From Vipassana Hater to Vipassana Lover

And I show you how 🙂

Okay, caught your attention (did you see what happened when you read this headline)?

Now, let me rephrase a bit: This post is about how a Vipassana-opponent turned into a Vipassana-proponent. Interested? This is the story:

If you were raised in the West and got to know Buddhism from a scientific background and tradition-teacher-critical mindset (think Kalama Sutta) your premise of uncovering Nibbana in this lifetime would read like this:

First of all, I am only interested in what Buddha taught. Where can I find out what he taught? What is the most authentic and most original representation of his teachings/discourses going back to his time? Let me start my praxis and understanding from there, rather than through third class secondary literature or contradicting contemporary interpretations.

Obviously, your focus would then fall on the texts of the Sutta Pitaka of the (Theravadin) Pali Canon, the most ancient surviving (textual) tradition encapsulating the words of the Buddha.

 

Now, if you start reading those texts in any modern translation, you will come to the conclusion, that Buddhist meditation  is all about (based on morality, of course) attaining jhanas, or deep concentration states of the mind. You believe that wisdom will come on its own. And your favorite Dhammapada verse would sum that idea up like this:

“Natthi jhanam apannassa / panna natthi ajhayato

yamhi jhananca panna ca / sa ve nibbanasantike.”

“There is no meditation for him who is without wisdom;

there is no wisdom for him who is without meditation.

Nearer to Nibbana is he, in whom meditation and wisdom meet.” (Dhp 372) and (here)

Your next step however involves finding other people practicing on the path. Then, looking around, you hear people talk and write about vipassana. Vipassana? That is not even mentioned once(*) in the suttas, what is that? You read about vipassana and find out that it originated (at least in its modern revived practice) in Burma in the country of Abhidhamma, propagated by monks who learn and love the late abhidhammic scholasticism and commentaries…Those parts of the Buddhist canon, which you know from historical and text critical studies to be the least reliable teachings. At least that is what you conclude.

As an outspoken and tradition-critical Buddhist you get into arguments with other people who are so enthused about their latest vipassana retreat. It is true, your own attempt at getting into jhanic states (or deep concentrations states) is cumbersome and slow. You cannot understand why these other vipassana “junkies” would be able to progress on the path of the Dhamma, if they have not even undertaken some training in concentration meditation – let alone practice only “dry vipassana”. “Yikes”, you think. You try to tell them that their practice is wrong. Or will not bear fruits, because, what they do is neither explained nor legitimized in the most ancient Buddhist texts, or is it?

If you happen to be in Thailand or a Thai related tradition, your pretence against vipassana could be worse. For whatever reason (jealousy towards their little under-developed Northern neighbour?) Thai meditation masters are known for their struggle with wild tigers in jungle infested regions as part of their zen-like adventurous struggle towards nibbana. But they are not known for systematic meditation methodologies. Especially not in vipassana training.

If you happen to be in Sri Lanka, arguments are found for both meditation approaches. Chances are you find people on both sides of the argument, however, in recent decades, the majority definitely turned in favor towards (Burmese-style) vipassana. In the Western world, despite groups of people in favor of jhana meditation (usually among the few who DO study the pali canon) vipassana rules the day. However, the closer someone professes to have studied the most authentic pali suttas they will show reluctance to except vipassana meditation. Reason: It looks like its not mentioned in the texts, or is it??

Here you might find yourself in a peculiar situation. Are the early texts wrong and the many people vouching for vipassana right? Or are they missing a crucial part and the suttas correct in that jhana is needed first before attempting vipassana or insight meditation?

Let me show you how to solve this (apparently) difficult problem. For that matter, let us imagine a personal story:

From whatever karmic reason, being a stern vipassana sceptic (probably not for the first time), trying to carefully navigate between the past and present views about the Dhamma, and in order to find the authentic path and achieve Nibbana in this very life, you come in contact with a very active, highly trained meditation group. They teach jhanas and vipassana. However, they won’t teach you the jhanas. Not yet.

Why? What is their argument?

You don’t need full jhana concentration to start doing vipassana. (You keep your doubts to yourself). You don’t know your time of death! (Sure, granted). Are you willing to risk death and thus loose this special samsaric opportunity to gain insights into the nature of your mind just because of some desire for deep concentration states? You think: I can show you dozens of passages which will highlight the importance of strong concentration before insight can be born. But lets say you agree to the challenge and keep your scepticism to yourself. They invite you for a 20 day retreat. Let the practice and its results be your guide, they say. Not theory. Not texts. Not tradition. So, in the true spirit of the Kalama Sutta you start the work.

So interestingly enough as soon as you agree, (this being a proper place) …. You are taught the basics in concentration meditation…(as I said, we imagine a very good systematic place)…Every meditation session includes a reflection on your sila (virtues), includes small exercises in concentration and eventually applies a thorough vipassana methodology – without a full blown mastering of the jhanas, of course… just enough to sustain concentration for the task at hand – which is the noting of the appearing and vanishing of the six sense bases…or five groups of grasping….peeking “under the hood” of samsara. First slowly, clumsy. Then quicker and sharper. To see impermance, dukkha and emptiness of a self.

Now, as time passes, you are astonished. You find yourself walking through the commentarial vipassanāñāṇa in a personal direct experience in real-life, yet even those vipassana insights have not been discussed in the suttas, or have they?

However, you know how emphatic the Buddha was about seeing the rising and falling and the wisdom born thereof.

And yes, the further you practice vipassana in this systematic way, the more you understand how your six senses work, how concepts and thoughts are empty. What you did not believe in your wildest dreams to be true comes true. A method which seems to have originated from nowhere creates knowledge which remind you of the results the sutta speak of. However, the path you took seems not to be mentioned in the suttas. Can this be?

A huge dilemma: How in all the world can it be, that the suttas talk 90% about jhanas when they mention meditation and you don’t hear them talk about vipassana, wheras the commentaries and the working vipassana techniques (so popular nowadays) are not mentioned once?

At that point, convinced by the experience and practice of vipassana meditation you look back at the suttas. You are convinced that you need to take a closer look. Something is wrong here – and it is not your result-producing practice.

So you go back to the pali texts and translations and try to look for an answer. Very soon you understand, that the various modern translations are the culprits in “hiding vipassana”. We could also say the commentaries, as they failed to better relate pragmatic knowledge and concepts of their times to the suttas (but, well, the Burmese example shows, some were able to figure it out reading and studying the texts close enough).

Well, or we could simply acknowledge the fact, that meditation practice is hardly a matter for texts and difficult to transmit between real people in real life – even harder on the paper. So it is and always will be a challenge to convey meditation experience and practice on a page – or palm leaf.

Because, in truth, the suttas are FULL of references to vipassana, in fact theses references probably dwarf any mentioning of the jhanas by 100:1. But the word vipassana is not what one has to look for. This insight producing part of the Buddhas teaching was so central to his mission that he spoke about it almost every time someone came to him with a question. But only later in his life he started using the term “vipassana” which in later centuries became exclusively used to what the Buddha coined “sati” during his life.

So the term he is using is hardly ever “vipassana” (some suttas, mostly commentaries use this term) and not “noting”  (commentaries use this term, sallakkheti).

The Buddha uses “sati – remembering”  instead or he uses “yoniso manasikaro – proper attention” or he uses “iti pajanati – to know “thus” or he uses various verbs related to “samanupassati – seeing,observing” etc. etc..

Remembering/Noting/Witnessing as a function of the mind to withstand the drag of the sense impressions and to actively witness with wise attention what is going on with the help of a (small number of very specific) labels.

And the Buddha uses “iti pajanati”. He uses direct speech. He tells us what to do – in fact how to note our experience – how to use a very simple concept like “This is not mine. This am i not. This is not my self” to de-conceptualize our constantly proliferating world-experience.

But the many scholarly (and contemporary) translators (in most cases) could not recognize this. They translate “you have to see the forms as empty” when it  more literally says  “you have to see the form so: ‘empty’”. A tiny little change, granted, but suddenly the missing link re-appears. And vipassana is all over the place. In fact, not only that – now references of how to use sustained thoughts in helping to induce concentration meditation appear in the pali texts and even jhana meditation lightens up.

Here is another exapmle. Such an obvious pali sentence as this one

Atthi kayo’ti pan’assa sati paccupatthita hoti yava-d-eva nana-mattaya pati-ssati-mattaya

Lit.: “(There) is a body” so too his remembering/noting/attention established is, just for the sake of knowing, for the sake of awareness.

from the famous satipatthana sutta gets translated by one famous scholar monks as:

he has clear mindfulness of the existence of the body only to extent that will serve to make it an object of gnosis (ñana) and recollection.

Therefore, a more literal translation – careful towards the application of meditation practice – would show that the Buddha’s “samma sati” is in fact the commentaries favorite “vipassana”. (more on this here)

And so, the seeming contradiction between jhana and vipassana dissolves into a close link between the two. Whereas the one uses thoughts to increase concentration on an object (think: “buddho, buddho”) the other uses specific labels to aid the development of deep insight by directing/guiding the bare attention: “This is feeling”. “This is how feeling appears”. “This is how feeling vanishes”. Left alone the mind behaves like a monkey in a forest. Both, insight and concentration meditation prosper on the usage of sati, that is “remembering”.

We could make changes and say instead “sati and samadhi” if we do not like to say “samatha and vipassana”…yes, that would probably have been the terminology of Buddhist meditation at the time of the Buddha. But nothing is wrong to use the preferred commentarial terminology and say “samatha-vipassana”. After all, these are all simply names/concepts relating to a pragmatic approach in meditation. That is why the Buddha mentioned vipassana implicitely when talking about jhanas and implicitely concentration when talking about vipassana. It gets problematic if these “notions”, “thoughts”, “views” start to interfere with our practice and we avoid walking on the entire noble eightfold path.

A little add-on:

Another problem is the mistaken role of jhanas in the recent vipassana revival. Jhanas are mistaken to be a hindrance or annoyance to the insight meditator. Very often jhanic states deriving from the intense “noting” practice are not acknowledged as such and lead to confusion. Someone with prior training in concentration has an easier time gauging his experiences (and continuing to note) by-products of a deep concentration. Therefore, the so-called “upacara” samadhi or “access” concentration is many times the result of a concentrated meditator untrained in the mastery of the jhanas. This will lead to jhanic experiences which then appear random and fuzzy and attract the wrong kind of attention by a vipassana meditator who never experienced them before. What could be a support due to the narrower focus of attention now turns into a hindrance, a broken and unsustained, underdeveloped jhana.

Final note: While our criticism was primarily directed towards the Jhānapubbaṅgamāvāda(i.e. the group of people who say that jhanas have to be developed first, like this) including the hint that “directing once mind towards realization of the 4 noble truth” is where the “real” work starts 🙂 we did try to balance our constructive criticism with remarks on the importance of one-pointedness. Vipassanāparāmāsāvāda (i.e. the group of people who separate vipassana from morality and concentration and place it above all) are in danger of dancing on the same spot and slowing down their progress. Khanika or ‘momentary’ concentration in this regard is an oxymoron, in my humble opinion. Think about it.

A proposal for today’s Theravada practice therefore, could look like this:

Our practice needs to establish a balance between sila, samādhi and paññā . One possibility is to incorporate reflection on sila and preparation on samathā into a preamble for every vipassanā meditation session. In fact there are such integrating and systematic approaches out there (esp. in Lanka) and if this post serves any good it might do some advertisement for such comprehensive approaches to Buddhist training.

“Now what is concentration, lady, what is its topic, what are its requisites, and what is its development”

“Singleness of mind is concentration, friend Visakha; the four foundations of sati are its topic; the four right efforts are its requisites; and any cultivation, development, & pursuit of these qualities is its development.” [Dhamma Dinna in MN 44]

In the next post we will look at some of the pali texts which show the ubiquity of “vipassanā” in the suttas =>

—Footnotes—

(*) The term vipassana is already mentioned and used in the suttas albeit not very common. Mostly in conjunction with samatha-vipassana but most of the passages which do mention vipassana in the suttas could be from younger text strata. I have another post in my draft folder with some quantification on this topic which i will link to at this place once it’s posted.

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18 comments

  1. khandy

    What a sensational overture! 🙂

    The post is interesting enough for me to read through the whole thing, but my polluted saṅkhāra failed to capture the whole relevance of its intent. The technical terms “Jhānapubbaṅgamāvāda” and “Vipassanāparāmāsāvāda” only added smoke to my minor bewilderment. Wow, more groups, more schools, more sects, more schisms… I guess Theravāda is, after all, much more complex (and degenerate) than i thought — even though i have been extremely cautious in approaching the Abhidhamma, the Visuddhimagga, and the Commentaries (and Sub-commentaries) because these could be as misleading as the Mahāyāna inventions themselves.

    I am weary of views, and this post is forwarding a view while doing a survey of seemingly opposing trends. The observations on “vipassanā” remarks in the suttas are right on, but can we just present such observations “as they are” (possibly useful as practice aids), without using them as arguments for or against any view at all?

    The Buddha’s Teachings are nuanced and multifaceted, all within a unique framework: dukkha and the cessation of dukkha. Perhaps certain people are the culprits in “hiding vipassanā,” but this is not the reason for any of us to “over-expose vipassanā.”

    Paññā is absolutely necessary, but it is not the goal. Nibbāṇa is the goal. (The Mahāyānists over-emphasize prajña, and downplay Nirvāṇa as a selfish concern. This is questionable.)

    I do appreciate this thoughtful post, and this comment is a friendly feedback.

  2. theravadin

    …and i had hoped this post would clarify things 🙂
    Those two “vadas” or schools i mention in the text is a joke fabricated by myself. There is no “official” school of jhanapubbangama nor vipassanaparamasa … but sometimes when talking to people or reading Buddhist books one could easily get that impression. In fact, one of the points i wanted to make in this post is to unify both parties…as it is my sincere believe that samatha-vipassana are indeed a yuga, a pair, as the Buddha stated.

    Because neither of us is a machine all these terms sometimes imply some clear-cut states and stages which in nature are more complex and interactive.

    Thus any vipassana progress will be joined by advances in concentration and any Buddhist concentration effort should sooner morph into a clear and close observation (vipassana).

    Again, without over-emphasizing terms and language, you could say that paññā (from pajanati) is vipassana. Its application will lead to Nibbana. The knowledge of Nibbana, in the pali texts has a separate term and is called “Aññā”.

    In our practice however we could not care less. Faced with a thought like “Is this panna or nibbana or blah blah blah” we should be able to note and return to our anchor point. That way, the rising and falling will be witnessed and progress and realization of Nibbana is closer.

    Avitakkavacara 😉

  3. khandy

    Well, of course, in our practice we could not care less. All ideas and views, books and blogs, are thrown out of the windows — only the meditation instructions are to be remembered. It is just the present experience, the present experience, the present experience, now, now, now…

    How does one stay in the now and not trace back the well-gone past nor yearn for the future yet-to-come? By not getting entangled in the contents of the thought if it happens to arise (and immediately pass away). The instructions say, just note it (see and know it as it is) and bring attention back to the breath — not “this is me,” not “this am I,” not “this is my self,” no appropriation whatsoever. It is the contents of the thought (a recollection or a projection) that conceptually define either the past or the future. There is no time, no past, no future. There is only the now of this namā-rūpa, and the attentive and discerning awareness of it.

    Samatha, then vipassanā. Vipassanā, then samatha. Samatha and vipassanā together. These are all valid, depending totally on the person and the circumstance at any specific moment, or any specific stage of progress. They are not cut-and-dry instructions subject to debates. Similar with the four foundations of sati, it becomes a thorny point if a teacher is dogmatic about a particular aspect of any foundation: “abdomen” (Mahāsi), “sensation” (Goenka)…

    Yeah, samatha-vipassana is a pair, as you rightly said, the two ends of a stick that both come up when one picks up the stick. Let’s try to keep them that way. 🙂

  4. khandy

    Human beings are habitually and culturally conditioned to consider that thoughts are private to them, that they willfully generate the thoughts, that the thoughts are the very stuff that justifies the so-called human existence, and so on.

    After some time of diligent practice, people find it relatively easy to develop a wise distance between the act of observing and the pain and the sound, say. But not so with the thoughts: they are so intimately mine, they are so existentially me, they are the products of an intelligent process that is distinctly my self. Letting them go? Are you kiddin’? You mean i am nothin’? All this education, all this spiritual search, nothin’? 🙂

    Arising, passing away, depending on conditions… Oh yes, the thoughts, too.

    Just an extra thought, which is not mine. 🙂

  5. theravadin

    🙂

    Thanks for the feedback. Just wanted to invite you to read this article, written by Ven. Nyanananda (author of ‘Concept and Reality’, ‘Magic of the Mind’)

    http://nibbanam.com/nibbana_guide_en.htm

    But you would have to read it to the end. In that little text you will see how Ven. Nyanananda too advices a meditator to use “noting-labels” to facilitate and guide the “attention at the present” as you mentioned.

    He shows how one could refine the labeling as the noting process speeds up and becomes sharper.

    Thus, as in the case of the jhanas where vitakka is a very helpful means of withdrawing from the 5 senses and stabilizing the inward attention so too in case of vipassana the usage of a short but precise “thought” during observation facilitates and supports the developing power of insight into the moment.

    Many meditators who are simply asked “to stay in the present” will be lost immediately. In fact, you don’t even see what amazing subtle stuff you are getting drawn into if not for the help of a neutral recurring peg against which you can measure (like breathing as an anchor point as you pointed out and then using a label to bring back the mind – within this framework nyana-dassana develops)

    In any case, i highly recommend this article:

    http://nibbanam.com/nibbana_guide_en.htm

    yours with metta!

  6. khandy

    Thanks for pointing to that article by Ven. Ñāṇananda.

    I appreciate his reminders (“summarily dismiss it”, “accelerate the mental noting in such a way as not to get caught in the net of perception”, “not allow that thought to crystallize itself as an object”…) and his emphasis on progressively more refined mental-noting.

    His note in the conclusion is so wonderful: What prevents this insight is that grasping or upādāna. Generally in the world, very few are keen on emptying the well. The majority simply draw water to make use of it. But there is no end to this making use of the water. Only when one decides upon emptying the well, will one be drawing water just to throw it away without grasping. This is the position of those who are keen on seeing the emptiness if the world, and it is they that are fully appeased in the world. The word parinibbutā in this context does not mean that the arahants have passed away. They live in the world fully appeased, having extinguished the fires of lust, hate and delusion.

    I have trained from noting “decaying”, “impermanent”… (to counter papañca, especially at the sight of a member of the opposite sex or an attractive electronic device), to noting “shape”, “sound”, “thought”… to noting “seeing”, “hearing”, “thinking”… as i do in my practice these days. Now, the noting happens, but the mental labels are at times quite faint. Ven. Ñāṇananda’s article is like a pat in the back for me.

    Actually, at the sight of an attractive electronic device, i usually note “no money, no money.” 🙂

  7. Dear Theravadin,

    Thanks for a considered and reflective post about Buddhist meditation, and taking some care to examine the relation between the practices we do and the texts we read – something that is not really all that obvious.

    My attention was drawn to this post as someone pointed out that you linked to my book, A History of Mindfulness, as an example of the ‘jhana must come first school’. So if it’s okay, I’d just like to offer a couple of points on your article.

    First, I’m not 100% clear what you mean here by ‘jhana’ must come first. If this means ‘jhanas must come before insight’, then i’ve never held this view, and I have quoted the relevant passages in my first book. (http://sites.google.com/site/aswiftpairofmessengers/samathaandvipassana) If it means ‘jhana must come before stream entry’, then it is indeed a view I hold, based on the relevant passages from the Suttas. (http://sites.google.com/site/aswiftpairofmessengers/jhana%26thenobleones)

    Second, as far as the usage of ‘vipassana’ in the suttas, you are quite right. The term itself is used relatively rarely, but the concept is found constantly. That’s why in my work i have treated vipassana in terms of investigation and discernment of impermanence, etc., not simply in terms of when the word itself appears. Vipassana practice in this sense is the main focus of, for example, the great wisdom Samyuttas (Nidana, Salayatana, Khandha, Dhatu).

    Third, your portrayal of the ‘vipassana-hater’ is amusing, but for the record my own experience is quite different. I started off learning Mahasi technique, and only ever had good results from it. It was only after I started reading the Suttas that little by little i realized that there were problems. When I asked my first teachers what these ‘jhanas’ were that i was reading about, the answer was that it was something the Buddha practiced before his enlightenment, but did not teach for his followers. So I’ve never been a vipassana-hater, but I am aware of some major problems with the doctrine.

    Fourth, as far as ‘noting’ goes, iti is used in many ways, and we cannot assume that its use in meditation contexts literally means ‘noting’. In some contexts such an interpretation is impossible, as for example in the formless attainments (ananto ākāsoti…). If some Pali translators do not render iti as direct speech, it is not because they don’t understand this very basic usage, but because they interpret the idiom differently. I would agree that such “iti” phrases probably lie behind the development of the noting technique in modern meditation methods. But i don’t think its a sound argument on linguistic grounds. Having said this, i have practiced noting since I began to meditate, and my samatha teacher also recommends it. I’m not trying to argue that the technique is wrong, but questioning the textual inferences used.

    Finally, as a practical note, as a meditator and a meditation teacher, I have never once tried to persuade someone to give up a particular meditation practice or to undertake a meditation practice based on my views of what the texts say. I always teach meditation according to what I believe to be most useful in that context. If someone is practicing Mahasi or Goenka, I try to support them in that practice as best I can. I will only question the practice if the meditator themselves raises issues, or if it seems to me that there are problems. And there are, there’s no doubt about this. The problem is not the vipassana method as such, but the dogma around it. In some cases people are clearly unsuited to the techniques; their minds are fragmented, their emotions are leached and drained. They really need some juice, some integration. A good vipassana teacher would recognize this and recommend some metta, etc. But all too often this does not happen, and the student is just told to keep on noting.

    I hope this tendency is fading away, and as time goes on we will focus more and more on what really works. As such I’m delighted in your emphasis on an integrated and balanced approach to practice. The intent of my work has always been to restore what I believe has been a lost balance between samatha and vipassana.

    • theravadin

      Dear Bhante Sujato,
      What an honor! I am a great admirer or your work, esp. the text on the Buddhist schools is superb.

      I share your hope and am pretty optimistic that the “artificial” separation between samatha-vipassana is indeed fading away. Practice does prove to us how intertwined they are (but of course we have to learn to recognize that). With more and more people picking up meditation and developing strong meditative skills and at the same time easier access to pali and the suttas, I am pretty sure that the focus on “what really works” will grow – hand in hand with the ability to distinguish, reflect (pativekkhana) and know exactly what the Buddha had in mind – in letter as well as in spirit.

      Here some answers to your questions from your comment, which I hope will help:

      First, I’m not 100% clear what you mean here by ‘jhana’ must come first. If this means ‘jhanas must come before insight’, then i’ve never held this view, and I have quoted the relevant passages in my first book. If it means ‘jhana must come before stream entry’, then it is indeed a view I hold, based on the relevant passages from the Suttas.

      Well, based on my glance through your work on the Satipatthana Sutta I counted you to the group of people who, let’s say “do not appreciate” the (Burmese) vipassana approach and lean towards the opposing school of thought which says that vipassana is a by-product of the jhanas. As you see in this and other posts on this blog, I personally believe that most vipassana meditators will generate the jhanas during their intense practice anyway but I do doubt that the mere (!) application of jhana per se would develop insight – However, if wisdom in the form of yoniso manasikara is applied by the jhana meditator, then he will meet with the vipassana yogin at the very same spot in his meditation – the only difference being from which side they started their journey and that the one will be better equipped to note ANY of the five groups of grasping whereas the other will be better equipped to keep his attention going for longer spells of time so that the wisdom seeing the rise and fall works it magic. Both parts are necessary, both have to be brought to perfection. Please forgive me if I mistook your position to be one-sided!
      With regard to the jhana before stream-entry, I am of the same opinion. But as just mentioned, every intense vipassana meditator will make acquaintance with the jhanas – knowingly or not – that is just in the nature of his practice. So, yes, definitely – the amount of concentration to break through does have to be at least of the “power” of the first jhana.

      So I’ve never been a vipassana-hater, but I am aware of some major problems with the doctrine.

      Honestly, I do think I know exactly were you are coming from, as I had many friends who went first to the vipassana centers (as that was the way they got introduced with Theravadin meditation) and only later realized that there was jhana as well.

      However, I do not think that there is a problem with vipassana itself- as the suttas teach and talk about it (and you rightly mention the enormous material in the Samyutta on this technique)- I rather think that there is a problem with how the Burmese system

      a.) applies some of these techniques.
      b.) interprets their results.

      Part of it may be that they are way too closely oriented towards the commentarial (very materialistic) explanation and abhidhammic analysis of the insight progress as it unfolds – rather than looking at the sutta’s and the Buddha’s early interpretation of vipassana progress (which I tried to have a look at in some of the posts here).

      For instance: One thing which is fundamental in vipassana is its enormous power with regard to surfacing past sense-impressions. Nobody would hand over a sharp sword to the 6 year old boy-but that is exactly what is done in most vipassana centers world wide. A training in sila and samadhi is fundamental to getting skillful with the laser tool of sati – especially its powerful aspect of noting anything arising – yet the training in sila and Samadhi especially in the West is dangerously neglected.
      Secondly, even the noting is then sometimes executed in a blunt fashion (not understanding why it should be done in the first place and what it leads up to) and so the unskilled meditator digs up samsaric dirt in his vipassana meditation and – not noting correctly or not being steadfast in his concentration or not being trained properly to watch his mind through application of precepts (sila) he is then left alone with huge chains-of-thoughts and emotions assailing him – not good :-).
      So, I do agree with you that a lot will need to be done in terms of practical research into these matters – beyond the “terminology”-wars and mute scholarly debates – as only experience can ultimately bring us to a closer understanding of what the Buddha meant when he said aniccam janato passato nibbindati -> nibbidā virajjati -> viragā vimuccati.

      A good vipassana teacher would recognize this and recommend some metta, etc. But all too often this does not happen, and the student is just told to keep on noting.

      Here I have to agree and disagree at the same time. A good vipassana teacher would only give vipassana instruction to the person schooled in sila and samadhi. So a person with emotional problems, fragmented mindset is NOT ready for the battle ground with Mara! Many problems we see when someone takes up the laser-blade of vipassana result from that simple fact. Of course one cannot simply replace the noble eightfold path simply with “Mindfulness” .
      However, (and this is where I might slightly disagree with you) if a proper student IS in the process of vipassana and he IS running through the vipassana nyanas of course he cannot – at any cost – stop noting. At that point the mind will throw various forms of attachment at him, to keep him in his samsaric loop, more and more (cmp. the similes of the leaking boat or well in the Dhp, Ud. etc). As the Buddha mentions “upadhim na kayira” and that is exactly what he is trying to do, in order to awake from the magic show of the mind.
      But again, this is true of course only for the proper and prepared student undertaking vipassana – funny enough, – and I have yet to write about that – IMHO the most common forms of noting techniques used nowadays forget to note consistently “everything” (all 5 groups included) which defeats their own purpose, dragging out the process of insight development unnecessarily.

      Thank you for your observations and lots of metta,

      a theravadin.

      • Thanks for the careful response, and for the kind words.

        Just one final comment, regarding the last point, when i said a good teacher would recognize when someone is unsuited. Of course you are quite correct that in the course of vipassana the meditator will experience many states of mind that, in and of themselves, may be quite disturbing, and yet which fall in the natural course of insight. In such cases, as you say, they need to dig their heels in and keep going, and the role of a teacher is to offer support and reassurance in this process. However, there are other cases when it is not a question of genuine insight knowledge, but of serious emotional unbalance, which may be anywhere from a gradual emotional fragmentation, all the way to a full-blown psychosis. It is here that, in my experience, many vipassana teachers simply aren’t trained to know the difference and to offer appropriate support, which, in certain cases, would mean recommending a different meditation technique, or in more severe cases stopping the meditation altogether.

        I’ve discussed this with meditation teachers, including vipassana teachers, and it is a recognized problem. The difficulty is that as we discussed we all realized that in our own meditation we have been through some pretty crazy stuff at one point or another. One practical rule of thumb is that if it’s a genuine meditation stage it will tend to stay on the cushion, and any effects afterwards will not be dysfunctional, whereas true emotional problems will manifest as disturbing speech or actions outside the meditation.

        • theravadin

          Dear Bhante,
          Unfortunately, I think it is even trickier: You are absolutely right, that in some cases even a good vipassana teacher and a meditator himself, will only find out what karmic basket they carry with them when they are already “on their way”. The better the skill of the teacher, the earlier he is able to “pull the plug” or make necessary changes to a student’s meditation instruction. Also training in morality and concentration is extremely neglected but would provide some of the crucial preparation.

          The tricky part however seems that progress in vipassana also means rattling the cages of samsara. It simply is no “mind massage for well-being” as it is very often depicted (and marketed) in the West, but a tool to leave behind the unfathomable abyss of samsara. Something very serious therefore.
          The 10 samyojanas, which the Buddha identified are IMHO very good descriptions of what a vipassana meditator will face when he tries to break away from samsara. In one of the posts here I pointed out that there seems to be an increase in the samyojana the closer a meditator gets to magga phala. I usually compare this to the same situation someone would experience when he or she is fettered to a pole (i.e. sam-yojana !). As long as that person stays in the vicinity of the pole, he/she will not feel the iron chain around their ankle. But, as soon as they start moving away from the pole, suddenly the chain straightens and they will experience the samyojana as getting stronger. This simple observation of course actually fits in very nicely with events described in the suttas. Also, logically, it seems to make perfect sense. One cannot expect to break with old “habits” without causing “friction”. However, and I understand that, this idea destroys a weird but prevalent notion that the path to Arahantship is an (easy) sailing and straight line with an ever increasing perfection and no pain or struggle besides maybe back-pain 🙂 . Quite in the contrary, I would say; Looking at the 4 stages of enlightenment and comparing them with the samyojanas it seems as if the progress – the longer we stretch it out in time, that is! – the more it is effected by this pull of the samyojanas before they eventually will break. Of course, and this is the tricky part and I am well aware that it runs against an established notion, of course these samyojanas will NOT simply stop when one gets off the cushion. In the same way as the noting, in intense vipassana weeks and months, will start to penetrate every moment of the meditators life, in exactly the same way that battle with Mara where we try to find the other shore of course will effect our daily life. Therefore, someone seeking temporary “well-being” should probably stick to pure samatha (after all they are ditthadhammasukhavihara) but the one looking for ultimate “well-being” and ready for such a journey has to see and judge how far he can go – but should really have someone to guide him through or at least someone to consult!
          So, the way I see it, everyone of us has to go through the battle against Mara under the Bodhi tree, but according to the Buddha we should equip ourselves with the proper amount of sila and samadhi. Some are able to break through quick and fast and will not experience the tug of the fetters that much – for others it will take longer to break through that egg shell. But yes, it seems we could wish for more seriousness applied to this whole matter. Maybe even some way to compare results and characteristics of what is involved.
          In any case it will be crucial if the insight instruction is applied properly – if not, one is stepping with one foot on the accelerator and with the other on the brake – does not work very well and might cause the engine to unnecessarily overheat 🙂

          Thanks again and I appreciate your feedback.

          metta!

    • theravadin

      This one is quite important so I put it separately:

      Fourth, as far as ‘noting’ goes, iti is used in many ways, and we cannot assume that its use in meditation contexts literally means ‘noting’. In some contexts such an interpretation is impossible, as for example in the formless attainments (ananto ākāsoti…). If some Pali translators do not render iti as direct speech, it is not because they don’t understand this very basic usage, but because they interpret the idiom differently. I would agree that such “iti” phrases probably lie behind the development of the noting technique in modern meditation methods. But i don’t think its a sound argument on linguistic grounds. Having said this, i have practiced noting since I began to meditate, and my samatha teacher also recommends it. I’m not trying to argue that the technique is wrong, but questioning the textual inferences used.

      Here is my suggestion: If you take your time and go through the Sutta-Pitaka and reflect on those passage where the Buddha DOES give meditation instruction, chances are you will almost always see the “iti”.
      This would be too charming, but the idea that usage of iti in the suttas is related to the beginnings of Burmese vipassana doubtful. It is rather the commentarial use of “sallakheti”, etc. (see also Mahasi Sayadaw’s teacher’s great commentary on the Milindapanha in this regard) which is probably BASED on the knowledge the Buddhist meditators had in the first few centuries after the Buddha with still the right understanding of how to apply the Buddha’s iti and then paraphrasing it as “abhilapana” ended up in the commentarial literature based on which Mahasi’s teacher, studying the commentary on the Satipatthana “invented” the method.

      So, I would just give it a try. You get into a concentrated state of mind and then use “This is not me”, “This is not mine”, “This is not myself” or any other of the labels used by the Buddha to “note” or “attend” or “witness” your experience in the moment. This application of a manasikara which goes yoniso is so direct, clear and easy to test that it really (luckily) does not need any big scholarly investigation. It is straightforward! By applying that method of noting ANY form, feeling, perception, fabrication or even conscious “experience” the mind eventually starts seeing the rising and vanishing (Phussa phussa vayaṃ passaṃ, evaṃ tattha virajjatī) and now the 6-D movie experience of samsara starts its process of dissolution.

      Thanks again for your comment, Bhante!

  8. theravadin

    Just re-read our conversation. For those interested, try “ananto akaso” either based on the 4th jhana or before going into jhana as a determination or resolve. This determined “thought” will guide you to that very experience. I will definitely come back to the topic of understanding/translating “iti” literally with regard to Buddha’s meditation instructions so stay tuned 😉

  9. Now, how could a practice be “result-producing” (as in freeing one from suffering, i.e. the very aim of N8P), if there is no samma-samadhi (which means the jhanas)? The only explanation is that there *is* jhana as described in the Suttas, which is not the absorbed concentration into a conceptual object as described in the Visuddhimagga.

    • theravadin

      you are absolutely right!…samma-samadhi as described by the suttas arises during vipassana practice, which is neither surprising nor an isolated phenomenon. However the recognition or rather identification of the jhana factors might take quite some time and training.

      • To do that we have to reevaluate the so-called factors. Translating ‘sukha’ as ‘pleasure’ is very misleading. Actually, it simply means ‘happiness’. Translating piti as ‘rapture’ is also problematic. Joy is plain and sufficient. I find these popular English translations to have been based on the Visuddhimagga jhana. Therefore I’m in the process of writing a book to address this with evidence drawn and synthesized from the Suttas, teachings of contemporary teachers, and real-life experience.

        • theravadin

          Dear Bhante. Yes, sukha as (bodily) happiness and piti as mental elation or joy is IMHO the right track. It fits the similes and many meditator’s experience doing anapanasati for a while. Like you were saying reality is so much more in line with the main evidence in the suttas. The translations in general would benefit from long term practitioners expressing their insights in a modern day to day language while staying close to the words of the Buddha. Ars longa 😉 BTW, thinking of sukha as happiness brings dukkha as ‘unhappiness’ into play and it makes a lot of sense to look at it that way. The 4 fundamental truths of unhappiness…There is unhappiness, it has a cause, that cause can be removed and there is a method leading to its removal.

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