Kaṇṭhaka Sutta (AN 10:72)
On one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Vesālī at the Gabled Hall in the Great Forest together with many very well-known elder disciples: Ven. Pāla, Ven. Upapāla, Ven. Kakkaṭa, Ven. Kaḷimbha, Ven. Nikaṭa, Ven. Kaṭissaha,1 & other very well-known elder disciples. And on that occasion many very well-known Licchavis—racing after one another2 in auspicious vehicles, making a shrill noise, a great noise—plunged into the Great Forest to see the Blessed One.
Then the thought occurred to the venerable ones: “These many very well-known Licchavis—racing after one another in auspicious vehicles, making a shrill noise, a great noise—are plunging into the Great Forest to see the Blessed One. Now, the jhānas are said by the Blessed One to be thorned by noise. What if we were to go to the Gosiṅga Sāla forest park? There we would live comfortably, with next-to-no noise, next-to-no crowding.” So the venerable ones went to Gosiṅga Sāla forest park. There they lived comfortably, with next-to-no noise, next-to-no crowding.
Then the Blessed One addressed the monks: “Where is Pāla, monks? Where is Upapāla? Where is Kakkaṭa? Where is Kaḷimbha? Where is Nikaṭa? Where is Kaṭissaha? Where have those elder disciples gone?”
“Just now, lord, the thought occurred to those venerable ones, ‘These many very well-known Licchavis—racing after one another in auspicious vehicles, making a shrill noise, a great noise—are plunging into the Great Forest to see the Blessed One. Now, the jhānas are said by the Blessed One to be thorned by noise. What if we were to go to the Gosiṅga Sāla forest park? There we would live comfortably, with next-to-no noise, next-to-no crowding.’ So those venerable ones went to Gosiṅga Sāla forest park. There they are living comfortably, with next-to-no noise, next-to-no crowding.”
“Very good, monks, very good—what those great disciples, rightly declaring, have declared, for the jhānas have been said by me to be thorned by noise.
“Monks, there are these ten thorns. Which ten?
“For one who loves seclusion, love of entanglement is a thorn.
“For one committed to the theme of the unattractive, commitment to the theme of the attractive is a thorn.
“For one guarding the sense doors, watching a show is a thorn.
“For one practicing celibacy, nearness to women is a thorn.
“For the first jhāna, noise is a thorn.3
“For the second jhāna, directed thoughts & evaluations are thorns.
“For the third jhāna, rapture is a thorn.
“For the fourth jhāna, in-and-out breaths are thorns.4
“For the attainment of the cessation of perception & feeling, perception & feelings are thorns.
“Passion is a thorn. Aversion is a thorn. Delusion is a thorn.
“Dwell unthorned, monks! Dwell unthorned & dethorned! The arahants are unthorned, monks. The arahants are unthorned & dethorned.”5
1. There is no general agreement among the various editions as to these names. Here they are given as found in the Thai edition.
2. Reading paramparāya with the Thai edition. Parampara is sometimes translated as “in succession,” but in Pācittiya 33 it obviously means “out-of-turn,” a meaning that seems relevant here. The Licchavis are portrayed as raucous in other contexts as well. See, for example, DN 16.
3. This passage has been cited as proof that a person in the first jhāna must be unable to hear sounds, the argument being that directed thoughts and evaluations are not present in the second jhāna, rapture is not present in the third, and so forth, so sounds must not be present in the first. This argument, however, ignores two points in the larger context of the sutta:
a) If “thorn” were to mean something that cannot be present without destroying what is thorned, then nearness to women would destroy a man’s celibacy, watching a show would destroy one’s guarding of the senses, and so on. And yet it is possible to maintain one’s celibacy and one’s guard over ones’ senses in situations of this sort. An interpretation of “thorn” that consistently fits all ten examples, however, would be something that creates difficulties for what is thorned. Thus to say that noise is a thorn for the first jhāna would simply mean that noise makes it difficult to enter or stay in the jhāna.
b) If the Buddha had wanted to make the point that noise cannot be heard in the first jhāna, he would have criticized the elder monks for going to the trouble of leaving the Great Forest, and recommended that if they wanted to escape the disturbance of noise, they should have entered the first jhāna and dwelled comfortably there instead.
Three other suttas are also relevant to this issue:
MN 43 excludes the four jhānas from its list of meditative states that can be known through the eye of discernment when one’s intellect-consciousness is divorced from the five sense faculties.
AN 9:37 excludes the four jhānas from its list of concentration attainments in which the meditator is not sensitive to the five physical senses.
AN 9:38 is careful to note that a person in the first jhāna stands beyond the sway of the five strings of sensuality: enticing sights, sounds, aromas, flavors, and tactile sensations. It does not say that the person in the first jhāna is unable to be aware of the objects of the five external senses at all. This is in keeping with the standard description of the first jhāna, that it is entered when one is secluded from sensuality, which AN 6:63 defines as follows:
“The passion for his resolves is a man’s sensuality,
not the beautiful sensual pleasures
found in the world.
The passion for his resolves is a man’s sensuality.
The beauties remain as they are in the world,
while, in this regard,
subdue their desire.”
5. This last paragraph follows the Thai reading. The Burmese edition reads: “Dwell unthorned, monks! Dwell dethorned! Dwell unthorned & dethorned! The arahants are unthorned, monks. The arahants are dethorned. The arahants are unthorned & dethorned.”