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A Swift Pair of Messengers

Bhikkhu Sujato



And the Blessed One addressed Venerable Ananda: ‘Ananda, it might occur to you: “In the past we had the guidance of our Teacher ‑ now we have no Teacher!” But it should not be regarded thus. The Dhamma and Vinaya I have taught and laid down for you will be your Teacher when I have gone. [1]

What is our standard? Who should we believe? Amid the shifting sands of opinion, is there a solid rock of certainty on which to stand? The Buddha insisted that personal experience must be the ultimate criterion. But for the unenlightened, personal experience can be ambiguous, even misleading. To complicate matters further, in these times of information overload there is a bewildering diversity of teachers and teachings, all claiming to be based on experience. In this work I aim to address, not the question of the Kalamas – ‘How do we decide between different religious teachings?’ ‑ but rather: ‘How do we decide between different interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings?’ This question also arose for the Buddha’s followers as his life drew near its end. His answer, known as the four great references, is recorded as follows:

‘Here, monks, a monk may say this: “Face to face with the Blessed One, friend, have I heard, face to face with him have I received this: ‘This is Dhamma, this is vinaya, this is the message of the Teacher’ ...”

‘Again, monks, a monk may say: “In such and such a dwelling lives a Sangha with an elder, a leader. Face to face with that Sangha have I heard: ‘This is Dhamma, this is vinaya, this is the message of the Teacher’...”

‘Again, monks, a monk may say: “In such and such a dwelling live many elder monks of much learning who have mastered the tradition, Dhamma experts, vinaya experts, systematized summary experts. Face to face with them have I heard: This is Dhamma, this is vinaya, this is the message of the Teacher’…”

‘Again, monks, a monk may say: “In such and such a dwelling lives a monk, an elder, of much learning, who has mastered the tradition, a Dhamma expert, a vinaya expert, a systematized summary expert. Face to face with this elder have I heard, face to face with him have I received it: 'This is Dhamma, this is vinaya, this is the message of the Teacher’...”

[In all of the above cases:] ‘Monks, the speech of that monk should neither be delighted in nor disparaged. Every word and phrase should be well apprehended, placed beside the sutta and compared with the vinaya. Should they not fit in with the sutta or accord with the vinaya, you should conclude: “Certainly this is not the word of the Blessed One, and has been wrongly apprehended by that elder.” Thus, monks, you should reject it. If they fit in with the sutta and accord with the vinaya, then you should conclude: “Certainly this is the word of the Blessed One, and has been rightly apprehended by that elder.” ’[2]

It seems that the Buddha, though aware of the possibility of breakdown in transmission, nevertheless trusted the Sangha to adequately preserve his teachings; most practitioners and scholars today agree this has occurred. The suttas offer the seeker a unique opportunity to engage with a direct expression of perfect enlightenment. Lucid, immediate, and pragmatic, this Dhamma emerged at a time when experiments in democracy could form a model for organization of the Sangha; when freedom of religious creed and practice was unquestioned; and when the religious establishment was straining under the weight of the rituals, hierarchies, and mystifications of age-old tradition, unable to address the issues most relevant to people's lives. The spirit of inquiry responded to these conditions with a bewildering diversity of religious sects, of which the Buddha's best stood the test of time. The universal, timeless quality of the Buddha’s words, like an arrow aimed straight at the heart of the human condition, inspired an unprecedented effort to preserve his Teachings ‘for those who feel’. The following passage clarifies both what the Buddha meant by ‘sutta’ and why this standard is important.

‘In future times there will be monks undeveloped in bodily conduct, virtue, mind, and understanding... when suttas spoken by the Tathagata are taught ‑ profound, profoundly meaningful, transcendental, dealing with emptiness ‑ they will not listen, they will not lend an ear, they will not set their minds on profound knowledge, they will not think those teachings worth apprehending and mastering. But when suttas composed by literati are taught ‑ literary, with fancy wordings, fancy phrasings, irrelevant, spoken by disciples ‑ they will listen, they will lend an ear, they will set their minds on profound knowledge, they will think those teachings worth apprehending and mastering.’

‘Thus, monks, from corrupt Dhamma comes corrupt vinaya; from corrupt vinaya comes corrupt Dhamma. This is the fourth future danger as yet un-arisen, which will arise in the future. Be alert, and strive to abandon it.’ [3]

The texts relied on here are the only ones considered authoritative by all schools of Buddhism. My intention is to establish an interpretation of the crucial features of the path acceptable to all Buddhists by not relying on later authorities peculiar to any particular school. These texts are the five Nikayas of the Pali Sutta Pitaka ‑ excluding later additions to the fifth Nikaya such as the Patisambhidamagga ‑ together with the Vinaya Pitaka. There are, no doubt, some extraneous additions even within this limited body of texts; yet such additions seem to be limited to supplementary matter, especially verse, and do not substantially affect the doctrine. These Nikayas correspond to the Agamas preserved in the Chinese and Tibetan traditions. Where they differ, the Nikayas usually seem to be more reliable, although in any case such differences probably do not significantly affect the present discussion. [4]

I have been conscious throughout of avoiding writing a ‘fundamentalist’ critique of contemporary schools of meditation or of the traditional commentaries. It seems that the commentaries in particular have become a favorite target of criticism, particularly for Western scholars. This might be influenced by the generally odious image of institutionalized medieval monasticism in the West. But time and again initially plausible critiques turn out to be shortsighted, and, worse, the critics then proceed to make as many or more new blunders. In fact the commentaries are an invaluable mine of information on Dhamma, Pali, history, and much else, and any translator owes them a great debt. However, I am resolutely committed to interpreting the suttas on their own terms, and try as I might to see the matter from the commentarial position, I have in several instances reached conflicting conclusions. I have noted some important points of divergence; the points of agreement are too many to mention. I have mentioned such differences, not out of desire to criticize, but because the commentarial system is highly influential in contemporary meditation circles and therefore has a direct effect on people’s lives. I believe that a careful appraisal of the tradition in the light of the suttas will facilitate appreciation of its true value.

I have yet to see any satisfactory study along historical and comparative lines of the development of Theravadin thought in these issues. I may simply add that the commentaries universally praise jhana and devote great lengths to explain what it is and how to develop it. However, certain variations in their explanations of key points suggest that they may incorporate some divergence of opinion. Thus ‘purification of mind’ is defined in the Digha Nikaya commentary as ‘the thoroughly mastered eight attainments [i.e. form and formless jhana] as a basis for vipassana’, whereas in the Visuddhimagga it is ‘the eight attainments together with access [samadhi]’. Again, where the Visuddhimagga treats ‘mind’ as absorption and access samadhi, the Samyutta Nikaya commentary to the same verse defines ‘mind’ simply as ‘the eight attainments’. Again, ‘momentary samadhi’ occurs only twice, both times subordinate to jhana, in the Visuddhimagga, but more often and with more independence in its commentary. These differences could be explained away as mere variations in the letter; but the natural conclusion in the face of the evidence is that there is a divergence in meaning, perhaps a historical development. Far from being a uniform emanation of enlightened wisdom, the commentarial literature is a complex and evolving scholasticism. The tradition itself is quite happy to chronicle un-reconciled differences of opinion. In any case, the task I have set myself is to explain what the suttas say, and so I have throughout avoided relying on the commentaries. Nor, with two slight exceptions, have I relied on the testimony of contemporary meditators, as such testimony is diverse and unverifiable.

A problem can arise: since even learned scholars can disagree on the meaning of sutta passages, is the above standard any use? Two related principles of interpretation can help clarify obscure passages. One we call the principle of proportion, the second, the principle of historical perspective.



The principle of proportion involves assessing the relative importance and reliability of sutta passages using a variety of acceptable objective criteria. If there are any gray areas, anomalies, or possible conflicts, then the more important and reliable passage should take precedence. It is not necessary to assume that there either are or are not contradictions in the sutta texts as we have them, nor that the secondary passages are not authoritative, simply that the primary passages should be granted greater authority.

Consider how the suttas were assembled. First, the Buddha would have taught; his followers would memorize the teachings and later embed them in a framework of time and place. This indicates that it is the doctrinal teachings themselves, rather than background details or anecdotes, which should be accorded greater weight. This can be shown by comparing the following two passages, each introducing the same sutta, the Samannaphala. The first is from the Vinaya Culavagga, recounting the history of the recitation of the suttas and vinaya by the Sangha after the Buddha’s passing away.

‘Ananda, where was the Samannaphala spoken?’

‘At Rajagaha, Bhante, in Jivaka's mango-grove.’

‘Who with?’

‘With Ajatasattu Vedehiputta.’

Thus Venerable Maha Kassapa questioned Venerable Ananda about the setting and the individuals. Using the same method, he inquired about the five Nikayas and Venerable Ananda answered each question.[5]

From the Samannaphala Sutta as recorded in the Digha Nikaya:

‘Thus have I heard. At one time the Blessed One was living at Rajagaha, in the mango-grove of

Jiivaka Komarabhacca, together with a great Sangha of twelve hundred and fifty monks. Now at that time Ajatasattu, the king of Magadha, was seated on the upper verandah of his palace, it being the full moon observance day of the fourth month, the Komudi, surrounded by his ministers.’[6]

Although the story is essentially the same, the form is different and many details have been added. Even the words ‘Thus have I heard’ are missing from the Culavagga account. From other contexts it seems that the phrase ‘Thus have I heard’ is reserved for relating events Second-hand.[7] If one was actually present, the phrase Face to face have I heard it’ is used instead. ‘Thus have I heard’ therefore would not have been spoken by Venerable Ananda, since he was present when many of the suttas were delivered. The Buddha described his teaching as the ‘suttas spoken by the Tathagata’, and it seems from the above account that his early disciples also regarded the ‘sutta’ in the most authoritative sense as the doctrinal teachings spoken by the Buddha (or his enlightened disciples), as distinct from the incidental details of where it was spoken and to whom, etc.

Other common sense considerations should also be borne in mind when interpreting the suttas. Minor teachings should concede precedence to central and important themes, especially those given special significance by the Buddha himself. Poetry is naturally less suited to precise and detailed exposition of doctrinal points than prose; in addition, much of the poetry of the Tipitaka seems to be of later date than the prose. When quoting verses, therefore, we will try to restrict ourselves to the earlier strata. Similes, inferences, and passages of dubious or controversial interpretation are likewise of secondary consideration.

For several centuries the suttas were handed down orally, most reciters concentrating on learning texts from a single Nikaya. The arrangers of the suttas would naturally wish to edit their material so that the core teachings would be found in each Nikaya, the fifth (minor) Nikaya being only somewhat of an exception. In this way by learning one Nikaya one should be able to come to an accurate understanding of all the major teachings. The Nikayas differ in perspective and emphasis, but not in doctrine. The interesting conclusion follows that it is unlikely that a text crucial for deciding an important doctrinal point would be found in only one or two Nikayas.

The Buddha clearly felt that at least some of his discourses stood in no need of interpretation.

‘These two misrepresent the Tathagata... one who shows a sutta whose meaning requires further explanation as not requiring further explanation; and one who shows a sutta whose meaning does not require further explanation as requiring further explanation.’[8]

There is therefore no justification for assuming that the suttas teach only a provisional, conventional teaching, which the abhidhamma explains in full detail; both of these methods are found within the suttas themselves. The suttas are full of similes, parables, and brief or enigmatic teachings that require interpretation. Sometimes the Buddha would do so, or encourage a disciple to do so. Often it is left up to the audience, the Buddha apparently recognizing that the process of sincere investigation into meaning can be of more value than being handed all the answers on a plate. But definitive statements of central doctrinal importance surely belong to the category of statements that are fully explained. Care should be taken, therefore, to avoid imputing unjustified meanings to such passages.

So what then are these central teachings on practice? Shortly before the Buddha passed away he emphasized a set of seven groups of Dhammas, later known as the thirty-seven wings to enlightenment, as the teaching which ‘should be cultivated, developed, and made much of, so that this holy life will last long, for the benefit and happiness of many people, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit and happiness of deities and humans.’[9] Again, it is said that who sees the Dhamma sees dependent origination, and who sees, dependent origination sees the Dhamma; the fundamental significance of causality in the Buddha's teaching is underlined by the famous verse of Venerable Assaji, regarded as the ideal epitome of Dhamma.

‘Whatever phenomena arise from a cause –
Their cause and their cessation.
Such is the doctrine of the Tathagata
The Great Contemplative

The practical aspect of causality may be described as ‘dependent liberation’. Finally, the Buddha said that practice in this Dhamma-vinaya is gradual, with no sudden penetration to knowledge; this gradual training comprises the heart of the second to twelfth suttas in the Digha Nikaya and many others. These three teachings ‑ the wings to enlightenment, the dependent liberation, and the gradual training ‑ are discussed in detail below.

This then is the first principle for interpretation, the principle of proportion, which we are proposing as a reasonable guideline to resolve conflicts in doctrinal understanding. Can we really suppose that the Buddha would have left a crucial question underpinning the whole way of practice to a background story, minor category, or dubious inference? Surely it is more reasonable to suppose that he would have described the way of practice very carefully, defined his terms clearly, and repeated them often. This being so, when faced with gray areas or unclear passages, we should interpret the minor statements so as to agree with the major statements, not the other way around.



Our second interpretative guideline is the principle of historical perspective. In the 2,500 years since the Buddha, discussion, systematization, and perhaps modification of the meaning of what he said has continued unabated. Without passing judgment on the value of these discussions, it should be clear that it is quite inappropriate to read terminology and concepts of a later era into the texts of an earlier era. This error may occur in a number of ways: new terminology may be invented for old ideas; old words may acquire new meanings; or completely new concepts may be invented and artificially imposed on the old texts.

Remember that in the text quoted at the beginning of this paper the Buddha conferred sole authority on the sutta and vinaya; no abhidhamma and certainly no commentaries. It has been established by scholastic research that the abhidhamma did not exist in the Buddha's lifetime, but, along with some later works included in the suttas, was developed during a period of approximately four centuries after the Buddha's passing away. The commentaries were not finalized until 1,000 years after the Buddha, over the same period when the Mahayana Sutras were composed. Some say that even if these texts did not exist in their present form, still their essence was spoken by the Buddha and his disciples. This claim, while not altogether baseless, is misleading. Much of the material in the abhidhamma and commentaries is perfectly in accord with the suttas and may well be descended from sayings of the Buddha. However, much of their teachings are radically different in both form and content from the suttas, and it is precisely these passages that give rise to controversy. We can fortunately, sidestep the question of whether these teachings differ only in the letter or also in the meaning as a strictly separate and secondary issue. The first of the great references quoted above refers to a teaching that a monk claims to have heard from the Buddha's lips; even this must only be accepted if it is in line with the suttas and vinaya. So the suttas can simply be taken on their own terms, and for all important matters they should be sufficient. Anyone who reads the suttas cannot help but be impressed by the clarity, consistency, and precision of the Buddha's teaching. To hold that he was unable to explain what he meant would be a curious aspersion on his ability.

The Theravada tradition has coined a range of terminology and concepts which, although unknown to the suttas, constitutes the standard vocabulary of much contemporary Buddhist meditation teaching. These terms include ‘momentary’ and ‘access’ samadhi; ‘vipassana jhana’, ‘samatha jhana’, and ‘transcendental jhana’; the ‘one whose vehicle is serenity’ and the ‘one whose vehicle is pure (or dry) insight’. So prevalent is the influence of these terms that the conception of the path of meditation they imply is tacitly accepted by almost all books on meditation, and has been 'authorized' by inclusion in standard reference works. Someone interested in Buddhist meditation can thus pick up a wide variety of books from diverse sources, simple and complex, all of which re-affirm the same ideas. The plain fact that these special concepts are based on scholastic writings dated centuries after the Buddha and peculiar to the Theravada school is obscured. If we wish to understand the suttas as those who listened to them, we must first carefully examine the contextual significance of crucial terms. Sound textual analysis must proceed from unambiguous contexts as a basis for inferring the meaning of ambiguous contexts. Any interpretation which relies on reading non-standard meanings into ambiguous passages should be rejected out of hand.


Samadhi is a regular synonym for ‘one-pointedness of mind’ (cittekaggata) or ‘unification’ (ekodibava). Both ‘samadhi’ and ‘unification’ occur in the formula for the second jhana, while elsewhere ‘one-pointedness’ is also said to already occur in first jhana.[11] The verb forms of' ‘unification’ (ekodihoti or ekodikaroti), which regularly occur alongside samadhiyati, may also refer to first jhana.[12] The absence of these terms in the normal formula for the first jhana seems to imply a certain reservation over whether first jhana is fully one-pointed or not, no doubt due to the continued operation of initial and sustained application of mind. A key doctrinal definition is this:

‘One-pointedness of mind with these seven [path] factors as requisites is called noble right samadhi with its vital conditions and requisites.’[13]

This statement establishes that samadhi or one-pointedness of mind in the context of the path is ‘right samadhi’, which is the four jhanas.[14] We shall see below that whenever samadhi is explicitly defined in core doctrinal categories, it is always the four jhanas.

In a very few contexts the meaning, not clarified by the context, may be jhana, or possibly mere ‘concentration’ in the ordinary sense of the word.[15] One passage speaks of a monk establishing the ‘mind one-pointed in samadhi’ while in all four postures, including walking.[16] This would seem to be difficult to square with the usual understanding of jhana, although it would not necessarily directly contradict anything in the suttas. Everything else in this sutta, though, is quite standard ‑ virtue, abandoning the hindrances, energy, mindfulness, bodily tranquility (which strikes me as slightly odd in the context of walking), and samadhi, concluding with a verse extolling both samatha and vipassana. Perhaps we might suspect some slightly clumsy editing; and we should not forget the many times when the meditator sits down cross-legged before entering samadhi.

More often, samadhi is used to describe meditative states of vipassana or liberation. These include three of the four kinds of ‘development of samadhi’,[17] the ‘basis of reviewing’,[18] and the ‘signless heart samadhi’.[19] These are neither substitutes for jhana in any important doctrinal categories, nor are they shown as the direct outcome of tranquility and bliss, but regularly follow after jhana. It may be noted that ‘development’ (bhavana) often refers not to the basic establishing of a meditation subject, but to its further, advanced development.[20] Presumably, establishing one-pointedness in jhana enables the mind to maintain a comparable level of one-pointedness in the more complex task of vipassana, justifying the term samadhi.

Very rarely, samadhi is used of a state of meditation that may precede jhana. The following unique passage describes such a pre-jhanic samadhi.

‘For a monk devoted to the higher mind, there are coarse taints ‑ misconduct of body, speech, and mind. The aware and competent monk abandons, dispels, eradicates, and annihilates them.

‘When they are abandoned ... there are middling taints ‑thoughts of sensual pleasures, ill will, and cruelty....

‘When they are abandoned ... there are subtle taints ‑ thoughts of family, country, and reputation. The aware and competent monk abandons, dispels, eradicates, and annihilates them.

‘When they are abandoned and eradicated, from there on there remain only thoughts about Dhamma. That samadhi is not quite peaceful, nor refined, nor possessed of tranquility, nor unified, but is actively controlled and constrained. There comes a time when the mind is steadied within, settled, unified, and concentrated in samadhi. That samadhi is peaceful, refined, possessed of tranquility, unified, and is not actively controlled or constrained. One can incline the mind to witness with direct knowledge whatever principle can be witnessed with direct knowledge, and become an eye-witness in every case, there being a suitable basis.’[21]

Elsewhere too, samadhi is treated as the precursor of various direct knowledges, confirming that jhana is meant.[22] Since the passage only speaks of particular subtle taints, it ‑ probably deliberately ‑ does not quite clarify whether the ‘samadhi’ accompanied by ‘thoughts about Dhamma’ is totally free of hindrances or not ‑ there is no mention of sloth and torpor, etc. We might surmise that hindrances, even if not actually arisen, may re-emerge at any moment due to the lack of one-pointedness, which is the defining characteristic of true samadhi. In any case, this is obviously not the liberating samadhi of the path.[23] Its only significance is to precede true samadhi, and it is ignored in all expositions of right samadhi. ‘Thoughts about the Dhamma’ means just that.[24] The commentary asserts that the phrase refers to the ten ‘taints of vipassana’. But not only is this an anachronistic reading of a later concept into an earlier text, the context has nothing to do with vipassana. Moreover, the meditator ‘thinking about Dhamma’ is still involved with concepts, whereas vipassana deals with actualities.


‘[Jhana] never means vaguely “meditation”. It is the technical term for a special religious experience reached in a certain order of mental states. It was originally divided into four such states.' (Pali-English Dictionary) This unambiguous meaning occurs many hundreds of times. Very rarely, jhana may refer to a non-Buddhist form of self-torment such as the ‘breathless jhana’.[25] In prefixed form, jhana often means ‘ponder’, ‘brood’. Very rarely, the simple and prefixed forms are used together in a disparaging sense. Despite the obvious incongruity, I retain the word ‘jhana’ in the following passages for the sake of consistency.

‘Then, when Mara Dusi had possessed the brahman householders, they abused, reviled, mocked, and harassed the virtuous monks of good character thus: “These baldies, monkies, menial darkies spawned from the Ancestor's feet, claim: ‘We’re doing jhana! We're doing jhana!’ and with shoulders drooping, heads hanging, and all limp they do jhana, re-do jhana, out-do jhana, and miss-do jhana. Just like an owl on a branch watching out for a mouse ... like a jackal on a riverbank watching out for fish ... like a cat by a door-post or a dustbin or a drain watching out for a mouse ... like a clapped-out donkey hanging around a door-post or a dustbin or a drain does jhana, re-does jhana, out-does jhana, and miss-does jhana....” ’[26]

This passage provides a clue as to the basic, non-specialized meaning of jhana; close, sustained, concentrated observation at a single point. The significant image of ‘food’ as the object of jhana recurs in the following remarkable passage, which encompasses the broadest range of meaning of ‘jhana’.

‘Sandha, you should practice the jhana of the thoroughbred steed, not the jhana of the clumsy nag. What is the jhana of the clumsy nag?

‘The clumsy nag, Sandha, when tied up by the feeding-trough does jhana thus: “Fodder! Fodder!” For what reason? It does not occur to him: “What task will the trainer set for me today? What can I do for him in return?” Tied up by the feeding-trough, he just does jhana thus: “Fodder! Fodder!” In just the same way, a certain clumsy nag of a person who has gone to a forest, the root of a tree, or an empty place, abides with heart obsessed and overwhelmed with sensual lust ... ill will ... sloth and torpor ... restlessness and remorse ... doubt. He does not understand the escape from these things in accordance with reality. Having formed these things inside himself, he does jhana, re-does jhana, out-does jhana, and miss-does jhana. He does jhana dependent on earth ... water ... fire ... air ... the base of infinite space ... the base of infinite consciousness ... the base of nothingness ... the base of neither perception nor non-perception ... this world ... the world beyond ... on what is seen, heard, sensed, cognized, attained, sought out, and explored by the mind. This is the jhana of the clumsy nag of a person.

‘What is the jhana of the thoroughbred steed?

‘The excellent thoroughbred steed, when tied up by the feeding-trough does not do jhana thus: “Fodder! Fodder!” For what reason? It occurs to him: “What task will the trainer set for me today? What can I do for him in return?”... The excellent thoroughbred steed regards the application of the whip as a debt, imprisonment, loss, and misfortune. In just the same way, the excellent thoroughbred steed of a person ... does not abide with heart obsessed with the five hindrances.... He does not do jhana dependent on earth ... on what is seen, heard, sensed, cognized, attained, sought out, and explored by the mind. And yet he does practice jhana.’[27]

This passage brings out a number of points in the usage of the term ‘jhana’. The similes differentiate between the mind focused on one thing and the mind engaged in reflective consideration ‑ the former is called ‘jhana’, the latter not. The series of four derivatives of ‘jhana’ augmented with prefixes is always used in connection with the five hindrances, never with the four jhanas. The mention of the four elements seems to be an idiomatic reference to the four ‘form’ jhanas. To preserve consistency, the text applies ‘jhana’ to the formless attainments ‑ a common usage in later literature but perhaps unique in the suttas. The ‘jhana’ mentioned in the final phrase may be the fruition attainment of arahantship. Notice that this meditative experience of enlightenment is distinguished from the form and formless jhanas. Although the text does not unequivocally praise jhana, it is not the jhana, but the person practicing it, who the Buddha criticizes, and then only by comparison with the arahant. As we shall see below, the ideas of ‘food’ and ‘dependence’ imply dependent origination; so all conditioned states are being faulted here from the standpoint of ultimate wisdom as being still bound up with rebirth. It should be re-emphasized that these broad usages of the term ‘jhana’ ‑ here mentioned for completeness ‑ are exceedingly rare.

These are the only meanings of the words ‘jhana’ and ‘samadhi’ which can be unambiguously established from the early suttas. Since these two words occur so often with such clear meaning, it seems reasonable to assume that they refer to the four jhanas unless there is contextual evidence otherwise. As samadhi may have a broader meaning on occasion, however, it will be prudent to confirm the contextual meaning whenever possible. The Visuddhimagga classifies meditation subjects according to whether they produce absorption or only access samadhi. But since access samadhi plays no role in the Buddha’s scheme of meditation, it seems unlikely he would have taught any meditation not capable of leading to jhana. Although it is difficult to substantiate this for every meditation subject, we will see below that in at least some cases, meditations traditionally believed to produce only access can, according to the suttas, lead to absorption.


Vipassana Jhana

The term ‘vipassana jhana’ seems to stem from a historical development in the application of the terms ‘samatha’ and ‘vipassana’. In the suttas, no meditation technique is labeled, such as by saying ‘kasinas and loving-kindness are samatha, satipatthana is vipassana’. A growing tendency to segregate and systematize the various meditation subjects developed into the prevailing practice of identifying samatha and vipassana with the meditation subjects themselves, rather than with the mental qualities that the techniques foster. Having thus labeled a certain technique as ‘vipassana’, it was found that experiences of rapture, serenity, and bliss occur during ‘vipassana’ which were then called ‘vipassana jhana’. But these emotional qualities are precisely what ‘samatha’ refers to. This is not some new kind of ‘jhana happening in vipassana’, it is just samatha pure and simple. One may hear that ‘vipassana’ helps to relieve stress, solve psychological imbalances, or increase compassion; but these things are aspects of samatha, ‘development of the mind’, regardless of the label stuck on the technique. As long as the mind is still moving, however, and as long as the five external senses still impinge, it falls short of true jhana ‑ the mind absolutely content to rest still within itself.


Transcendental Jhana

There is one further concept to be discussed: ‘transcendental jhana’, which has been pressed into service as a substitute for ‘samatha jhana’ to fulfill the path factor of right samadhi. According to the Theravada commentarial tradition, derived it seems from the Patisambhidamagga, one of the latest books in the Sutta Pitaka, this is a special kind of jhana which occurs only at the time of penetrating to the noble paths and fruitions. This samadhi can apparently occur with the same mental factors as any of the four jhanas, but is distinguished by taking Nibbana as its object and by permanently eradicating, rather than merely suppressing, the defilements appropriate to each path. The four paths are each conceived as lasting one ‘mind moment’[28] ‑ another Theravada commentarial concept ‑ occurring once only, while the fruition can be re-entered by the noble ones after appropriate preparation. This ‘path-moment’ is supposed to last less than a billionth of the duration of a flash of lightning.[29]

Apart from fruition attainment,[30] none of these ideas finds support in the suttas. The Mahacattarisaka Sutta distinguishes between the transcendental and non-transcendental path for the first five path factors, but does not maintain that distinction for the factors of the samadhi aggregate.[31] The divergence in presentation is not arbitrary. The express purpose of the sutta is to show how all the path factors function to support samadhi for one developing the noble path. The first five factors are accordingly given special definitions appropriate in the context of samadhi. In particular, right view and right intention are defined by way of cognitive function rather than objective content. But the final three factors in their normal formulation already pertain directly to samadhi, so stand in no need of any special definition here. In any case, the mere mention of the words ‘noble, poison-free, transcendental, a factor of the path’ even if they were applied to jhana would hardly imply the details of the commentarial theory.[32] The definition of the spiritual faculty of samadhi is also relied on to support this thesis. In the section dealing with the spiritual faculties I offer an alternative interpretation, reserving a technical critique of the commentarial position to Appendix 1.

On these insubstantial grounds rests the entire elaborate edifice of the commentarial theory. One may wonder why the Buddha, normally so precise in wording, would choose to use such terms as ‘path’ and ‘person’ to describe a ‘mind-moment’. Such ideas may have evolved from the recorded instances of apparently sudden penetration to the Dhamma. It seems that the path is entered at one time, developed gradually, and matures into the fruition at another time, after a short or long interval.[33] This is explained with such similes as chicks breaking out of their shells after incubation, or the collapse of a ship’s rigging after rotting away for a long time in the weather.[34] We might note here that the word ‘path’ (magga), apart from a few instances cited below, is hardly used in the suttas to denote those developing the path; the synonym ‘way’ (patipada), defined just as the noble eightfold path,[35] is the usual term. Nor is the path normally divided into four as such; the path is just the noble eightfold path, but those at different stages practice for different immediate goals. This being so, the phrase ‘the path to arahantship’ that occurs below probably simply refers to the eightfold path. Key sutta passages on the path are collected below.

‘Just as, monks, this great ocean deepens gradually, inclines gradually, slopes gradually, with no abrupt precipice, even so in this Dhamma-vinaya there is gradual training, gradual work, gradual practice, with no abrupt penetration to profound knowledge.’[36]

‘Just as the great ocean is the home of many great beings... so too this Dhamma-vinaya is the home of many great beings: the stream-enterer, the one on the way to witnessing the fruit of stream-entry [and so on].’[37]

‘As he develops samatha prior to vipassana, the path is born in him. He cultivates, develops, and makes much of that path.’[38]

‘One who, regarding the well, taught word of Dhamma,
Lives on the path, restrained and mindful
Cultivating blameless states –
This is the third kind of monk, the liver of the path

‘The four pairs of people, the eight individuals, these are the Sangha of the Blessed One's disciples: worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of reverential greeting, an unexcelled field of merit for the world.’[40]

‘Those eight people who are praised
The four pairs of the Blessed One's disciples
They are worthy of offerings
What is given to them bears great fruit

‘An offering to one on the way to witnessing the fruit of stream-entry can be expected to repay incalculably; what could I say of an offering to a stream-enterer?[42]

Of the Dhamma-follower and faith-follower, those on the way to stream-entry, it is said:

‘He is incapable of doing any action having done which he would be reborn in hell, the womb of an animal, or the ghost realm. He is incapable of passing away without witnessing the fruit of stream-entry.’[43]

‘Just as that tender calf just born, being urged on by its mother’s lowing also breasted the stream of the Ganges and got safely across to the further shore, so too those monks who are Dhamma-followers, faith-followers ‑ by breasting Mara’s stream they too will get safely across to the further shore.’[44]

‘What do you think, Bhaddali? ... Suppose there was a monk who was a Dhamma-follower ... a faith-follower, and I told him: “Come, monk, be a plank for me to walk across the mud.” Would he walk across himself, or would he dispose his body otherwise, or would he say “No”?’

‘No, Bhante.’[45]

‘When that venerable one makes use of suitable dwellings, associates with good friends, and composes his spiritual faculties, he may witness ... the supreme goal.... He still has work to do with diligence.’[46]

One of the chief lay-disciples relates how he learns of the monks’ attainments.

‘It is no surprise, Bhante, when the Sangha is invited by me, that deities approach and tell me: “That monk, householder, is one released on both sides; that one is released by understanding; that one is a personal witness; that one has attained to view; that one is faith-released; that one is a Dhamma-follower; that one is a faith-follower; that one is virtuous, of good qualities; that one is immoral, of evil qualities.” ’[47]

Seeing some wanderers of other sects walk by, King Pasenadi asks the Buddha:

‘Bhante, are those among those in the world who are arahants or attained to the path to arahantship?’

‘It is hard, Great King, for you as a lay person enjoying sensual pleasures, dwelling crowded by children, using sandal, wood imported from Benares, wearing garlands, perfume and make-up, and accepting gold and money, to know whether these are arahants or those attained to the path to arahantship.’[48]

'Neither arahants nor those attained to the path to arahantship will attend such a sacrifice. Why not? Because beatings and throttlings [of sacrificial animals] are seen there. But arahants or those attained to the path to arahantship will attend the kind of sacrifice where regular family gifts are specially given to virtuous monks.’[49]

Those of us who cannot imagine a ‘mind-moment’ lying in the mud or attending a meal or accepting a gift will conclude that the commentarial ‘instant-path’ theory cannot be relied on to explain the suttas. Furthermore, the suttas regularly speak of samadhi as a gradual settling of activities resulting in a stable coalescence of mind that lasts for a substantial period of time, into which one ‘enters and abides’. The word ‘abides’ (viharati) is specifically and exclusively used in Pali to denote an ongoing situation or event.

'And so, Anuruddha, abiding diligent, ardent, and resolute I perceived limited light and saw limited forms, I perceived measureless light and saw measureless forms even for a whole night, a whole day, a whole night and day.’[50]

This then is our second principle of interpretation, that of historical perspective. This principle guards against playing ‘Chinese whispers’ with the Dhamma, relying on an interpretation of a retelling of an exposition of a summary of something the Buddha was supposed to have said. The original teachings are available to us. Great as our gratitude is to the monks who preserved and passed down the suttas, do we really suppose that any of them could explain Dhamma better than the Buddha himself? The idea that commentarial or abhidhamma concepts are necessary to correctly interpret the suttas hardly accords with the Buddha's own description of his liberating teaching.

'Perfect in every aspect, fulfilled in every aspect, with neither lack nor excess, well explained and entirely complete.’[51]

This completeness does not pretend to the impossible standard of providing all answers to all questions, but to the reasonable standard of setting out with sufficient detail, clarity, and precision a framework for understanding adequate to serve as guide for all essential questions of theory and practice.

Then the Blessed One, taking a few simsapa leaves in his hand, addressed the monks:

‘What do you think, monks? Which is the greater, the few leaves in my hand or those left up in the trees?’

'The few leaves taken up by the Blessed One are less, Bhante; those left up in the trees are certainly greater.’

'Just so, monks, the things I have directly known but I have not declared to you are certainly greater; what I have declared is less. And why are they undeclared by me? They are pointless, not pertaining to the fundamentals of the holy life, not leading to repulsion, fading away, cessation, peace, direct knowledge, enlightenment, Nibbana. Therefore they are undeclared by me. And what is declared by me? This is suffering.... This is the origin of suffering.... This is the cessation of suffering…. This is the way of practice leading to the cessation of suffering. And what is that declared by me? Because it has a point, it is pertaining to the fundamentals of the holy life, leading to repulsion, fading away, cessation, peace, direct knowledge, Nibbana. Therefore it is declared by me.’[52]

[1] D16.6.1

[2] A4.180; D16.4.8-4.11

[3] A5.79

[4] In these matters the conclusions of AK Warder’s Indian Buddhism are followed.

[5] Vin Cv11.1.8

[6] D2.1

[7] M127.17; D5.21

[8] A2.3

[9] D16.3.50

[10] Vin Mv 1.23

[11] M43.20 quoted pg 37, M111.4

[12] S40.1

[13] D18.27, M117.3, S45.28, A7.42

[14] D22.21, etc. quoted pg33

[15] Vin Cv 5.3, A5,29

[16] A4.12

[17] D33: 1.11, A4.41

[18] A5.28

[19] D16.2.25, M121.11, M122.7, S22.80, S40.9, S43.12.6-8, S41.7, A7.53, cp. M43.7ff

[20] e.g. M44.12

[21] A3.100

[22] e.g. D1.1.31, D6.6, A6.61. See too the bases for psychic power discussed below.

[23] cp D34.1.6 quoted pg 65

[24] cp A5.73, Iti 3.86

[25] M36.21ff

[26] M50.13 cp. M108.26-27 quoted pg 37

[27] A11.10

[28] see Vsm 22.15ff

[29] For a detailed exposition, see Dr Henepola Gunaratana. A Critical Analysis of the Jhanas in Theravada Buddhist Meditation.

[30] Some such attainment seems to be attested to, for the arahant at least, by a number of passages, of which we have met one above. These passages, however, fall well short of justifying all the details of the commentarial theory. A detailed discussion of the fruition falls outside the scope of this essay on the path.

[31] M117

[32] See e.g. D28.18. At A5.79 quoted pg 10, ‘transcendental’ (lokuttara) is applied to the suttas.

[33] See Vin Pj4.3

[34] S22.101

[35] S45.31

[36] A4: 200-1 cp. Vin Cv9.1.4, Ud5.5

[37] Ibid.

[38] A4.170

[39] Sn88

[40] D16: 2.9 etc

[41] Sn227

[42] M142.6

[43] S25

[44] M34.10

[45] M65.11

[46] M70.21-22, cp. A7.53

[47] A8.22

[48] Ud6.2

[49] D5.23 cp. Vin Mv 1.20, Ud1.10

[50] M128.29

[51] D29.16

[52] S56.31


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