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In the Theravadin context, this entails insight into the three marks of existence. In Mahayana contexts, it entails insight into what is variously described as sunyata, dharmata, the inseparability of appearance and emptiness, clarity and emptiness, or bliss and emptiness. Vipassana is one of Asia's most ancient techniques of meditation, attributed to Gautama Buddha. It is a way of self-transformation through self-observation and introspection. In English, vipassanā meditation is often referred to simply as "insight meditation".
In a broader sense, vipassanā has been used as one of two poles for the categorization of types of Buddhist meditation, the other being samatha (Pāli; Sanskrit: śamatha). Samatha is a focusing, pacifying and calming meditation, common to many traditions in the world, notably yoga. It is used as a preparation for vipassanā, pacifying the mind and strengthening the concentration in order to allow the work of insight. This dichotomy is also sometimes discussed as "stopping and seeing." In Buddhist practice it is said that, while samatha can calm the mind, only insight can reveal how the mind was disturbed to start with, which leads to prajñā (Pāli: paññā, wisdom) and jñāna (Pāli: ñāṇa, knowledge) and thus understanding, preventing it from being disturbed again.
The term is also used to refer to the Buddhist vipassana movement (modeled after Theravāda Buddhism meditation practices), which employs vipassanā and ānāpāna meditation as its primary techniques and places emphasis on the teachings of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. The primary initial subject of investigation in that style of meditation is sensation and feeling (Skt: Vedanā).
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 apart, or discern. 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, vipashyana is lhagthong. The semantic field of "lhag" means "higher", "superior", "greater"; the semantic field of "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.
Practice of vipassanā
Vipassanā meditation differs in the modern Buddhist traditions and in some nonsectarian forms. From the point of view of vipassanā as dichotomous from samatha, it includes any meditation technique that cultivates insight including contemplation, introspection, analytic meditation, and observations about experience. Therefore, it can include a wide variety of meditation techniques across lineages.
In the Theravāda
Vipassanā as practiced in the Theravāda includes contemplating Buddhist teachings, including the Four Noble Truths, as well as more experiential forms such as deep body awareness. In the latter forms it is a simple technique which depends on direct experience and observation. It can be related to the three trainings taught by the Buddha as the basis of a spiritual path: adherence to a sīla (Sanskrit: śīla) (abstinence from killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct and intoxication), which is not an end in itself but a requirement for the second part, concentration of the mind (samādhi). With this concentrated mind, the third training, in the context of this technique (paññā, Sanskrit prajñā), is detached observation of the reality of the mind and body from moment to moment.
Contemplations include understanding logically or through mental activity that the nature of phenomena is transitory and the nature of persons is selflessness, that the conceptual consciousness "I" does not exist.
One method is that there are 40 topics that can be concentrated by the meditator such as anitya (Pāli anicca, impermanence), duḥkha (Pāli dukkha, suffering), roga (illness), and so on. The meditator can meditate on one of these until he sees the truth in everything in the universe.
In the experiential forms, meditation consists of the experiential observation of mind and matter (nāma and rūpa) in their aspects of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and lack of an inherent, independent essence or self.
Although it includes body awareness as part of the practice, it is not a "body scan" technique. The purpose is also not to release past trauma, but to bring full awareness of the mind, body and all sensations and be fully present. This practice is thought to develop a deep, experiential understanding of the impermanence of all phenomena and also brings to the surface and dissolves deep-seated complexes and tensions. The technique fosters development of insight and needs to be continued as a way of life in order to obtain lasting effects.
The meditation object is one's own consciousness, although it can be further refined to be one's consciousness while observing, say, the breath, as in anapanasati meditation. In this context, the modes of seeing refers to focusing on those aspects of consciousness which appear to have (or not have) these characteristics.
The underlying principle is the investigation of phenomena as they manifest in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness highlighted in the Satipatthana Sutta; namely: kaya (body or breath), vedana (feeling or sensation), citta (mind or consciousness), and dhamma (mind objects). These phenomena differ from the khandhas (aggregates) because the citta factor is not connected to any aggregate, as it is the basic mood of the mind-body aggregate, while the dhamma encompasses all mind objects that are fruits of kamma (i.e., the vinnana, sanna and sankhara aggregates), and also all mind objects that are not a fruit of kamma, such as the Four Noble Truths.
To see through the mode of impermanence means to examine things to determine whether they are permanent. To see through the mode of unsatisfactoriness means to examine things to determine whether they are satisfactory or are imbued with suffering. To see through the mode of non-self means to examine meditation objects to see whether they are permanent, isolated, and enduring entities. In other words, to see through non-self relates to having a sense of non-doership and a sense of non-possessorship while examining things.
Most of Theravāda's teachers refer to knowledges evolving during practice. The meditator gradually improves his perception of the three marks of existence until he reaches the step where sensations (Vedana) constantly disappear, which is called bhaṅgānupassanā ñāṇa (Sanskrit: bhaṅgānupaśyanājñāna), knowledge of dissolution.
The yogi will then experience cessation of cravings (attachments) and aversions (fears), and eventually will reach the step of saṅkhārupekkhāñāṇa (Sanskrit: saṃskāropekṣājñāna): knowledge of equanimity of formations. This step leads to the attainment of bliss nibbāna.
Some steps are described as vipassanā jhānas, or simply as knowledges.
A striking example of Vipashyana was provided by a student of mine in her early twenties who had been meditating for some time. Since her late teens, she had been a devotee of "raves," dance parties held at enormous warehouses in our area, attended by literally thousands of young people. Well-known bands are engaged, the music is loud, alcohol and drugs are sometimes consumed, and the dancing goes on until dawn. The atmosphere is said to be usually "mellow" and fun, and the young folks are drawn back to the parties again and again. My student was attending a rave one Saturday night and, for no apparent reason, wanted to feel the cool, the space, and the silence of the night. She left the huge warehouse where the party was happening and walked across an adjacent field onto a a hillock beyond. Turning around, she looked at the building, throbbing with music and blazing with light, packed as it was by several thousand ravers. Suddenly, without warning, it was as if her eyes were opened for the first time and she "saw" the party--so she reported--in all its naked reality. She saw the tremendous desperation of the people inside, their loneliness and hunger, how they had all come there seeking to escape from their suffering. She saw how they had all become predators, preying upon one another, in a fruitless search for happiness. It was an endless game in which, she too, was involved. Overcome by the sorrow and hopelessness of the situation, she broke down and wept. She came to talk to me because, as she said, this experience had shown her something not only about raves, but about life in general, about the many things people do out of their own pain and misery. She told me that she felt, for the first time, the meaning of suffering. She saw her experience as a direct product of her meditation practice and her commitment to her spiritual path. Her experience made her realize, again for the first time, that her meditation was the one anchor in her life and that the spiritual journey she had undertaken was about having her eyes opened, in perhaps shocking and painful ways, to the underpinnings of the seemingly normal, everyday world.
In the Mahāyāna
Similar to the Theravadan approaches, Mahāyāna vipaśyanā includes contemplation on Buddhist teachings as well as experiential awareness. The latter is particularly prevalent in East Asian traditions such as Zen. But in addition and in particular the Mahāyāna practitioner contemplates the two truths doctrine: the nature of conventional truth and absolute truth. Through the cultivation of this awareness, one realizes that both self and external phenomena lack an inherent existence and have the nature of emptiness (Skt: śūnyatā). This is determined by the inferential path of reasoning and direct observation through meditation.
The Mahāyāna also introduced meditation upon visualizations, such as an image of Prajnaparamita in female, deity form, as a way to contemplate Buddhist teachings. Each component of the visualization evokes a particular teaching and the practitioner then contemplates using a visual symbolic representation.
Gradualism or Subitism and the realisation is a debate in the Mahāyāna. Nevertheless, Huineng, sixth patriarch of the Zen, considered the practice cannot be described as gradualistic nor subitist, but implies people with more or less clear minds.
Inductive and deductive analysis in the Indo-Tibetan tradition
It appears that Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism employed both deductive investigation (discursive reasoning) and inductive investigation (direct examination of experience) in the practice of vipaśyanā at the level of sūtrayāna, corresponding respectively to the "contemplative forms" and "experiential forms" in the Theravāda school described above. As scholar Leah Zahler explains,
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 mediative reasoning using consequences (thal 'gyur, prasaanga) or syllogisms (sbyor ba, prayoga) with which Gelukpas were familiar. Thus, although Gelukpa scholars give detailed intepretations of the systems of breath mediation 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 texbook 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].
As she notes, it appears that only the tradition of deductive analysis in vipaśyanā was transmitted to Tibet in the sūtrayāna context. Contemporary Tibetan scholar Thrangu Rinpoche explains,
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 expereince . . . 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 apporach of Vajrayana (secret mantra or tantra) is that in the sutra approach, we take inferential reasoning as our path and in the Vajrayana apporach, 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.
That is, in Tibet direct examination of moment-to-moment experience as a means of generating vipaśyanā became exclusively associated with vajrayāna. When vipaśyanā was generated in a sūtrayāna context, it involved conceptual contemplation of points of doctrine. One exception to this dichotomy, however, was the approach of Kagyu tradition known as sūtra mahāmudrā, which emphasizes "direct, inmediated experience" which "goes beyond verbalization." As Zahler noted, the vipassanā "experiential forms" approach advocated in the early suttas and practiced in the Theravāda tradition more closely resembles sūtra mahāmudrā than it does the conventional Tibetan sūtrayāna vipaśyanā.
In the Vajrayāna
Mahāmudrā and Dzogchen use vipaśyanā extensively. This includes using some methods of the others traditions but also incorporates different approaches. Like the Mahāyāna they include meditating on symbolic images as contemplations but place a greater emphasis on this form of meditation. Additionally in the Vajrayāna (tantric) path, the true nature of mind is pointed out by the guru and the practitioner practices with that direct experience as a form of vipaśyanā.
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."
-Thrangu Rinpoche, Looking Directly at Mind : The Moonlight of Mahāmudrā
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche clearly charts the developmental relationship of the practice of śamatha and vipaśyanā:
The ways these two aspects of meditation are practiced is that one begins with the practice of shamatha; on the basis of that, it becomes possible to practice vipashyana or lhagthong. Through one's practrice of vipashyana being based on and carried on in the midst of shamatha, one eventually ends up practicing a unification of shamatha and vipashyana. The unification leads to a very clear and direct experience of the nature of all things. This brings one very close to what is called the absolute truth.
Dzogchen Pönlop Rinpoche evokes an extended poetic metaphor from Milarepa to qualify vipaśyanā (as qualitatively different from śamatha) as having the propensity to "eradicate" klesha:
Insight, or vipashyana (lhagthong), is extremely important because it can eradicate the mental afflications, whereas tranquility [shamatha] alone cannot. That is why we want to be able to practice tranquility and insight in a unified manner. This unified practice has three steps; first, we practice tranquility; then we practice insight; and then we bring the two together. Doing this will eradicate the cause of samsara (which is mental afflictions), thereby eradicating the result of samsara (which is suffering). For this reason, it is improper to become too attached to the delight or pleasure of tranquility, because tranquility alone is not enough. As was said by Lord Milarepa in a song:
- "Not being attached to the pool of tranquility
- May I generate the flower of insight."
The Vipassana movement refers to a number of branches of modern Theravāda Buddhism, for example in the various traditions of Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos and Thailand including contemporary American Buddhist teachers such as Joseph Goldstein, Tara Brach, Sharon Salzberg, and Jack Kornfield (who were inspired by Theravāda teachers Mahasi Sayadaw and Ajahn Chah Subhatto), as well as nonsectarian derivatives from those traditions such as the movement lead by S. N. Goenka who studied with teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin.
Though the vipassana movement uses the term vipassana in its name, vipassana meditation is not specific to those traditions. All forms of Buddhism utilize vipassana meditation.
- Meditation From Yellowrobe.com
- "Vipashyana," by Reginald A. Ray. Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly, Summer 2004.
- Ray (2004) p.74
- Ajahn Brahm, Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator's Handbook. Wisdom Publications, 2006, pages 103-127.
- Ray, Reginald (2002). Indestructible Truth: The Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism. Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Shambhala Publications. ISBN 1-57062-910-2, pp.306-307
- Zahler 108, 113
- Pointing out the Dharmakaya by Thrangu Rinpoche. Snow Lion: 2003. ISBN: 1559392037, pg 56
- Mind at Ease: Self-Liberation through Mahamudra Meditation by Traleg Kyabgon. Shambhala Publications: 2004. ISBN: 1590301560 pg 196
- Ray (2004) p.76
- Fronsdal, Gil (1998) p.1
- Ray, Reginald A. (Ed.) (2004) In the Presence of Masters: Wisdom from 30 Contemporary Tibetan Buddhist Teachers ISBN 1-57062-849-1
- Fronsdal, Gil (1998) Insight Meditation in the United States: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness from Charles S. Prebish and Kenneth K. Tanaka, The Faces of Buddhism in America, Chapter 9
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