What exactly is vipassanā?
Almost any book on early Buddhist meditation will tell you that the Buddha taught two types of meditation: samatha and vipassanā. Samatha, which means tranquility, is said to he a method fostering strong states of mental absorption, called jhāna. Vipassanā—literally “clear-seeing,” but more often translated as insight meditation—is said to be a method using a modicum of tranquility to foster moment-to-moment mindfulness of the inconstancy of events as they are directly experienced in the present. This mindfulness creates a sense of dispassion toward all events, thus leading the mind to release from suffering.
These two methods are quite separate, we’re told, and of the two, vipassanā is the distinctive Buddhist contribution to meditative science. Other systems of practice pre-dating the Buddha also taught samatha, but the Buddha was the first to discover and teach vipassanā. Although some Buddhist meditators may practice samatha before turning to vipassanā, samatha practice is not really necessary for the pursuit of Awakening. As a meditative tool, the vipassanā method suffices for attaining the goal. Or so we’re told.
But if you look directly at the Pali discourses—the earliest extant sources for our knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings—you’ll find that although they do use the word samatha to mean tranquility and vipassanā to mean clear-seeing, they confirm none of the other received wisdom about these terms. Only rarely do they make use of the word vipassanā—a sharp contrast to their frequent use of the word jhāna. When they depict the Buddha telling his disciples to go meditate, they never quote him as saying “go do vipassanā,” but always “go do jhāna.” And they never equate the word vipassanā with any mindfulness techniques. In the few instances where they do mention vipassanā, 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.
One simile, for instance (S.XXX V.204), compares samatha and vipassanā to a swift pair of messengers who enter the citadel of the body via the noble eightfold path and together present their accurate report—unbinding, or nibbāna—to the consciousness acting as the citadel’s commander.
Another passage (A.X.71) recommends that anyone who wishes to end mental defilement should—in addition to perfecting the principles of moral behavior and cultivating seclusion—be committed to samatha and endowed with vipassanā. This statement is unremarkable in itself, but the same discourse also gives the same advice to anyone who wants to master the jhānas: be committed to samatha and endowed with vipassanā.
This suggests that, in the eyes of those who assembled the Pali discourses, samatha, jhāna, and vipassanā were all part of a single path. Samatha and vipassanā were used together to master jhāna and then—based on jhāna—were developed even further to put an end to mental defilement and bring release from suffering. This is a reading that finds support in other discourses as well.
There’s a passage, for instance, describing three ways in which samatha and vipassanā can work together to lead to the knowledge of Awakening: either samatha precedes vipassanā, vipassanā precedes samatha, or they develop in tandem (A.IV.170). The wording here suggests an image of two oxen pulling a cart: one is placed before the other or they are yoked side-by-side.
Another passage (A.IV.94) indicates that if samatha precedes vipassanā—or vipassanā, samatha—one’s practice is in a state of imbalance and needs to be rectified. A meditator who has attained a measure of samatha but no vipassanā should question a fellow meditator who has attained vipassanā: “How should fabrications (sankhāra) be regarded? How investigated? How should they be viewed with insight?” and then develop vipassanā in line with that person’s instructions. The verbs in these questions—regarding, investigating, seeing— indicate that there’s more to the process of developing vipassanā than a simple mindfulness technique. In fact, as we’ll see below, these verbs apply instead to a process of skillful questioning called “appropriate attention.”
The opposite type of meditator—one endowed with a measure of vipassanā but no samatha—should question someone who has attained samatha: “How should the mind be steadied? How should it be made to settle down? How should it be unified? How should it be concentrated?” and then follow that person’s instruction to develop samatha.
The verbs used here give the impression that “samatha” in this context means jhāna, for they correspond to the verbal formula—”the mind becomes steady, settles down, grows unified and concentrated”—that the Pali discourses use repeatedly to describe the attainment of jhāna. This impression is reinforced when we note that in every case where the discourses are explicit about the levels of concentration needed for insight to be liberating, those levels are the jhānas.
Once the meditator is endowed with both samatha and vipassanā, he/she should “make an effort to establish those very same skillful qualities to a higher degree for the ending of the mental fermentations (sensual passion, states of being, views, and ignorance).” This corresponds to the path of samatha and vipassanā developing in tandem.
M.149 describes how this can happen. One knows and sees, as they actually are, the six sense media (the five senses plus the intellect), their objects, consciousness at each medium, contact at each medium, and whatever is experienced as pleasure, pain, or neither-pleasure-nor-pain based on that contact. One maintains this awareness in such a way as to stay uninfatuated by any of these things, unattached, unconfused, focused on their drawbacks, abandoning any craving for them: this would count as vipassanā. At the same time—abandoning physical and mental disturbances, torments, and distresses—one experiences ease in body and mind: this would count as samatha. This practice not only develops samatha and vipassanā in tandem, but also brings the 37 Wings to Awakening—which include the attainment of jhāna—to the culmination of their development.
So the proper path is one in which vipassanā and samatha are brought into balance, each supporting and acting as a check on the other. Vipassanā helps keep tranquility from becoming stagnant and dull. Samatha helps prevent the manifestations of aversion—such as nausea, dizziness, disorientation, and even total blanking out—that can occur when the mind is trapped against its will in the present moment.
From this description it’s obvious that samatha and vipassanā are not separate paths of practice, but instead are complementary ways of relating to present experience: samatha provides a sense of ease in the present; vipassanā, a clear-eyed view of events as they actually occur, in and of themselves. It’s also obvious why the two qualities need to function together in mastering jhāna.
As the standard instructions on breath meditation indicate (M.118), such a mastery involves three things: gladdening, concentrating, and liberating the mind. Gladdening means finding a sense of refreshment and satisfaction in the present. Concentrating means keeping the mind focused on its object, while liberating means clearly seeing the grosser factors making up a lower stage of concentration and then freeing the mind from them so as to attain a higher stage. The first two activities are functions of samatha, while the last is a function of vipassanā. All three must work together to bring the mind to right concentration in a masterful way.
The question arises: if vipassanā functions in the mastery of jhāna, and jhāna isn’t exclusive to Buddhists, then what’s Buddhist about vipassanā? The answer is that vipassanā per se isn’t exclusively Buddhist. What’s distinctly Buddhist is (1) the extent to which both samatha and vipassanā are developed; (2) the way they’re developed, i.e., the line of questioning used to foster them; and (3) the way they’re combined with an array of meditative tools to bring the mind to total release.
In M.73, the Buddha advises a monk who has mastered jhāna to further develop samatha and vipassanā so as to master six cognitive skills. The most important of these skills is that “through the ending of the mental fermentations, one remains in the fermentation-free release of awareness and release of discernment, having known and made them manifest for oneself right in the here and now.” This is a description of the Buddhist goal. Some commentators have asserted that this release is totally a function of vipassanā, but there are discourses that indicate otherwise.
Note that release is twofold: release of awareness and release of discernment. Release of awareness occurs when a meditator becomes totally dispassionate toward passion: this is the ultimate function of samatha. Release of discernment occurs when there is dispassion for ignorance: this is the ultimate function of vipassanā (A.II.29-30). Thus both samatha and vipassanā are involved in the two-fold nature of this release.
The Sabbāsava Sutta (M.2) states that release can be “fermentation-free” only if one knows and sees in terms of “appropriate attention” (yoniso manasikāra). As the discourse shows, appropriate attention means asking the proper questions about things. Instead of framing questions in terms of self/other or being/ non-being, such as, “What am I? Do I exist?” one asks questions in terms of the four noble truths: “Is this stress? The origination of stress? The cessation of stress? The path leading to the cessation of stress?” Because each of these categories entails a duty, the answer to these questions determines a course of action: stress should be comprehended, its origination abandoned, its cessation realized, and the path to its cessation developed.
Samatha and vipassanā belong to the category of the path and so should be developed. To develop them, one applies appropriate attention to the task of comprehending stress, which is comprised of the five aggregates of clinging—clinging to physical form, feeling, perception, mental fabrications, and consciousness. Applying appropriate attention to these aggregates means viewing them in terms of their drawbacks, as “inconstant, stressful, a disease, a cancer, an arrow, painful, an affliction, alien, a dissolution, an emptiness, not-self” (S.XXII.122). A list of questions, distinctive to the Buddha, aids in this approach: “Is this aggregate constant or inconstant? And is anything inconstant easeful or stressful? And is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am’?” (S.XXII.59). These questions are applied to every instance of the five aggregates, whether “past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle, common or sublime, far or near.” In other words, the meditator asks these questions of all experiences in the cosmos of the six sense media.
This line of questioning is part of a strategy leading to a level of knowledge called “knowing and seeing things as they actually are,” where things are understood in terms of a fivefold perspective: their arising, their passing away, their drawbacks, their allure, and the escape from them—the escape, here, lying in dispassion.
Some commentators have suggested that, in practice, this fivefold perspective can be gained simply by focusing on the arising and passing away of these aggregates in the present moment; if one’s focus is relentless enough, it will lead naturally to a knowledge of drawbacks, allure, and escape, sufficient for total release. The texts, however, don’t support this reading, and practical experience backs them up. As M.101 points out, individual meditators will discover that, in some cases, they can develop dispassion for a particular cause of stress simply by watching it with equanimity; but in other cases, they need to make a conscious exertion to develop the dispassion that will provide an escape. The discourse is vague—perhaps deliberately so—as to which approach will work where. This is something each meditator must test for him or herself in practice.
The Sabbāsava Sutta expands on this point by listing seven approaches to take in developing dispassion. Vipassanā, as a quality of mind, is related to all seven, but most directly with the first: “seeing,” i.e., seeing events in terms of the four noble truths and the duties appropriate to them. The remaining six approaches cover ways of carrying out those duties: 1) restraining the mind from focusing on sense data that would provoke unskillful states of mind; 2) reflecting on the appropriate reasons for using the requisites of food, clothing, shelter, and medicine; 3) tolerating painful sensations; 4) avoiding obvious dangers and inappropriate companions; 5) destroying thoughts of sensual desire, ill will, harmfulness, and other unskillful states; and 6) developing the seven factors of awakening: mindfulness, analysis of qualities, persistence, rapture, serenity, concentration, and equanimity.
Each of these approaches covers a wide subset of approaches. Under “destroying,” for instance, one may eliminate an unskillful mental state by replacing it with a skillful one, focusing on its drawbacks, turning one’s attention away from it, relaxing the process of thought-fabrication that formed it, or suppressing it with brute will-power (M.20). Many similar examples could be drawn from other discourses as well. The overall point is that the ways of the mind are varied and complex. Different fermentations can come bubbling up in different guises and respond to different approaches. One’s skill as a meditator lies in mastering a variety of approaches and learning which approach will work best in which situation.
On a more basic level, however, one needs strong motivation to master these skills in the first place. Because appropriate attention requires abandoning dichotomies that are so basic to the thought patterns of all people—”being/not being” and “me/not me”—meditators need strong reasons for adopting it. This is why the Sabbāsava Sutta insists that anyone developing appropriate attention must first hold the noble ones (here meaning the Buddha and his awakened disciples) in high regard. In other words, one must see that those who have followed the path are truly exemplary.
One must also be well-versed in their teaching and discipline. According to M.117, “being well-versed in their teaching” begins with having conviction in their teachings about karma and rebirth, which provide intellectual and emotional context for adopting the four noble truths as the basic categories of experience. Being well-versed in the discipline of the noble ones would include, in addition to observing the precepts, having some skill in the seven approaches mentioned above for abandoning the fermentations.
Without this sort of background, meditators might bring the wrong attitudes and questions to the practice of watching arising and passing away in the present moment. For instance, they might be looking for a “true self” and end up identifying—consciously or unconsciously—with the vast, open sense of awareness that embraces all change, from which it all seems to come and to which it all seems to return. Or they might long for a sense of connectedness with the interplay of the universe, convinced that—as all things are changing—any desire for changelessness is neurotic and life-denying.
For people with agendas like these, the simple experience of events arising and passing away in the present won’t lead to fivefold knowledge of things as they are. They’ll resist recognizing that the ideas they hold to are a fermentation of views, or that the experiences of calm that seem to verify those ideas are simply a fermentation in the form of a state of being. As a result, they won’t apply the four noble truths to those ideas and experiences. Only a person willing to see those fermentations as such, and convinced of the need to transcend them, will be in a position to apply the principles of appropriate attention to them and thus get beyond them.
So, to answer the question with which we began: Vipassanā is not a meditation technique. It’s a quality of mind—the ability to see events clearly in the present moment. Although mindfulness is helpful in fostering vipassanā, it’s not enough for developing vipassanā to the point of total release. Other techniques and approaches are needed as well. In particular, vipassanā needs to be teamed with samatha—the ability to settle the mind comfortably in the present—so as to master the practice of jhāna. Based on this mastery, samatha and vipassanā are then applied to a skillful program of questioning, called appropriate attention, directed at all experience: exploring events not in terms of me/not me, or being/not being, but in terms of the four noble truths. The meditator pursues this program until it leads to a fivefold understanding of all events: in terms of their arising, their passing away, their drawbacks, their allure, and the escape from them. Only then can the mind taste release.
This program for developing vipassanā and samatha, in turn, needs the support of many other attitudes, mental qualities, and techniques of practice. This was why the Buddha taught it as part of a still larger program, including respect for the noble ones, mastery of all seven approaches for abandoning the mental fermentations, and all eight factors of the noble path. To take a reductionist approach to the practice can produce only reduced results, for meditation is a skill like carpentry, requiring a mastery of many tools in response to many different needs. To limit yourself to only one approach in meditation is like trying to build a house when your motivation is uncertain and your tool box contains nothing but hammers.
Abbreviations: A = Aṅguttara Nikāya; M = Majjhima Nikāya; S = Saṃyutta Nikāya