Vipassanā (Pāli) or vipaśyanā (Sanskrit) literally, "special-seeing", "special (Vi), seeing (Passanā)", is a Buddhist term that is often translated as "insight". The Pali Canon describes it as one of two qualities of mind which is developed (bhāvanā) in Buddhist meditation, the other being samatha (mind calming). It is often defined as a form of meditation that seeks "insight into the true nature of reality", defined as anicca "impermanence", dukkha "suffering, unsatisfactoriness", anattā "non-self", the three marks of existence in the Theravada tradition, and as śūnyatā "emptiness" and Buddha-nature in the Mahayana traditions.
Vipassanā practice in the Theravada tradition ended in the 10th century, but was reintroduced in Toungoo and Konbaung Burma in the 18th century, based on contemporary readings of the Satipaṭṭhāna sutta, the Visuddhimagga, and other texts. A new tradition developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, centering on bare insight in conjunction with samatha. It became of central importance in the 20th century Vipassanā movement as developed by Ledi Sayadaw and U Vimala and popularised by Mahasi Sayadaw, V. R. Dhiravamsa, and S. N. Goenka.
In modern Theravada, the combination or disjunction of vipassanā and samatha is a matter of dispute. While the Pali sutras hardly mention vipassanā, describing it as a mental quality alongside samatha which develops in tandem and leads to liberation, the Abhidhamma Pitaka and the commentaries describe samatha and vipassanā as two separate meditation techniques. The Vipassanā movement favors vipassanā over samatha, but critics point out that both are necessary elements of the Buddhist training.
Vipassanā is a Pali word derived from the older prefix "vi-" meaning "special", and the verbal root "-passanā" meaning "seeing". It is often translated as "insight" or "clear-seeing". The "vi" in vipassanā has many possible meanings, it could mean to '[see] into', '[see] through' or to '[see] in a special way.'
A synonym for vipassanā is paccakkha "perceptible to the senses" (Pāli; Sanskrit: pratyakṣa), literally "before the eyes," which refers to direct experiential perception. Thus, the type of seeing denoted by vipassanā is that of direct perception, as opposed to knowledge derived from reasoning or argument.
In Tibetan, vipaśyanā is lhaktong (Wylie: lhag mthong). Lhak means "higher", "superior", "greater"; tong is "view, to see". So together, lhaktong may be rendered into English as "superior seeing", "great vision" or "supreme wisdom." This may be interpreted as a "superior manner of seeing", and also as "seeing that which is the essential nature." Its nature is a lucidity—a clarity of mind.
Henepola Gunaratana defined vipassanā as "Looking into something with clarity and precision, seeing each component as distinct and separate, and piercing all the way through so as to perceive the most fundamental reality of that thing."
According to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, in the sutta pitaka the term "vipassanā" is hardly mentioned, while they frequently mention jhana as the meditative practice to be undertaken.[note 1] When vipassanā is mentioned, it is always in tandem with samatha, as a pair of qualities of mind which are developed. According to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, "samatha, jhana, and vipassana were all part of a single path."[note 2] Norman notes that "the Buddha's way to release [...] was by means of meditative practices." According to Vetter and Bronkhorst, dhyāna constituted the original "liberating practice". Vetter further argues that the eightfold path constitutes a body of practices which prepare one, and lead up to, the practice of dhyana. Vetter and Bronkhorst further note that dhyana is not limited to single-pointed concentration, which seems to be described in the first jhana, but develops into equanimity and mindfulness,[note 3] "born from samadhi" but no longer absorbed in concentration, being mindfully aware of objects while being indifferent to it, "directing states of meditative absorption towards the mindful awareness of objects."
Though both terms appear in the Sutta Pitaka[note 4], Gombrich and Brooks argue that the distinction as two separate paths originates in the earliest interpretations of the Sutta Pitaka, not in the suttas themselves.[note 5] Henepola Gunaratana notes that "[t]he classical source for the distinction between the two vehicles of serenity and insight is the Visuddhimagga." According to Richard Gombrich, a development took place in early Buddhism resulting in a change in doctrine, which considered prajna to be an alternative means to awakening, alongside the practice of dhyana. The suttas contain traces of ancient debates between Mahayana and Theravada schools in the interpretation of the teachings and the development of insight. Out of these debates developed the idea that bare insight suffices to reach liberation, by discerning the Three marks (qualities) of (human) existence (tilakkhana), namely dukkha (suffering), anatta (non-self) and anicca (impermanence).
According to Buddhist and Asian studies scholar Robert Buswell Jr., by the 10th century vipassana was no longer practiced in the Theravada tradition, due to the belief that Buddhism had degenerated, and that liberation was no longer attainable until the coming of Maitreya. It was re-introduced in Myanmar (Burma) in the 18th century by Medawi (1728–1816), leading to the rise of the Vipassana movement in the 20th century, re-inventing vipassana meditation and developing simplified meditation techniques, based on the Satipatthana sutta, the Visuddhimagga, and other texts, emphasizing satipatthana and bare insight.[note 6] Ultimately, these techniques aim at stream entry, with the idea that this first stage of the path to awakening safeguards future development of the person towards full awakening, despite the degenerated age we live in.[note 7]
While the Abhidhamma and the commentaries present samatha and vipassana as separate paths,[note 8] in the sutras vipassana and samatha, combined with sati (mindfulness), are used together to explore "the fundamental nature of mind and body. In the later Theravada tradition, samatha is regarded as a preparation for vipassanā, pacifying the mind and strengthening concentration in order for insight to arise, which leads to liberation.
The Buddha is said to have identified two paramount mental qualities that arise from wholesome meditative practice:
The Buddha is said to have extolled serenity and insight as conduits for attaining the unconditioned state of nibbana (Pāli; Skt.: Nirvana). For example, in the Kimsuka Tree Sutta (SN 35.245), the Buddha provides an elaborate metaphor in which serenity and insight are "the swift pair of messengers" who deliver the message of nibbana via the noble eightfold path.
In the Pāli canon, the Buddha never mentions independent samatha and vipassana meditation practices; instead, samatha and vipassana are two "qualities of mind" to be developed through meditation. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes,
When [the Pāli suttas] depict the Buddha telling his disciples to go meditate, they never quote him as saying 'go do vipassana,' but always 'go do jhana.' And they never equate the word "vipassana" with any mindfulness techniques. In the few instances where they do mention vipassana, they almost always pair it with samatha — not as two alternative methods, but as two qualities of mind that a person may 'gain' or 'be endowed with,' and that should be developed together.
Buswell states that the most common meditation method described in the Pāli canon is one where samatha is first done to induce jhana and then jhana is used to go on to vipassana. Buddhist texts describe that all Buddhas and their chief disciples used this method. Texts also describe a method where vipassana is done alone, but this is less common.
The term vipassana is often conflated with the Vipassana movement, a movement which popularised the new vipassana teachings and practice. It started in the 1950s in Burma, but has gained wide renown mainly through American Buddhist teachers such as Joseph Goldstein, Tara Brach, Gil Fronsdal, Sharon Salzberg, and Jack Kornfield. The movement has had a wide appeal due to being open and inclusive to different Buddhist and non-buddhist wisdom, poetry as well as science. It has together with the modern American Zen tradition served as one of the main inspirations for the 'mindfulness movement' as developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn and others. The Vipassanā Movement, also known as the Insight Meditation Movement, is rooted in Theravāda Buddhism and the revival of meditation techniques, especially the "New Burmese Method" and the Thai Forest Tradition, as well as the modern influences on the traditions of Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos and Thailand.
In the Vipassanā Movement, the emphasis is on the Satipatthana Sutta and the use of mindfulness to gain insight into the impermanence of the self. It argues that the development of strong samatha can be disadvantageous, a stance for which the Vipassana Movement has been criticised, especially in Sri Lanka. The "New Burmese Method" was developed by U Nārada (1868–1955), and popularised by Mahasi Sayadaw (1904-1982) and Nyanaponika Thera (1901–1994). Other influential Burmese proponents are Ledi Sayadaw and Mogok Sayadaw (who was less known to the West due to lack of International Mogok Centres); S. N. Goenka was a student of Sayagyi U Ba Khin. Influential Thai teachers are Ajahn Chah and Buddhadasa. A well-known Asian female teacher is Dipa Ma.
Vipassanā meditation uses sati (mindfulness) and samatha (calm), developed through practices such as anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing), combined with the contemplation of impermanence as observed in the bodily and mental changes, to gain insight into the true nature of this reality.
Practice begins with the preparatory stage, the practice of sila, morality, giving up worldly thoughts and desires. Jeff Wilson notes that morality is a quintessential element of Buddhist practice, and is also emphasized by the first generation of post-war western teachers. Yet, in the contemporary mindfulness movement, morality as an element of practice has been mostly discarded, 'mystifying' the origins of mindfulness.
The practitioner then engages in anapanasati, mindfulness of breathing, which is described in the Satipatthana Sutta as going into the forest and sitting beneath a tree and then to simply watch the breath. If the breath is long, to notice that the breath is long, if the breath is short, to notice that the breath is short. In the "New Burmese Method," the practitioner pays attention to any arising mental or physical phenomenon, engaging in vitarka, noting or naming physical and mental phenomena ("breathing, breathing"), without engaging the phenomenon with further conceptual thinking. By noticing the arising of physical and mental phenomena, the meditator becomes aware how sense impressions arise from the contact between the senses and physical and mental phenomena, as described in the five skandhas and paṭiccasamuppāda. According to Sayadaw U Pandita, awareness and observation of these sensations is de-coupled from any kind of physical response, which is intended to recondition one's impulsive responses to stimuli, becoming less likely to physically or emotionally overreact to the happenings of the world.
The practitioner also becomes aware of the perpetual changes involved in breathing, and the arising and passing away of mindfulness. This noticing is accompanied by reflections on causation and other Buddhist teachings, leading to insight into dukkha, anatta, and anicca. When the three characteristics have been comprehended, reflection subdues, and the process of noticing accelerates, noting phenomena in general, without necessarily naming them.
Vipassanā jhanas are stages that describe the development of samatha in vipassanā meditation practice as described in modern Burmese Vipassana meditation. Mahasi Sayadaw's student Sayadaw U Pandita described the four vipassanā jhanas as follows:
The north Indian Buddhist traditions like the Sarvastivada and the Sautrāntika practiced vipaśyanā meditation as outlined in texts like the Abhidharmakośakārikā of Vasubandhu and the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra. The Abhidharmakośakārikā states that vipaśyanā is practiced once one has reached samadhi "absorption" by cultivating the four foundations of mindfulness (smṛtyupasthānas). This is achieved, according to Vasubandhu,
[b]y considering the unique characteristics (svālakṣaṇa) and the general characteristics (sāmānyalakṣaṇā) of the body, sensation, the mind, and the dharmas.
"The general characteristics" signifies the fact that "All conditioned things are impermanent; all impure dharmas are suffering; and that all the dharmas are empty (śūnya) and not-self (anātmaka).
The later Indian Mahayana scholastic tradition, as exemplified by Shantideva's Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra, saw śamatha as a necessary prerequisite to vipaśyanā and thus one needed to first begin with calm abiding meditation and then proceed to insight. In the Pañjikā commentary of Prajñākaramati (Wylie: shes rab 'byung gnas blo gros) on the Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra, vipaśyanā is defined simply as "wisdom (prajñā) that has the nature of thorough knowledge of reality as it is.
Mahāyāna vipaśyanā differs from the Theravada tradition in its strong emphasis on the meditation on emptiness (shunyata) of all phenomena. The Mahayana Akṣayamati-nirdeśa refers to vipaśyanā as seeing phenomena as they really are, that is, empty, without self, nonarisen, and without grasping. The Prajnaparamita sutra in 8,000 lines states that the practice of insight is the non-appropriation of any dharmas, including the five aggregates:
So too, a Bodhisattva coursing in perfect wisdom and developing as such, neither does nor even can stand in form, feeling, perception, impulse and consciousness...This concentrated insight of a Bodhisattva is called 'the non-appropriation of all dharmas'.
Likewise the Prajnaparamita in 25,000 lines states that a Bodhisattva should know the nature of the five aggregates as well as all dharmas thus:
That form, etc. [feeling, perception, impulse and consciousness], which is like a dream, like an echo, a mock show, a mirage, a reflection of the moon in water, an apparition, that is neither bound nor freed. Even so form, etc., which is past, future, or present, is neither bound nor freed. And why? Because of the nonbeing-ness of form, etc. Even so form, etc., whether it be wholesome or unwholesome, defiled or undefiled, tainted or untainted, with or without outflows, worldly or supramundane, defiled or purified, is neither bound nor freed, on account of its non-beingness, its isolatedness, its quiet calm, its emptiness, signless-ness, wishless-ness, because it has not been brought together or produced. And that is true of all dharmas.
The Sthavira nikāya, one of the early Buddhist schools from which the Theravada-tradition originates, emphasized sudden insight: "In the Sthaviravada [...] progress in understanding comes all at once, 'insight' (abhisamaya) does not come 'gradually' (successively - anapurva)."
The Mahāsāṃghika, another one of the early Buddhist schools, had the doctrine of ekakṣaṇacitta, "according to which a Buddha knows everything in a single thought-instant".[citation not found] This process however, meant to apply only to the Buddha and Peccaka buddhas. Lay people may have to experience various levels of insights to become fully enlightened.
[T]he very title of a large corpus of early Mahayana literature, the Prajnaparamita, shows that to some extent the historian may extrapolate the trend to extol insight, prajna, at the expense of dispassion, viraga, the control of the emotions.
Although Theravada and Mahayana are commonly understood as different streams of Buddhism, their practice however, may reflect emphasis on insight as a common denominator: "In practice and understanding Zen is actually very close to the Theravada Forest Tradition even though its language and teachings are heavily influenced by Taoism and Confucianism."[note 10]
In Chinese Buddhism, the works of Tiantai master Zhiyi (such as the Mohe Zhiguan, "Great śamatha-vipaśyanā") are some of the most influential texts which discuss vipaśyanā meditation from a Mahayana perspective. In this text, Zhiyi teaches the contemplation of the skandhas, ayatanas, dhātus, the Kleshas, false views and several other elements. Likewise the influential text called the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana has a section on calm and insight meditation. It states:
He who practices 'clear observation' should observe that all conditioned phenomena in the world are unstationary and are subject to instantaneous transformation and destruction; that all activities of the mind arise and are extinguished from moment or moment; and that, therefore, all of these induce suffering. He should observe that all that had been conceived in the past was as hazy as a dream, that all that is being conceived in the future will be like clouds that rise up suddenly. He should also observe that the physical existences of all living beings in the world are impure and that among these various filthy things there is not a single one that can be sought after with joy.
Calming is the essence of wisdom. And wisdom is the natural function of calming [i.e., prajñā and samādhi]. At the time of prajñā, samādhi exists in that. At the time of samādhi, prajñā exists in that. How is it that samādhi and prajñā are equivalent? It is like the light of the lamp. When the lamp exists, there is light. When there is no lamp, there is darkness. The lamp is the essence of light. The light is the natural function of the lamp. Although their names are different, in essence, they are fundamentally identical. The teaching of samādhi and prajñā is just like this.
Samatha and vipassana are explicitly referred to in Tibetan Buddhism. According to Thrangu Rinpoche, when shamatha and vipashyana are combined, as in the mainstream tradition Madhyamaka approach of ancestors like Shantideva and Kamalashila, through samatha disturbing emotions are abandoned, which thus facilitates vipashyana, "clear seeing." Vipashyana is cultivated through reasoning, logic and analysis in conjunction with Shamatha. In contrast, in the siddha tradition of the direct approach of Mahamudra and Dzogchen, vipashyana is ascertained directly through looking into one's own mind. After this initial recognition of vipashyana, the steadiness of shamatha is developed within that recognition. According to Thrangu Rinpoche, it is however also common in the direct approach to first develop enough shamatha to serve as a basis for vipashyana.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the classical practice of śamatha and vipaśyanā is strongly influenced by the Mahāyāna text called the Bhavanakrama of Indian master Kamalaśīla. Kamalaśīla defines vipaśyanā as "the discernment of reality" (bhūta-pratyavekṣā) and "accurately realizing the true nature of dharmas".
Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism employed both deductive investigation (applying ideas to experience) and inductive investigation (drawing conclusions from direct experience) in the practice of vipaśyanā.[note 12][note 13] According to Leah Zahler, only the tradition of deductive analysis in vipaśyanā was transmitted to Tibet in the sūtrayāna context.[note 14]
Mahāmudrā and Dzogchen use vipaśyanā extensively. This includes some methods of the other traditions, but also their own specific approaches. They place a greater emphasis on meditation on symbolic images. Additionally in the Vajrayāna (tantric) path, the true nature of mind is pointed out by the guru, and this serves as a direct form of insight.[note 17]