Old Snow Lion’s sharp vision

What do Vibhajjavada and Early Tibetan Meditation have in common? Quick answer: they knew about the importance of insight meditation.

Long answer: Just stumbled over this very interesting academic paper on a technical term called “bhūta-pratyavekṣā” used by the Mahayana Buddhist monk Kamalasila (8th century) in his famous work “Bhāvanākrama” (Meditation Technique) dealing with “vipaśyanā”. So anyway, if I understand my Buddhist history correctly, these 3 texts on meditation, supposedly the origin of all Tibetan meditation, have their origin in an author of Indian origin, a monk of  the 7th century who is propagating Mahayana Sutra knowledge in Tibet.

From a modern Pali-Canon-ready-at-your-fingertips perspective it is hilarious to note that this Venerable Kamalasila (a Mahayana monk) was defending the gradual practice of bhavana (which he boiled down to samatha and vipassana) against the Chinese ZEN ideas of a “sudden enligthenment” (Mahayana too).

Wow. We are so blessed with crucial information which to access these people had to cross deserts, countries, oceans.

It was interesting to compare the observations Martin Adam made in his paper on this Sanskrit text (which I, admittedly, only read in small parts) to some ideas I noted in earlier posts on this blog, about the meaning and understanding of the Buddha’s term “yathabhuta”-nyana-dassana in conjuction with vipassana practice.

In fact, if we were ancient Indian monks, and someone asked us to come up with a synonym for “yathabhuta nyanadassana” for the upcoming Nalanda Thesaurus of the year 400 AD, we might very well use a phrase like “bhūta-pratyavekṣā”.

But have a look for your self:

Such translations might be seen as having the merit of indicating that the cognition involved in pratyavekṣā is of a special sort. i.e. it is not merely a case of ordinary pratyavekṣā, but more particularly one that is true or correct. Just as vipaśyanā is a special kind of seeing, indicated by the prefix vi- so too, it might be thought, bhūtapratyavekṣā is special kind of cognition, one that is epistemically faithful to the object cognized. Yet it is also the case that bhūta may be translated substantively as ‘what is,’ ‘the real,’ ‘reality,’ and so on. 2 The word holds a spectrum of meanings, shading from the clearly epistemic (e.g. correct, exact, true) to the clearly ontic (e.g. what has become, element, reality). [Comm.: This would be the general translation most current translations follow through when they translate yathabhuta with “as it really is”] Here, grammatically, the adjectival and substantive correspond to the epistemic and the ontic senses respectively. In translating the compound, if one wished to emphasize the veracity of the cognition involved in pratyavekṣā one would tend to choose from among the former set of possibilities. If, on the other hand, one wished to emphasize the actuality of the object cognized one would want to opt for one of the latter; this is the course I have chosen in taking the compound to be a ṣāṣṭhī-tatpuruṣa.3

Grammatically bhūta is the past passive participle of the verbal root √bhū. Taken substantivally, it can refer to anything that is the result of a natural process of becoming (bhāva). In most instances the word would not in itself be understood as referring to something that results from a process of deliberate cultivation (bhāvanā); in that case we would expect to find the causal sense reflected in a strengthened base: ‘bhāvita’ as opposed to bhūta. Thus initially, in the context of meditation, it seems most appropriate to take the word as referring either to the elements of conventional reality (dharmas), which arise on their own – or else to some aspect of these elements that is real irrespective of one’s realization of it. In Mādhyamika hermeneutics [and not just there, in pali it seems to be the same] the term bhūta is associated with the meaning that is ultimately real, i.e. the ‘object’ indicated in nītārtha teachings (See Thurman 1978, 32-34, Author, XX). Indeed Kamalaśīla takes the term this way himself, explicitly identifying it with the selflessness of persons and dharmas.

And discerning reality is said to be insight. But reality (bhūta, T. yang dag pa) is the selflessness of persons and dharmas (pudgaladharmanairātmya, T. gang zag dang / chos la bdag med pa). Here, the selflessness of the person is the aggregates’ lack of self and belonging to a self. The selflessness of dharmas is precisely their being like an illusion.

Thus from this passage it would appear that Kamalaśīla himself adhered to a non-adjectival understanding of bhūta; it is here clearly identified with the abstract noun, nairātmya or selflessness.

As for the compound’s second member, pratyavekṣā, it too has a wide spectrum of possible meanings — ranging from perceptual cognition at the one end to intellectual cognition at the other: ‘perception,’ ‘observation,’ ‘examination,’ ‘discernment,’ ‘analysis,’ and ‘investigation.” The word ‘discernment’ seems to occupy somewhat of a middle position, carrying perceptual as well as intellectual connotations.5 In the present context this is highly desirable. The Sanskrit word is derived from the verbal root √īkṣ, which means to see, behold, perceive, view, observe, look or gaze at. It is combined with the upasārga prefixes ‘prati-‘(toward, back to) and ‘ava-‘ (down). In philosophical contexts the latter often suggests a sense of depth or penetration. The total sense of pratyavekṣā, then, is both ‘looking deeply into’ and ‘reflecting back upon’.

With bhūta understood as its object, the entire compound can be seen to convey the sense of ‘Reflecting upon (and) looking deeply into reality.’

In our discussion on “yathabhuta” I suggested to take bhuta very literal and translate

evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṃ [link]

Translates as: So this (i.e. ‘impermanence’, nom. acc.) yatha-bhutam (adv, as far as / according to the becoming) with full knowing has to be seen.

Or: So this impermanence has to be seen with proper knowing as it [the object] has become [i.e. objectified, became reality, appeared, presented itself, etc. etc.]

Or even more English: “In such a way impermanence has to be seen, knowing it properly/directly as it manifests itself“.

Here a comparison to similar constructions:

yatha rucim … according to ones liking / as long as i enjoy it

yatha ditthim … according to ones views / as far as my views go

yatha sukham … according to ones happiness / as far as i like it / as long as it goes with my happiness / only where i am happy

yatha bhutam … according to its becoming / according to how it has become / according to how it presents itself / as far as it presents itself / only where it has become (come into existance)

I know, people just like to call it “as it really is”…translated as such a million times and cited in every book about Buddhist meditation. But what does that mean? Not the English “as it really is”. What is it that “yatha bhutam” wants to convey in Pali?

We have to understand that our latin word “reality” and whatever concepts and associations you and me connect with it may confuse us. In Pali the word for “reality” in this case as it is used by the Buddha is the past participle of becoming. Yes!, an insight meditator will acknowledge, this is how i would define reality: It is six sense object after six sense object that is born in a becoming…But, for others, the English term “reality” seems rather abstract.

Therefore: Yathabhuta does not mean we have to study philosophy to get a knowledge of what “reality” means. Yathabhuta implies we need to sharpen our concentration, attention and mindfulness in such a way that we “know-and-see” with the direct vision of experience of looking and knowing at the objects of our own becoming: sights, sounds, … mental objects.

Let’s go back to the Bhavanakramah though. In the description of the proper vidarshana practise as laid down in this late Mahayana book we find Martin Adams examining Kamalasilas explanations:

They compose a system of progressively more subtle insights into the nature of reality. While they clearly possess the character of wisdom (prajñā), because they are undertaken in a condition of samādhi they are properly considered instances of bhāvanāmayī prajñā. They are distinct from cases of ordinary intellectual inference insofar as they are directly ‘based upon’ objects being concurrently experienced in meditation. The meditator remains one-pointedly focused upon these mental images, holding them in view while simultaneously ‘analysing’ them. In brief: one looks, recognizes the object, and continues to analyse it while holding one’s gaze. Recognizing its unreality, one abandons it. The process might be thought of as analogous to research undertaken with a microscope: one focuses, recognizes the object one wishes to observe, and makes one’s observations. After drawing one’s conclusions about the object, one lets go of it. One then looks again with a new, revised object in mind — one’s new observations being based upon the conclusions reached thus far.


Lets have a look:

one focuses –

so far so good

recognizes the object one wishes to observe,

starts to note…

and makes one’s observations.

noting the object

After drawing one’s conclusions about the object, one lets go of it.

…this of course is a trap. If a meditator would start “analyzing” his six-sense object, he would, in fact, “miss” the observation of another sense impression (-> his analysis) and thus lose his vipassana observation, getting caught by Mara :-). Well, granted, these are subtleties of the insight-war, and as we all know, the Buddha encouraged us to leave the raft (Dhamma) behind when we come closer to the other shore…

While it seems clear that Kamalaśīla regarded this mental process as perceptual or quasi-perceptual in nature, such a notion might not be intuitively obvious to a modern western interpreter. The inclination might be to think of the whole procedure as basically one of ordinary rational thought (cintāmayī prajñā). One would then want to translate bhūtapratyavekṣā accordingly as ‘correct analysis’. But it should now be clear that taking this phrase to refer to a purely rational process would be to significantly impoverish Kamalaśīla’s account. Such an interpretation would miss both the affective and the perceptual dimensions of the process.

That such an understanding does not accurately reflect Kamalaśīla’s own views can be seen clearly in the passages that follow. Therein a meditative analysis is performed on mental dharmas. A conclusion is reached that the subject side of the subject-object dichotomy is just as illusory as the object-side, upon which it depends. Mind is recognized as nondual. This ‘conclusion’ is clearly regarded by Kamalaśīla as an experience. It is a realization, one that forms the basis for the next ‘inference,’ (or better, perhaps, ‘movement’) — the recognition that goes beyond the dualistic knowledge of a nondual mind to enter into a knowledge that is without any appearance of duality whatsoever. Ultimately, Kamalaśīla states, one should not even be attached to this nondual knowledge of nonduality, since it is too has arisen in dependence upon subject and object — which have already been established as unreal.13 Abiding in such a state, one has come to experience the emptiness of all dharmas, up to and including even the knowledge of nonduality.

How can the mind remain focused on one point and engage in conceptual analysis at the same time? On this understanding, Kamalaśīla’s account would appear to be unintelligible.

Well, it cannot be both at the same time. This is why in the suttas any insight meditation is described in terms of seeing, not thinking. Not conceptualization as Kamalasilas text defines it. But then, this really depends on how vikalpa and nirvikalpa was understood in India in the 8th century….At face value I would associate a state like the 4th jhana or a phala samapatti with a notion of “nirvikalpa” where all thought related activity has calmed down or evaporated. In that sense vipassana or noting practice is indeed not “nirvikalpa”. But it also has nothing to do with simply random or even analytical thinking. These procedures would just keep the mind in the realm of thought (keyword: avitakkavacara) and foster delusion. Not knitting chains of thoughts is the answer to finding Nibbana (irrespective of their content) but rather the development (bhavana) of a (thoughtless) knowing vision, a nyana-dassana, a vi-passana.

Still fascinating to see that even at this time, more than 1000 years after the Buddha’s parinibbana and 200 years after Buddhaghosas Theravada compendium “Visuddhimagga” was written – in the time of deepest Mahayana twists-and-turns, they knew that meditation consisted of only two things:

tatra yady api bodhisattvānām aparimito ‘pramāṇādibhedena bhagavatā samādhir upadiṣṭaḥ, tathāpi śamathavipaśyanābhyāṃ sarve samādhayo vyāptā iti [Bhavanakramah]

In that context, even if the samādhi of bodhisattvas was taught by the Bhagavan to be limitless, by way of the (four) immeasurables and all the rest, nevertheless all samādhis are subsumed under tranquillity and insight.

I am so glad to be travelling Theravadin 🙂

On another note: The longer you practice vipassana the more distinct the five groups of grasping become. In the beginning everything is confused…was this a feeling? Was this a form? Eventually the mind, without actually analyzing or thinking simply sees the or understands the object in its separating characteristics much better and sharper. I wonder if that is the origin of our Vibhajjavada == Theravada idea or Kamalasilas vibhāvya:

Thus having broken down (vibhāvya, T. rnam par bshig nas) dharmas with a material form, he should break down (vibhāvya, T. rnam par bshig bya) those without material form’. It is apparent that here the conceptual analysis or ‘breaking down’ of experienced realities is considered part of the process of insight.

You only need a couple of elder Thera’s who were gifted in making these conceptual distinctions drawn from their personal meditation experience to create the dry monstrosity of abhidharmic “dharma” classifications.

After all, in our samatha practices something similar happens…First, piti and sukha and upekkha appear but the meditator does not know what they are, how to distinguish between them. One has a very deep concentration and wonders what that may have been. (Years) later the distinction between those factors of an absorption are crystal clear to his/her mind.

One could imagine that something similar happened on the grand scheme of things when these personal descriptions of experience of reality where taken as indications for absolute reality and more theoretically inclined monks started devising a theoretical system…Funny, when in the end, these names where just used as means to overcome all names.

As long as we can see them as concrete waysigns on the path, they will have served their purpose. Like the Bhavanakrama. Though, as I must confess, I rather identify with pointers like these 😉

Here is the reference to these very interesting abstracts:




This one is very good too:



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