What nimitta in EBT means, in samādhi and jhāna contexts

I was carefully studying SN 47.8, which contains the simile of the skillful & unskillful cook is used to show how learning the sign (nimitta), leads to obtaining pleasant abiding here and now, which is a code phrase for the first 3 jhānas (AN 6.29), or all 4 jhānas (AN 4.41).

From the simile its clear V&V (vitakka & vicara) is doing much more than V&V-SKF (samatha kung fu), that is, the mind is glued to a white patch of light and sticking to it to enter a frozen type of samādhi as defined in Vism. For the cook to be skillful, he obviously has to do way more than just forcefully following a recipe. He has to observe how the king is reacting, and remember thing, note what things to not do, what things he still needs to do to adjust the book recipe. Vism. definition of V&V clearly would not be sufficient to do all that.

But one thing that puzzled me, is the pali words V&V never actually appear in that sutta SN 47.8. But this is a recurring pattern. In SN 47.10 also, the word nimitta is used, where V&V clearly would be involved, but the words V&V don’t appear in SN 47.10.

Similarly, in MN 20, which deals with 5 ways to stop unwanted thoughts (vitakka), those 5 methods use “nimittas” that you want to learn, while avoiding [wrong] “nimittas” which lead to 5 hindrances taking over with unwanted thinking (vitakka). But the words V&V don’t actually appear in MN 20 in associating with the “good” nimittas that lead to samādhi, even though for first jhana attainment we know the words V&V explicitly appear in the first jhana formula.

So, looking at the pattern, we can see the significance of the word ‘nimitta’ in the context of samādhi, not just 4sp and 4pdh, but attaining 4 jhānas. I believe I figured out the precise reason(s) for introducing the term “nimitta”. By using the word nimitta, it allows the generality of referring to either kusala V&V being the active force that the supresses akusala V&V for first jhāna, and then for 2nd to 4th jhāna, S&S (sati and sampajano) would take over that role in an energetically efficient and non-verbal supressing of hindrances that threaten to break through. So by using the word nimitta, it can apply to all four jhānas, whereas if the buddha has used V&V instead of nimitta, it would limit the application to first jhana only.

But why introduce the word “nimitta” instead of the existing keyword 4sp (satipatthana) which would fit all four jhanas?

Because nimitta, in the context of samadhi, is a “sign”. An important sign that needs to alert us to an important decision, that needs to be made quickly and wisely. The sign could be one of grave danger, as in the case of guarding the sense doors (AN 4.14). E.g. “cakkhuna rupam disva, na nimitta-g-gahi hoti…”. With the eye, forms he sees, he does not grab on to that sign … which would lead to greed and distress and other akusla dhamma.

In the case of SN 47.8, SN 47.10, MN 20, nimitta gets used both as a dangerous sign, and a good sign that leads to the destruction/supression of the results that would have resulted from following the dangerous sign.

While “cause”, “reason”, are legitimate and reasonable translations for nimitta in the context of samadhi, I still think “sign” is the best translation that retains the generality and flexibility.

Just like a stop sign, a green light, and red light, or all important traffic “signs”. If you run a red light nimitta, or run through a stop sign nimitta, very bad things are going to happen. If you know your signs, you know what the proper response to each type of “nimitta”, what the EBT calls learning the nimitta, you can get into jhana. If you don’t figure out the appropriate correct response to each type of nimitta, you don’t get jhana.

The sutta does not say much. All the sutta says is:

…cittaṃ na samādhiyati, upakkilesā na pahīyanti. So taṃ nimittaṃ na uggaṇhāti… his mind becomes concentrated, his corruptions are abandoned, he picks up that sign.

Sa kho so, bhikkhave, paṇḍito byatto kusalo bhikkhu lābhī ceva hoti diṭṭheva dhamme sukhavihārānaṃ, lābhī hoti sati­sam­pajañ­ñassa. Taṃ kissa hetu? Tathā hi so, bhikkhave, paṇḍito byatto kusalo bhikkhu sakassa cittassa nimittaṃ uggaṇhātī”ti

That wise, competent, skilful bhikkhu gains pleasant dwellings in this very life, and he gains mindfulness and clear comprehension. For what reason? Because, bhikkhus, that wise, competent, skilful bhikkhu picks up the sign of his own mind.

In my opinion, SN 47.8 is not clear.

Therefore, my guess about the meaning of the word ‘nimitta’ here is it refers to the ‘upakkilesā’ (which are the five hindrances in SN 46.33 Upak­kilesa­sutta ), which are similar to the master’s sensual preferences for different types of curry & food; for which, if not fulfilled, makes the master angry, restless & doubtful towards his cook.

For me, here, in SN 47.8, the meditator is skilled at using mindfulness & clear-comprehension (sati­sam­pajañ­ñassa) to see clearly & employ situational wisdom to overcome the upakkilesā/five hindrances. In doing so, the skilled meditator gains samadhi, i.e., the pleasant abiding of jhana.

In summary, in my opinion, ‘nimitta’ in SN 47.8 refers to the ‘five hindrances’ (and whether or not the five hindrances are abandoned).

Kind regards :frog:

This is is a wonderful sutta! And it addresses one of the most tricky and important aspects of practice, which will appear sooner or later for any one who keeps making progress in mindfulness (sati).

The following is only my understanding okay! :slight_smile:

Only a very fortunate practitioner will quickly view the mind as an impersonal natural force that needs to be subdued and to come under the control of the conscious will. And yet a more fortunate practitioner will quickly learn how to do this without battling with that force,but rather by ‘taming’ it. Otherwise practitioners take a long time figuring these things out, or actually finding the most effective way to tame the mind, after having developed that kind of understanding. This is what the Buddha is talking about in this wonderful sutta.

The relationship between the cook and the king here is an analogy of the relationship between sati or awareness and the mind. And “cooking” is an analogy of practice itself or of “vimaṃsa”. A practitioner is required to closely observe and understand this: How does the mind react when I practice this? What arises in it when I practice that? etc. And the word “nimitta” here is not used in any technical sense at all, it is only referring to the mental result which comes from what we practice. The point is not to please the mind, the point is to sedate and tame its destructive habitual force. And a good nimitta arises when we follow whatever practice that successfully conduces to the taming of the mind, or the gaining of “pleasant abiding in this life, awareness, and right consideration”. A bad nimitta arises when what we practice does not lead thereto. A practitioner might take a long time to be able to read those signs as they appear in the mind, and to find out the causal link between them and his or her practice (or behaviour in general). This means that the very act of “watching the king’s reaction”, watching the mind’s reactions, is itself something that needs practice and training, and that’s natural. But what the Buddha is advising here is to “keep watching” how the mind reacts to our practice and our behaviour, with the intention to understand what is it that tames it, and what is it that doesn’t. Once we find out, this will be the “picking up of the nimitta of one’s own mind”.

Example of this would be the specific object toward which a practitioner will keep directing the attention once it wanders off. If you pick the wrong object, it will not work out for you; you will not succeed in commanding the attention, or evading akusala states, or developing sati or right consideration; only finding out the ‘right’ object will gradually allow you do achieve those results. But note here how the Buddha clearly avoids making any generalisations about this matter (unlike many contemporary teachers). He does not say the right nimitta is like this, and the practice that leads to it is this or that; such as the breath, specifically as it manifest in the abdomen, or the nostrils; or not the breath, rather the repetition of the word “budho”, or the development of one of the kasinas, etc. He speaks of picking up the nimitta of the practitioner’s “own mind”. And this is the whole point of this wonderful sutta; the Buddha is teaching the monks to watch what works in taming the mind and commanding the attention, each in his own unique way. Because not all kings have the same appetites!

May all beings pick the nimitta of their own minds! :slight_smile:


Thank you all for the great illustration of what can happen when one doesn’t study the whole corpus of ancient texts and relies just on several mentions. In the process of guesswork, almost any interpretation may seem feasible.

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I totally disagree with these statements. Right Intention include no-will. Ajahn Brahm speaks of wisdom power no will power.

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But, friend @Nibbanka, all conceivable interpretations are intrinsically feasible, whether they arise from guesswork, from studying the whole corpus of ancient text, from delusion and self-obsession, or from conceit! All interpretations are perpetually accessible!

Hi @alaber … That was also what I referred to when I said

And this freedom of imagination induces many people to discard existing exegetic texts and just roam freely in their universe of personal word-associations.
Seems like this is somewhat therapeutic, - like guessing images in Rorschach inkblots.
Many people like to read suttas as a kind of psychedelic poetry, where their imagination completes what they don’t understand.
Exegetic texts would surely spoil all the fun.

Maybe. Maybe not. That’s precisely why I prefaced my reply by stating that it represents ‘only’ my own understanding, rather than “the right” understanding (which you either already possess or know how to possess! ) . You see I knew that I was making an interpretation; and while I can sympathise with someone who finds it absurd, I don’t sympathise with someone who finds it invalid, because, and that was the point in my earlier reply to you, friend, all interpretations, even if incorrect, are still valid, are equally valid, are intrinsically valid. :slight_smile:

It would be much more helpful and nice, though, if you deigned to share with us, out of compassion, your understanding according to the valuable “Exegeses”, rather than just make such direct references to our stupidity and make us feel bad about ourselves. Because then even we might at last agree with your harsh evaluation of us!


My apologies for misunderstanding your point.


Oh wonderful new world of Postmodernism! Everyone can invent his own religion to his complete satisfaction.

To join you in the feast of imagination?

For any discussion to be fruitful, first the sound criteria of validity must be established. If everyone would refer to his own criteria of validity, everyone would just keep to his conclusions, and that’s it. If we have different criteria of validity, we are unlikely to arrive to any common understanding. Moreover, interpretations would remain hardly substantiated.

In my posts above, I didn’t criticize anyone personally, - in fact, roaming of conceptual imagination requires admirable intellectual abilities. What I would appreciate is a discussion of what are the criteria for validity of interpretations, and why they are used.

Without clear criteria, everyone would just state their interpretation, as done above, and discussion won’t arrive anywhere.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett declared, “Postmodernism, the school of ‘thought’ that proclaimed ‘There are no truths, only interpretations’ has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for ‘conversations’ in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster.”

I would appreciate if you could point out where my interpretation deviates from your understanding of how nimittas in the samadhi context work, and to what extent V&V can think and ponder in first jhana. I listed a few of the suttas to illustrate my point, but I have studied carefully every passage that I’m aware of, and some of the commentary passages. This is a partial list:

KN Sn 5.13 thinking and reflecting on world being bound by desire
MN 44 “applied thought and sustained thought doesn’t make sense here
AN 8.63 three ways of samadhi, 4sp and 4bv
MN 19 lower bound of first jhāna, too much thinking makes body tired
MN 19 has 3 types of “right intention” and “wrong intention”)
( kāma vitakko)
MN 36 Buddha as a boy stumbles into first jhāna
MN 78 kusala sankappa (and thoughts) don’t cease until 2nd jhāna
MN 125 first jhana skipped after 4sp
AN 7.61 seven ways to ward off drowsiness
SN 47.10 directed (with V&V) and undirected bhavana (2nd jhana and up)
MN 20 using 5 nimittas of samadhi to get into 2nd jhana

EBT in Āgamas

SA 926 V&V is verbal thought, not SKF
MN 19 parallel Nian jing 念經 (MĀ 102 at T26. 589a)

This sutta here is showing how V&V leads you into jhana, following the 7sb (awakening factors) causal sequence. (excerpt of bodhi trans.)
Now this is clearly the same causal sequence as SN 47.10’s “directed development”.

Whereas SN 47.10 uses “nimitta” which specifying 4sp, or V&V, and even though this sutta AN 6.10 does not use the terms V&V explicitly, clearly V&V would be (or can be) doing these 6 activities. The recollection practice is substituted in place of the first 3 factors of 7sb (sati, dhamma-vicaya, viriya).

So the point is, the samadhi “nimitta” referred to by SN 47.10 and MN 20 could encompass V&V, 4sp, dhamma-vicaya-bojjhanga, vimamsa-iddhipada.

AN 6.10 recollection of 3 gems, virtue, generosity, devas

... > 25“Mahānāma, a noble disciple [285] who has arrived at the fruit and understood the teaching often dwells in this way:1257"" > > 26(1) “Here, Mahānāma, a noble disciple recollects the Tathāgata thus: ‘The Blessed One is an arahant, perfectly enlightened, accomplished in true knowledge and conduct, fortunate, knower of the world, unsurpassed trainer of persons to be tamed, teacher of devas and humans, the Enlightened One, the Blessed One.’ When a noble disciple recollects the Tathāgata, > > (7sb awakening-factor causal chain gets applied to all 6 recollections) > on that occasion his mind is not obsessed by lust, hatred, or delusion; on that occasion his mind is simply straight, based on the Tathāgata. A noble disciple whose mind is straight gains inspiration in the meaning, gains inspiration in the Dhamma, gains joy connected with the Dhamma. When he is joyful, rapture arises. For one with a rapturous mind, the body becomes tranquil. One tranquil in body feels pleasure. For one feeling pleasure, the mind becomes concentrated. This is called a noble disciple who dwells in balance amid an unbalanced population,1258"" who dwells unafflicted amid an afflicted population. As one who has entered the stream of the Dhamma,1259"" he develops recollection of the Buddha. > > (the same pattern gets repeated for the remaining 5 recollections) > > (2) “Again, Mahānāma, a noble disciple recollects the Dhamma thus: ‘The Dhamma is well expounded by the Blessed One, directly visible, immediate, ... to be personally experienced by the wise.’ When a noble disciple recollects the Dhamma, on that occasion... > > (3) “Again, Mahānāma, a noble disciple recollects the Saṅgha thus: ‘The Saṅgha of the Blessed One’s disciples is practicing the good way, practicing the straight way, ... the unsurpassed field of merit for the world.’ When a noble disciple recollects the Saṅgha, on that occasion ... > > (4) “Again, Mahānāma, a noble disciple recollects his own virtuous behavior as unbroken, flawless, unblemished, unblotched, freeing, praised by the wise, ungrasped, leading to concentration. When a noble disciple recollects his virtuous behavior, on that occasion... > > (5) “Again, Mahānāma, a noble disciple recollects his own generosity thus: ‘It is truly my good fortune and gain that in a population obsessed by the stain of miserliness, I dwell at home with a mind devoid of the stain of miserliness, freely generous, openhanded, delighting in relinquishment, devoted to charity, delighting in giving and sharing.’ When a noble disciple recollects his generosity, on that occasion ... > > (6) “Again, Mahānāma, a noble disciple recollects the deities thus: ‘There are devas [ruled by] the four great kings, Tāvatiṃsa devas, Yāma devas, Tusita devas, devas who delight in creation, devas who control what is created by others, devas of Brahmā’s company, and devas still higher than these.1260"" There exists in me too such faith as those deities possessed because of which, when they passed away here, they were reborn there; there exists in me too such virtuous behavior … such learning … such generosity … such wisdom as those deities possessed because of which, when they passed away here, they were reborn there.’ When [288] a noble disciple recollects the faith, virtuous behavior, learning, generosity, and wisdom in himself and in those deities, on that occasion...

And here’s the pali corresponding to the first recollection. No V&V explicitly used, but anussarati (recollection) most likely would involve V&V in the sense of thinking and evaluating/pondering/discriminating. The V&V of Vism. jhana just wouldn’t work here, unless it’s taking a visual snapshot of the buddha image, and gluing the mind with applied and sustained attention to the buddha kasina. But obviously in the EBT these 6 recollections are qualities that need to be reflected on and evaluated.

:diamonds: “yo so, mahānāma, ariyasāvako āgataphalo viññātasāsano, so iminā vihārena bahulaṃ viharati. VAR idha, mahānāma, ariyasāvako tathāgataṃ anussarati — ‘itipi so bhagavā arahaṃ sammāsambuddho vijjācaraṇasampanno sugato lokavidū anuttaro purisadammasārathi satthā devamanussānaṃ buddho bhagavā’ti. yasmiṃ, mahānāma, samaye ariyasāvako tathāgataṃ anussarati nevassa tasmiṃ samaye rāgapariyuṭṭhitaṃ cittaṃ hoti, na dosapariyuṭṭhitaṃ cittaṃ hoti, na mohapariyuṭṭhitaṃ cittaṃ hoti; ujugatamevassa tasmiṃ samaye cittaṃ hoti tathāgataṃ ārabbha. ujugatacitto kho pana, mahānāma, ariyasāvako labhati atthavedaṃ, labhati dhammavedaṃ, labhati dhammūpasaṃhitaṃ pāmojjaṃ. pamuditassa pīti jāyati, pītimanassa kāyo passambhati, passaddhakāyo sukhaṃ vediyati, sukhino cittaṃ samādhiyati. ayaṃ vuccati, mahānāma — ‘ariyasāvako visamagatāya pajāya samappatto viharati, sabyāpajjāya pajāya abyāpajjo viharati, dhammasotaṃ samāpanno buddhānussatiṃ bhāveti’”.

The term “sign” was chosen quite arbitrarily, as a convenient word for all the conexts, borrowed from one of the contexts.

As Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote:

The word nimitta is difficult to render in a way that fits all the major contexts where it occurs. I returned to “sign” only after several experiments with alternatives - “aspect”, “feature,” and “appearance” - proved unsatisfactory.


IMHO, “sign” proved to be satisfactory in all the contexts just because it is polysemic, and the reader can always imagine something that would somehow fit the context.

You have probably read my conclusions on the meaning of nimitta. What’s the point in repeating them if we don’t agree on criteria of validity?

If the criterion of validity is “it seems to fit the context in many suttas”, then we won’t get anywhere, since there are too many words that seem to fit the context, - as the above discussion demonstrates. Whatever I’ll say, other people may stick to their interpretation that just seems to fit the context.

For better or for worse, interpretation of nimitta in the context of samadhi requires careful work with many texts of many traditions, and suttas in this case are insufficient. As always, my approach is to find earliest possible clear definitions of term in the context of interest, and stick with them if they don’t contradict the early usage.

On this issue, I generally agree with you.

Seems like we also have to discuss the meaning of “kasina”.

In case anyone is challenging whether the nimittas of samadhi, 4sp, V&V, leads to jhana when the 7sb causal sequence is involved:

samādhi-sambojjhanga relationship to sammā-samādhi

AN 10.3 suggests samādhi-sambojjhanga includes sammā-samādhi

sīlavipannassa hatūpaniso hoti avippaṭisāro;
(1) for an immoral person, for one deficient in virtuous behavior,
avippaṭisāre asati avippaṭisāravipannassa hatūpanisaṃ hoti pāmojjaṃ;
(2) non-regret lacks its proximate cause. When there is no non-regret, for one deficient in non-regret,
pāmojje asati pāmojjavipannassa hatūpanisā hoti pīti;
(3) joy lacks its proximate cause. When there is no joy, for one deficient in joy,
pītiyā asati pītivipannassa hatūpanisā hoti passaddhi;
(4) rapture lacks its proximate cause. When there is no rapture, for one deficient in rapture,
passaddhiyā asati passaddhivipannassa hatūpanisaṃ hoti sukhaṃ;
(5) tranquility lacks its proximate cause. When there is no tranquility, for one deficient in tranquility,
sukhe asati sukhavipannassa hatūpaniso hoti sammāsamādhi;
(6) pleasure lacks its proximate cause. When there is no pleasure, for one deficient in pleasure,
sammāsamādhimhi asati sammāsamādhivipannassa hatūpanisaṃ hoti yathābhūtañāṇadassanaṃ;
(7) right concentration lacks its proximate cause. When there is no right concentration, for one deficient in right concentration,
yathābhūtañāṇadassane asati yathābhūtañāṇadassanavipannassa hatūpaniso hoti nibbidāvirāgo;
(8) the knowledge and vision of things as they really are lacks its proximate cause. When there is no knowledge and vision of things as they really are, for one deficient in the knowledge and vision of things as they really are,
nibbidāvirāge asati nibbidāvirāgavipannassa hatūpanisaṃ hoti vimuttiñāṇadassanaṃ.
(9) disenchantment and dispassion lack their proximate cause. When there is no disenchantment and dispassion, for one deficient in disenchantment and dispassion,
(10) the knowledge and vision of liberation lacks its proximate cause.

SN 46.52 (6. samādhi bojjhanga)

SN 46 is the bojjhanga samyutta, and these 2 samādhis are 2 out of the “samadhi in 3 ways”, which are recognized by both EBT and commentaries as being equivalent to the 4 jhānas of sammā samādhi.
♦ “yadapi, bhikkhave,
18“Whatever concentration there is accompanied by thought and examination is the enlightenment factor of concentration;
savitakko savicāro samādhi tadapi samādhisambojjhaṅgo,
whatever concentration there is without thought and examination is also the enlightenment factor of concentration.103 "" Thus what is spoken of concisely as the enlightenment factor of concentration becomes,
yadapi avitakkāvicāro samādhi tadapi samādhisambojjhaṅgo.
by this method of exposition,
‘samādhisambojjhaṅgo’ti iti hidaṃ uddesaṃ gacchati.
tadamināpetaṃ pariyāyena dvayaṃ hoti.
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As far as I understand this is the best explanation of Nimitta. I can’t add this to anymore but I wish to explain this in my own words.
Nimitta is not an exotic mental experience. We are bombarded with millions of Nimitta by our six senses in every minute. Depend on our mental state we catch one of these Nimitas in a given moment. The Nimtta is not the ultimate object. Nimitta may appear in various shapes and color. Some times it may appear as light or some wonderful feeling. But based on Nimitta we create a wholesome or unwholesome mental state based on our past experience.
When we meditate these complex Gross Nimitta started to subdue and more refine and subtle Nimittas start to appear. The practitioner should have the skill to catch a particular Nimitta related to his level of Jhana.

Further discussion on Nimitta:


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