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 25003000 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 (300500 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 4.1618, 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 6.8.56.

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 3.26.

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 3.197224.

207 SN Sagāthāvagga verse 269, AN (4)44951. 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 2.36.

220 Maitrī 6.18.

221 YS 3.1.

222 CRANGLE pp. 117119 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 36.302, 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. 167168.

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