Glossology Page Masthead

[Home]  [Sutta Indexes]  [Glossology]  [Site Sub-Sections]



[ Indication, sign, signature ]


Pali MO Hare Horner Punnaji Bodhi Nanamoli Rhys Davids (Mrs)Rhys Davids Thanissaro Walshe Woodward Warren
Nimitta Indication, symptom, sign, signature, mark



Pali Text Society
Pali English Dictionary
Edited by T. W. Rhys Davids and William Stede


Nimitta: (nt.) [cp. Sanskrit nimitta, to mā, although etym. uncertain] 1. sign, omen, portent, prognostication D I.9 (study of omens = n. satthaṃ DA I.92, q. v. for detailed explination); J I.11 (caturo nimitte na-ddasaŋ); 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 reference to jhāna) Vism 123, cp. DhsA 167. - Specified e. g. as following: o'ārika 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- (and asubha-) S V.64, 103 sq.; A I.3 sq., 87, 200; V.134; Vism 178 sq. nimittaṃ gaṇhāti to make something the object of a thought, to catch up a theme for reflection Vin I.183, cp. S V.150 sq. (-ṃ uggaṇhāti); M I.119 ( = five sorts of mental images); Nd2 659; DhsA 53 ( = ākāra). See below n-gāhin and animitta. nimittaṃ parivajjeti to discard the phenomenal S I.188; Sn 341. - 3. mark, aim: in nimittaṃ 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. and a-, as term of abuse); see also kāṭa and koṭacikā. - 5. ground, reason, condition, in nimittena (instr.) and nimittaṃ (acc.) as adv. = by means of, on account of DhA III.175 (instr.) PvA 8, 97 (jāti-nimittaṃ), 106 (kiṃ n-ṃ = kissa hetu), 242 (yaṃ n-ṃ = yato nidānaṃ). gahita-nimittena "by means of being caught" Vism 144 = DhsA 116 (read translation 154 accordingly!). adj. nimitta (*-) caused by, referring to PvA 64 (maraṇa-nimittaṃ rodanaṃ). - animitta free from marks or attributes, not contaminated by outward signs or appearance, undefiled, ?naffected, 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. See also Cpd. 199, 2115. sanimitta S V.213 sq.; A I.82.
-a-nusārin following outward signs ( = -gāhin) A III.292; Nett 25;
-kamma prognostication, prophecy Vin V.172; Vbh 353;
-karaṇa = gāhin S IV.297;
-gāhin "taking signs," enticed or led away by outward signs, entranced with the general appearance, sensuously attracted D I.70 (cp. Dialogues I.80); III.225; S IV.104, 168; A II.16; III.99; V.348; Pug 20, 24, 58; Dhs 1345; Miln 367, 403. Cp. Vism 151, 209.


Vinnana + Nama + Rupa = phassa
consciousness + Named-Forms = contact
downbound contact rebounds bound up in sensation

Another way this is put is:

Downbound Consciousness rebounds bound up in Nama/Rupa
Downbound Nama/Rupa rebounds bound up in the six-fold sense spheres
Downbound sense spheres rebound bound up in sensation

This means that sensation is stopped only when contact is stopped first.

Downbound sensation rebounds bound up in tanha.

Here we need to change vocabulary to correspond with the discussion of nimitta.

This 'tanha' is the 'liking and disliking' that gives rise to the hindrances pleasure-wishing, anger and doubt.

For both the learner and the arahant:

Here, Ananda, when a Beggar sees a material form with the eye, from this there arises the liked, the disliked, the liked-and-disliked.
MN 152

Please note that this does not say, with regard to either learner or arahant, that: '...when a Beggar sees a material form with the eye, from this there arises liking, disliking, or liking-and-disliking.'

The appearance of sensation is a consequence of prior acts of thought, word and deed where the individual has identified with the intent to act in such a way as to cause pleasure for himself.

An individual acts and by his action arrives at a new situation, in the piecing together of that new situation, kamma gets access and the individual is subjected to contacts producing sensations according to his kamma.

The purpose of eliminating the hindrances is not to attempt to prevent the arising of the liked (the thing itself), disliked, the liked-and-disliked, which is out of our immediate control, but to prevent the arising of liking, disliking, and liking-and-disliking, or tanha which is within our ability to control: Eliminating the hindrance does not eliminate the sensation.

By the elimination of the hindrances what one has done is to strip back to it's source the phenomena giving rise to tanha — the reaction to the sensation. That is, without the obstruction of liking, one is able to see the nature of the liked.

It is that feature which, external to the perceiver, and inhering in the perceived object, being experienced as pleasant or unpleasant sensation, which, because of some erroneous view (ditthi) is perceived as beautiful or ugly, or desirable or undesirable, and by that erroneous view giving rise to tanha ... that is the sign.

The sign itself is not beautiful or ugly etc. This should be obvious from the terms themselves which are value judgments ... something that nature has not yet mastered ... evolution produces objects such as the sent of flowers, that are perceived by us as pleasant, not because they 'are' beautiful, but because we have placed a value on the sensations produced by them.

Neither is the nimitta in and of itself pleasant or unpleasant. If the nimitta itself were pleasant or unpleasant what good would be served by studious etiological examination of it? If the nimitta itself were to be understood as pleasant, etc., then it would be towards the reaction, the liking, etc., that we should be directing our studious etiological examinations, but then what could we learn? That pleasant sensation produces liking. But what we are supposed to be understanding here is how a thing produces tanha, such that by the accumulation of knowledge and experience, we are able to recognize the presence of a pleasing object and forstall liking. We need to be able to see the deceptive nature of the thing itself.

So the procedure for eliminating the hindrances goes as follows:

Hindrance: Food of Hindrance: Elimination of Hindrance:
kamacchando, pleasure-wishing: Not studiously examining the sign of the unpleasant (Yonisomanasikaro to the nimitta of a thing nimitta of pleasantness. In other words if one is not paying attention one is vulnerable to seeing pleasant things as likable and liking them.) Studiously examining the sign of the unpleasant.
vyapado by the not-path (usu: anger) Not studiously examining the unpleasant nimita of a thing. Practicing metta (why this and not 'studious etiological examination of the pleasant nimitta of a thing? Because for one beset by anger the likly result would be the arising of kamacchando).
Vicikiccha doubt Not studiously examining things Studiously examining things

Vibhangha Analysis Debate Commentary

ANYPOS: subhanimitta (gives rise to) sensual pleasure (negates with) asubhanimitta.

'This has all the makings of [a heated controversy] ... if one says that "nimitta" in this context are external to the perceiver and inhere in the perceived object, then one needs to give an explanation of "subha" etc. Thus, if a "nimitta" is objectively "subha" then that quality of "subha" ought to be the same for all people. Let us take the example of a woman since that is mentioned in the suttas here. If the "subha-nimitta" is an objective feature of the woman, then how does one account for the different reactions one might have? For example, in modern Western culture fat women are rarely considered beautiful, but in other cultures, such as some traditional African cultures, fat women are considered attractive and desirable. This seems to indicate that the "subha-nimitta" must be subjective and related specifically to the perceiver.

The 'nimitta' is external to the perceiver and inheres in the perceived object.

The 'nimitta' is not, itself, 'subha' or 'asubha'; it is just an object [it could be an image, a scent, a thought that contains the information as to what it is precisely that is causing sensation — the sign while being an object is no more the object to which it points than a sign pointing to the city is the city]; sensations are 'subha' or 'asubha' in accordance with the intent placed into a prior act of mind, speech or deed.

Sensation is what is returned as the result of deeds intentionally done at an earlier point in time.

To state that pleasure or pain are mental constructs [which is what is being said when one identifies 'subha' and 'asubha' with 'nimitta' and calls that the mental construct of the perceiver] is to say either that they belong to an individuality capable of carrying them across time, which is to state that there is a continuing self or to say that there is no such thing as kamma.

This explains how 'subha' and 'asubha', sensations can arise differently for different individuals hypothetically capable of perceiving the same thing [which is impossible in reality] but it might be helpful to have an example:

Suppose you identifiy in the current situation a clear and distinct sensation of pleasure.

This sensation is not the nimitta.

You engage in yonisomanasikaro 'studious etiological examination' ... getting to the bottom of the matter ... tracing things to their point of origin ... technically, yonisomanasikaro is equal to 'seeing' the patica samuppada which is a description of the way things originate. Again, Yoniso = to the womb; mana = mind; sikaro = study. Study the root or womb in the mind.

You do this by first placing your attention on the sensation.

Then, tracing back in memory, you see that the sensation did not arise without basis.

You may see an object as the immediate cause of the sensation. This object may or may not be the nimitta! You dig until you are sure. How you can be sure is by way of seeing in the sign sufficient detail to escape attachment from the sensation.

You understand that that which has come to be has come to be as a consequence of contact.

You see the pleasurable sensation as arising not from the woman per se, but from a point of view you have concerning beauty and possession in connection with a particular sight emanating from the woman.

You are saying: "Ah but the downy hairs on the arm of that woman would be soft to the touch!"

You recognize in this thought the fact that it arises in conjunction with the visual consciousness of the downy hairs on the arm of the woman and that it is that in conjunction with mental contact that gives rise to pleasurable sensation.

You understand the matter this way: This sensation of pleasure is arising as a consequence of a prior act of intent to create pleasureable visual sensations (you were out looking to get laid) in combination with a passle of blind-fool notions concerning beauty and possession.

With the presence of a person whose kamma is such as is to be experienced, a woman with sutible down on the arm and those foolish notions, kamma gets access and determines the nature of the sensation that arises.

The 'nimitta' is the downy arm of the woman. It is by returning to the image in the mind of the downy arm that one is able to pursue the situation to it's roots. (Simply because one is able to return to the image of the sign in the mind does not place the sign itself in the mind any more than the recollection of the sight of the sign pointing to the city is the sign.) Or, if one insists on calling the recollection the sign (as is the case in the commentaries and Abhidhamma), then one must recognize that recollections are objects and do not 'belong' to the individual and that thinking in this way one is thinking not of the individualized mind, but of 'mind' which is external.

Persuing the situation to it's roots one is able to contrast one's foolish notions, now conscious, with those of the well educated student of the Aristocrats, i.e., the Four Truths and Paticca Samuppada.

Doing that, ignorance is abandoned and the real nature of the down as simply excreted waste material becomes possible to see.

So seeing lust is abandoned, the sensation subsides, freedom results.

Here are some relevant passages from the suttas:

— [SN 2.12.65]:
"But what can we do to escape the experience of sensations of pleasure or pain or neither pleasure nor pain?"

"Then this thought occurred to me: 'What is there right here in front of our eyes that gives rise to the experience of sensations of pleasure or pain or neither pleasure nor pain?

"Getting to the bottom of the matter, Beggars, I could see: 'Where we have Contact in the form of the coming together of Consciousness, Sense Organ and Sense Object, there also we have the experience of sensations of pleasure or pain or neither pleasure nor pain.' Contact in the form of the coming together of Consciousness, Sense Organ and Sense Object exists here in front of our eyes and we can see for ourselves that Contact in the form of the coming together of Consciousness, Sense Organ and Sense Object is necessary for the existence of the experience of sensations of pleasure or pain or neither pleasure nor pain. Without Contact in the form of the coming together of Consciousness, Sense Organ and Sense Object we would have no experience of sensations of pleasure or pain or neither pleasure nor pain."

— [DN 15]:
'Off contact sense experience rebounds here'
This is what I have said; and this, Ananda, is how to understand the scope of 'Off contact sense experience rebounds here':'
If, Ananda, there were no contact at all of any sort by any being of any sort, whatever, however; that is: eye-contact, ear-contact, nose-contact, tongue-contact, body-contact, mind-contact, with the non-being of all contact, with the eradication of contact, could there then be the discerning of sense experience?

Such could not be, bhante.

In 'Becoming Indra', [MN 152] there are two ways of dealing with sensation according as to whether one is a learner or an Aristocrat [Arahant]:

The learner:

Here, Ananda, when a Beggar sees a material form with the eye,
from this there arises the liked,
the disliked,
the liked-and-disliked.

He understands the situation this way:
'Present in me now is that which is liked,
This is occuring as a consequence of confounding,
it is a biproduct,
the rebound of an earlier conjuration
...but this,
this is calm,
this is high,
that is, objective detachment.'

That way the birth of the liked,
the birth of the disliked,
the birth of the liked-and-disliked
is aborted and objective detachment stands fast.

The Aristocrat:

And how, Ananda,
is it with an Aristocrat
who has become Indra?

Here, Ananda,
when a Beggar sees a material form with the eye,
from this there arises the liked,
the disliked,
the liked-and-disliked.

Sucha one as suchas sucha
may wishum wishes suchas such:

"Let me live not perceiving
what goes against the grain
in what goes against the grain."
And suchis such as suchas is
for such a such'n such as suchis this.

Or he may wish:
"Let me live perceiving
what goes against the grain
in what does not go against the grain."

Or he may wish:
"Let me live not perceiving
what goes against the grain
in both what goes against the grain
and what does not go against the grain."

Or he may wish:
"Let me live perceiving
what goes against the grain
in both what goes against the grain
and what does not go against the grain."

Or he may wish:
"Let me live avoiding both
what goes against the grain
and what does not go against the grain,
clearly conscious,

And suchis such as suchas is for such a such'n such as suchis such.

Here, Ananda, when a Beggar hears a sound with the ear~

This is The Way it is, Ananda, for an Aristocrat who has become Indra.

[MN 10]; [DN 22]:

Sensations are of two sorts:
1. pleasant, unpleasant or neither unpleasant nor pleasant sensations downbound to the world, and
2. pleasant, unpleasant or neither unpleasant nor pleasant sensations bound up, bound up in nothing at all in the world.

When ANYPOS says: 'This has all the makings of ~' what is being said is 'This has all the signs of ~'. He is, by this indicating that the signs 'are external to the perceiver and inhere in the perceived object' or, following his subsequent reasoning, we would all be perceiving different things in 'this' and he would have no grounds for assuming that we would understand his remarks.

When ANYPOS says: 'subhanimitta (gives rise to) sensual pleasure (negates with) asubhanimitta' What he is saying is: 'The pleasant feature of a thing gives rise to sensual pleasure; sensual pleasure is negated by the unpleasant feature of a thing.'

This is running several ideas into one.

The subha nimitta gives rise to nothing.

Pleasant sensation, etc. arises in an individual as a consequence of prior acts of thought, word and deed done with the identification of self with the intent to produce for the self pleasant sensation.

Later, in this visible thing (ditthadhamma), noticing the presence of kamacchando, seeking to eliminate it, one counter-acts it's effects by directing one's studious etiological examination in stead to an unpleasant sign in the object.

When one is studiously examining, liking and disliking do not arise.

From the non-arising of liking and disliking, the non-arising of kamacchando if unarisen, or if arisen, it's passing off.

And a similar mechanism of action is used to eliminate the other hindrances.

Pro-actively the learner deals with the situation by taking case after case of arisen hindrances and studiously etiologically examining them such that the conclusion is reached that one needs to guard the doors of the senses to prevent liking and disliking on the appearance within the range of a sense organ of a sense object that might formerly have been identified as having a pleasant nimitta.

Examining the situation carefully one can see that one does not eliminate arisen sensual desire; one is only able to eliminate it's continuance and future arising in the manner described.

This means that the Aristocrat is able, because he is sufficiently swift of wit, to program himself to become aware of, by knowledge of nimitta, the potential for that which is contra-indicated (a hindrance) before it gives rise to liking.

Having experienced and understood that kamacchando, vyapado and vicikiccha are hindrances, and wishing to prevent their arising in the future, one pro-activly gives studious etiological examination to a thing.

It is not studiously examining the pleasant feature that is the basis of the liking and disliking.



On Nimitta from Points of Controversy, Appendix:

[387] Nimitta is derived by some from ni + mā, to limit; and is defined as 'that which limits its own fruit (effect)': attano phalaɱ niminātēti (Abhidhāna-p-padīpikāsūcī). According to this definition it denotes a causal factor, limiting, determining, conditioning, characterizing, etc., its own effect. [388] Hence anything entering into a causal relation, by which its effect is signified, marked, or characterized, is a nimitta. An object, image, or concept which, on being meditated upon, induces samadhi (Jhana) is a nimitta (see the stages specified in Compendium, p. 54). False opinion (diṭṭhi) engendered by hallucination concerning impermanence — in other words, a perverted view of things as permanent — is a nimitta (ibid., p. 217). This functions either as a cause of 'will-to-live,' or as a sign of worldliness. Emancipation from this nimitta is termed animittavimokkha (ibid., p. 216). Again, sexual characters are comprised under four heads: linga, nimitta, ākappa, kutta, nimitta, standing for outward characteristics, male or female {Bud. Psy. Eth., §§ 633, 634).

Later exegeses, deriving the word from the root mih, to pour out, are probably derivations d'occasion.

Now in this argument (X. 3) the opponent confuses the na nimitta[-gahī] — 'does not grasp at the general [or sex] characters of the object seen, heard, etc.' — of the quotation with animitta, a synonym, like 'emptiness' (suññata) of Nibbāna. He judges that the Path-graduate, when he is not -nimitta-grasping, is grasping the a-nimitta or signless (Nibbana), instead of exercising self-control in presence of alluring features in external objects, whether these be attractive human beings or what not.

According to the Commentary the expression cited, 'does not grasp at, etc.,' refers 'not to the moment of visual or other sense-consciousness, but to the javana-k-khana, or moment of apperception; hence even in the worldly course of things it is inconclusive.' This is made clearer in the following discourse (X. 4), where ethical matters are stated to lie outside the range of sense-consciousness as such.


 [Glossology Contents]

Copyright Statement