The Visuddhimagga (Pali; English: The Path of Purification), is the 'great treatise' on Buddhist practice and Theravāda Abhidhamma written by Buddhaghosa approximately in the 5th Century in Sri Lanka. It is a manual condensing and systematizing the 5th century understanding and interpretation of the Buddhist path as maintained by the elders of the Mahavihara Monastery in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.
It is considered the most important Theravada text outside of the Tipitaka canon of scriptures, and is described as "the hub of a complete and coherent method of exegesis of the Tipitaka," but it has also been criticised for its non-canonical departures, and its interpretation of dhyana as concentration-meditation.
The structure of the Visuddhimagga is based on the Ratha-vinita Sutta ("Relay Chariots Discourse," MN 24), which describes the progression from the purity of discipline to the final destination of nibbana in seven steps. The Visuddhimagga's material also strongly resembles the material found in an earlier treatise called the Vimuttimagga (c. 1st or 2nd century).
The Visuddhimagga's doctrine reflects Theravada Abhidhamma scholasticism, which includes several innovations and interpretations not found in the earliest discourses (suttas) of the Buddha. Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga includes non-canonical instructions on Theravada meditation, such as "ways of guarding the mental image (nimitta)," which point to later developments in Theravada meditation.
The Visuddhimagga is centered around kasina-meditation, a form of concentration-meditation in which the mind is focused on a (mental) object. According to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, "[t]he text then tries to fit all other meditation methods into the mold of kasina practice, so that they too give rise to countersigns, but even by its own admission, breath meditation does not fit well into the mold." In its emphasis on kasina-meditation, the Visuddhimagga departs from the Pali Canon, in which dhyana is the central meditative practice, indicating that what "jhana means in the commentaries is something quite different from what it means in the Canon."
Buddhaghosa was careful in introducing any new ideas into the Mahavihara tradition in a way that was too obvious. There seems to be no doubt that the Visuddhimagga and the commentaries are a testimony to the abilities of a great harmonizer who blended old and new ideas without arousing suspicion in the minds of those who were scrutinizing his work.
This comparison between practice and "seven relay chariots" points at the goal. Each purity is needed to attain the next. They are often referred to as the "Seven Stages of Purification" (satta-visuddhi):
The "Purification by Knowledge and Vision" is the culmination of the practice, in four stages leading to liberation and Nirvana. The emphasis in this system is on understanding the three marks of existence, dukkha, anatta, anicca. This emphasis is recognizable in the value that is given to vipassana over samatha in the contemporary vipassana movement.
According to scholars, the Visuddhimagga is one of the extremely rare texts within the enormous literatures of various forms of Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism to give explicit details about how spiritual masters were thought to actually manifest supernormal abilities. Abilities such as flying through the air, walking through solid obstructions, diving into the ground, walking on water and so forth are performed by changing one element, such as earth, into another element, such as air. The individual must master kasina meditation before this is possible. Dipa Ma, who trained via the Visuddhimagga, was said to demonstrate these abilities.
The Visuddhimagga is considered the most important Theravada text outside of the Tipitaka canon of scriptures. According to Nanamoli Bhikkhu, it is "the hub of a complete and coherent method of exegesis of the Tipitaka, using the ‘Abhidhamma method' as it is called. And it sets out detailed practical instructions for developing purification of mind."
The Visuddhimagga is one of the main texts on which contemporary vipassana method is based, together with the Satipatthana Sutta. Yet, its emphasis on kasina-meditation and its claim of the possibility of "dry insight" has also been criticised and rejected by some contemporary Theravada scholars and vipassana-teachers.
According to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, "the Visuddhimagga uses a very different paradigm for concentration from what you find in the Canon." Bhante Henepola Gunaratana also notes that what "the suttas say is not the same as what the Visuddhimagga says [...] they are actually different," leading to a divergence between a [traditional] scholarly understanding and a practical understanding based on meditative experience. Gunaratana further notes that Buddhaghosa invented several key meditation terms which are not to be found in the suttas, such as "parikamma samadhi (preparatory concentration), upacara samadhi (access concentration), appanasamadhi (absorption concentration)." Gunaratana also notes that the Buddhaghosa's emphasis on kasina-meditation is not to be found in the suttas, where dhyana is always combined with mindfulness.[note 1]
Bhikkhu Sujato has argued that certain views regarding Buddhist meditation expounded in the Visuddhimagga are a "distortion of the Suttas" since it denies the necessity of jhana. The Australian monk Shravasti Dhammika is also critical of contemporary practice based on this work. He concludes that Buddhaghosa did not believe that following the practice set forth in the Visuddhimagga will really lead him to Nirvana, basing himself on the postscript to the Visuddhimagga:
Even Buddhaghosa did not really believe that Theravada practice could lead to Nirvana. His Visuddhimagga is supposed to be a detailed, step by step guide to enlightenment. And yet in the postscript [...] he says he hopes that the merit he has earned by writing the Vishuddhimagga will allow him to be reborn in heaven, abide there until Metteyya (Maitreya) appears, hear his teaching and then attain enlightenment.[note 2]