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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
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SN 35.120:

Sujato

...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.)

Bodhi

...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

Sujato:

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;


P.S.

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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  • In DN Subhasutta, the 6 SatiSamvara (NimittagGāhī) is Sīla but Ānanda included it to AriyaSamādhi because this Bright light (PatibhāgaNimitta) can overlay the KāmaNimitta. If you recite this Sutta with understanding each character relations everyday for years, you can understand what I explained by yourself. – Bonn Jul 23 at 22:53
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Fully sustained attention on beautiful breath

DN 10 SubhaSutta (I recommend this sutta to be the reference of Jhana because it is long enough and step by step. Notice, some part of this sutta is same as KāyagatāsatiSutta which I refer to Ānāpānassati above):

‘And what, Ānanda, is this so noble body of doctrine regarding self-concentration (Samādhi) in praise of which the Venerable Gotama was wont to speak; to which he used to incite the folk, in which he established them, and made them firm?’ Restraint of the Sense Faculties

“And how, young Brahman, does the bhikkhu guard the doors of his sense faculties? Herein, young Brahman, having seen a form with the eye, the bhikkhu does not grasp at the sign or the details. Since, if he were to dwell without restraint over the faculty of the eye, evil unwholesome states such as covetousness and grief might assail him, he practises restraint, guards the faculty of the eye, and achieves restraint over the faculty of the eye.

...

DN 10 SubhaSutta for Experiencing the beautiful Nimmita.

“Having abandoned covetousness for the world, he dwells with a mind free from covetousness; he purifies his mind from covetousness. Having abandoned ill will and hatred, he dwells with a benevolent mind, sympathetic for the welfare of all living beings; he purifies his mind from ill will and hatred. Having abandoned dullness and drowsiness, he dwells perceiving light, mindful and clearly comprehending; he purifies his mind from dullness and drowsiness. Having abandoned restlessness and worry, he dwells at ease within himself, with a peaceful mind; he purifies his mind from restlessness and worry. Having abandoned doubt, he dwells as one who has passed beyond doubt, unperplexed about wholesome states; he purifies his mind from doubt.

Remember someone may say this light is sunlight and try to refer sutta or commentary. Don't trust him because this is normal for the concentration meditation practitioner who practice hard enough only. They sit 12+ hours everyday for many months or years to get this light which can shine in their mind trough the dark night. It is shining breathe or meditation's object, not sunlight. Today, many of them have not been laying on a bed for 20 years. I know at lease 1 person.

Why this light is important?

DN 10 SubhaSutta (again):

Quite secluded from sense pleasures (escape from object), secluded from unwholesome states (escape from object's unwholesome recognition), he enters and dwells in the first jhāna, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought and filled with the rapture and happiness born of seclusion. He drenches, steeps, saturates, and suffuses his body with this rapture and happiness born of seclusion, so that there is no part of his entire body which is not suffused by this rapture and happiness.

There are only 3 objects: sense pleasures (5 strings and associate), non sense pleasures, and illusion.

Sense pleasures person can't know non sense pleasure object and it's illusion until he can attain it.

What is non sense pleasure object and it's illusion?

Non sense pleasure object: Rūpa-jhāna/Bhava, Arūpa-jhāna/Bhava, Nibbāna and 8 Super-mundane paths.

it's illusion: It's concept and name, such Rūpa-jhāna person and "Rūpa-jhāna person" word which refer to the real Rūpa-jhāna (we can know Rūpa-jhāna person and word but we can't refer it to the real Rūpa-jhāna).

So, the only left way to get "Quite secluded from sense pleasures (escape from object)" is developing sense pleasures illusion to be non sense pleasures illusion of RūpaJhāna (bright light) by meditate mind's quality. Better minds is lighter light. The lighter light can overwhelm below in DN 10 SubhaSutta (again) (the practitioner practice below in moral discipline but it turn into professional/master by the light, patibhāga-nimitta because this light overwhelm "the sign or the details"):

‘And what, Ānanda, is this so noble body of doctrine regarding self-concentration (Samādhi) in praise of which the Venerable Gotama was wont to speak; to which he used to incite the folk, in which he established them, and made them firm?’

“And how, young Brahman, does the bhikkhu guard the doors of his sense faculties? Herein, young Brahman, having seen a form with the eye, the bhikkhu does not grasp at the sign (Nimitta) or the details. Since, if he were to dwell without restraint over the faculty of the eye, evil unwholesome states such as covetousness and grief might assail him, he practises restraint, guards the faculty of the eye, and achieves restraint over the faculty of the eye.

Another, important of this light

DN 10 SubhaSutta (again):

“Further, young Brahman, with the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous passing away of joy and grief, the bhikkhu enters and dwells in the fourth jhāna, which is neither pleasant nor painful and contains mindfulness fully purified by equanimity. He sits suffusing his body with a pure bright mind, so that there is no part of his entire body not suffused by a pure bright (pari-odāta) mind.

This mind is bright because it's own power. The mind is not shining because mind has no color. However, this mind power create bright object and bright location base, hadaya-vatthu. It also turn the practitioner body bright as well, good health (depending on how strong of unwholesome karma in the past).

This bright light is for 8 Vijjā

DN 10 SubhaSutta (again):

Again, this is not a bright color mind. Mind has no color. This is a mind which has bright object and bright location base.

“When his mind is thus concentrated, pure and bright (pari-odāta), unblemished, free from defects, malleable, wieldy, steady and attained to imperturbability, he directs and inclines it to knowledge and vision. He understands thus: ‘This is my body, having material form, composed of the four primary elements, originating from father and mother, built up out of rice and gruel, impermanent, subject to rubbing and pressing, to dissolution and dispersion. And this is my consciousness, supported by it and bound up with it.’

...

When his mind is thus concentrated, pure and bright, unblemished, free from defects, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he directs and inclines it to creating a mind-made body. From this body he creates another body having material form, mind-made, complete in all its parts, not lacking any faculties.

...

When his mind is thus concentrated, pure and bright, unblemished, free from defects, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he directs and inclines it to the modes of supernormal power. He exercises the various modes of supernormal power: having been one, he becomes many and having been many, he becomes one; he appears and vanishes; he goes unimpeded through walls, ramparts, and mountains as if through space; he dives in and out of the earth as if it were water; he walks on water without sinking as if it were earth; sitting cross-legged he travels through space like a winged bird; with his hand he touches and strokes the sun and the moon, so mighty and powerful; he exercises mastery over the body as far as the Brahma-world.

...

“When his mind is thus concentrated, pure and bright, unblemished, free from defects, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he directs and inclines it to the divine ear-element. With the divine ear-element, which is purified and surpasses the human, he hears both kinds of sound, the divine and the human, those which are distant and those which are near.

...

“When his mind is thus concentrated, pure and bright, unblemished, free from defects, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he directs and inclines it to the knowledge of encompassing the minds (of others). He understands the minds of other beings and persons, having encompassed them with his own mind. He understands a mind with lust as a mind with lust and a mind without lust as a mind without lust; he understands a mind with hatred as a mind with hatred and a mind without hatred as a mind without hatred; he understands a mind with delusion as a mind with delusion and a mind without delusion as a mind without delusion; he understands a contracted mind as a contracted mind and a distracted mind as a distracted mind; he understands an exalted mind as an exalted mind and an unexalted mind as an unexalted mind; he understands a surpassable mind as a surpassable mind and an unsurpassable mind as an unsurpassable mind; he understands a concentrated mind as a concentrated mind and an unconcentrated mind as an unconcentrated mind; he understands a liberated mind as a liberated mind and an unliberated mind as an unliberated mind.

...

“When his mind is thus concentrated, pure and bright, unblemished, free from defects, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he directs and inclines it to the knowledge of recollecting past lives. He recollects his numerous past lives, that is, one birth, two births, three, four, or five births; ten, twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty births; a hundred births, a thousand births, a hundred thousand births; many aeons of world contraction, many aeons of world expansion, many aeons of world contraction and expansion, (recollecting): ‘There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance; such was my food, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such my span of life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance; such was my food, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such my span of life. Passing away from that state I re-arose here.’ Thus he recollects his numerous past lives in their modes and their details.

...

When his mind is thus concentrated, pure and bright, unblemished, free from defects, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he directs and inclines it to the knowledge of the passing away and reappearance of beings. With the divine eye, which is purified and surpasses the human, he sees beings passing away and reappearing—inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate—and he understands how beings fare according to their kamma, thus: ‘These beings—who were endowed with bad conduct of body, speech, and mind, who reviled the noble ones, held wrong views, and undertook actions governed by wrong views—with the breakup of the body, after death, have reappeared in the plane of misery, the bad destinations, the lower realms, in hell. But these beings—who were endowed with good conduct of body, speech, and mind, who did not revile the noble ones, held right views, and undertook actions governed by right views—with the breakup of the body, after death, have reappeared in the good destinations, in the heavenly world.’ Thus with the divine eye, which is purified and surpasses the human, he sees beings passing away and reappearing—inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate—and he understands how beings fare in accordance with their kamma.

...

When his mind is thus concentrated, pure and bright, unblemished, free from defects, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he directs and inclines it to the knowledge of the destruction of the cankers. He understands as it really is: ‘This is suffering.’ He understands as it really is: ‘This is the origin of suffering.’ He understands as it really is: ‘This is the cessation of suffering.’ He understands as it really is: ‘This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.’ He understands as it really is: ‘These are the cankers.’ He understands as it really is: ‘This is the origin of the cankers.’ He understands as it really is: ‘This is the cessation of the cankers.’ He understands as it really is: ‘This is the way leading to the cessation of the cankers.’

...

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nimitta

'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
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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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  • Commentaries use Nimitta in DN Subhasutta to refer to the light (āloka, pariyodāta) in the same Sutta. This light is overlay the Kāma-Nimitta. This is known only when you recite this Pāli everyday with understanding each word over years. – Bonn Jul 23 at 22:40
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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
  • Commentaries use Nimitta in DN Subhasutta to refer to the light (āloka, pariyodāta) in the same Sutta. This light is overlay the Kāma-Nimitta. This is known only when you recite this Pāli everyday with understanding each word over years. – Bonn Jul 23 at 22:46
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In the SN47.8 it's something like "taking note of a sign" in general terms.

They take the hint. So taṃ nimittaṃ uggaṇhāti https://suttacentral.net/sn47.8/en/sujato

As in a private chef taking note of master's preference; or a monk taking note of the inclinations of his mind.

Might not be relevant to your question tho.

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  • You should refer to DN SubhaSutta because Nimitta and bright light (āloka,pariyodāta) is in this same sutta. And by this Sutta, you can refer to Pitaka Memorizer such as PaAuk Tawya too. – Bonn Jul 23 at 22:47
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This is the first time I've seen mention of "light" in describing concentration practice in the suttas. I have personally been visited by nimitta but have not been able to sustain it -- for the same reasons in this sutta: distraction, excitement, etc.

MN 128:


“Good, good, Anuruddha and friends! But as you live diligently like this, have you achieved any superhuman distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones, a meditation at ease?”

“Well, sir, while meditating diligent, keen, and resolute, we perceive both light and vision of forms. But before long the light and the vision of forms vanish. We haven’t worked out the reason for that.”

“Well, you should work out the reason for that. Before my awakening—when I was still unawakened but intent on awakening—I too perceived both light and vision of forms. But before long my light and vision of forms vanished. It occurred to me: ‘What’s the cause, what’s the reason why my light and vision of forms vanish?’ It occurred to me: ‘Doubt arose in me, and because of that my immersion fell away. When immersion falls away, the light and vision of forms vanish. I’ll make sure that doubt will not arise in me again.’

Etc... on through the hindrances interfering with seeing light.


Again, MN 128:

While meditating diligent, keen, and resolute, I perceived limited light and saw limited forms, or I perceived limitless light and saw limitless forms. And this went on for a whole night, a whole day, even a whole night and day. I thought: ‘What is the cause, what is the reason for this?’ It occurred to me: ‘When my immersion is limited, then my vision is limited, and with limited vision I perceive limited light and see limited forms. But when my immersion is limitless, then my vision is limitless, and with limitless vision I perceive limitless light and see limitless forms. And this goes on for a whole night, a whole day, even a whole night and day.’...

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