What is meant by wakefulness?

What is meant by wakefulness in the gradual training? Is sleep deprivation praised in Buddhism?

Relatedly, there is the question of what the ‘three watches of the night’ are. They are not just mentioned in the tevijja account of awakening, but in quite a few places in the suttas there are prescriptive practices associated with the watches. Apparently, they’re a way of dividing the night that most people spend sleeping into three parts and meditating instead (only lying down for one part). I imagine almost nobody practices in this way anymore.

There’s also the 13th dhutaṅga, which is to never lie down.

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I have witnessed a number of times Thai forest monks who do practice in the middle of the night.
I don’t think it is about sleep deprivation but adjusting the body clock to the most suitable conditions for practice.
This means, in the case of those forest monks, that they would sleep for a few hours in the most hot parts of the day (usually late morning to early afternoon) and this in turn allow them to have hours long sessions of walking or sitting meditation in the late hours of the night or early hours of the morning.


We find in the Grya Sutras (which regulated the rituals for the householders back then) the same expression with the ‘three watches of the night’, and like in Buddhism the brahmacarya was supposed to sleep only during the second watch.

It was kind of a spiritual training of deprivation, the brahmacaryas also had to beg their food, and they had to endure other hardships, like standing all day and sleeping inconveniently. Since it was normal back then also for kshatriyas to become initiated we can assume that Gotama also was a normal initiate in the brahmin system as a child of about 12 years old, and he would have gone through these practices himself.

The sutras don’t really say anything about the purpose of the wakefulness, but mantra recitation might have been a standard feature.


IMO no. There is a strong bias in exerting extraordinary energy and desire in one’s practice, which may seem like a fine distinction compared to “praising sleep deprivation”, but IMO it’s a big distinction. There are two important things that most people don’t consider or realize.

  1. If one keeps brahmacariya well, and noble silence for the majority of the day, able to do jhanas easily, their internal energy becomes far greater than an ordinary person, to the point where very little food is necessary, far less sleep is necessary. For example, this is a real example that buddhists and taoist meditators have done, if you can do 24 hours continuously of 4th jhana comfortably, you’re capable of sitting 7 days straight without moving (not eating, not sleeping). Comfortably, not sleep deprived. In one of Ajahn Brahm’s talks, he talked about a Vietnamese monk who a led a 7 or 10 day retreat and apologized to his students because he needed a rest and sat for 7 days straight. A.Brahm said something like, “they still make monks like that.” I’ve had the experience on noble silence meditation retreats of needing just 1 or 2 hours of sleep per day once I got ramped up into a routine. In AN 3.16, you can see the expected average is 4 hours per day, probably one or two naps (they may just be lying down to rest of the body, not necessarily asleep).

  2. Implications of rebirth. If this present life was all there is, if there was just annihilation at death, the motivations behind so many things don’t make sense. Why would kings, rich people, become monks? Why would people be so motivated and sleep so little if physical death as the end of dukkha?

AN 5.137 appaṃ-supati

AN 5.137 appaṃ-supati-suttaṃ
AN 5.137 Little Sleep
♦ 137. “pañc-ime, bhikkhave,
“five-of-these [people], *********,
appaṃ rattiyā supanti, bahuṃ jagganti.
[get] little night-time sleep, [stay] mostly awake.
katame pañca?
which five?
1. itthī, bhikkhave, puris-ādhippāyā
1. (a) woman, *********, intent-on-a-man
appaṃ rattiyā supati, bahuṃ jaggati.
[gets] little night-time sleep, [stays] mostly awake.
2. puriso, bhikkhave, itth-ādhippāyo
2. (a) man, ***********, intent-on-a-woman
appaṃ rattiyā supati, bahuṃ jaggati.
[gets] little night-time sleep, [stays] mostly awake.
3. coro, bhikkhave, ādān-ādhippāyo
3. (a) thief, *********, intent on theft,
appaṃ rattiyā supati, bahuṃ jaggati.
[gets] little night-time sleep, [stays] mostly awake.
4. rājā VAR, bhikkhave, rāja-karaṇīyesu yutto
4. (a) king, *********, (engaged with his) kingly-duties,
appaṃ rattiyā supati, bahuṃ jaggati.
[gets] little night-time sleep, [stays] mostly awake.
5. bhikkhu, bhikkhave, vi-saṃyog-ādhippāyo
5. (a) monk, *********, intent on severing the bonds,
appaṃ rattiyā supati, bahuṃ jaggati.
[gets] little night-time sleep, [stays] mostly awake.
ime kho, bhikkhave, pañca
These ***, *********, five
appaṃ rattiyā supanti, bahuṃ jaggantī”ti.
[get] sleep little at night but mostly keep awake.
(end of sutta)
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This is correct - samadhi suppresses the hindrances of sleepiness and therefore one needs less sleep. Also a reclusive monk would have little mental and physical exertion therefore needing less sleep. Another factor is what they are doing on either side of the time they are asleep:

"As soon, brahman, as a monk is moderate in eating, the Tathagata disciplines him further, saying: ‘Come you, monk, dwell intent on vigilance; during the day while pacing up and down, while sitting down, cleanse the mind of obstructive mental states; during the middle watch of the night, lie down on the right side in the lion posture, foot resting on foot, mindful, clearly conscious, reflecting on the thought of getting up again; during the last watch of the night, when you have arisen, while pacing up and down, while sitting down, cleanse the mind of obstructive mental states.’ MN107

Whenever I find I need more sleep I find that little things irritating and my mood isn’t positive. In the sutta the Buddha suggests walking (cankama) ?meditation, while cleaning the mind of defilements (‘kilesa’). I think this is a good practice because even if samadhi manages to suppress kilesa during the day time, they are likely to penetrate the samadhi, when it is already compromised with lack of sleep. I think because of this it could be seen as an advanced practice; it does appear early on in the gradual training for Bhikkhus though. Even then, though it isn’t recorded I think Bhikkhus would sleep more fully on some days to rest properly- there is where the Buddha tells Ven Moggallana if walking (cankama) doesn’t keep him awake, to go and get some sleep (AN7.58)!

For householders I think things keep us awake on unpredictable occasions and those opportunities should be taken to watch our minds for defilements and to cleansed the mind of them. It isn’t necessary to stay up as a special practice but it will invariably happen. :slight_smile:

With metta

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There appears to be a custom, at least in some traditions, to meditate all night at times.

There’s a story about Ajahn Chah staying up for all-night Uposatha meditation even while enduring a bad episode of malaria.

Likewise, Ajahn Thanissaro recounts a time when Ajahn Fuang (his mentor) told AT to stay up all night to meditaten with him. AT griped he’d worked hard all day and was tired; AF retorted “Is it going to kill you?”

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Some people, myself included, find that when there aren’t many stressors and meditation is smoothly they just don’t need much sleep. I’m quite happy with 4–6 hours. However, when things are stressful and hectic I need more sleep and I’m more likely to indulge in sleep as an avoidance mechanism than to get up early and do my walking and sitting meditation. In my opinion this is what it is talking about. Not rolling over and negotiating another 10 minutes which turns into


Yes, it happens in forest monasteries. They call it nesajjik in reference to the thirteenth of the 13 dhutanga practices, aka Sitter’s Practice (nesajjik’anga). The 13 practices are found in AN’s Arañña Vagga, and this specific practice is the subject of AN5.186:



Perhaps this is heretical to say, but I’ve thought for awhile now that perhaps the more ‘magical’ aspects of Buddhism may in part be due to sleep deprivation. We know now that a standard side effect of such deprivation is hallucinations. Couple this with the mythic/cosmological milieu of the times or the community and you might get the various devas, yakkhas, etc. appearing or the various magic powers (even a shared hallucination could be manifested by the tremendous power of faith).

Wade Davis, in his book ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow’, describes a way that zombies could exist in Haiti. He claimed (although his claim has been disputed) that the zombie-making mixture features the neurotoxin found in the puffer fish, at the right dosage the poison renders a person in a death-like temporary coma. In Japan however, where puffer fish is eaten as sushi, when a person accidentally succumbs to fugu fish coma — they were merely laid out in the street to see if they revive. No zombification; precisely because (as the theory goes) there was no cultural belief in zombies. I think the thought-world of the culture or community tremendously impacts our experience.

This relates to a doubt I have had with Buddhism. It seems to me at this point that belief in kamma and rebirth is absolutely necessary for right view. But in taking on that belief, even if it is just taken on as a working hypothesis, one primes the mind for the “verifying” the belief (a prime example of confirmation bias at work). The experiment is not truly double-blind as are all good experiments in modern science.


I think also, in addition and no necessary contradiction to what you mentioned, that meditation was shown scientifically to reduce the need for sleep … As also confirmed by anagarikā pasanna (saw her post just after editing the initial draft actually).



Dear Matt,
I think, frankly put, that this is rather unlikely. The effective counteracting of sloth and drowsiness (thīna-middha) was and is an essential part of his teaching and a prerequisite for attaining the mental equipoise necessary for attaining e.g. divine visions (with the so-called dibbacakkhu) – but I think we cannot rule out other occurrences of hallucinations.

I think not necessarily you need this believe to proceed on the path. There were even arahants who did not know their former lives for example … I think the attitude expressed in the caṅki-sutta is of leading importance and advisable:

“If a person has faith, Bhāradvāja, he preserves truth when he says: ‘My faith is thus’; but he does not yet come to the definite conclusion: ‘Only this is true, anything else is wrong.’ In this way, Bhāradvāja, there is the preservation of truth; in this way he preserves truth; in this way we describe the preservation of truth. But as yet there is no discovery of truth." (MN 95)

This is understandably so I think. There is, however, quite some good, substantial food for a quest in verification. Ian Stevenson, for example, collected over 2000 cases of reported recollections of past lives, made by children (exclusively?) . There is also quite some evidence that our consciousness is not bound entirely to our physical body but can take up as a basis a kind of mind-made body (manomayakāya), which finds its correlate professed in Buddhist teachings. This is a short essay, with additional references relevant to this concept: https://puredhamma.net/abhidhamma/gandhabbaya-manomaya-kaya/manomaya-kaya-and-out-of-body-experience-obe/

Much Mettā


Just to add, in a dhamma talk the late Ashin Jatila of Mahasi sasana mentioned how he went about without sleep for around 15 days when he was doing full-time meditation.