What is meant by "perception of light (āloka-saññā)" in DN 33?

I’m trying to understand this passage from DN 33, “Reciting in Concert”:

And what is the way of developing immersion further that leads to gaining knowledge and vision? A mendicant focuses on the perception of light, concentrating on the perception of day regardless of whether it’s night or day. And so, with an open and unenveloped heart, they develop a mind that’s full of radiance. This is the way of developing immersion further that leads to gaining knowledge and vision.

“Perception of light” is the part I’m wanting to understand, āloka-saññā.

How can one perceive day even when it’s night, light when it is dark? This surely must be a metaphor, but I’m not sure how one would put this into practice.

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Greetings @Duff , I understand that this is about understanding how Perception works, and to purposefully use it to create the conditions for immersion. Knowing how to do this leads to gaining knowledge and vision - it is understanding and being able to master the mind through training. In the verse you quote it gives an example of how to do this, by arousing the perception of light and radiance. In the following verse it clarifies that this is part of the process of knowing how perception works, together with understanding the mechanics of how feelings and thoughts arise, as well as perception. Remember, these are just summaries for recitation, not explicit instructions.

And what is the way of developing immersion further that leads to gaining knowledge and vision? A mendicant focuses on the perception of light, concentrating on the perception of day regardless of whether it’s night or day. And so, with an open and unenveloped heart, they develop a mind that’s full of radiance. This is the way of developing immersion further that leads to gaining knowledge and vision.

And what is the way of developing immersion further that leads to mindfulness and awareness? A mendicant knows feelings as they arise, as they remain, and as they go away. They know perceptions as they arise, as they remain, and as they go away. They know thoughts as they arise, as they remain, and as they go away. This is the way of developing immersion further that leads to mindfulness and awareness.

With regards to exercises for perception (and forgive me I can’t recall the sutta number) the Buddha gives lists of things such as perceiving the beautiful in the ugly, and the ugly in the beautiful, the pleasant in the unpleasant and the unpleasant in the pleasant, etc etc. Theses things are exercises in how perception works. In daily life we can often use these to turn around negative, or unwholesome perceptions > which lead to unbeneficial mind states through the use of skilful means in altering perception. Firstly this is done via mindfulness of what is arising, discriminating if it is wholesome or beneficial, then changing attention to a more beneficial aspect, thereby causing a less wholesome state to be replaced by a more wholesome state. EG one encounters a person and annoyance arises. Being aware of this, one purposefully changes the focus of attention to perceive that persons positive qualities instead of focusing on the negative qualities > resulting in a transformation from a less wholesome to a more wholesome state.

One can become skilled in how perception works by many different exercises. EG one I have frequently used is perceiving warmth when one is physically cold, and thereby feeling warm. It can also be used in managing pain, hunger, etc etc

The paragraph you cited uses the same principle to generate the conditions that lead to immersion… by perceiving light and radiance (no matter if it is night or day or light and dark). I’m not certain if this is meant here, but in my understanding this is also a means to generate Nimitas, and a dissolving into radiance that can carry one into deeper states of meditation.

I hope this is of some use. Of course this is just my understanding and I look forward to hearing how others have interpreted this passage :slight_smile: :pray:

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Thank you for your reply @Viveka.

So if I understand you correctly, “perception” here means to direct your attention to something that is present, which perhaps you haven’t been noticing before, in order to make the mind more wholesome.

Like noticing heat when you are cold, because heat is also there, or noticing someone’s positive qualities you are annoyed with, because they also have positive qualities. In other words “the glass is half full” rather than “half empty.”

So perception of light at night would be to perceive whatever light is actually there, like stars or the moon if outside, or faint light if indoors, not to convince one’s self it is actually daytime when it is night, but to emphasize some aspect of experience to make one’s state more wholesome (perhaps more alert in this case).

I was also wondering if this passage had anything to do with Nimitas, or the inner light that can appear with eyes closed when more concentrated.

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In this case, one can also locate the ‘light within ones own mind’ and as such is not dependent on any ‘external’ sources of light :slight_smile: But as stepping stones to get to this point one can do exactly as you suggest. It is a gradual training :slight_smile:

Best wishes for your practice :slight_smile: :pray: :dharmawheel:

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The sutta Viveka refers to is SN 46.54. However although light is a perception attainment, it begins with meditation on actual light as described explicitly in the Vism. in the meditation on light, and shown here. It must be remembered there are two perspectives, that of the path dealing with conditioned phenomena, and the arahant’s view.

“But, lord, with regard to the property of light… the property of the cessation of feeling & perception: How is the attainment of these properties to be reached?”

“Monk, the property of light, the property of beauty, the property of the dimension of the infinitude of space, the property of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness, the property of the dimension of nothingness: These properties are to be reached as perception attainments.”—SN 14.11

‘Property’ means ‘element’ so light is external light forms.

Also the mechanism of contrast is essential to meditation, and the hallmark of conditioned phenomena. Even nibbana is described as ‘the unconditioned element’ in contrast to the conditioned elements, such as light:

“Monk, the property of light is discerned in dependence on darkness.”—SN 14.11

Practitioners wonder why it is necessary to practice on conditioned phenomena. The answer is to build the necessary skills:

“Suppose that an archer or archer’s apprentice were to practice on a straw man or mound of clay, so that after a while he would become able to shoot long distances, to fire accurate shots in rapid succession, and to pierce great masses.”—AN 9.36

The brightness of mind developed through the observation of daylight in contrast with shadows is able to be recreated at night :

“Here the monk contemplates the perception of light. He fixes his-mind to the perception of the day; as at day-time so at night, and as at night, so in the day. In this way, with a mind clear and unclouded, he develops a stage of mind that is full of brightness.” ----Nyanatiloka

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From what I learn, “gaining knowledge and vision” means psychic power. In my opinion, while psychic power is helpful, it is not mandatory for liberation as many Arahants mentioned in the sutta don’t possess this ability.

Anyway, Ajahn Liem described his perception of light in the book Santi- peace beyond delusion as follows. His practice is grounded in the mindfulness of three characteristics.

https://www.abhayagiri.org/media/discs/APasannoRetreats/2014%20Thai%20Forest%20Tradition/Index.html

“I had a feeling of bliss and bright radiance
within myself, lasting days and nights. The bright light is not like
the light of the sun or any source of light, but it is something
you feel inside that has these radiant qualities.”

"After having practiced for some time in Wat Pah Pong like this,
one day I heard Luang Por Chah give a Dhamma-talk on the
Three Characteristics: impermanence (aniccam),
unsatisfactoriness (dukkham) and not-self (anatta). He
emphasised contemplating the Three Characteristics because he
found that they counteract the three vipallasa-dhammas
(distortions of perception, thought, and views), and the
misjudgements that can come up in meditation when one has
nimittas (visions). Nimittas can confuse people and lead them
into delusion, and can have them deviate from the teachings and
lose the correct path. Luang Por Chah gave advice on this for
more than an hour, and when we dispersed after eight in the
evening, I was thinking to myself, “The Three Characteristics are
good principles to take as one’s foundation. They are a good
basis. No matter what happens, I will ground my attitude in the
Three Characteristics.”

I understand this differently- that knowledge is the wisdom and vision is the immersion required to destroy ignorance /Avija and realize Nibbana, as per AN10.3 If you have a sutta quote that substantiates your interpretation I’d be glad to know. :pray:

When there is no right immersion, one who lacks right immersion has destroyed a vital condition for true knowledge and vision. When there is no true knowledge and vision, one who lacks true knowledge and vision has destroyed a vital condition for disillusionment and dispassion. When there is no disillusionment and dispassion, one who lacks disillusionment and dispassion has destroyed a vital condition for knowledge and vision of freedom.
SuttaCentral.

Absolutely :slight_smile: But there are many methods to work on these realisations. One can use the contemplation of the elements or, for example, one can use the 6 sense bases. If using the sense bases, then understanding how contact works (which includes understanding how thoughts, feelings, attention and perception works ) leads one to seeing the unsatisfactoriness, the impermanence and the non-self characteristics of all mind processes.

Note; In my above post I was giving some more fundamental examples and exercises of the basics of perception, as a lead in to the means of developing the perception of light as a means to samadhi. I’ve found that leading onwards from practicing on everyday things strengthens practice when on the cushion. As skill in generating perception increases, then one can use it in more and more refined ways.

So development of multi-faceted contemplation of the 6 senses, and seeing how contact works, shows the unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) of these processes, as well as their impermanent (anicca) and non-self (anatta) nature. (ie. perceiving the impermanent rather than the permanent etc.) This leads to seeing things as they truly are with wisdom. Combining this with Samadhi is what leads to true knowledge and vision - the destruction of Ignorance/Avija > Freedom.
Developing the perception of light/radiance (as per the OP question) is one method to experiencing samadhi.

Anyway, this is my understanding of these things at this time :slightly_smiling_face:

May all beings find the path to end dukkha :pray: :dharmawheel: :relieved: :butterfly:

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I learn this from someone that in this context, it means psychic power and found the same explanation on this website too. May someone more knowledgeable in Pali sutta enlighten us.

‘Nanadassana’ can be ‘knowledge & vision’ of truth, per SN 56.11, as follows:

As long as my true knowledge and vision about these four noble truths was not fully purified in these three perspectives and twelve respects, I didn’t announce my supreme perfect awakening in this world with its gods, Māras, and Brahmās, this population with its ascetics and brahmins, its gods and humans.

Yāvakīvañca me, bhikkhave, imesu catūsu ariyasaccesu evaṃ tiparivaṭṭaṃ dvādasākāraṃ yathābhūtaṃ ñāṇadassanaṃ na suvisuddhaṃ ahosi, neva tāvāhaṃ, bhikkhave, sadevake loke samārake sabrahmake sassamaṇabrāhmaṇiyā pajāya sadevamanussāya ‘anuttaraṃ sammāsambodhiṃ abhisambuddho’ti paccaññāsiṃ.

‘Nanadassana’ can be the psychic power of ‘knowing & seeing’, per AN 4.41, as follows:

And what is the way of developing concentration that leads to gaining knowing & seeing?

Katamā ca, bhikkhave, samādhibhāvanā bhāvitā bahulīkatā ñāṇadassanappaṭilābhāya saṃvattati?

It’s when a monk focuses on the perception of light, concentrating on the perception of day,

Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu ālokasaññaṃ manasi karoti, divāsaññaṃ adhiṭṭhāti—

regardless of whether it’s night or day.

yathā divā tathā rattiṃ, yathā rattiṃ tathā divā.

And so, with an open and unenveloped heart, they develop a mind that’s full of radiance.

Iti vivaṭena cetasā apariyonaddhena sappabhāsaṃ cittaṃ bhāveti

In my opinion, it just means visualizing bright light as meditation object.

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Thank you for the clarification :pray:t2::slightly_smiling_face:

But I don’t see why this would be classified as a psychic power… I thought usually these are the powers to see past lives, see the destinations of rebirth, mind reading, etc. that may or may not accompany awakening (see sutta link to SN12.70 Susima at the end). Otherwise, knowing and seeing as it really is, is a common refrain to denote breaking through delusion.

Also thanks @paul1 for the sutta refference :slight_smile: :pray:

@prajnadeva Yes :slight_smile: I was just going into the ‘mechanics’ behind it

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In every question knowledge of the difference between the separate perspectives of negotiating the path and the completion of it is necessary.

"“Is the noble eightfold path fabricated or unfabricated?”

“The noble eightfold path is fabricated.”—MN 44

“Misjudgments” means over-valuing light and not putting it in the perspective of the complete path. But understood in context light is a valid attainment and an indication of insight:

"they are not imperfections or defilements in themselves, but may become a basis for them through the arising of pride or delight or by a wrong conclusion that one of the holy paths has been attained. He, however, who is watchful and experienced in insight practice, will know that these states of mind do not indicate attainment of the true path, but are only symptoms or concomitants of insight "—Nyanatiloka

That is incorrect.

“This is the development of concentration that, when developed & pursued, leads to the attainment of knowledge & vision.”—AN 4.41

This means when there is samadhi it is a basis for developing insight.

That is incorrect. Whenever the four noble truths are mentioned in the suttas it means insight as they are attained through right view.

“This is the development of concentration that, when developed & pursued, leads to the attainment of knowledge & vision.”—AN 4.41

This means when there is samadhi it is a basis for developing insight. See “Knowledge and Vision According to Reality:”

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@paul1 Thanks for that fabulous reference by Bhikkhu Analayo ! :smiley:

Note: there is a whole, comprehensive section on knowledge and vision

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This is just my own interpretation and understanding from AN4.41. There are four ways of developing immersion further but only the fourth brings an end to defilements which is the practice to realize four noble truth. The first three, while beneficial and may support the path does not necessarily ends defilements.

An4.41

Mendicants, there are these four ways of developing immersion further. What four? There is a way of developing immersion further that leads to blissful meditation in the present life. There is a way of developing immersion further that leads to gaining knowledge and vision. There is a way of developing immersion further that leads to mindfulness and awareness. There is a way of developing immersion further that leads to the ending of defilements.

MN8 Sallekhasutta (effacement) has an elaboration for the first way. The sutta An4.41 clearly stated that the third way leads only to mindfulness and awareness.

So I infer that the second way’s “knowledge and vision” in this context also doesn’t mean penetrative insight into the four noble truth. In this case, Ven Analayo’s explanation below can fit the bill.

11.2 Knowledge and Vision
The expression “knowledge and vision” features in a range of contexts in the Discourses, covering, for example, direct apperception of what happens in the mind of others (DN II 216);
meditative vision of light and forms (AN IV 302); knowledge of past and future (DN III 134); various supernormal powers (DN I 76); and omniscience (e.g. MN I 92). In such contexts,
“vision”, dassana, stands for a purely mental `seeing’, in fact, in most of these instances “knowledge” and “vision” are of a supernormal type that goes beyond what can be apprehended with the physical eye alone.

that’s a great reply @paul1 - thank you!

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Perception of light is simply what it is, a perception of inner light which is also connected with an inner joy or subtle inner smile. A gladness. Sometimes the mind is so dark, so not present, lazy, so compact. It has no inner light and joy. But in some way one can pick up this inner light and joy again.
In other traditions one calls this presence.

Even when it is dark outside and can taste this inner light. Maybe it is helpful when you also look for inner joy and inner smile when trying to find out what is meant by perception of light.

Maybe it helps to know that saññā is sometimes (and I find better) translated as “conception” rather than perception.

DeSilva in An Introduction to Buddhist Psychology and Counselling (2014) translates as “sense impressions and concepts” and as “cognition”. Somewhat similar to Wayman apparently in Regarding the translation of the Buddhist terms Sanna/samnjna, vinnana/vijnana (1976). This article is unfortunately difficult to get.