Was there a conflict between scholars and meditators?

Note: This essay has been modified following the remarks by @Senryu in this post. My thanks to him for helping me with this.


In AN 6.46 we have an interesting discussion of conflicts between two groups of mendicants. The text gives an idea of some of the tensions that emerged in the Sangha in the years following the Buddha’s death. It has attracted several translations and discussions.

However, most, if not all, of this attention has worked under the assumption that the conflict is between scholars and meditators. This assumption is based on the commentary and is not supported by the text. The conflict recorded in the text is between two groups of meditators, one who emphasize wisdom, and the other who emphasize serenity.


The text is a rare discourse given by Ven Mahācunda, who has a connection with Ven Sāriputta, and is regarded in the tradition as his younger brother. Be that as it may, his approach to Dhamma emphasizes understanding in a way similar to Sāriputta, as evidenced in his Theragāthā verse at Thag 2.11:

It is from wishing to learn that learning grows;
When you are learned, understanding grows;
Through understanding, you know the goal;
Knowing the goal brings happiness.

AN 6.46 is set in Ceti, with no mention of the Buddha, and for these reasons it is probable that it is set some time after the Buddha’s death. So it has been taken as evidence for the situation in the Sangha in that time, and has attracted a fair amount of modern discussion. However I now believe that discussion has been led astray by the commentary.

The text sets up an opposition between two groups of mendicants, who sometimes criticize each other, or else only praise mendicants similar to themselves. Cunda points out that this is not very useful, and encourages the Sangha to appreciate each group for their good qualities. So far, so good.

Why dhammayogis are not scholars

The problem with the text is the exact nature of these two groups. One of them is the jhāyi, literally “practitioners of jhāna”. Jhāna in such cases is often translated more vaguely as “meditation”, which is how Ven Bodhi translates it. But I feel that this loses the specific meaning of the word; and I think this text bears this out.

For the other group the text uses a unique term, dhammayoga. How we read the sutta depends how we read this term.

The term is made up of the two elements dhamma and yoga. The problem is not that these terms are obscure, but that they’re too common. They both occur frequently, and in many different senses. So we have to figure out exactly what sense is meant here.

Yoga and associated terms often have the sense of “commitment to, devotion to”, and this is followed by Ven Thanissaro, with his “Dhamma-devotee” and Hare, with “Dhamma-zealot”. Ven Bodhi’s translation is a little more useful; he has “Dhamma specialist”. None of these translators venture to actually translate dhamma.

However, yoga rarely, if ever, is applied to the theoretical side of Dhamma. Almost always it is used for the practice, and often enough it means simply “meditation”. It seems to me we’d need strong reasons to take it as referring to study as opposed to practice.

These modern interpretations rely on the commentary. Leaving the crucial terms untranslated, it says:

Dhamme yogo anuyogo etesanti dhammayogā. Dhammakathikānaṃ etaṃ nāmaṃ
Those who yoga, and keep on yoga-ing, in the Dhamma are the “Dhammayogis”. This is a term for Dhamma teachers.

So the commentary explicitly identifies dhammayogis as those who teach Dhamma, leading to the opposition between these and those who meditate.

However, there is nothing else in the text to support this idea. There are a couple of things that might be held to support it, but they disappear on closer inspection.

  1. Near the end of the text, the dhammayogis are said to understand the deep atthapada. Thanissaro translates this correctly as “statements of deep meaning”, whereas Ven Bodhi is a little more vague with his “deep and pithy matter”. Atthapada refers to a “statement” or “saying” whose meaning is drawn out by wisdom. But being able to understand a statement doesn’t mean that you’re a scholar. It means that you’re wise. Everyone would have known many teachings of the Dhamma, even the most reclusive and contemplative. The point here is that such people find their path to insight through understanding of the teachings.

  2. The dhammayogis are criticized for being sloppy, loose-tongued, and unmindful. This feels like it could be a criticism of study monks, but the text does not make this association, and so far as I know, it is not made elsewhere. In fact, it is a stock description that is quite frequently applied to forest monks, eg. SN 9.13, Ud 4.2, SN 2.25, AN 6.59. The point of the passage, it would seem, is that such mendicants have forsaken the gradual training, in other words, they are not fulfilling the factors that support samādhi.

What the text is really about

It’s always a bad idea to base your interpretation on ambiguous terms. Let’s start with things that can be established more firmly and work from there.

At the end of the sutta, each of the groups of mendicants is encouraged to praise the other. Here are the specific qualities that are mentioned:

The jhāyis:

amataṃ dhātuṃ kāyena phusitvā viharanti
have direct meditative experience of the deathless element

The dhammayogis:

gambhīraṃ atthapadaṃ paññāya ativijjha passanti
see a deep and meaningful saying after penetrating it with wisdom

This kind of terminology is well established, and often occurs together, eg. SN 48.50, SN 48.53:

Kāyena ca phusitvā viharati; paññāya ca ativijjha passati

This refers to the distinction between those who emphasize tranquillity in meditation, and those who emphasize wisdom. As I argued extensively in A Swift Pair of Messengers, this is meant solely by way of emphasis, not exclusion. Every realized practitioner has both wisdom and samādhi.

This distinction is recognized in many places in the suttas, with such pairs as the saddhānusāri and dhammānusāri (“faith-follower” and “dhamma-follower”), the kāyasakkhi and paññāvimutta (“direct witness” and “wisdom-freed”), etc.

These latter two are combined in the ubhatobhāgavimutta, whose mastery of both these aspects is described in familiar terms as:

kāyena phusitvā viharati, paññāya ca naṃ pajānāti

Note also the use of dhamma in the context of wisdom for the dhammanusari. This usage echoes the similar contrast between ajjhattaṃ cetosamatha and adhipaññādhammavipassanā (“inner serenity” and “higher wisdom of discernment into principles”). We also have dhammavicaya and dhammānupassanā in the same sense; and I think dhammayoga fits here too. In all these cases dhamma means “principles”, in the sense of understanding the “principles” of cause and effect that underlie the four noble truths and so on.

It would be highly unusual, if not unique, for the suttas to use terminology like “sees after penetrating with wisdom” for someone who had merely studied the teachings. The two meanings of dhamma as “teaching” and “principle, phenomena” are often conflated in wisdom contexts, and in some cases the suttas themselves invoke both meanings in the same context; I’m thinking of the canonical explanations of dhammavicaya. Dhamma spans both “teachings that point to the truth”, and “truth to which the teachings point”.

The Commentary addresses this problem:

Paññāya ativijjha passantīti sahavipassanāya maggapaññāya paṭivijjhitvā passanti. Imasmiṃ panatthe sammasanapaṭivedhapaññāpi uggahaparipucchāpaññāpi vaṭṭatiyevāti
"Sees after penetrating with wisdom" means they see after penetrating with the wisdom of the path together with insight. In this case the wisdom of scrutiny and penetration (i.e. insight meditation and realization) and the wisdom of learning and questioning are both operating.

Here the commentary shows that it recognizes that study alone is not a path to realization.


The sutta is not introducing a unique case where there is conflict between scholars and meditators. It is a new take on the well-known distinction between those who emphasize wisdom, like Sāriputta, and those who emphasize samādhi, like Moggallāna. Its interest lies in that it is the first text to overtly suggest an actual conflict between these groups.

I think dhammayogi means “those who practice discernment of principles”, and jhāyi means “practitioner of meditative absorption”. Perhaps we could use “insight meditators” and “jhāna meditators”. But I’m reluctant to use terminology so closely associated with the modern insight movement, which espouses a more extreme dissociation between these groups than anything found in the suttas. Finding a translation that is both elegant and clear is not easy, but in such a case clarity is more important.

There are strong textual reasons to reject the commentarial explanations of this sutta, and to revise the modern translations based on it. The commentaries have a very different take on samatha and vipassanā as compared to the suttas, and their explanations on this topic should always be questioned.

Please note, though, that these remarks are only meant to apply to the commentarial interpretation of this particular topic. It does not mean that they are equally unreliable in all areas. There are, it is true, other topics subject to a similar distortion. But in many cases, especially when they have no doctrinal axe to grind, they are still very helpful.


Thanks Bhante, for the really interesting exposition.


Thank you Bhante.

1 Like

Thanks for the mention!

Since this has changed from matter to saying, is it perhaps a good idea to change ‘see’ to ‘understand’? We don’t really ‘see’ a statement, right? But I think passanti can also mean something like ‘understand’…?

1 Like

I see what you mean.

Okay, so you see what I did there?

I made a pun based on the question, you see.

But now it’s getting out of control, I see that. I can’t stop myself!

I’ll see myself out.


[edit: I managed to delete this somehow writing another comment, so I am uploading it again]
Ah ha ha! :joy:
But, seriously, “see a deep and meaningful saying” doesn’t make sense to me as natural English. Seeing it after penetrating it with wisdom - what are we meaning? Your example is good, because you said:

You have specified that it is the meaning of my statement that you have seen. Not the statement itself. In fact, since we are using a visual medium, you did see it, but you only understood it after you saw it! In this case, the ‘seeing’ is the result of ‘penetrating it with wisdom’. On the other hand if you had not referred to the meaning, and just said “I see what you wrote (i.e. my ‘sayings’)” then it might even have implied that you had not understood them.

So if you really do mean this with the sense of “I see what you mean”, then I think it is necessary to use the most important part of that sentence - ‘mean’. Thus we arrive at the meaning of your sentence: “I understand what you mean”.

I think that is clear, but just to add, it is possible to see a ‘deep and meaningful saying’ without understanding it. But if it does mean understand as you seem to be suggesting, then I feel that the meaning will be more clearly and intelligible communicated by:

Because it’s incredibly rare to find individuals in the world who understand a deep and meaningful saying after penetrating it with wisdom.

1 Like

A compromise if you want to keep ‘see’ but still clearly reveal the meaning of the sentence, could be:

Because it’s incredibly rare to find individuals in the world who see the meaning of a deep and meaningful saying after penetrating it with wisdom.

Or if you want to get away from using the word ‘meaning/ful’ twice, something like:

Because it’s incredibly rare to find individuals in the world who see the meaning of a deep, beneficial saying after penetrating it with wisdom.

Taking the ‘beneficial’ meaning from the PED entry for attha:

interest, advantage, gain; (moral) good blessing, welfare; profit, prosperity, well – being

– pada a profitable saying, a word of good sense


I thought this, too, maybe “see the meaning of a deep saying” would be best.

The closer I look at AN 4.192, the more I think the relevant passage is about how someone interprets the sense of a passage while in a conversation. This is, of course, the overall context, but the specific readings should, I believe, reflect this more closely.

The comm. says pañhāsamudāhāro means to ask a question. But samudāhāro seems elsewhere to mean “discussion, conversation”. I think it means while “discussing a problem”.

And then the related verb udāharati, which is quite rare, yet has been read as simply “state”. But the root sense is more like “draw out the implications”, i.e. “clarify a statement or situation”, i.e. “interpret”. So now I am translating the passage:

Take a person who is discussing with someone else. They come to know: ‘Judging by this venerable’s approach, by what they’re getting at, and by how they discuss a question, they’re witless, not wise. Why is that? This venerable does not interpret a deep and meaningful saying that is peaceful, refined, beyond the scope of reason, subtle, comprehensible to the astute. When this venerable speaks on Dhamma they’re not able to explain the meaning, either briefly or in detail. They can’t teach it, assert it, establish it, open it, analyze it, or make it clear. This venerable is witless, not wise.’

1 Like

Great, seems very good! By the way I was editing my post above while you were composing yours I think, so you likely missed a part. I found a solution for avoiding using ‘meaning/ful’ twice. I see you left the second one out entirely with “see the meaning of a deep saying” but I think there is a way to allow passanti to have ‘see the meaning’ while still keeping attha in the translation, as ‘beneficial’. See above:

Cool, seems great! Interesting distinction.

In case it’s useful for reference, I just checked the canon (DPR) for udāhāra (utterance, speech) but searching udāhār gives only results for compounds:

pañhāsamudāhāro (4) piyasamudāhāro (8) piyasamudāhārā (1)

udāhar gives more:

aniccatamudāhari (3) udāharitabbaṃ (5)
udāharaṇato (1) udāharissati (2)
udāharati (4) udāhareyya (16)
udāharatīti (2) tamudāhareyya (1)

Does your interpretation of udāharati also fit as justified in these contexts also?

Here in AN 4.192, just to recap, you have changed (if I am understanding correctly) your translation from:

This venerable does not articulate matters that are deep, peaceful, refined, beyond the scope of reason, subtle, comprehensible to the astute.


This venerable does not interpret a deep and meaningful saying that is peaceful, refined, beyond the scope of reason, subtle, comprehensible to the astute.

This section does start specifically by stating:

You can get to know a person’s wisdom by discussion

So we know that this context at least includes or revolves around actually speaking. And it continues - I highlight the ‘speaking’ words below:

Take a person who is discussing with someone else. They come to know:

‘Judging by this venerable’s approach, by what they’re getting at, and by how they discuss [replaces articulate] a question, they’re witless, not wise.

Why is that?

This venerable does not interpret [replaces articulate - here follows your new version only] a deep and meaningful saying that is peaceful, refined, beyond the scope of reason, subtle, comprehensible to the astute. When this venerable speaks on Dhamma they’re not able to explain the meaning, either briefly or in detail. They can’t teach it, assert it, establish it, open it, analyze it, or make it clear. This venerable is witless, not wise.’

Could this perhaps support the reading of udāharati as “to utter, recite. speak.” (PED)?

In our previous conversation, I had suggested the translations ‘deep doctrine’, and ‘deep teaching’ for gambhīraṃ atthapadaṃ. This was influenced by the PED explanation for atthapadaṃ: “a profitable saying, a word of good sense, text, motto”. I believe that a ‘saying’, ‘text’ or ‘motto’ in this context would better be worded as a ‘doctrine’ or ‘teaching’.

Whereas ‘sayings’ and ‘mottos’ do not convey the spiritual content that these would surely have in this context, and may mislead the reader into thinking that they are common mottos or sayings; the sayings, mottos and texts which we are concerned with here in the context of dhamma discussion will all be what we as English speakers could designate as ‘doctrines’ or ‘teaching’.

Looking at this matter you have now raised, could it not seem that these are even more favourable choices now?

Following the PED on udāharati (which is close to your original ‘articulate’) with this sense perhaps of reciting (which would seem very appropriate for ‘speaking on the dhamma’ in the oral context of the sangha), we could get something like this:

This venerable does not recite a deep and beneficial doctrine/teaching that is peaceful, refined, beyond the scope of reason, subtle, comprehensible to the astute. When this venerable speaks on Dhamma they’re not able to explain the meaning, either briefly or in detail. They can’t teach it, assert it, establish it, open it, analyze it, or make it clear. This venerable is witless, not wise.’

We also have a logical sequence here. Yours would be as follows:

  • interpret
  • When this venerable speaks on Dhamma they’re not able to:
  • explain the meaning
  • teach it,
  • assert it,
  • establish it,
  • open it,
  • analyze it,
  • make it clear.

With the ‘speaking’ meaning, as embodied above by ‘recite’, we have instead:

  • recite (/speak)
  • When this venerable speaks on Dhamma they’re not able to:
  • explain the meaning
  • teach it,
  • assert it,
  • establish it,
  • open it,
  • analyze it,
  • make it clear.

Both make sense. But they are different. Your guy might be able to actually recite ‘a deep and beneficial doctrine/teaching’, just not interpret it, explain the meaning, etc. And so we would expect since he can’t interpret it, so far as not being able to interpret it, explain the meaning, etc.

However, my guy can’t even recite/articulate ‘a deep and beneficial doctrine/teaching’.

And the fact that he is ‘speaking on dhamma’, but not being able to teach it, assert it, and establish it, would support the idea that he cannot recite/articulate ‘a deep and beneficial doctrine/teaching’. The doctrine which he does or can articulate, is indeed not ‘deep and beneficial’.

Perhaps an analysis of the other occurences of this verb in the canon could bring clarity?


Another fascinating essay!

Probably two of the most ambiguous terms in the whole of Indian religious textual history — combined!

Not just an interesting bit of textual exposition/analysis on this specific sutta, but also providing a deeper understanding of related dhamma principles, wisdom.

Dhammayogis from the description seem like contemplators/contemplatives in plain language, perhaps something like wise hermits without much regard for conventions — something like Diogenes.

I’d like to ask something relevant that I don’t think was really touched on in A History of Mindfulness nor this essay. How did the idea that jhāna is dangerous come about?

In DN 1 you have (also in DN 16):

Still, at least I was consoled by the thought that

dhammāpi maṃ na paṭibhanti bhagavato gelaññena, api ca me, bhante, ahosi kācideva assāsamattā:

the Buddha won’t become finally extinguished without making some statement regarding the Saṅgha of mendicants.”

‘na tāva bhagavā parinibbāyissati, na yāva bhagavā bhikkhusaṃghaṃ ārabbha kiñcideva udāharatī’”ti.


‘I’ll take charge of the Saṅgha of mendicants,’ or ‘the Saṅgha of mendicants is meant for me,’ let them make a statement regarding the Saṅgha.
‘ahaṃ bhikkhusaṃghaṃ pariharissāmī’ti vā ‘mamuddesiko bhikkhusaṃgho’ti vā, so nūna, ānanda, bhikkhusaṃghaṃ ārabbha kiñcideva udāhareyya.

In AN 5.166 you have:

When he had spoken, the Holy One got up from his seat and entered his dwelling.

Idaṃ vatvāna sugato uṭṭhāyāsanā vihāraṃ pāvisi.

Then, not long after the Buddha had left, Venerable Ānanda went to Venerable Upavāṇa and said to him:

Atha kho āyasmā ānando acirapakkantassa bhagavato yenāyasmā upavāṇo tenupasaṅkami; upasaṅkamitvā āyasmantaṃ upavāṇaṃ etadavoca:

“Reverend Upavāṇa, they’ve been harassing other senior mendicants,

“idhāvuso upavāṇa, aññe there bhikkhū vihesenti.

but I didn’t question them.

Mayaṃ tena na muccāma.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Buddha says something about this when he comes out of retreat later this afternoon. He might even call upon Venerable Upavāṇa himself.

Anacchariyaṃ kho, panetaṃ āvuso upavāṇa, yaṃ bhagavā sāyanhasamayaṃ paṭisallānā vuṭṭhito etadeva ārabbha udāhareyya yathā āyasmantaṃyevettha upavāṇaṃ paṭibhāseyya.

And right now I feel timid.”

Idāneva amhākaṃ sārajjaṃ okkantan”ti.

There are occurences in SN 47.9 also but the Pāli+English isn’t up yet. Also didn’t look in the KN and vinaya examples since I don’t think we have translations of them with the Pāli either.

I have to say thanks again for making the Pāli and English available side by side! It’s so useful.

I have the sense that the ‘speaking’ interpretation seems to fit in these cases better than ‘interpreting’ but I’m not sure - seeing the other instances could be useful. But what do you think?


Verses on the Treasury of Abhidharma

by Vasubandhu (fl. 4th to 5th century CE)

Chapter VIII - The Absorptions

saddharmo dvividhaḥ śāsturāgamādhigamātmakaḥ|
dhātārastasya vaktāraḥ pratipattāra eva ca||39||

The nature of the Good Law of the Master is twofold, āgama and adhigama. Those who preach it and who cultivate it support it.

āgama:[m.] 1. coming; approach; 2. religion; scripture;
Adhigama,[fr. adhigacchati] attainment,acquisition;

In fact the reading of pañhāsamudāhāra (“conversation on a question”) was influenced by piyasamudāhāra (“delightful conversation”).

I think what it specifically refers to is that in reciting or conversing about Dhamma (i.e. a sutta passage) that they can (or can’t) draw out (ud-ā-√har) the meaning (attha) of a passage or line or saying (pada) in that Dhamma. That attha mans “meaning” here rather than benefit is confirmed by the following line:

Yañca ayamāyasmā dhammaṃ bhāsati, tassa ca paṭibalo saṅkhittena vā vitthārena vā atthaṃ ācikkhituṃ
When this venerable speaks on Dhamma they’re able to explain the meaning, either briefly or in detail.

I think that each of these cases has a special quality in common, in that they refer either directly or indirectly to a statement that addresses and perhaps solves a specific problem. And this is where I feel the term still draws on its etymological sense (with due regard for the fact that etymology is one of the worst guides to meaning!). That might be the interpretation of a passage, addressing a disciplinary issue, or making a pronouncement about what will happen to the Sangha when the Buddha passes. Rendering them as “statement” and the like is, I think, correct, although I would like to find a word that was a little more specific. Still, “statement” or “pronouncement” are used in such cases in English, so maybe that’s the best we can do.

Interesting, thanks for the quote. Similar statements are found in the Pali commentaries, although I haven’t got the details to hand.

Well, it was a gradual process, and I haven’t studied it in detail. But it would be interesting to see where the first references occurs to jhana as actively dangerous—rather than the more moderate vipassanavada doctrine that jhana is merely superfluous.

I suspect that many of the roots of the modern vipassanavada can be discerned in the writings of Ledi Sayadaw. I read some of his treatises long ago, but can remember little of them now. He was incredibly influential in the Burmese tradition, and is one of the first serious writers on Buddhism in modern times from a traditional Theravada background. I remember him writing about breath meditation, and I don’t believe he endorsed the full details of the later Mahasi doctrine, but if I was to look for the roots of that doctrine, that’s where I’d start.


Bhante, can I ask you to clarify, as you see it, exactly what the juxtaposition is between kāyasakkhi and paññāvimutta? Usually, paññāvimutta is juxtaposed with ubhatobhāgavimutta, which always seemed unbalanced to me, i.e.: insight vs. insight and serenity. The insight vs. serenity implied in holding the paññāvimutta up against the kāyasakkhi would seem to make more sense if not for the fact that the kāyasakkhi is nowhere held to be a fully liberated one. If I’m not mistaken, don’t other, non-Theravādin traditions have different views views regarding to soteriological value of serenity practices? specifically, nirdoha samāpatti. Also, I’ve been reading quite a few scholars challenging the traditional Theravādin view on the place of cetovimutti and associated practices such as the Brahma vihāras on the path to Nibbāna. Can you clarify things a little for me, please? Thank you.

Yes, actually I was not questioning your interpretation of pañhāsamudāhāra. I think that was fair. It was your interpretation of udāharati that I was questioning.

You have translated pañhāsamudāhāra as ‘discuss a question’, and udāharati as ‘interpret’.

pañhāsamudāhāra - if we analyse it as:
‘inquiry, investigation, question’ + ‘together’ + 'speak’
then sure, ‘discuss a question’ fits very well. Together-speaking naturally implies conversation. And udāharati need not mean “draw out” for this to be correct.

Similarly, piyasamudāhāra makes sense as “delightful conversation” on the same basis, and this translation does not even imply ‘drawing out’.

So I do not yet see reasoning (except for your etymological argument, which if true, should stand up in the different contexts in the canon), for translating:

Tathā hi ayamāyasmā na ceva gambhīraṃ atthapadaṃ udāharati santaṃ paṇītaṃatakkāvacaraṃ nipuṇaṃ paṇḍitavedanīyaṃ.


This venerable does not interpret a deep and meaningful saying that is peaceful, refined, beyond the scope of reason, subtle, comprehensible to the astute.

If we may take another look at my attempt. I highlight my departures from your translation:

As I explained above, my tranlation of udāharati is sticking to one of the definitions in the dictionary. But last night as I was about to sleep, there occured aother reason why this is perhaps a very suitable choice. Re-cite.

As I mentioned above,

I explained more in that comment about why I think doctrine/teaching is in my opinion a good choice.

So this person is udāharati-ing a deep atthapada. Whether or not we translate atthapada as ‘beneficial doctrine/teaching’, I think we can agree that memory recall is involved. If we udāharati a ‘saying’, ‘text’ or ‘motto’, we are accessing our memory, and then udāharati-ing what we have remembered.

If we go with udāharati meaning something like ‘speak’ or ‘make a statement’ (PED: to utter, recite. speak.), then re-cite seems particularly apt for anyone ‘speaking’ a motto/text/saying. Etymologically, recite comes from the latin recitāre.

  • re - back, backwards / again; prefix added to various words to indicate an action being done again
  • citāre - present active infinitive of citō (“I summon”)

We are going back to summon from our memory, I suppose, what we are going to say. This may even be connected to what you said about “drawing out”. We draw it out from within us! Although another kind of drawing out could be the drawing from mind to speech, or the someone who draws out words from themselves, so to speak. So I am not implying that this etymology has to make this word mean a form of remembering necessarily. Anyway, our character is indeed ‘drawing out’, ‘summoning’, the sayings/teachings/dhamma verses, from his memory. This is implied by the meaning ‘motto’, ‘text’ etc.

And the English definition of recite (ODE):

Repeat aloud or declaim (a poem or passage) from memory before an audience

This seems to fit perfectly in the context of gambhīraṃ atthapadaṃ udāharati.

I’ve encountered it myself in two forms. One is from modern lay vipassanā sources (usually American) who hold that jhāna is a danger because it’s very pleasant and one therefore runs the risk of becoming attached to it and failing to advance further. Those who say this aren’t usually the sort of teachers who are given to citing texts in support of their views, but of the few who are the favourite “proof text” seems to be the Mahāsāropama Sutta. This does indeed record the possibility of a bhikkhu arriving at concentration and then becoming satisfied with that and failing to advance further. It doesn’t suggest, however, that for this reason one should simply skip developing concentration.

The second form is a more elaborate one that I’ve occasionally met with in Thailand. The argument goes something like this:

  1. If you strive for jhāna you’ll probably fail.
    (This view is derived from the Visuddhimagga, especially chapter XII where Buddhaghosa presents jhāna as a one in a million attainment).


  1. If you succeed then it will be even worse! Why? Because in the present degenerate age you will not be able to use your jhāna as a basis for insight development.
    (This is supported by a commentarial account of how the Dhamma declines; its prophetic description holds that the attainment of arahantship via samatha-vipassanā is only possible during the first five hundred years of the Buddha’s dispensation. After that attainment can only be via dry insight).


  1. You will die a puthujjana, be reborn in the Brahmā realms and when your jhānic merit is exhausted you will pass away and fall into the lower realms.
    (This is based on the Nānākaraṇa and Āneñja Suttas; AN4.123; AN3.116).

Therefore, so the argument goes, jhānic development in this degenerate age is at best a waste of time and at worst a path to hell:

“Here, bhikkhus, secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, some person enters and dwells in the first jhāna, which consists of rapture and pleasure born of seclusion, accompanied by thought and examination. He relishes it, desires it, and finds satisfaction in it. If he is firm in it, focused on it, often dwells in it, and has not lost it when he dies, he is reborn in companionship with the devas of Brahmā’s company. The life span of the devas of Brahmā’s company is an aeon. The worldling remains there all his life, and when he has completed the entire life span of those devas, he goes to hell, to the animal realm, or to the sphere of afflicted spirits. But the Blessed One’s disciple remains there all his life, and when he has completed the entire life span of those devas, he attains final nibbāna in that very same state of existence. This is the distinction, the disparity, the difference between the instructed noble disciple and the uninstructed worldling, that is, when there is future destination and rebirth.”
(Nānākaraṇa Sutta. Bh. Bodhi tr.)

As to when such thinking began, I really don’t know, though it wouldn’t surprise me if it had been around for quite a while. I mean in almost any age one could imagine a Buddhist samatha meditator reading the Nānākaraṇa Sutta and then reasoning: “Hmmm, I’ve attained the first jhāna, but I’m not yet an ariyasāvaka. And since I’ve no idea if I’m anywhere close to becoming an ariyasāvaka perhaps it would be prudent to give the samatha a rest so as to avoid the risk of a sojourn in the Brahmā realms followed by one in the Apāya.”


Good article, @sujato. I think the conclusion you presented about the two types of mendicants are realistic. Sadhu!

With metta

Thanks so much, venerable, this is very interesting. Such regional differences often go unnoticed. I wonder whether such views are current in other Theravadin regions, too?

1 Like

I’m not sure, bhante.

I do know that the prophecy-based argument that I outlined earlier is to be found in Burma, for one of the most vocal proponents of it in Thailand, Achaan Naeb Mahaniranonda, learned it from her Burmese teacher, Sayadaw U Vilāsa, late abbot of Wat Prog. But I’ve no idea if it’s a prevalent view in Burma or just a fringe one.


Ha, I thought it sounded like Ajahn Naeb. Too well informed for a village belief!

1 Like