I am writing this as a response to numerous communications made to me regarding Vipassana, and what it is, as there seems to be a modicum of confusion on the subject. Some people ask me about Vipassana practice, or “doing Vipassana.” A few practitioners of the Goenka method have mentioned Vipassana to me and have been surprised to be informed that Goenka-style body sweeping is not standard Vipassana straight out of the Pali texts, that that’s not simply what Vipassana is. The fact is that, as with other Buddhist terms like "karma" or "jhāna," many more people use the term than know quite what it means—or at any rate what it used to mean. Usage by the masses determines the meaning of words, so I’m not trying to be a linguistic hard-ass here. Everything, including a definition, is impermanent. But still, in the ancient Theravada Buddhist texts, vipassanā generally does not refer to the kind of meditation techniques that are called by that name in the West, and sometimes also in the East.
Frankly, I don’t even like to use the word “vipassana.” “Insight” is a perfectly adequate English rendering, and there are other adequate English words for other possible meanings of the Pali one. “Vipassana” may be, in common usage, so vague as to be almost meaningless. Consequently, in order to clarify the situation a little (just a little), to untangle the tangle somewhat, I’m writing about it, even though I don’t much like using the “v” word.
The Pali word vipassanā is a compound of the prefix vi- and the verbal noun passanā, the latter meaning, quite literally, “seeing.” Vi- literally means something like “apart,” so that vipassanā could theoretically mean something like “seeing apart” or discriminating; but vi- is also frequently used simply as an intensifier. For example, mokkha can mean “liberation”; but the final liberation of enlightenment is more frequently stressed as vimokkha. Similarly, suddhi means purity, but visuddhi is used in a sense to stress complete purity in a spiritual sense. So the Pali word vipassanā can be said to mean something like “deep seeing”; and thus “insight” really is not a bad English equivalent.
The thing is that, technically speaking, you really don’t DO Vipassana. It is not a bodily action, nor is it intellectual, or even particularly volitional. (The act of looking is volitional, but simply seeing may be assumed to be otherwise.) Vipassana, or at least vipassanā, is, strictly speaking, an intuitive insight which arises spontaneously, often, but not always, as a result of meditation. Insight may also be triggered by such events as hearing a discourse or by experiencing some profound shock, even by the experience of dying. It is a prerequisite for enlightenment (whatever that is), so anyone who attains enlightenment experiences liberating insight; and it appears pretty obvious, judging from the literature, that not everyone who becomes enlightened is practicing meditation at the time.
Furthermore, even when insight does arise from meditation, the meditation is not necessarily what is commonly referred to as “Vipassana meditation”—so I suppose I should discuss, very briefly, the two main types of meditation in Buddhism. We may ignore for the moment the fact that they are usually distinguished as samatha and vipassanā.
The two main types of meditation in Buddhism, or at least in Theravada Buddhism, are based upon samādhi or “concentration,” and sati or “mindfulness.” Concentration here involves the quieting and simplifying of the contents of the mind, the unification of mind. Mindfulness, on the other hand, involves being wide awake in the present moment, in the seen only the seen, and so forth; it implies living up to Ram Dass’s old motto of Be Here Now. These two modes of meditation are not mutually exclusive, and can be practiced beautifully together—in fact they can supplement each other. Fourth jhāna, which is often considered to be the highest level of concentration, is identified in the texts with “purity of mindfulness.” A clear, still, quiet mind makes intent awareness much easier, and vice versa. This clarity, stillness, and quietness can rightfully be called samatha, or “tranquillity.” But neither of these two forms of meditation, strictly speaking, is the same as vipassanā.
One of my favorite examples of how liberating insight can arise is a description found in the Small Discourse on Emptiness in the Majjhima Nikāya (M121). In this case it arises from extreme samatha practice. A meditating monk progressively empties his mind through solitude and highly refined concentration until he goes beyond fourth jhāna and attains “the formless concentration of mind,” or animitta cetosamādhi. This presumably represents the absolute limit that a meditating mind can reach, the highest possible meditative state. After inevitably coming out of that state, and seeing that even this highest state is not enlightenment, he realizes thus:
“This signless concentration of mind too is conditioned and volitionally determined; and whatever is conditioned and volitionally determined is impermanent and subject to cessation.” And knowing thus, seeing thus, his mind is liberated from the encumbering influence of sensual desire, liberated from the encumbering influence of the momentum of existence, liberated from the encumbering influence of ignorance. In the liberation there is the knowledge “I am liberated.” He realizes, “Finished is birth, lived to fulfillment is the Holy Life, done is what needs to be done. There is no more of this or that state of existence.”
This realization is a poetic description of liberating insight, vipassanā.
Partly because of textual accounts like this, I suspect, hyperintellectual Buddhist systematologists of ancient India interpreted vipassanā as a kind of exercise of reflection, and elaborated upon it mightily. Thus orthodox tradition tells us that Vipassana is a training to be developed along with the other trainings of morality and concentration. The cultivation of this Vipassana is declared to occur in a five-stepped sequence beginning with insight into corporeal form and ending with the application of the Three Marks (of anicca, dukkha, and anattā) to the interacting duality of mind and matter as conditioned by Dependent Co-arising. There are claimed to be nine stages, and eighteen chief kinds, or Great Insights. All this shows that, far from remaining a spontaneous, non-intellectual realization, vipassanā evolved into a very non-intuitive technical term. Insight turned into an intellectual discipline—but even this is not the same as what is usually called “Vipassana meditation” nowadays. Actually, I’m not quite sure how Vipassana came to be identified with satipaṭṭhāna or mindfulness practice, unless maybe it was incorporated into dhammānupassanā, the fourth factor of satipaṭṭhāna. With regard to technical matters, I suggest that the one technicality that may be genuinely useful to know is that insight, in order for it to be liberating insight, must involve, according to tradition, the application of the Three Marks to one’s experience.
(Also I will add, in parentheses, that the aforementioned nine stages of vipassanā, the so-called insight knowledges, starting with udayabbayānupassanā-ñāṇa, or “the knowledge of the reflection on arising and passing away,” form a kind of theoretical backbone to certain Burmese mindfulness techniques such as the Mahasi method. One may be required to experience these insights, in the proper sequence, in order to be recognized as an Ariya. But enough of technical lists.)
Consequently, bearing all this in mind, it is clear that a person may practice samatha meditation and experience liberating insight; or, on the other hand, one may practice mindfulness till one is blue in the face and still be very far away from it. So again, you don’t really DO genuine insight. Nyanatiloka’s Buddhist Dictionary, before diving into a swamp of technical gobbledygook, defines vipassanā as “the intuitive light flashing forth and exposing the truth of the impermanency, the suffering and the impersonal and unsubstantial nature of all corporeal and mental phenomena of existence.” Or, to be even less technical than that, it can be defined as simply a kind of “click” which allows one, suddenly, to see Reality more clearly. That click can be evoked by clear mindfulness, and it can also be evoked by jhāna, or the prodding of a teacher, or even a blow to the head. Mindfulness definitely helps, though.
But seriously, call it whatever you like, and continue being a member of an Insight Meditation group which endorses the practice of Vipassana meditation in the form of mindfulness—it’s quite all right by me. But do please bear in mind the discussion above if you wish to discuss Buddhist meditation with me, as I’m fussy about the “V word” and its usage. I’d appreciate that. Be mindful, good luck in your practice, and may you experience genuine insight.
(this is what you get when I write about abstractions)
SPECIAL CONFUSING APPENDIX
Just for the niraya of it I used Google’s automatic translation gadget, similar to the one on the sidebar of this blog, to translate this post into Bosnian, then Japanese, then Swahili, and finally back into English again. Following are the first two paragraphs, followed by the last two paragraphs, processed, of the preceding essay. Artificial intelligence apparently has a ways to go before surpassing human beings in certain language skills.
Vipassana Insight, meditation, or mindfulness practice?
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