Jhana Wars! Pt. 6 The Great Nimitta Debate

Here is the complete jhana series on this blog:

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:

  1. There really is a samadhi nimitta and it really points the way to jhana.

  2. There really is a light show that can occur in meditation, but it doesn’t point toward anything special. It’s just a distraction.

  3. 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.’

-Upakkilesa Sutta

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.

See more on jhana-style meditation here and here.

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25 thoughts on “Jhana Wars! Pt. 6 The Great Nimitta Debate

  1. the nimittas that you see is who you are. it is the essence of your being take a good look and you will understand do not let any preconceived ideas block you from the true nature of ‘what is’

    1. First, thanks very much for your thoughts! It’s so great to hear from other seekers in the dhamma.

      I 100% agree with the second part of your comment. Pre-conceived opinions are an impediment to clear seeing. But it seems like the first part of your comment contradicts this a little. You seem to be assuming that we HAVE an essence of being. Not only did the Buddha not teach that the nimitta was an image of our true essence, he taught that we do not HAVE a true essence! The essence, the self, is an illusion. Deep meditation is the path to this insight.

      1. You are right that one must see the truth for themselves. It isn’t good enough to just parrot back what someone else says, even the Buddha!

        However, there is a reason that Right Understanding is the first step on the path. Starting off with a problematic orientation can lead to years (or lifetimes!) of heartache. Your first comment was that we should look to the nimitta to see our true essence, but what if there is no true essence there to find after all!

        Yes, I have faith in what the Buddha taught, but he didn’t say that it ends there. Indeed, he taught to look for yourself. But if you are meditating because you believe you are looking for your True Self, then our teacher (the Buddha) has taught us to take a step back. Question our assumptions. Look and see if there is even a True Self to find.

        I’m so enjoying this exchange. It’s wonderful to connect with other people who are thinking about these issues.

  2. If remember correctly, most ‘nimitta-watchers’ (including Ajahn Brahm if I’m not mistaken), say that nimittas may or may not appear to a meditator before jhana. And if they don’t appear, don’t worry about it too much or bother with trying to fabricate a nimitta. (i.e. Nimitta is not necessary for first jhana.) Ultimately if you find yourself in first jhana, nimitta or not, your on the path.

    1. I think there are a range of opinions on this issue. Ajahn Brahm was originally more definitive that a light nimitta was necessary. Now I believe he says that other kinds of nimittas such as tactile nimittas are rare but possible. The frustrating reality is that the suttas are simply not completely definitive on this issue. If you think a nimitta is a part of jhana, then it is literally the sign of the nimitta. You don’t have a jhana if you don’t have the sign. I am pretty confident that the sign(s) of the first jhana are: happiness and bliss but a continued effort to maintain the subject of attention in mindfulness. The trouble with that analysis is the fuzziness of “happiness and bliss”. By that definition, Eating a Really Great Chocolate Cake Meditation should do the trick rather well. We’re left saying, “No, it’s a deeper happiness and bliss than that.” But we don’t really have a definitive criteria.

      1. Would like to follow this blog- and altho’ I follow several other WordPress sites/blogs I cannot sign up for this one.??????

      2. Thanks for your response. In fact I did manage to sign up( I think). WordPress seems to have changed some of its parameters. But all seems OK.

      3. ““No, it’s a deeper happiness and bliss than that.” But we don’t really have a definitive criteria.”

        Well if you can navigate to the other jhanas it’s a pretty clear, obvious and definitive criteria.

        I’m not sure what’s the fuss is all about.
        Jhanas were easy to get for me. I got them in a goenka retreat not knowing what they were, just realizing “hey, I can do that with my brain, that’s kind of fun”

        If it’s difficult for someone to get just remember that concentration works much better with momentum over days. Many casual sessions during the day for a few days will raise your mind concentration base level.

        Then stop fantasizing about lights from heaven or whatever other mystical ideas you might have about any of this stuff, if that’s what you’re doing, try to think of the jhana as some kind of physical thing you can do with your brain and not some kind of magical thing that happen to you.

        A much easier way to understand what samadhi and the jhanas are about is to meditate by staring at a dot on the wall, a Kasina object, yantra or mandala picture instead of the breath.
        Soon enough stuff will get wonky, probably on your very first 10 minutes meditation. Just stay with it, relax into it, soon enough the visual distortions will stabilize which is access concentration. If you made it this far, which could have took only a few session if you are experienced a bit, now you just keep going and jhana is very close.

        BTW I can settle that nimitta debate.
        Stream entry happened without developing the nimitta with the jhana states.
        So they might be useful to some people in some situations, but definitely not essential.

        It would seem that this stuff could have been studied and figured out with scientific studies a long time ago, too much mysticism attached to simple brain skills.

      4. Thanks for your thoughts and for your experiences.

        I doubt anything I say would change your mind, but I can only say that if your reaction to jhana was, “that’s kind of fun,” then you certainly did not experience jhana or anything close.

        You are right that jhanas are a natural state and not mystical in the sense of being otherworldly. Much metta.

      5. “but I can only say that if your reaction to jhana was, “that’s kind of fun,” then you certainly did not experience jhana or anything close.”

        Again, jhanas are not that difficult to get,you only need to be doing the right thing for a relatively short amount of time.
        Once you had them its fairly easy to develop them and experiment with them so any doubt as to “what was that” will quickly vanish after easy repeats and progress.
        It’s something you’ll do everyday, every times you sit. Sorry, it won’t be a crazy orgasmic experience every times hehe

      6. There is a very wide variety of experiences in meditation. For some people, even just sitting still for a few minutes takes heroic effort. For others, they sit for the first time are almost immediately immersed in bliss. You are absolutely right that practice can make any meditation experience more likely, but I find for myself that my current situation can have an impact as well: am I exhausted, content, or excited for the rest of the day? I will have an impact.

        As for your comments about how easy and “no big deal it is,” I can only encourage you to be humble about your meditative attainments. Perhaps there is an even more profound experience if you are open to it.

  3. Here, I would think it should help to see people doing it and describing it in real time. Its just too easy and common to imagine some grandioze experience from the inspiring old texts.
    there must be more of this kind of videos around, who knows you might even find one from a teacher that you already know.

    Its Easy to find plenty of information on Kenneth Folk and the communities he is engaging with usually have a very straight forward approach at describing the experiences which people often report as useful.
    also websites like the buddhist geeks podcast interview many often well knowed teachers who sometimes describes certain experiences with everyday language which can really help preventing limiting misinterpretations.

    1. I have serious reservations about professional dharma teachers that strip mine Buddhism for commercial purposes while ignoring much of the Buddha’s teachings. I understand that some people benefit from a sliver of what the Buddha taught and are simply unwilling or uninterested in the true depth of dhamma. I have no quarrel with folks that want to meditate a little and are happy with that. But when some teachers misrepresent the dhamma in order to placate a commercial sector, that is a different story altogether. People are free to say what they want and practice what they want, but my mission with this blog is to over and over point people back to the original teachings of the Buddha.

      1. Your intention is great, but you would be surprise to realize the depth of some of those teachers experiences and wisdom, despite your knee jerk reactions.

        To bring the focus back on the original teachings is one of the main objective of many of the modern teachers, as they feel this has been long lost to romantic interpretations amd completely ineffective techniques.

        Somehow you believe the Buddha about pretty much everything but refuse to believe his timetables?

        Remember that people were getting enlighten left and right at the time of the Buddha.

        Hundred of thousand stream entered, tens of thousands non returners etc…

        We’re not getting anywhere near this if we believe jhanas, which are the very first true meditation steps really, take decades to begin to experience

        This senseless glorification of things like simple jhanas is an unfortunate turn of event to say the least.

        To counter this, it can help to broaden ones horizon and sources of knowledge.
        With today’s technology, one can begin to learn about dependant origination from a Tibetan monk on youtube, then get a goenka style expert view of it, listen to some ajhan brahm or chah Dharma, listen to some monk interpretation of Daniel Ingram mastering the core teaching of the Buddha or get jack kornfield take on stuff. All this in one afternoon.

        When things start to click into place, it will gradually become obvious that were all talking about the same stuff and facing the same problems, and things like putting simple things like the jhanas on a god pedestals will be far less likely.

        Another thing that will help avoid limiting misinterpretations will be to try to meet many experienced meditatiors and teachers and try to really talk about the reality of the experiences, how it can look like in real life. Especially when one has spent some time reading the sutras and imagining what those experiences will be like Without experiencing them, which has to logically lead to a misinterpretation to some degree.

        Good luck my friend.

      2. I too believe that your intentions are good. This is clearly an issue in which reasonable people can disagree. I am among the many teachers that you site that are trying to return to the original teachings while cutting through Romantic misinterpretations! I am baffled as to where you got the idea that I believe it always requires years of practice to achieve jhana. There are people in this world that are capable of attaining jhana on their very first meditation or even without knowing they are meditating.

        On the other hand, I think you are looking the wrong direction when you say that YouTube should mean that more people should be getting jhanas than in the time of the Buddha. Most of the people doing samadhi in the Pali canon were monks and nuns that had given up all their worldly possessions and devoted their lives to practice. Furthermore, they had the Buddha himself as a teacher. Suffice it to say that it should not be surprising that a nun with the kamma to be born in the time of the Buddha is more likely to achieve jhana than a weekend meditator putting in a solid 30′ a day and watching YouTube videos.

        You are entirely right that we experience the same or similar problems and that we are blessed with a multitude of wonderful teachers (might I suggest Dhammanet!) And of course there is no substitute for diligent practice with the guidance of a real world teacher. One of the most important times in my early practice was a beautiful short retreat with Bhantes Dhammajiva and Sati. Inspiring en who have given up everything to follow the Buddha’s teachings.

        I suggest that we will not agree on this issue but that perhaps we are not as separate as you might imagine. In any case, metta and may you find lasting happiness.

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