Vipassanā (insight) | Mahāyāna


1. Vipassanā

Vipassanā (Pāḷi) or Vipaśyanā (Sanskrit) literally special, super (Vi), seeing (Passanā), is a Buddhist term that is often translated as insight.

The Pāḷi Canon describes it as 1 of 2 qualities of Mind which is developed in bhāvanā, the training of the Mind, the other being Śamatha (Mind calming).

It is often defined as a practice that seeks insight into the true nature of reality, defined as:

  1. anicca impermanence,
  2. dukkha suffering, unsatisfactoriness,
  3. anattā non-self,

- the 3 marks of existence in the Theravāda tradition,

and as:

  1. Śūnyatā Emptiness
  2. Buddha-nature

- in the Mahāyāna traditions.

Vipassanā is a Pāḷi word derived from the older prefix vi- meaning special, and the verbal root -passanā meaning seeing.

In Tibetan, Vipassanā is Lhaktong (Wylie: lhag mthong):

Lhak means higher, superior, greater; tong is view, to see. So together, lhaktong 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.

2. Texts

The North Indian Buddhist traditions like the Sarvāstivāda and the Sautrāntika practiced Vipassanā meditation as outlined in texts like the Abhidharmakośa Kārikā of Vasubandhu and the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra.

The Abhidharmakośa Kārikā states that Vipassanā is practiced once one has reached samādhi absorption by cultivating the 4 foundations of Mindfulness (smṛtyupasthānas).

This is achieved, according to Vasubandhu,

- by considering the unique characteristics (sva-lakṣaṇa) and the general characteristics (sāmānya-lakṣaṇa) of the body, sensation, the Mind, and the dharmas.

The unique characteristics means its self-nature (svabhāva).

The general characteristics signifies the fact that:

All conditioned things are impermanent; all impure dharmas are suffering; and that all the dharmas are Empty (śūnya) and not-self (anātmika).

Asaṅga’s Abhidharma-samuccaya states that the practice of Śamatha-Vipassanā is a part of a Bodhisattva's Path at the beginning, in the 1st path of preparation (sambhāra-mārga).

The later Indian Mahāyāna scholastic tradition, as exemplified by Śāntideva’s Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra, saw Śamatha as a necessary prerequisite to Vipassanā and thus one needed to first begin with calm abiding meditation and then proceed to insight.

In the Pañjikā commentary of Prajñakaramati on the Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra, Vipassanā is defined simply as wisdom (prajñā) that has the nature of thorough knowledge of reality as it is.

3. Śūnyatā

Mahāyāna Vipassanā differs from the Theravāda tradition in its strong emphasis on the meditation on Emptiness (Śūnyatā) of all phenomena.

The Mahāyāna Akṣayamati-nirdeśa refers to Vipassanā as seeing phenomena as they really are, that is, Empty, without self, non-arisen, and without grasping.

The Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra in 8 000 lines states that the practice of insight is the non-appropriation of any dharmas, including the 5 aggregates:

So too, a Bodhisattva coursing in perfect wisdom and developing as such, neither does nor even can stand in form, feeling, perception, impulse and consciousness...This concentrated insight of a Bodhisattva is called 'the non-appropriation of all dharmas'.

Likewise the Prajñāpāramitā in 25 000 lines states that a Bodhisattva should know the nature of the 5 aggregates as well as all dharmas thus:

That form, etc. feeling, perception, impulse and consciousness, which is like a dream, like an echo, a mock show, a mirage, a reflection of the moon in water, an apparition, that is neither bound nor freed.

Even so form, etc., which is past, future, or present, is neither bound nor freed.

And why? Because of the non-being-ness of form, etc.

Even so form, etc., whether it be wholesome or unwholesome, defiled or undefiled, tainted or untainted, with or without outflows, worldly or supra-mundane, defiled or purified,

is neither bound nor freed, on account of its non-being-ness, its isolated-ness, its quiet calm, its Emptiness, signless-ness, wishless-ness, because it has not been brought together or produced.

And that is true of all dharmas.

4. Sudden insight

The Sthāvira Nikāya, one of the early Buddhist schools from which the Theravāda-tradition originates, emphasized Sudden Insight:

In the Sthaviravāda ... progress in understanding comes all at once, 'insight' (abhisamaya) does not come 'gradually' (successively - anapūrva).

The Mahāsaṁghika, another one of the early Buddhist schools, had the doctrine of Eka-kṣaṇa-citta, according to which a Buddha knows everything in a single thought-instant.

This process however, meant to apply only to the Buddha and Pacceka-Buddhas.

Lay people may have to experience various levels of insights to become fully Enlightened.

The Mahāyāna tradition emphasizes prajñā, insight into śūnyatā, dharmatā, the 2 truths doctrine, clarity and Emptiness, or bliss and Emptiness.

Although Theravāda and Mahāyāna are commonly understood as different streams of Buddhism, their practice however, may reflect emphasis on insight as a common denominator, even though its language and teachings are heavily influenced by Taoism and Confucianism.

The emphasis on insight is discernible in the emphasis in Chan Buddhism on sudden insight (subitism), though in the Chan tradition, this insight is to be followed by gradual cultivation.

5. East Asian Mahāyāna

In Chinese Buddhism, the works of Tiantai master Zhiyi (such as the Mohe Zhiguan, Great Śamatha-Vipassanā) are some of the most influential texts which discuss Vipassanā meditation from a Mahāyāna perspective.

In this text, Zhiyi teaches the contemplation of the skandhas, Āyatanas, dhātus, the Kleśas, false views and several other elements.

Likewise the influential text called the Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna has a section on calm and insight meditation. It states:

He who practices 'clear observation' should observe that all conditioned phenomena in the world are impermanent and are subject to instantaneous transformation and destruction;

that all activities of the Mind arise and are extinguished from moment or moment; and that, therefore, all of these induce suffering.

He should observe that all that had been conceived in the past was as hazy as a dream, that all that is being conceived in the future will be like clouds that rise up suddenly.

He should also observe that the physical existences of all living beings in the world are impure and that among these various filthy things there is not a single one that can be sought after with joy.

The Zen tradition advocates the simultaneous practice of Śamatha and Vipassanā, and this is called the practice of silent illumination.

The classic Chan text known as the Platform Sūtra states:

Calming is the essence of wisdom. And wisdom is the natural function of calming i.e., prajñā and samādhi. At the time of prajñā, samādhi exists in that. At the time of samādhi, prajñā exists in that.

How is it that samādhi and prajñā are equivalent?

It is like the light of the lamp:

When the lamp exists, there is light. When there is no lamp, there is darkness. The lamp is the essence of light. The light is the natural function of the lamp.

Although their names are different, in essence, they are fundamentally identical. The teaching of samādhi and prajñā is just like this.

6. Tibetan Buddhism

Śamatha and Vipassanā are explicitly referred to in Tibetan Buddhism.

When Śamatha and Vipassanā are combined, as in the mainstream tradition Mādhyamika approach of ancestors like Śāntideva and Kamalaśīla, through Śamatha disturbing emotions are abandoned, which thus facilitates Vipassanā, clear seeing.

Vipassanā is cultivated through reasoning, logic and analysis in conjunction with Śamatha.

In contrast, in the siddha tradition of the direct approach of Mahāmudra and Dzogchen, Vipassanā is ascertained directly through looking into one's own Mind:

After this initial recognition of Vipassanā, the steadiness of Śamatha is developed within that recognition.

It is however also common in the direct approach to first develop enough Śamatha to serve as a basis for Vipassanā.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the classical practice of Śamatha and Vipassanā is strongly influenced by the Mahāyāna text called the Bhāvanākrama of Indian master Kamalaśīla:

Kamalaśīla defines Vipassanā as the discernment of reality (bhūta-pratyavekṣaṇa) and accurately realizing the true nature of dharmas.

Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism employed both deductive investigation (applying ideas to experience) and inductive investigation (drawing conclusions from direct experience) in the practice of Vipassanā.

Scholars say that only the tradition of deductive analysis in Vipassanā was transmitted to Tibet in the Sūtrayāna context.

In Tibet direct examination of moment-to-moment experience as a means of generating insight became exclusively associated with Vajrayāna.

Mahāmudrā and Dzogchen use Vipassanā extensively:

This includes some methods of the other traditions, but also their own specific approaches. They place a greater emphasis on meditation on symbolic images.

Additionally in the Vajrayāna (tantric) path, the True Nature of Mind is pointed out by the Guru, and this serves as a direct form of insight.