What Ven. Anālayo gets wrong about samādhi: a review of “A Brief History of Buddhist Absorption”

Hello Bhante — warm wishes to you and everyone else enjoying this thread. Venerable Anālayo has asked me to publish his reply to your post:


The venerable Ajahn Brahmāli has invited me to read and possibly reply to online comments posted by him on suttacentral regarding my article on “a brief history of Buddhist absorption.” I am just coming out of a five-month retreat, with lots of emails etc. to attend to, so I will try to keep things short.

Potential Drawbacks of Absorption

I agree. In my article (p. 577), I indeed highlighted that the problem is “being glued with attachment” and “developing conceit around attainments.” My intention was not to convey that concentration as such is problematic or to discourage its practice. That would be absurd. Instead, the point is just that, as there are potential drawbacks, “one needs to deal with it in a skilful way.”

Comparative Study and Right Concentration

A basic principle in comparative studies is that passages found similarly in parallels transmitted by different reciter traditions are probably early, as they seem to reflect material prior to the separation into different transmission lineages. A natural starting point for comparative research is then material found in the Pāli suttas, because this is the only complete set of discourse collections we have from one reciter lineage, and then compare relevant instances to their parallels. Those that are supported by similar presentations in the parallels can reasonably be considered earlier than those that are not supported.

My article on “a brief history …” was, as the title indicates, meant to provide a brief survey, which is why I referenced other publications of mine that offer more details. For the present question the relevant article I mentioned is 2019a, where I quote on p. 22 what is the only instance of which I am aware among Chinese Āgama discourses that defines right concentration by way of the four jhānas. This is MĀ 189 (parallel to MN 117), the relevant part of which is not supported by its Pāli and Tibetan parallels.

I agree with the first but beg to differ on the second suggestion. An example that comes to my mind is what traditionally is regarded as the Buddha’s first sermon (SN 56.11). After introducing the two extremes to be avoided, the sutta presents a definition of the middle path by listing the eight path factors. It would follow that the giving of a definition as such should be regarded as part of the Buddha’s teaching activity from its very outset.

Samādhi and Jhāna

This is indeed the case, but then the gradual path concerns arrival at the three higher knowledges and thus the realization arahant-ship, rather than the cultivation of the eightfold path by a stream-enterer.

Just for the record, the democratic principle that the majority overrules the minority does not readily hold for textual studies, which is the point behind lectio difficilior potior. In the present case, once there is clear evidence that samādhi does not invariably equal jhāna attainment, the burden of proof rests with those who wish to interpret any particular reference to samādhi as being equivalent to jhāna attainment; each such case needs to be established, rather than taking such equivalence for granted.

Jhāna and Satipaṭṭhāṇa

In my study of the sutta (2003), I examined the above-mentioned terminology, and that examination shows that these terms cannot be confined to jhāna attainment. In fact, unlike samādhi, the term jhāna is not mentioned explicitly in the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta (MN 10). The term samādhi occurs in two ways: in the third satipaṭṭhāna as the samāhita citta and in the fourth satipaṭṭhāna as the awakening factor of samādhi. In relation to the first case, the “concentrated mind,” the satipaṭṭhāna task is to know when the mind is concentrated and when it is not concentrated. These two are alternatives, reflected in the use of , so that mindful recognition of not being concentrated would in principle be a way of cultivating the third satipaṭṭhāna, which of course would fall short of involving jhāna. The same holds for the “awakening factor of concentration,” in that mindful recognition of its absence would be a way of cultivating the fourth satipaṭṭhāna.

A task mentioned in the “refrain” part of the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta then is to contemplate the nature of arising and passing away (and both), which would be relevant to the concentrated mind and to the awakening factor of concentration. On the understanding that the term jhāna refers to a deeply absorbed mental condition—a point on which the venerable Ajahn and I agree—it is difficult to imagine how such contemplation could be undertaken by someone who has attained jhāna. In other words, even satipaṭṭhāna contemplation of the “concentrated mind” or the “awakening factor of concentration” does not give me the impression that this refers only to jhāna attainment, unless one were to subscribe to the idea of ‘easy jhāna .’ Otherwise, contemplating the nature of arising and passing away could only happen when the mind is not yet or no longer absorbed.

In my article I had given reference to another article of mine, 2006a, in which I discuss differences between the parallel versions. In relation to the absence of the first jhāna in MN 125, my proposed reasoning (p. 18) is that such a loss could have occurred during oral recitation, since the preceding passage describes satipaṭṭhāna cultivated in the absence of vitakka. This could have misled a reciter to continue with the reference to the absence of vitakka mentioned in the standard formula of the second jhāna, thereby accidentally omitting to recite the first jhāna formula.

This reasoning is of course open to discussion, which is why I only stated that in my view comparative study “makes it fairly probable” that an error in textual transmission has occurred. The alternative to that would be to take MN 125 to offer an endorsement of ‘easy jhāna,’ which is the position taken by Arbel 2017: 73f, for example, in the sense that here the first jhāna stands for an only lightly collected state of mind in which contemplation of impermanence is possible.

Indeed, and perhaps for good reasons, as even the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta fails to communicate this. The part of the sutta that explicitly tackles the purpose of the practice presents satipaṭṭhāna as the direct path to “the realization of Nibbāna,” preceded by a list of items that do not explicitly mention samādhi, let alone jhāna. This is not to deny that satipaṭṭhāna can lead to samādhi and jhāna; the point is only that the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta does not explicitly present this as its main purpose.


I hope the above selected replies help to clarify a bit where I am coming from. I appreciate that the venerable Ajahn Brahmāli, whom I personally hold in high regard, has given me an opportunity to reconsider my presentation and check if it requires adjustment. As of now, I am under the impression that the textual evidence I marshalled supports my conclusions, which I presented in an updated form in a chapter in a book published more recently (2022). Alongside some differences on which the two of us will probably just have to agree to disagree, I take it that we concur on samādhi and the attainment of jhāna—which we both understand to refer to a deeply concentrated mental condition—being highly valued in the suttas as an important dimension of mental cultivation that should certainly be encouraged. Maybe the time has come now to get back to the cushion?