The Yoga Sutra: a handbook on Buddhist meditation?

Take a classic text of Hinduism, the revered Yogasutra (approx. 200 BCE (2)) and compare its semantics and vocabulary to the Buddhist canonical texts. Such a comparison will make it pretty obvious that the author of the Yoga Sutra was highly influenced by (contemporary?) Buddhist philosophy and meditation practice.

Furthermore: A student of canonical Buddhist texts might in fact have an easier time understanding the Yoga Sutra, than a Hindu practitioner who has no other (earlier, i.e. Buddhist) frame of reference for understanding this text except perhaps late Hindu/Brahmanic commentaries of which some seem to avoid (or don’t know) the original Buddhist references of this text.

The closeness of the Yoga sutra in style, vocabulary and subject to canonical Pali texts could also simply mean that Patañjali (or whoever inspired his writing) had been practicing meditation within the Sangha (pure speculation 😉 ) for a while before returning (back) into the fold of Brahmanism and then rephrasing his experience to add a divine spin to his experience while substantially borrowing technical terms from Buddhist meditation as originally developed or shaped by the Buddha for the purpose of meditation.

Equally possible, and even more likely, Buddhist meditation practice at that time had so comprehensively permeated Hindu practices (after 200 years of strong influence through Buddhist philosophy and meditation techniques), that these technical terms as well as descriptions of jhanic practices had become such a common mainstream knowledge that they ceased to appear particular ‘Buddhist’ (similar to the adoption of ideas of ‘nirvana’ and ‘karma’ in Christian countries…)

Especially if you read the sutta (which is very short) in one fluid stroke, it really amazes you how close it is to the thoughts and topics on samādhi, jhāna and samathā (concentration) meditation as defined by the earlier Pāli texts.

For a starter (bird eye view, details will follow below), if we look at the “ashtanga yoga” or the “eighfold yoga path” (sic) we are of course reminded of the Buddha’s central definition of the Noble Eightfold path. But rather than following the Buddhist textbook definition of the Noble eightfold path, the yoga path interpretation follows (to our astonishment?) another Buddhist path description: When pressed to describe his actual meditative system as taught to his disciples the Buddha lists a number of steps which are outlined in numerous suttas in the Middle Length Sayings (as listed in MN 26 etc.) and remind us very much of the yogic (pragmatic?) path as idealized by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutra:

Compare these two “pathways to achieve samādhi”. First Patanjali’s in the Yoga Sutra:

  1. Yama [moral codes] see (6)
  2. Niyama [self-purification and study],
  3. Asana [posture]
  4. Pranayama [breath control]
  5. Pratyahara [moving away from 5 senses]
  6. Dharana [concentration] see (7)
  7. Dhyana [meditation]
  8. Samadhi [absorption]

Below is a list of steps recommended by the Buddha when asked about gradual development through his teaching. This list is found in many suttas of MN and DN and elsewhere:

  1. Sila [moral codes], Santosa (Contentment)
  2. Sense Restraint [pulling away from the senses]
  3. “Asana” [mindfulness in all bodily postures]
  4. Anapanasati [focusing on breath]
  5. Overcoming 5 hindrances
  6. Sati [keeping the object in mind, often glossed with dharana in the Pali commentaries] see (7)
  7. Jhana [absorptions]
  8. Samadhi [result of absorptions, the “attainment” or samāpatti of various sorts]

I am, of course, not the first one to note similarities such as the above one.(3) A few other people have noticed obvious and less obvious parallels. Which means that even Wikipedia has an entry for the Yoga Sutra in which we read:

Karel Werner writes that “Patanjali’s system is unthinkable without Buddhism. As far as its terminology goes there is much in the Yoga Sutras that reminds us of Buddhist formulations from the Pāli Canon and even more so from the Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma and from Sautrāntika.” Robert Thurman writes that Patanjali was influenced by the success of the Buddhist monastic system to formulate his own matrix for the version of thought he considered orthodox…..The division into the Eight Limbs (Sanskrit Ashtanga) of Yoga is reminiscent of Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path; inclusion of Brahmaviharas (Yoga Sutra 1:33) also shows Buddhism‘s influence on parts of the Sutras. [Source: Wikipedia]

Now, this is were it gets interesting for us, here in this blog, and its relevance to Buddhist meditation practice:

Does all of the above mean that the Yogasutra is a Brahmanic commentary or at least a snapshot of mainstream (Buddhist influenced) meditation practices in the second century BCE?

If that is the case, it definitely warrants a closer look In fact, because of the fact that it is NOT a Buddhist text which however shares fundamental “core” ideas about meditation it could serve as yet another pointer towards a deeper understanding of some of the Buddhist terminology as understood in the early centuries of Buddhist practice.

Therefore, if you read the Yoga sutra in a Buddhist context, might it give you some ideas as to how people at that time understood and (or !) practiced Buddhist meditation? Could it maybe be of some help to get yet another “triangulation” or pointer in the direction of early Buddhist meditation? The more we know how people practiced a few hundred years after the Buddha passed away, the better we can understand how some of his teachings evolved and how they were actually put into practice and explained/taught.

What makes this idea fascinating is that this text will definitely be filtered through the eyes of a Brahmin, but, he would still be under the influence of contemporary Buddhist meditation “knowledge” which was so accepted that it had become “mainstream”. It would show us, how much and what in particular, was considered to be the “gist” of meditation (beyond philosophical discussion about its purpose) so that it was considered universally true and thus able to “crossed over” into other religious forms of practice.

Under that viewpoint, the Yogasutra is indeed quite revealing.

Let me show you some example passages which might throw further light on this idea.

Passages like the following really look like a direct copy&paste from the Buddha-Dhamma. Some of them even make no sense whatsoever in a theological-soul-seeking-creator-type religion, but absolutely sense in the philosophy of liberation through concentration and wisdom. Nevertheless, they were considered “true” and “accepted” so the Brahmin had no other choice as to incorporate them into his brahmanic philosophy. (Almost reminds one of the Western Christian, who, because of the mainstream acceptance of the idea of karma, might find ways to incorporate that idea into his own religious views). Look at the following list of defilements, which the Yoga sutra says one has to overcome:

“Avidya (ignorance), Asmita (egoism), Raga-Dvesha (likes and dislikes), Abhinivesha (clinging to mundane life) are the five Kleshas or afflictions. Destroy these afflictions. You will attain Samadhi.” [Quote: Wikipedia]

What will strike the Buddhist reader when looking at this paragraph is the simple fact that all these defilements listed are those which are supposed to be gone in an Arahant, LOL.

Lets look at the terms used: Avijja, ignorance is even listed first (clearly, from a Buddhist standpoint it is considered to be the root of all problems). Next comes “asmitā” which gets superficially translated as “egoism” through the superficial understanding it had developed in the Sanskrit tradition which was unaware of the deeper meaning of this term as portraid in the Pali Suttas (or tried to spin it into their own religious context).

This very specific Buddhist term, which tries to express the deep rooted mental “notion of I am” (asmi-tā) gets a clear explanation in the suttas, but here, in this text and later times, fades away into a mere “selfishness” as a moral defilement missing its deeper originally psychological application. In the suttas “asmi-māna” is a deeply rooted psychological tendency of the mind which only the Arahant overcomes [see “The scent of am” in this blog for more on that topic]. And then there is “abhinivesa“, a term Buddha uses to explain how our mind enters and takes up the five groups of grasping. “nivesa” is a living place, a house – a simile brought up by the Buddha to show how our consciousness moves “into” the experience of sense contact and makes itself comfortable as if living in a house (Cf. SuttaNipata, Atthakavagga, Magandiyasutta and SN, Haliddakanisutta). This very particular psychological usage is flattened in the Brahmanic context to mean simply an “attachment to mundane life”. The question remains: Was such a superficial understanding also Patanjali’s or did just later commentators on the Yoga Sutra miss these implications because they had no knowledge or no access to the earlier Buddhist environment in which the Yoga Sutra developed?

And something enligthening about the Buddhist “Sati” can be found too:

Here is another gem from a Buddhist perspective. What I really find enlightening is the usage of the term “dhāranā” in the Yoga Sutra.

This is one of the points were our contemporary Buddhist knowledge could gain insights. “dhāranā“, which means literally “holding up, carrying, keeping (in mind)”…(9) is a nice description of the task at hand in meditation practice. In meditation too, we need to keep and hold our object of meditation in focus, in our mind, without loosing it. This central characteristic of the task at hand when trying to develop concentration meditation is reflected 1:1 by the literal meaning of the Buddhist term sati (literally “rememberance/remembering”) which is nowadays most commenly translated simply as “mindfulness” – a translation about which we raised doubts in quite a number of posts on this blog [link].

Here is why, in a nutshell: In order to keep the meditation object in your mind you need to remember it. Rememberance here means that you have to hold your object of concentration. You have to keep it present. That is exactly what the faculty of memory does, usually being pushed hard by the six sense impressions with new data, which, if given in, will result in a more or less wild jumping around.

If you are able to hold your one-pointedness however (or rather: the longer you are able), one of the laws of the mind which the Buddha rediscovered and explained in detail, is that this “artificial” abating of the senses by holding and focusing on one particular mental object will equate to less sense-stimulation. As a result calmness and mental happiness (piti) and physical happiness (sukha) will arise and show first signs of a strengthened concentration.

That is also why quite logically samma sati has to come before samma samadhi in the Buddhist eightfold path – or, as shown here in the Yoga sutra “dhāranā” is the final stage before attaining “samadhi”.

Here the Yoga Sutra gives us a great gloss on the original meaning as understood in the first few centuries of Buddhist practice and might help us getting a more precise understanding of what “samma sati” was intended to mean or imply originally. (Cf. our post on yoniso manasikara and you will see how close yoniso manasikara and sati are.

Quite in contrast, or rather as a by-product of the practice of sati is another term which would much better be described by “mindfulness”. It is the Pali term sampajaññā – which literally means “together-knowing”, i.e. being very attentive while doing some activity, ergo “mindfulness” – but this activity is then a result of sati (because keeping ones mind fixed on an object, sati, will lead to a heightened awareness of what gets into our way of keeping the mind tight to the one object, creating an increased awareness of the few sense impressions which can trickle in). According to this concept “mindfulness” is the outcome of sati and not the practice of sati itself!!

But again, both activities are practically happening at more or less the same time, even if not in the same order and so the mainstream English translation may be excused – while such a fine distinction, however has its benefits: You cannot keep one object focused in your mind without developing or causing mindfulness to arise – but (unfortunately!) you can be attentive to all your actions without (!) working on your concentration (think: eating an ice cream, i.e. sense indulgence. This is actually what, (IMHO unfortunately), some Western “Buddhist” interpretations idealize).

There is a difference between getting purposely carried away by the sense impressions by focusing on their physical benefit and increasing/supporting rāga and nandi – or, from the perspective of the Buddha Gotama, trying to stay your ground using remembrance and thereby experiencing a hightened awareness of what tries to shift you away so that it results in an increased mindfulness which, at its peak experience turns into total equanimity towards both, pleasurable and painful sensations.

In this order, therefore, what we should understand as vipassanā is not at all a synonym for sati but rather something which grows out of the combination of all these factors especially of course the last two, samma sati and samma samadhi applied to the ruthless observation of what comes into being (yathābhūta).

One could say, vipassanā is a name for the practice of sati+samadhi as applied to anicca/dukkha/anatta (i.e. generating wisdom) directed at the six-sense-process, including any mental activity. Therefore, you won’t hear of vipassana but sati in the Yogasutra, whereas the Buddhist texts will clearly mention (think: aniccanupassana) how samādhi is just the start of your insight journey. (4)

But we got side-tracked 😉 . Suffice it to say that in particular any reference to Buddhist philosophy as mentioning of anicca or anatta would points towards the goal of Nibbana, a philosophical tenet which the Yoga system of course won’t refer to. In its essence the Yoga school falls under the eternalist position. So while it definitely would need sati to produce samadhi, it definitely did not need to point that samadhi to understand anicca, dukkha anatta – something which would not at all fit into the world view of an eternalist – Rather, it tries to interpret samadhi itself as a union or at least coming closer to God. Something which comes quite natural to a theist – as for instance an evangelical Christian would never interpret the reduction of his sensual focus on one mental object and the resulting bliss to be a product of psychological techniques but rather a “devine sign of God touching him” – after all, besides in the Dhamma of the Buddha (whose main interest this was), in most scenarios we are inclined to fall for the story of our senses – including the mental impressions/thoughts/feelings/perceptions.

To stay in the Christian context for a moment longer: Let’s summarize that what Patanjali does in the above quoted passage would resemble someone taking a large chunk from the vocabulary and terminology of the New Testament and giving them a Buddhist spin.

Funny, that is exactly how many many contemporary New-Age-type books are written – an amalgation of English/Christian terms and vocabulary trying to express an Eastern mind-set. So we can picture that the situation in India was similar when the Yoga sutra was written with regard to the Buddhist philosophy.

This Buddhist philosophy with its particular terminology as established by the Buddha had become so pervasive to religious thought, that in order to appear credible someone writing on meditation would have to borrow or base his argument on many of those very predominant Buddhist concepts. This was probably done not even consciously, as most current day New Age authors don’t even reflect how their texts appear as they are more concerned with the message they deliver.

So, for the fun of it, below I “translated” (or rather transliterated, as these languages are so close) the Sanskrit Yoga sutra text “back” into Pāli. Very similar to when I tried this with the Heart Sutra (see here) it does help to see how the same text sounds in Pali and then to discover parallels in the early Buddhist texts.

However, having said all that, the pragmatism invoked by this sutra (which makes it so valuable) also indicates much more than a simple textual rip-off. Reading this text you cannot dismiss the notion, especially as a concentration meditator, that whoever wrote or inspired this text, at one time personally experienced jhana and samadhi and wanted to convey his experience making use of a Buddhist enriched meditation lingo even if his interpretation caters to a brahmanic audience.

Anyway here we go (the paragraph “headers” and translation are by this author, some key Buddhist technical terms have been underlined):

Patañjalino yogasuttaṃ (Part I of IV)


atha yogānusāsanaṃ ||1||
And now an instruction in yoking
yogo citta-vaṭṭi-nirodho ||2||
Yoking is the extinction of mind movement
tadā diṭṭhā (muni) svarūpe’avaṭṭhānaṃ ||3||
(Only) Then the seer allows (to be) in (his) true nature.
vaṭṭi-sarūpam itaritaraṃ ||4||
(Else) at other times one becomes (equal to) that (mental) activity.


vaṭṭī pañcā; kilesā ca akilesā ca ||5||
(Mental) Activities there are five; some defiling and some non-defiling:
pamāṇa-vipariyesa-vikappa-niddā-sati ||6||
Experience (Evidence), Misperception (Illusion), Thinking, Sleep, Memory.
Paccakkh’ānumān’āgamā honti pamāṇāni ||7||
That which one directly sees (paccakkha) and analyzes, taking it as a reference – that is called experience.
vipariyeso miccā-ñāṇam atad-rūpa-patiṭṭhitaṃ ||8||
Illusion is wrong knowledge, based on something (lit. “a form”) which is not such.
sadda-ñāṇānupattī vatthu-suñño vikappo ||9||
Thinking is sound-knowledge without sound-sense-base.
abhāva-paccay’-ārammaṇā vaṭṭi niddā ||10||
Lacking/Not having sense objects as a cause is the mental activity called sleep.
anubhūta-visayāsammosā sati ||11||
Non-confusion (or not losing) the (sense) object previously experienced is called memory
abhyāsa-virāgehi tesaṃ nirodho ||12||
Their [i.e. of those activities] extinction (comes about) through the practice of detachment (virāga).


tatra tiṭṭha-yatano abhyāso ||13||
Here now “practice” means the endeavour of staying (i.e. becoming unmovable mentally – a great description for concentration)
so pana dīgha-kāla-nirantara-sakkār’āsevito daḷha-bhūmi ||14||
But that (practice) has to be on the firm basis of long uninterrupted careful exercise [yep, how true! ]
diṭṭhānusavika-visaya-vitaṇhāya vasīkāra-saññā virāgaṃ ||15||
Detachment is the mastery (vasi-kāra) of perception, of not-thirsting (vitaṇhā) for what follows (anu-savika, lit. after-flow) the sense experience of seeing.
taṃ paramaṃ purisa-akkhātā guṇa-vitaṇhaṃ ||16||
This is the highest: the thirstless-ness for the senses (cp. kāma-guṇa in Pali!) based on the knowledge of the purisa, i.e soul.

Attainment – the Jhānas
1st Jhāna

vitakka-vicār-ānand-āsmitā rūp’ānugamā sampajaññatā ||17||
An awareness of the (realm of) form: a self-awareness based on thought, remaining (with it) and inner happiness.
virāma-paṭicca-ābhyāsa-pubbo saṃkhāraseso añño ||18||
(This attainment) is based on detachment practiced before and of other remaining activities
bhava-paṭicca videha-prakṛti-layānām ||19||
(For instance) Based on (this) existence and ones own personal characteristics
saddhā-viriya-sati-samādhi-paññā-pubbaka itaresam ||20||
and further ( based on such qualities) like saddhā (faith), viriya (strength), sati (remembrance), samādhi (concentration), and paññā (wisdom)
tibba-saṃvegānām āsanno||21||
(for such ones) with strong dedication attain (this goal, the first jhāna).

Further into the jhānas. Tips and tricks.

mudu-majjhim’ādhi-mattatā tato’pi viseso ||22||
There is also a difference (in result) as the “lesser”, “middle” and “higher” (achievement).
issara-paṇidhānā vā ||23||
Or based on the application (devotion) to aLord (a meditation master).
kilesa-kamma-vipākāsayā aparāmissā purisa-vises’ issaro ||24||
The master is a person not affected by the karmic result of (past) defilements and desires.
tatra niratisayaṃ sabbaññatā-bījaṃ ||25||
Therein lies the unsurpassable seed for omniscience.
sa pubbesam api guru kālen’ānavacchedanā ||26||
Such a teacher those (in) former (times) would never leave.
tassa vācako pāṇavo ||27||
His saying (is) life/breath/utterance
taj-jappo tad-attha-bhāvanam ||28||
praying that (repeatedly saying that) – this is the meaning/goal of meditation
tato pratyak-cetanādhigamo’pi antarāyābhāvo ca ||29||
Then one attains one’s own mind and destroys all hindrances:
Disease, doubts, not being removed from clinging to indolence, mistaken vision, and not having had attained (meditative) stages, or not firm (in them).
citta-vikkhepā te’ntarāyā ||30||
Those are the (causes of) mental-distractions (which he overcomes).
dukkha-domanass’aṅgam ejayatv’assāsa-passāsā vikkhepa-saha-bhuvaḥ ||31||
Physical and mental pain arise in the body, trembling in in-breathing and out-breathing appears in conjunction with (the aformentioned) distractions

Meditation Objects

tat-pratiṣedhārtham ekatattābhyāsaḥ ||32|| In order to subdue those (use) this practice of oneness:
mettā-karuṇā-mudita-upekkhā sukha-dukkha-puññāpuñña-visayānaṃ bhāvanātassa cittapasādanaṃ||33||
A calm happiness of the mind (citta-pasada) is achieved by meditation on Metta, Karuna, Mudita and Upekkha with regard to happiness, pain as well as good luck and bad luck.
pracchardana-vidhāraṇābhyāṃ vā prāṇasya ||34|| Or inbreathing and outbreathing is also a (great) meditation exercise.
visayavatī vā pa-vatti uppannā manaso thiti-nibandhinī ||35|| It helps to stop and bind down the mind’s arising activity which is due to the power of the senses.
visokā vā jotimatī ||36|| And makes the mind free of sorrow and radiant.
vīta-rāga-visayaṃ vā cittam ||37|| Free from desire for the senses.
svapna-niddā-jnānālambanaṃ vā ||38|| Dream, sleep,
yathābhimata-dhyānād vā ||39||
param-aṇu-parama-mahattvānto’ssa vasīkāri ||40||
kkhīṇa-vaṭṭi abhijātass’eva maṇī grahītṛ-grahaṇa-grāhyeṣu tat-stha-tad-anjanatāsamāpatti
||41|| When you succeed in destroying (mental) activity or motion [khina-vatti] that will give birth to a jewel and a one holding (it) and object being held and the holding itself – that standing still, that is known as an attainment.
tatra saddattha-ñāṇa-vikappaiḥ saṃkiṇṇā savitakkā samāpatti, ||42||
There is the attainment/state which is “with thought” and defiled by meaning-of-sound-knowing-thoughts
sati-parisuddhaṃ svarūpa-suññevattha-matta-nibbhāsā nivitakkā ||43||
(and on the other hand) there is the one without thought (nirvitakka) with clearest mindfulness and which is of the nature of speechless-emptiness
etadeva savicārā nirvicārā ca sukkhuma-visayā akkhātā ||44||
In the same way a state of with-vicara and without-vicara can be explained due to the subtleness of the object.
sukkhuma-visayattaṃ c’āliṅga-pary’avasānam ||45|| It culminates in a subtle object without characteristics.
tā eva sa-bījo samādhi ||46|| That though still is samadhi with a seed.
nirvicāra-visārad’ajjhatta-pasādo ||47|| You gain inner happiness through confidence in (concentration) without reflection (vicara, related to vitakka).
itaṃbharā tatra paññā ||48|| Thus filled with truth there is wisdom.
sut’ānumāna-paññāyā añña-visayā vises’atthatā ||49|| This wisdom is of a different realm than the knowledged gained through learning.
taj-jo saṃkhāro’ñña-saṃkhāra-paṭibaddhī ||50||
That such born (induced) (meditative) activity obstructs (all) other activities.
tassāpi nirodhe sabba-nirodhā nibbījo samādhi ||51||
From the extinction of that too all is extinguished – and that is the seedless-samadhi.
iti patañjali-viracite yoga-sutte paṭhamo samādhi-pādo |||
Such is Patañjali’s first Samadhi-chapter in the Yoga Sutra.


(Buddhist) Observations and Comments on the Yogasutra (by line number)

[1] Oneself to the object of meditation, i.e.: an instruction (anusāsana) in meditation practice (yoga).

[2] vaṭṭi: turbulence, whirlpool, activity, lit. going round and round. fig. derived from lit. ‘wick’ (something turned in circles) In this context, simply: “meditation is … ‘stopping of the busy mind’” (which is very active and its activity resembles a circling around). This is probably the most straightforward (and correct) translation

[3] In Pali the word ḍṛistar does not exist, it would rather use something like muni; meaning is the same – except, of course, that “seer” reminds one in this case really more of the “seeing” part in the process. I pali-ised the Sanskrit ḍṛistar into Pāli diṭṭhār to show that semantic relationship with diṭṭha. Alternative translation: “Then the seer allows for (or has an opportunity – avaṭṭhāna) [to be] in the true nature (his or the nature of things – whatever Patañjali’s philosophy would call for.

[7] Lit.: ”What comes through direct seeing and measurement is called experience”.

[9] Or: “Thinking is sound-knowledge without physical sound object (vatthu)”. Funny, I did not know that when I wrote this little piece just recently: Thoughts as silent sounds). Same explanation of what (sound-) thoughts are.

[12] Virāga and nirodha in one sentence: you cannot get more canonical Buddhist than that. Interesting is, however, the down-to-earth non-metaphysical usage of these terms in this regard. They are simply applied to the process of meditation, even more specific: to the process of concentration meditation. This is food for thought (no pun intended).

[14] Looks like the author of the mediaval Pali subcommentary to the Digha Nikaya did a similar reading. We find: “Tathā hi sasambhārābyāso, dīghakālābyāso, nirantarābyāso, sakkaccābyāsoti cattāro abyāsā caturadhiṭṭhānaparipūritasambandhā anupubbena mahābodhiṭṭhānā sampajjanti.” These definitions of strong determination looking very similar to the Yogasutra are only found in that subcommentary and – what a surprise, it also is one of the only few places to use daḷha and bhūmi in the same sentence…Would be interesting to see what else that particular subcommentary has to say about meditation.

[16] i.e. here we have the brahmanic spin: it is this getting closer to the soul which allows us to overcome thirst/craving or taṇhā. This little sentence gives so much away! Still, here at this point in time, Patañjali is so convinced of the Buddhist goal “giving up craving, getting rid of thirst”, i.e. vitaṇhā, as he states it. However, he will not let go of the idea of a soul without which his theistic philosophy would collapse and nothing in this text would make it distinguishable from a Buddhist treatise. So riding on the back of Buddhist terminology and meditation principles he introduces the “purisa” or soul into the discussion (if it is read this way), stating that by being closer to your “true nature” (svarūpa) and inner man “purisa”, i.e. soul, you can clear yourself of thirst/craving. Nice try.

[17] Here we have our copy-cat description of the first jhāna very similar to the way the Buddha describes it time and again in the Pali texts: “So vivicceva kāmehi, vivicca akusalehi dhammehi savitakkaṃ savicāraṃ vivekajaṃ pītisukhaṃ paṭhamaṃ jhānaṃ upasampajja viharati.” But, to his credit, the first jhāna simply shows certain criteria, which, if you share the language of origin, will get explained in a similar fashion. In fact, we have quite a beautiful description of the first jhāna: An explanation that the first jhāna is a form of sampajaññatā (mindfulness of what goes on) following the realm of form (our meditation topic is a mental form) and a happiness combined with the thought we are trying to hold onto which in itself could be described as the pure experience of “I am” (asmitā – the term is being used more losely in this place as the suttas would allow). Nevertheless, the listing of vitakka/vicāra at the first mentioning of meditative absorption is a clear reference to the Yogasutra’s Buddhist origin.
Interesting also, is the connection which is being made at this point with sampajaññatā: Think about everything we said before about sati. If sati is really simply the holding of an object (sati’s paṭṭhāna, so to speak) then it is interesting to see how sampajaññā in this case gets identified with the state of the first jhāna. Could that mean, that when the Buddha mentions those two in the Pāli texts, he implicitly meant samathā-vipassanā? This is not at all such a strange idea, as many vipassana meditators, focusing on subtler objects will quite quickly show signs of the first jhāna. Could it then be that this term “sampajaññatā” was seen as the first result of a concentrated mind? In any case, experience will teach you very quickly that when you try to hold one object in your mind, your awareness of what happens in the present moment will dramatically increase, simply due to the fact that your endeavor to stay with the object is under constant jeopardy through the siege of sense impressions…

[20] The Buddha mentions these 5 factors when he was training arūpa-jhāna under his former two teachers. He also mentions them as crucial factors when striving for enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. Later, in the course of his teaching years, he gave them the name of “powers” (bala) and explained that they, if perfected, would lead to enlightenment.

[24] Besides the question whether issaro here could be read as merely refering to a meditation master (which fits perfectly in the discussion up to verse 27 where it starts to not fit any open for discussion (Cf. Geshe Michael Roach and Christie McNally’s translation at this point). I have to admit, at first I was sceptical to interpret it that way, because remembering MN 1 it seemed more logical to assume issaro was foremost used to denote “the Lord” (i.e. your God). But, using CST4 and searchinga around, I did find quite some nice references where esp. in the Theragatha issaro was simply used to imply “master”. Interesting is also the word āsayih…which I substituted with the simple Pāli word for wish/desire “āsā”. However, it “almost” sounds like “āsava” which would fit even better in the context of kamma and vipāka. But the idea of āsava is very particular (“that which flows into you, overwhelming you) and may or may not have been intended in this place. BTW, the Sanskrit aparāmṛṣṭaḥ took a while to crack. It comes from a+parā+mṛṣṭaḥ which in Pali (literally) turns into aparā+missā (lit. “by nothing higher mixed/shaken”. In the Pali canon, however, such a word cannot be found (another Pali-zation). A Buddha’s contemporary “Kosalan” (if I may throw that theory in here) would probably have opted for a word like “apariyuṭṭhāna” instead, which offers a similar meaning.

[26] Lit. would not “cut loose” (an+ava+chedana), i.e. abandon -not even for a (short) time (kalena).

[27] panavah (interpretated as “om” in Hindu literature). It all depends if you read verses 24-27 as implying “issaro” to mean ‘God’ or if you take it simply to refer to the meditation master from whom you learn meditation. If you do a search in the Tipitaka, you will see that at the time of the Buddha “issara” was in used to denote ones teacher (see Theragatha for instance).

[31] Here we have dukkha and domanassa mentioned. They too appear in the Buddha’s definition of the four jhanas, but in a different sense. The meditative problem described here seems out of place and looks as if someone just had to fit these words in here. Also in and out breath of course do play a role in that they cease to exist (nirodha) subjectively (!) to the meditator in the fourth jhana. Strange that all of this gets listed but put in such a different interpretation.

[33] And here we go. The four brahmaviharas, of course, famous for the way Buddha encouraged his monks to practice them to subdue the five hindrances and enter the jhanas. Also interesting how the Tipitaka sometimes aligns them with the progression in the four jhanas (which deserves its own blog post).

[34 & 35] Woa! Now someone is adding Anapanasati to the list of meditation techniques, the most favorite Buddhist meditation topic besides the brahmaviharas, which, what a coincidence was mentioned in the passage before. Here he almost “quotes” the benefit of Anapanasati from the Pali suttas, as given by the Buddha in SN Mahavagga, Anapanasatisamyutta, where the Buddha says that the biggest benefit of Anapanasati is its ability to still the mind. Very interesting!

[36] See Pali quote above and next, somehow copycat alarm : “iminā vihārena bahulaṃ viharato neva kāyo kilamati na cakkhūni; And through dwelling very often in this abiding o monks, neither did my body get tired nor my eyes; ” [see more here] What shows the experienced meditator though is right away the explanation how that radiant and desireless free mind will stay away from the senses – that realization is important and shows that the author did know what he was talking about – in pragmatic terms. If there is one thing which is most important in inducing samadhi (i.e. jhanas) it is the settling of the mind, the balancing act, against the onslaught of the senses.

[42] in the Pali Canon lingo we would say “savitakka-jhana”.

[43] sati-parisuddham is of course the Buddha’s name for the fourth jhana. It seems the author tries to show us the range of the four jhanas by pointing out the criteria of the first and then contrasting it with the characteristics of the fourth jhana using again Pali Sutta terminology.

[44] strange little acknowledgement. One is inclined to ask: explained by whom

[51] I cannot help myself, but this last line sounds more like a reporter, who, after having been invited to a very important meeting, is eager to share what he has heard from those important sources. Here we are given a definition, in effect, of the Buddha’s definition of “phalasamāpatti” – a jhānic state, which can only come about after someone has had an attainment of that particular nirvanic insight, which allows him to enter such a samādhi that is without “seeds” (nibbīja). This entire concept does not fit very well into a theistic line of argument, and no attempt is being made, here, at the very end of defining samādhi, to explain it. Did the Buddhist talk about this in such terms that in “mainstream” philosophical circles this was automatically understood to mean “the highest you can achieve” and was the argument so powerful that even though it would not fit into your own school of thought, it was considered to be undisputable? Hard to tell. It just sounds more in place here: “Khīṇaṃ purāṇaṃ navam natthi sambhavaṃ, virattacittāyatike bhavasmiṃ; Te khīṇabījā avirūḷhichandā, nibbanti dhīrā yathāyaṃ padīpo;” Snip. v. 238 (Ratanasutta). We would call that Nirvana Or more specifically, something you would target for when you try “saññā-vedayita-nirodha”, the cessation of perception and feeling, an attainment the Buddha describes as possible for Arahants and Anagamis, after they enter the 8 jhanas sequentially and then finally leave even the most subtle activity (sankhāra) behind.


It would be interesting to take this Pali translation and compare it against the corpus of Pali texts (CST4) to see which phase in Pali development this text (with its particular style and vocabulary) would have best matched with. An exercise maybe for another day

Just remember:

Bahu pi ce sahitam bhasamano… Dhp 19!


  1. Here the original version in Sanskrit plus a very nice translation (and you can see for yourself how their otherwise very nice translation) is at a disadvantage from not being acquainted with the Pali predecessor of this text): click here
  2. which puts it right in the vicinity of the Milindapanha, Patisambhiddamagga and similar texts
  3. Not being that familiar with any of this subject matter other than amateurish curiosity, here another link of someone actually pointing out the lack of actual comparisions being undertaken to study these links between early Sanskrit (Hindu) texts and the Pali Canon, which, after all, developed in the time of the Upanishads:
  4. which is why once in a while we see two more items being added to the noble eightfold path. After “samma samadhi” comes “samma panya” and then samma vimutti”. Not many people know that, but it makes sense if you see how the samadhi part was the growing field for the Buddha to let righ-view become supermundane which, in nowadays terminology, we would understand as using samadhi + wisdom, i.e. vipassana.
  5. Yā sati anussati paṭissati sati saraṇatā dhāraṇatā apilāpanatā asammussanatā sati satindriyaṃ satibalaṃ sammāsati satisambojjhaṅgo ekāyanamaggo, ayaṃ vuccati sati. Imāya satiyā upeto hoti samupeto upagato samupagato upapanno samupapanno samannāgato, so vuccati sato. MahaNiddesa, for example, PTS 1.10
  6. Yamo is defined as “Ahiṁsāsatyāsteyabrahmacaryāparigrahā yamāḥ” – that is actually 4 of the 5 sila, namely: Not harming living beings (ahimsa), not lying (sacca), not stealing (asteya), chastity (brahmacariya). In the next line the yoga sutra states, how they should be practiced, mentioning “achinnam” unbroken, a qualifier used in the Pali suttas when explaining how to keep the sila. Here, in the yoga sutra, we get to know what that means: apply them in any circumstance possible. YS: II, 31. In II, 33 it is recommended to practice the opposite if (in thoughts) we want to break the silas. Interesting detail (which may have been inspired by contemporary Buddhist practices/teachings).
  7. Dharana defined in YS III, 1: “Concentration (dhāraṇā) is the mind’s (cittasya) fixation (bandháḥ) on one area (deśá)”. Or in Pāli: cittassa desabandhanā dhāraṇā. – beautiful description of sati, isn’t it !
  8. You might also like to look at Johannes Bronkhorst’s 2007 work Greater Magadha where he discusses the so-called influence of the Upanishads on the Buddha’s teachings and concludes that it was probably the other way around – that the teachings of religions in what he calls Greater Magadha – Buddhism, Jainism and the Aajiavikas (with respect to karmic retribution, reincarnation and the universal I) were incorporated into Vedic thought. (pages 112-35). He also questions the traditional date of the Upanisads as pre-Buddhist (page 175f)” [Quoted from] [link]
  9. In the PED “dharana” is defined as “Dhāraṇa (nt.) [cp. Sk. dhāraṇa, to dhāreti] 1. wearing, in mālā˚ (etc.) D i.5=A ii.210=Pug 58; KhA 37; cīvara˚ A ii.104=Pug 45. — 2. maintaining, sustaining, keeping up Miln 320 (āyu˚ bhojana). — 3. bearing in mind, remembrance Vin iv.305; M ii.175 (dhamma˚).” which makes it a perfect synonym to sati yet expresses the concentrative aspect of sati, which consists in the power of memory to hold something in the focus of our attention, more clearly. Note the Milindapanha reference here and cf. (1).

Recomended translations and readings:

  • from another Buddhist perspective: The Essential Yoga Sutra.

  • and another Buddhist peak focusing less on the Tipitaka but general Buddhist/Yoga: Samādhi: the numinous and cessative in Indo-Tibetan yoga By Stuart Ray Sarbacker

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    • Clue

      “IMHO one can see the book also as “Goenka-opinionated”, for example the stress put on vedana or the meaning of sampajañña.” The above two are the main factors attracting people worldwide back to Budha and unless you are not a critique of Budha, a reassessment of your assumption would be good, I feel. Iam just a beginner in Vipasssana!

    • Clue

      goenkaji writes and are very useful and is the truth
      Words of Dhamma
      Vediyamānassa kho panāhaṃ bhikkhave, Idaṃ, dukkhaṃ ti paññāpemi, Ayaṃ, dukkha-samudayoti paññāpemi, Ayaṃ, dukkha-nirodhoti paññāpemi, Ayaṃ dukkha-nirodha-gāminī paṭipadāti paññāpemi.

      To the person who feels sensations, meditators, I show what suffering is, I show what is the arising of suffering, I show the cessation of suffering, I show the path leading to the cessation of suffering.

      Titthāyatana Sutta, Aṅguttara Nikāya, III. vii. 1

      Sampajañña: The Fullness of Understanding – by S. N. Goenka

      Four people who were blind from birth were led to a tame elephant and asked to describe it. Lacking the faculty of sight, they used their sense of touch to discover what an elephant might be.

      The first felt the leg of the elephant, and after exploring carefully with his fingertips, he decided: “An elephant is a pillar!”

      The second caught hold of the tail of the elephant and came to a different conclusion: “Not a pillar, an elephant is a broom!”

      The third examined the ear of the elephant and gave his judgement: “You are both wrong. An elephant is a fan!”

      The fourth felt the tusk of the elephant and finally gave his opinion:
      “You are all wrong. An elephant is a stake of wood!”

      All four drew conclusions that explained correctly the evidence of their senses. All four were equally wrong because their judgements were based on incomplete evidence, on partial truth.

      So long as one sees from only one angle, one has only a partial truth. Without a general understanding, this partial truth is bound to be misleading, bound to create misconceptions. When one observes a phenomenon in different ways from different viewpoints, the full truth is revealed. This is real wisdom: to see things from different angles-in Pāli, Pakārena jānātīti paññā. As one proceeds from a narrow, partial view to an understanding of truth in all aspects, automatically illusions and confusions disappear.

      By remaining extroverted we see only one aspect of reality, and
      inevitably are misled by partial truths. Through the practice of introspection, however, we begin to see from another perspective. Thus we emerge from illusions and start awakening to the entire truth.

      How does the process of introspection actually awaken in us a comprehensive grasp of truth?

      To understand this we must recall that every sensory phenomenon-whether a person, a thing, or an event-exists for us only when it comes into contact with our sense organs. Without this contact, the sensory object in fact is nothing for us. If we remain extroverted, we attach importance to external objects and ignore the essential internal base of their existence for us, because we never examine ourselves. Thus deluded by a partial truth, we are led into folly.

      But if we remain aware of external reality and also observe ourselves, the entire situation changes. Now external objects help to throw light on our inner experiences, and inner experiences help us to understand the whole truth. And with this all embracing view we come out of the habit of wallowing in sensory experiences and start instead to observe them objectively.

      As the meditator begins moving from a partial and fragmentary vision to an understanding of truth in its totality, he sees more clearly how the phenomenon of mind and matter actually works. As soon as a sensory object comes into contact with one of the sense doors, instantaneously the mental faculty of cognition, recognition and evaluation, sensation and reaction all follow. For this process to occur there must first be a contact between a sensory object and the mental-physical structure; otherwise the object has no reality for us. And this law applies not only to the five physical senses, but also to the mind. As much as eyes or ears, the mind exists within the structure of the body. Therefore mental objects, just as much as sights or sounds, have their real existence for us within this physical structure, not outside. If we forget this important fact we can never attain an understanding of the entire truth.

      By observing sensations throughout the body dispassionately, the meditator experiences sensory objects, both external and internal, as they actually affect the mental-physical structure within. In this way he advances towards a comprehensive view of reality. He realizes by experience that whether gross or subtle, whether pleasant or unpleasant, every sensation is ephemeral, having the nature of arising and passing away; this is the fundamental fact of impermanence-anicca. Whatever is ephemeral is liable to be a source of misery if we become attached to it; this is the fundamental fact of suffering-dukkha. Over an ephemeral phenomenon we can have no control, no mastery. If we seek to change its nature from transitory to permanent, we are bound to fail. If we seek to make it productive of happiness instead of sorrow, we are bound to fail. This is the fundamental fact of egolessness-anattā.

      Thus the wisdom of anicca, dukhha, and anattā arises in the meditator as he continues observing sensations objectively. And the more this wisdom grows, the more the mirage of “I, mine” fades. Now the meditator will give primary importance not to the sensory object, but to its manifestation within the mental-physical structure. By doing so he achieves a fuller understanding of the reality of this mental-physical phenomenon, and so emerges from illusions and from suffering.

      This is the real purpose of Vipassana meditation: to awaken an understanding of truth in all its aspects, and to maintain this understanding in every situation. Whether sitting, standing, lying down, or walking, whether eating or drinking, whether bathing or washing, whether speaking or remaining silent, whether listening, seeing, tasting, smelling or touching, the meditator must maintain sampajañña, and understanding of the entire truth.

      Even when thinking one must maintain this understanding. Ordinarily we become absorbed in a train of thoughts; we forget ourselves entirely, and it seems to us that the mind has wandered far beyond the confines of the body. In fact this is not the case, but out of our ignorance we have forgotten the physical base of the mind; we have fallen into a delusion created by a partial view of truth. When we return to our senses, we return to an awareness of the underlying sensations that accompany the mental flow. With this awareness, we become steadfast in understanding truth in its totality. This is what is called becoming established in wisdom.

      And when one is truly established in wisdom, one can really witness the Four Noble Truths. These are not articles of faith to be accepted merely out of devotion, nor philosophical concepts to be grasped intellectually. They must be experienced directly. Only then do these truths become noble for us.

      By direct, personal experience the meditator realizes that misery is found not only in unpleasant experiences but in pleasant or neutral ones as well, because they are all impermanent. With this understanding of truth in its totality, the meditator actually witnesses the First Noble Truth of suffering.

      Similarly, by experience the meditator realizes that whenever a pleasant sensation occurs within the mental-physical structure, one reacts with craving. Seeking to prolong and intensify it; and whenever an unpleasant sensation occurs, one reacts with craving to be rid of it. In both cases one becomes miserable. With this direct experience of truth in its entirety, the meditator witnesses the Second Noble Truth: the cause of suffering.

      And with an understanding of reality in all its aspects; one witnesses every step of the path of liberation from suffering.

      One goes beyond mere beliefs, philosophies, or intellectual convictions to live the life of wisdom. This is bhāvanā-mayā-paññā, wisdom arising from direct experience. This is the right understanding, right view.

      With the base of this understanding, whatever thoughts arise will be right thoughts.

      And with this proper understanding, whatever one says will be right speech that is pleasing to hear, mild and to the point.

      One will avoid physical actions that harm others. By abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct and the use of intoxicants one ensures that one’s bodily actions are right actions.

      And in livelihood as well one is careful not to harm others by disturbing their peace and harmony, nor will one choose a means of support that encourages people to act wrongly and so to harm themselves. In this way, one practices right livelihood.

      And now the mental efforts that one makes will be right. One does not allow new vices to enter the mind and strives to eliminate the old ones. One generates previously lacking virtues and strives to strengthen existing ones.

      By understanding truth in its entirety, the mind becomes fully awakened to reality. Thus one develops right awareness.

      And by maintaining awareness of the reality within from moment to moment, one achieves right concentration of mind.

      In this way, by actually walking along the Eightfold Path, the meditator witnesses directly the Noble Truth of the way out of suffering. Practicing this way the meditator stops generating new saṅkhārās, new reactions that condition and defile the mind. At the same time he allows old conditionings to arise and be eradicated. Little by little he purifies the mind until within this very life he experiences nibbāna-the stage beyond the conditioned world of senses. He witnesses the Noble Truth of the cessation of suffering.

      Thus one experiences all four Noble Truths directly, and life becomes really fruitful.

      Come, O’ meditators! Let us awaken to an understanding of truth in all its aspects by training ourselves to observe objectively the sensations that arise from moment to moment within the mental-physical structure. Let us live a life of full understanding in order to witness all the Four Noble Truths, and to attain the goal of real happiness, real peace.

      Sampajañña-the Constant Thorough Understanding of Impermanence – by Vipassana Research Institute

  1. Thank you for this excellent analysis.

    In the 80s and 90s I spent a lot of time translating the yogadarśana into English. Part 4 of the book seems to be not only a bit of a contradiction of the first three parts, but also a much later addition from an entirely different sort of thinking.

    There was no “meditation” as we might know it in Vedic times, which were drawing to a close at the time the Buddha appears. So, around the 7th or 8th century CE when for some reason Buddhism was on the wane in India, the supporters of the Brahmanical tradition were eager to have “proof” that they had the real stuff: the Gita and the yogadarśana get composed and have huge areas of obvious Buddhist borrowings … because, despite the Dhamma being on the wane, people still knew it more than the Brahmanical teachings! Religion, Politics and Power are so often synonymous that one can only burst out laughing.

    In the 70s, I had been a follower of Mahesh (of Beatles fame). He used the Gita to prove he had the real stuff (he didn’t, but that’s another story) and later used the Yoga Sūtras to sell people the notion they could levitate! The concept of “levitation” in the yogadarśana is VERY questionable. Yes, there is a word that can be translated as levitation if you really want to push the envelope, but in the much broader context in which it is used, it seems to mean, simply, “go over” as iin “avoid”!

    All very hilarious, of course.

    Thank you, Theravadin, once again for this excellent analysis.

    • h4ppinesS

      Thank you Sudarsha for your analysis! What this article fails to do is consider the the first 3 Parts actually MAY HAVE BEEN ORIGINALLY BUDDHIST. The widely distributed version translated into both Arabic and Javanese- was only the first three parts. Part 4 is actually suspiciously and specifically anti-Buddhist. None of book quotes or references earlier Hindu books, as one might expect of a Hindu work. Perhaps the “Editor”, Vyasa, rewrote the book in order to make it acceptable Hindu Brahmin scripture! Read “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: A Biography” by David Gordon White. He does not champion this view but he mentions the thoughts of some scholars along these lines, and debunks quite a bit about the book, explaining how it was completely neglected in India for centuries until Vivekananda resurrected it, and Krishnamurti claimed it for his yoga. It was far from an unbroken tradition associated with Yoga, either the spiritual Raga Yoga, or what led to the modern international postural practice. I think it was simultaneously foisted on Hindu Nationalist yogis in India and Western yogis and it should be ended as modern yoga’s “spiritual link” to an ancient unbroken yoga tradition. Many a self-appointed expert has used the work as a launching point for their own religious spouting off, because it is so obscure and obfuscated, even with full knowledge of the original Sanskrit. Anyone with the slightest knowledge can claim it as support their own theological whims. This should be stopped.

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  3. Hi Theravadin! Thank you for this article, it is an excellent starting point to an essay in my university about connections of samkhya philosophy, yoga traditions and buddhism. Above you wrote that the steps of gradual development recommended by Buddha can be found in numerous places in MN and DN. I was looking for keywrords in sutta central but did not found a list, can you please help with a bit more specific sutta names?
    Kindest regards, and thank you again!


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