8
Bāvari the brahmin has divine eye (usually developed after developing 4th jhana) Snp5.1
There was another sutta where a person before the Buddha’s time developed a partial ability to see past lives and came to the wrong view about maha brahma, etc.

with metta


I have had a lengthy discussion about this with Bhikkhu Anālayo and I remained unconvinced of his argument. That was before his published this book. So now let’s examine his argument point by point:

The Aggañña-sutta and its parallels, for instance, present the practice of absorption as something undertaken by ancient brahmins during an early stage in the evolution of human society.

So let’s have a look. Telling a story of the past, the Buddha says:

They put away (bāhenti) evil, immoral customs, Vāseṭṭha, is what is meant by Brahmins, and thus was it that Brahmins became the earliest standing phrase [for those who did so]. They, making leaf huts in woodland spots, meditated therein. Extinct for them the burning coal, vanished the smoke, fallen lies pestle and mortar; gathering of an evening for the evening meal, of a morning for the morning meal, they go down into village and town and royal city, seeking food. When they have gotten food, back again in their leafhuts they meditate. […] They meditate, Vāseṭṭha, is what is meant by the brooding one (jhāyakā).

The term translated here as ‘meditate’ is jhāyanti. Do this specifically refer to the jhānas in the technical sense? I am under the impression that this term refers more generally to meditation, closer to our modern sense of the word, rather than being only applied to jhāna. Please correct me if I’m wrong. But the far more important flaw to this point is yet to come.

Now, he continues:

Now certain of those beings, Vāseṭṭha, being incapable of enduring this meditation in forest leaf-huts, went down and settled on the outskirts of villages and towns, making books. When men saw this, they said: These good beings, being incapable of enduring meditation in forest leaf-huts, have gone down and settled on the outskirts of villages and towns, and there they make books. But they cannot meditate. Now, these meditate not, Vāseṭṭha, is what is meant by Ajjhāyaka (repeaters, viz., of the Vedas).

The Buddha is explaining the etymology of the word Ajjhāyaka. And yet we know that this etymology is entirely false. According to Prof. Richard Gombrich, the Buddha was using satire to make fun of the Brahmins by doing this. As you may know, Ajjhāyaka is a term to denote people who are engaged in learning the Vedas.

And so, if the second part of this story is made up, as satirical fiction, would we not be mistaken to assume that there is any truth in the first part? We cannot reasonable assume that the first part is historical fact when we know that the whole description of the first part is to set it against the second, which we know is fiction.

Let’s take the next point - MN79. OK, I did say ‘specific non-Buddhist individual during the Buddha’s time practicing jhāna’. I should have stuck with that statement referring to pre-Buddhists - I think I have remembered one example of a contemporary. But let’s see this one… While it does not mention any specific individuals who were practicing them, it does mentions that they know and teach about them, so at least have doctrine related to them, up to the 3rd jhāna.

But my main issue with this sutta being used as evidence of pre-Buddhist jhāna, which Analāyo is using it for, is that the Buddha had already been teaching for who knows how long by the time of this conversation. I don’t know if there is any way to date this sutta, but he could already have been teaching for decades. And we know that the Buddha did not even know all of his followers, and nor they he - remember he once stayed the night in a barn with a Buddhist monk who did not recognise him, for he had never met him?

I bring this up to highlight how many people practiced Buddhism at the time of the Buddha, and it would be no surprise if there had been people who had trained in Buddhist practice, and then left the Buddha’s group, perhaps gaining their own students, or for some non-Buddhists to have learned Buddhist practice from some Buddhists. That there were non-Buddhists practising jhāna at the time of the Buddha is no proof that their jhāna practices did not originate from the Buddha.

I raised this point to Anālayo and he had nothing to neutralise this point with.

Here is what Anālayo concludes, however:

this discourse seems to reflect the existence of an ancient form of practice that led up to the attainment of the third absorption.

His note on that sentence reads:

This is explicitly stated in the commentary, Ps III 275,2; Bodhi in Ñāṇamoli 1995/2005: 1287f note 784 explains that according to the commentary these practitioners “knew that in the past meditators would … attain the third jhāna”.

I certainly have no intention of taking the word of the commentaries as factual evidence of what happened before the time of the Buddha!

Anālayo continues:

However, by the time of their meeting with the Buddha, the actual practice to be undertaken to reach that goal had apparently fallen into oblivion.

I do not see any conclusive evidence in the sutta that this group was referring to practice in a time before the Buddha. It mentions no individuals attaining jhāna, only mentioning that they have doctrine about the first 3 jhānas, and I see no mention of any discussion on the age of that doctrine. Thus, no even questionable proof that they are referring to a pre-Buddhist practice. And remember, there were plenty of samanas making new religions a the time, like the Buddha and a number of his contemporaries.

Anālayo’s next point:

Also to be kept mind here is that, during the time of his quest for awakening, the Buddha-to-be trained under the guidance of the two teachers Āḷāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta

I have never seen even a single mention in any Early Buddhist Text of those two practicing or even mentioning jhāna. Yes it is a very common assumption that they did practice jhāna, but as I said, to my knowledge, not a single mention of it. And some very serious problems with the assumption that they did, specifically that it would make the Buddha’s story of him remembering his jhāna experience as a kid, saying he discovered it as a path, and then having to train himself with difficulty to achieve the jhānas step by step!

To find an alternative explanation is hard since we have the assumption that one must go through the 4 jhānas to reach the immaterial attainments. However, I believe that there are potentially explanations which can resolve the problem of those teachers never having taught the Buddha jhāna. If we assume they did, then that seems to make the Buddha’s own account false, so even if we don’t, we are left with a huge problem there.

Anālao’s next point:

Another discourse suggestive of the existence of absorption meditation practices in the ancient Indian setting before the advent of the Buddha is the Brahmajāla-sutta, which together with its parallels examines a range of various views.

Please note the word ‘suggestive’!
Also Anālayo says that this sutta

examines a range of various views

In arguing against another scholar’s point of view, he also states:

This seems to misconstrue the purpose of the discourse, which is not the provision of a survey of actually held views

Am I mistaken in reading this to mean that Anālayo is open to the possibility that not all of these views were actually held?

To me the sutta appears to be a logical analysis of varieties of possible views. Yes, perhaps some of them really were held! But can you see the analytical nature of this survey of views? It seems to me that analysis has been applied to cover the possible permutations of views as hypotheticals, even if some of them (which would be expected in fact) are actually held. That is quite a common strategy in later Buddhist philosophy also, no?

And it also seems likely to me that many of these views could potentially be held by Buddhists, and/or ex-Buddhists. We know that many Buddhists had wrong views. We have plenty of examples of the Buddha confronting monks with wrong views, and correcting them. And even of suttas which are probably from a time after the Buddha, in which we can see debate between different views embodied in the stories by different groups of bhikkhus.

So these of views which relate to jhāna, they could be

  • purely hypothetical

Or if some or all of them are also actually held views, they could be held by

  • Buddhists
  • ex-Buddhists, or
  • people (or groups of people) who have learned from Buddhists or ex-Buddhists

Anālayo does say:

It would hardly work to imagine that the wrong views described in this discourse all came into existence only after early Buddhist practitioners had discovered and then introduced absorption practice as something entirely new in the ancient Indian setting.

But I see no solid evidence to support that assumption. However, this sutta could very well function as a manual of what views to not fall into. Since it lays out the traps methodically, it could have served as a remedy both for any Buddhists at the time, or in the future to come, who had wrong views on this (that would be potentially extremely important, as a check on the views and pitfalls, for people to memorise and spread through the community, as these suttas (assuming it was really from the Buddha’s time, but also even if it was composed later) were presumably used for exactly that - memorised teaching manuals to spread the Buddha’s doctrine to the wide and extended community, most of which were not with the Buddha most (or even all) of the time. This strengthens the idea that this could have been composed as a list of hypotheticals, rather than real contemporary doctrines of non-Buddhists whether in the Buddha’s time or beforehand.

Anālayo makes another point:

In fact, had the Buddha discovered absorption as such, one would be at a loss to understand why the discourses do not celebrate this discovery in a way comparable to their drawing of attention to his discovery of the four noble truths as a teaching unheard of before.

I cannot remember the reference now but I seem to remember a or more than one sutta which does seem to say that the Buddha did discover jhāna. Anyone have the reference? But also might it be worth remembering that the practice of jhāna was neglected greatly - even Buddhaghosa seems not to have practiced jhāna! And the Mahāyāna seem to have abandoned the practice long ago. Could go some way to explain why these non-jhāna practicing transmitters of the texts did not make a bigger deal out of the discovery? Even though, if my memory is right, they did preserve mention of it?

And that’s it - those were his arguments for pre-Buddhist jhāna.

Yeah, sorry I take back about contemporaries

No mention of jhāna. Only assumption. Not an unfair assumption as such, but this is my point - the whole case for pre-Buddhist jhāna appears to be based on assumption, with not even a single solid reference to any individual practicing jhāna before the Buddha renounced Jainism, with the one exception of the Buddha’s own childhood jhāna experience. If the Buddha knew that it was practiced, then I find this total omission extremely strange, to say the least. And even more strange that the Buddha had to teach himself how to attain the first jhāna, and each successive jhāna, step by step, with difficulty! I see no reason to assume that the Buddha’s community believed that jhāna was being practiced before the time of the Buddha. If anyone does have any evidence, I would really like to see it!

Thanks for this detailed argument, you make some great points.

Sometimes SN 2.7 (included in AN 9.42) is quoted to give this idea, but it is a mistake. This was discussed in an earlier thread: