a post by Nina van Gorkom
Nimitta is a sign - (usually) taking a nimitta for something, a
concept, for instance an idea about sound. The concept is not
necessarily wrong view.
> Ph: There is never stopping at sense door cognition for us, always
> straight to mind door processes, like water going from one sheet of
> onion paper to the next, in a flash, is the meaning here?
N: I remember this metaphor, yes, correct.
Ann: There is both nimitta of concept and nimitta of reality.
Nina: Usually it is nimitta of concept. Where the other 5 sense
consciousnesses or bhavanga citta is not arising, then it’s thinking.
Seems as if we are thinking all of the time.
Understanding is nimitta of reality.
It is not easy to understand feeling as a reality (nimitta of vedana).
N: Different meanings of nimitta in different contexts. Nimitta as
object of jhaana such as a kasina is one thing.
Then there is the text: being infatuated by the the image of the
whole and the details. We take what is seen for persons or things.
Another meaning of nimitta.
Then there is sa"nkhara nimitta, nimitta of the khandhas. Nimitta of
ruupa, of feeling etc.
N: I shall now requote from my ‘Alone with Dhamma’ (Ch on the present
<We read in the Kindred Sayings (IV, Ch II, § 80, Ignorance,
translated by Ven. Bodhi) that a bhikkhu asked the Buddha whether
there is one thing through the abandoning of which ignorance is
abandoned and true knowledge arises.
We read that the Buddha answered: “Ignorance, bhikkhu, is that one
thing through the abandoning of which ignorance is abandoned by a
bhikkhu and true knowledge arises.”
Ven. Bodhi states in a note to this passage: “Though it may sound
redundant to say that ignorance must be abandoned in order to abandon
ignorance, this statement underscores the fact that ignorance is the
most fundamental cause of bondage, which must be eliminated to
eliminate all the other bonds.”
We read further on:
“> Here, bhikkhu, a bhikkhu has heard, ‘Nothing is worth adhering to’.
When a bhikkhu has heard, ‘Nothing is worth adhering to’, he directly
knows everything. Having directly known everything, he fully
understands everything. Having fully understood everything, he sees
all signs (nimitta) differently. He sees the eye differently, he sees
forms differently…whatever feeling arises with mind-contact as
condition… that too he sees differently…”
As to the term adhere, this pertains to clinging with wrong view.
The Commentary explains the words, “he sees all signs differently
(sabbanimittåni aññato passati)” as follows: “He sees all the signs
of formations (sankhåranimittåni) in a way different from that of
people who have not fully understood the adherences. For such people
see all signs as self, but one who has fully understood the
adherences sees them as non-self, not as self. Thus in this sutta the
characteristic of non-self is discussed.”
In this Commentary the word “sa"nkhåra-nimitta”, the nimittas, signs
or mental images, of conditioned dhammas, is used. When we were
returning from the Bodhitree walking up the long stairways, a friend
asked Acharn Sujin about this term. Nimitta has different meanings in
different contexts. The nimitta or mental image in samatha refers to
the meditation subject of samatha. We also read in some texts that
one should not be taken in by the outward appearance of things
(nimitta) and the details. However, the term sa"nkhåranimitta has a
different meaning as I shall explain further on.
Acharn Sujin emphasized that whatever we read in the texts about
nimitta should be applied to our life now. “What we read is not
theory” she often explains.
We read in the “Mahåvedallasutta” (Middle Length Sayings, no 43),
about freedom of mind that is “signless”, and we read that there are
two conditions for attaining this: ”non-attention (amanåsikåra) to
all “signs” and attention to the signless element”. The Commentary
states that the signs, nimittas, are the objects such as visible
object, etc. and that the signless is nibbåna. The signless
liberation of mind is explained in a way that clearly connects it
with the fruition of arahantship: lust, hatred and delusion are
declared to be “sign-makers” (nimittakarana), which the arahant has
When we read about object (årammana) as a sign, we should remember
that this is not theory. An object is what citta experiences at this
moment. When the rúpa that is the eyebase has not fallen away yet and
colour or visible object impinges on it, there are conditions for the
arising of seeing. If there were no citta which sees visible object
could not appear.
When we asked Acharn Sujin whether the impression or sign (nimitta)
of a dhamma is a concept or a reality she answered: “These are only
words. If we use the word concept there is something that is
experienced by thinking. We should not just know words, but
understand the reality that appears right now. There is not merely
one moment of experiencing visible object, but many moments arising
and falling away. When right understanding arises we do not have to
use any term.”
She repeated that there is the impression of visible object right
now. She said: “It is this moment.” Visible object impinges on the
eyesense and after it has fallen away, what is left is the impression
or sign, nimitta of visible object.
It seems that visible object lasts for a while, but in reality it
arises and falls away. Acharn Sujin used the simile of a torch that
is swung around. In this way, we have the impression of a whole, of a
circle of light.
We know that seeing arises at this moment, but we cannot pinpoint the
citta which sees, it arises and falls away very rapidly and another
moment of seeing arises. We only experience the “sign” of seeing.
The notion of nimitta can remind us that not just one moment of
seeing appears, but many moments that are arising and falling away.
Also visible object is not as solid as we would think, there are many
moments arising and falling away which leave the sign or impression
of visible object.
Visible object that was experienced by cittas of a sense-door process
has fallen away; sense-door processes and mind-door processes of
cittas alternate very rapidly. Visible object impinges again and
again and seeing arises again and again. When their characteristics
appear we cannot count the different units of rúpa or the cittas that
see, they arise and fall away; the impression of what is seen and of
the seeing appears.
Acharn Sujin said: “No matter whether we call it nimitta or not, it
is appearing now. Whatever appears is the sign or nimitta of the
dhamma that arises and falls away.”
We cling to what appears for a very short moment, but is does not
remain. It is the same with saññå, there is not one moment of saññå
that marks and remembers, but countless moments, arising and falling
Thus, we can speak of the nimitta of each of the five khandhas: of
rúpa, of feeling, of saññå, of sankhårakkhandha, of consciousness.
There are nimittas of all conditioned dhammas that appear at this
moment, arising and falling away extremely rapidly.
Seeing arising at this moment sees visible object. We notice visible
object and while we notice it, we have a vivid impression of it, but
it has just fallen away. Seeing falls away but extremely shortly
after it has fallen away another moment of seeing arises that
experiences visible object. It arises again and again and in between
one notices that there is seeing, or, if there are the right
conditions a citta with sati can arise that is mindful of its
characteristic. However, mindfulness of seeing arises after seeing
has fallen away, not at the same time as seeing.