What Ven. Anālayo gets wrong about samādhi, part II

After my initial critique of his paper “A Brief History of Buddhist Absorption”, Ven. Anālayo kindly took the time to respond. To honour the good will in his reply, I decided to delay my further response and take the time to consider his position carefully. Having done this, now seems the right time to consider the details of his response.

Although we agree that samādhi is important on the path to awakening, it seems to me that we do not see quite eye to eye on a number of details, such as the exact meaning of samādhi, its relationship to other factors of the path, and at what point samādhi becomes critical for progress. This response is meant to further the discussion of these important details.

I am glad to hear this. I conclude that we agree on this matter. My personal preference would be to also change the heading of the relevant section from Potential Drawbacks of Absorption to a phrase that indicates that the real problem is attachment.

Yes, sometimes a definition would be required straightaway, but at other times not. The majority of definitions are found in the commentarial literature. Their purpose is to help us pin down the meaning of the Canonical texts, whether the suttas or the Vinaya. It is natural that questions of meaning would develop over time, as the consequences of the Canonical texts were worked out and as the Sangha moved to disparate parts of the Indian subcontinent and beyond. And so I do think it is true that definitions - generally speaking - tend to be later than the text they define.

Within the Canonical texts there are a significant number of free-standing suttas called Vibhaṅga, “analysis”, including definitions of the core aspects of the path to awakening. Such “analysis” suttas must logically be later than the suttas they define. A number of the suttas that define samādhi are precisely such Vibhaṅga suttas. A couple of obvious examples are SN 45.8, which defines the factors of the noble eightfold path, and SN 48.10, which defines the five spiritual faculties.

I cannot see any difference between these two. The purpose of both the noble eightfold path and the gradual training is awakening. Indeed, the gradual training is little more than a detailed expansion of the noble eightfold path, with the results of the practice added at the end.

I agree, the majority does not overrule the minority. What I intended are situations that are not clearly defined, that is, where samādhi occurs without further definition. Because the most important meaning of samādhi in the suttas is jhāna - and this is by a large margin - we should assume that this is the main meaning in such instances.

Moreover, I cannot see that this has anything to do with the principle of lectio difficilior potior, which is used to decide the best of two or more readings of the same text. Here is the description from Wikipedia:

Lectio difficilior potior (Latin for “the more difficult reading is the stronger”) is a main principle of textual criticism. Where different manuscripts conflict on a particular reading, the principle suggests that the more unusual one is more likely the original. The presupposition is that scribes would more often replace odd words and hard sayings with more familiar and less controversial ones, than vice versa.

In the present case, there is only one reading, namely samādhi, but we are trying to interpret it. Such interpretations should align with the general overall meaning found in the suttas, not with rare occurrences. This is equivalent to the idea that we should understand the suttas in line with the main teachings and not according to obscure and/or rare passages. This is simply a commonsense principle that unfortunately is all too often forgotten.

Here is an example to illustrate what I mean. If someone says they are going from New York to London, we can generally assume they will be flying, because that is how the majority of people travel between the two cities. The burden of proof lies with those who want to suggest that they will be going by boat or some other means, not with those who assume they will be flying.

I do not think this is the function of in these cases. We need to be careful not to assume that is an exact equivalent to “or” in English. As a general rule, there are few exact equivalents between different languages. A case in point is the use of in bhikkhunī pārājika 8. Here the needs to be understood as “and”. The rule has eight aspects, each of which needs to be fulfilled for the pārājika offence to be incurred, and so we would expect the conjunction “and”, yet instead we find , which normally means “or”. We are forced to conclude that in this context must be understood as “and”. Possibly the same is true in the relevant passage from the Satipāṭṭhana Sutta.

It is perhaps more likely, however, that the in MN 10 refers to the fact that things are contemplated at different times, and so one contemplates one mind quality or anther at any particular time. This reading is almost required by the phrasing which gives a between each and every contemplation. If we follow Ven. Anālayo’s suggestion, we have to conclude that any single contemplation is enough to fulfil the contemplation of mind, the cittānupassanā. This would mean, for instance, that one only needs to contemplate a mind with ill will to complete this part of the meditation. This does not seem likely. A similar argument holds for the factors of awakening.

I do not think this is difficult. Like all mind states, jhāna attainments have a beginning and an end. This can be contemplated. Moreover, the arising and passing away “refrain” is preceded by a refrain referring to internal and external observation. The internal observation seems a likely candidate for deep samādhi, a suggestion that is confirmed by DN 18:

It’s when a mendicant meditates by observing an aspect of the body internally—keen, aware, and mindful, rid of covetousness and displeasure for the world.
As they meditate in this way, they become rightly immersed in that, and rightly serene.

Idha, bho, bhikkhu ajjhattaṁ kāye kāyānupassī viharati ātāpī sampajāno satimā vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassaṁ.
Ajjhattaṁ kāye kāyānupassī viharanto tattha sammā samādhiyati, sammā vippasīdati.

Yes, I was aware of this proposal when I wrote my previous comment. The problem is that I don’t find it persuasive. The jhāna formulas are standardised and so common in the suttas that I don’t think the textual context could ever cause such a failure of memory.

The use of the word “even” suggests to me a bias on the part of Ven. Anālayo. It suggests that this sutta should somehow be given priority. Yet the fact is that the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is only a single sutta among many. Priority must be given to general and frequent descriptions of the path such as the gradual training. In any case, as we have seen, the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta itself allows for such an understanding, and so there is no real conflict.

The argument has been made that eka in ekāyana in fact refers to samādhi. This would hardly be surprising considering how often compounds with eka (ekaggata, ekodibhāva, etc) or derivations from eka (ekatta) refer precisely to samādhi. But even if this is not the case, the purposes mentioned in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta refer to the endpoint of the path. The fact that jhāna is not mentioned could simply be because it is a preliminary attainment, not the final one.

Well, I do not agree with this. One of the important principles I mention that Ven. Anālayo has not replied to is the gradual nature of the path, which suggests that jhāna normally comes before streamentry, let alone full awakening. Letting go and insight into the five khandhas happen stage by stage until the complete insight of the sotāpanna. Such general principles are helpful in deciding the correct interpretation of controversial matters.

Absolutely! Yet as Dhamma teachers we both need to be clear about the real message of the Dhamma. A bit of friendly Dhamma discussion will normally be productive of broadening one’s appreciation of the suttas. I can only speak for myself, but I find this helpful. Thank you, Ven. Anālayo, for engaging in such a friendly and constructive way!


Thanks Venerable.

This is pretty common, even in satipatthana. Take anapana, where we have:

Dīghaṁ vā assasanto ‘dīghaṁ assasāmī’ti pajānāti, dīghaṁ vā passasanto ‘dīghaṁ passasāmī’ti pajānāti.

Obviously it doesn’t mean you are either aware of the in breath or the out breath.


That’s as unambiguous as it gets! Thanks!


Yes, it’s a regular idiom for meditation instructions in the Satipatthana Sutta. Just doing a quick survey, of roughly 150 uses of in MN 10, maybe 90% of them are of this type.

Santaṁ vā ajjhattaṁ vīriyasambojjhaṅgaṁ
Dukkhaṁ vā vedanaṁ vedayamāno
ajjhattaṁ vā kāye kāyānupassī viharati

And so on. It is in fact the normal way of presenting the different contemplations.

Generally, they are situations where things happen at different times, and the sense is, “at a time when … and also at a time when …”.


I think the major issue of his paper on samadhi/jhana/satipatthana is that Bhikkhu Analayo simply considers the four principal Nikayas/Agamas were originally established at once at the first Buddhist council, although he recognises the texts were not entirely original in terms of structure and content. Bhikkhu Analayo is unable to see the Nikayas/Agamas were gradually developed and expanded from SN/SA suttas (such as Satipatthana Samyutta of SN/SA).

Ven Analayo is correct in saying that Jhana is too refined a state to investigate anything.

The common ground that the two venerables have missed is that some references to Jhana in the suttas make more sense from a practitioner’s perspective when read as a process rather than a particular attainment or state of mind. In other words, the word Jhana can incorporate the process by which it was attained. The commentators, such as Buddhaghosa, recognised that understanding this point was not always clear and so defined Samadhi as three steps, Khanika, Upacara and Appana, where Upacara is a preliminary or conduit to Appana. So when the word Jhana is used it can include Upacara as Upacara may be a pre-requisite.

In the reference

samma samadhi does not refer to the state of Jhana. It refers to Upacara Samadhi. In Upacara Samadhi, the mind is focused on a single object (immersed?). This state, like the conventional world, is a duality - the observed object and the observer. When Appana is achieved, the object disappears and there is a singularity. The observer observes itself. This state is tranquil and still, too still to be involved in investigation.

The translation of Samma Samadhi as “immersion” when referring to Appana is, I think, misleading. “Immersion” implies duality - that which is immersed and the medium in which it is immersed. As Appana is a singularity, the definition “immersion” seems out of place.

I hope this helps.

And it has been laid out by the Buddha in the four great references:

an4.180:2.6 Instead, having carefully memorized those words and phrases, you should make sure they fit in the discourse and are exhibited in the training.


Does it not just mean that you are not aware of both breathing in and out at the same time; that you are either breathing in and aware, or breathing out and aware?

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Jhānas are contemplated after one emerges from them, see for instance MN 52 and MN 64.

Yes, I think that’s the point he is trying to make, which is the same point I am making in the essay.


Yes, this is a more accurate statement. When one comes out of Jhana (for the more experienced practitioner) one returns to Upacara Samadhi and usually refocuses on the meditation subject rather than the state of Jhana. The less experienced practitioner returns to the normal state of consciousness.

I think that Ven Analayo was referring to a practitioner who is in Jhana rather than one who has withdrawn from Jhana. In which case, the statement is still correct.

We are told by some of those who study the EBTs deeply, that upacara samadhi isn’t mentioned in the the suttas, that it is a later addition. So I am wondering how the Buddha would have expressed the following?

Thanks. :pray:

You are correct. The term Upacara Samadhi is primarily from commentaries, such as the Visuddhi Magga (as mentioned in my first post). This does not mean that it only became part of the Buddhist practice hundreds of years after the Buddha. Upacara Samadhi is experienced by all who attain Jhana, either before or after Jhana, or both before and after. This is why, when the terms Jhana and Samma Samdhi are used, it is important to understand the process as well as the state of mind.

My guess as to why the Buddha was not so explicit when referring to Jhana is that, in His day, His audience was a lot smarter than we are today and understood perfectly what He was talking about without the detail we insist on today.


Thanks for your answer HinMarkPeng.
Would you agree with this Ajahn @brahmali?
(I think I recall you and Ven Sunyo discussing this point elsewhere.)

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I was referring to this quote where Ven Sujato supports vā being used to mean and here. I am trying to say why can it not mean exactly what he wrote: that you are either aware of the breath in or of the breath out? He says obviously it doesn’t mean this, but surely this is the most natural reading?

The point is it doesn’t mean that you are only aware of inbreaths and never of outbreaths. The va is not exclusive.


Got you. Thank you for clearing that up.

Yes, when you emerge from jhāna your mind will essentially be in a state that is similar to the upacārasamādhi of the commentaries. This is assuming that upacārasamādhi essentially refers to the absence of the five hindrances. I have to admit, however, that I am not sure of the exact definition of upacārasamādhi in the commentaries. What I do know is that it refers to a state of mind where you are on the threshold to jhāna, hence its name.

I do not agree that people at the time of the Buddha were smarter than they are today. The suttas are quite clear on what to do after you come out of jhāna. I don’t think the concept of upacārasamādhi is strictly necessary for understanding the process of meditation.



@Gillian The point that I was trying to make is this. At the time of the Buddha, some people became Ariya by simply listening to the Dhamma. At the time of the Buddha there were gatherings of over one thousand Arahants.

These days, how many people become Ariya simply be listening to the Dhamma? These days, people can study the suttas for a lifetime yet remain worldlings. These days, we would be lucky if we could get ten Arahants in one place.

Prima facie, I would say that this points to people at the time of the Buddha being smarter than we are today. At least as far as Dhamma is concerned. This meant that they had a better grasp of the spoken words than we do today because they not only understood the language better, they had a better understanding of the underlying experiences that the words were describing.

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Thank you Ajahn Brahmali. I have been wondering about this for some time and I am grateful to have the chance to check in with you here.

HMP: I have also hear that explained as the working of kamma, that the accumulated kamma of a being can determine the time and place of rebirth. So lots of folk who had accumulated excellent kamma were born contemporaries of the Buddha, while our kamma means we have to strive harder. I don’t know of course, but it sounds plausible.


It is also possible that this never happened but was put on paper to inspire people to listen to Dhamma talks. I think that is more likely. I just do not understand how very strong longstanding tendencies can just vanish by listening to a teaching. I can understand that it can initiate seeing them, and weakening them but how does it work that anusaya’s can be uprooted by merely listening?