What's the best English translation for Samvara? (Or, The Meaning and Application of Samvara)

Another meaning could be “taming”.
In Sri Lanka, we are instructed to “Citta Samvara” before the meditation.
This applies to all body, mind, and speech.

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Commentarially, these words start loosing their definition and are broadened out to include other things, which are correct in practice, but incorrect in wording- thereby leading to a somewhat loss of clarity.

with metta

Agree.

I think there maybe another factor at play- in terms of profession, each person has to be disciplined. Doctors have a certain code of conduct, for example, as do other professionals. Lawyers hold themselves to high degree of professional conduct due to the legal nature of their work. Monks also similarly are expected to hold themselves to a high degree of personal conduct. This might be a reason why indriya samvara comes early in the gradual training, as they need to be seen to be monks first. The gradual training is often described in the context of monks, rather than for lay people (not to say lay people couldnt benefit from the principles behind it). This may require a certain degree of intentional control, if it doesn’t come naturally, I presume. I think though it is the trend that all suppression is considered ‘bad’, IMO sometimes it is appropriate and maybe the only thing available for a person at that early level of progress. If a primary school teacher can get a class full of ‘mind-less’ children to focus and control their behavior for their own good, and the delight of their parents, it must be easier for adults to restraint themselves, as required. And even when you are about to kill someone out of rage, the Buddha gives you options!

"Now when a monk… attending to another theme… scrutinizing the drawbacks of those thoughts… paying no mind and paying no attention to those thoughts… attending to the relaxing of thought-fabrication with regard to those thoughts… beating down, constraining and crushing his mind with his awareness… steadies his mind right within, settles it, unifies it and concentrates it. MN20

with metta

Lol…so having experience in attempting both of these things…I can tell you neither is easy!! The former being much harder than the latter, as well as having a very low success rate in terms of being able to “focus and control their behavior for their own good”!! Rarely is this the case. Generally the inducements to do this are external and it is extremely rare to come across a child that is able to restrain themselves from within themselves, even more rare for it to be because they see the value in this.

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I’ve been reflecting alot on all this:

…it’s really interesting that both samvara and nivarana have the same root word of vara. I can’t help wondering if the Buddha was playing around with words here to make a point?

I’m becoming more certain of the following now and hunted down some of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translations to help myself remember

…In which case, if leave aside my question here

…and bowing to your far superior knowledge and experience…

…perhaps (and it’s probably a bit of a stretch) there is a “pun like” connection made - perhaps for a pedagogical purpose - between samvara and nivarana? That it is not just about restraining the 5 senses, as I’ve always viewed it, but it’s also about restraining the mind and “guiding” (borrowing from your use of “guidance”) the mind on to more wholesome states…ie…restraining the nivarana also.

I always assumed indriya samvara was referring to the 5 external senses only; but I guess the 6th sense of the mind is also included? Is that right Ajahn?


One of the uses of “restraint” in English is when it means “understatement, especially of artistic expression.” There is perhaps a greater sense of gentleness in such a usage. A sense that one must choose from a variety of different focuses and hone in on one/few. Guidance does really work well with this.

In reflecting a bit on the word, “understatement”, I feel like there’s a sense of “holding back” or “holding something back”. Linking in with guidance, which now also reminds me of a sheepdog herding/guiding her flock in a particular direction, I wonder if “curbing” is actually a good word as well. It doesn’t have the positive focus that “guidance” has, but then, as you’ve already shown in your reply to frankk, often the positive aspect is not made obvious in the texts and seems to be something the Buddha leaves open - almost as if he’s giving us - in these texts, the very basic foundational requirement.

The formulation of the 5 precepts comes to mind here; if we cultivate sila properly, we should be looking into other texts and growing the positive opposites of the 5 precepts whenever possible… But it’s left open, perhaps so it’s appealing to us when just restraining/curbing ourselves to the point of keeping them is all we can do. So if we want to take things further, passages about Right Intention, the Brahmaviharas, dana etc. are there to help “guide” us.

I think what I’m getting to is “guidance” has a very positive connotation and I can appreciate why you are not using it in your translations.

I think, currently, I find “curbing” helpful for Samvara.


Ajahn, I tried to look up the meaning of “sam” as a prefix but didn’t really feel that what I found on various online sources was particularly helpful in unpacking the meaning further. 'Am I incorrect in this?


Thank you again for your time and patience!

It’s been amazing to have this space to write all this out, and I wouldn’t have been able to if you hadn’t provided your input and shared your thoughts. I am incredibly grateful for and appreciative of this. Thank you so much Ajahn Brahmali. :anjal:

With metta :pray:t6:


EDIT:

Remembering @Sujato’s discussions around nivarana and remembering how much I liked the use of “shroud”, “veil”, “fog”…You could say that in order to restrain/curb the nivarana and the 5 senses, one has to guide/sheppard/herd one’s focus out from under and away from the 5 shrouds, onto that which is more wholesome, thus allowing the 5 fogs to dissipate and fade away.

Lol… now I’m just having fun!! :grin:

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That’s precisely it! Saņvara is a practice of mastery over the attention. This is known, including in experimental western psychology, to be rather difficult and requires a lot of effort and consistency, hence the reference to the will.

I have observed that both extremes exist, those who rely too much on force, and those who deny any role of the conscious will. Whether in response to the practice of others or that of our own selves, we often tend to try to balance one extreme by emphasising the other, rather than emphasising moderation or majjhima.

Also for many practitioners it is viewed as all or nothing, either force or wisdom. As if it was up to us to have wisdom or exercise force! Thinking that these are stable qualities and functions over which we have constant control or that we can wield and manipulate as we please.

Neither pañña, nor viriya, nor any one of the five indriya, are stable or constant or readily accessible. Sometimes they take flight and one can no where in nirayaloka find the faintest trace of them!! And it is precisely then that one has not much of a choice other than restraint, restraint, and restraint! When wisdom is vibrant and vigorous there isn’t any need for such abstinence, but what about those times when wisdom is weak and faint and distant?! Then one hasn’t options other than pulling oneself to one’s renunciate fate by the hair, of which we have none, venerable! :smile: :anjal:

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Hmmm…this is a most interesting perspective Ven @anon61506839

It’s got me thinking what I do when wisdom is weak - which is most of the time…

I think, I think I just wait. Cultivate patience I guess. Sometimes this means being unrestrained even though on some level I’m frustrated by this. The best and most challenging example from my own life is the television. The thing has power over me. I watched way too much as a child and it’s been the very devil on my back for 20 years! And quite honestly…the trouble is that I like it too much. The habit is too strong. And it’s here in my home!! Ahhhhh!!! I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said to myself, I won’t watch TV today, this arvo or I won’t watch that show I’m curious about, or I’ll stop after this episode (famous last words in my world…only repeated often). I’ve rarely followed through and practically hate myself for my miserable failure and I can tell you this type of self-hatred seriously dilutes the pleasure one gets from watching telly!!! It’s like I’m not in my own control!! Sometimes this leads me to reflect on Anatta and the self hatred eases off and I can be more lovingly patient. And to tell the truth this has improved over the years and it’s gotten easier.

But this is why I know I can’t force myself. I am like some kind of addict. It’s a dreadful state to be in because my other love is meditation and the two are mostly opposite ends of the spectrum and hightly incompatible.

This is the main reason I’ve been contemplating samvara. I’ve had a lot of doubt about my approach of just being patient and accepting - it takes so damn long!! But I’ve been trying to re-condition myself and re-train a new habit by focusing on the pleasure of meditation rather than trying to abolish the pleasure of tv. And it seems to be paying off. That gentle approach is ever so, so, so slowly - but discernibly - beginning to pay off a little. Which is why the word “restraint” didn’t feel right, it seemed to have too many connotations around forcefulness which I just can’t work with practically. Hence my original question here.

But this is from the perspective of lay life. I imagine it’s quite a different business in monastic life where you’re far more intimately and obviously faced with the kilesas. I mean, in a sense, I’m weaning myself off the tv…but I guess one can’t do that sort of thing in monastic life.

Thanks Bhante, I really appreciate your input and experiences here. :pray:t6: :pray:t6: :pray:t6:

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Life as a whole, with everything in it, is an addiction! That’s why we get reborn endlessly! But life is also our only possible chance to desist from our addictions. And it all depends on how far you wanna go; the effort and determination you’ll be naturally able to give will always be equally proportional to the extent of your chanda, your interest in and inspiration by the Four Sublime Truth.

And of course, for a monastic, in the sense of a mendicant, there’s no more real interest in anything other than renunciation and the deliverance of the heart; but I’ve always felt that Buddha expected something quite similar from his lay followers as well!

We must not forget that, according to Theravadin cosmology, there can be no guarantees until one enters the stream! From a Theravadin perspective the question can at least be asked, whether someone who lived and died, without entering the stream, and who could enter the stream, may have squandered the best possible purpose, of her life!

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No pressure Bhante!! I’m truly doing the best I can. :anjal:

I’m working on improving my TV sila…it’s just a deeply ingrained habit for me personally…and not an easy thing to give up all in one go when it’s here. I’d love to just chuck the thing out but I’m not the only one who uses it so that’s not an option. I’ve tried all manner of things over the years - made deals with myself, given myself particular boundaries. The only thing that’s really made any in roads that felt real internally is the act of easing up on myself and the tiny bit of wisdom (if I may humbly make that claim) which made me question my views on samvara. I’ve stopped expecting myself to give it up. Instead, I’ve taken to encouraging myself to notice it’s unfulfilling nature and leave it at that - I’m still allowed to watch it. This feels like it should be counter-productive, but it hasn’t been, it seems to be helpful. Also, I’ve taken to encouraging myself to notice the fulfillment that comes from meditating - even when it’s nothing spectacular, there’s still a sense of ease and fulfillment in just sitting/walking etc. and being on one’s own and present to one’s own being - however that is.

Thanks for the enouragement though Bhante. You’re the best! :anjal:

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@anon29387788 Yes I was only hoping to inspire you, a little! :smile:

I think you’re lucky for being able to take things easy, as ven. Brahmali pointed out above, many practitioners only end up suffering when they try to force changes rather than open natural pathways to change their habits, however much deeply ingrained. And it is great that you are able to witness progress.

Ok I just really want to say one thing, I hope that you are curious about the nature of suffering that arises when you deprive yourself from the tv experience! I hope you are not afraid of those withdrawal symptoms, but rather interested in them, investigating them, examining them, seeing them as strange visitors who came to you from outside, but not yours! This is directly related to the practice of saņvara, and is the way I follow to naturally transcend all habits, including good or non-harmful ones by the way! For sati is all about seeing and exposing that terribly habitual core within ourselves, that binds us to the endless renewal of conditioned being.

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I understand Samvara come under the category of right effort.
That is, make some effort to composure your body, mind, and speech before the right mindfulness. It is a lower level of mindfulness and a higher level of effort.

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I think this approach is good. You have seen that there is a problem and is committed to working on it. Total suppression, when there aren’t very sever consequences, can lead to it appearing elsewhere. I would even say do a total pig out on the TV and watch the drawbacks! It might be also important to look at why TV (or other big addiction) is helpful- what is it giving you. Fantasy helps people escape issues. It could also be just very compelling programmes are on and they fulfill a part of emotional life, otherwise not to be had -so it might be ok. Some people watch TV just for a treat- that is, infrequently. This reminds me of giving dana for it to be a ‘ornament to the mind’. I think this is also a healthy use of time, especially as lay people as we cannot be absorbed in jhana most of the time. Ultimately we are still in training so dont worry too much about it!

with metta

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Yes, but to be honest, only a little…because it’s soooo unpleasant and yucky!! But of course, you’re absolutely right!

This is a question I’ve been able to answer, I know what created this almost addiction. But I don’t know it well enough, directly enough, experientally enough.

I think this might come eventually and then I’ll have mastery instead of being a slave. And I think part of this is my occassionally being brave enough to face the dukkha as Bhante Dhammarakkhita suggests. Though I know I can’t do this overmuch because then I just drown in misery…it’s too much, too soon most of the time.

And this would be okay if it weren’t for the fact that I have this other part of my life that I am wanting to grow and if I don’t have a significant insight/letting go into this sort of addiction, I feel I’m not really going to make much headway.

True! Thanks Mat! :anjal:

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In this dukkha lies the solution- not just to face it and experience it- but rather to delve into it and ask the question what do I miss? Repeatedly asking this question (despite getting an answer) … so if you ask it the first time, you may get an answer appearing ‘the drama’ etc- then just keep asking the same question ‘what do I miss’ you might get another answer ‘closeness’ etc. It varies according to the situation. It is useful tool to put the dark mass of dukkha to good use in the path.

Also keep in mind that watching TV is not a moral issue. We’re not doing something wrong. Self blame is an easy state of mind to slip into.

with metta

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I agree in principle but in reality, for me, I need to know my limits. If it leads to despair and a subsequent lack of clarity - it’s counter-productive.

See, this is where I see it differently.

Morality is about harmlessness. And I know I’m harming myself in watching TV. I know the dreadful, nasty feeling of being too in my head, feeling strained, having images floating around and snatches of music… It all seems so nice while I’m in it. But afterwards - some times if I’m more aware, I notice this during as well - I’m paying for it. It leaves me feeling hollow and unhappy. What’s maddening is that I will sometimes know and feel all this while I’m watching something - but do I have the will power to turn the thing off and walk away? No!! I’m glued unpleasantly.

I’ve taken to sitting meditation after watching tv. This is a thing I’ve avoided doing in the past because it can feel nasty!

But, lately I have found it does two things:

  1. I get to see the consequences and really feel them.

  2. It allows me to just accept myself and let go of those yucky feelings - at least for a while. Then I might sit again a bit later and the second sit is usually more pleasant. Both sits give more clarity and self-love than the telly does.

I’m hoping just doing this kind of thing and noticing this kind of thing will eventually wean me away from the beast!

Perhaps you can see why I don’t like the word “restraint” so much; it makes me feel like I am being forcibly tied up and either made to unhealthily repress or made to engage with dukkha that I don’t yet have the mental/emotional resilience for. Using the word “restraint” makes me feel like I’m asking too much of myself.

Thanks for your kind words and supportive encouragment Mat, it’s truly appreciated.

With metta

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Yes knowing the principle and how it applies to oneself is important.

I think it is important to have boundaries on what morality is, due to one very practical reason. That is, the definition of ‘fulfilling the training in morality’ seen at Stream entry. The boundary is fluid - eating meat killed in a certain way is not a moral issue for us - so we can define what it entails. The Buddha defines it as the five precepts especially when it comes to stream entry. I think we have to be ethical in other area of life but stick to the precepts less we be remorseful over little issues and expect the behaviour of an arahanth, from an unenlightened person. :slightly_smiling_face: It is true and research shows a lot of ‘screen time’ leads to low mood. https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.cbsnews.com/amp/news/depression-loneliness-linked-to-binge-watching-television/.

I think low mood can lead to negative definitions and a lot of guilt. I’m not saying this about you but throwing possibilities up in the air to take a look at.

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I believe you and I appreciate it very much. Thank you for your kindness.

It would be great if this particular issue presented as such a simple choice. I think what I feel is what I have to go on…and I feel it’s necessary to let go watching telly - a little bit at a time. That’s the long term intention. Of course, I can’t predict the future; but I can try and encourage myself to put some good causes in.

Thanks again Mat.

I do feel I’ve benefited a great deal from the comments in this thread. I’m curious to see what else Ajahn Brahmali may say in answering the questions further up…

Other than that I feel rather satisfied with how this topic has progressed. While I don’t think I could tick any one answer here as having provided a “solution” (you’ll notice this Q&A catergory has this function), overall, I feel pretty good about how I’m thinking/feeling about this right now.

Thank you everyone. :pray:t6:

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I’ve been fascinated by this thread and loved it a lot and on this occasion have just learned that the number of “likes” one can apply on this forum in one day is limited… just been told that there are only a few left for today :sweat_smile: Most of them have gone into this thread, therefore thank you everybody who has contributed - providing this sweet occasion for exhausting my resources! :heartpulse:

Here is just a quote from one of my favourite sutta passages AN 10.61:

“Thus associating with good persons, becoming full, fills up hearing the good Dhamma. Hearing the good Dhamma, becoming full, fills up faith. Faith, becoming full, fills up careful attention. Careful attention, becoming full, fills up mindfulness and clear comprehension. Mindfulness and clear comprehension, becoming full, fill up restraint of the sense faculties. Restraint of the sense faculties, becoming full, fills up the three kinds of good conduct. The three kinds of good conduct, becoming full, fill up the four establishments of mindfulness. The four establishments of mindfulness, becoming full, fill up the seven factors of enlightenment. The seven factors of enlightenment, becoming full, fill up true knowledge and liberation. Thus there is nutriment for true knowledge and liberation, and in this way they become full.

And I find that here the sequence between sense restraint and sila is just the other way around than what has been pointed out earlier:

Does this offer a different perspective? I’m not sure… but I’d love to hear what your “feeling” says to this, @anon29387788! To me it sounds like a very good approach to “feel” yourselves into the meaning of words or descriptions that are important to the practise!

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Smiles, smiles and more smiles… :grinning: :smile: :blush: :yum: :upside_down_face: If I may just say, :anjal: , you’re the best! :relaxed:

Thanks for this; I don’t know about you but sometimes I feel myself swimming in a sea of self-doubt! It’s always sweetly reassuring to get some nice feedback like this. Thank you so much. :anjal:

Yes, I can’t really seem to help “feeling” things out. It doesn’t mean I’m not thinking or verbalising mentally. Most of the time that’s going on too! But it’s not the main point of focus for me; the main point of focus is about cultivating a sene of acceptance around whatever I am present to. Which has led to me “feeling” more and allowing that to become more of an object of awareness than my thoughts - which are still there, just not so dominantly.

Yes!! You’ve bowled me over! :slight_smile: Thank you though, because, clearly I was getting too caught up with and some what rigid in my perception around sila=>samvara=>sati!!

I feel rather unscrambled!! But it feels good!! :slight_smile:

And a number of things are coming to mind here:

  1. I’m remembering how Ajahn Brahm used to teach: using the 4 basic stages as his main focus, especially for beginners - which, let’s be honest, is most of us! I mean, after 20 years of practice, I still see myself as a beginner…there’s so much to learn and it’s just so slow!!

Anyway, I used to approach these stages rather rigidly. I felt guilty and immersed in doubt whenever, say, stage 3 happened 1st!! Like a fool, I made it go away rather than allowing it to be… Until one day on a retreat, Ajahn said something, almost half jokingly, about letting the nimitta come up first, then going to present moment awareness or something like that… I think he was trying to encourage us to really allow and accept whatever was happening. After that, I started to view these kinds of “stages” as being very fluid and flexible and that sometimes we leap frog over one and wind up in the next one over and that as long as we’re open and loving and present, it doesn’t matter.

  1. The sequence presented in An10.61 is just as beautiful and wonderful and makes so much sense.

It just goes to show that these aspects of our mental worlds don’t just influence each other; they are hand in glove with each other and sometimes the lines between them are greatly blurred.

And what I feel, with some great relief, is that you’ve let me out of a prison I’d made for myself. For years, literally years, I’ve been practising as if I had to get my sila right before I could tackle samvara properly.

It’s just exactly what I used to do with my breath when it came up a the “wrong stage”!! I still remember the look of worry (for me) on Ajahn Brahm’s face when I told him in a retreat interview that I told the breath to “go away and come back later”!!! That look was the best teaching! And then it wasn’t long after that, on that same retreat, that he talked about leap frogging stages - though he might not have used those exact words!

I got in my own way - again!! :slight_smile: It makes me smile though, because…actually I don’t really know why…but I was feeling rather miserable and somehow my own stupidity and this tiny window of release you’ve created has greatly lightened my mood! :slight_smile:

  1. I think it just goes to show that we can all emphasise different aspects of Practice and depending on personality, there’s a sequence that might ring truer for all of us. I suppose also, this points to the fact that the Buddha was keeping his audience in mind.

Alternatively, it might be an error in transmission!

Regardless, I think - and feel - it also makes sense.

  1. Though it’s interesting that this bit:

seems to be assuming prior knowledge of samadhi coming after good conduct. Or, this is also an error.

  1. The distinction between

and

is interesting. I think this distinction implies that whoever was the main target audience, already understood that the former was probably referring to pre-samadhi sati and the latter, to post-samadhi sati.

@sabbamitta, you rock! Thanks so much for this and for upending my conceptions here!! I’ve loved it! Nothing like a good upending to make one feel a bit cleared out and clearer. Thank you, thank you! :heartpulse:


I’d be curious to know what @Brahmali thinks about the difference in this sequence. :anjal: …though with apologies too…I know I’m taking up your time Ajahn! :pray:t6:

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