Why did the Buddha move forward and backward through the jhanas before he was extinguished?

DN16 mentions that before his passing, the Buddha moved sequentially from the first jhana to the fourth jhana and then into the four formless spheres (arupa ayatanas), then moved back sequentially to the first jhana, then sequentially back to the fourth jhana, at which point he was extinguished. (To summarize: 1st->4th jhana, then arupas, then back “down” through arupas, then 4th->1st, then 1st->4th, then extinghishment). Why would he move “back” from the fourth to the third jhana, etc.?

We often think of the jhana states as sequentially progressing from one to the other as we progressively refine our mental state. By moving from the fourth to the third to the second to the first jhana, that implies that the Buddha’s mental state became progressivly less refined since he started experiencing coarser emotions, with the eventual return of vitakka/vicara (applied/sustained thought) in the first jhana. Why would he do that? Should meditators intentionally move from 1st->4th, then 4th->1st jhana, then 1st->4th? I recall Leigh Brasington mentioning this in his book on the jhanas as well.

One possibility is that the Buddha needed to move back to the first jhana because he wanted to have vitakka/vicara (perhaps to redirect his mind? Perhaps to re-orient himself in the physical world before moving back up to second/third/fourth jhana before passing away?).

The path of moving “forward” from 1st->4th is well articulated in the numerous instances of the standard jhana pericope. But the path of moving “backward”, and the reason for moving “backward”, is less clear. Clearly, one could move “back” through the jhanas as our samadhi weakens. But it seems in DN16 that the Buddha was intentionally moving from the fourth to the first jhana.

I think this has important practice implications. If anyone has suggestions/ideas about this, please share them.

I took it as a demonstration of his lucidity even at the time of death: A last teaching about the unconditioned nature of the enlightened mind as well as an opportunity for the psychic disciples to demonstrate their proficiency and prove the Sangha’s ability to continue the sasana.


Thank you for sharing that. It is quite likely that the ability to move in forward and reverse order is a sign of mastery of the jhanas. I checked an English translation of the Chinese Agamas, and I see that Sutra 2, the parallel to DN16, also mentions the Buddha moving in forward and reverse order through the jhanas at the time of his death. Thus, it appears that this concept is preserved in a parallel text.

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I took a look through Leigh Brasington’s book on Right Concentration and found this interesting passage (thanks Kindle search!):

It’s also going to be helpful to move up and down through the jhānas: 1-2-3-4-3-2-1 or even 1-2-3-2-3-4-3-4-3-2-3-2-1. Most people find going back “up” to the third jhāna quite easy—just remember what contentment feels like, and make that the object of your attention, adding in a dash of pleasantness. This should pop you back up to the third jhāna. As you go “up” to a lower-numbered jhāna, that lower-numbered one should be stronger than before because you are more concentrated due to having been “down” in the higher-numbered jhāna. If this increased strength is not immediately noticeable, just be patient and let the jhāna experience deepen. The one exception is the first jhāna—the pīti will usually be far less strong than when you initially entered the first jhāna. This is actually a good thing—especially since the strength of a jhāna is not measured measured by the strength of the primary quality, but by the strength of your indistractable attention upon the primary quality. (Brasington, Leigh. Right Concentration (p. 65). Shambhala. Kindle Edition. )

This advice also makes sense–the act of moving in reverse order allows one to have a deeper or stronger experience in the lower jhana.

I was wondering if there are any other passages in the suttas where the Buddha mentions moving back down the jhanas, so I did a search for the phrase: “catutthajjhānā vuṭṭhahitvā tatiyaṁ jhānaṁ samāpajji, tatiyajjhānā” (briefly, this means “fourth jhana, having emerged from, entered the third jhana” (i.e., moving back down the jhanas). Interestingly, I cannot find this fragment in any other suttas.

I was wondering if anyone else is aware of another example where the Buddha (or any other mendicant) moves back down the jhanas? If not, then perhaps this only occurred at the time of his death.

In this case, a possible scenario is that because the Buddha was near death, his mind was physically weaker, so he chose to move back down the jhanas in order to “strengthen” the jhanas before his final extinguishment.

The final part of DN 15, focusing on the eight liberations, may be relevant (came to mind as I had listened to this recently).

When a mendicant enters into and withdraws from these eight liberations—in forward order, in reverse order, and in forward and reverse order—wherever they wish, whenever they wish, and for as long as they wish …

Of course, there’s not quite a one-to-one mapping between the eight liberations and the jhanas/immaterial attainments, but the basic forward/reverse idea seems to be there.


Thank you for letting me know about this. I took a look and I see that the last four liberations are similar to the arupa ayatanas (formless spheres). A few thoughts:

  1. The phrase used is “paṭilomampi samāpajjati, anulomapaṭilomampi samāpajjati” (basically, “reverse order, forward order”; I am not a Pali scholar, but SuttaCentral is very helpful here with the word dictionary). I searched for that phrase in SuttaCentral and DN15 is the only place that it occurs in the suttas, so this is not a common pericope.
  2. The reverse order was described in the context of the arupa ayatanas, which are considered by some to be separate from the jhanas. Thus, it may be that DN16 is still the only place in the suttas where the Buddha mentions going in reverse order for the jhanas

This is fascinating on two levels, both highly relevant to our practice.

  1. I have a limited understanding of the Visudhimagga, but I believe this concept of moving forward and backwards in the jhanas is mentioned there and encouraged. Thus, it may be that this suggestion comes from this one passage in this one sutta (it is a very important sutta, though). In the over one hundred other mentions of the jhanas, however, this concept of moving backwards through the jhanas is not mentioned.
  2. More importantly, could this be a guide as to how we should do our own meditation practice at the time of our own death? That is, use this concept of moving down through the jhanas in order to “reinforce” them because of our gradually failing mental cognitive abilities as our brain, and the rest of our body, is dying?

Thank you for stimulating this discussion, with metta

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The way this is phrased in D15, if anything, sounds like indicating being able to do these in forward and reverse order indicates a thorough mastery.

The start of the Udana came to mind as having this forward and reverse terminology also; though I knew it was in terms of Dependent Origination (DO). And, sure enough, Ud1.3 has this phraseology:

When seven days had passed, the Buddha emerged from that state of immersion. In the last part of the night, he reflected on dependent origination in forward and reverse order

I have very little Pali but from the Pali lookup feature, it seems that the phrase “anulomapaṭilomaṁ” crops up here too, which the lookup gives as " 1. in direct and reversed order, forwards and backwards: (accusative adverb)".

A search on that threw up AN9.41, which is a more direct example of forward and reverse through the jhanas/immaterial attainments (+ cessation of feeling and perception), again indicating mastery:

As long as I hadn’t entered into and withdrawn from these nine progressive meditative attainments in both forward and reverse order, I didn’t announce my supreme perfect awakening in this world with its gods, Māras, and Brahmās, this population with its ascetics and brahmins, its gods and humans.

But when I had entered into and withdrawn from these nine progressive meditative attainments in both forward and reverse order, I announced my supreme perfect awakening in this world with its gods, Māras, and Brahmās, this population with its ascetics and brahmins, its gods and humans.

Knowledge and vision arose in me: ‘My freedom is unshakable; this is my last rebirth; now there’ll be no more future lives.’”

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This is very helpful–thank you. I looked over AN 9.41 and had some initial thoughts:

  1. It has an interesting section where the Buddha mentions that the fourth jhana is “an affliction”: (SC10.16) “While I was in that (fourth absorption) meditation, perceptions and attentions accompanied by equanimous bliss beset me, and that was an affliction for me.” (SuttaCentral)

  2. I tried to understand why he said that, and a few lines later, he mentions that the fourth jhana included perceptions of diversity: (SC 11.2): “not focusing on perceptions of diversity” (SuttaCentral)

  3. I have heard mention of upekkha focused on diversity in contrast to upekkha focused on non-diversity, so perhaps that is the origin of this.

  4. I checked for parallels, and it appears that there are no parallels to this sutta in the Agamas according to SuttaCentral. Thus, while this could be an EBT, it may also be a later addition.

  5. The helpful term you identified “anulomapaṭilomaṁ” does not appear in other suttas in relation to jhana (the other two examples that come up on SuttaCentral related to dependent origination as you noted)

In summary, while this sutta is interesting, it does not appear to have parallels and may be describing a different type of jhana (one based on diversity). It is interesting food for thought and thank you again for sharing it.

With metta

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I think this was mentioned in another post about the 1 jhana being connected with happiness. So Nirvana being ultimate happiness get only intensifying by going back to all the jhanas that has the ability to cause positive effect.

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This topic is discussed in Bhikkhu Analayo’s journal article titled “The Buddha’s Last Meditation in the Dīrgha-āgama”, Indian International Journal of Buddhist Studies, 2014, vol. 15 pp. 1–43. You can read the PDF here.


Running forward and backward through a sequence is a basic exercise in the suttas for cultivating equanimity. It doesn’t move forward, but consolidates skills already possesed, like playing scales on a piano. It is found in mind control in perceptions of objects (SN 46.54), and also in germinal form in the Anapanasati sutta first and second tetrads. There each tetrad has a beginning, middle, and conclusion exercise demonstrating that the practitioner is able to release the middle exercise which requires the energy of investigation, that being the effects of the breath on the entire body. After calming the body, the practitioner is in a position to rest or to focus on the second tetrad’s task of cultivating joy as a preparation for jhana.
There is a resistance among beginners to associate the dhamma with mundane things like practice routines, but one of the qualities of the Buddha is he is a skilled teacher. The reality of taking refuge as a Buddhist is to rely on feelings based on the breath (not of the flesh) rather than other feelings in the body.