Vipassanā (Pāli) or vipaśyanā (Sanskrit: विपश्यन) in the Buddhist tradition means insight into the true nature of reality. In the Theravada tradition this specifically refers to insight into the three marks of existence: impermanence, suffering or unsatisfactoriness, and the realisation of non-self.
Wyl: lhag mthong)
|Glossary of Buddhism|
Vipassanā meditation in conjunction with Samatha meditation is a necessary part of all Buddhist traditions. Therefore, it is important to distinguish Vipassanā on the one hand, and the Vipassana movement on the other, which was represented in the Theravada tradition by Ledi Sayadaw and Mogok Sayadaw and popularised by Mahasi Sayadaw, V. R. Dhiravamsa and  S. N. Goenka.
Vipassanā is a Pali word from the Sanskrit prefix "vi-" and verbal root paś. It is often translated as "insight" or "clear-seeing", though the "in-" prefix 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 (Pāli; Sanskrit: pratyakṣa), "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 lhagthong (wylie: lhag mthong). The term "lhag" means "higher", "superior", "greater"; the term "thong" is "view" or "to see". So together, lhagthong 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 Richard Gombrich a development took place in early Buddhism resulting in a change in doctrine, which considered prajna to be an alternative means to "enlightenment". The suttas contain traces of ancient debates between Mahayana and Theravada schools in the interpretation of the teachings and the development of insight. In the sutta pitaka the term "vipassanā" is hardly mentioned, while they frequently mention jhana as the meditative practice to be undertaken.[citation not found][note 1]
According to Vetter and Bronkhorst, dhyāna itself constituted the original "liberating practice".[citation not found] Vetter further argues that the eightfold path constitutes a body of practices which prepare one, and lead up to, the practice of dhyana. Norman notes that "the Buddha's way to release [...] was by means of meditative practices." 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).
In the Sthaviravada [...] progress in understanding comes all at once, 'insight' (abhisamaya) does not come 'gradually' (successively - anapurva).
The Mahasanghika, another one of the early Buddhist schools, had the doctrine of ekaksana-citt, "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:
Relation with samathaEdit
In all Buddhist schools two types of meditation practices are followed: samatha (Pāli: Samatha, Sanskrit: śamatha; English: "calm abiding") and vipassanā (Pali: vipassanā, Sanskrit: vipaśyanā, English: "clear seeing"). Samatha is a primary meditation aimed at calming the mind, and is also well-known and widely used in non-buddhist traditions. It is, however, vipassanā, the systematic investigation of self and phenomena that is unique to the Buddhist tradition.
To gain true insight Samatha and Vipassanā needs to be conjoined. There are two different traditions concerning the sequence of the two. The Samatha first approach is the most common, and involves cultivating a stable samatha before practicing vipassanā. Different traditions describe different levels of Samatha as being sufficient. In some access to first dhyana is said to be enough. In others full attainment of dhyana is enough. Yet in others only full attainment of the four form and formless absorption dhyana states are said to be sufficient. The approach of first cultivating Samatha is recommended by most of the great scholar-practitioners of ancient India.
In the Mahayana this approach is reflected in the sutra approach of for example Shantideva and Kamalashila. Through Shamatha disturbing emotions are abandoned and thus facilitates clear seeing Vipashyana. In the Mahayana sutra approach Vipashyana is cultivated through reasoning, logic and analysis in conjunction with Shamatha. In contrast, in the Vipashyana directly approach represented by for example the siddha tradition of the direct approach of Mahamudra and Dzogchen, the view of 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. It is however also common in the direct approach to first develop enough Shamatha to serve as a basis for Vipashyana. In that case the view of Vipashyana is ascertained through meditation. In sum, the traditions differ in the sequence but all comes down to the union of Samatha and Vipassanā. It is therefore faulty to claim that only Samatha or only Vipassanā is sufficient.
In the 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. In contrast, the modern Vipassana Movement gives more emphasis to Vipassanā already from the start, highlighting the risks of going out of course when strong samatha is developed. For this the Vipassana Movement has been criticised, especially in Sri Lanka.
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] According to Gombrich, the distinction between vipassanā and samatha did not originate in the suttas, but in the interpretation of the suttas.[note 6] Various traditions disagree which techniques belong to which pole.
Vipassanā can be cultivated by the practice that includes contemplation and introspection through primarily awareness and observation of bodily sensations. The practices may differ in the modern Buddhist traditions and non-sectarian groups according to the founder but the main objective is to develop insight. 
Insight in the Four Noble TruthsEdit
According to the Theravada-tradition, Buddhist practices lead to insight in the Four Noble Truths, which can only be reached by practising the Noble Eightfold Path. According to Theravāda tradition, enlightenment or Nibbana can only be attained by discerning all Vipassanā insight levels when the Eightfold Noble Path is followed ardently. This is a developmental process where various Vipassanā insights are discerned; the final enlightenment may come suddenly, as proposed by other schools.
The term vipassana is often conflated with the Vipassana movement, a movement which 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, especially from the Thai Forest Tradition and the "New Burmese Method", as well as the modern influences on the traditions of Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos and Thailand originating from various Theravāda teachers like Ledi Sayadaw, Mogok Sayadaw (who was less known to the West due to lack of International Mogok Centres), Mahasi Sayadaw, Ajahn Chah, and Dipa Ma, as well as derivatives from those traditions such as the movement led by S. N. Goenka.
Vipassana-meditation in the modern Vipassana movementEdit
Vipassanā-meditation uses mindfulness of breathing, combined with the contemplation of impermanence, to gain insight into the true nature of this reality. All phenomena are investigated, and concluded to be painful and unsubstantial, without an immortal entity or self-view, and in its ever-changing and impermanent nature.
Mindfulness of breathing is described throughout the Sutta Pitaka. The Satipatthana Sutta describes it 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.
By observing the breath one becomes aware of the perpetual changes involved in breathing, and the arising and passing away of mindfulness. One can also be aware of and gain insight into impermanence through the observation of bodily sensations and their nature of arising and passing away. Eventually Vipassanā-meditation leads to insight into the impermanence of all phenomena, the absence of a permanent self, and the cause of suffering, thereby leading to liberation from suffering.
Stages of Jhana in the Vipassana movementEdit
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.
Northern tradition and MahāyānaEdit
Like the southern Theravada tradition, the north Indian Buddhist traditions like the Sarvastivada and the Sautrantika practiced vipaśyanā meditation as outlined in texts like the Abhidharmakosha of Vasubandhu and the Yogacarabhumi. The Abhidharmakosha states that vipaśyanā is practiced once one has reached samadhi (absorption) by cultivating the four foundations of mindfulness (smrtyupasthanas). This is achieved according to Vasubandhu:
- "By considering the unique characteristics (svalaksana) and the general characteristics (samanyalaksana) of the body, sensation, the mind, and the dharmas."
- "'The unique characteristics' means its self nature (svabhava)."
- "The general characteristics" signifies the fact that "All conditioned things are impermanent; all impure dharmas are suffering; and that all the dharmas are empty (sunya) and not-self (anatmaka)."
These works are some of the main texts used to study vipaśyanā in the Mahāyāna tradition. Mahāyāna vipaśyanā 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 later Indian Mahayana scholastic tradition, as exemplified by Shantideva's Bodhicaryavatara, 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 Panjika commentary of Prajnakaramati on the Bodhicaryavatara, vipaśyanā is defined simply as "wisdom (prajña) that has the nature of thorough knowledge of reality as it is."
East Asian MahāyānaEdit
In Chinese Buddhism, the works of Tiantai master Zhiyi (such as the Mohe Zhiguan, "Great śamatha-vipaśyanā") are some of the most influential texts which discuss vipaśyanā meditation from a Mahāyāna perspective. In this text Zhiyi teaches the contemplation of the skandhas, ayatanas, dhātus, the Kleshas, false views and several other elements. Likewise the influential text called the Awakening of Faith scripture has a section on calm and insight meditation. It states:
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.
The Chan (Zen) Buddhist tradition advocates the simultaneous practice of śamatha and vipaśyanā, and this is called the practice of Silent Illumination. The classic Chan text known as the Platform Sutra states:
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.
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".
Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism employed both deductive investigation (applying ideas to experience) and inductive investigation (drawing conclusions from direct experience) in the practice of vipaśyanā.[note 7][note 8] According to Leah Zahler, only the tradition of deductive analysis in vipaśyanā was transmitted to Tibet in the sūtrayāna context.[note 9]
Mahāmudrā and DzogchenEdit
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 12]
- 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."[citation not found]
- Khantipalo recommends the use of the koan-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?'"
- This "gradual training" is expressed in teachings as the Five ranks of enlightenment, Ten Ox-Herding Pictures which detail the steps on the Path, The Three mysterious Gates of Linji, and the Four Ways of Knowing of Hakuin.
- See, for example:
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."
- Henepola Gunaratana: "The classical source for the distinction between the two vehicles of serenity and insight is the Visuddhimagga."
- 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.
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- A Honed and Heavy Axe
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- Practical Guidelines for Vipassanâ by Ayya Khema
- A Meditator's Handbook by Bill Crecelius
- Turning to the Source by V.R. Dhiravamsa
- The Middle Path of Live by V.R. Dhiravamsa
- Healing through Pure Mindfulness by V.R. Dhiravamsa