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Vipassana in the Buddhist tradition means insight into the true nature of reality


In the Theravadin context, this entails insight into the three marks of existence:   (1) the impermanence of and (2) the satisfactoriness; a very conditioned thing that exists, and (3) non-self.    In Mahayana contexts, it entails insight into what is variously described as sunyata, dharmata, the inseparability of appearance and emptiness, clarity and emptiness, or bliss and emptiness.

Vipassana is commonly used as a synonym for vipassanā-meditation, in which satipatthana, four foundations of mindfulness or anapanasati, “mindfulness of breathing,” is used to become aware of the impermanence of everything that exists. Vipassana is commonly used as one of two poles for the categorization of types of Buddhist practice, the other being samatha. Though both terms appear in the Sutta Pitaka, but there are so me that argue that the distinction as two separate paths originates in the earliest interpretations of the Sutta Pitaka, not in the suttas themselves.   Various traditions disagree which techniques belong to which pole.

Samatha is a focusing, pacifying, and calming meditation common to many traditions in the world, notably yoga. According to the contemporary Theravada orthodoxy, samatha is used as a preparation for vipassana, pacifying the mind and strengthening the concentration in order to allow the work of insight, which leads to liberation.

Vipassana-meditation has gained popularity in the west through the modern Buddhist vipassana movement, modeled after Theravada Buddhism meditation practices, which employs vipassana and anapana meditation as its primary techniques and places emphasis on the teachings of the Satipatthana Sutta.   A synonym for “Vipassana” is paccakkha, “before the eyes,” which refers to direct experiential perception. Thus, the type of seeing denoted by “vipassana” is that of direct perception, as opposed to knowledge derived from reasoning or argument.  In Tibetan, vipashyana is lhagthong. The term “lhag” means “higher”, “superior”, “greater”; the term “thong” is “view” or “to see”. So together, lhagthong 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.

The suttas contain traces of ancient debates about the interpretation of the teachings, and early classifications and hierarchies. Out of these debates developed the idea that bare insight suffices to reach liberation, by bare insight alone in the three marks of existence are dukkha, anatta and anicca.  This is in contradiction with the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, in which the Buddhist path starts with insight, to be followed by practices to cultivate the mind and reach Nirvana.

In the Sthaviravada progress in understanding comes all at once, ‘insight’ does not come ‘gradually’.  The Mahasanghika had the doctrine of ekaksana-citt, “according to which a Buddha knows everything in a single thought-instant”.  The emphasis on insight is also discernible in the Mahayana-tradition, which emphasizes prajana:  The 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, and the control of the emotions.

Although Theravada and Mahayana are commonly understood as different streams of Buddhism, their practice too 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.    Vipassana meditation differs in the modern Buddhist traditions and in some nonsectarian forms.  It includes any meditation technique that cultivates insight including contemplation, introspection, and observation of bodily sensations, analytic meditation, and observations about lived experience.  Vipassana as practiced in the Theravada centers on mindfulness, including mindfulness of breathing, combined with the contemplation of impermanence.

Mindfulness of breathing is described throughout the Sutta Pitaka. The Satipatthana Sutta describes it 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.    By observing the breath one becomes aware of the perpetual changes involved in breathing, and the arising and passing away of mindfulness.

One can also be aware of and gain insight into impermanence through the observation of bodily sensations and their nature of arising and passing away. Contemplating on these perpetual changes one becomes aware of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and lack of an inherent, independent essence or self.

The Vipassana  practitioner develops various level of insight and reaches the step where gross bodily sensations/feeling tone dissolve and there is a subtle flow of sensations throughout the body, which is called bhaṅganupassa naṇa, knowledge of dissolution. This is an ongoing process that continues to reveal layer upon layer of mental purification.   The Vipassana yogi experiences increasing cessation of cravings and aversions (fears) strongly founded knowledge of equanimity of all formations.

Similar to the Theravadan approaches Mahayana includes contemplation on Buddhist teachings as well as experiential awareness. The latter is particularly prevalent in East Asian traditions such as Zen.  But in addition and in particular the Mahayana practitioner contemplates the two truths doctrine:  the nature of conventional truth and absolute truth. Through the cultivation of this awareness, one realizes that both self and external phenomena lack an inherent existence and have the nature of emptiness. This is determined by the inferential path of reasoning and direct observation through meditation.The Mahayana also introduced meditation upon visualizations, such as an image of Prajnparamita in female, deity form, as a way to contemplate Buddhist teachings. Each component of the visualization evokes a particular teaching and the practitioner then contemplates using a visual symbolic representation.

The polarity of samatha and vipassana is discernible in the Chinese and Tibetan debates over gradualism or subitism.   Nevertheless, Huineng, sixth patriarch of the Zen, considered the practice cannot be described as gradualistic nor subitist, but implies people with more or less clear minds.

It appears that Indian Mahayana Buddhism employed both deductive investigation and induction investigation in the practice of vipasyana at the level of sutrayana, corresponding respectively to the “contemplative forms” and “experiential forms” in the Theravada school.

The practice tradition suggested by the Treasury is one in which mindfulness of breathing becomes a basis for inductive reasoning on such topics as the five aggregates; as a result of such inductive reasoning, the meditator progresses through the Hearer paths of preparation, seeing, and meditation. It seems at least possible that both Vasubandhu and Asaṅga presented their respective versions of such a method, analogous to but different from modern Theravada insight meditation.  Because the great difference between this type of inductive meditative reasoning based on observations.   It appears that only the tradition of deductive analysis in vipasyana was transmitted to Tibet in thesutrayana context. This tradition is outlined in the Bhavanakrama texts, following in turn an approach described in the Lankavatara Sutra.   One scholar describes his approach thus: “the overall picture painted is that kind of serial alternation between observation and analysis that takes place entirely within the sphere of meditative concentration” in which the analysis portion consists of Madhyamama reasoning’s.

The approach in the sutras is to develop a conceptual understanding of emptiness and gradually refine that understanding through meditation, which eventually produces a direct experience of emptiness we are proceeding from a conceptual understanding produced by analysis and logical inference into a direct experience this takes a great deal of time we are essentially taking inferential reasoning as our method or as the path. There is an alternative  which the Buddha taught in the tantras  the primary difference between the sutra approach and the approach of Vajrayana is that in the sutra approach, we take inferential reasoning as our path and in the Vajrayana approach, we take direct experience as our path.

In general there are two kinds of meditation: the meditation of the paṇḍita who is a scholar and the nonanalytical meditation or direct meditation of the kusulu, or simple yogi. . . the analytical meditation of the paṇḍita occurs when somebody examines and analyzes something thoroughly until a very clear understanding of it is developed. . . The direct, nonanalytical meditation is called kusulu meditation in Sanskrit. This was translated as tromeh in Tibetan, which means “without complication” or being very simple without the analysis and learning of a great scholar. Instead, the mind is relaxed and without applying analysis so it just rests in its nature. In the sūtra tradition, there are some nonanalytic meditations, but mostly this tradition uses analytic meditation.

Mahamudra and Dzogchen use vipasyana extensively. This includes using some methods of the others traditions but also incorporates different approaches. Like the Mahayana they include meditating on symbolic images as contemplations but place a greater emphasis on this form of meditation. Additionally in the Vajrayana path, the true nature of mind is pointed out by the guru and the practitioner practices with that direct experience as a form of vipasyana. Many Kagyupas, consider Mahamudra not-specifically-Tantric a path of direct perception from a general Mahayana path of inferences and a Vajrayana path of blessing.

In the Sūtra path one proceeds by examining and analyzing phenomena, using reasoning. One recognizes that all phenomena lack any true existence and that all appearances are merely interdependently related and are without any inherent nature. They are empty yet apparent, apparent yet empty. The path of Mahāmudrā is different in that one proceeds using the instructions concerning the nature of mind that are given by one’s guru. This is called taking direct perception or direct experiences as the path. The fruition of śamatha is purity of mind, a mind undisturbed by false conception or emotional afflictions. The fruition of vipaayana is knowledge and pure wisdom. Jnana is called the wisdom of nature of phenomena and it comes about through the realization of the true nature of phenomena.

The ways these two aspects of meditation are practiced is that one begins with the practice of shamatha; on the basis of that, it becomes possible to practice vipashyana or lhagthong. Through one’s practice of vipashyana being based on and carried on in the midst of shamatha, one eventually ends up practicing a unification of shamatha and vipashyana. The unification leads to a very clear and direct experience of the nature of all things. This brings one very close to what is called the absolute truth.

Insight, or vipashyana, is extremely important because it can eradicate the mental afflications, whereas tranquility alone cannot. That is why we want to be able to practice tranquility and insight in a unified manner. This unified practice has three steps; first, we practice tranquility; then we practice insight; and then we bring the two together. Doing this will eradicate the cause of samsara (which is mental afflictions), thereby eradicating the result of samsara (which is suffering). For this reason, it is improper to become too attached to the delight or pleasure of tranquility, because tranquility alone is not enough.


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