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Point 8 of the Noble Eightfold Path is "Right Concentration". According to Wikipedia and at least some of the (Theravada-leaning) books I have read, with Right Concentration the Buddha meant the first four Jhanas (Rupa Jhana).

To what extent can one say that Right Concentration is the same as the Jhanas?

  • Does it depend on tradition? AFAIU the Mahayanas do not like to talk about the Jhanas so much, so they might feel such a statement to be too narrow.
  • Is there a Sutta which makes this connection clear?
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In the Pali Suttas, Right Concentration is literally the four jhanas:

And what, monks, is right concentration? (i) There is the case where a monk — quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful (mental) qualities — enters & remains in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. (ii) With the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations, he enters & remains in the second jhana: rapture & pleasure born of concentration, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation — internal assurance. (iii) With the fading of rapture, he remains equanimous, mindful, & alert, and senses pleasure with the body. He enters & remains in the third jhana, of which the Noble Ones declare, 'Equanimous & mindful, he has a pleasant abiding.' (iv) With the abandoning of pleasure & pain — as with the earlier disappearance of elation & distress — he enters & remains in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity & mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain. This, monks, is called right concentration."

Magga-vibhanga Sutta: An Analysis of the Path

The above being said, obviously Right Concentration (the Four Jhanas) cannot be developed from wrong concentration. Therefore, there is a basis for Right Concentration that can also be called 'right concentration', namely, any state of concentration established from the letting go of craving (according to having Right View of the Four Noble Truths). Therefore, other statements about right concentration in the Pali Suttas include:

And what is the faculty of concentration? There is the case where a monk, a disciple of the noble ones, making it his object to let go, attains concentration, attains singleness of mind. Quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful mental qualities, he enters & remains in the first jhana....

SN 48.10

The Blessed One said: "Now what, monks, is noble right concentration with its supports & requisite conditions? Any singleness of mind equipped with these seven factors — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort & right mindfulness — is called noble right concentration with its supports & requisite conditions. Of those, right view is the forerunner.

MN 117

In summary, whenever the mind is continuously focused on the absence of craving and attachment, this is right concentration. Eventually, this state of mind will result in the Four Jhanas, if continuously maintained for long enough. Refer to Ajahn Brahm's book The Jhanas.


Note: various concentration exercises, popular in Theravada Buddhism, such as found in the Visuddhimagga, are essentially forms of wrong concentration, because they are not based in the letting go of craving.

It follows that Mahayana, including Zen, generally instructs to abandon craving and attachment, such as developing Clear Light Mind or Just Sitting (Shikantaza). These Mahayana practices can lead to Right Concentration.

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In the Pali Canon, the Buddha describes three doors to Nibbana: appanihita (desireless, aimless, undirected, nonintentional), animitta (signless) and sunnata (emptiness). Elsewhere in Pali Canon we encounter three types of concentration (samadhi) that go by the same exact names: appanihita-samadhi, animitta-samadhi, and sunnata-samadhi. Even though the three samadhis are never explicitly equated with the doors, they are described as "leading to the unconditioned". This and the fact that samadhis and doors have identical names makes me think each of the doors must be approached by mastering its corresponding samadhi.

SN 43.4:

And what, bhikkhus, is the path leading to the unconditioned? — The emptiness concentration [ie sunnata samadhi], the signless [animitta] concentration, the undirected [appanihita] concentration: this is called the path leading to the unconditioned…

The fact that these samadhis are described as "leading to the unconditioned" indicates they must fall under Right (Sama) Samadhi, not Wrong (Micca) Samadhi.

For me, this is enough evidence that the Right Concentration is not limited to the Four (rupa) Jhanas. For additional arguments against that view, see Analayo's 32-page comparative study.

I hope this answers your question.

As to the nature of these samadhis per Pali Canon, unfortunately only the signless concentration is described in any detail at all. The descriptions are rather very basic (not attending to any signs) but thanks to MN121 and various secondary clues in other suttas we can understand that signlessness refers to following the Arupa Ayatanas until the complete transcendence of semiosis.

The situation is more dare with the other two samadhis for which we have even less information. We have no choice but to rely on clues and inference.

My interpretation of the available clues is that the "desireless" door is approached through the Four Jhanas, with the fourth jhana being the appaṇihito-samadhi itself.

This is implicitly supported by the following list of samadhis that lists the three samadhis alongside the jhanas. Here's the passage (annotations in square brackets are mine):

SN 43.12:

And what, bhikkhus, is the path leading to the unconditioned? —Concentration with cognitive placement and affective pondering [i.e. the first jhana]: this is called the path leading to the unconditioned.

—Concentration without cognitive placement , with affective pondering only [the second jhana]…

—Concentration without either cognitive placement or affective pondering [the third jhana]…

—Emptiness [sunnata] concentration…

—Signless [animitta] concentration…

And what, bhikkhus, is the path leading to the unconditioned? —Undirected [appanihita] concentration [the fourth jhana?]: this is called the path leading to the unconditioned.

As you can see, identification with the first three jhanas is obvious based on their distinct reference to vitakka-vicara. The animitta samadhi is associated with the Arupa Ayatanas, we know that much.

Now, if you correlate this list in 43.12 with a description of practice in SN 47.10 it becomes rather clear that the first three jhanas are considered "directed" (paṇidhāya or paṇihita), followed by appaṇidhāya bhavana, culminating in the fourth jhana which therefore is appanihita-samadhi. This conclusion is further supported by the allegorical imagery in AN 5.28, where the directional pro-sukkha aspect of the first three jhanas is symbolized by the images of water, and the equanimous aspect of the fourth jhana is compared to the white towel wrapping a bather after the bath.

The final door to Nibbana is called "emptiness" (sunnata). Emptiness is explained in the Pali Canon as the absence of self. In my understanding the Emptiness Samadhi is attained through a deep contemplation of the three marks of existence in relation to the five skandhas and all other dhammas.

The nature of sunnata samadhi, or the concentration on emptiness, involves a profound realization and absorption in the understanding that all phenomena are devoid of inherent existence, or 'empty' of self-nature. This realization comes from seeing that all things arise dependent on conditions and do not exist independently. When one develops sunnata samadhi, they focus on this emptiness, looking at experience without projecting intrinsic nature or essence onto phenomena.

Meditatively, the practitioner in sunnata samadhi would be engaging in a form of deep contemplation that relinquishes all notions of intrinsic identity in the observed objects, sensations, thoughts, and experiences. This is not merely an intellectual exercise but a focused meditative absorption where the mind is collected and unified in the experience of emptiness. The process can involve gradually letting go of attachments to the sensory world, mental constructs, and even the sense of a personal self, leading to an experience of liberation and peace.

For a textual reference see e.g. in KN PS 1.1:

When he knows and sees correctly that eye is void of self or what belongs to self or anything permanent or everlasting or eternal or not subject to change, then his knowledge turns away from misinterpretation of (insistence on) eye...

This passage from the Khuddaka Nikaya illustrates the principle of voidness or emptiness as applied to the sensory experience (in this case, the "eye"). It reflects the recurring theme in the Pali Canon that true knowledge, or wisdom, includes the insight into the absence of an enduring self or essence in sensory and mental phenomena. Here, the understanding of voidness is directly linked to the knowledge that turns away from incorrect perceptions or interpretations of the nature of experience, including the clinging to the notion of a self or anything permanent.

In the context of sunnata samadhi, such a passage reinforces the idea that the concentration on emptiness involves a direct and clear seeing of phenomena as they are - void of self and not subject to misinterpretation or delusion. By realizing that the aggregates (such as the eye, in this example) are empty of intrinsic existence, practitioners detach themselves from the illusion of permanence and selfhood, which in turn leads to a "turning away" from ignorance and towards wisdom, ultimately guiding them on the path toward liberation (Nibbana). This process of realization aligns with the nature of sunnata samadhi, in which one meditatively dwells in the recognition of the emptiness of all conditioned phenomena.

I hope this was an inspiring foray into the world of Samadhis in Pali Canon.

Whether or not I'm correct about all the details, it seems clear that the four (rupa) jhanas are not the sole meditation technique included in the Right Concentration. Arupa Ayatanas culminating in Signless Concentration and Three Marks of Existence culminating in Emptiness Concentration are two additional ways to reach the Unconditioned.

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  • Thanissaro: "Emptiness, the signless, & the undirected are names for a state of concentration that lies on the threshold of Unbinding. They differ only in how they are approached. According to the commentary, they color one's first apprehension of Unbinding: a meditator who has been focusing on the theme of inconstancy will first apprehend Unbinding as signless; one who has been focusing on the theme of stress will first apprehend it as undirected; one who has been focusing on the theme of not-self will first apprehend it as emptiness" www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.044.than.html
    – Jbag1212
    Dec 8, 2023 at 2:50
  • That's a very well-known description based on a post-canonical commentary. I personally don't find it credible, or adding anything substantial (i.e. non-speculative) to the analysis of samadhis and jhanas. If anything, it confirms the little material available in the Canon. Realization of inconstancy is described as the key factor for transitioning from the signless absorption to Liberation in MN 121. The theme of stress vs. sukkha is central to the four jhanas, with the fourth transcending the dichotomy, and the connection between emptiness and not-self is well established in suttas.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Dec 8, 2023 at 2:56

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