Here is the complete jhana series on this blog:
- Jhana Wars! Pt. 1 What is Jhana Really?
- Jhana Wars! Pt. 2 Is Jhana Really Necessary (hint: yes)
- Jhana Wars! Pt. 3 Did The Buddha Invent Jhana?
- Jhana Wars! Pt. 4 Jhana Heavy vs. Jhana Light
- Jhana Wars! Pt. 5 The Jhana Formula
- Jhana Wars! Pt. 6 The Great Nimitta Debate
- Jhana Wars! Pt. 7 Doing Vipassana During Jhana?
Another point of contention in Theravada meditation circles is the idea of the Samadhi Nimitta. Recall, Samadhi means the 4 jhanas. It is the last step of the 8-fold path. Nimitta just means sign. The idea roughly is that entering into jhana will be accompanied by a sign, usually a mental image of a glowing disk. This is not something that you imagine but something that arises naturally in the mind and points the way to jhana. For teachers like Ajahn Brahm and Pa Auk Tawya Sayadaw, the nimitta is extremely important. It is an empirical piece of evidence that one’s meditation is heading the right direction.
Other meditation teachers vehemently disagree. They say that it is a corrupted interpretation of the suttas stemming from later commentaries, especially the Visuddhimagga. Teachers like Ayya Khema and Leigh Brasington teach that the “light nimitta” is an unnecessary distraction or just the result of unconscious conditioning. That piti (bliss) itself is a sure and better sign of first jhana. And naturally the Nimitta crowd says, “Well, you just think that because your meditation isn’t strong enough to get that deep.” Ouch.
Still others like Thanissaro Bhikkhu argue that the nimitta actually is a false understanding and that following it actually leads the meditator down a dead end.
Here are some of their arguments in their own words. First, the Nimitta Watchers:
When the breath disappears and delight fills the mind, the nimitta usually appears.
Nimitta, in the context used here, refers to the beautiful “lights” that appear in the mind. I would point out, though, that the nimittas are not visual objects, in that they are not seen through the sense of sight. At this stage of the meditation, the sense of sight is not operating. The nimittas are pure mental objects, known by the mind sense. However, they are commonly perceived as lights.
What is happening here is that perception struggles to interpret such a pure mental phenomenon.
It was a fascinating discovery to realize that everyone who experiences these nimittas, experience exactly the same thing! It is only that meditators interpret one and the same experience in different ways. Some see in their mind the nimitta as a pure white light, others see it as a golden, some as a deep blue. Some see it as a circle, some as oblong in shape, some as sharp edged, and some as fuzzy edged. There is indeed no end to the features of nimitta, which meditators describe. The important thing to know is that color, shape and so on are irrelevant. Because it is one’s perception that colors the nimitta and gives it shape, just so one can make sense of it.
-Ajahn Brahm, The Jhanas
You should determine to keep your mind calmly concentrated on the white nimitta for one, two, three hours, or more. If you can keep your mind fixed on the nimitta for one or two hours, it should become clear, bright, and brilliant.
When a person wishes to cultivate a samatha subject, it is in any case good to have very strong faith. If he thinks, ‘I will certainly reach jhana, if I develop concentration on the nimitta’, then by the power of that faith, and by concentrating on the nimitta, he will definitely achieve jhana. This is because jhana is based primarily on concentration.
-Pa Auk Tawya Sayadaw “Knowing and Seeing”
Then some Nimitta Deniers. In this article, Sona Bhikkhu vehemently disagrees.
A description of the mind of the jhanic meditator found in the Canon itself and quoted in the Patisambhidamagga as a simile involving a comparison of mind with a full clear moon, degenerates to a mistaken literalization of these images as internally produced visual data. Since the contents of mind are not easy to point to, the Buddha frequently used similes comparing visual and other sense objects with mental contents in order for meditators to clearly understand what they should be seeking and experiencing. In religious traditions of all kinds we often find a naive tendency to take literally what is meant as a simile. It seems this process has occurred somewhere along the line and has become enshrined in the Visuddhimagga’s description of the patibhaganimitta or “counter-part sign.” It is important that new generations of western meditators not be misled by this probable historical error.
It seems to me that there are a few different takes on the matter:
There really is a samadhi nimitta and it really points the way to jhana.
There really is a light show that can occur in meditation, but it doesn’t point toward anything special. It’s just a distraction.
There is no samadhi nimitta. It is just a confusion of the text that later got the stamp of approval from Buddhaghosa. People that claim to see a nimitta are just responding to a psychological desire to see such things. If they really wanted to see God or Jesus or Zeus, they might see that too if they tried hard enough.
Of these, number 2 is definitely true in a sense: there absolutely are mental light shows that can happen in meditation that mean absolutely nothing. They are distractions, tricks that the mind plays on a meditator. Nearly everyone that has done serious meditation will agree on this. It has certainly happened to me.
As for #1 & #3, here is an impasse. For a devoted Nimitta Watcher, anyone that disagrees simply hasn’t developed their meditation to the point of true jhana. For a Nimitta Denier, the whole subject is a giant waste of time and effort.
As with all controversies, I try to look at what the Buddha had to say. The Buddha doesn’t use the word “nimitta”. This was a later convention. Nimitta Watchers say that in the suttas his prefered term is kaya (form). Here is the most quoted sutta. The Buddha here is describing his own process of developing jhana as a bhodisatta.
I also saw both the light and the vision of forms. Shortly after the vision of light and shapes disappear. I thought, ‘What is the cause and condition in which light and vision of the forms disappear?’ Then consider the following: ‘The question arose in me and because of doubt my concentration fell, when my concentration fell, the light disappeared and the vision of forms. I act so that the question does not arise in me again.’
I remained diligent, ardent, perceived both the light and the vision of forms. Shortly after the vision of light and shapes disappear. I thought, ‘What is the cause and condition in which light and vision of the forms disappear?’ Then consider the following: ‘Inattention arose in me because of inattention and my concentration has decreased, when my concentration fell, the light disappeared and the vision of forms. I must act in such a way that neither doubt nor disregard arise in me again.’
This sounds pretty much exactly what the Nimitta-Watchers describe. On the other hand, it is not a perfectly clear description. Also, it does not appear prominently in suttas like the Anapanasati Sutta, where it would make a great deal of sense. My argument here is that both Nimitta-Watchers and Nimitta-Denier can claim foundation in the suttas.
What are the practical implications for this as a meditator? Here is my take.
For anyone other than a meditation master, none of this will ever be a problem. Just strengthen and deepen your meditation. Don’t worry about nimittas. They are a very refined state, unlikely to pop up in the middle of a 20’ sit.
If a nimitta (or distracting bright light) does happen to appear in meditation, how should one respond? The answer for a Nimitta Watcher is to ignore it and follow your meditation subject. The answer for a Nimitta-Denier is…ignore it and follow your meditation subject! No real problem so far.
- But what if the nimitta grows like Nimitta Watchers say it should? It is up to you to decide whether to go down that road or not. Deep committed meditators teach that it is a step toward enlightenment. Equally committed meditators teach that it is a distraction to be avoided. But even here the worst consequences are a bit of wasted time down a blind alley. For most of us meditation is all about blind alleys as we feel our way toward enlightenment.
At the end of the day, as much as I love Ajahn Brahm, I believe that the samadhi nimitta is nothing more nor less than the factors of 1st jhana: seclusion from sense pleasures and bad states of mind, bliss, happiness, thinking, and pondering. Even if a glowing ball occurs, it is not the essence of jhana.