In modern Theravada, the combination or disjunction of vipassanā and samatha is a matter of dispute. While the Pali sutras hardly mention vipassanā, describing it as a mental quality alongside with samatha which develop in tandem and lead to liberation, the Abhidhamma Pitaka and the commentaries describe samatha and vipassanā as two separate meditation techniques. The Vipassanā movement favours vipassanā over samatha, but critics point out that both are necessary elements of the Buddhist training.
Vipassanā is a Pali word derived from the older prefix "vi-" and verbal root paś. It is often translated as'"insight" or "clear-seeing", though the "in-" prefix in "insight" may be misleading; "vi" in Indo-Aryan languages is equivalent to the Latin "dis." The "vi" in vipassanā may then mean to see into, see through or to see 'in a special way.' Alternatively, the "vi" can function as an intensive, and thus vipassanā may mean "seeing deeply."
A synonym for vipassanā is paccakkha "perceptible to the senses" (Pāli; Sanskrit: pratyakṣa), literally "before the eyes," which refers to direct experiential perception. Thus, the type of seeing denoted by vipassanā is that of direct perception, as opposed to knowledge derived from reasoning or argument.
In Tibetan, vipaśyanā is lhaktong (Wylie: lhag mthong). Lhak means "higher", "superior", "greater"; tong is "view, to see". So together, lhaktong may be rendered into English as "superior seeing", "great vision" or "supreme wisdom." This may be interpreted as a "superior manner of seeing", and also as "seeing that which is the essential nature." Its nature is a lucidity—a clarity of mind.
Henepola Gunaratana defined vipassanā as "Looking into something with clarity and precision, seeing each component as distinct and separate, and piercing all the way through so as to perceive the most fundamental reality of that thing."}}
According to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, in the sutta pitaka the term "vipassanā" is hardly mentioned, while they frequently mention jhana as the meditative practice to be undertaken.[note 1] When vipassanā is mentioned, it is always in tandem with samatha, as a pair of qualities of mind which are developed. According to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, "samatha, jhana, and vipassana were all part of a single path."[note 2] Norman notes that "the Buddha's way to release [...] was by means of meditative practices." According to Vetter and Bronkhorst, dhyāna constituted the original "liberating practice". Vetter further argues that the eightfold path constitutes a body of practices which prepare one, and lead up to, the practice of dhyana. Vetter and Bronkhorst further note that dhyana is not limited to single-pointed concentration, which seems to be described in the first jhana, but develops into equanimity and mindfulness,[note 3] "born from samadhi" but no longer absorbed in concentration, being mindfully awareness of objects while being indifferent to it, "directing states of meditative absorption towards the mindful awareness of objects."
Though both terms appear in the Sutta Pitaka[note 4], Gombrich and Brooks argue that the distinction as two separate paths originates in the earliest interpretations of the Sutta Pitaka, not in the suttas themselves.[note 5] Henepola Gunaratana notes that "[t]he classical source for the distinction between the two vehicles of serenity and insight is the Visuddhimagga." According to Richard Gombrich, a development took place in early Buddhism resulting in a change in doctrine, which considered prajna to be an alternative means to awakening, alongside the practice of dhyana. The suttas contain traces of ancient debates between Mahayana and Theravada schools in the interpretation of the teachings and the development of insight. Out of these debates developed the idea that bare insight suffices to reach liberation, by discerning the Three marks (qualities) of (human) existence (tilakkhana), namely dukkha (suffering), anatta (non-self) and anicca (impermanence).
According to Buswell, by the 10th century vipassana was no longer practiced in the Theravada tradition, due to the belief that Buddhism had degenerated, and that liberation was no longer attainable until the coming of Maitreya. It was re-introdcued in Myanmar (Burma) in the 18th century by Medawi (1728–1816), leading to the rise of the Vipassana movement in the 20th century, re-inventing vipassana-meditation and developing simplified meditation techniques, based on the Satipatthana sutta, the Visuddhimagga, and other texts, emphasizing satipatthana and bare insight.[note 6] Ultimately, these techniques aim at stream entry, with the idea that this first stage of the path to awakening safeguards future development of the person towards full awakening, despite the degenerated age we live in.[note 7]
While the Abhidhamma and the commentaries present samatha and vipassana as separate paths,[note 8] in the sutras vipassana and samatha, combined with sati (mindfulness), are used together to explore "the fundamental nature of mind and body. In the later Theravada tradition, samatha is regarded as a preparation for vipassanā, pacifying the mind and strengthening concentration in order for insight to arise, which leads to liberation.
The term vipassana is often conflated with the Vipassana movement, a movement which popularised the new vipassana teachings and practice. It started in the 1950s in Burma, but has gained wide renown mainly through American Buddhist teachers such as Joseph Goldstein, Tara Brach, Gil Fronsdal, Sharon Salzberg, and Jack Kornfield. The movement has had a wide appeal due to being open and inclusive to different Buddhist and non-buddhist wisdom, poetry as well as science. It has together with the modern American Zen tradition served as one of the main inspirations for the 'mindfulness movement' as developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn and others. The Vipassanā Movement, also known as the Insight Meditation Movement, is rooted in Theravāda Buddhism and the revival of meditation techniques, especially the "New Burmese Method" and the Thai Forest Tradition, as well as the modern influences on the traditions of Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos and Thailand.
In the Vipassanā Movement, the emphasis is on the Satipatthana Sutta and the use of mindfulness to gain insight into the impermanence of the self. It argues that the development of strong samatha can be disadvantageous, a stance for which the Vipassana Movement has been criticised, especially in Sri Lanka. The "New Burmese Method" was developed by U Nārada (1868–1955), and popularised by Mahasi Sayadaw (1904-1982) and Nyanaponika Thera (1901–1994). Other influential Burmese proponents are Ledi Sayadaw and Mogok Sayadaw (who was less known to the West due to lack of International Mogok Centres); S. N. Goenka was a student of Sayagyi U Ba Khin. Influential Thai teachers are Ajahn Chah and Buddhadasa. A well-known Asian female teacher is Dipa Ma.
Morality, mindfulness of breathing, and reflection
Vipassanā-meditation uses sati (mindfulness) and samatha (calm), developed through the practice of anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing), combined with the contemplation of impermanence as observed in the bodily and mental changes, to gain insight into the true nature of this reality.
Practice begins with the preparatory stage, the practice of sila, morality, giving up wordly thoughts and desires. Jeff Wilson notes that morality is a quintessential element of Buddhist practice, and is also emphasized by the first generation of post-war western teachers. Yet, in the contemporary mindfulness movement, morality as an element of practice has been mostly discarded, 'mystifying' the origins of mindfulness.
The practitioner then engages in anapanasati, mindfulness of breathing, which is described in the Satipatthana Sutta as going into the forest and sitting beneath a tree and then to simply watch the breath. If the breath is long, to notice that the breath is long, if the breath is short, to notice that the breath is short. In the "New Burmese Method," the practitioner pays attention to any arising mental or physical phenomenon, engaging in vitaka, noting or naming physical and mental phenomena ("breathing, breathing"), without engaging the phenomenon with further conceptual thinking. By noticing the arising of physical and mental phenomena, the meditator becomes aware how sense impressions arise from the contact between the senses and physical and mental phenomena, as described in the five skandhas and paṭiccasamuppāda. According to Sayadaw U Pandita, awareness and observation of these sensations is de-coupled from any kind of physical response, which is intended to recondition one's impulsive responses to stimuli, becoming less likely to physically or emotionally overreact to the happenings of the world
The practitioner also becomes aware of the perpetual changes involved in breathing, and the arising and passing away of mindfulness. This noticing is accompanied by reflections on causation and other Buddhist teachings, leading to insight into dukkha, anatta, and anicca. When the three characteristics have been comprehended, reflection subdues, and the process of noticing accelerates, noting phenomena in general, without necessarily naming them.
Stages of Jhana in the Vipassana movement
Vipassanā jhanas are stages that describe the development of samatha in vipassanā meditation practice as described in modern Burmese Vipassana meditation.Mahasi Sayadaw's student Sayadaw U Pandita described the four vipassanā jhanas as follows:
The meditator first explores the body/mind connection as one, nonduality; discovering three characteristics. The first jhana consists in seeing these points and in the presence of vitakka and vicara. Phenomena reveal themselves as appearing and ceasing.
In the second jhana, the practice seems effortless. Vitaka and vicara both disappear.
In the third jhana, piti, the joy, disappears too: there is only happiness (sukha) and concentration.
The fourth jhana arises, characterised by purity of mindfulness due to equanimity. The practice leads to direct knowledge. The comfort disappears because the dissolution of all phenomena is clearly visible. The practice will show every phenomenon as unstable, transient, disenchanting. The desire of freedom will take place.
[b]y considering the unique characteristics (svālakṣaṇa) and the general characteristics (sāmānyalakṣaṇā) of the body, sensation, the mind, and the dharmas.
"The unique characteristics" means its self nature (svabhāva).
"The general characteristics" signifies the fact that "All conditioned things are impermanent; all impure dharmas are suffering; and that all the dharmas are empty (śūnya) and not-self (anātmaka).
Asanga's Abhidharma-samuccaya states that the practice of śamatha-vipaśyanā is a part of a Bodhisattva's path at the beginning, in the first "path of preparation" (sambhāramarga).
The later Indian Mahayana scholastic tradition, as exemplified by Shantideva's Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra, saw śamatha as a necessary prerequisite to vipaśyanā and thus one needed to first begin with calm abiding meditation and then proceed to insight. In the Pañjikā commentary of Prajñākaramati (Wylie: shes rab 'byung gnas blo gros) on the Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra, vipaśyanā is defined simply as "wisdom (prajñā) that has the nature of thorough knowledge of reality as it is.
Mahāyānavipaśyanā differs from the Theravada tradition in its strong emphasis on the meditation on emptiness (shunyata) of all phenomena. The Mahayana Akṣayamati-nirdeśa refers to vipaśyanā as seeing phenomena as they really are, that is, empty, without self, nonarisen, and without grasping. The Prajnaparamita sutra in 8,000 lines states that the practice of insight is the non-appropriation of any dharmas, including the five aggregates:
So too, a Bodhisattva coursing in perfect wisdom and developing as such, neither does nor even can stand in form, feeling, perception, impulse and consciousness...This concentrated insight of a Bodhisattva is called 'the non-appropriation of all dharmas'.
Likewise the Prajnaparamita in 25,000 lines states that a Bodhisattva should know the nature of the five aggregates as well as all dharmas thus:
That form, etc. [feeling, perception, impulse and consciousness], which is like a dream, like an echo, a mock show, a mirage, a reflection of the moon in water, an apparition, that is neither bound nor freed. Even so form, etc., which is past, future, or present, is neither bound nor freed. And why? Because of the nonbeing-ness of form, etc. Even so form, etc., whether it be wholesome or unwholesome, defiled or undefiled, tainted or untainted, with or without outflows, worldly or supramundane, defiled or purified, is neither bound nor freed, on account of its non-beingness, its isolatedness, its quiet calm, its emptiness, signless-ness, wishless-ness, because it has not been brought together or produced. And that is true of all dharmas.
The Sthavira nikāya, one of the early Buddhist schools from which the Theravada-tradition originates, emphasized sudden insight: "In the Sthaviravada [...] progress in understanding comes all at once, 'insight' (abhisamaya) does not come 'gradually' (successively - anapurva)."
The Mahāsāṃghika, another one of the early Buddhist schools, had the doctrine of ekakṣaṇacitta, "according to which a Buddha knows everything in a single thought-instant".[citation not found] This process however, meant to apply only to the Buddha and Peccaka buddhas. Lay people may have to experience various levels of insights to become fully enlightened.
[T]he very title of a large corpus of early Mahayana literature, the Prajnaparamita, shows that to some extent the historian may extrapolate the trend to extol insight, prajna, at the expense of dispassion, viraga, the control of the emotions.
Although Theravada and Mahayana are commonly understood as different streams of Buddhism, their practice however, may reflect emphasis on insight as a common denominator: "In practice and understanding Zen is actually very close to the Theravada Forest Tradition even though its language and teachings are heavily influenced by Taoism and Confucianism."[note 9]
He who practices 'clear observation' should observe that all conditioned phenomena in the world are unstationary and are subject to instantaneous transformation and destruction; that all activities of the mind arise and are extinguished from moment or moment; and that, therefore, all of these induce suffering. He should observe that all that had been conceived in the past was as hazy as a dream, that all that is being conceived in the future will be like clouds that rise up suddenly. He should also observe that the physical existences of all living beings in the world are impure and that among these various filthy things there is not a single one that can be sought after with joy.
Calming is the essence of wisdom. And wisdom is the natural function of calming [i.e., prajñā and samādhi]. At the time of prajñā, samādhi exists in that. At the time of samādhi, prajñā exists in that. How is it that samādhi and prajñā are equivalent? It is like the light of the lamp. When the lamp exists, there is light. When there is no lamp, there is darkness. The lamp is the essence of light. The light is the natural function of the lamp. Although their names are different, in essence, they are fundamentally identical. The teaching of samādhi and prajñā is just like this.
Samatha and vipassana are explicitly referred to in Tibetan Buddhism. According to Thrangu Rinpoche, when shamatha and vipashyana are combined, as in the mainstream tradition Madhyamaka approach of ancestors like Shantideva and Kamalashila, through samatha disturbing emotions are abandoned, which thus facilitates vipashyana, "clear seeing." Vipashyana is cultivated through reasoning, logic and analysis in conjunction with Shamatha. In contrast, in the siddha tradition of the direct approach of Mahamudra and Dzogchen, vipashyana is ascertained directly through looking into one's own mind. After this initial recognition of vipashyana, the steadiness of shamatha is developed within that recognition. According to Thrangu Rinpoche, it is however also common in the direct approach to first develop enough shamatha to serve as a basis for vipashyana.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the classical practice of śamatha and vipaśyanā is strongly influenced by the Mahāyāna text called the Bhavanakrama of Indian master Kamalaśīla. Kamalaśīla defines vipaśyanā as "the discernment of reality" (bhūta-pratyavekṣā) and "accurately realizing the true nature of dharmas".
In Tibet direct examination of moment-to-moment experience as a means of generating insight became exclusively associated with vajrayāna.[note 14][note 15]
Mahāmudrā and Dzogchen use vipaśyanā extensively. This includes some methods of the other traditions, but also their own specific approaches. They place a greater emphasis on meditation on symbolic images. Additionally in the Vajrayāna (tantric) path, the true nature of mind is pointed out by the guru, and this serves as a direct form of insight.[note 16]
^Thanissaro Bhikkhu: "If you look directly at the Pali discourses — the earliest extant sources for our knowledge of the Buddha's teachings — you'll find that although they do use the word samatha to mean tranquillity, and vipassanā to mean clear-seeing, they otherwise confirm none of the received wisdom about these terms. Only rarely do they make use of the word vipassanā — a sharp contrast to their frequent use of the word jhana. When they depict the Buddha telling his disciples to go meditate, they never quote him as saying "go do vipassanā," but always "go do jhana." And they never equate the word vipassanā with any mindfulness techniques."
^Thanissaro Bhikkhu: "This description of the unified role of samatha and vipassana is based upon the Buddha's meditation teachings as presented in the suttas (see "One Tool Among Many" by Thanissaro Bhikkhu). The Abhidhamma and the Commentaries, by contrast, state that samatha and vipassana are two distinct meditation paths (see, for example, The Jhanas in Theravada Buddhist Meditation by H. Gunaratana, ch. 5)."
AN 4.170 (Pali):
“Yo hi koci, āvuso, bhikkhu vā bhikkhunī vā mama santike arahattappattiṁ byākaroti, sabbo so catūhi maggehi, etesaṁ vā aññatarena.
Katamehi catūhi? Idha, āvuso, bhikkhu samathapubbaṅgamaṁ vipassanaṁ bhāveti[...]
Puna caparaṁ, āvuso, bhikkhu vipassanāpubbaṅgamaṁ samathaṁ bhāveti[...]
Puna caparaṁ, āvuso, bhikkhu samathavipassanaṁ yuganaddhaṁ bhāveti[...]
Puna caparaṁ, āvuso, bhikkhuno dhammuddhaccaviggahitaṁ mānasaṁ hoti[...]
Friends, whoever — monk or nun — declares the attainment of arahantship in my presence, they all do it by means of one or another of four paths. Which four?
There is the case where a monk has developed insight preceded by tranquility. [...]
Then there is the case where a monk has developed tranquillity preceded by insight. [...]
Then there is the case where a monk has developed tranquillity in tandem with insight. [...]
"Then there is the case where a monk's mind has its restlessness concerning the Dhamma [Comm: the corruptions of insight] well under control.
AN 2.30 Vijja-bhagiya Sutta, A Share in Clear Knowing:
"These two qualities have a share in clear knowing. Which two? Tranquility (samatha) & insight (vipassana).
"When tranquility is developed, what purpose does it serve? The mind is developed. And when the mind is developed, what purpose does it serve? Passion is abandoned. "When insight is developed, what purpose does it serve? Discernment is developed. And when discernment is developed, what purpose does it serve? Ignorance is abandoned.
"Defiled by passion, the mind is not released. Defiled by ignorance, discernment does not develop. Thus from the fading of passion is there awareness-release. From the fading of ignorance is there discernment-release."
SN 43.2 (Pali): "Katamo ca, bhikkhave, asaṅkhatagāmimaggo? Samatho ca vipassanā". English translation: "And what, bhikkhus, is the path leading to the unconditioned? Serenity and insight."
^Brooks: "While many commentaries and translations of the Buddha's Discourses claim the Buddha taught two practice paths, one called "shamata" and the other called "vipassanā," there is in fact no place in the suttas where one can definitively claim that."
^Buddhadasa rejected the reliance on the Satipatthana sutta as being "vague and muddled," instead relying on the Anapanasati Sutta. According to Buddhadasa, the aim of mindfulness is to stop the arising of disturbing thoughts and emotions, which arise from sense-contact.
According to Grzegorz Polak, the four upassanā (foundations of mindfulness) have been misunderstood by the developing Buddhist tradition, including Theravada, to refer to four different foundations. According to Polak, the four upassanā do not refer to four different foundations, but to the awareness of four different aspects of raising mindfulness:
^* Fronsdal: "The primary purpose for which Mahasi offered his form of vipassana practice is the attainment of the first of the four traditional Theravada levels of sainthood (that is, stream entry; sotapatti)
through the realization of nibbana, or enlightenment." * Robert Sharf: "In fact, contrary to the image propagated by twentieth-century apologists, the actual practice of what we would call meditation rarely played a major role in Buddhist monastic life. The ubiquitous notion of mappo or the "final degenerate age of the dharma" served to reinforce the notion that "enlightenment" was not in fact a viable goal for monks living in inauspicious times." * Robert Sharf: "The initial "taste" of nibbana signals the attainment of sotapatti-the first of four levels of enlightenment-which renders the meditator a "noble person" (ariya-puggala)destined for release from the wheel of existence (samsara)in relatively short order."
^Various traditions disagree which techniques belong to which pole.
^Khantipalo recommends the use of the kōan-like question "Who?" to penetrate "this not-self-nature of the five aggregates": "In Zen Buddhism this technique has been formulated in several koans, such as 'Who drags this corpse around?'"
^Corresponding respectively to the "contemplative forms" and "experiential forms" in the Theravāda school described above
^Leah Zahler: "The practice tradition suggested by the Treasury [Abhidharma-kośa] .. . — and also by Asaṅga's Grounds of Hearers — is one in which mindfulness of breathing becomes a basis for inductive reasoning on such topics as the five aggregates; as a result of such inductive reasoning, the meditator progresses through the Hearer paths of preparation, seeing, and meditation. It seems at least possible that both Vasubandhu and Asaṅga presented their respective versions of such a method, analogous to but different from modern Theravāda insight meditation, and that Gelukpa scholars were unable to reconstruct it in the absence of a practice tradition because of the great difference between this type of inductive meditative reasoning based on observation and the types of meditative reasoning using consequences (thal 'gyur, prasaanga) or syllogisms (sbyor ba, prayoga) with which Gelukpas were familiar. Thus, although Gelukpa scholars give detailed interpretations of the systems of breath meditation set forth in Vasubandu's and Asaṅga's texts, they may not fully account for the higher stages of breath meditation set forth in those texts [...] it appears that neither the Gelukpa textbook writers nor modern scholars such as Lati Rinpoche and Gendun Lodro were in a position to conclude that the first moment of the fifth stage of Vasubandhu's system of breath meditation coincides with the attainment of special insight and that, therefore, the first four stages must be a method for cultivating special insight [although this is clearly the case].
^This tradition is outlined by Kamalaśīla in his three Bhāvanākrama texts (particularly the second one), following in turn an approach described in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra. One scholar describes his approach thus: "the overall picture painted by Kamalaśīla is that of a kind of serial alternation between observation and analysis that takes place entirely within the sphere of meditative concentration" in which the analysis portion consists of Madhyamaka reasonings.
^According to contemporary Tibetan scholar Thrangu Rinpoche the Vajrayana cultivates direct experience. Thrangu Rinpoche: "The approach in the sutras [...] is to develop a conceptual understanding of emptiness and gradually refine that understanding through meditation, which eventually produces a direct experience of emptiness [...] we are proceeding from a conceptual understanding produced by analysis and logical inference into a direct experience [...] this takes a great deal of time [...] we are essentially taking inferential reasoning as our method or as the path. There is an alternative [...] which the Buddha taught in the tantras [...] the primary difference between the sutra approach and the approach of Vajrayana (secret mantra or tantra) is that in the sutra approach, we take inferential reasoning as our path and in the Vajrayana approach, we take direct experience as our path. In the Vajrayana we are cultivating simple, direct experience or "looking." We do this primarily by simply looking directly at our own mind."
^Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche also explains: "In general there are two kinds of meditation: the meditation of the paṇḍita who is a scholar and the nonanalytical meditation or direct meditation of the kusulu, or simple yogi. . . the analytical meditation of the paṇḍita occurs when somebody examines and analyzes something thoroughly until a very clear understanding of it is developed. . . The direct, nonanalytical meditation is called kusulu meditation in Sanskrit. This was translated as trömeh in Tibetan, which means "without complication" or being very simple without the analysis and learning of a great scholar. Instead, the mind is relaxed and without applying analysis so it just rests in its nature. In the sūtra tradition, there are some nonanalytic meditations, but mostly this tradition uses analytic meditation."
^Thrangu Rinpoche describes the approach using a guru: "In the Sūtra path one proceeds by examining and analyzing phenomena, using reasoning. One recognizes that all phenomena lack any true existence and that all appearances are merely interdependently related and are without any inherent nature. They are empty yet apparent, apparent yet empty. The path of Mahāmudrā is different in that one proceeds using the instructions concerning the nature of mind that are given by one's guru. This is called taking direct perception or direct experiences as the path. The fruition of śamatha is purity of mind, a mind undisturbed by false conception or emotional afflictions. The fruition of vipaśyanā is knowledge (prajnā) and pure wisdom (jñāna). Jñāna is called the wisdom of nature of phenomena and it comes about through the realization of the true nature of phenomena.
^Babcock (Copper), Richard (trans.) The Prajna Paramita Sutra on the Buddha-Mother's Producing the Three Dharma Treasures, Spoken by the Buddha (Also known as:) The Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines, The Smaller Prajna Paramita Sutra (Tripitaka: 0227)(Taisho Tripitaka: 0228) , Translated into Chinese during Song Dynasty by Tripitaka Master Danapala, chapter 1. [www.fodian.net]
^Conze, Edward. The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom: With the Divisions of the Abhisamayalankara (Center for South and Southeast Asia Studies, UC Berkeley) page 141
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