Insight Journal: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Bhante. Perhaps we could start by talking about what vipassanā really means.
Bhikkhu Anālayo: The term vipassanā means “insight.” I think the important point to keep in mind is that this is not a technique. It is actually a quality. That is quite different from the understanding that many nowadays have. When we say, “vipassanā,” we often feel that this is a particular technique, a particular form of meditation that you have to do. But actually, vipassanā is a quality – it is a quality of insight.
IJ: What is the relationship between vipassanā and the three characteristics?
BhA: When I see with insight, that leads to an increasing appreciation of the true nature of reality: yathābhūta – seeing and knowing things as they really are. The more I see and know things as they really are, the more I realize that they are indeed impermanent, unable to give lasting satisfaction, and that there is no permanent self – that everything is conditioned and that the Four Noble Truths are indeed a meaningful framework to progress to liberation.
IJ: How can we practice with the three characteristics?
BhA: First and foundational is this understanding of impermanence – experiencing everything as a process, not as a stable entity. The more this process-oriented way of experiencing becomes ingrained, the more we are able to let go of our infatuation with things, the more we are able to see what is dukkha, what is not able to give us lasting satisfaction. It’s through seeing dukkha that the craving becomes less, the attachment becomes less – when that lessens, then the sense of identifying with things also lessens – the whole construct that builds the foundation for our sense of ego. This is one important aspect of the teaching of not-self.
So there is this basic leading on from one characteristic to the next. But I think it’s important to be clear that this is not a fixed thing. It shows us a major pattern, but each of the characteristics can be developed individually, and they mutually reinforce each other. Understanding one can lead to another, but it’s not a fixed sequence. It just gives us a basic pattern.
IJ: In your paper on the three traditions [Insight Journal, August 2015] you say, “The locative forms anicce and dukkhe indicate that the progression from one of these characteristics to the next does not involve a change of object but a change of perspective.” What exactly does that look like – to change perspective without changing the object?
BhA: This is a specific sequence of perceptions that relate to the insight knowledges, where you have the aniccasaññā, the perception of impermanence, and anicce dukkhasaññā, the perception of dukkha in what is anicca, and then dukkhe anattasaññā, the perception of anattā in what is dukkha. The insight knowledges set in at an advanced stage of practice, once you are firmly established in rise and fall. At that point you don’t really change the object of practice, but you continue with that same practice and apply these different perspectives to it.
But it’s not that with every single thing we have to go through all of these three characteristics. In fact, if we look at the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta, there are certain exercises that are really good for some characteristics, but not as useful for others. All share the instruction, which appears in the refrain, to contemplate rising and falling.
Impermanence is always the basis. With everything, we somehow come back to impermanence. This is really the main launch pad of the practice, but each of the individual satipaṭṭhāna exercises has a specific contribution to make to our understanding of the three characteristics and also to our understanding of conditionality.
IJ: Is conditionality something that can be worked with at the same time as the three characteristics, or should it be done separately?
BhA: Sometimes they come together in practice, but it is still good to work on them individually. I don’t think it’s either/or. It’s a little bit like playing music. You play by yourself or you play with others. The fourth satipaṭṭhāna – contemplation of dharmas – is very specifically, in my understanding, on conditionality.
In the model of satipaṭṭhāna that comes out of comparative study, which I discuss in my book, Perspectives on Satipaṭṭhāna, we leave certain exercises that are found in the Pāli version a little bit in the background. Then we have only these three body contemplations – anatomical parts, elements, and corpse contemplation. And we have only two in contemplations of dharmas – hindrances and awakening factors.
The theme of conditionality comes up clearly with contemplation of feeling, because feeling is the place where craving arises. The same theme becomes really prominent – really something I work with actively – when we get into contemplation of dharmas. There the task is not only to know that there’s a hindrance or an awakening factor, but also to know how it happened. How come I now have such-and-such a condition? How can I either get out of it or make it stronger? This is working directly with conditionality.
IJ: At one point you write, “While satipaṭṭhāna meditation takes place in a silently watchful state of mind, free from intellectualization, it can nevertheless make appropriate use of concepts to the extent needed to further knowledge and awareness.” (Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization, 115) The idea of staying with the experience while at the same time using an analytical portion of the mind is confusing for some. What does this actually look like?
BhA: How is normal experience? Just a very normal thing. You look at a sunset. You can just look and not even know what it is. That is completely concept-free. You can look and know it’s a sunset and quietly stay with the experience. You can also look and say, “It’s a sunset. It’s very beautiful. Wow.” You can also look at it and say, “Oh, this is a sunset and reminds me of last year when I was in that place and looking at that sunset, and I should send a text message to my friend and tell him about the sunset. . . .”
You have all these different options. It’s not just black and white, but is dependent on what is appropriate to the situation. It is the same with meditation. The main thing with meditation is to experience directly. This is what mindfulness is all about. So when we look at the sunset and keep talking, we are not really seeing the sunset because our mind is busy talking – mentally talking. But if we look at it without any kind of concept, we won’t even know what it is. We’ll just see colors.
IJ: How specifically can we work with the three characteristics and the four satipaṭṭhānas? Should we start with body contemplation?
BhA: Using the model that comes out of comparative study, we have the anatomical parts, elements, and corpse in decay. Anatomical parts is particularly about the notion of bodily beauty. There is a remarkable difference I experience when teaching satipaṭṭhāna in the West and teaching in Asia. In the West, I find people react very strongly to being told that the body is not something sexually attractive. I have already been trying to find ways to communicate the basic thrust of that exercise in a way that is perhaps less offensive to the general Westerner who comes to sit with me.
It’s important to understand that the point is not to turn everybody into a monk or a nun. But it’s also important to see that sexual desire is not necessarily the same as love and affection. And that seeing the body as beautiful in a sexual sense is not necessarily the only way one can experience beauty.
I had a discussion with a yogi, and he gave me some information he had collected from the internet. One is this whole idea that girls should be very thin to be sexually attractive. They have found that in the US, for example, 40%-60% of high school girls diet, and 50% of girls between 13-15 think they are overweight. So we have these young girls who are already totally obsessed with looking sexually attractive. According to a UK Government nationwide survey, 87% of girls between 11 and 21 think that women are judged on their appearance, not on their ability. So the only thing that really matters is how sexy you are, not what you have in your mind or in your heart. Then there is pornography. 2014 statistics report that 64% of American men view pornography at least once a month, and 80% of those say they are addicted to it. This is not about love.
Then there’s the whole issue of prostitution. There’s sexual abuse. In the US, 15%-20% of all women have been raped at least once in their lives. There’s sexual abuse of children. 2 million children are exploited in global commercial sex trade. There are all these terrible things happening, and these are all expressions of unrestrained sexual desire. This is not about love or appreciation. It’s just sexual lust – totally unrestrained.
So I think learning to control or reign in sexual desire is a very important topic. It’s very relevant to modern society. And this contemplation of anatomical parts is a tool for that. Because it’s just very simple. The skin itself is not attractive, and if you take off the skin, what remains is also not attractive.
The simile that comes with the exercise describes looking at a bag of various grains. Like you would look at rice and peas, just a neutral reaction. Balance is the aim of the exercise. But I believe the confrontation with the idea that the human body, as long as it conforms to a certain cultural norm, is sexually stimulating by itself is really important to work with. This is a major aspect of dukkha – seeing that you cannot find real happiness in this way.
Because you can only find real happiness through the mind. Real beauty is also only in the mind, and it doesn’t depend on the physical shape of the person. So this is a whole relocation of the search for happiness, the search for beauty – from the very narrow perspective of reducing it just to the body. For deconstructing the notion that the body is sexually attractive, this exercise is very helpful.
IJ: It seems that some westerners – or maybe many westerners – feel that if you’re throwing out beauty, you’re also throwing out love. Is it fair to say that this practice leads toward redefining love in a more wholesome way – or getting closer to what love really is?
BhA: There is a place for beauty. But beauty is in the mind. One of the most beautiful human beings I have ever seen is a picture of this old Tibetan teacher of Matthieu Ricard, and he is smiling. If you put something over his mouth, you see that it’s not actually the mouth that smiles – it’s the eyes that smile. It’s just such an immensely beautiful picture. But this Tibetan teacher would not fit any of the modern standards of beauty. He’s not muscular, and he’s already quite old, and so on.
So it’s a different type of beauty. It’s a beauty that shines through his physical appearance. That beauty I can discover in male or female bodies. They can have any color of skin. They can be young or old. There’s no preconceived pattern they have to go through in order for me to see them as beautiful. But sexual beauty is different. If you’re too plump, you’re out. If you’re from the wrong gender, you’re out. There’s just this very small frame you have to get through in order to deserve being considered beautiful. If you look at it in that way, this practice can help us come to a more natural and also a less discriminatory perception of beauty.
IJ: Perhaps expanding the boundaries of what is worthy of appreciation or affection?
BhA: Yes. And it is a beauty that I don’t want to grab and hold onto. The sexual one I want to come closer and grab it and do things. But the other beauty is much more spacious and can allow people to be the way they are, with no need to interfere.
IJ: It’s hard for many in the West to imagine affection or appreciation that is not accompanied by that sense of grasping or wanting.
BhA: Of course, sexual intimacy can be a part of a normal relationship. It’s not about the entire world becoming celibate. But even then, it would be good if it comes out of a mutual agreement between both partners and a mutual feeling of sincere appreciation – not just out of a physical desire.
IJ: So, after anatomical parts we next come to the elements.
BhA: Contemplation of the elements seems to be about the sense of identity and how we normally experience ourselves as if we were something separate from the rest of the world – as if this is me here, and the rest is all out there. In reality, this body is totally part of nature outside. You can’t separate it. It’s made out of these four basic principles: earth, water, fire, wind: solidity, liquidity or cohesion, temperature, and motion.
These same principles are in my body and in other people’s bodies. They are in solid things outside, out in nature. Contemplating in that way, we realize our interconnectedness with the rest of nature. This is something that in modern society we need because we are right now on the verge of self-destruction. Climate change, destruction of the environment, all of which comes from this illusory perception that I am here, and the rest of the world is somewhere out there. And what I do – this is my business, and if others have problems, it’s out there. When we do this element contemplation, we get more and more into realizing our interconnectedness, our inseparability from nature outside, our dependence on nature outside.
We can’t separate ourselves from the world around us. This is an important aspect of anattā, of not-self – breaking down this sense of being separate, of identifying with this and not identifying with the rest and creating these boundaries. The contemplation of the elements can really deconstruct those boundaries and bring us to an appreciation of our connectedness, of our relatedness, of our simply being a small part of something much larger. Also of our responsibility. I mean, this planet is our responsibility. If we mess it up, it’ll be the end. Just destroying the whole thing – it would be a shame.
IJ: So this contemplation of the elements – would you say it lends itself a little bit more naturally to experiencing internally, experiencing externally, experiencing both internally and externally, since this is the kind of boundary we’re looking to break down?
BhA: Yes. There is a strong relationship there, and that is the way I practice it. But using the anatomical parts also works. My body is made out of skin, your body is made out of skin – it also has that internal/external dimension. But even when I do it just for myself, the elements immediately give that sense of connectedness to the outside world because it’s just the same – the element of solidity in the body and the element of solidity that supports the body, on which I’m sitting right now. It’s right there. That connection to the external dimension is immediate.
IJ: And from the elements we move to death contemplation.
BhA: The corpse contemplation in the commentarial tradition is seen as working with asubha, or non-beauty. In my personal experience, the way I approach the practice, the asubha part really comes with the anatomical parts. Corpse contemplation, for me, is more about realizing that this body is going to fall apart. It says in the Satipaṭṭhāna-sutta, “This body too is of the same nature, it will be like that, it is not exempt from that fate.”
There are two main approaches to death contemplation. We find one with the breath – being aware that even the next breath could be the last, or the next bite we eat could be the last. Another one – just a reflection – is all the different kinds of things that could happen. One might get sick, and etc. If I were to die now, would I be satisfied with what I did with my life? All of these point to allowing death to be part of our lives – to making it an integral part of life.
There’s this research being done in modern psychology – terror management theory, it’s called – how we manage existential terror. Like all animals, we have the instinct to want to stay alive, but at the same time we know one day we are going to die. How do we manage that existential terror? All the ways we try to avoid facing death – that burden we carry with us all the time, and how that leads us into all kinds of unwholesome reactions and ways of interacting. It can be such a relief when we learn to face it and find that this huge, frightening ghost at our back becomes very small and continues diminishing the more we look at it – when we just allow this to be part of our life.
Taken together, these three body contemplations are a massive package of insight that really covers these three huge topics that we are facing as Westerners: the issue of being able to interrelate with others without latching on to sexual desire; the ability to let go of this separate sense of identity and see ourselves as part of nature, part of something larger, and be connected to that; and then the facing of our own death and being able to let death come alive in our lives. Even without going into the other satipaṭṭhānas, even just to look at these three body contemplations and the insight potential they offer – it’s really amazing.
If you would do these three exercises seriously and let the insights really sink in, you would become a transformed person. Such a possibility to really transform ourselves and liberate ourselves – to grow in freedom from the fire of sensual desire, freedom from the narrow confines of a sense of ego, and freedom from the fear of death. The final goal is sometimes called the Deathless. Because whatever happens to the body, the arahant doesn’t die. Because in the arahant there is nothing that can die. The body can die, but the arahant no longer holds onto the body. It’s the Deathless.