Understanding Vipassanā

Is the practice of vipassanā the application of viriya (energy), sati (mindfulness), samadhi (concentration) but only when it generates wisdom (paññā), more specifically ñāṇadassana (knowing and seeing)?


The Sutta-Pitaka has a couple of texts which are not the word of the Buddha but close reporters. They originated and developed during the first 100 to 300 years after the parinibbana of the Buddha, such as the Theragatha, Culla- and Mahaniddesa, Patisambhidhamagga, Nettipakarana, Petakopadesa and Milindapanha. Although traditionally considered “canonical” they show traces of further developing pali, new terminology and efforts of systematization.

Thus they shed a very profound light on the early teachings of the Buddha as they supplement the Buddha’s own explanations from different angles with additional expressions, explanations. In fact they contain the understanding of Buddhism as present during the first few generations of “Buddhist meditation masters”. This is very helpful, because the more explanations on some of the profound concepts  in the teachings of the Buddha we can get the better we can understand their implications and meaning.

In the Cullaniddesa (which is a thesaurus style commentary on another text from the discourses of the Buddha), for instance, we read this beautiful passage. It is a comment on the Parayana-vagga of the Sutta-Nipata:

The Pali Text


‘‘Yāni sotāni lokasmiṃ, Sati tesaṃ nivāraṇaṃ;

Sotānaṃ saṃvaraṃ brūmi,paññāyete pidhiyyare’’.

Whatever streams there are in this world, mindfulness hinders them;

I tell you what blocks them, it is through wisdom that they are stopped.

The paraphrasing early commentary explains:

Sati tesaṃ nivāraṇanti. Satīti yā sati anussati paṭissati sati saraṇatā dhāraṇatā apilāpanatā asammussanatā sati satindriyaṃ satibalaṃ sammāsati satisambojjhaṅgo ekāyanamaggo – ayaṃ vuccati sati. Nivāraṇanti āvaraṇaṃ nīvaraṇaṃ saṃvaraṇaṃ rakkhanaṃ gopananti – sati tesaṃ nivāraṇaṃ.

“Mindfulness hinders them”. “Mindfulness”, is that mindfulness which is an observation, returning attention, mindfulness, carrying, non-floating [altern. repetition], un-forgetfulness, mindfulness, faculty of mindfulness, power of mindfulness, mindfulness as component of awakening, the direct path – this is called mindfulness.

Paññāyete pidhiyyareti. Paññāti yā paññā pajānanā vicayo pavicayo dhammavicayo sallakkhaṇā upalakkhaṇā paccupalakkhaṇā paṇḍiccaṃ kosallaṃ nepuññaṃ vebhabyā cintā upaparikkhā bhūrī [bhūri (ka.)] medhā pariṇāyikā vipassanā sampajaññaṃ patodo paññā paññindriyaṃ paññābalaṃ paññāsatthaṃ paññāpāsādo paññāāloko paññāobhāso paññāpajjoto paññāratanaṃ amoho dhammavicayo sammādiṭṭhi. Paññāyete pidhiyyareti – paññāyete sotā pidhīyanti pacchijjanti na savanti na āsavanti na sandanti nappavattanti. ‘‘Sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā’’ti jānato passato paññāyete sotā pidhīyanti pacchijjanti na savanti na āsavanti na sandanti nappavattanti. ‘‘Sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā’’ti jānato passato paññāyete sotā pidhīyanti pacchijjanti na savanti na āsavanti na sandanti nappavattanti. ‘‘Sabbe saṅkhārā anattā’’ti jānato passato paññāyete sotā pidhīyanti pacchijjanti na savanti na āsavanti na sandanti nappavattanti. ‘‘Avijjāpaccayā saṅkhārā’’ti jānato passato paññāyete sotā pidhīyanti pacchijjanti na savanti na āsavanti na sandanti nappavattanti. ‘‘Saṅkhārapaccayā viññāṇa’’nti…and so forth

“It is through wisdom ( knowing) that they are stopped”. “Wisdom”, that is the wisdom which is a knowing, examination, breaking apart, un-heaping the things  (see Thag 593), marking, up-marking (tagging), back-marking, skill, proficiency, experience, expertise, thought, on-looking, wisdom, wiseness, insight, clear-sight,  clear comprehension (lit. “together-knowing”), a spur, a knowing , the faculty of knowing, the power of knowing, the skill of knowing, confidence of knowing, the light of knowing, the shining of knowing, the lamp of knowing, the jewel of knowing, the unbewilderedness, the unheaping of things, the right view.

“It is through knowing that they are stopped” – it is through knowing that these streams are shut down, come asunder, do not flow, do not rush on, do not proceed, do not continue. “All formations are impermanent” thus knowing and seeing for such a one through wisdom these streams are shut down, they come asunder, do not flow, do not rush on, do not proceed, do not continue. “All formations are painful”, “All formations are impermanent”, “Ignorance based are the formations”, “Formation based is consciousness”…[dependent origination]….thus knowing and seeing for such a one through wisdom these streams are shut down, they come asunder, do not flow, do not rush on, do not proceed, do not continue.

[CullaNiddesa – Parayanavagga, pi]

A very enlightening paragraph, IMHO…here we can see that “sati” is defined as  the faculty of staying with an object and the concept of paññā is brought in (as a separate additional notion) and points towards the actual insight creating part of insight meditation!

Such a differentiation between sati and paññā would explain why the suttas see sati so close to the concept of samadhi.

Sati, most commonly translated as “mindfulness”, serves more or less as a foundation – together with viriya (energy) and samadhi (concentration) for ultimately the development of paññā (or “wisdom”, “knowing reality as it is”), as indicated in the above quote.

We could then take a step further and think of the paññā- or knowing-part in our vipassana practice as the actual “labelling” or “noting” activity which identifies the object, “tags” or “marks” it (sallakkheti) so to speak, to facilitate a seeing of the frames instead of the motion picture of existence, while sati just makes the mind stay with this mode of observation, holding it back from sinking or immersing into the storyline again, the identification, the creation of mental proliferation (papañcā) in varying degrees (understood as taṇhā, māna, diṭṭhi).

In other words:

Sati, as a faculty of memory appears in the early pali texts and commentaries as the ability to stay with an object (“saraṇatā dhāraṇatā apilāpanatā asammussanatā, i.e. “remembering, keeping, non-floating or repetition, non-loosing”).

Together with viriya, or energy, it allows the mind to raise concentration or samādhi. These three forces are said to be standing on the shoulders of each other* – which is also represented in the way we find them listed in the noble eightfold path.

Here it is sati’s only function not to immerse or sink into an object but to continuously follow it or carry it.

The identification with an object leads to the “floating with” objects and happens when we loose our awareness (sammosa), i.e. we become forgetful of the task at hand, forget to repeat. In this case our effort in an ongoing attention at the setup of experience itself, not its content. (Very much unlike concentration, where it is sati which keeps the attention one one particular object of concentration, a sense object. In insight meditation the attention is not at one particular sense object at the expense of all others – the attention is at the process itself, disecting it forcefully with applied paññā, i.e. sam+pajaññā). So in vipassanā we have shifted from the “normal” state of mind, which is attending ANY of the six sense objects’ content via concentration which meant attending only ONE selected sense object to now attending to the PROCESS of experience itself.

However, in order to do that – and to loosen the compelling story-telling force of the six sense objects (including thinking!!) we need paññā here in form of tagging/marking of some sort to quickly “know”, “recognize” something as what it is, “see” it and let go of it immediately. If we were to attend to any of these objects longer than necessary we are already proliferating inside the context of a content provided (even if we think in thoughts of the Dhamma) and thereby miss the actual role of paññā: seeing anything(!) as coming, going, painful in its unreliable nature, void of control, self-less, fake.

When we get carried away by the “story” the sense objects tell us (in our vipassana meditation), we therefore first loose our wisdom (paññā), then our concentration on the process, then our sati and eventually our energy. In fact, you could also view it the other way round: each of these mental skills developed props up the other one. Only by aligning them properly, paññā is able to do its job.

Therefore sati is said to be the power of observation, of not slipping into the objects but to be constantly aware of one (samatha) or their process (vipassana). An ability which first is trained, then mastered and eventually comes natural to (and in increasing amounts via Stream-Entry up to) the Arahant due to his freedom.

Here is the most fascinating aspect though: While this is probably no new information, the role of paññā as indicated in this text is separately defined from mindfulness.

Here, paññā is not just a mere synonym for sati or mindfulness! Yes, it almost looks as if sati alone is not the factor per se developing wisdom and enlightenment – at least according to the interpretation of a passage as quoted above.

Here, it appears, that in a sequence of strengthening faculties such as effort, mindfulness and concentration eventually a certain form of knowing or paññā has to be established in order to “realize” the four noble truth. This distinction between sati as support for concentration and sati with regard to a mode of observation leading to wisdom could be the reason for so much confusion with regard to the role of samātha vs. vipassanā meditation. Both need make use of the last three members of the noble eightfold path, but especially vipassana goes beyond in directing the developed (and concentrated) mind to the source of suffering in order to achieve wisdom.

That determining of the source and elements of existance is not something – or so it seems – that “just” happens to appear by mere observation of the conventional content and storyline our senses present to us as the finished product of their activity.

In the Buddha’s words, we might add, it is “yoniso” manasikāro not just “manasikāro” which is essential. It is the attention which goes to the source (yoni, lit. womb) of existence not simply attention (manasikāra) or even worse an attention which is a-yoniso – basically that kind of attention we use all day long, when we drive our cars, speak to other people, etc. There to “sati” and “manasikāra” are at work, but they further the delusion of permanence and personality.

So it is true, both samathā or concentration meditation and insight meditation need mindfulness: Both of them need ongoing observation. However, while the samathā meditation needs sati to stay with its one object (not necessarily applying paññā), the vipassana practice does not generate wisdom merely by utilizing sati.

Now that is a problem (for certain circles of vipassanā practice, especially in the weakened, wisdom-stripped form we find in the West). If sati alone would make us enlightened then sati would be the last member in the noble eightfold path, not samadhi. If samadhi alone would make us enlightened then there would be no mentioning of yathābhūta ñāṇadassana, or yoniso manasikāro, there would be no need to name the nexus of paticcasamuppada or the intrinsics of the mechanism of now, when consciousness is propped up by name and form. No need for sammādiṭṭhi and sampaññā and no need for entire Sutta collections like the book on the six sense spheres or the five groups of grasping.

But because these things  have to be seen, because they are the key for sati&samadhi to drill into, they make the cornerstone of Buddhist practice and obviously get mentioned more than anything else in the Tipitaka.

And because by looking at the 3D 6D movie of life in a way as to identify its individual frames and not fall for its story, it is paññā, the knowing, which is at the heart of vipassanā in form of developing ñāṇa (insight) and dassanā (seeing).

But it is not as mysterious as it sounds. Because indeed, if you go through the Cullaniddesa/SuttaNipata quote above you will see that what is understood as the practice of developing paññā or wisdom/insight in the early pali texts is ultimately linked to the practice of viriya, sati, samadhi as a manifestation of yoniso manasikara (attention which looks to the origin) or yathabhuta nyanadassana (the knowing and seeing of things as they present themselves, as they have come into existance).

An analogy. These three factors of the noble eightfold path which comprise “bhavanā” or “meditational development” are used as some sort of a laser. But any good laser is only as good as the work it is put to. It needs to be directed properly. This laser is not “Buddhist” by nature, but the direction it was pointed to, and the object it was applied and the person who understood why this would make a fundamental difference, indeed, was uniquely Buddhist. What is that direction? Obviously, the 4 noble truths, summarized in short as: the five groups of grasping, our obsession with them  and the true nature of their characteristics, which, if seen without making any exception, will lead to a transcendental (literally) experience.

The directing of this laser in the appropriate fashion is the wisdom part of the training. And the technique used – and here of course disagreement might abound – is some form of noting/labeling/naming/recognising/marking/calling out the characteristics of our experience, i.e. the five groups of grasping. But this is something which, if you get to this point in your own personal practice, you can of course find out easily – what method helps you best in not getting drawn into the ruminations of your 6 (!, again, including thinking!) senses, the tricky show they put up to pull us in – so far, personally, I haven’t seen anything working better than the noting technique esp. if used with a very limited set of labels (see this article, my favorite on the topic).

So, the bottom line is this, I guess: Sati supports Samadhi. Neither of them alone make the Christian mystic who experiences the Brahma Viharas in jhanic experiences an Arhant. Samadhi was practiced before and after the Buddha and observation, sati, if not sustained by concentration, is a weak laser, unreliable to uncover the fabric of existance not enough to support the generating of wisdom. The Buddha’s diamond to cut through delusion is wisdom, as in sila, samadhi, panna. And that paññā, while resting heavily on energy, mindfulness and concentration is knowing the nature of our experience as it presents itself to us. Again, not attending the s t o r y of our six senses but h o w they fabricate that story which keeps us trapped between longing and rejecting.

Lets close with some voices from the Commentaries…

Yaṃ viditvāti yaṃ dhammaṃ ‘‘sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā’’tiādinā nayena sammasanto viditvā.

“What one has experienced” – whatever object one has experienced, noting (lit. touching) it in this way “sabbe sankhara anicca” and so forth

Yaṃ viditvā sato caranti viditaṃ katvā tulayitvā tīrayitvā vibhāvayitvā vibhūtaṃ katvā, ‘‘sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā’’ti viditaṃ katvā tulayitvā tīrayitvā vibhāvayitvā vibhūtaṃ katvā, ‘‘sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā’’ti… ‘‘sabbe dhammā anattā’’ti…pe… ‘‘yaṃ kiñci samudayadhammaṃ sabbaṃ taṃ nirodhadhamma’’nti viditaṃ katvā tulayitvā tīrayitvā vibhāvayitvā vibhūtaṃ katvā.

“What one having experienced/learnt/got to know one proceeds mindfully” is having made the  experience, having weighed it, examined it, having developed it, having made it distinct; “all formations are impermanent” thus having made the experience, having weighed it, examined it, having developed it having made it distinct (vi-bhūta).

“all things are not-self”..etc..”whatever is subject to arising all that is also subject to cessation” thus having made the experience, having weighed it, examined it, having developed it having made it distinct.

…and the commentary on the Samyuttanikaya’s chapter on sense impressions contains a remarkable summary of vipassana instructions as they were known to Theravadin practice during the time of the commentaries (100 BC to approx. 300AD). This will be part of another separate post but here a straight forward translation as it adds some perspective to everything mentioned before:

So ‘‘vipassanaṃ paṭṭhapessāmī’’ti upādārūpakammaṭṭhānavasena cakkhupasādādayo pariggahetvā ‘‘ayaṃ rūpakkhandho’’ti vavatthapeti, manāyatanaṃ ‘‘arūpakkhandho’’ti. Iti sabbānipetāni nāmañceva rūpañcāti nāmarūpavasena vavatthapetvā, tesaṃ paccayaṃ pariyesitvā vipassanaṃ vaḍḍhetvā, saṅkhāresammasantoanupubbena arahatte patiṭṭhāti. Idaṃ ekassa bhikkhuno yāva arahattā kammaṭṭhānaṃ kathitaṃ hoti.

He thinks: “I will begin with the practice of vipassanā” and whatever form he has taken up by practising his meditation object having caught it from the eye, ear, etc. entrances he designates (points out, defines = vavatthapeti) it so: “This is the group of form” and if it is a mental entrance “This is a formless group”**.

Thus, having designated ALL of these so: “this is just name, just form” according to them being name-and-form, he develops (increases) his clear-sight (vipassana) having searched for their cause/origin/support, he attains the Arahantship by and by through seeing (sammasanto is lit. “touching”) the formations.


*Thus satipatthana could be understood as sati+patthana, the mindfulness and its objects. Sati directed towards the five groups of grasping is sati aiding in the development of wisdom (whereas sati applied on an object like “light” aids in the development of concentration on light, it is here that sati applied on the nature of the body, sensations etc. it aids in the concentration on the nature of reality, sparking insights into the mechanics of the five groups of grasping, developing detachment and finally release).

**This paragraph has a LOT to say about ancient vipassana practice and is very condensed in its description. A couple of notes: The meditator seems to make up his mind to start with vipassana (probably under the guidance of some meditation teaching preceptor) and then takes ANY of the six senses sense impressions as he “catches” (pariggaheti) them through one of the six sense organs (pasāda) and “designates, points out, determines” (see definition of vavatthapeti in the PED), i.e. he “labels” or “notes” them in this way: “This is a form” – if his awareness catches the object-aspect of the five groups of grasping and he labels “This is not a form” when he catches feelings, perceptions, intentions, conscious awareness of the object  (anything “subjective”) and notes that too.

This way he basically just experiences the five groups of grasping simply as what they are: namely “names” (or name evoking, see Nyananandas discussion on this in his first Nibbana sermons, anything “subjective”) and forms (the “objective” reality). By seeing them in this fashion he becomes aware of their foundation and relationship (paccaya) which is the interplay between name-form and consciousness. When he proceeds in this way, so the commentary, he eventually will realize arahantship (at the end of the path) by relentlessly “touching” or “observing” all formations in this manner.

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