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Buddhism and psychology
Buddhist psychology
Buddhist philosophy
Buddhism and psychoanalysis
Buddhism and psychotherapy

Four Noble Truths
Noble Eightfold Path
The Five Precepts
Nirvāna · Three Jewels

Key Concepts
Three marks of existence
Skandha · Cosmology · Dharma
Samsara · Rebirth · Shunyata
Pratitya-samutpada · Karma

Practices and Attainment
Buddhahood · Bodhisattva
Four Stages of Enlightenment
Paramis · Meditation

Buddhism by Region

Schools of Buddhism
Theravāda · Mahāyāna
Vajrayāna · Early schools

Pali Suttas · Mahayana Sutras
Vinaya · Abhidhamma

Comparative Studies
Culture · List of Topics

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Vipassanā (Pāli) or vipaśyanā (Sanskrit) means "insight". While it is often referred to as Buddhist meditation, the practice taught by the Buddha was non-sectarian, and has universal application. It does not require conversion to Buddhism. While the meditation practices themselves vary from school to school, the underlying principle is the investigation of phenomena as they manifest in the five aggregates (skandhas) namely, matter or form (rūpa), sensation or feelings (vedanā), perception (saṃjñā, Pāli saññā), mental formations (saṃskāra, Pāli saṅkhāra) and consciousness (vijñāna, Pāli viññāṇa). This process leads to direct experiential perception, vipassanā.

In a broader sense, vipassanā has been used as one of two poles for the categorization of types of Buddhist meditation, the other being samatha (Pāli) or śamatha (Sanskrit). Samatha is a focusing, pacifying and calming meditation, common to many traditions in the world, notably yoga. It is used as a preparation for vipassanā, pacifying the mind and strengthening the concentration in order to allow the work of insight. This dichotomy is also sometimes discussed as "stopping and seeing." In Buddhist practice, it is said that while samatha can calm the mind, only insight can reveal how the mind was disturbed to start with, which leads to prajñā (Pāli: paññā, knowledge) and jñāna (Pāli: ñāṇa, pure wisdom) and thus can lead to preventing it from being disturbed again.

The term is also used to refer to the buddhist Vipassana movement modelled after Theravāda Buddhism which employs Vipassanā and ānāpāna meditation as its primary techniques and places emphasis on the teachings of the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. Vedanā (sensation/feeling) is the primary initial subject of investigation.


Vipassanā is a Pali word from the Sanskrit prefix "vi-" and verbal root √drś. It is often translated as "insight" or "clear-seeing," though, the "in-" prefix may be misleading; "vi" in Indo-Aryan languages is cognate to our "dis." The "vi" in vipassanā may then mean to see apart, or discern. Alternatively, the "vi" can function as an intensive, and thus vipassanā may mean "seeing deeply". In any case, this is used metaphorically for a particularly powerful mental self-perception.

A synonym for "Vipassanā" is paccakkha (Pāli; Sanskrit: pratyakṣa), "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.

Practice of vipassanā

Vipassanā meditation is a very simple, logical technique which depends on direct experience and observation. It can be related to the three trainings taught by the Buddha as the basis of a spiritual path- adherence to a sīla (Sanskrit: śīla) (abstinence from killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct and intoxication), which is not an end in itself but a requirement for the second part, concentration of the mind (samādhi). With this concentrated mind, the third training, in the context of this technique (paññā, Sanskrit prajñā), is detached observation of the reality of the mind and body from moment to moment.

The actual instructions for Vipassana meditation are not often published in clear terms in public venues. This is simply to avoid confusion and prevent incorrect technique. The instructions are not esoteric or difficult but basically involve retraining the mind to avoid its innate conditioned response to most stimuli. In order to obtain maximum benefit, it is recommmended that this be learnt from a legitimate source as it does have deep cleansing effects. Although Vipassana includes body awareness as part of the practice, it is not a "body scan" technique. The purpose is also not to release past trauma, but to bring full awareness of the mind, body and all sensations and be fully present. This practice is thought to develop a deep, experiential understanding of the impermanence of reality and also brings to the surface and dissolves deep-seated complexes and tensions. The technique fosters development of insight and needs to be continued as a way of life in order to having lasting effects.

Put another way, Vipassanā meditation consists of the experiential observation of mind and matter (nāma and rūpa) in their aspects of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and lack of an inherent, independent essence or self.

To see through the mode of impermanence means to examine things as to whether they are permanent. To see through the mode of unsatisfactoriness means to examine things as to whether they are satisfactory or are imbued with suffering. To see through the mode of non-self means to examine the phenomena that are the objects of the meditation to see if they have a permanent, isolated, and enduring entity. In other words, to see through non-self relates to having a sense of non-doership and a sense of non-possessorship while examining things.

In Vipassanā meditation, the meditation object is one's own consciousness, although it can be further refined to be one's consciousness while observing, say, the breath, as in ānāpāna meditation. In this context, the modes of seeing refers to focusing on those aspects of consciousness which appear to have (or not have) these characteristics.

Some steps are described as vipassanā jhānas, or simply as knowledges.

Vipassanā today

Today, the term "Vipassanā" also refers to a series of meditation techniques used by many branches of modern Theravāda Buddhism, for example in modern Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos and Thailand, and to a specific branch of Buddhism popularized by the Indian businessman S. N. Goenka and his mentor U Ba Khin as a nonsectarian form of Buddhism, and also by Americans Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and Jack Kornfield (who were inspired by the monks Mahasi Sayadaw and Ajahn Chah) under the rubric "insight meditation."

Famous masters

  • U Ba Khin
  • S. N. Goenka
  • Mahasi Sayadaw

Living teachers

Vipassanā in the Theravāda, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna

In the Theravāda

Vipassanā as practiced in the Theravāda is the understanding of the Four Noble Truths that were taught by the Buddha. It is understanding the transitory nature of phenomena and the selflessness of persons, that the conceptual consciousness, "I" does not exist.

Most of Theravāda's teachers refer to knowledges evolving during practice. The meditator gradually improve his perception of the three marks of existence until he reaches the step sensations constantly disappear, which is called bhaṅgānupassanā ñāṇa (Sanskrit: bhaṅgānupaśyanājñāna), knowledge of dissolution.

The yogi will then experience fear and ceasing of attachment, and eventually will reach the step of saṅkhārupekkhāñāṇa (Sanskrit: saṃskāropekṣājñāna): knowledge of equanimity of formations. This step leads to the attainment of nirvāṇa.

In practise one can use various methods to do Vipassanā Meditation. For example one method is that there are 40 topics that can be concentrated by the meditator such as anitya (Pāli anicca, impermanence), duḥkha (Pāli dukkha, suffering), roga (illness), and so on. The meditator can meditate on one of these until he sees the truth in everything in the universe.

In the Mahāyāna

Mahāyāna Vipaśyanā consists of meditating on the two truths: conventional truth and absolute truth. One realizes that phenomena likewise have a lack of inherent existence, and have the nature of emptiness (śūnyatā). This is determined by the inferential path of reasoning and direct observation through meditation.

Gradualism or subitism and the realisation is a debate in the Mahāyāna. Nevertheless, Huineng, sixth patriarch of the Chan, considered the practice cannot be described as gradualistic nor subitist, but implies people with more or less clear minds.

In the Vajrayāna

Mahāmudrā and Dzogchen use Vipaśyana extensively, though in a different manner than in the Theravāda. In the Vajrayāna (tantric) path, the true nature of mind is pointed out by the guru, and the practitioner takes the path of direct experience.

"In the Sūtra path (Theravāda) 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 vipaśyanā is knowledge (prajnā) and pure wisdom (jñāna). Jñāna is called the wisdom of nature of phenomena and it comes about through the realization of the true nature of phenomena."

-Thrangu Rinpoche, Looking Directly at Mind : The Moonlight of Mahāmudrā

Vipassanā in prisons

In 1993, Kiran Bedi, a reformist Inspector General of India's prison learned of the success of using Vipassanā in a jail in Jainpur, Rajasthan. This 10 day course involved officials and inmates alike. In India's largest prison, Tihar Jail, near New Delhi, another attempt was made. This program was said to have dramatically changed the behavior of inmates and jailers alike. It was actually found that inmates who completed the 10 day course were less violent and had a lower recidivism rate than other inmates. This project was documented in the television documentary, Doing Time, Doing Vipassana. So successful was this program that it was adopted by correctional facilities in the United States and other countries as well. Unfortunately, the prisoners involved in the study were a biased sample, however, due to the fact that they volunteered for the program, while many who were told they would miss the Super-Bowl if they joined the program, chose not to participate. Therefore it is possible that only prisoners who were willing to make a significant personal sacrifice to "improve" themselves participated in the study. A less biased study would have taken this self-electing prisoner pool and randomly assigned them to either Vipassana training or a "placebo" meditation training and evaluated the results according to a double blind protocol.

See also

Further reading

External articles

External links

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