Were the 4 jhanas a unique discovery of the Buddha?

If we go by MN 100, it seems that the answer should be ‘yes’:

Could there be another path to awakening?’

Then it occurred to me, ‘I recall sitting in the cool shade of the rose-apple tree while my father the Sakyan was off working. Quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful qualities, I entered and remained in the first absorption, which has the rapture and bliss born of seclusion, while placing the mind and keeping it connected. Could that be the path to awakening?’ Stemming from that memory came the realization: ‘That is the path to awakening!’

Then it occurred to me, ‘Why am I afraid of that pleasure, for it has nothing to do with sensual pleasures or unskillful qualities?’ I thought, ‘I’m not afraid of that pleasure, for it has nothing to do with sensual pleasures or unskillful qualities.’

But then there are all those suttas presenting the so-called arupa jhanas (which the Buddha is supposed to have practiced before awakening) as intermediate stages between the four jhanas and nibbana. This would appear to make the above passage from MN 100 nonsensical.

If the Buddha did discover the jhanas by himself (meaning they weren’t known before him) it is not hard to imagine that people from other sects would adopt them without adopting the rest of the Buddhist doctrine and use them to make their own religion.

Polak has argued (in Reexamining jhanas) that

  1. All those suttas recommending the practice of ‘arupa jhanas’ are late fabrications
  2. One who practices the 4 jhanas can only reach nibbana.

I tend to think that he is wrong about 2. because I think important aspecrs of the practice are to be done outside of jhana

What has the hivemind to say about this?

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Well, the Buddha declares the N8P as the unique discovery of the Buddhas (including those of the past). The simile of the relay chariots shows how Right View… Right Mindfulness are necessary for Right Concentration. If by “the four jhanas” you mean “Right Concentration” then yes, it would appear so.

Retracted speculation

If “the four jhanas” includes other forms of concentration as well, then no.
I think that the suttas were a bit loose here, in that “micca samādhi” also follows the four stages of jhana but that usually the suttas mean only “samma samādhi” when they mention the jhanas. We have to look carefully to see whether that particular sutta means all forms of concentration or only “Right” concentration (which implies the rest of the path).

Hope that helps!

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I mean the four jhanas as described by the stock phrases. Were those four jhanas known before him? (of course whatever is the case they were never practiced as ‘right’ concentration, I imagine everyone agrees on this)

That’s very interesting. I don’t recall seeing this. Would you by any chance have a reference for it?

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There’s been lots of discussion on this forum about this before. The :mag: search icon above might be a good place to start :blush:

For example…

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Thank you Bhante but I have actually done this before creating this topic, and I could not locate any topic dealing in its title with whether the Buddha invented the four jhanas or not.

The topic you link to is a discussion of the arupa jhanas. This topic instead focuses on the 4 jhanas.

If it has already been discussed as a tangent on that thread, does anyone have a link to where the derivation occurred? That thread has over 100 posts. Thank you!

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Ok. Took a minute to look, and indeed the textual evidence for this is slim indeed. So, I retract my previous bit of speculation pending some more reflection on the matter. :slight_smile:

The only hard evidence we have for Jhanas before the Great Awakening is the Bodhisattva sitting under the rose apple tree as a child, right? (And, of course, Paccekabuddhas, but I guess we can set them aside).

So it depends mostly on how you think those pre-awakening arupas were attained. Were they attained via jhana? Or some other way?

This was my reason for referencing the previous discussions :pray::grin:

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This is indeed one important line of inquiry, for which conclusions may be fetched from that other thread.

But there may also be other lines of inquiry, taking the issue from a different angle. For example, if the Buddha did come up with his own new style of meditation, that would explain SN 41.8, which otherwise remains puzzling, as that would imply that Mahavira didn’t know anything about a type of meditation supposedly practiced by various types of ascetics of his time, despite being obviously prone to engaging in debates with them:

Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta said to him, “Householder, do you have faith in the ascetic Gotama’s claim that there is a state of immersion without active nor passive thought; that there is the cessation of active and passive thought?”

“Sir, in this case I don’t rely on faith in the Buddha’s claim that there is a state of immersion without active nor passive thought; that there is the cessation of active and passive thought.”

When he said this, Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta looked up at his assembly and said, “See, good sirs, how straightforward this householder Citta is! He’s not devious or deceitful at all. To imagine that you can stop active and passive thought would be like imagining that you can catch the wind in a net, or dam the Ganges river with your own hand.”

I took the liberty here to edit BS’s translation, as his doesn’t make much sense to me in this passage. Otherwise we have to assume that Mahavira was both so ignorant of meditation techniques that he didn’t know the second jhana existed, but at the same time knew the very specific vocabulary of meditation, which would have been so esoteric that even the EBTs do not have a single instance of these words used in that purported meaning.

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There’s an old thread below discussing the phrase eko’haṃ jhāyaṃ sukhamanubodhiṃ, (SN 4.25, AN 10.26), which is occasionally offered as a proof text (though a very poor one) by those who hold that the Buddha did discover jhāna.

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Thank you Bhante, that’s an interesting reference. Polak also cites SN 2.7 as an indication:

‘‘Sambādhe vata okāsaṃ,
avindi bhūrimedhaso;
Yo jhānamabujjhi buddho,
paṭilīnanisabho munī’’ti.

The one of broad wisdom has indeed found
The opening in the midst of confinement
The Buddha who discovered jhana
The withdrawn chief bull, the sage
(B. Bodhi)

Now a discussion of bujjhati should be in order but unfortunately my computer is under repair so I won’t be able to offer much help at this time

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Good question for early Buddhist studies.

If the 4 jhanas shown in EBTs are not found in other Indian religious traditions, then the 4 jhanas are uniquely discovered or taught by the Buddha.

There’s a lot of dependencies to sort out.

  • Can supernormal powers be attained without jhanas? because the fire ascetics had them.
  • Bahiya Barkcloth could speak to devas and walk vast distances in a short time, and he only met Gotama at the end of his life
  • Didn’t Kondanna have some sort of fortune telling power when Gotama was born
  • Where does the argument begin? At Gotama discovering jhanas, or previous Buddhas? Or are we talking about only during the 80 or so years he was alive.
  • There’s other ascetics that went up to the Buddha and told him that they too overcome the 5 hindrances in their teaching (they just don’t know about no-self)
  • Brahmas were also alive before Gotama was born, don’t they have access to jhanas? Brahma would periodically go down to teach devas, and some devas are known for talking to human ascetics while they’re in seclusion. So I don’t see how information can’t be shared.

Personally I think jhana was common, it’s just that that people didn’t have right view, so their jhana was mundane and with attachment.

Are there EBT sources for these?

We are talking historic and prehistoric times. Previous Buddhas are highly hypothetical

That’s interesting. Do you have the sutta reference for this? Thank you!

Again all this is highly hypothetical

Sutta such as MN 106 show the jhanas were not the only way to develop the immaterial spheres:

Furthermore, a noble disciple reflects: ‘Sensual pleasures in this life and in lives to come, sensual perceptions in this life and in lives to come, visions in this life and in lives to come, perceptions of visions in this life and in lives to come, and perceptions of the imperturbable; all are perceptions. Where they cease without anything left over, that is peaceful, that is sublime, namely the dimension of nothingness.’ Practicing in this way and meditating on it often their mind becomes confident in this dimension. Being confident, they either attain the dimension of nothingness now, or are freed by wisdom. When their body breaks up, after death, it’s possible that the consciousness headed that way will be reborn in the dimension of nothingness. This is said to be the first way of practice suitable for attaining the dimension of nothingness.

Furthermore, a noble disciple has gone to a wilderness, or to the root of a tree, or to an empty hut, and reflects like this: ‘This is empty of a self or what belongs to a self.’ Practicing in this way and meditating on it often their mind becomes confident in this dimension. Being confident, they either attain the dimension of nothingness now, or are freed by wisdom. When their body breaks up, after death, it’s possible that the consciousness headed that way will be reborn in the dimension of nothingness. This is said to be the second way of practice suitable for attaining the dimension of nothingness.

Furthermore, a noble disciple reflects: ‘I don’t belong to anyone anywhere! And nothing belongs to me anywhere!’ Practicing in this way and meditating on it often their mind becomes confident in this dimension. Being confident, they either attain the dimension of nothingness now, or are freed by wisdom. When their body breaks up, after death, it’s possible that the consciousness headed that way will be reborn in the dimension of nothingness. This is said to be the third way of practice suitable for attaining the dimension of nothingness.

MN 106

Note the last method in MN 106 sounds like the annihilationist view below from SN 22.81:

Still, they have such a view: ‘I might not be, and it might not be mine. I will not be, and it will not be mine.’ But that annihilationist view is just a conditioned phenomenon. And what’s the source of that conditioned phenomenon? … That’s how you should know and see in order to end the defilements in the present life.

SN 22.81

Therefore, when Gotama mastered the two arupa meditations in MN 26, the jhanas were not necessarily the method used to master these states.

At least for me, the above passage is generally misconstrued. For me, there is nothing about jhana itself that is the path to awakening. In SN 48.9, the Buddha explains the method to develop jhana is to make vossagga (letting go; surrender) the meditation object. In my opinion, what occurred under the rose-apple tree is young Gotama spontaneously entered jhana without any overt volition to do so. In other words, later, as an samana (monk), Gotama realized letting go or non-attachment was the path to awakening. Then Gotama also realised if this letting go or non-attachment results in the pleasure of jhana, this pleasure is OK. But, for me, the jhana itself is not the path to awakening. In other words, this jhana the Buddha discovered was supramundane (lokuttara) because vossagga is the method used to attain it. Therefore, whatever method was used by the two teachers in MN 26 to attain their immaterial meditation, it obviously was not supramundane (lokuttara). This is my hypothesis. :slightly_smiling_face:

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  • Bahiya talks to a deva and travels great distance in Ud 1.10
  • As for the fire ascetics, I thought it was in the Mahākhandhaka but that’s just the naga battle
  • As for Kondanna, according to Thera 15.1 it appears he based his prophecy on learning the marks of a great man from the vedas, so probably no supernormal power required there.

As for outsiders overcoming the 5 hindrances

Then those bhikkhus went to the park of the wanderers of other sects. They exchanged greetings with those wanderers and, when they had concluded their greetings and cordial talk, sat down to one side. The wanderers then said to them: “Friends, the ascetic Gotama teaches the Dhamma to his disciples thus: ‘Come, bhikkhus, abandon the five hindrances, the corruptions of the mind that weaken wisdom, and develop correctly the seven factors of enlightenment.’ We too teach the Dhamma to our disciples thus: ‘Come, friends, abandon the five hindrances, the corruptions of the mind that weaken wisdom, and develop correctly the seven factors of enlightenment.’ So, friends, what here is the distinction, the disparity, the difference between the ascetic Gotama and us, that is, regarding the one Dhamma teaching and the other, regarding the one manner of instruction and the other?”

  • SN 46.52

The Buddha responds by saying that his 5 hindrances teaching are twofold, internal and external. I take this to mean that the other ascetics only overcome the 5 hindrances externally, i.e. they understand that the lay life is not worth craving/owning hence they’re ascetics and not householders, but they don’t understand that the internal (i.e. mind) is also not worth craving, so they still believe in a self that attains jhanas or that creates intentions.

In general moving into a deeper sublime state like from first jhana to second jhana requires seeing the drawbacks (anicca, dukkha, anatta) of the state before it. The last object to be seen with drawbacks before cessation of perception is “Intention” (cetana). Therefore seeing the drawbacks (i.e. no-self) of intention is overcoming the 5 hindrances internally.

“Poṭṭhapāda, from the time a mendicant here takes responsibility for their own perception, they proceed from one stage to the next, gradually reaching the peak of perception. Standing on the peak of perception they think, ‘Intentionality is bad for me, it’s better to be free of it. For if I were to intend and choose, these perceptions would cease in me, and other coarser perceptions would arise. Why don’t I neither make a choice nor form an intention?’ They neither make a choice nor form an intention. Those perceptions cease in them, and other coarser perceptions don’t arise. They touch cessation. And that, Poṭṭhapāda, is how the gradual cessation of perception is attained with awareness.

  • DN 9
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That’s interesting, thank you

Yet is that not what that passage clearly means? I don’t see how you can reason out not seeing that passage as linking the path to awakening to the first jhana?

I am not sure that this sutta is to be understood in this way.

And what is the faculty of immersion?

Katamañca, bhikkhave, samādhindriyaṁ?

It’s when a noble disciple, relying on letting go, gains immersion, gains unification of mind.

Idha, bhikkhave, ariyasāvako vossaggārammaṇaṁ karitvā labhati samādhiṁ, labhati cittassa ekaggataṁ

It defines ‘samādhindriyaṁ’ (the faculty of immersion), which describes a mature state of mastery of samādhi. It’s not necessarily the same as the method for beginners.

Certainly so, doctrinally, but is it what that passage from MN 100 actually says?

This is a bit of a tricky concept, as I remember. The Mahasanghikas, especially their Lokuttaravadin offshoot, were very fond of it, and it has crept into Pali scriptures too.

Interesting question. The passage certainly seems to suggest that Buddha discovered something new in meditation.

Myself, I like SN 41.8 where Citta says to the Jain:

Well sir, whenever I want, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskillful qualities, I enter and remain in the first absorption, which has the rapture and bliss born of seclusion, while placing the mind and keeping it connected. And whenever I want, as the placing of the mind and keeping it connected are stilled … I enter and remain in the second absorption. And whenever I want, with the fading away of rapture … I enter and remain in the third absorption. And whenever I want, giving up pleasure and pain … I enter and remain in the fourth absorption.

And so, sir, since I know and see like this, why should I rely on faith in another ascetic or brahmin who claims that there is a state of immersion without placing the mind and keeping it connected; that there is the cessation of placing the mind and keeping it connected?

SN 12.10 seems to indicate that cessation via understanding dependent origination is new.

Cessation, cessation. Such was the vision, knowledge, wisdom, realization, and light that arose in me regarding teachings not learned before from another.

What fascinates me in the passage from MN 100, however, is mention of the cool shade of the rose apple tree almost in the same breath as seclusion from sensual pleasures and unskillful qualities.

Have you read Venerable Anālayo’s paper A Brief History of Buddhist Absorption? The whole paper is worth reading, but the first section is on Pre-Buddhist absorption. He provides evidence that jhāna was known and practiced before the Buddha’s awakening.

BriefHistoryBuddhistAbsorption.pdf (475.0 KB)

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That’s faulty reasoning. If Jhana aren’t found in other traditions it doesn’t then follow that they are uniquely discovered or taught by the Buddha.

In DN 1 there are non-Buddhists who practice all 4 Jhanas.

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Hi Christopher, thank you, I had not read this particular document before. Unfortunately I don’t find that this article provides such evidence.

I have learned to take Bhante Analayo’s conclusions with a grain of salt, as he sometimes tries to infer much more from the text than what is reasonable, at times using contrived yet very far reaching deductions from tiny passages without properly considering the likelihood of textual corruption over 500 years of oral transmission.

Such evidence as we are talking would be provided by a description of anything resembling the four jhanas in ancient Hindu texts, they are not to be sought in late Buddhist fabrications. What Polak has found is that at best some of the Buddhist vocabulary is used, but reinterpreted to fit long standing Hindu practice and thus not describing the 4 jhanas.

Yes indeed but apparently there are a number of indications that DN 1 should not be taken entirely at face value and is most likely a late fabrication. Polak explains that Buddhist generations following the Buddha’s passing came to consider jhanas as not being purely Buddhist, which would only make sense even if the Buddha did discover jhana:

A couple hundred years down the line the jhanas would have been practiced by other sects for so long that the Buddhists may have thought this had always been the case, even before the Buddha.