Meditation Before the Buddha

Meditation was not invented by the Buddha. The Buddhist texts always assume that meditation was a widespread and well-known practice. Given this, it is perhaps surprising to find that the extant pre-Buddhist sources do not have all that much to say about meditation.

Early Brahmanical Sources

The earliest evidence for meditative culture anywhere in the world is from the Indus valley civilization. This was a vast, sophisticated, and well-organized society which, at its peak in 2500–3000 BCE, stretched from what is now Pakistan to the Ganges valley. The evolution of this civilization can be traced as far back as 7000 BCE in Afghanistan, with a series of villages that became towns, and then towns that became cities. It was therefore an indigenous Indian culture. There is a strong continuity with later Indian culture, although we are not quite sure who these people were. The iconography suggests that they were the ‘noseless’ and ‘black’ peoples (Dravidians?) whose destruction at the hands of the Aryans is still dimly remembered in the Ṛg Veda. Perhaps the most intriguing remnants of their brilliant world are the thousands of exquisitely carved seals, little clay tablets that were probably worn by the citizens as a religious/family/occupational icon, and, of course, as a magic totem. These seals contain some of the world’s oldest writings, which are as yet undeciphered.

The most interesting for our current purpose are a few seals that depict a god as a yogi sitting in meditation. These are astonishingly similar to the amulets that are still widely popular in Buddhist countries today. The yogi is usually identified on the basis of iconography as a ‘proto-Śiva’. He sits, not in the ‘lotus posture’ of the Buddha, but in either siddhāsana (with legs crossed at the ankles) or mūlabandhāsana (with soles of the feet pressed together). Both of these postures are associated with psychic powers. One of the images depicts snakes rising beside him, a startling image familiar from Eden to the Pali canon. The image of the Buddha with a serpent rising over him is still popular today, taken from the Mucalinda Sutta of the Udāna. It is, of course, most famous as the symbol of the ‘kundalini’ of the Hindus. But whereas the serpent rises over the Buddha, signifying transcendence, in the proto-Śiva image the serpent rises only to the forehead. In later theory this place, the jñāṇacakra, was associated with lights, subtle forms, and psychic powers, and would therefore seem to be equivalent to the Buddhist form jhānas. These possibilities are too tenuous to make much of. However, it is certain that here is an ascetic who has, as the Buddhist texts say, ‘gone to the forest, to the root of a tree, or to an empty hut, sat down cross-legged, and set his body erect…’. Has he taken the next step in this meditative training: ‘establishing mindfulness’?

Sati in Buddhism is functionally described in terms of either sara ‘memory’, or anupassanā ‘observation’. The relation between these two ideas is, to our mind, strange, and is best explained as a historical, linguistic development. Sara is from the same root as sati, and is the historical meaning. Sati came to mean, in the Brahmanical tradition generally, ‘received tradition, memorized texts.’ This meaning is attested in the early Suttas, where it is treated identically in Buddhist and Brahmanical contexts: one ‘remembers what was said and done long ago’.

Sati is apparently used since the Ṛg Veda (perhaps a thousand years before the Buddha) in two senses: to ‘remember’ or ‘recollect’, and to ‘bear in mind’. The significance of this should not be overlooked. Sati is not just a word one uses to refer to some texts one remembers; it is probable that the development of the culture of memorizing texts lead to the discovery, investigation, and development of what ‘memory’ is. That is to say, those who memorized the Vedic mantras were engaged in an early form of mental culture, a mental culture where ‘memory’ was a vital quality. This mental culture was one of the strands that became woven into what we know today as ‘meditation’.

In the Chāndogya Upaniṣad a father asks his son to fast for 15 days, then tests him on his memory of the Vedic texts. He fails dismally; but after eating again he can remember easily. His father explains:

If, from a great blazing fire, there is only one coal left glowing, it can easily be made to blaze up again by putting grass on it. Even so, my dear son, there was [due to fasting] but one part in sixteen left to you and that, lighted up with food, blazed up and by it you remember now the Vedas.’ After that he understood what his father meant when he said: ‘Mind, my dear son, comes from food, breath from water, speech from fire.’165

The Buddha was once asked by a Brahman why the (Vedic) mantras are sometimes easy to remember and sometimes not.166 Typically, he answers that when the five hindrances are present the mantras are not clear; when the five hindrances are absent the mantras are clear. This is a straightforward example of how the science of memorizing texts would lead naturally to investigation of the mental qualities necessary for success in such an ambitious venture. We still use the 4000 year old word ‘mantra’, which originally referred to the Vedic texts, as a term for a meditation word, a sound or phrase traditionally taken from the ancient texts that one repeats over and again as a support for meditation. The relation between recollection and meditation is strong even today in Buddhism. For example, most Buddhists are familiar with the basic passages for ‘recollection’ (anussati) of the Triple Gem. These form the basis for both the regular chanting at Buddhist ceremonies, and also the meditation on the Triple Gem.

In a similar fashion, the verses of the Vedas had a highly numinous, mystical significance for the ancient Brahman priests, and it would have been natural for the more contemplative among them to induce exalted states of consciousness through the ecstatic recollection of the sacred words. In order to memorize long texts it is, of course, necessary to repeat passages over and over again. If one does this mechanically, without interest, the memorizing will not succeed. One must bring inspiration, joy, attention, and understanding to the task. One must learn to ‘stay with’ the present moment​—​and here we are crossing over to the familiar Buddhist idea of ‘mindfulness’.

This psychology also emerges in the usage of the word dhī, familiar as the root of the Buddhist term ‘jhāna’. Dhī is used early on in the sense of ‘thought’, and has a special connection with the ‘visioning’ of the Vedic poetry: dhī is the intuitive awareness as the poet/priest ‘sees’ the verses. This ‘thought’ (dhī) or ‘mind’ (manas) is disciplined (yoga) by the reciters.

The priests of him the divine Savitr well-skilled in hymns
Harness their mind, yea, harness their holy thoughts.167

But jhāna did not develop its meaning of ‘deep absorption’ until the Buddha. In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka, jhāna is contrasted with the stillness of the True Self.

Which is the Self?

That person here made of cognition among the senses [breaths], the light within the heart. He, remaining the same, wanders about the two worlds as if thinking (dhyāyati), as if playing (lelāyati).’168

The Upaniṣads constantly remind us to preserve the correct mental attitude; to perform the rituals with one’s whole being, contemplating the significance of each aspect as one carries it out. Even the earlier Brahmanas allow that if a ritual cannot be carried out physically it may be performed by ‘faith’, i.e. as a purely mental act.169 In this immersion of awareness in one’s actions we can discern a precursor to the Buddhist emphasis on mindfulness through all one’s activities.

It is a curious thing that when we look at the sources most likely to be contemporary with the Buddha​—​namely the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and the Chāndogya​—​we find that these well-known meditative terms are used less frequently, and a word apparently foreign to Buddhist meditation is found far more often. This word is upāsana. Edward Crangle, following Velkar, has studied this term in detail, and lists the frequency of occurrence. In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka, upāsana occurs 63 times, jhāna thrice, and yoga twice. In the Chāndogya, upāsana occurs 115 times, jhāna twelve times, and yoga again twice.170 Upāsana is a key term in considering the emergence of meditative psychology in Indian tradition. It is translated sometimes as ‘worship’ and sometimes as ‘meditation’, and embodies the shift from an external worship and ritual towards inner contemplation. Crangle says upāsana is ‘a contemplative process wherein the object of worship is an object of concentration.’171 The following conveys the mystical tone of upāsana:

Next, of this breath, water is the body. Its light-form is that moon. As far as the breath extends so far extends water and that moon. These are all alike, all endless. Verily, he who meditates/worships (upāsana) them as finite wins a finite world. But he who meditates/worships them as infinite wins an infinite world.’172

Upāsana encompasses a wide spectrum of spiritual consciousness. Velkar says it is meditative, emblematic (involving elaborate symbolism), and analytic (in making philosophical distinctions). It takes a large variety of objects, concrete and abstract: God, ‘om’, sun, moon, lightning, wind, space, fire, water, breath, ‘That as Great’, ‘That as Mind’, etc.

Crangle makes the intriguing suggestion that upāsana is related to the Buddhist term satipaṭṭhāna, especially the last element of this compound, upaṭṭhāna.173 This is supported on a number of grounds. The sound of the words is almost identical, especially in Sanskrit (upasthāna and upāsana). Though they are from different roots, the construction and basic meanings are similar: upa + ās means to ‘sit near’; upa + sthā means to ‘stand near’. From there they both developed the sense of ‘wait upon, serve, attend’, and then to ‘pray, worship’. In a specifically meditative context they are both used in the sense of the initial grounding on the meditation object, rather than the resulting state of absorption. Some of the meditation objects for upāsana are also found in satipaṭṭhāna: the breath, water, fire, space, bliss, mind, etc. So Crangle’s suggestion can be accepted. The major contemplative practice of the pre-Buddhist period is upāsana, and this practice finds its closest Buddhist connection, surprisingly enough, not with jhāna or samādhi, but with satipaṭṭhāna.

Investigation of pre-Buddhist meditation terminology is hampered by the fact that the Vedas have little or nothing on meditation and the early Upaniṣads have nothing clear. The earliest clear descriptions of meditation outside of Buddhism are in later texts of the Upaniṣads and the Jains. These are later than the Suttas, however, there is no reason why even late texts should not preserve old traditions.

In recent years some scholars have doubted the accepted wisdom that the early Upaniṣads were pre-Buddhist. The Suttas do not mention the Upaniṣads in their standard list of Brahmanical texts. But one passage in the Tevijja Sutta, discussing contemporary controversies among the Brahmans, refers to Brahmanical schools teaching different paths.174 These have been equated by Jayatilleke with several of the Brahmanas (which include the Upaniṣads) as follows.

Table 10.1: Brahmanical texts in the Tevijja Sutta
Schools in the Tevijja Sutta Brahmanical schools Brahmanical Text
1. Including the Bṛhadāraṇyaka.
Addhariyā Yajur Veda Addhariya Śatapatha Brahmaṇa1
Tittiriyā Yajur Veda Tittirya Taittirīya Brahmaṇa
Chandokā Sāman Veda Chandoga Chāndogya Brahmaṇa
Bavharijā Ṛg Veda Bavharija Bahvrvas Brahmaṇa

This suggests that the Upaniṣadic schools were in existence, but their tenets were still in ferment. Perhaps the Upaniṣads that we have today derive from the later settled tenets of each of these strands of Brahmanical thought.175 But whether or not the Upaniṣads in their current form existed at the Buddha’s time, there is no doubt that ideas we can call ‘Upaniṣadic’ were prominent. In the sphere of metaphysics we can cite the Buddha’s critique of such ideas as that the self is infinite (anantavā attā), or that the self is identical with the world (so attā so loko), or that ‘I am He’ (eso’hamasmi); or indeed the Buddha’s condemnation of the suggestion by a certain Brahman cosmologist that ‘All is oneness’ (sabbaṁ ekattaṁ). It is only natural to connect such metaphysics with samādhi attainments, as implied by the Brahmajāla Sutta.

The early Upaniṣads, especially the Bṛhadāraṇyaka, usually regarded as the earliest and most important, are a very mixed bag. The Bṛhadāraṇyaka has passages of lyrical beauty, sophisticated philosophy, exalted metaphysics, and witty dialogue. It is closely concerned with ideas like the mind, the breath, and oneness, which are suggestive of a meditative culture. It distinguishes between mere perception (saññā) and liberating understanding (paññā), and emphasizes awareness (viññāṇa) in contrast with the more dynamic conceptual and emotive aspects of mind (mano). Therefore it insists on personal experience rather than mere book learning. It frequently upsets preconceptions​—​women have strong supporting roles, and sometimes Brahmans are depicted as having to learn about Brahmā from the Kṣatriyas.

But the Bṛhadāraṇyaka also retains much that is banal and even brutal. It endorses the sacrifice. It is unabashedly materialistic. It is full of thaumaturgy and hocus-pocus. It contains black magic​—​a curse to place on one’s rival in love. It includes crude sex magic. If one’s woman is reluctant to participate she should first be bribed with presents; ‘and if she still does not grant him his desire, he should beat her with a stick or his hand and overcome her’.176 Such abuse is quite incompatible with any genuine mind culture. The text is a testament to the diversity of ideas that the ancient Brahmans could regard as ‘spiritual’, and to the elasticity of the compilers of the text we have today.

Let us look at some of the passages most suggestive of meditation. From the Bṛhadāraṇyaka:

Let a man perform one observance only, let him breath up and let him breath down, that the evil death might not reach him.’177

The unseen seer, the unheard hearer, the unthought thinker, the uncognized cognizer… There is no other seer but he, no other hearer, no other thinker, no other cognizer. This is thy self, the inner controller, the immortal…’ 178

Therefore, knowing this, being calm, tamed, quiet, enduring, concentrated, one sees the soul in oneself.’ 179

By themselves such passages are too vague for any clear conclusion regarding meditative practices. And even the last passage, which is the most suggestive, has ‘faithful’ as a variant reading for ‘concentrated’. The Chāndogya has a slightly more explicit passage.

As a bird when tied by a string flies in every direction and, finding no rest anywhere, settles down at last on the very place where it is fastened; exactly so, my son, that mind, after flying around in every direction and finding no rest anywhere, settles down on breath; for indeed, my son, mind is fastened to breath.’180

For clear teachings on meditation we must go to the (probably post-Buddhist) Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad.

By making his body the under-wood and the syllable “Om” the upper-wood, man, after repeating the drill of meditation, will perceive the bright god, like the spark hidden in the wood.’181

If the wise man holds his body with the three upright parts even, and turns his senses with his mind towards the heart, he will then in the boat of Brahman cross over all the fearful streams.’182

Compressing his breath, let him, who has subdued all motions, breath forth through the nose with gentle breath. Let the wise one, being heedful, keep hold of his mind, that chariot yoked with wild horses.’183

When yoga is being performed, the forms that come first, producing apparitions in Brahman, are those of misty smoke, sun, fire, wind, fire-flies, lightnings, and a crystal moon.’184

These are fairly straightforward references to meditation, and they will not sound unfamiliar to anyone versed in Buddhist meditation. The simile of meditation like two fire-sticks is well known in the Buddhist texts.185 Notice the close connection in SU 2.9 between ‘heedfulness’ (appamāda) and ‘keeping hold’ (dhāraṇa), a term semantically equivalent to sati. The earliest Brahmanical meditation subjects were the breath and the contemplation of the mystical syllable ‘Om’. Of course, the ‘breath’ and the ‘word’ are closely related and are mystically identified in the Upaniṣads; the yogis may have recited ‘Om’ together with the breath. The Upaniṣads are full of passages that assert the supremacy of the breath over the sense faculties and mind (‘mind’ here meaning thoughts and emotions). These can be understood as an allegorical description of the evolution of awareness from the diversity of externals towards a unity with the breath.

The breath is a prime exercise in satipaṭṭhāna body contemplation, and other aspects suggestive of satipaṭṭhāna can also be discerned in the Upaniṣadic tradition. Just as in the Satipaṭṭhāna Saṁyutta, the dependence of the breath (body) on food is stressed.186 The elements appear commonly in the ancient world, and were worshipped as deities. For example Agni (Fire) was a major deity in the Vedas, and undoubtedly inspired ecstatic contemplation. Vāyu (air) was also worshipped in the Vedas. The Earth (Mother), whose symbols pervade the iconography of Buddhism, was also widely revered, and was associated with the Indus Valley religion. The parts of the body are worshipped in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad: hair, skin, flesh, bone, marrow.187 All of these appear in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta list of body parts, and in the same order. Charnel grounds have long been a favourite haunting ground of a certain type of ascetic. The later Maitrī Upaniṣad opens with body contemplations for inducing dispassion (virāga), but this is probably under Buddhist influence.188

The other satipaṭṭhānas​—​feelings, mind, and dhammas​—​might even be compared with the famous Brahmanical threesome: mind, being, bliss (cit, sat, ānanda). Mind and bliss are obvious enough. As for being, this is a fundamental philosophical term for the Upaniṣads, just as dhamma is the fundamental term for Buddhism. The dhamma theory was clearly developed to provide an explanation for phenomenal reality opposed to the Brahmanical conception of an absolute underlying ground of being. And indeed the contemplation of dhammas prominently features the same term for being, sat, that was so important for the Brahmans; yet here it is treated, as always, in a thoroughly empirical, anti-metaphysical way: the ‘presence’ or ‘absence’ of good or bad mental factors according to conditions. Another list also reminds us of the satipaṭṭhānas: food, breath (= body), mind (or thought, manas), cognition (vijñāna = mind, citta), bliss (= feelings).189 Whether or not there is any real historical link between these specific sets, both traditions used simple lists of physical and mental phenomena as a guide to spiritual practice.

Towards the end of this study we’ll see that some of the later Buddhist theorists posited a relationship between the evolution of the stages of understanding in meditation and the stages of understanding in the philosophical outlook of the various schools. It is not so far-fetched to see a similar progress here; the Upaniṣads themselves seem to be aware on some level of this evolution. We can analyse the stages of Indian religion in terms of the four satipaṭṭhānas. The earliest stages were wholly physical​—​rituals, chants, the breath, sacrifices​—​pursued with the goal of fertility and prosperity. This developed into the practice of self-torment, which while still physical was predicated on the ability to endure painful feelings. The next stage was the emphasis on refined states of consciousness identified as the cosmic self. Finally, the Buddhist critique of metaphysical absolutism, the analysis of dhammas as conditioned and not-self.

Thus some of the facets of satipaṭṭhāna have their precedents in the Brahmanical traditions. The difference is in what is left out (hocus-pocus, rituals, deity worship, metaphysics, etc.), and in the manner of treatment. The practice is cool, rational, and sensible. The terminology has been subsumed into the Buddhist system. The presentation is purely in terms of discernable empirical phenomena without any metaphysical overtones. It is not trying to persuade you of a theory but to point you towards your own experience.

The Buddhist Sources

Given the paucity of references to meditation in pre-Buddhist texts we are thrown back on the Buddhist texts as our earliest source. There are a number of problems with this. The compilers of the Suttas may not have had much knowledge of non-Buddhist practices, and may have succumbed to the temptation to put their opposition in a bad light. In addition, they quite likely described the practices of other schools in terminology they were familiar with, but which was not authentic to the other schools. Nevertheless, both the Buddhist and the non-Buddhist sources agree in broad terms in their description of pre-Buddhist meditation. There are two such streams, represented by the two styles of practice undertaken by the Bodhisatta before his enlightenment. These are the samādhi practitioners of the Upaniṣads and the self-tormenters of the Jains.

The best-known passage referring to such ‘Upaniṣadic’ yogis is the tale of the Bodhisatta’s apprenticeship.190 I wish to first note why I consider the significance of this passage to be seriously overrated. According to the GIST, the Buddha’s main teachings are found in the basic doctrinal statements (suttas) together with the interrogative discussions of these statements (vyākaraṇa). This material does not include much biography, beyond stating that it was through understanding the four noble truths, etc., or through practicing the eightfold path, etc., that the Buddha realized enlightenment. Biography as such is one of the later aṅgas, avadāna. However, after the Buddha’s passing away the community found that the Buddha’s life story gave the teachings that ‘personal touch’ so essential for the development of Buddhism into a popular mass religion. From that time until the present day the Buddha’s life, rather than being occasionally used to illustrate a doctrinal point, became the main focus of attention. The events that are included in the Buddha’s life story are known to all Buddhists, and as a result sometimes minor incidents have been blown up out of all proportion to their original significance. One obvious example of this is the Buddha’s last meal, an obscure incident of dubious interpretation, absent in some versions, which has become the main battle ground in the controversy regarding the Buddhist position on vegetarianism, with the result that the several straightforward discourses directly addressing the issue, as well as the frequent mention of meat-eating in the Vinaya, are virtually ignored. Another case is the touching story of the difficult attempts by the Buddha’s foster-mother Mahā Pajāpati to secure women’s ordination. This story is known to all and is regularly invoked to deny women the opportunity for full participation in the renunciate life, while ignoring the frequent mention of the ‘fourfold assembly’ (including nuns) that the Buddha regarded as the sign of a complete, successful, and long-lasting religion. Taking note of this principle does not in and of itself mean that these passages are inauthentic, nor that they should not be taken account of, nor does it suggest taking any specific stand on such controversies; but it does suggest that we should be more careful in how we weigh and evaluate the evidence in the early texts.

Nevertheless, even though the story of the Bodhisatta’s apprenticeship already suffers from too many discussions, here’s one more. Virtually all discussions have ignored the obvious point that the Ariyapariyesana Sutta mentions three stages of this apprenticeship. Firstly, learning and lip-reciting of the texts.191 This is a hint that these are ascetics in the mainstream Vedic tradition; the nature of the texts is not specified here, but elsewhere the Buddha recalls that Uddaka Rāmaputta claimed to be a vedagū, a master of the Vedas.192 Anyway, as we noted above, the Vedas are the only texts that are known to the early Suttas.193 Secondly the path, here described as faith, energy, mindfulness, samādhi, and wisdom.194 Thirdly, the goal​—​formless attainments. These three stages correspond with the classic three aspects of Buddhism​—​study, practice, and realization. The five factors of the path are the Buddhist five spiritual faculties​—​a fact that is comveniently overlooked by those who wish to interpret this passage as implying the ‘non-Buddhist’ nature of samādhi in general, or of formless attainments in particular. We cannot know how these qualities were understood in detail in this context; but terms such as prajñā, etc., occur commonly in the Upaniṣads. If it is true that the five spiritual faculties were genuinely associated with the Vedic/Upaniṣadic tradition, it may be no coincidence that it is in the spiritual faculties that we most frequently meet sati treated as ‘memory’.195

The Bodhisatta did not reject the formless attainments in & of themselves. It is not the case that he practiced samādhi meditation but not mindfulness meditation. Rather, he practiced mindfulness meditation to get into samādhi. Samādhi is emphasized in this account because it was the highest, the most exalted quality acknowledged in those systems, and because of its sublime peacefulness it was mistakenly taken to be the final end of the spiritual path. The Bodhisatta became disillusioned with ‘that Dhamma’, i.e. with the teaching taken as a whole, because it led only to rebirth in the formless realm, and was therefore ‘insufficient’ to reach the ‘excellent state of peace’, the ending of birth, aging, and death.

This is in perfect accord with the main stream of the Suttas. Elsewhere it is said that ordinary people attain samādhi (here the four jhānas196 and the four divine abidings197), are reborn in the Brahmā realms, and after a long period of bliss fall back into lower realms. But noble disciples, after reaching the Brahmā realms, attain Nibbana from there. The difference is not in the states of samādhi as such​—​these are just the mind at peace. The difference is in the views and interpretations, the conceptual wrapping that the experience in bundled up in. The path must be taken as a whole. If one starts out with wrong view, one’s meditation experiences will simply reinforce one’s preconceptions. If one practices samādhi with the view that one’s soul will become immersed in some exalted state of being, well, one will get what one wishes for.

This is the most important feature distinguishing this episode from the later occasion (quoted below) when the Bodhisatta recollected his former experience of first jhāna. This occurred as a child, seated in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree. When the Bodhisatta remembered this experience he realized that: ‘That indeed is the path to enlightenment’. As a child, his mind was uncluttered with views; he had no metaphysical agenda. The peace of the mind was just the peace of the mind; and so he realized that although such states were not the final goal he had been yearning for, they were indeed the path to that goal. This account is found in the Mahā Saccaka Sutta (MN 36), the Mahāvastu (of the Mahāsaṅghika Vinaya), the Saṅghabhedavastu (from the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya), and the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya. Accounts in the Ekottara (EA 31.8) and the Lalitavistara attribute all four jhānas to the Bodhisatta as child; while the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya and an individual Chinese translation (T № 757) place the attainment of jhāna soon after the going forth. Thus this is clearly regarded by all the schools as a crucial event in the Bodhisatta’s path towards awakening.

One of the most interesting sources for understanding the meditation practices of Brahman ascetics is the Pārāyana Vagga of the Sutta Nipāta. This text, one of the earliest texts in the Pali canon, consists of a series of questions and answers between the Buddha and a group of sixteen Brahman meditators. There are several connections between this text and the Upaniṣad-style traditions we have been considering; in fact the closeness of some parallel phrases suggests direct literary influence of one sort or another,198 although there are also direct connections between some of these verses and Jain texts. The list of Brahmanical texts given is substantially shorter than that in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka, suggesting that it is earlier. It has a satirical reference to an evil Brahman who threatens to ‘split heads’; the same threat occurs several times in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka, the difference being that there someone’s head actually does get split!199 The Buddha of course dismisses the efficacy of Vedic knowledge, ritual, sacrifice, and metaphysical conceptions of ‘Self’. We meet again the phrase ‘seen, heard, thought, cognised’ that we have encountered in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka, and also frequent reference to the pairing of cognition with name & form, another Upaniṣadic idea.

The faith and devotion of these yogis is very moving, and stands in decided contrast with the sometimes strained relationship between the Buddha and the scholastic and ritualistic Brahmans. In this friendly atmosphere the Buddha would have, wherever possible, kept his normal policy of encouraging his disciples to continue developing whatever spiritual practices were most inspiring and useful. The introductory verses, which are somewhat later, refer indirectly to the five spiritual faculties,200 and say the sixteen Brahmans are practitioners of jhāna.201 The teachings are brief and non-technical, but there is recognizable reference to the fourth jhāna202 and to the sphere of nothingness.203 And time and time again, the Buddha exhorts these yogis to be ‘ever mindful’. This confirms the association of mindfulness with Brahmanic culture; the Buddha would hardly have used the term if he did not expect his audience to understand it.

Three discourses in the Bojjhaṅga-saṁyutta present the claims of nonBuddhist wanderers to develop Buddhist-style meditation. They say they exhort their disciples to abandon the five hindrances and to develop, in two cases, the seven awakening-factors,204 and in a third case the four divine abidings.205 Elsewhere too the divine abidings are attributed to great sages of the past, notably the Buddha in past lives.206 However, although these are found in the later Brahmanical tradition, they are not attested in any pre-Buddhist texts. The awakening-factors include mindfulness and investigation of dhammas, which is equivalent to vipassanā, as well as samādhi. The wanderers ask, then, what is the difference between their teaching and the Buddha’s? The Buddha responds, not by referring to, say, the four noble truths, not-self, or dependent origination, but by claiming that the wanderers do not fully understand samādhi practice in all details. This is what the Buddha was referring to when he claimed to have ‘awakened to jhāna’ (jhānaṁ abujjhi);207 not that he was the first to practice jhāna, but that he was the first to fully comprehend both the benefits and the limitations of such experiences.

The Brahmajāla Sutta is a classic source for non-Buddhist meditation. It presents a bewildering array of 62 doctrinal views, many of which were derived from or reinforced by misinterpretation of samādhi experiences, including both form jhāna and formless attainments. Yogis include both the mainstream Vedic/Upaniṣadic ‘Brahmans’ as well as the radical nonconformist ‘samanas’. Five terms describe the path to samādhi: ardency (ātappa), striving (padhāna), commitment (anuyoga), heedfulness (appamāda), and right attention (sammā manasikāra). All of these terms are commonly found in Buddhist contexts; ātappa occurs in the satipaṭṭhāna formula. ‘Heedfulness’, which we encountered above in the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad, lies close in meaning to ‘mindfulness’. ‘Attention’ is the basis for wisdom, and is closely associated with insight. So here wisdom appears as a forerunner for samādhi.

But the Suttas typically present the contemporary Brahmans as having fallen away from their glorious past. This is important: the Suttas do not see the fact that pre-Buddhists practiced jhāna as a reason for denigrating samādhi. Rather, they praise for the sages of old, who are a role model for emulation and inspiration. Here is an example, spoken by Venerable Mahā Kaccāna to some rude and abusive Brahman youths.

Those men of old who excelled in virtue,
Those Brahmans who recalled the ancient rules;
Their sense doors guarded, well protected
Dwelt having vanquished wrath within.
They took delight in Dhamma and jhāna​—​
Those Brahmans who recalled the ancient rules.

But these having fallen, claiming “We recite!”
Puffed up by clan, faring unrighteously,
Overcome by anger, armed with diverse weapons,
They molest both frail and firm.

For one with sense doors unguarded
All the vows he undertakes are in vain,
Just like the wealth a man gains in a dream.

Fasting and sleeping on the ground,
Bathing at dawn, [study of ] the three Vedas,
Rough hides, matted locks, and dirt,
Hymns, rules and vows, austerities,
Hypocrisy, bent staffs, ablutions:
These emblems of the Brahmans
Are used to increase their worldly gains.

A mind that is well concentrated,
Clear and free from blemish,
Tender towards all living beings​—​
This is the path for attaining Brahmā.’208

Understandably, the Brahman youths were not too pleased with this. So they went to their teacher, the Brahman Lohicca, and told him. He too was displeased, but he reflected that he should not condemn on mere hearsay, so he visited Venerable Mahā Kaccāna to discuss the matter. He asked what the meaning of ‘sense doors guarded’ was.

Here, Brahman, having seen a visible form with the eye, one is not attracted to a pleasing visible form and not repelled by a displeasing visible form. One abides having established mindfulness of the body, with a measureless mind, and understands as it has become that heart-release, understanding-release, where those evil unskilful qualities cease without remainder….’

Here again we see the connection between pre-Buddhist meditation and mindfulness. The sequence​—​sense restraint, mindfulness, samādhi, understanding, release​—​allows Mahā Kaccāna to present the Buddhist ideal as the natural fulfilment of the practices of the Brahmans of old, so he can skilfully lead Lohicca on in a non-confrontational manner.

Later Brahmanical Sources

Since there are no contemporary records to illuminate these ideas further, we take the risky path of comparing them with later texts. The Mahābhārata post-dates the Nikāyas/Āgamas, and shows Buddhist influence. However, the events are set in a semi-mythical time before the Buddha, and it has undoubtably preserved some genuine old traditions. It mentions the ‘fourfold jhānayoga’, but only the first jhāna is described in detail.

The mind that is wandering,
With no support,
With five gates, wobbling,
The steadfast one should concentrate in the first jhāna.’209

When the sage enters samādhi
Of the first jhāna in the beginning,
Sustained application (vicāra) and initial application (vitakka)
And seclusion (viveka) arise in him…’210

Conjoined with that bliss,
He will delight in the practice of jhāna.
Thus the yogis go to Nirvana that is free of disease…’211

The Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali (300–500 CE?) is an early presentation of a fairly systematic path of practice from a non-Buddhist school. The Yoga school, regarded as the practical wing of the Sāṁkhya philosophy, became one of the six schools of classical Hinduism, which were orthodox in regarding the Vedic tradition as authoritative, although they differed in interpretation. The Yoga Sūtra is a fairly short work in four chapters, comprising a series of brief aphorisms, or sūtras, a style which, incidentally, well illustrates the meaning of sutta as discussed in the GIST. The sūtras are often cryptic and as good as incomprehensible without a commentary; the work as a whole may well be a collection of sayings that was assembled in the current form by the commentator.

Here we merely wish to investigate the meditation terminology in relation to Buddhist meditation, so we can afford to ignore many of the knotty questions raised by the text and focus mainly on those passages closest to Buddhism. This methodology will lead to a biased view of the work as a whole, and it should be remembered that the Yoga Sūtra stays faithful to its own distinctive philosophy; it is not just a Buddhist rip-off. Doctrinally, it mentions ideas familiar to the Sāṁkhya/Yoga​—​the three ‘qualities’ (guṇas) of stimulation (rajas, literally ‘desire’), depression (tamas, ‘darkness’), and vitality (sattvas, ‘being’) that make up our worldly state, the fundamental ground of nature (prakṛti) from which these evolved, and the individual soul (puruṣa), whose purity and clear discernment lead to the state of consummation (kaivalya). The main emphasis is on the practical means, especially meditation, for reaching this state. Occasionally it critiques Buddhist philosophy. Sūtras 4.16–18, for example, assert that it is impossible for a changing object to be known by one mind-moment (as the ābhidhammikas claimed); the fluctuations of the mind are known due to the changelessness of the puruṣa, the One Who Knows. Sometimes the text bears on the controversies among the Buddhists, such as when it asserts that ‘the past and the future exist in their own form’,212 which is reminiscent of the Sarvāstivādin doctrine of time: ‘all exists’.

The first chapter of the Yoga Sūtra deals with samādhi. It starts with a famous definition: yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. The fluctuations, which are caused by ignorance, are listed as valid knowledge (pramāṇa, defined in a way similar to the Buddhist epistemologists: direct experience, inference, and scripture), error, fantasy, sleep, and recollection (mindfulness, sati). This list is odd; it is difficult to see how, say, direct experience (pratyakṣa) could be an obstacle to samādhi. The treatment of mindfulness in a negative sense is obviously different from the Buddhist approach. For the Brahmanical schools, the word sati had the sense of ‘memorised textual traditions’, so in meditation contexts the meaning of ‘memory’ was more prominent than ‘awareness’, hence the negative slant. This situation suggests two consequences: first, that when sati is used in a positive sense in the Yoga we should suspect a Buddhist influence; and second, that the Yoga would need to develop an alternative terminology to speak about mindfulness within their own system. We shall find that the Yoga Sūtra supports both of these theses. However, despite this difference, the Yoga Sūtra defines sati the same way as the Buddhist schools: the non-forgetting of an experienced object.

After emphasising the necessity for sincere practice and dispassion, the text goes on to speak of a form of samādhi (the word ‘samādhi’ is not used, but is plausibly supplied by the commentary) called samprajñāta, which it describes as: ‘accompanied by initial application, sustained application, bliss (ānanda), [the concept] “I am”, and form.’213 This is virtually identical with the first of the four Buddhist ‘form jhānas’. The idea ‘I am’ clearly refers to a deluded perception that takes what is not the True Self, the puruṣa, to be the True Self. The phrase is foreign to the standard jhāna formula, but is similar to one of the deluded forms of ‘Nibbana here & now’ described in the Brahmajāla Sutta:

When, sir, this self, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskilful qualities, enters and abides in the first jhāna, which has initial & sustained application, and the rapture & happiness born of seclusion, at that point the self attains Nibbana here & now….’ 214

Both contexts are criticising the assumption of self in this state of samādhi; for the Buddhists, of course, there is no True Self, while in yoga the True Self is discerned only with more subtle development of consciousness. The Yoga Sūtra goes on to speak of another (higher) form of samādhi, which is called asamprajñāta (although again the term is not supplied in the extremely laconic text itself ). Sūtra 18 describes this as ‘preceded by practice in renunciation, and having just a residue of activities (saṁskāraśeṣa)’.215 Sūtra 19 is obscure: ‘For the bodiless, absorbed in fundamental Nature, [such an] existence is conditioned (bhavapratyayo videhaprakṛtilāyanam)’. This seems to mean either that this state of consciousness generates a bodiless (videha = formless, arūpa?) rebirth, or that for one without a body, such a state of consciousness is a natural condition, not something that must be attained through spiritual practice. Sūtra 20 says that ‘for others’ (presumably this means not the ‘bodiless’ ones referred to in sūtra 19), asamprajñāta samādhi comes after ‘faith, energy, mindfulness, samādhi, and wisdom’.216 Here once more we meet the Buddhist five spiritual faculties, which are presumably what is meant by the ‘practice in renunciation’ mentioned in sūtra 18. Note that sati here is in positive sense, as usual in Buddhism, and not in negative sense, as earlier in the Yoga Sūtra; this supports the argument of Bronkhorst that this chapter was composed from two sources, one ‘orthodox’ and one Buddhist.217 The samādhi in this group of five, which precedes asamprajñāta samādhi, is presumably the samprajñāta samādhi, i.e. form jhāna. The asamprajñāta samādhi may therefore be plausibly identified with the Buddhist formless attainments, which are also preceded by form jhāna, are the outcome of a ‘gradual cessation of activities’, generate a bodiless rebirth, and the highest of which is called ‘an attainment with a residue of activities’.218 It is very striking that the way of attaining this asamprajñāta samādhi​—​the five spiritual faculties​—​is identical with the way of practice taught by Āḷāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta for attaining formless samādhi, and is also mentioned in the Pārāyana Vagga.

The text goes on to speak of various obstacles to samādhi, similar to the hindrances, etc., including the term ‘scattered mind’ familiar from the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. These result in bodily and mental discomfort and unsteadiness of breath, and should be countered by one-pointedness. Several meditations are recommended that lead to clarity of mind: these include the Buddhist divine abidings of loving-kindness, compassion, appreciation, and equanimity. Some of the other meditations, such as breath meditation and the mind free of lust, again remind us of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. Next the text speaks of attainments both with initial application (vitakka) and without; the latter is associated with purity of mindfulness, as in the Buddhist fourth jhāna. Attainments with and without sustained application (vicāra), which are said to be subtle conditions, are also mentioned; like the Buddhist second jhāna, absence of sustained application comes with ‘inner clarity’ (adhyātma prasāda). The wisdom of this brings truth. All these states are ‘samādhi with seed’; but when even these cease all ceases, and this is ‘samādhi without seed’.

While the first chapter of the Yoga Sūtra recalls the Buddhist treatment of samādhi, the second chapter contains some Buddhist-style instructions on vipassanā:

Ignorance, “I-am-ness”, desire, aversion, and insistence (abhiniveśa) [are to be eliminated by practice]. Ignorance is the cause of the rest, whether they are dormant, weak, suppressed, or aggravated. Ignorance thinks of the permanent as impermanent, of the pure as impure, of the painful as pleasurable, of the not-self as self…’219

The definition of ‘I-am-ness’ is obscure (‘taking the two powers of seer and seen as a single self’); evidently it is the error of seeking a unified self in the diversity of experience. Desire and aversion are defined just as in Buddhism: the inherent compulsions (anusaya) regarding pleasure and pain. All these ‘fluctuations’ are to be overcome with jhāna. The result of action (karma) rooted in defilement (kleśamūla) is experienced in pleasant or painful rebirth, according to whether the causes are good or evil. But for the discerning, all this is suffering.

Halfway through the chapter is introduced the famous ‘eight-factored yoga’, which is obviously modelled after the Buddhist eightfold path. A similar sixfold yoga is found in the Buddhist-influenced Maitrī Upaniṣad: breath control, sense control (pratyāhāra), jhāna, remembering (dhāraṇa), reason (tarka), samādhi.220 This leaves out the preliminary three practices of the eightfold yoga and adds ‘reason’. The eightfold scheme of the Yoga Sūtra, however, was to become standard. The first factor, yama, is basic ethics similar to the five precepts; the second factor, niyama, concerns purity, austerity, contentment, chanting, and devotion to God. To counter thoughts of harming, etc., that are rooted in greed, hatred, and delusion, it is recommended that one develops the opposite thoughts as antidotes. This is identical with the Buddhist path-factor of right intention. The same principle of opposites is applied not just to wrong thoughts but to wrong actions as well: ‘When one is firm in not stealing, all treasures appear’. The third factor, posture (āsana), is dealt with swiftly, involving merely steadiness, comfort, and relaxation; no mention is made of the special postures for physical exercise that we identify with the word ‘yoga’. Next follow breath control and sense control, completing the external practices.

The next chapter introduces the ‘internal’ practices. First is dhāraṇa, defined as ‘fixing the mind on one place’.221 Dhāraṇa, like sati, means ‘remembering, bearing in mind’, and the Abhidhamma lists dhāraṇa as a synonym of sati. Above we noted the close relation of dhāraṇa with appamāda, mirroring the close connection in the suttas between sati and appamāda. The change in terminology from sati to dhāraṇa is because of the different connotations of the term sati in the two traditions, not because of a difference in the meaning. Dhāraṇa is followed by dhyāna (jhāna), which is defined very obscurely and, for me, untranslatably. It seems to mean a realm of mental unification brought about by the practice of dhāraṇa. So both the Yoga and the Buddhist tradition place ‘remembering/bearing in mind/mindfulness’ as the practice on which jhāna is based.222

One difference between the two systems is that, while for the Suttas, jhāna and samādhi are usually synonymous, the Yoga Sūtra places samādhi as the final step of the path, following jhāna. However, dhāraṇa, jhāna, and samādhi are together said to make up ‘restraint’ (saṁyama), so they are not thought of as totally separate. The description of samādhi is even more obscure than jhāna: ‘The shining forth of just that mere object as if empty of its own form is samādhi’. Much of the rest of the Yoga Sūtra deals with Yoga/Sāṁkhya philosophy and practice, the attainment of various psychic powers, realization of the True Self, and of the disentanglement of the Self from the world and its constituent qualities; the Upaniṣadic non-dual metaphysic is not evident.

The above considerations lead me to conclude the following. There is a thread of Indian meditative tradition referred to in the Nikāyas/Āgamas, which stems from the pre-Buddhist period, finds philosophical expression in the Upaniṣads, and in the later Yoga texts is developed into a practical method using the sophisticated psychological terminology developed by the Buddhists. This tradition, through its commitment to memorizing ancient texts (sati = sara), gradually evolved an appreciation of the benefits of mindful awareness (sati = anupassanā). In metaphysics these yogis emphasized the Self, sometimes mystically identified with the cosmos. This metaphysic was pre-eminently realized in the practice of samādhi, especially formless attainments. The chief way to develop these formless attainments was to develop the five faculties, especially mindfulness and form jhāna. The Buddha adopted the relevant practical aspects of this tradition into his teaching, his chief innovation being to not interpret samādhi experience in terms of a metaphysical ‘self’.

The Jains

We turn now to the second thread of pre-Buddhist meditation. The classic description here is the account of the Bodhisatta’s austerities. His striving was most terrible: ‘crushing mind with mind’, doing the ‘breathless jhāna’ until he felt as if his head was being pierced with a sword or crushed with a leather strap. But he could not make any progress. Why?

My energy was roused up and unflagging, my mindfulness was established and unconfused, but my body was afflicted and not tranquil because I was exhausted by the painful striving. But such painful feeling as arose in me did not invade my mind and remain.’223

The Mūlasarvāstivāda account available in Sanskrit confirms that the Bodhisatta practiced mindfulness during his period of striving.224 Here, ‘mindfulness’ is obviously used in the sense of ‘present moment awareness’ rather than ‘memory’. This is confirmed in the following passage:

Such was my scrupulousness, Sāriputta, that I was always mindful in stepping forwards and stepping backwards. I was full of pity even for [the beings in] a drop of water, thinking: “Let me not hurt the tiny creatures in the crevices of the ground.” ’225

The Buddha explained why he struggled on with such grim self-torture.

Prince, before my enlightenment, while I was still an unenlightened Bodhisatta, I too thought thus: “Pleasure is not to be gained through pleasure; pleasure is to be gained through pain.” ’226

This is wrong view, being one of the chief tenets of the Jains.227 Having tortured himself near death because of that view, he reflected thus:

 “Whatever ascetics or Brahmans, past…future…and present experience painful, racking, piercing feelings due to exertion, this is the utmost, there is nothing beyond this. But by these racking austerities I have not attained any truly noble distinction of knowledge & vision beyond human principles. Could there be another path to enlightenment?”

I considered: “I recall that when my father the Śakyan was working, while I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unskilful qualities, I entered and abode in the first jhāna, with initial & sustained application [of mind], and the rapture & happiness born of seclusion. Could that be the path to enlightenment?” Then, following on that memory came the awareness: “That indeed is the path to enlightenment.”

I thought: “Why am I afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensual pleasures and unskilful qualities?” I thought: “I am not afraid of that pleasure, for it has nothing to do with sensual pleasures and unskilful qualities.” ’228

Here the friendly, relaxed, reasonable feel stands in refreshing contrast with the steely force of his earlier efforts. He then decided that he could not attain jhāna while so emaciated and must therefore take some food; we have already seen that the dependence of the mind on food, and hence the deleterious effects of fasting on one’s mind-state, is an Upaniṣadic idea.229 Although the Bodhisatta never identifies himself in this period as following any teacher, his practices and views are identical with the Jains. And when the group of five ascetics abandoned him they went to stay in the ‘Rishi’s Park’ in Benares, where even today there is a Jain temple.

Such ideas were not exclusive to the Jains; they were common in the Indian yogic tradition, and are met with frequently in the early Brahmanical scriptures as well, as Mahā Kaccāna’s verses above indicate. In fact the Jains were reformists, in that they rejected forms of asceticism that might harm living beings, and they also laid stress on the proper mental attitude. Earlier, more primitive, ‘professors of self-torture’ had believed in the efficacy of the physical torture itself, irrespective of any mental development. Also, their goal was typically psychic powers, whereas the Jains aimed at liberation of the soul. Thus the Bodhisatta’s austerities are closer to the Jains than any other group we know of; the Jains themselves preserve a tradition that the Buddha spent time as a Jain ascetic.

The implication of this episode is that the Jain system emphasized effort and mindfulness, but not until the Bodhisatta developed the tranquillity and bliss of samādhi was he able to see the truth. Elsewhere in the Suttas, Mahāvīra (the leader and reformer of the Jains, known in Pali as Nigaṇṭha Nātaputta) is depicted as asserting the impossibility of stopping initial & sustained application of mind.230 Thus he would not admit any higher than the first jhāna at most. To me, the Jain teachings and practice have a roughness that does not fit well with samādhi attainments. The Jain sources don’t help much. The earliest Jain sūtras emphasize ethical practices, lifestyle, and basic principles, and don’t mention meditation in any recognizable form. Slightly later we find the following:

Then having preserved his life, the remainder of his life being but a short period, he stops activities and enters dry jhāna,231 in which only subtle activity remains and from which one does not fall back. He first stops the activity of mind, then of speech and of body, then he puts an end to breathing…’232

In Buddhist context this passage would imply the fourth jhāna; but we have no guarantee that the terminology is being used in the same sense. The context is different; here we have not just a meditator, but someone who is culminating a spiritual path by fasting to death. Later texts refer to familiar ideas such as samādhi, one-pointedness, discriminating insight, reflection on impermanence (anicca), change (vipariṇāma), and ugliness (asubha).233 Dayal says that the Jains attached great importance to funeral contemplations.234 There are apparently references to mindfulness as part of the Jain path, but I don’t know what period they belong to. The later schools developed a list of twelve ‘contemplations’. The term used here, anuprekṣā, is semantically identical with the term anupassanā that is so prominent in the Buddhist practice of satipaṭṭhāna. The list is as follows.

1) Impermanence
2) No-refuge
3) Coursing on (in rebirth, saṁsāra)
4) Solitariness (ekatvā)
5) Difference (between the soul and the body)
6) Uncleanness (of the body)
7) Influx (of pollutions, āsava)
8) Restraint (of kamma)
9) Wearing away (of kamma)
10) The world (as suffering)
11) The difficulty of attaining enlightenment
12) The well-expoundedness of the Dhamma

Some of these are similar to Buddhist contemplations (1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 10, 11, 12), while some are specifically Jainist in nature (5, 7, 8, 9). They appear to involve reflecting on or thinking over a theme rather than awareness meditations; and so most of them lie closer to vipassanā than samatha. The Jain sources also speak of several varieties of ‘jhāna’.

1) Depressive brooding jhāna
2) Ferocious jhāna
3) Dhamma jhāna (contemplation of scriptures; removing afflictions of oneself and others; kamma and result; samsara and the pure soul)
4) Pure jhāna

Only this last might correspond with the Buddhist jhānas, although some of the other meanings, such as ‘brooding’, are connected with jhāna or related terms in non-technical passages. According to Prasad, ‘pure jhāna’ has four kinds:

[Manifold, with initial & sustained application]: Absorption in meditation of the Self, unconsciously allowing its different attributes to replace one another.

[Unified, with initial but without sustained application]: Absorption in one aspect of the Self, with changing the particular aspect concentrated upon.

The very fine vibratory movements in the Soul, even when it is deeply absorbed in itself, in a Kevali [consummate one].

Total absorption of the self in itself, steady and undisturbedly fixed without any motion or vibration whatsoever.235

This is clearly describing states of deep concentration. Whether they are equivalent to the Buddhist jhānas is impossible to say. What we can say with some certainty, though, is that meditation, in the Buddhist sense of reflective contemplation, never played as major a role in Jainism as it did in Buddhism. The ascetic practices were central, and the Jain emphasis on the physicality of karma downplays the significance of purely mental development. Moreover, any contemplative culture that might have existed had waned by medieval times, so that the mention of meditation states in ancient texts came to be a matter of merely scholastic interest.


Satipaṭṭhāna is depicted in the early texts as a distinctively Buddhist practice. While we have gone to some lengths to unearth elements in common with non-Buddhist systems, in the final end this re-emphasizes how much was new, in both the expression and the meaning. The rational, progressive approach, the empirical and psychological description, the details of the four satipaṭṭhānas​—​none of these can be found in a straightforward way in any pre-Buddhist texts. Even the post-Buddhist texts, while showing Buddhist influence in the meditation terminology, did not adopt the satipaṭṭhānas as they did the jhānas or the divine abidings.

The early Buddhists were extraordinarily generous in their assessment of the spiritual attainments of outsiders. They were quite happy to attribute to them such central elements of the Buddhist meditation system as mindfulness, jhānas, spiritual faculties, awakening-factors, divine abidings, and formless attainments. In this complex weave, we can discern threads of both samatha and vipassanā. Although it is impossible to fully untangle these threads, it is possible to discern different emphases in the meditative approaches of the different schools that correlates with their philosophical positions.

The Upaniṣadic tradition espouses a non-dual pantheism. Brahman is the ultimate reality, which creates the world, underlies the illusion of diversity, and is immanent in all existence. Thus existence is inherently good; we already partake of the divine essence, and our spiritual practices empower us to realize this identity fully. This tradition emphasizes meditation practices leading to blissful identification with the One; as later traditions summed it up: ‘mind, being, bliss.’

The Jains, on the other hand, have a naturalistic and non-theistic view of existence. The world is not an illusion; it really exists ‘out there’, and the ultimate reality is not a pan-theistic non-dual ‘ground of being’, but is the countless irreducible atomic monads or ‘souls’. Later Jain theory developed this pluralistic approach into a vastly complex scheme for classifying the various elemental phenomena, an Aristotelian project like those favoured by the Abhidhamma schools of Buddhism. Enlightenment consists, not in the mystic identification of the self with the universe, but in the disentanglement of the individual soul from the polluting effects of kamma. They therefore emphasize, as part of their overall strategy of forcibly stopping all activity, contemplation of the impermanence of the world, and the ability to mindfully endure painful feelings in order to get free from the defiling influences.

The Brahmanical tradition leaned to the side of samatha, while the Jain tradition leaned to the side of vipassanā, each shaping its presentation and emphasis in accord with its metaphysical predilections. The evidence of the non-Buddhists themselves, as far as it goes, tends to confirm that the picture painted by the early Suttas of the non-Buddhist traditions is generally accurate. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, we can conclude that the earliest Buddhist traditions accept that both the Brahmanical and the Jain contemplative traditions included the practice of mindfulness.

165 CU 6.8.5–6.

166 AN 5.193, SN 46.55.

167 Rv 5.81.1

168 BU 4.3.7.

169 Aitareya Brahmaṇa 5.5.27.

170 CRANGLE, pg. 71.

171 CRANGLE, pg. 74.

172 BU 1.5.14.

173 CRANGLE, pg. 198.

174 DN 13.10. The cognate DA 26 mentions three paths: 自在欲道.自作道.梵天道 (T1, № 1, p. 105, b13). It is not clear to me how closely these might match with the Pali.

175 See ‘A Pali Reference to Brahmaṇa-Caraṇas’, included in WIJESEKERA.

176 BAU 6.4.9.

177 BAU 1.5.17.

178 BAU 3.7.23.

179 BAU 4.4.23.

180 CU 6.8.2.

181 SU 1.14.

182 SU 2.8. Cp. Sn 1034f.

183 SU 2.9.

184 SU 2.11.

185 E.g. MN 36.17ff.

186 E.g. BAU 5.12.

187 CU 1.19.

188 Maitrī 1.3, 3.4.

189 Taittirīya Upaniṣad 3.2–6.

190 MN 26/MA 204.

191 The Sanghabhedavastu of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya omits the mention of lip recital.

192 SN 35.103.

193 It is sometimes said that these teachers belong to the Sāṁkhya school, but this claim is based on the much later Buddhacarita of Aśvaghoṣa, and is anachronistic.

194 The Sarvāstivādin version (MA 204) mentions only faith, energy, and wisdom here, but includes mindfulness just below. The Sanghabhedavastu (GNOLI pg. 97) and the Lalitavistara (239.2) mention all five spiritual faculties.

195 E.g. SN 48.9.

196 AN 4.123.

197 AN 4.125.

198 Compare the following verses. Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad 3.2.8: Yathā nadyas syandamānās samudre/Astam gacchanti nāmarūpe vihāya ( Just as rivers flowing into the ocean/Go to their end, having dropped name & form); Tathā vidvān nāmarūpād vimuktaḥ/Parāt-param puruṣam upaiti divyam. (Thus the realized [sage], freed from name & form/Beyond the beyond is that Man he enters, divine). Sutta Nipāta 1080: Acci yathā vātavegena khittaṁ/Atthaṁ paleti na upeti saṅkhaṁ. ( Just as a flame tossed by a strong wind/Goes to the end, and does not enter reckoning); Evaṁ muni nāmakāyā vimutto/Atthaṁ paleti na upeti saṅkhaṁ. (Thus the sage, freed from the name-group [i.e. mental factors]/Goes to the end, and does not enter reckoning).

199 BU 3.9.26

200 Sn 1026.

201 Sn 1009.

202 Sn 1107.

203 Sn 1070, Sn 1113ff. The sphere of nothingness is described in Sn 1070 as a ‘support’ (ārammaṇa) for crossing over. This may be compared with the Mahābhārata passage quoted above that describes the unconcentrated mind as ‘without support’. The Jhāna Saṁyutta also speaks of developing ‘skill in the support’.

204 SN 46.52, SN 46.53.

205 SN 46.54.

206 E.g. MN 83/MA 67/EA 1/EA 50.4/T № 152.87/T № 211 Makhādeva; DN 19 Mahāgovinda also has the divine abidings, but not DA 3, T № 8, pp. 207c–210b, and Mv 3.197–224.

207 SN Sagāthāvagga verse 269, AN (4)449–51. This phrase was somewhat misleadingly rendered by Bhikkhu BODHI in CDB as ‘discovered jhāna’. Perhaps the accusative here could be read as instrumental (‘awakened by means of jhāna’).

208 SN 35.132.

209 MBh 12.188.9.

210 MBh 12.188.15. BRONKHORST (2000) pg. 71 notes that here, as well as in the Yoga Sūtra and in some Buddhist works, vitakka and vicāra ‘are apparently looked upon as special faculties in the first jhāna, not as mere thought remaining from ordinary consciousness’.

211 MBh 12.188.22.

212 YS 3.12.

213 YS 1.17. The word ‘form’, rūpa, does not occur in all texts.

214 DN 1/DA 19.

215 YS 1.18.

216 YS 1.20.

217 BRONKHORST (2000), pp. 72ff.

218 SN 14.11.

219 YS 2.3–6.

220 Maitrī 6.18.

221 YS 3.1.

222 CRANGLE pp. 117–119 discusses the similarity between Buddhist sati and yogic dhāraṇa, and their role as support for jhāna.

223 MN 36.20, etc.

224 GNOLI, pg. 103.

225 MN 12.47.

226 MN 85.10/DA2 21/T № 1421.10.

227 MN 14.20.

228 MN 36.30–2, MN 85, MN 100.

229 CU 6.7.

230 SN 41.8.

231 Sukkajjhāna. Compare the commentarial notion of sukkavipassanā.

232 Uttarajjhāyana 29.72/1174.

233 E.g. Ṭhānaṅga Sutta. See BRONKHORST (2000), pg. 38ff.

234 DAYAL, pg. 95.

235 PRASAD, pp. 167–168.

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