A condom confusion

Pope Benedict has stirred up another storm of controversy over a few, apparently offhand, remarks on the use of condoms. He made a mild point that use of condoms by gay prostitutes could be seen as a sign of spiritual progress, as it indicated they were thinking of the welfare of others. It’s not entirely clear whether the remarks apply to male/female intercourse as well, and everyone seems agreed that it does not, in itself, constitute a radical break from the received Roman Catholic dogma that opposes all forms of artificial contraception.

There are a few points here that we should take note of from a Buddhist perspective. The first is that for Buddhism, sex is not simply for procreation, but is for both procreation and pleasure. It is universally accepted in Buddhist teachings that people have sex for pleasure, and that this is a normal part of life, except for those few who have taken up the path of celibacy (“nomosexuals”!) There is, accordingly, no basis in Buddhist ethics for making pronouncements on what kinds of sex acts should be allowed or prohibited, or to denigrate different forms of sexuality – gay, bi, and so on – or to insist that contraception is an ethical issue.

The ethical issue, rather, revolves around trust, love, and hurt. As long as what you do is honest and does not harm anyone, it is not an ethical issue. And monastics shouldn’t be poking their noses into people’s bedrooms!

In the case of condoms, we don’t just have celibate religious telling people how to have sex – which just gets weirder the more you think about it – but they are telling people to follow practices that cause untold suffering and death. The death toll from Aids is horrific, and while it may be falling slightly, there are still nearly 2 million dying each year. The deaths themselves only tell a part of the picture; the number of Aids-related orphans is estimated at 16.6 million.

That’s a lot of human beings, and a lot of suffering.

The Roman Church is a powerful and influential body in Africa, where the brunt of Aids-related suffering is borne, and they have a clear and pressing moral duty to help stem this suffering. The current dogma, an insistence on abstinence and restraint, is rejected by secular authorities on the issue as an effective policy. The science is clear: condoms help prevent the spread of HIV.

The most frustrating thing about this unnecessary moral outrage is that it is barely even a legitimate Roman Catholic dogma. There is, of course, nothing specific in the Bible on these issues, and in 1966 a papal commission on birth control voted 30 to 5 that the opposition to birth control be relaxed. They were overruled by Pope Paul VI. It should come as no surprise that most Catholics are too sensible to let these rules actually affect their choices; and yet it is typically in the developing world, where Aids is the greatest threat, that the Church’s opinion will be taken most literally.

In some interesting interviews with African Catholics on this issue, they repeatedly raised the opposition between science and religion: they accept that science justifies the use of condoms, but religion does not. Officially, of course, the Church disagrees, arguing that it has science on its side. But it seems that few are convinced.

From a Buddhist point of view, science should never be seen in opposition to religion. Science provides us with information and perspectives that enable us to make more informed, effective, and ethical decisions. The problem is not the schism between science and religion, but in the manner in which religion is undertaken.

Despite the abundant riches of wisdom, insight, reflection, and spiritual depth within the Catholic tradition, it is still possible for so many intelligent and sincere men (I would guess that women have had no hand in formulating this dogma) to hold to such an obviously harmful teaching. Religion, of whatever form, has the potential to free us and lead us to a deeper and wider life. Yet it does not do so automatically. It is up to us to ensure that our religious sensibilities do not blind us to suffering and lead us towards darkness.

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39 thoughts on “A condom confusion

  1. “There is, accordingly, no basis in Buddhist ethics for making pronouncements on what kinds of sex acts should be allowed or prohibited, or to denigrate different forms of sexuality – gay, bi, and so on – or to insist that contraception is an ethical issue.”

    So where does this fit in – Dalai Lama Speaks on Gay Sex – He says it’s wrong for Buddhists but not for society http://www.tibet.ca/en/newsroom/wtn/archive/old?y=1997&m=6&p=12_2

  2. Hello Peter,

    I believe that view of the Dalai Lama on homosexuality comes from a text that is unique to Tibetan Buddhism, and therefor was never uttered by the historical Buddha.

    The Dalai Lama is also a theocratic ruler of Tibet and has historically lived in a castle, something else the original vinaya’s would disprove of.

  3. Hi Peter,

    Ahh, yes, but you’ve subtly shifted my original statement. I didn’t say there was no bias against homosexuality in Buddhist traditions, but that there is “no basis in Buddhist ethics” for such a bias. Statements such as the ones you refer to are, in my opinion, based on cultural prejudice and do not have a serious basis either in authentic early texts or in any reasoned inference based on Buddhist ethical principles.

    On the contrary, any ethic grounded in compassion will, it seems to me, lead to the elimination of these forms of prejudice. The only potentially valid argument would be to point out the demonstrable harm that such things entail; but since empirical evidence says that homosexual and other variations in human sexual expression are not intrinsically harmful, this argument falls down.

    Thus Master Hua falls back on the un-Buddhist argument saying it is against “human nature”, which is a seriously incoherent approach. What is “human nature”? As we all know, homosexual and other forms of sex acts are universal in human culture; but more to the point, why on earth should something “unnatural” be wrong? How is gay sex “unnatural” but, say, typing on this keyboard is not? This is why the notion of “natural” is never used in authentic Buddhist ethics, that is, ethics grounded in Buddhist texts and philosophy.

    All this points to the unspectacular conclusion that all of us, whether great masters like the Dalai Lama or Master Hua, or struggling students like you and I, are informed by our culture and background as well as by our Buddhist principles. This is why the debate needs to focus on the issues, not on the persons.

  4. Hi Lars,

    I haven’t yet seen exactly where the Dalai lama’s views come from. As you say, probably a Tibetan text; most of what is in the Tibetan texts originated from India, so it’s possible it has an Indian provenance. Certainly, however, it does not come from early sutta/Vinaya, where there is no bias against homosexuality at all.

    Whether the Dalai Lama lived in a castle or not, however, has nothing to do with the issue! (and, BTW, castles – though not theocracy – are allowed in Vinaya…)

  5. His Holiness The Dalai Lama belongs to the Tibetan Buddhist Gelugpa sect which was founded by Lama Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) in the 14th Century CE. Tsongkhapa started it because he was dissatisfied with the practice of Tibetan Buddhism at that time. Doesn’t that sound familiar throughout Buddhist history?

    His best known written work is the Lam Rim Chen Mo (The Great Treatise on the Stages of The Path to Enlightenment) – (LRCM in short) which is based on classical Indian Buddhist literature. His Holiness calls the Indian Buddhist masters, the Nalanda School and they left behind a prodigious amount of commentaries and compendiums.

    Tsongkhapa amply illustrates his points with classical citations to show how Tibetan Buddhism has preserved and developed from Indian Buddhist traditions. The lengthy LRCM is a central text of the Gelugpa sect and is extensively used and quoted by its scholars and practitioners, monastic and lay.

    So His Holiness views on homosexuality are directly influenced by the LRCM and let’s see what it says. On page 220 Volume 1 of the English translation, Snow Lion first edition 2000 it states: “There are four possible bases of sexual misconduct: a person with whom you should not have intercourse, inappropriate body parts, inappropriate places, and inappropriate times. Those with whom one should not have intercourse in the case of men are women with whom you should not copulate (i.e. your mother, others wives, renunciate women, etc.), ALL MEN (my capital letters), and eunuchs. The text then goes on referring to textual references and elaborates in exquisite detail on what is considered sexual misconduct.

    Further down the same page Tsongkhapa elaborates “Men, the second in the list of those with whom you should not have intercouse, refers to both oneself and to others”. That means that in addition to all forms of homosexual sex, masturbation is regarded as sexual misconduct.

    I won’t go on to the other possible bases of sexual misconduct as there are two and a half pages in all but suffice to say that they go into so much detail that it leaves me feeling Tibetan Buddhism and indeed the Gelugpa sect is puritanical.

    Tsongkhapa ascribes his proscriptions to the Nalanda masters exegetical literature in particular to three commentaries/compendiums viz.

    1. Dasakusala-karma-patha-nirdesa (Explanation of the Ten Virtuous Paths of Action) by Asvaghosa (1st-2nd Century CE).

    2. Yoga-carya-bhumaunirnaya-samgraha (Compendium of Determinations) by Asanga (4th Century CE). Asanga is the half brother of Vasubandhu.

    3. Abhidharma-kosa-bhasya (Treasury of Knowledge Auto-commentary) by Vasubandhu (4th Century CE). Vasubandhu is the half-brother of Asanga.

    So it is now very clear that the literature cited as the basis of His Holiness views is nowhere in the Buddha’s original teachings but based on Tsongkhapa’s core text the Lam Rim Chen Mo which in turn is based upon Indian Sanskrit literature written some 500 to 800 years after the Buddha’s great passing.

    His Holiness had a traditional Gelugpa monastic education so one can expect that he must officially subscribe to the Gelugpa teachings though privately he may think otherwise. He would face a lot of difficulty renouncing Tsongkhapa’s stance on homosexuality so he keeps very quiet on the subject unless it is brought up for comment. It is a subject he is not comfortable speaking about.

  6. Bhante, Buddhist ethics would change with time and place. I posted the links to show that there are different ethical positions within Buddhism (even if some of these positions have no basis within scripture).

  7. Hi Albert,

    Thanks for the details, this clears up a lot of uncertainty. Now we just need to check the Indic texts and see what they actually say… And do some detailed study and analysis. We need to get beyond “the Dalai Lama said so…” and focus on the actual ethical issues.

  8. Thanks for writing the ‘condom confusion’
    Having been involved in initiating and supporting two HIV/Aids response projects in KwaZulu S.Africa, and seen first hand the complex and devastating affects of the pandemic,in terms of the level human suffering it entails, I would go as far as to say that the RC Church’s stance of condom use has been criminal.

    Particularly given that many mission hospitals, where many clinics are based, are Catholic. Fortunately many nuns and priests, being totally sensible, ignore such madness and distribute them anyway.

    It seems that the Pope, Bishops or Cardinals who support a condom ban, in areas of high HIV infection,(or anywhere for any reason) should be answerable to a human rights court However, it seems they may escape that given that the Vatican has softened its stance a little.

    How is it that religious celibates have to interfere in others sex lives and make these ridiculous laws. Totally weird as you say Bhante. They should back off.

  9. That’s fascinating, always great to hear from people on the ground. I’m not aware too much of the overall situation in Buddhist countries, but i know there have been some great efforts to promote condoms and HIV awareness generally in temples in Thailand and neighboring countries – even as far as Bhutan (yes, there is HIV there, too…). Buddhist teachings and resources can have such a powerful positive influence. And, as you say, many Catholic workers simply ignore the silliness of dogma and get on with the job…

  10. Speaking of Jesus’s teachings, there are similarities between certain aspects of the Buddha’s teachings and that of Jesus. The Buddha realized that there are people that are ready for awakening and people who still wanted to enjoy the world of the senses. To some people, he would teach the way to Heaven. To other people he would also teach the way to Awakening.

    For going to heaven, the Buddha taught the practice of part 1 (Sila, ethical conduct) .

    1). Ethical Conduct (Sila) – This includes purity in words, thought, and action. He also emphasizes the cultivation of merits. This can be giving/ generosity and doing various good deeds for others. About going to heaven, Jesus also teaches these aspects.

    For Awakening, the Buddha taught two more aspects of the Eightfold Path , Panna and Samadhi:

    1) Ethical Conduct (sila)
    2) Wisdom (panna)
    3) Meditation / Samadhi.

  11. Dear Imeditation,
    The Buddha taught meditation to lay people, too. The formula of gradual teaching is as follows: generosity, good conducts, heavenly bliss, impermanence, disenchantment, the four noble truth that lead to Nibbana. Sometimes, the order is: Dana (generosity), Sila (moral life) and Bhavana (samatha& vipassana).

  12. If not already familiar, please take a look at the work of
    The Sangha Metta Project.
    http://www.buddhanet.net/sangha-metta/project.html

    From their website:

    The Sangha Metta Project, which engages monks in HIV/AIDS prevention and care, is unique in that it was initiated by monks themselves in response to the need for Buddhist monks to have a more active role in HIV/AIDS prevention and care. Taking the Buddha’s teachings as their inspiration, monks concluded that a core aspect of HIV/AIDS was ignorance about the condition among both the sufferers and the general public.

    In line with their traditional role as teachers, they decided they could teach both groups about its realities. Within this basic framework, the Sangha Metta Project teaches monks, nuns and novices about HIV/AIDS. It then equips them with modern participatory social management skills and tools so that they can in turn work effectively in their communities both to prevent further HIV transmission and to help people living with HIV/AIDS and their families. A crucial part of training is close contact between monks and sufferers, which includes monks having to accept and eat alms food prepared by people with HIV/AIDS. Sensitized in such basic ways they are soon able to work freely with affected people in quite remarkable ways.

    One of the most important developments is that, in strong contrast with their formal roles, project-trained monks have become active in community work. Using Buddhist ethics as their guideline, they now teach villagers how to avoid high-risk behavior, help to set up support groups, train people with HIV/AIDS in handicrafts, donate their alms and take care of AIDS orphans. Because local people are accustomed to telling monks their troubles, the latter have become a conduit for identifying many secret HIV+ people who, once identified, can be referred to support groups and public assistance programs. “HIV-friendly” temples encourage these people to participate in community activities. They also provide training in meditation as well as grow and dispense herbal medicines in collaboration with local hospitals. This more active role among monks is strengthening trust between them and the people. It is also developing community potential and encouraging greater grass roots participation in solving problem at the local level. Because the project has given monks a way to become actively involved in their communities, something they have always wanted, it is spreading rapidly into other regions of Thailand, as well as neighboring countries such as Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, Southern China, Vietnam and even Mongolia and Bhutan.

    At group seminars and workshops, monks are given correct and up-to-date information on HIV/AIDS.

    The Sangha Metta Project has the following objectives:

    1. To provide Buddhist monks with an opportunity to take part in HIV/AIDS prevention and care.
    2. To establish a network of Buddhist monks capable of working in HIV/AIDS prevention & care.
    3. To help Buddhist monks identify roles they can play in HIV/AIDS prevention and care.
    4. To provide Buddhist monks with accurate and up-to-date information on HIV/AIDS prevention, transmission and care.
    5. To organize seminars, workshops and training programs for Buddhist monks, nuns and novices.
    6. To equip Buddhist monks, nuns and novices with participatory social management skills to enable them to work more effectively in HIV/AIDS prevention and care.
    7. To serve as a resource center providing information and materials on HIV/AIDS.
    8. To promote and support the role of Buddhist monks, nuns and novices in HIV/AIDS prevention and care.
    9. To cooperate and coordinate with other organizations working in HIV/AIDS prevention and care.

    Monks give meditation instruction to people living with HIV/AIDS.

    The Sangha Metta Project conducts and supports the following activities:

    1. Education – seminars, training programs and workshops for monks, nuns, novices and Buddhist laity.
    2. Youth activities – education on HIV/AIDS and narcotics awareness, prevention and care through youth camps and other youth activities.
    3. Home/Community visits – to provide moral support, Buddhist-based counseling, advice on self/home-based care and give donations.
    4. Vocational training – provide venues and materials, coordinate with trainers, funding sources and marketing.
    5. Temple activities – daily/weekly meditation retreats, care and/or ordination for boys orphaned by HIV/AIDS, coordination with nuns to care for girls and women affected by HIV/AIDS.
    6. Resource center – printed/audiovisual materials, brochures, posters and speakers.
    7. Education Fund – for children orphaned or affected by HIV/AIDS.
    8. Milk Bank – for children orphaned or affected by HIV/AIDS.
    9. Medicine Bank – for people living with HIV/AIDS.
    10. Sanghathan (alms) bank.
    11. Funeral robes bank – for families of people who have died of AIDS.

    Monks give scholarships to children orphaned or affected by HIV/AIDS.

    Target Groups:

    (1) Buddhist monks, nuns and novices studying in Buddhist universities & colleges in Thailand.
    (2) Buddhist monks, nuns, novices and community leaders in other regions of Thailand.
    (3) Buddhist monks, nuns and novices in neighboring countries.

    For Information and Donations:

    Sangha Metta Project
    Laurie Maund (Project manager)
    47/30 Mu Baan Daen Tawan Nua
    Suthep Road, Tambon Suthep
    Muang District
    Chiang Mai
    THAILAND
    Tel/Fax: (66 53) 328137
    Mobile: (66) 871873212
    Email: lauriejm@gmail.com

  13. Dear Ayya Dharma,

    Thanks for sharing. Yes, in the Piti Sutta, the Buddha said to Anathapindika and 500 householders:

    “Householder, you have provided the community of monks with robes, alms food, lodgings, & medicinal requisites for the sick, but you shouldn’t rest content with the thought, ‘We have provided the community of monks with robes, alms food, lodgings, & medicinal requisites for the sick.’So you should train yourself, ‘Let’s periodically enter & remain in seclusion & rapture.’ That’s how you should train yourself.”

    Panna, Sila,and Samadhi are the general threefold division of the Noble Eightfold Path.

  14. Instead of putting 3) Meditation / Samadhi, I should have put 3) Samadhi. Otherwise it could lead to a misunderstanding that I meant to say that the Buddha didn’t encourage lay disciples to meditate.

  15. Traditionally, the order is: Sila (good conducts), Samadhi( a well-directed mind) and panna (wisdom).However the 3 ariya sikkha (noble training)cannot be separated (ref. Mahaparinibbanasutta (DN)

  16. Dear Ayya Dharma,

    In the original post I only mentioned the minimum requirements for the way to heaven or heavenly existence. However, meditation in general was also encouraged by the Buddha to lay disciples because of its beneficial effects in this present life . Even if a person doesn’t reach the state of samadhi but only rapture, it is still very beneficial to practice. That’s why he told householders ” ’So you should train yourself, ‘Let’s periodically enter & remain in seclusion & rapture.’ That’s how you should train yourself.”

    Ayya Dharma wrote: “Traditionally, the order is: Sila (good conducts), Samadhi( a well-directed mind) and panna (wisdom).”

    Yes, this is what we have discussed in detail a while back. Stillness of mind is very conducive to wisdom. That is why it is not a good idea to exclude samadhi from the path, nor is it a good idea to put it in the back burner. I only listed samadhi as #3 simply because in the Eightfold Path the Samadhi division has to do with #6-8 : 6. Right Effort, 7. Right Mindfulness, 8. Samma Samadhi .

    Ayya Dharma wrote: “However the 3 ariya sikkha (noble training)cannot be separated (ref. Mahaparinibbanasutta (DN)”

    For monastics and people who embark on the journey of Awakening it is important to not leave out any part of the Noble Eightfold Path. Shortly before parinirvana the Buddha said:

    ” in whatsoever Dhamma and Discipline there is found the Noble Eightfold Path, there is found a true samana of the first ( Stream Enterer) , second ( Once Returner), third (Non-returner), and fourth ( Arahant) degree of Awakening.  In this Dhamma and Discipline, Subhadda, there exists the Noble Eightfold Path.…..If the bhikkhus practice  rightly, the world will not be empty of  arahants. ” 

    -The study of the dhamma is related to the Panna division .

    -Meditation practice is related to the Samadhi division.

    -Generosity, purity in words, thought, action, and the like have to do with the Sila division.

    All three aspects are included in the Eightfold Path, and therefore neither aspect should be excluded from the path of Awakening.

  17. Hi, I- meditation,
    Here are some standard of Samadhi, I hope you and the readers of Nikayas are familiar with them.

    M 44: Katamo panāyye, samādhi, katame dhammā samādhinimittā, katame dhammā samādhiparikkhārā, katamā samādhibhāvanā”ti? “Now what is concentration, lady, what qualities are its signs, what qualities are its requisites, and what is its development?”
    “Yā kho, āvuso visākha, cittassa ekaggatā ayaṃ samādhi; cattāro satipaṭṭhānā samādhinimittā; cattāro sammappadhānā samādhiparikkhārā. Yā tesaṃyeva dhammānaṃ āsevanā bhāvanā bahulīkammaṃ, ayaṃ ettha samādhibhāvanā”ti.
    “Singleness of mind is concentration, friend Visakha; the four foundations of mindfulness are its signs; the four right exertions are its requisites; and any cultivation, development, & pursuit of these qualities is its development.”
    Katamo ca, bhikkhave, ariyo sammāsamādhi saupaniso saparikkhāro? Seyyathidaṃ— sammādiṭṭhi, sammāsaṅkappo, sammāvācā, sammākammanto, sammāājīvo, sammāvāyāmo, sammāsati; yā kho, bhikkhave, imehi sattahaṅgehi cittassa ekaggatā parikkhatā— ayaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, ariyo sammāsamādhi saupaniso itipi, saparikkhāro itipi. Tatra, bhikkhave, sammādiṭṭhi pubbaṅgamā hoti. (M 117)
    “The Blessed One said: “Now what, monks, is noble right concentration with its supports & requisite conditions? Any singleness of mind equipped with these seven factors — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, & right mindfulness — is called noble right concentration with its supports & requisite conditions.”

    A.IV. 41: Catasso imaṃ, bhikkhave, samādhibhāvanā. Katamā catasso? Atthi, bhikkhave, samādhibhāvanā bhāvitā bahulīkatā diṭṭhadhammasukhavihārāya saṃvattati; atthi, bhikkhave, samādhibhāvanā bhāvitā bahulikatā ñāṇadassanappaṭilābhāya saṃvattati; atthi, bhikkhave, samādhibhāvanā bhāvitā bahulīkatā satisampajaññāya saṃvattati; atthi, bhikkhave, samādhibhāvanā bhāvitā bahulīkatā āsavānaṃ khayāya saṃvattati.
    There is a development of concentration that leads to a pleasant dwelling here and now; there is a development of concentration that leads to obtaining knowledge and vision; there is a development of concentration that leads to mindfulness and clear comprehension; and there is a development of concentration that leads to the destruction of the taints

  18. Dear Ayya Dharma,

    Ayya Dharma wrote :
    M 44: “… “Now what is concentration, lady, what qualities are its signs, what qualities are its requisites, and what is its development?”

    MN 44 is an interesting sutta. It further explains what is ” KAYA sankhara” ( Bodily Formation) found in the Anapanasati Sutta. Nyanasatta Thera and various teachers say that this points to the breath body, others say that this points to the flesh body only. MN 44 confirms that it also includes the breath .

    In the Anapanasati Sutta (MN 118):

    BODY & BREATH


    3. “Breathing in, experience the whole body (sabba kaya).
Breathing out, experience the whole body. ”

    I notice that when experiencing the whole physical body, after a while, the body calms down. When that happens, the movement of the breath will naturally becomes more noticeable because it is the aspect of the body that is still moving, while the rest of the physical body have settled /calmed.



    4. Breathing in, calm the ” bodily formation” / “body-conditioned breath” (kaya sankhara). 
Breathing out, calm the “bodily formation” / “body-conditioned breath”.



    I believe “kaya sankhara” includes both body and breath because there is a conditional relationship between the breath-body and the physical body. The breath clearly depends on a physical body.  Together, breath and body are considered as ” kaya sankhara” ( bodily formation). According to MN 44-the Culavedalla Sutta “in-breathing and out-breathing…. are the bodily formation( kaya sankhara )”.
 While perception and feeling refer to Mental Formations /”citta sankhara” :

    PERCEPTION & FEELING

    “

7. “Breathing in, experience the mental formation ( perception & feeling) .
Breathing out, experience the mental formation .

    “

8. “Breathing in, calm the mental  formation .
Breathing out, calm the mental  formation .”



  19. Dear I-meditation,
    The point that is very interested in M44 is the definition of samādhinimittā as the four domains of Satipatthana. Samma sati in many suttas is defined as the four domains of Satipatthana. And the definition of samma vayama is cattāro sammappadhānā samādhiparikkhārā.
    The tearm Nimitta in this context is quite different from what nimitta is used now adays. The term nimitta (signs of concentrated mind) now denotes the light that shine when one is meditating using breathing as the object of meditation. However, Ven Dhammadinna (an Arahant Bhikkhuni) explain this as the four foundations of mindfulness. And this (& many other subtle but important points in the discourse) was approved by the Buddha, saying that if someone asked him such a question, he would answer in the same way Ven. Dhammadinna did.

  20. Dear Ayya

    Quite a number of other translators render “samādhinimittā” as meaning “cause of samadhi”. This usage of “nimitta” is not unprecedented, finding expression in MN 128, where Ven Anuruddha is advised to “penetrate the nimitta/cause” for the disappearance and instability of his vision of forms and perception of light.

  21. Dear Ayya and Sylvester,

    Ayya Dharma wrote: “The term nimitta (signs of concentrated mind) now denotes the light that shine when one is meditating using breathing as the object of meditation.”

    I would say that the term “nimitta” by itself is just a “sign”. It can be used in various contexts and not just in meditation. And the “sign” varies depending on the context that we use it. Here we are discussing breath meditation, so in this context it means the ” sign” signaling that the mind reaches a certain degree of unification ( signs of concentrated mind). And I would like to point out that ” the light that shine when one is meditating using breathing as the object of meditation ” is simply an additional description of the ” sign” to provide further clarification to the reader of what the sign looks like.

    For example, you give tips on how to find water to a traveler in the desert . And say to him, when you see a “sign” then you know that water is close by. But without telling him what the ” sign” looks like how would he knows what sign to look for, since anything can serve as a sign. You have to be more specific and tell the person that when you see cottonwood trees, that is the sign signaling that water is nearby. Like wise nimitta is a pali term for a “sign”. ” The light that shine” is a Description of the sign , so people know what sign to look out for. Also, the appearance of the sign varies depending on the meditation object you pick.

    Indeed, in MN 128 the Buddha directly used the word nimitta (nimittam) :

    Anuruddha :
    “Venerable sir, as we abide here diligent, ardent, and resolute, we perceive both light and a vision of forms. Soon afterwards the light and the vision of forms disappear, but we have not understand that sign .”

    In the translator’s footnote we find the Buddha’s reply in Pali :
    “Nimittam pativijjhitabbam”

    1. Literally: ” You should penetrate that sign.”

    Somehow, various texts decided to go with the following instead:
    2. “Anuruddha, that sign should be understood.”
    or
    3. “You should discover the cause for that, Anuruddha. ”

    Personally, I prefer the translation found in the translator’s footnote, #1.

    THE BUDDHA FOUND HIS WAY INTO THE FOUR JHANAS AFTER FIGURING OUT THE CAUSE FOR VARIOUS OBSTACLES AND DISPELLED THEM:

    The Buddha continued:
    “Before my enlightenment, while I was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta, I too perceived both light and a vision of forms. Soon afterwards the light and the vision of forms disappeared. I thought: ‘What is the cause and condition why the light and the vision of forms have disappeared?’

    Then he found his way out of a ~dozen of obstacles during meditation ( this part of the sutta is lengthy so I will not post it here). Finally, the Buddha proceeded to develop samadhi in various ways ( the first four jhanas).

  22. Dear there,
    pativijjhi is a penetrating knowledge, hence the Buddha instruction in the above context means the meditator should have an understanding of what is going on, that is why in another context, he say the person should make an effort to discern the cause & condition of these signs & forms. Thus, meditation here is not the absorptive mind, but an inquiry into phenomena that one’s experiencing. This is a very important point of meditation. Of cause, this can be done only when the mind has been established on meditation object & has gained a sustainable degree of concentration.

  23. The term nimitta in M44 was rendered as “themes’ by Ven Thanissaro, and Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi also seems to avoid translating it as ‘sign’ as the word is usually used in a non-technical way. Why they avoid to render it as ‘sign’ is that they do not want to present the Four Foundation of Mindfulness as “the signs of concentration” (Samadhinimitta). The reason is that in post-canonical period, the word Nimitta is described as ‘signs’ of concentration in a clear indication that it is light in different shapes or colors. However, the four Satipatthana is nowhere described as ‘light’, so there is a reluctant to render the word as ‘sign’ in the context of M 44. This is rather weird, like naming father after the child. But Ven. Dhammadinna was born before all commentators, so she was not aware of the problem in latter period, that is why her answer is that’Samadhinimitta’ is cattari satipatthana. This is quite in line with Mn 128, nimitta of Samadhi is penetrative knowledge into the existing, living experience of one own body and mind.

    pativijjhi is a penetrating knowledge, hence the Buddha instruction in the above context means the meditator should have an understanding of what is going on, that is why in another context, he say the person should make an effort to discern the cause & condition of these signs & forms. Thus, meditation here is not the absorptive mind, but an inquiry into phenomena that one’s experiencing. This is a very important point of meditation. Of cause, this can be done only when the mind has been established on meditation object & has gained a sustainable degree of concentration.

  24. Dear Ayya Dharma,

    Ayya Dharma wrote: “he say the person should make an effort to discern the cause & condition of these signs & forms. Thus, meditation here is not the absorptive mind, but an inquiry into phenomena that one’s experiencing.”

    There really is no need to speculate on what the Buddha say a person should make an effort to discern, because after the Buddha said “Nimittam pativijjhitabbam”
    (” You should penetrate that sign.”), he said that before his enlightenment he also “perceived both light and a vision of forms”, but it soon disappeared. He doesn’t know the cause, and soon understood ” the cause and condition why the light and the vision of forms have disappeared” after some discernment:

    Buddha said: “Then consider the following: ‘The question arose in me and because of doubt my concentration fell, when my concentration fell, the light disappeared and the vision of forms. I act so that the question does not arise in me again. ”

    This was what he understood about how to keep the light from disappearing before he can penetrate that sign.

    Additionally, the Buddha also spoke about a dozen of other obstacles that also came up before finally being able to keep the light from disappearing and penetrate the nimitta to enter various samadhi.

    It gives further details to the Maha Saccaka Sutta, where he just mentioned that he recalled a 1st Jhana experience as a child. Then simply skipped to the part where he entered 1st- 4th Jhana and the various knowledges that arose after emerging from them without providing much details about what troubles he went through before successfully entering the first four jhanas.

    But here (Upakkilesa Sutta) since Anuruddha asked about the obstacles ,the Buddha discussed various troubleshooting that he encountered before entering samma samadhi ( the four jhanas), and how he discerned the solutions to overcame them. Below is a list of obstacles that he had to find a solution for in order to prevent the disappearance of the light and vision so that he can penetrate it :

    1. (* Because of DOUBT the light and vision of the forms disappear.)

    “Anuruddha. Before my enlightenment, when I was still just a Bodhisattva not illuminated, I also saw both the light and the vision of forms. Shortly after the vision of light and shapes disappear. I thought, ‘What is the cause and condition in which light and vision of the forms disappear? ”

    “Then consider the following: ‘The question arose in me and because of doubt my concentration fell, when my concentration fell, the light disappeared and the vision of forms. I act so that the question does not arise in me again. ”

    2. (* Because of INATTENTION HIS CONCENTRATION DECREASED ,the light and vision of the forms disappear. He then acted in a way that inattention doesn’t arise again .)

    ” While Anuruddha, I remained diligent, ardent, perceived both the light and the vision of forms. Shortly after the vision of light and shapes disappear. ‘ I thought, ‘What is the cause and condition in which light and vision of the forms disappear? ”

    “Then consider the following: “Inattention arose in me because of inattention and my concentration has decreased, when my concentration fell, the light disappeared and the vision of forms. I must act in such a way that neither doubt nor disregard arise in me again. ”

    In the same way as above, the Buddha encountered 7 more obstacles and discern the cause for them. He was able to overcame the defilements that caused the light to disappear, and therefore prevent him from penetrating that light.

    3. SLOTH AND TORPOR

    4. FEAR

    5. ELATION

    6. INERTIA

    7. EXCESSIVE ENERGY

    8. ENERGY DEFICIENT

    8. DESIRE

    9. PERCEPTION OF DIVERSITY

    10. EXCESSIVE MEDITATION ON THE WAYS

    Accordingly, it appeared that the Buddha was discerning the cause of the disappearance of “the light and vision”. Finally, the Buddha proceeded to develop samadhi in various ways ( the first four jhanas) :

    Ayya Dharma wrote: “Thus, meditation here is not the absorptive mind, but an inquiry into phenomena that one’s experiencing.”

    I agree that when still discerning the cause for the disappearance of the light and vision, the Buddha has not entered samadhi yet (this is before being able to enter samadhi). However, once the causes were discerned and eliminated by the Buddha, he continued on to enter samadhi :

    “… it occurred to me, now these minor defilements are dispelled and I should develop concentration ( samadhi) in a threefold manner.

    “Thereupon, Anuruddha, I developed concentration with applied thought and sustained thought; ( first jhana)

    “I developed concentration without applied thought but with sustained thought only; ( likely 2nd jhana)

    “I developed concentration without applied thought and without sustained thought;

    “I developed concentration with rapture; ( two lower jhanas)

    “I developed concentration without rapture; ( two higher jhanas)

    “I developed concentration accompanied by enjoyment; ( three lower jhanas)

    “I developed concentration accompanied by equanimity. ( fourth jhana)

    “When, Anuruddha, I had developed concentration with applied thought and sustained thought…when I had developed concentration accompanied by equanimity, the knowledge and vision arose in me: ‘My deliverance is unshakeable; this is my last birth; now there is no renewal of being.’”

    NOTE: MA says that the Buddha developed these concentrations in the night of his enlightenment.

    Also in this sutta, the Buddha just mentioned that knowledge and vision arose in him and he became enlightened. It doesn’t gives a lot of details on the knowledge that arose after emerging from the Jhanas. But he gives more details about this part in the Maha Saccaka Sutta. The wisdom that arose includes:

    1. Past Lives Knowledge

    2. Knowledge of Passing Away & Reappearance of Beings.

    3. Knowledge and Vision of the Four Noble Truths along with the removal of Ignorance (as well as the rest of the links of dependent origination), and the destruction of the taints.

  25. Thanks iMeditation.

    I think I mentioned this long ago in a previous thread that this is probably the origin of the Commentarial usage of “nimitta” as a shortform for the “perception of light and a vision of forms”.

    Ven Analayo analysed this sutta at some length in the context of the controversy between the discursive models and the absorption model of Jhana. If I recall correctly, he points out that the word “nimitta” pops up again in a later passage in that sutta (as rupanimitta and obhasanimitta) and that usage definitely reads as “sign”.

    It seems to me a bit more difficult to read “nimitta” in the earlier passage (cited above as “nimittam pativijjhitabbam”) as referring to “sign”. The phenomenon being discussed is not the fireworks per se, but the instability and disappearance of the fireworks. Reading “nimittam pativijjhitabbam” as “discover the cause” also fits more neatly with the Buddha’s query –

    “What is the cause and condition why the light and the vision of forms have disappeared?”

    With metta

  26. Sylvester wrote: ” the Commentarial usage of “nimitta” as a shortform for the “perception of light and a vision of forms”.

    Yes, that is what they are referring to when saying “nimitta” ( in the context of breath meditation practice).

    Generally, when speaking about breath meditation I understood the term “nimitta” as a ” sign” , signaling that jhana is close by. It looks like a bright light.

    Sylvester wrote: “If I recall correctly, he points out that the word “nimitta” pops up again in a later passage in that sutta (as rupanimitta and obhasanimitta) and that usage definitely reads as “sign”.

    It seems to me a bit more difficult to read “nimitta” in the earlier passage (cited above as “nimittam pativijjhitabbam”) as referring to “sign”. The phenomenon being discussed is not the fireworks per se, but the instability and disappearance of the fireworks. Reading “nimittam pativijjhitabbam” as “discover the cause” also fits more neatly with the Buddha’s query –

    “What is the cause and condition why the light and the vision of forms have disappeared?” ”

    Thanks for sharing, perhaps that’s why various texts decided to go with the following instead of the literal translation ” You should penetrate that sign.” found in their footnotes.

    “Anuruddha, that sign should be understood.”
    or
    “You should discover the cause for that, Anuruddha. ”

  27. Dear Ayya Dharma,

    I haven’t looked into how “nimitta” was rendered in MN 44.

    However when speaking of the term “nimitta” by itself ( in the context of breath meditation ) Ven. Bodhi rendered the term “nimitta” as “Object ” .

    “But an object that appears through the development of concentration” -Bhikkhu Bodhi

    He also gives further descriptive detail and described the object as “point of light , ball of light”.

    Below is what I came across for the term nimitta. It shows the different meanings for the term in various contexts, along with the references where they can be found.

    Nimitta : sign; omen; portent; cause. (nt.)

    1. sign, omen, portent, prognostication

    D i.9 (study of omens=n. satthaŋ DA i.92, q. v. for detailed expln);
    J i.11 (caturo nimitte nâddasaŋ);
    Miln 79, 178 Esp. as pubba˚; signs preceding an event, portents, warnings, foreshadowings S v.154, 278, 442; It 76 (cp. Divy 193, of the waning of a god);
    J i.48, 50 (32 signs before birth, some at DA i.61), 59;
    Miln 298; Vism 577.

    2. outward appearance, mark, characteristic, attribute phenomenon (opp. essence) D iii.249;
    A i.256; iii.319 375 sq.; iv.33, 418 sq.; J i.420; Ps i.60, 91 sq., 164, 170 ii.39, 64; Vbh 193 sq.

    * Mental reflex, image (with ref to jhāna)

    Vism 123, cp. DhsA 167. — Specified e. g as foll.: oḷārika S v.259; pasādaniya S v.156; paccavekkhana˚ D iii.278; Vbh 334; bahiddhā — sankhārā Ps i.66 sq.; bāla˚ (opp. paṇḍita˚) M iii.163; A i.102 mukha˚ (=face) D i.80; S iii.103; v.121; A v.92, 97 sq., 103; rūpa˚, sadda˚ etc. S iii.10; M i.296; Ps i.92 112; samatha˚ D iii.213; samādhi˚ etc. A i.256 sq. subha˚ (& asubha˚) S ;v.64, 103 sq.; A i.3 sq., 87, 200 v.134; Vism 178 sq.

    nimittaŋ gaṇhāti to make something the object of a thought, to catch up a theme for reflection Vin i.183, cp. S v.150 sq. (˚ŋ uggaṇhāti) M i.119 (=five sorts of mental images); Nd2 659 DhsA 53 (=ākāra). See below n — gāhin & animitta.; nimittaŋ parivajjeti to discard the phenomenal S i.188 Sn 341. —

    3. mark, aim: in nimittaŋ karoti to pick out the aim, to mark out J v.436; Nd2 235, 1d; Miln 418.

    4. sexual organ (cp. lakkhaṇa) Vin iii.129 (n. & a˚, as term of abuse); see also kāṭa & koṭacikā.

    5. ground reason, condition, in ;nimittena (instr.) and nimittaŋ (acc.) as adv.=by means of, on account of DhA iii.175 (instr.) PvA 8, 97 (jāti — nimittaŋ), 106 (kiŋ n˚ŋ=kissa hetu), 242 (yaŋ n˚ŋ=yato nidānaŋ). gahita — nimittena “by means of being caught” Vism 144=DhsA 116 (read trsln 154 accordingly!). adj. nimitta ( — ˚ caused by, referring to PvA 64 (maraṇa — nimittaŋ rodanaŋ). — animitta free from marks or attributes not contaminated by outward signs or appearance undefiled, ụnaffected, unconditioned (opp. sa˚) S i.188 iv.225 (phassa), 268, 360 (samādhi); M i.296 (cetovimutti); A i.82; iii.292; iv.78; Vin iii.129; Th 1, 92 D iii.219, 249; Dh 92; Sn 342; Ps i.60, 91; ii.36, 59 sq (vimokha), 65 sq., 99; Dhs 530 (read a˚ for appa˚) Vism 236; DhsA 223 (absence of the 3 lakkhaṇas) Miln 333, 413; DhA ii.172; ThA 50.

  28. Dear Ayya

    You have raised a very good point about Ven Thanissaro’s translation of “nimitta” in MN44. Without meaning any disrespect to Ven Thanissaro, I suspect that his peculiar translation is in service of his theory that one can do the satipatthanas whilst in Jhana.

    This discursive model of Jhana has been making its way around the Net, popularised by Ven Thanissaro, Bhante G and a few other teachers who claim that the absorption model is a Commentarial and Abhidhammic innovation that conflicts with the sutta.

    Not so, I say. What many of the “modernist” teachers of Jhana conveniently omit to mention is that vacisankhara disappears totally in 2nd Jhana, leaving all those Jhanas upwards empty of thoughts. Even wholesome intentions disappear in 2nd Jhana. Yet, they persist in interpreting the sutta passages as demonstrating vipassana within Jhanas, when vacisankhara has disappeared and thereby making it impossible to generate thoughts.

    Ven Analayo has demonstrated (citing MN 117’s definition of Right Intention) that the vacisankhara in 1st Jhana is not ‘thought-&-thinking’ but simply a form of intention/cetana. If one were cross-refer to the Bhumija Sutta SN 12.25, one sees that vacisankhara are in fact described alternatively as vaci-sancetana – the intention that gives rise to the ruminations that (may) break out into speech.

  29. Please forgiver me if this is irreverent, bhante, but on what basis do you claim that the Dalai Lama and Master Hua are “great masters” rather than religious leaders?

  30. Dear Ayya Dharma,

    Ayya Dharma Wrote: ” in M44 is the definition of samādhinimittā as the four domains of Satipatthana…The tearm Nimitta in this context is quite different from what nimitta is used now adays. ”

    If we look into how “samadhinimitta” was rendered in MN 44 , it was called the ” basis of concentration” or basis of samadhi:

    Visakkha asked : “What is concentration ? What is the basis of concentration?

    Dhammadinna said: ” Unification of mind, friend Visakha, is concentration; the four foundation of mindfulness are the Basis of concentration”

    Note: ” The four foundations of mindfulness are the basis of concentration ( samadhinimitta) in the sense of being its condition (MA).”

    I don’t believe that it’s just nowadays that the term has different meanings in different context. It’s always been that way. Just because it means one thing in MN 44 , it doesn’t mean that “nimitta” has to always carry the same meaning in other context. We just have to look at what the term means in each context.

    Nimitta :

    1. sign, omen, portent, prognostication

    2. outward appearance, mark, characteristic, attribute phenomenon (opp. essence)

    * Mental reflex, image (with ref to jhāna)

    Vism 123, cp. DhsA 167. — Specified e. g as foll.: oḷārika S v.259; pasādaniya S v.156; paccavekkhana˚ D iii.278; Vbh 334; bahiddhā — sankhārā Ps i.66 sq.; bāla˚ (opp. paṇḍita˚) M iii.163; A i.102 mukha˚ (=face) D i.80; S iii.103; v.121; A v.92, 97 sq., 103; rūpa˚, sadda˚ etc. S iii.10; M i.296; Ps i.92 112; samatha˚ D iii.213; samādhi˚ etc. A i.256 sq. subha˚ (& asubha˚) S ;v.64, 103 sq.; A i.3 sq., 87, 200 v.134; Vism 178 sq.

    nimittaŋ gaṇhāti to make something the object of a thought, to catch up a theme for reflection Vin i.183, cp. S v.150 sq. (˚ŋ uggaṇhāti) M i.119 (=five sorts of mental images); Nd2 659 DhsA 53 (=ākāra). See below n — gāhin & animitta.; nimittaŋ parivajjeti to discard the phenomenal S i.188 Sn 341. —

    3. mark, aim: in nimittaŋ karoti to pick out the aim, to mark out

    4. ground reason, condition, in ;nimittena (instr.) and nimittaŋ

  31. Umm, well, oohh – ok, I’m so busted! As I don’t know either of these monks or their teachings very well, I would have to say ‘public opinion’…

  32. Yes, it’s sound good to render nimitta in the context of M 44 as “basis” or “ground” of Samadhi. That is why when we use a term, we must be careful: it is used in technical or non-technical way. Correction “The term Nimitta in this context is quite different from what nimitta is used now adays” Today, people think that without seeing a nimitta (light or light-ball), the person cannot reach absorption (Jhana). This is wrong assumption. Nimitta might appear in various way and it depends on the individual perception. I heard quite a few Yogis was dishearten when they had meditated for quite a long time but fail to see a kind of nimitta as their meditation teachers described. Meditation is a subjective experience, hence we should not dogmatically adhere to certain description as ‘fixed standards’, and expect everyone who meditate must go through all these signs.
    There is another kind of samadhi, it is Animitta Samadhi.

  33. Dear Ayya Dharma,

    Ayya Dharma wrote: “The term Nimitta in this context is quite different from what nimitta is used now adays”

    Nimitta used in the context of MN44 ( cause, conditions for) is different from nimitta used in the context of the Suda Sutta ( sign ). Yet both meanings are in the Suttas from back in the days. How is it that one is considered “nowadays” while the other is considered back in the days.

    I would say that the term nimitta used in the context of MN44 is quite different from nimitta used in the context of Sutta Sutta or other suttas , instead of ” different from what nimitta is used nowadays”.

    Ayya Dharma wrote: ” I heard quite a few Yogis was dishearten when they had meditated for quite a long time but fail to see a kind of nimitta as their meditation teachers described……There is another kind of samadhi, it is Animitta Samadhi.”

    I believe meditation happens when the hindrance of desire ( worldly or spiritual) is left behind or weakened. Even if the person doesn’t reach the stage of nimitta, still there are relaxation, piti ( joy or rapture), sukkha (inner happiness) along the way. Sometimes these give rise to so much contentment that a person feel satisfied with whatever arise in this moment. There are people that feels quite content and enjoys meditation even if they don’t experience nimitta yet. Only when they don’t even experience the benifits of the lower steps ( 1-5) along the way that they still feel the need to grasp after the nimitta. But not even experiencing the joy that steps 2,3 can bring after having meditated for quite a long time might indicate that the person his not on the right track or not practicing the right way or not approaching meditation with the right frame of mind. However, that is not due to the meditation technique itself. When practicing correctly, a person would feel peace and contentment even as early as step 2, 3, 4, or 5. Therefore attachment to later stages ( nimitta) is not necessary. Ajahn Brahm calls it the path with no ” grunting” .

    Ayya Dharma wrote: “There is another kind of samadhi, it is Animitta Samadhi.”

    It might be a good idea to look into the Culasunnata Sutta and Mahasunnata sutta to understand the method that the Buddha gave for entering Animitta Samadhi. This comes after all 8 states . Also in the Animitto Sutta, after Maha Moggallana reached Neither Perception nor Non Perception (8) , the Buddha appeared to guide him further into Signless meditation and finally beyond attachment to Signless Meditation to Liberation.

  34. The Buddha gave some very useful advise on how to choose a teacher. This might make for an interesting blog post.

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