Guy E. Dubois

What is Vipassana?

What is Vipassana?

Vipassanā literally means: ‘seeing things as they really are’. This ‘seeing’ requires clear understanding of the three characteristics (tilakkhaṇa) of all conditioned phenomena, namely:

Insight into the impermanence/transience (anicca sammasana ñāna) [i]; insight into the unsatisfactoriness (dukkha sammasana ñāna)[ii] and insight into the selflessness (anattā sammasana ñāṇa)[iii] of all phenomena.

Anicca, dukkha and anattā are the three fundamental elements of the Buddhadhamma – the teachings of the Buddha. They are the cornerstones to achieve self-realization.

Of the three, anicca is the essential factor in this awareness process. It is the passe-partout with which the two other gates of the insight open.

In order to unlock anicca, the practitioner (dhammanuvatti) must walk the Noble Eightfold Path (magga sacca) – the Fourth Noble Truth of the Buddha – intensively.

This path is divided into three – progressive ascending – steps, namely ethics/morality (sīla), concentration (samādhi) and wisdom (paññā). Sīla[iv] – which stands for a virtuous life – forms the basis for samādhi, which means concentrating the mind in such a way that one-pointedness (ekaggatā)[v] is achieved. To put it more clearly, if the practitioner is to achieve an excellent concentration of mind – samādhi – it is necessary that his/her sīla must be pure, since samādhi is founded on sīla.

Only when the yogi has refined his concentration in such a way that he becomes one (the so-called absorption) with his meditation object can wisdom – paññā – arise. Again, the same reasoning applies: in order for the practitioner to achieve an excellent paññā it is necessary that his/her samādhi must be pure, since paññā is built on samādhi.

Let this be clear: sīla and samādhi are the basic conditions for developing paññā.  Without (excellent) morality and without (excellent) concentration, no (excellent) wisdom is possible. The more perfect the morality or concentration, the more perfect the wisdom will be.

And it is precisely this (perfect) wisdom that enables the practitioner to clearly understand anicca, dukkha and anattā through the practice of vipassanā. By practicing vipassanā, he/she can ‘see’ things as they really are.

In vipassanā meditation, the object of meditation is the impermanence (anicca) of all things that present themselves. The method of vipassanā thus boils down to the fact that the dhammanuvatti must strive to realize anicca in himself (i.e. recognize, acknowledge and become one with it)[vi]. Once anicca is realized, he/she will understand dukkha, and then see anattā as the ultimate truth.

Only through this insight does the dhammanuvatti understand the misery that permeates and saturates his entire existence (dukkha sacca)[vii]; he releases the cause of dukkha (samudaya sacca); realizes the termination of dukkha (nirodha sacca) and cultivates the path that leads to the termination of dukkha (magga sacca).[viii]

Realizing anicca means that the dhammanuvatti realizes the impermancence within himself. He becomes one (ekaggatā) with his impermancence, i.e. he experiences the personal impermanence in his deepest self and accepts this impermanence equanimously. In this way, the practitioner attains a state of internal and external peace and brings himself and his energy into harmony with all existence.

The experience of anicca can only be acquired by the practitioner on condition that he develops proper attention (sammā sati [ix]).

Sammā sati is our original nature, but our attention is contaminated and manipulated by our conditionings.

Sandy Boucher[x]:

“Waking up, being awake, should be the normal human condition. After all, self-realization expresses the deepest truth of our nature, our unity with the energy of the universe. We study, meditate and practice to penetrate this consciousness.”

For this, the dhammanuvatti draws his analytical attention to the four fields of mindfulness (satipaṭṭhāna). Through constant meditation practice of satipaṭṭhāna, the sattatimsa bodhipakkhiya dhamma[xi] is triggered in the practitioner.

Through this constant, concentrated attention (sati), his equanimity (upekkhā)  is developed by experiencing the law of anicca experientially. After all, the dhammanuvatti has come to understand that everything that arises will eventually decay. That everything that is created decays; that everything that arises conditioned finally decays. Sabe sankhara anicca.

Sati and upekkhā therefore form the two wings that make up vipassanā. The balanced combination of both realizes wisdom (paññā).

“Anicca vata sankhara, uppada vaya dhammino. Uppajjitva nirujjhanti tesam vupasamo sukho. – Impermanent unfortunately are all phenomena; they arise and they decay. Once they have arisen, they decay; only their extinction brings happiness.” [xii]

This wisdom does not arise in the dhammanuvatti on an intellectual basis, but through direct experiential knowledge. It is directly experiential, realized insight. Paccakkha-ñāṇa.[xiii]

This wisdom is the direct way to Nibbāna.

The above forms the theory of vipassanā meditation.

Practically, the vipassanā technique means that the dhammanuvatti focuses his concentrated attention on his mind/body complex. Namely on the four fields (gocara) of mindfulness (satipaṭṭhāna): the body; the sensations and feelings; the mind and the content of the mind (the so-called ‘objects of the mind’).

It does not matter whether the dhammanuvatti focuses his attention on the whole (the four fields together) or on only one of the partial aspects.

Whatever choice the practitioner makes, he will always be reminded of the essence by the satipaṭṭhāna refrain:

“Thus the monk persists in observing the process of arising (of the body respectively; the sensations; observe the mind or contents of the mind); he continues to observe the process of decay (of the body respectively; the sensations; the mind or the contents of the mind); or continues to observe both the process of arising and the process of decay (of the body respectively; the sensations; the mind or contents of the mind).”

He makes this observation diligently (ātāpī) in accordance with the instructions of the sutta; clearly conscious and with deep insight into impermancence (sampajañña); with penetrating attention (satimā); and free and detached from every worldly desire and dislike (vineyya loke abhijjhadomanassa).

In whatever way the dhammanuvatti directs his reflection, the conclusion will always be that everything he/she observes is impermanent; unsatisfactory and selfless.

The Buddha:

“Sabbe sankhara anicca. Sabbe sankhara dukkha. Sabbe sankhara anatta – All phenomena are impermanent. All phenomena are unsatisfactory. All phenomena are selfless.”

Vinaya[xiv]:

“Of all the conditioned phenomena, the Bhagavat has pointed to their origin as well as to their decay. This is the teaching of the great Samana.”

By establishing concentrated attention on the satipaṭṭhāna’s, the dhammanuvatti will clearly understand how his entire physical structure; how his whole mental structure; how the combination of his physical and mental structure works. The whole of existence as a process of arising and decay; an eternal process of constant change. In the whole physical and mental structure, nothing is stable; nothing fixed; nothing independent to find. Everything is in constant change. And this constant change is not a fault of nature. Change is the way things are. Yathā bhūta. Change is the law of nature; the cosmic law. Anicca is the only constant in all of existence.

Through his constant attention (sati) to the constantly changing nature of physical and mental sensations, the dhammanuvatti profoundly develops his faculty of equanimity (upekkhā). Attention and equanimity are the two wings of vipassanā. Sati + upekkhā = vipassanā.

Attention leads the dhammanuvatti to clear knowledge/understanding of the three characteristics of the phenomena (tilakkhaṇa). Equanimity leads him to their acceptance. In other words, impermanent is the fate of man. If he realizes this fact in himself (recognizes, acknowledges and becomes one with it) and fully accepts it, he will know inner peace in this life.

The path to the realization of wisdom briefly outlined above is described in detail in the Visuddhimagga[xv] of Buddhaghosa, who got the essence for this from Upatissa, a Buddhist monk who lived in Ceylon in the 1st century AD and who was the author of the work[xvi] Vimuttimagga (the Path of Freedom).[xvii] A more recent, but equally in-depth book was written by the Burmese monk Mahasi Sayadaw. Here too, the path of the seven purifications (satta visuddhi) – just like the work of Buddhaghosa – is the common thread throughout the book.[xviii]

For the benefit of the understanding I will recap the terminology used above below:

Clear Understanding

Clear understanding; truly seeing. Clear understanding presupposes realization within ourselves: recognizing; acknowledging and becoming one with them; experiencing the phenomena directly; intuitively, experientially experiencing (paccanubhoti) as they really ‘are’ (yathā bhūta).  So not as we think or would like them to be or would not want them to be, and this equanimous, i.e. without giving any reaction (without interaction on the playground of our mind: without the stories; without the dramas, without our saṅkhāras of desire and of disgust). Seeing like the reflection of a mirror. To obtain this ‘seeing’ right attention (sammā sati – see below)  is needed.

Sayadaw U Pandita[xix]:

“True insight only occurs in the presence of a nonthinking, bare awareness of the passing away of phenomena in the present moment.”

The Three Characteristics (Tilakkhaṇa) of All Conditioned Phenomena

These three characteristics are: changeability/impermance/transience (anicca);  suffering/unsatisfactoriness/misery (dukkha) and non-self (anattā).  In order to make progress in vipassanā – the ‘seeing’ of things as they really are – the dhammanuvatti  must remain aware of anicca (as continuously as possible). The Buddha’s advice is short and to the point: the practitioner should try to keep perceiving the tilakkhaṇa. In fact, this advice goes to the heart of the Buddha’s teachings. As this understanding grows in the practitioner, so does his understanding of the real nature of the phenomena.

The Physical and Mental Structure

The whole physical and mental structure and the combination of both i.e. the integral physical and mental structure; the complete flow of existence. This whole structure is conditioned, i.e. bound to causes (hetu’s) and conditions (paccaya’s) for arising, existence and decay.

Obtained by Right Attention (Sammā-Sati)

This proper attention can only be obtained through analytical meditation. This attention is of an exceptional, all-encompassing, penetrating quality.

Sayadaw U Pandita:[xx]

“We are not talking here about ordinary mindfulness, but about mindfulness of an extraordinary, exceptional quality. This is about an intense, sustained mindfulness. When the object appears, the mind’s attention immediately turns powerfully to the object. This happens without hesitation, without thinking, without reflection, without analysis. In other words, the object must be ‘grasped’ so that the observing mind fully encompasses the observation object, spreads over the entire object, encloses it in its entirety. The object must be fully observed, from the beginning, over the middle, to the end.”

In practice, this means continuously observing and observing all emerging objects. Every moment of mindfulness must be connected to the following. In every moment. And moment by moment. The observation and observation of the objects should therefore have no gaps, but should have a continuous character. When an object appears, the mind must be immediately directed at the object with powerful effort. “

This right attention possesses four crucial qualities or characteristics for contemplating/contemplating/meditating on it; for its concentration and awareness, namely:

  • diligent, passionate, with fire, with passion (ātāpī)
  • with penetrating (‘as an arrow’) [non-reactive] mindfulness (sati)
  • clearly conscious and with deep insight into the permanent impermancence of all phenomena (sampajañña)
  • equanimous, free and detached from worldly desire and disgust (vineyya loke abhijjhā-domanassa)

The Four Fields of Mindfulness (Satipaṭṭhāna)

The body; the sensations (physical) and feelings (mental), either on the whole or on one of the partial aspects of the satipaṭṭhānas, i.c.:

  • mindfulness/contemplation/concentration/consciousness on the body (kāyānupassanā)[xxi], namely: attention on breathing; on the basic and secondary postures of the body; on the impermanence of the bodily actions; on the repulsiveness on the anatomical components of the body; on the elements and finally to the corpse.
  • mindfulness/contemplation/concentration/consciousness on the sensations (vedanānupassanā): attention on the physical sensations and mental feelings.
  • mindfulness/contemplation/concentration/consciousness on the mind (cittānupassanā): attention to the states of mind, i.c.  on the mental states of the mind.
  • mindfulness/contemplation/concentration/awareness on the phenomena/things (dhammānupassanā): In particular it is about:
    • the five hindrances (panca nīvaraṇa)
    • the five aggregates of clinging (panca upādāna khandha)
    • the six inner and six outer sensory spheres (salāyatana)
    • the seven factors of enlightenment (satta bojjhaṅga)
    • the Four Noble Truths (cattari ariya sacca)

Through the sustained and persistent meditation practice of satipaṭṭhāna, first the five hindrances (panca nivarana) are destroyed. Then, after the analytical observation of the khandas and the salāyatana, the seven enlightenment factors are practiced and developed by the dhammanuvatti. Finally, the practice and development of these enlightenment factors lead the dhammanuvatti to a clear understanding (sammā diṭṭhi) of the Four Noble Truths.

Satipaṭṭhāna

Literally: ‘sati’ = giving attention to the now; ‘patthana’ or ‘upatthana’ = firmly anchored; intensive; continuous. Satipaṭṭhāna is – according to the Buddha himself – the unparalleled way to purify the mind (sattanam visuddhiya) and to achieve enlightenment/self-realization (Nibbāna).

Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna-Sutta[xxii]:

“Monks, this is a (only/direct/unparalleled) way that leads to purification of beings; this is the way to transcend sorrow and worry; to the end of dukkha and fear; to mastering the right method for realizing Nibbāna, namely by establishing the fourfold foundations of mindfulness.”

Satipaṭṭhāna is the meditation practice necessary to purify the dhammanuvatti; to transcend his sorrows and worries; to destroy dukkha and to teach him the method necessary to realize his self-realization. In other words, the observation resulting from satipaṭṭhāna leads the meditator to Nibbāna in a unique way.

As mentioned above, there are various ‘techniques’ or ‘methods’ to bring satipaṭṭhāna into one’s life; i.e. to practice satipaṭṭhāna. Some of these techniques emphasize one aspect of the four fields or foundations, while other techniques use all the fundamentals. In the complete Satipaṭṭhāna-Sutta, the Buddha extensively describes more than 50 exercises.

Equanimity (Upekkhā)

Not giving even one single reaction (saṅkhāra = ‘that which animates us’) to sensations. Equanimity stems from the practitioner’s experiential knowledge[xxiii] that everything changes every moment, is fleeting, and utterly unstable.

Wisdom (Paññā)

The realization (recognizing; acknowledging and becoming one with it) of the ego-less, i.e. deep insight into the illusion of a separate, stable, eternal ‘I’ that is separate from the whole. The Buddha formulated this wisdom in his last words: “Impermanence is inseparably linked to all existing things. Strive diligently for your enlightenment” (Parinibbāna-Sutta). This wisdom is the path that leads to Nibbāna.

Nibbāna

“There is, monks, a sphere were there is no earth, no water, no fire, no air. No sphere of unlimited space, no sphere of unlimited consciousness, no sphere of nothingness, no sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. Neither this world, nor any other world, nor both: neither sun nor moon. Here, monks, I say, there is no coming, no going, no staying, neither disappearing nor rising. This sphere is not stationary, not moving, without any conditional ground. This is indeed the end of suffering!”[xxiv]

7 Purifications & 16 Phases

The path to Nibbāna includes 7 purifications (satta visuddhi) and 16 insights (solana ñāṇas).


Notes

[i] ‘Anicca sammasana ñāṇa’: anicca = impermanence; the transience; sammasana = understanding; discovering; exploring; determining; ñāṇa = insight. Anicca sammasana ñāṇa = the insight by which one understands the imperanence (of all phenomena).

[ii] ‘Dukkha sammasana ñāṇa’ = the insight by which one understands the unsatisfaction (of all phenomena).

[iii] ‘Anattā sammasana ñāṇa’ = the insight by which one understands the selflessness (of all phenomena).

[iv] This corresponds to the first three purifications of the seven purifications (satta visuddhi), namely: moral purification (sīla visuddhi); purification of the mind (citta visuddhi) and purification of insight (diṭṭhi visuddhi). These three purifications also correspond to the three trainings (tisikkhā): training in ethics/morality (sīla sikkhā); training in concentration (samādhi sikkhā) and training in wisdom (paññā sikkhā).

[v]‘Ekaggatā’: one-pointedness of mind. It is the deep concentration through which subject and meditation object become one, flow into each other, absorb.

[vi] ‘Realization’ is not obtained by borrowed, received wisdom from others (suta-mayā paññā); nor by logical and rational [but conditioned] thinking (cinta-mayā paññā). Only by direct empirical experience; experiential wisdom through self-insight (bhāvanā-mayā paññā) the dhammanuvatti can come to self-realization.

[vii] Dukkha is a key word in the Dhamma. It is the eternal misery that permeates all beings in all aspects of their existence. The cause of this misery lies in ignorance (avijjā, moha) — not-knowing, not-being-able, not-daring to see what the real nature of existence is like (= anicca, dukkha, anattā), resulting in: desire (lobha) and disgust (dosa).

[viii] See the excellent article by Peter Harvey, (2009), The Four Ariya-saccas as ‘True Realities for the Spiritually Ennobled’ — the Painful, its Origin, its Cessation, and the Way Going to This — Rather than ‘Noble Truths’ Concerning These. Buddhist Studies Review, BSRV 26.2 (2009) 197-227, Equinox Publishing Ltd, UK

[ix] ‘attention’ (sati): Mindfulness. This attention is not ‘passive’ but ‘dynamic’; ‘confronting’ and ‘provocative’ — [This means that the mind must] ‘cover the object completely; penetrating into it; not missing any part of it.’ — Sayadaw U. Pandita, (1992), In This Very Life. The Liberation Teachings of the Buddha p. 93 e.v.

[x] Boucher, Sandy, (2017), We are in Training to Be Nobody Special, Tricycle, Trike Daily, Personal reflections.

[xi] ‘Sattatimsa bodhipakkhiya dhamma’: the seven sets of 37 individual factors/qualities/properties that lead to Enlightenment: the Noble Eightfold Path (attha magganga); the factors of enlightenment (satta sambojjhaṅga); the five spiritual faculties (panca indriya); the vijf potential forces (panca bala); the four fields of mindfulness (cattaro satipaṭṭhāna); the four elements of pure effort (cattaro sammāppadhāna); and the four qualities of spiritual power (cattaro iddhipāda).

[xii] This text is an integral part of the Buddhist funeral ritual in Sri Lanka.

[xiii] ‘Paccakkha-ñāṇa’: Son. before vipassanā-ñāṇa; realized insight.

[xiv] Vinaya 3.60

[xv] Visuddhimagga’ visuddhi+magga: visuddhi = purification; magga = the road, the path. Visuddhimagga = the path of purification.

[xvi] Visuddhimagga: the magnum opus of Buddhaghosa, a Buddhist monk, who taught the theoretical and practical teachings of the Boeddha, which are recorded s in the Tipitaka Pali Canon, described as they were understood and practiced by the monks of the Mahavihara-monastery in Anuradhapura (250 km N. from Colombo, the current capital of Sri Lanka) around 430 BC. The book is considered the most important Theravāda text next to the Tipitaka Pali Canon. The structure of the book is based on the Rathavinita-Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 24, which describes the path of the seven purifications & the sixteen phases of insight.

[xvii] ‘Vimuttimagga’ vimutti+magga: vimutti = liberation; magga = the road, the path. Vimuttimagga = the path of freedom.

Upatissa, Thera, (1961), Vimuttimagga – The Path of Freedom. The original Pali text of this work has been lost, but was preserved in a Chinese version (6th century n.Chr.). For the most part, the versions of the Vimuttimagga and the Visuddhimagga are synchronous, although there are still a number of points that differ. The biggest difference between the two works lies in the substructure: the Vimuttimagga bases the scheme of the infight proces on the Four Noble Truths, while the Visuddhimagga follows the scheme of the Rathavinita-Sutta.

The Visuddhimagga by Buddhaghosa is a Buddhist masterpiece. It is recommended reading for any advanced yogi. But this doesn’t make any value judgment about the Vimuttimagga. On the contrary. Where the Visuddhimagga adopts an academic approach, the Vimuttimagga is rather apologetic in nature. But it is, in any case, ‘liberating’ reading.

An excellent translation of the Visuddhimagga in English is: Buddhaghosa, Bhadantacariya, (2010), Visuddhimagga, The Path of Purification, Pariyatti Press, Onalaska, WA, USA

For a comparative study between the two, I refer to: Bapat P. V. (1937), Vimuttimagga and Visuddhimagga. A Comparative Study, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka.

[xviii] Sayadaw, Mahasi, (1994), The Progress of Insight (Visuddhinana-katha)

[xix] Sayadaw U. Pandita, (1992), In This Very Life. The Liberation Teachings of the Buddha p. 192

[xx] Sayadaw U. Pandita, (2016), Freedom Within. Liberation teachings on the Satipatthana meditation practice p. 14

[xxi] ‘Anupassanā’ = the continuous intensive establishing of mindfulness on the 4 foundations of mindfulness; on the body (kāyānupassanā); on the sensations (vedanānupassanā); on the mind (citta-anupassanā) and on the objects of the mind (dhamma-anupassanā).

Sayadaw U. Pandita, (2016), Freedom Within. Liberation teachings on the Satipatthaon meditation practice p. 18 — “Anupassanā is ardent effort (atappa viriya), mindfulness (sati), concentration (samādhi) and wisdom – clear comprehension: (paññā) and its benefit is to know correctly, clearly in order to see the true nature of phenomena.”

[xxii] Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna-Sutta, Digha Nikaya 22

[xxiii] Sometimes this ‘experiential knowing’ is labeled as ‘controlled faith/trust’ [verified faith].

Sayadaw U. Pandita, (1992), In This Very Life. The Liberation Teachings of the Buddha p. 70 — “seeing clearly, bright and unconfused, the mind begins to fill with a new kind of faith, known as ‘verified faith’. Verified faith is neither blind nor unfounded. It comes directly from personal experience of reality. One might compare it to the faith that raindrops will get us wet. The scriptures formally characterize this kind of faith as ‘a decision based on direct personal experience. (…) It is your own direct, personal, intuitive experience that brings you about this firm and durable kind of faith.”

[xxiv] Nibbāna Sutta, Successful 8.1


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About Guy E. Dubois

Guy E. Dubois (1947) has translated various parts of the early Buddhist texts into Dutch, provided them with commentary and makes them available for free on SuttaCentral. He is also the author of several works on the teachings of the Buddha. These can be read online, for those who prefer to hold a real book in their hands, they can be ordered at bol.com.

The author himself wants to remain true to his initial objective: he does not wish to earn anything from Dhamma. Guy: "Whenever any 'profit' is generated it will go to dana." As a yogi, he is completely unbound with respect to any Buddhist tradition. Thus, he interprets the Dhamma in a free-spirited manner. As such, he is - in the literal sense of the word - a "homeless person," a bhikkhu, a mendicant, who gives his dhutanga (practice) substance in a very personal way. In his books he combines a virulently liberal attitude to life with a great affection for the deep insights of the Buddha.

You yourselves must strive, the Buddhas only point the way

Buddha, Dhp 276
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