Please provide references from the Pali suttas on nimitta.

Are they mentioned in the context of jhana?

In the article below, it is mentioned that nimitta is found in the Anapanasati Sutta, but I couldn't find it. Is it there?

In the article "Stepping Towards Enlightenment", Ajahn Brahm wrote about nimitta:

THE NINTH STEP OF the Anapanasati Sutta describes a very important creature that comes to visit the still, silent mind—a nimitta. Pali for “sign,” a nimitta is a reflection of the mind. This step is called citta-patisamvedi, “experiencing the mind,” and is achieved when one lets go of the body, thought, and the five senses (including awareness of the breath) so completely that only a beautiful mental sign, a nimitta, remains. This pure mental object is a real object in the landscape of the mind, and when it appears for the first time it is extremely strange. For most meditators this mental joy, is perceived as a beautiful light. But it is not a light. The eyes are closed, and the sight consciousness has long been turned off. Other meditators choose to describe this first appearance of mind in terms of a physical sensation such as intense tranquility or ecstasy. It is perceived as a light or a feeling because this imperfect description is the best that perception can offer.

  • Please provide references from the Pali suttas on nimitta. voice.suttacentral.net allows you to search the Pali suttas mentioning both nimitta and jhana. The listed suttas are sorted by number of matches. – OyaMist Mar 14 '19 at 11:56

SN 35.120:


...And how does someone guard the sense doors?
-- When a mendicant sees a sight with the eyes, they don’t get caught up in the features and details.
(Idhāvuso, bhikkhu cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā na nimittaggāhī hoti nānubyañjanaggāhī.)


...And how, friend, does one guard the doors of the sense faculties?
-- Here, having seen a form with the eye, a bhikkhu does not grasp its signs and features.

This is not in the context of jhana. The word seems to be used synonymically with "feature" or "detail". The other word, nānubyañjana (Sanskrit anuvyañjana) means "a secondary or minor characteristic, a secondary attribute, mark or sign".

Also, MN138


Take a mendicant who sees a sight with their eyes [, hears a sound etc]. Their consciousness follows after the features of that sight [sound, odor etc.] and gets tied, attached, and fettered to gratification in its features. So their consciousness is said to be scattered and diffused externally.
(Idhāvuso, bhikkhuno cakkhunā rūpaṃ disvā rūpanimittaanusāri viññāṇaṃ hoti rūpanimittassādagadhitaṃ rūpanimittassādavinibandhaṃ rūpanimittassādasaṃyojanasaṃyuttaṃ bahiddhā viññāṇaṃ vikkhittaṃ visaṭanti vuccati.)

Here, Mahākaccāna elaborates on a phrase uttered by Buddha that "A mendicant should examine in any such a way that their consciousness is neither scattered and diffused externally nor stuck internally, and they are not anxious because of grasping." Here, the piece about nimitta is a detailed exposition of how consciousness gets "scattered and diffused externally".

The consciousness "follows after the features" of a rupa, and gets "tied, attached, and fettered" to gratification in the rupa's features.

Here again, the meaning seems to be that nimitta is a specific attribute of a visual object, sound, odor, flavor, tactile sensation, or a mental phenomenon (dharma).

Also, in Visuddhimagga:

All [saññā] has the characteristic of recognition [sañjānana]; its property is the making of nimitta that is a condition of recognizing again, 'this is the very same thing' [...] its manifestation is the producing of conviction by virtue of a nimitta that has been accordingly learnt - [...] its basis is whatever object that has come near - like the recognition [saññā] 'people' that arises for young animals in respect of scarecrows.

Here it becomes clear that nimitta can play role of an identifying feature that the mind learns to associate with an object, in order to recognize it again.

In SN 46.51 Buddha speaks about nimitta in context of two of the five lower fetters, sensual desire and ill-will:

And what fuels the arising of sensual desire, or, when it has arisen, makes it increase and grow?
There is the feature of beauty.
(Atthi, bhikkhave, subhanimittaṃ.)
Frequent improper attention to that fuels the arising of sensual desire, or, when it has arisen, makes it increase and grow.

In MN 5, the word is used in a similar context:

Take the case of the person who doesn’t have a blemish [sāṅgaṇa - issue, flaw] but does not understand it. You can expect that they will focus on the feature of beauty, and because of that, lust will infect their mind. Tatrāvuso, yvāyaṃ puggalo anaṅgaṇova samāno ‘natthi me ajjhattaṃ aṅgaṇan’ti yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti, tassetaṃ pāṭikaṅkhaṃ—subhanimittaṃ manasi karissati, tassa subhanimittassa manasikārā rāgo cittaṃ anuddhaṃsessati;


As you can see, in most if not all cases, the word is used in context of phenomenology of perception and the resulting emotional response - not in context of jhanas. And yet, in Theravada tradition there is a definite case of using the word to refer to experiences arising in meditation. Why?

Here is my theory:

One of the key doctrines the Buddha established is the doctrine of this-that conditionality. In my understanding, this doctrine does not refer to mere causality, but to the mutual co-definition of the object and its counterpart. For example, when we identify an object, we implicitly identify its background. When we identify "top" we implicitly identify the middle reference point etc.

This mechanism is behind everything: The 2nd and 3rd Noble Truths define suffering as counterpart of craving. Dependent Origination relies on this-that-conditionality for explanation of how development of the mind that recognizes external forms and learns to act in pursuit of them leads to development of Self as the counterpart.

So, in context of meditation, I think the idea is for the meditator to learn to see both the sign and its counterpart at the same time. This counterpart is dubbed "reflection of the thought" or "the mirror". Once this ability is acquired and refined, the meditator can directly see his or her issues that lead to suffering, and completely overcome them.

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'Having abandoned home, living free from society, the sage in villages creates no intimacies. Rid of sensual passions, free from yearning, he wouldn't engage with people in quarrelsome debate.' Haliddakani Sutta

{Possible not given for anybody}

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  • The Hāliddikānisutta does include the word nimitta -- not explicitly "in the context of jhana" though -- it says e.g. "One who is in bondage to the distraction of the society of form-impressions is said to be living in society" (I think Ven. Sujato's translation of that is, "Being attached to migrating from settlement to settlement in pursuit of sights, one is called a migrant going from settlement to settlement."), whereas the Tathagata eliminated that. It's a single (complex) compound word there, i.e., Rūpanimittaniketavisāravinibandhā. – ChrisW Mar 13 '19 at 16:28

In the article below, it is mentioned that nimitta is found in the Anapanasati Sutta, but I couldn't find it. Is it there?

Yes and no.

  • The word nimitta doesn't appear in the Pali version of the sutta's text
  • The word appears 44 times in Piya Tan's analysis of MN 118 (including but not only in footnotes which reference or paraphrase Ajahn Brahm)
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Jhana nimitta is not mentioned in the suttas because the real jhana nimitta is connected to ekkaggata. The Buddha mentioned ekkaggata. The Buddha did not want deluded people thinking any bright light nimitta is jhana. The real nimitta is glued to & overrides the thought faculty of the mind. It is the sign of and a feature of ekkaggata.

This said, Ajahn Brahm does not know anything about Anapanasati because it seems he was a deva that immediately entered jhana. Whatever Ajahn Brahm says about the sixteen steps of Anapanasati should be ignored. It seems he does not know what they are and he has never experienced them.

It is illogical for Ajahn Brahma to say nimitta is step 9 when step 5 & 6 are rapture & happiness because the five factors of the 1st jhana, which includes ekkaggata nimitta, as Ajahn Brahm himself teaches, arise together.

The Commentaries correctly refer to three levels of concentration (which Ajahn Brahm dismisses), namely, preparatory concentration, neighbourhood concentration & attainment concentration.

Jhana is attainment concentration. Anapanasati is neighbourhood concentration.

If Ajahn Brahm was logical, he would not say there is no awareness of breathing in jhana but then say step 9 of anapanasati is jhana (because step 9 is done with awareness of breathing).

Please remember this answer as the correct explanation.

Also, please remember, puthujjana should not make more bad kamma by preaching there is no jhana nimitta. There is a jhana nimitta. While there is no such thing as "reincarnation/rebirth", there is a jhana nimitta. Individuals, such as Leigh Brasington , in the other post about jhana have not entered jhana (based on their descriptions of jhana).

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  • Hi DD! Who, would you say, has its teachings the closest to the Buddha's about attainment of Jhana? I abandoned Samadhi training because of the sometimes contradictory methods given by some teachers. You have said that "letting go" is part of the orginal teachings, which is part of Ajahn Brahm's method. Which teacher teaches a meditation method as close as possible to the original sutta teachings? – Brian Díaz Flores Mar 14 '19 at 5:47
  • I'm aware that the best thing to do is to read the suttas directly. But I'm kinda a slow learner, so I'd really appreaciate any information on handbook whose style (made for beginners and people unacquainted to the Dhamma) resembles Thanissaro or Brahm's books. Thanks in advance! – Brian Díaz Flores Mar 14 '19 at 5:52
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    There is not much in the suttas to read. SN 48.9 and SN 48.10 describe the "letting go" method to reach jhana. Therefore, imo, Ajahn Brahm is the closest; for jhana. On Anapanasati, Bhikkhu Buddhadasa is by far the closest. As for the nimitta, it is not mentioned in the suttas but as i posted, it is real but part of ekkaggatta. Regards – Dhammadhatu Mar 14 '19 at 7:39

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