Archive for February, 2009

In the  “Group-Section” (Khandhasamyutta) of the Samyutta Nikaya numerous short suttas can be found which – if we squeeze them in the right manner – provide valuable information how a puthujjana (or unenlightened being) turns into an ariyapuggalo (an enlightened being). As promised at the end of the last post we will have a close look at how the Buddha mentions vipassana meditation implicitly without using the term “vipassana”.

Lets have a look at a couple of those texts. Once you learn the pattern of how to look at them you will realize what a treasure box of practical meditation and dhamma knowledge is hidden in these pali texts. I hope to be able to show you that they are pragmatic meditation instructions and less views of metaphysical speculation. 

Lets start with one, which describes the status quo – the state of mind most of us find ourselves confronted with: 

‘‘Vedanaṃ attato samanupassati, vedanāvantaṃ vā attānaṃ; attani vā vedanaṃ, vedanāya vā attānaṃ. ‘Ahaṃ vedanā, mama vedanā’ti pariyuṭṭhaṭṭhāyī hoti. Tassa ‘ahaṃ vedanā, mama vedanā’ti pariyuṭṭhaṭṭhāyino, sā vedanā vipariṇamati aññathā hoti. Tassa vedanāvipariṇāmaññathābhāvā uppajjanti sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā.

He sees (inherently) feeling as self (himself), or himself as having a feeling, or in himself a feeling, or himself in a feeling. “I am feeling. The feeling is mine”, so does he remain pre-occupied (with feeling). Therefore, for him who is pre-occupied as “I am feeling. This is my feeling”, this feeling will change and alter. And from this change and alteration of the feeling arises sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, despair. [SN Khandhasamyutta. pi]

This is our dilemma, problem. The identification with feelings, thoughts, perceptions. This is what we take up and believe to be “us”. When it changes it creates all kinds of aggravation. When these 5 groups of grasping change (which they need to) suffering (dukkha) is the result. The first noble truth.

‘‘Ko ca, bhikkhave, rūpassa samudayo, ko vedanāya samudayo, ko saññāya samudayo, ko saṅkhārānaṃ samudayo, ko viññāṇassa samudayo? Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu abhinandati abhivadati ajjhosāya tiṭṭhati.

‘‘Kiñca abhinandati abhivadati ajjhosāya tiṭṭhati? Rūpaṃ abhinandati abhivadati ajjhosāya tiṭṭhati. Tassa rūpaṃ abhinandato abhivadato ajjhosāya tiṭṭhato uppajjati nandī. Yā rūpe nandī tadupādānaṃ. Tassupādānapaccayā bhavo; bhavapaccayā jāti; jātipaccayā jarāmaraṇaṃ sokaparidevadukkhadomanassupāyāsā sambhavanti. Evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hoti.

‘‘Vedanaṃ abhinandati…pe… saññaṃ abhinandati… saṅkhāre abhinandati… viññāṇaṃ abhinandati abhivadati ajjhosāya tiṭṭhati. Tassa viññāṇaṃ abhinandato abhivadato ajjhosāya tiṭṭhato uppajjati nandī. Yā viññāṇe nandī tadupādānaṃ. Tassupādānapaccayā bhavo; bhavapaccayā jāti; jātipaccayā…pe… evametassa kevalassa dukkhakkhandhassa samudayo hoti.

‘‘Ayaṃ, bhikkhave, rūpassa samudayo; ayaṃ vedanāya samudayo; ayaṃ saññāya samudayo; ayaṃ saṅkhārānaṃ samudayo; ayaṃ viññāṇassa samudayo.

‘‘Ko ca, bhikkhave, rūpassa atthaṅgamo, ko vedanāya… ko saññāya… ko saṅkhārānaṃ… ko viññāṇassa atthaṅgamo?

Idha, bhikkhave, nābhinandati nābhivadati nājjhosāya tiṭṭhati.


What, o monks, is the rising of form….what is the rising of consciousness? Here, o monks, a monk delights, enjoys, remains indulged. What does he delight in, enjoy, remains indulged with? He delights in form, enjoys it, remains indulged with it. To him who does delights in form, enjoys it and indulges in it there arises agreement/enticement. What is enticement with the form, that is grasping. Based on this grasping there is existence/being [See Ven. Nyanananda for discussion on proper understanding of bhava. Condition here does NOT imply a timeline but a causality. At the same moment that we identify with we automatically do grasp and do exist. The one cannot be without the other]. Based on this being is birth. Based on birth is old age and death and sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress and despair come into being. This is the origin of this whole mass of suffering. 

What, o monks, is the vanishing of form?…of consciousness? It is the not taking delight in/ not enjoying / not indulging in. etc etc… [The text following is the exact opposite. So the end of suffering would come about if our thirst or tanha would not be pono-bhavika – of such a nature that our being is born again, moment after moment.]

[Pali in Khandhasamyutta, SN]


This is the second noble truth. Every time a sound catches your attention (conventional speak) your sound – world gets born. Every time a feeling in the body emerges, a thought appears – there is a renewed endless process of self-identification taking place in every moment. That is why nibbana is so close and far away at the same time. If we could stop this existence-addiction for only one moment…

But in order to do so, we need to see this process of identification first hand. Once it gets uncovered, dispassion needs to be developed towards this eternal activity/habit. If the mind for one moment does not take a stand on an object or consciousness does not feed on an object the world as we know it falters. Nirodho.

Khandhasamyutta, 7. Anudhammasuttaṃ

39…‘‘Dhammānudhammappaṭipannassa, bhikkhave, bhikkhuno ayamanudhammo hoti yaṃ rūpe nibbidābahulo vihareyya, vedanāya nibbidābahulo vihareyya, saññā nibbidābahulo vihareyya, saṅkhāresu nibbidābahulo vihareyya, viññāṇe nibbidābahulo vihareyya. Yo rūpe nibbidābahulo viharanto, vedanāya… saññāya… saṅkhāresu nibbidābahulo viharanto, viññāṇe nibbidābahulo viharanto rūpaṃ parijānāti, vedanaṃ… saññaṃ… saṅkhāre… viññāṇaṃ parijānāti, so rūpaṃ parijānaṃ, vedanaṃ… saññaṃ… saṅkhāre… viññāṇaṃ parijānaṃ parimuccati rūpamhā, parimuccati vedanā, parimuccati saññāya , parimuccati saṅkhārehi, parimuccati viññāṇamhā, parimuccati jātiyā jarāmaraṇena sokehi paridevehi dukkhehi domanassehi upāyāsehi, parimuccati dukkhasmāti vadāmī’’ti. 

“For a monk practicing the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma, what accords with the Dhamma is this: that he dwells cultivating disenchantment with regard to form, that he dwells cultivating disenchantment with regard to consciousness. As he dwells cultivating disenchantment with regard to form… feeling… perception… interpretations… consciousness, he completely comprehends form… feeling… perception… interpretations… consciousness. As he completely comprehends form… feeling… perception… interpretations… consciousness, he is totally un-bound from form… feeling… perception… fabrications… consciousness. He is totally un-bound from sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs. He is totally un-bound (freed), I say, from suffering.”

[Pali and English SN 22.39]


Now we are getting closer to a practical advice on this matter. In this sutta the Buddha says that someone who practices the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma will dwell/meditate/remain in such a fashion that he tries to be a “nibbidābahulo”. What does that mean? Nibbidā is the pali word for “dissatisfaction” or “weariness” or “disenchantment”.  “Bahulo” simply means “often”. The objects towards which he is supposed to exercise this mind-set are “forms, feelings, perception, mental representation, conscious-ness”. If he is able to do so (not once!) but “most of the time” or “very often” (bahulo) dwelling in such a state of observation (viharo) then the Buddha says he will develop a “parijānaṃ”, a round-about-knowing. He will get to know these 5 groups very well. From this he will free himself completely (pari+mucchati) from those five groups of grasping. In fact, as a reminder of the 4 noble truth (and nothing else this sutta stands for) he will free himself from birth, death, disease etc. etc. from suffering, says the Buddha (vadāmi).  And this is the third noble truth. 

In our minds we can picture the first couple of days when the Buddha lectured and instructed his first group of friends on the path he had just discovered. We can picture how a discourse such as this (a little bit more hands-on than his famous first sermon which was more like a summary) was at the core of his instructions… leading to the birth of the first round of Arahants.

In fact, the Buddha makes this little instruction into a general message to all who enter the order out of faith:

Saddhāpabbajitassa, bhikkhave, kulaputtassa ayamanudhammo hoti – yaṃ rūpe nibbidābahulo vihareyya.

Which noble son/daughter gone forth from the household life out of faith, o monks, this is how they are in accordance with the teaching: “Dwell frequently in nibbida towards forms”.

To summarize so far:

  1. Our objects of observation have to be (all) five groups of grasping
  2. The five groups of grasping make up our every moment life-experience
  3. Thus we will have to observe our moment for moment life-experience in a mode of  nibbidā
  4. We will have to do this very often (bahulo) / continuously
  5. In order to achieve this deep penetrating view we need a good portion of concentration or have to develop it underway
  6. Eventually, this method of viewing ones own perception process will develop a deeper experiential understanding these 5 groups (i.e. our moment to moment life experience) very deeply
  7. In due time “we” will experience a freedom from those 5 groups which we usually take up and identify with as ourselves. 
  8. The result from that experience will be subtle at first but nevertheless transformational

Next question: How can this state of nibbidā be induced? What needs to be done in order to set it up?

We need a special form of looking at the current present moment. Lets see if we can find more about this:


15. Sāvatthinidānaṃ. ‘‘Rūpaṃ, bhikkhave, aniccaṃ. Yadaniccaṃ taṃ dukkhaṃ; yaṃ dukkhaṃ tadanattā; yadanattā taṃ ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṃ. Vedanā aniccā. 

In Savatthi. “Form, o monks, is impermanent. What is impermanent is suffering. What is suffering cannot be yourself. What is not yourself this has to be looked at with right knowing as far as it appears (‘as it really is’) in such a manner: “This is not mine. I am not this. This is not my self.” … Feeling is impermanent…Consciousness is impermanent…etc.


and again here. even better now:

3. Aniccasuttaṃ

45. Sāvatthinidānaṃ. ‘‘Rūpaṃ, bhikkhave, aniccaṃ. Yadaniccaṃ taṃ dukkhaṃ ; yaṃ dukkhaṃ tadanattā ; yadanattā taṃ ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṃ. Evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya passato cittaṃ virajjati vimuccati anupādāya āsavehi. Vedanā aniccā…

Form, o monks, is impermanent. What is impermanent is painful. What is painful is non-self. What is non-self that has to be seen clearly (yathabhuta) with right knowing thus: “This is not mine. This am i not. This is not my self.”

When it is thus clearly seen with knowing the mind will dis-color (virajjati) and un-bind (vi-mucchati) not-uptaken by the influxes…

important is that everything has to be seen like this. any conceptual way of defining form needs to be looked with the label mentioned above:

‘‘Tasmātiha , soṇa, yaṃ kiñci rūpaṃ atītānāgatapaccuppannaṃ ajjhattaṃ vā bahiddhā vā oḷārikaṃ vā sukhumaṃ vā hīnaṃ vā paṇītaṃ vā yaṃ dūre santike vā, sabbaṃ rūpaṃ ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṃ.

Therefore, Sona, whatever form (there is) whether it is past, present or future, whether internal or external or coarse or refined or low or sublime or far or near – all form has to be seen so: “This is not mine. This am i not. This is not my self”.


Alternative to this very frequent non-identification label proposed by the Buddha for meditative vipassana usage is the following instruction:


9. Nandikkhayasuttaṃ

51. Sāvatthinidānaṃ. ‘‘Aniccaññeva, bhikkhave, bhikkhu rūpaṃ aniccanti passati. Sāssa hoti sammādiṭṭhi. Sammā passaṃ nibbindati. Nandikkhayā rāgakkhayo, rāgakkhayā nandikkhayo. Nandirāgakkhayā cittaṃ vimuttaṃ suvimuttanti vuccati.

[Please have a look at my article on iti-sallekkheti where i discuss this idea]

and because it is so instructive, yet another sutta-vipassana-instruction:

pañcasu upādānakkhandhesu udayabbayānupassī vihāsi– ‘iti rūpaṃ, iti rūpassa samudayo, iti rūpassa atthaṅgamo; iti vedanā, iti vedanāya samudayo, iti vedanāya atthaṅgamo; iti saññā, iti saññāya samudayo, iti saññāya atthaṅgamo; iti saṅkhārā, iti saṅkhārānaṃ samudayo, iti saṅkhārānaṃ atthaṅgamo; iti viññāṇaṃ, iti viññāṇassa samudayo, iti viññāṇassa atthaṅgamo’ti, tassa pañcasu upādānakkhandhesu udayabbayānupassino viharato na cirasseva anupādāya āsavehi cittaṃ vimuccī”ti.

He dwells follow-looking at the rising and falling with regard to the five groups of grasping: “Such is form”, “Such is the rising of form”, “Such is vanishing of form”…”Such is consciousness”, “Such is the rising of consciousness”, “Such is the vanishing of consciousness”. Who thus dwells follow-looking (anu-passana == not to take ones eye from it, a continous looking, think “bahulo” as discussed above) at the rising and falling with regard to the five groups of grasping will before long free (un-bind) his mind from the influxes through not-uptaking.  [this passage is found all over the canon, for example in DN, Mahapadana Sutta]


Once you agree with me on this more literal reading of the texts you will find it everywhere. 

Here we can see that using a simple label as a reminder (sati) and tool of looking at the current moment gets classified as an exercise in right view. So, wisdom / pannya is vipassana. In various stages of development, obviously. Because even some initial understanding of the 4 noble truths is wisdom but it will crystallize and become perfected when it is applied to seeing the rising and falling.

When he thus looks rightly in this manner the Buddha says that the process of nibbida (see above) will follow suit. This will start to destroy the forces which make us take up and identify with the groups of grasping. They will start to lose their grasp.

‘‘Yo, bhikkhave, rūpasmiṃ chandarāgo taṃ pajahatha. Evaṃ taṃ rūpaṃ pahīnaṃ bhavissati ucchinnamūlaṃ tālāvatthukataṃ anabhāvaṃkataṃ āyatiṃ anuppādadhammaṃ.

What, o monks, there is of enthrallment-impulse with regard to form, feeling etc. that you have to give up. So this form will be given up. It will be cut at the root like a palm tree – unable to exist again in the future destined to not appear again. [chanda-raga makes a lot of sense if you think of it as the force which makes you dive into the action of the world as presented by the 5 groups of grasping. It is this pull which makes you identify with your seeing and thinking while you read this text. Source: Pali, SN Khandhasamyutta]


What we have to give up towards the form in the current moment which we are watching is “chandaraga”. Chandaraga – is the enthrallment/enamoredness + impuls / coloring (chanda + raga) necessary for identification.

Here is another indication as to how our meditative observation has to look like:


9. Sāvatthinidānaṃ. ‘‘Rūpaṃ, bhikkhave, aniccaṃ atītānāgataṃ; ko pana vādo paccuppannassa! Evaṃ passaṃ, bhikkhave, sutavā ariyasāvako atītasmiṃ rūpasmiṃ anapekkho hoti; anāgataṃ rūpaṃ nābhinandati; paccuppannassa rūpassa nibbidāya virāgāya nirodhāya paṭipanno hoti. Vedanā aniccā…

Form etc. is impermanent, in the past and future. How even more so in the present! When you see this you won’t look (back) at the old forms nor would you hope/expect for new ones. Instead you strife/proceed to (develop) nibbida, viraga and nirodha towards the present form.


This is why if you want to find the “Buddha inside” of you, there is only this direct path (but many ways to express it):

‘‘Tathāgato, bhikkhave, arahaṃ sammāsambuddho rūpassa nibbidā virāgā nirodhā anupādā vimutto sammāsambuddhoti vuccati. Bhikkhupi, bhikkhave, paññāvimutto rūpassa nibbidā virāgā nirodhā anupādā vimutto paññāvimuttoti vuccati.

The Tathagata, o monks, the holy one, fully awakened one is called “fully enlightened” because of the nibbida viraga nirodha (extinction) anupada (non-up-taking) un-binding (vimutto) of forms, feelings, perceptions, intentions, consciousness. The monk who is un-bound through wisdom is unbound by wisdom due to the nibbida, viraga, nirodha, anupada, vimutto of forms, feelings, perpceptions, intentions and consciousness. [The Buddha saying that this is the gist of the path and here with regard to this attainment of nibbana, there is no difference between any other arhant and himself]

Please have a closer look at the last sutta. Can you discover some kind of progressive development mentioned? And if so, what does nirodha stand for? So we are looking at a first stage of nibbida which is followed by a viraga and eventually  nirodha. Nirodha itself is followed by an anupada and a vimutto. Does sound very much like the vipassana-nyanas? Yes, i think it does. Nirodho could well be identified by the experience of nibbana (bhavanirodho nibbanam). The anupada and vimutto would be the result of this experience. The residue of the fruition moment, something a stream-enterer and upwards are equipped with, the “transformation” they experience. Sure, they continue to live, but a certain distance/unbinding towards the 5 groups has set in. BTW, to translate “Nibbana” with “Unbinding” just because one feels uneasy by its literal meaning of “Blowing out / Cessation” seems less than optimal, IMHO. This choice of translation  is probably born out of the same fear which makes people argue that Nibbana is a “dhamma” or an object or island or paradies – which would put it back into samsara. There is however a pali word which could be translated as “Un-binding” or “Free-dom” and that is “vi-mutti” which has this beautiful connotation of losening ones grip / hold and to let go – an un-binding. Still, with the word “Nibbana” the Buddha wanted to conjure up the picture of a fire (which is a process and no “self” and burns on conditions and ceases if these conditions fail) blown out. A blazing fire finds peace when it goes out, not when it travels somewhere 🙂

If this is so the nibbida, viraga part looks like the stages known as nibbida-nyana and adinava-nyana. A follow up on this idea seems to be a good theme for another post.

Lets have a look at yet another short sutta from the Khandha-Samyutta. Here is another one, extremely detailed and deep about the goal, specifically explaining the interplay of consciousness versus the 4 other groups (which constitue what is otherwise known as ‘name-and-form‘ in Buddhism) how this intrinsic interplay is fed and watered and sustained by the opposite of nibbida, by nandi:

54. Sāvatthinidānaṃ. ‘‘Pañcimāni, bhikkhave, bījajātāni. Katamāni pañca? Mūlabījaṃ, khandhabījaṃ, aggabījaṃ, phalubījaṃ, bījabījaññeva pañcamaṃ. Imāni cassu, bhikkhave, pañca bījajātāni akhaṇḍāni apūtikāni avātātapahatāni sārādāni [sārādāyīni (katthaci)] sukhasayitāni, pathavī [paṭhavī (sī. syā. kaṃ. pī.)] ca nāssa, āpo ca nāssa; api numāni [api nu imāni (sī. pī.)], bhikkhave, pañca bījajātāni vuddhiṃ virūḷhiṃ vepullaṃ āpajjeyyu’’nti? ‘‘No hetaṃ, bhante’’. ‘‘Imāni cassu, bhikkhave, pañca bījajātāni akhaṇḍāni…pe… sukhasayitāni, pathavī ca assa, āpo ca assa; api numāni, bhikkhave, pañca bījajātāni vuddhiṃ virūḷhiṃ vepullaṃ āpajjeyyu’’nti? ‘‘Evaṃ, bhante’’. ‘‘Seyyathāpi, bhikkhave, pathavīdhātu, evaṃ catasso viññāṇaṭṭhitiyo daṭṭhabbā. Seyyathāpi, bhikkhave, āpodhātu, evaṃ nandirāgo daṭṭhabbo. Seyyathāpi, bhikkhave, pañca bījajātāni, evaṃ viññāṇaṃ sāhāraṃ daṭṭhabbaṃ’’.

‘‘Rūpupayaṃ, bhikkhave, viññāṇaṃ tiṭṭhamānaṃ tiṭṭheyya, rūpārammaṇaṃ rūpappatiṭṭhaṃ nandūpasecanaṃ vuddhiṃ virūḷhiṃ vepullaṃ āpajjeyya. Vedanupayaṃ vā, bhikkhave, viññāṇaṃ tiṭṭhamānaṃ tiṭṭheyya…pe… saññupayaṃ vā, bhikkhave, viññāṇaṃ tiṭṭhamānaṃ tiṭṭheyya…pe… saṅkhārupayaṃ vā, bhikkhave, viññāṇaṃ tiṭṭhamānaṃ tiṭṭheyya, saṅkhārārammaṇaṃ saṅkhārappatiṭṭhaṃ nandūpasecanaṃ vuddhiṃ virūḷhiṃ vepullaṃ āpajjeyya.

‘‘Yo, bhikkhave, evaṃ vadeyya – ‘ahamaññatra rūpā aññatra vedanāya aññatra saññāya aññatra saṅkhārehi viññāṇassa āgatiṃ vā gatiṃ vā cutiṃ vā upapattiṃ vā vuddhiṃ vā virūḷhiṃ vā vepullaṃ vā paññāpessāmī’ti, netaṃ ṭhānaṃ vijjati.

‘‘Rūpadhātuyā ceva, bhikkhave, bhikkhuno rāgo pahīno hoti. Rāgassa pahānā vocchijjatārammaṇaṃ patiṭṭhā viññāṇassa na hoti. Vedanādhātuyā ce… saññādhātuyā ce… saṅkhāradhātuyā ce… viññāṇadhātuyā ce, bhikkhave, bhikkhuno rāgo pahīno hoti. Rāgassa pahānā vocchijjatārammaṇaṃ patiṭṭhā viññāṇassa na hoti. Tadappatiṭṭhitaṃ viññāṇaṃ avirūḷhaṃ anabhisaṅkhaccavimuttaṃ. Vimuttattā ṭhitaṃ. Ṭhitattā santusitaṃ. Santusitattā na paritassati. Aparitassaṃ paccattaññeva parinibbāyati. ‘Khīṇā jāti, vusitaṃ brahmacariyaṃ, kataṃ karaṇīyaṃ, nāparaṃ itthattāyā’ti pajānātī’’ti. Dutiyaṃ.



At . There the Blessed One addressed the monks: “Monks.”

“Yes, lord,” the monks responded.

The Blessed One said: “Monks, there are these five means of propagation. Which five? Root-propagation, stem-propagation, joint-propagation, cutting-propagation, & seed-propagation as the fifth. And if these five means of propagation are not broken, not rotten, not damaged by wind & sun, mature, and well-buried, but there is no earth and no water, would they exhibit growth, increase, & proliferation?”

“No, lord.”

“And if these five means of propagation are broken, rotten, damaged by wind & sun, immature, and poorly-buried, but there is earth & water, would they exhibit growth, increase, & proliferation?”

“No, lord.”

“And if these five means of propagation are not broken, not rotten, not damaged by wind & sun, mature, and well-buried, and there is earth & water, would they exhibit growth, increase, & proliferation?”

“Yes, lord.”

“Like the earth property, monks, is how the four standing-spots for consciousness should be seen. Like the liquid property is how delight & passion should be seen. Like the five means of propagation is how consciousness together with its nutriment should be seen.

“Should consciousness, when taking a stance, stand attached to form, supported by form, established on form, watered with delight, it would exhibit growth, increase, & proliferation.

“Should consciousness, when taking a stance, stand attached to feeling, supported by feeling, established on feeling, watered with delight, it would exhibit growth, increase, & proliferation.

“Should consciousness, when taking a stance, stand attached to perception, supported by perception, established on perception, watered with delight, it would exhibit growth, increase, & proliferation.

“Should consciousness, when taking a stance, stand attached to interpretation, supported by interpretation, established on interpretation, watered with delight, it would exhibit growth, increase, & proliferation.

“Were someone to say, ‘I will describe a coming, a going, a passing away, an arising, a growth, an increase, or a proliferation of consciousness apart from form, from feeling, from perception, from interpretation,’ that would be impossible.

“If a monk abandons passion for the property of form … (mental) interpretations (sankhara)

“If a monk abandons passion for the property of consciousness, then owing to the abandonment of passion, the support is cut off, and there is no base for consciousness. Consciousness, thus unestablished, not proliferating, not performing any function, is released. Owing to its release, it is steady. Owing to its steadiness, it is contented. Owing to its contentment, it is not agitated. Not agitated, he extinguishes within. He knows this: ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.'” [Bijasutta in SN]



A-savas coming!

A-savas coming!

While there are so many more beautiful suttas in this part of the pali canon, this was nothing more than a very shallow look at them. In any event, many of these texts convey a very pragmatic message. Very often it seems only a question of how we approach the texts (from a meditative background number one, and number two with a very self-critical  literal approach, looking for similar passages in the canon and questioning our pre-programmed interpretation) to derive at important observations for our own practice.


On the other hand, it might seem as if the Buddha’s path is like a puzzle. As soon as you combine a handful of pieces the progress and structure of the overall puzzle gets clearer and more obvious by the minute. Instead of looking at each piece of the puzzle individually and fantasising about its possible meaning it seems more important to take a plunge and simply do it!  Everthing will eventually fall in place!

Finally, there was one beautiful sutta which answers a couple of questions using a very simple aspect (nibbidabahulo) which we covered above. This will close the loop:

115. Sāvatthinidānaṃ. Ekamantaṃ nisinno kho so bhikkhu bhagavantaṃ etadavoca – ‘‘‘dhammakathiko dhammakathiko’ti, bhante, vuccati. Kittāvatā nu kho, bhante, dhammakathiko hotī’’ti? ‘‘Rūpassa ce, bhikkhu, nibbidāya virāgāya nirodhāya dhammaṃ deseti ‘dhammakathiko bhikkhū’ti alaṃ vacanāya. Rūpassa ce, bhikkhu, nibbidāya virāgāya nirodhāya paṭipanno hoti, ‘dhammānudhammappaṭipanno bhikkhū’ti alaṃ vacanāya. Rūpassa ce, bhikkhu, nibbidā virāgā nirodhā anupādāvimutto hoti, ‘diṭṭhadhammanibbānappatto bhikkhū’ti alaṃ vacanāya…

In Savatthi. Sitting to one side a monk said to the Blessed one this: “A speaker of the Dhamma, a speaker of the Dhamma’, o Lord, was it said. How is one a speaker of the Dhamma’? “When one teaches the Dhamma towards the disenchantment, disinterest, dissolvement of forms, feelings, etc…this alone is enough to be called “a Dhamma speaking monk”. If one practices towards the disenchantment, disinterest, dissolvement of forms, feelings… etc. this is enough to be called “a monk practicing according to the Dhamma”. If one has attained the non-grasping freedom through the disenchantment, disinterest, dissolvement of forms, feelings…etc. this is enough to be called “a monk who has attained Nibbana in this very life”. [Pali]


The next post which will be the third one in this series will look at the Anapanasati-sutta and detail how the Buddha’s own jhana-vipassana experience lead him to Nibbana. Stay tuned 😉



Some relevant pali words mentioned in this post as defined by the PED:
Nibbindati [nis+vindati, vid2] to get wearied of (c. loc.); to have enough of, be satiated, turn away from, to be disgusted with. In two roots A. vind: prs. nibbindati etc. usually in combn withvirajjati & vimuccati (cp. nibbāna III. 2). Vin i.35; S ii.94; iv.86, 140; A v.3; Dh 277 sq.; It 33; J i.267; Miln 235, 244; Sdhp 612. ppr. nibbindaŋ S
Virajjati [vi+rajjati] to detach oneself, to free oneself of passion, to show lack of interest in (loc.). S ii.94, 125 (nibbindaŋ [ppr.] virajjati); iii.46, 189; iv.2, 86; A v.3; Sn 739=S iv.205 (tattha); Th 1, 247; Sn 813 (na rajjati na virajjati), 853; Nd1 138, 237; Miln 245; Sdhp 613. — pp. viratta. — Caus. virājeti to put away, to estrange (acc.) from (loc.), to cleanse (oneself) of passion (loc.), to purify, to discard as rāga Dii.51; S i.16=Sn 171 (ettha chandaŋ v.=vinetvā viddhaŋsetvā SnA 213); S iv.17=Kvu 178; A ii.196 (rajanīyesu dhammesu cittaŋ v.); Sn 139, 203; Th 1, 282; Pv ii.1319 (itthi — cittaŋ=viratta — citta PvA 168); ThA 49; DhA i.327 (itthi — bhāve chandaŋ v. to give up desire for femininity). — pp. virājita.     

Rāga [cp. Sk. rāga, fr. raj: see rajati] 1. colour, hue; colouring, dye Vin ii.107 (anga˚ “rougeing” the body: bhikkhū angarāgaŋ karonti); ThA 78; SnA 315 (nānāvidha˚). — 2 (as t. t. in philosophy & ethics) excitement, passion; seldom by itself,…


You can get a complete version of the Samyutta Nikaya in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s fine translation here.

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And I show you how 🙂

Okay, caught your attention (did you see what happened when you read this headline)?

Now, let me rephrase a bit: This post is about how a Vipassana-opponent turned into a Vipassana-proponent. Interested? This is the story:

If you were raised in the West and got to know Buddhism from a scientific background and tradition-teacher-critical mindset (think Kalama Sutta) your premise of uncovering Nibbana in this lifetime would read like this:

First of all, I am only interested in what Buddha taught. Where can I find out what he taught? What is the most authentic and most original representation of his teachings/discourses going back to his time? Let me start my praxis and understanding from there, rather than through third class secondary literature or contradicting contemporary interpretations.

Obviously, your focus would then fall on the texts of the Sutta Pitaka of the (Theravadin) Pali Canon, the most ancient surviving (textual) tradition encapsulating the words of the Buddha.

Now, if you start reading those texts in any modern translation, you will come to the conclusion, that Buddhist meditation  is all about (based on morality, of course) attaining jhanas, or deep concentration states of the mind. You believe that wisdom will come on its own. And your favorite Dhammapada verse would sum that idea up like this:

“Natthi jhanam apannassa / panna natthi ajhayato

yamhi jhananca panna ca / sa ve nibbanasantike.”

“There is no meditation for him who is without wisdom;

there is no wisdom for him who is without meditation.

Nearer to Nibbana is he, in whom meditation and wisdom meet.” (Dhp 372) and (here)

Your next step however involves finding other people practicing on the path. Then, looking around, you hear people talk and write about vipassana. Vipassana? That is not even mentioned once(*) in the suttas, what is that? You read about vipassana and find out that it originated (at least in its modern revived practice) in Burma in the country of Abhidhamma, propagated by monks who learn and love the late abhidhammic scholasticism and commentaries…Those parts of the Buddhist canon, which you know from historical and text critical studies to be the least reliable teachings. At least that is what you conclude.

As an outspoken and tradition-critical Buddhist you get into arguments with other people who are so enthused about their latest vipassana retreat. It is true, your own attempt at getting into jhanic states (or deep concentrations states) is cumbersome and slow. You cannot understand why these other vipassana “junkies” would be able to progress on the path of the Dhamma, if they have not even undertaken some training in concentration meditation – let alone practice only “dry vipassana”. “Yikes”, you think. You try to tell them that their practice is wrong. Or will not bear fruits, because, what they do is neither explained nor legitimized in the most ancient Buddhist texts, or is it?

If you happen to be in Thailand or a Thai related tradition, your pretence against vipassana could be worse. For whatever reason (jealousy towards their little under-developed Northern neighbour?) Thai meditation masters are known for their struggle with wild tigers in jungle infested regions as part of their zen-like adventurous struggle towards nibbana. But they are not known for systematic meditation methodologies. Especially not in vipassana training.

If you happen to be in Sri Lanka, arguments are found for both meditation approaches. Chances are you find people on both sides of the argument, however, in recent decades, the majority definitely turned in favor towards (Burmese-style) vipassana. In the Western world, despite groups of people in favor of jhana meditation (usually among the few who DO study the pali canon) vipassana rules the day. However, the closer someone professes to have studied the most authentic pali suttas they will show reluctance to except vipassana meditation. Reason: It looks like its not mentioned in the texts, or is it??

Here you might find yourself in a peculiar situation. Are the early texts wrong and the many people vouching for vipassana right? Or are they missing a crucial part and the suttas correct in that jhana is needed first before attempting vipassana or insight meditation?

Let me show you how to solve this (apparently) difficult problem. For that matter, let us imagine a personal story:

From whatever karmic reason, being a stern vipassana sceptic (probably not for the first time), trying to carefully navigate between the past and present views about the Dhamma, and in order to find the authentic path and achieve Nibbana in this very life, you come in contact with a very active, highly trained meditation group. They teach jhanas and vipassana. However, they won’t teach you the jhanas. Not yet.

Why? What is their argument?

You don’t need full jhana concentration to start doing vipassana. (You keep your doubts to yourself). You don’t know your time of death! (Sure, granted). Are you willing to risk death and thus loose this special samsaric opportunity to gain insights into the nature of your mind just because of some desire for deep concentration states? You think: I can show you dozens of passages which will highlight the importance of strong concentration before insight can be born. But lets say you agree to the challenge and keep your scepticism to yourself. They invite you for a 20 day retreat. Let the practice and its results be your guide, they say. Not theory. Not texts. Not tradition. So, in the true spirit of the Kalama Sutta you start the work.

So interestingly enough as soon as you agree, (this being a proper place) …. You are taught the basics in concentration meditation…(as I said, we imagine a very good systematic place)…Every meditation session includes a reflection on your sila (virtues), includes small exercises in concentration and eventually applies a thorough vipassana methodology – without a full blown mastering of the jhanas, of course… just enough to sustain concentration for the task at hand – which is the noting of the appearing and vanishing of the six sense bases…or five groups of grasping….peeking “under the hood” of samsara. First slowly, clumsy. Then quicker and sharper. To see impermance, dukkha and emptiness of a self.

Now, as time passes, you are astonished. You find yourself walking through the commentarial vipassanāñāṇa in a personal direct experience in real-life, yet even those vipassana insights have not been discussed in the suttas, or have they?

However, you know how emphatic the Buddha was about seeing the rising and falling and the wisdom born thereof.

And yes, the further you practice vipassana in this systematic way, the more you understand how your six senses work, how concepts and thoughts are empty. What you did not believe in your wildest dreams to be true comes true. A method which seems to have originated from nowhere creates knowledge which remind you of the results the sutta speak of. However, the path you took seems not to be mentioned in the suttas. Can this be?

A huge dilemma: How in all the world can it be, that the suttas talk 90% about jhanas when they mention meditation and you don’t hear them talk about vipassana, wheras the commentaries and the working vipassana techniques (so popular nowadays) are not mentioned once?

At that point, convinced by the experience and practice of vipassana meditation you look back at the suttas. You are convinced that you need to take a closer look. Something is wrong here – and it is not your result-producing practice.

So you go back to the pali texts and translations and try to look for an answer. Very soon you understand, that the various modern translations are the culprits in “hiding vipassana”. We could also say the commentaries, as they failed to better relate pragmatic knowledge and concepts of their times to the suttas (but, well, the Burmese example shows, some were able to figure it out reading and studying the texts close enough).

Well, or we could simply acknowledge the fact, that meditation practice is hardly a matter for texts and difficult to transmit between real people in real life – even harder on the paper. So it is and always will be a challenge to convey meditation experience and practice on a page – or palm leaf.

Because, in truth, the suttas are FULL of references to vipassana, in fact theses references probably dwarf any mentioning of the jhanas by 100:1. But the word vipassana is not what one has to look for. This insight producing part of the Buddhas teaching was so central to his mission that he spoke about it almost every time someone came to him with a question. But only later in his life he started using the term “vipassana” which in later centuries became exclusively used to what the Buddha coined “sati” during his life.

So the term he is using is hardly ever “vipassana” (some suttas, mostly commentaries use this term) and not “noting”  (commentaries use this term, sallakkheti).

The Buddha uses “sati – remembering”  instead or he uses “yoniso manasikaro – proper attention” or he uses “iti pajanati – to know “thus” or he uses various verbs related to “samanupassati – seeing,observing” etc. etc..

Remembering/Noting/Witnessing as a function of the mind to withstand the drag of the sense impressions and to actively witness with wise attention what is going on with the help of a (small number of very specific) labels.

And the Buddha uses “iti pajanati”. He uses direct speech. He tells us what to do – in fact how to note our experience – how to use a very simple concept like “This is not mine. This am i not. This is not my self” to de-conceptualize our constantly proliferating world-experience.

But the many scholarly (and contemporary) translators (in most cases) could not recognize this. They translate “you have to see the forms as empty” when it  more literally says  “you have to see the form so: ‘empty’”. A tiny little change, granted, but suddenly the missing link re-appears. And vipassana is all over the place. In fact, not only that – now references of how to use sustained thoughts in helping to induce concentration meditation appear in the pali texts and even jhana meditation lightens up.

Here is another exapmle. Such an obvious pali sentence as this one

Atthi kayo’ti pan’assa sati paccupatthita hoti yava-d-eva nana-mattaya pati-ssati-mattaya

Lit.: “(There) is a body” so too his remembering/noting/attention established is, just for the sake of knowing, for the sake of awareness.

from the famous satipatthana sutta gets translated by one famous scholar monks as:

he has clear mindfulness of the existence of the body only to extent that will serve to make it an object of gnosis (ñana) and recollection.

Therefore, a more literal translation – careful towards the application of meditation practice – would show that the Buddha’s “samma sati” is in fact the commentaries favorite “vipassana”. (more on this here)

And so, the seeming contradiction between jhana and vipassana dissolves into a close link between the two. Whereas the one uses thoughts to increase concentration on an object (think: “buddho, buddho”) the other uses specific labels to aid the development of deep insight by directing/guiding the bare attention: “This is feeling”. “This is how feeling appears”. “This is how feeling vanishes”. Left alone the mind behaves like a monkey in a forest. Both, insight and concentration meditation prosper on the usage of sati, that is “remembering”.

We could make changes and say instead “sati and samadhi” if we do not like to say “samatha and vipassana”…yes, that would probably have been the terminology of Buddhist meditation at the time of the Buddha. But nothing is wrong to use the preferred commentarial terminology and say “samatha-vipassana”. After all, these are all simply names/concepts relating to a pragmatic approach in meditation. That is why the Buddha mentioned vipassana implicitely when talking about jhanas and implicitely concentration when talking about vipassana. It gets problematic if these “notions”, “thoughts”, “views” start to interfere with our practice and we avoid walking on the entire noble eightfold path.

A little add-on:

Another problem is the mistaken role of jhanas in the recent vipassana revival. Jhanas are mistaken to be a hindrance or annoyance to the insight meditator. Very often jhanic states deriving from the intense “noting” practice are not acknowledged as such and lead to confusion. Someone with prior training in concentration has an easier time gauging his experiences (and continuing to note) by-products of a deep concentration. Therefore, the so-called “upacara” samadhi or “access” concentration is many times the result of a concentrated meditator untrained in the mastery of the jhanas. This will lead to jhanic experiences which then appear random and fuzzy and attract the wrong kind of attention by a vipassana meditator who never experienced them before. What could be a support due to the narrower focus of attention now turns into a hindrance, a broken and unsustained, underdeveloped jhana.

Final note: While our criticism was primarily directed towards the Jhānapubbaṅgamāvāda(i.e. the group of people who say that jhanas have to be developed first, like this) including the hint that “directing once mind towards realization of the 4 noble truth” is where the “real” work starts 🙂 we did try to balance our constructive criticism with remarks on the importance of one-pointedness. Vipassanāparāmāsāvāda (i.e. the group of people who separate vipassana from morality and concentration and place it above all) are in danger of dancing on the same spot and slowing down their progress. Khanika or ‘momentary’ concentration in this regard is an oxymoron, in my humble opinion. Think about it.

A proposal for today’s Theravada practice therefore, could look like this:

Our practice needs to establish a balance between sila, samādhi and paññā . One possibility is to incorporate reflection on sila and preparation on samathā into a preamble for every vipassanā meditation session. In fact there are such integrating and systematic approaches out there (esp. in Lanka) and if this post serves any good it might do some advertisement for such comprehensive approaches to Buddhist training.

“Now what is concentration, lady, what is its topic, what are its requisites, and what is its development”

“Singleness of mind is concentration, friend Visakha; the four foundations of sati are its topic; the four right efforts are its requisites; and any cultivation, development, & pursuit of these qualities is its development.” [Dhamma Dinna in MN 44]

In the next post we will look at some of the pali texts which show the ubiquity of “vipassanā” in the suttas =>


(*) The term vipassana is already mentioned and used in the suttas albeit not very common. Mostly in conjunction with samatha-vipassana but most of the passages which do mention vipassana in the suttas could be from younger text strata. I have another post in my draft folder with some quantification on this topic which i will link to at this place once it’s posted.

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…and started something else.

I admit – this was just for my amusement. Below you will find a Pali version of the famous Mahayana text the “Heart Sutra” which I attempted to “translate” (back) into Pali.

The purpose of this exercise was to learn how closely (or not) early Mahayana texts were to the Theravadin tradition – not just in letter but to a certain degree in spirit. On the other hand, I also wanted to see how they started to deviate from each other. The Heart Sutra belongs to a group of early Mahayana texts who seem to have started out to as a criticism on abhidharmic scholasticism but by doing so it seems that they triggered other misconceptions.

It is interesting to see how “Buddhism” deviated further and further from the simple original hands-on suttas which record Buddha’s training methods. It is interesting, because trying to keep the Dhamma authentic and workable is a never-ending struggle against the flow of samsara 🙂

In fact, this famous text could have been part of the pali canon (if the pali canon would have been allowed to incorporate new texts forever, that is. Luckily Ashokas 3rd Buddhist council prevented just that). If you do not know any pali you might still find the footnotes quite enjoyable 🙂

Blue highlighting is for expressions/terms uncommon to pali texts which are the “real” Mahayanic add-on or alternative Sanskrit usage which is alien to pali texts.

Translation of the text in English here, history and background here.

This is the Buddhist Sanskrit Version the following pali version is based on

My “would be” Pali version:


|namo sabbaññāya(1)||

Evaṁ me sutam| ekam samayam bhagavā rājagahe viharati gijjhakūṭe pabbate mahatā bhikkhusaṁghena saddhiṁ mahatā ca bodhisattasaṁghena| tena kho pana samayena bhagavā gambhīrāvasambodhaṁ(2) nāma samādhiṁ samāpanno| tena ca samayena ariyo Olokitissaro bodhisatto mahāsatto gambhīraṁ paññāpāramitaṁ cariyaṁ caramānā evaṁ voloketi(3) (i.e. vipassati)| pañcakkhandhā. Tañca sabhāvasuññaṁ voloketi(4)||

Atha kho ayasmā Sāriputto buddhānubhāvena(5) ariyam Olokitissaraṁ bodhisattam etadavoca:- yo hi koci kulaputto vā kuladhitā vā ayaṁ gambhīraṁ paññāpāramitaṁ cariyaṁ caritukāmo, kathaṁ sikkhitabbam? evam vutte ariyo Olokitissaro  bodhisatto mahāsatto āyasmantaṁ Sāriputtam etad avoca- Yo koci Sāriputta kulaputto va kuladhitā vā gambhīraṁ paññāpāramitaṁ cariyaṁ caritukāmo, tena hidaṁ voloketabbam: – pañcakkhandhā -tañca sabhāvasuññam samanupassitum| rūpaṁ sūññatā(6), sūññatā hiva rūpam| rūpam na aññam(7) suññatā, suññatāya na aññam rūpam| yam rūpaṁ sā suññatā, yā sūnyatā tam rūpam| evaṁ vedanāsaññāsaṁkhāraviññānañca suññyatā |

Evaṁ Sāriputta sabbe dhammā suññatālakkhaṇā. Anuppannā aniruddhā amalā vimalā anūnā asampunnā| Tasmātiha Sāriputta suññatāyaṁ na rūpam, na vedanā, na saññā, na saṁkhārā, na viññānam, na cakkhum na sotaṁ na ghaṇaṁ na jihvā na kāyo na mano na rūpaṁ na saddo na gandho na raso na potthabbam na dhammo| na cakkhudhātu na manodhātu na dhammadhātu na manoviññānadhātu| na vijjā na avijjā na khayo na jarāmaraṇaṁ na jarāmaraṇakhayo, na dukkhasamudayanirodhamaggā na ñānaṁ na patti na-apatti| (8)

Tasmā Sāriputta apattiyā(9) bodhisatto paññāpāramitanissitā (10) viharati acittāvaraṇam| cittāvaraṇa-natthitā-anutrasto viparilāsātikkamānto niṭṭhitanibbānam| tividhavaṭṭhānā sabbe buddhā paññāpāramitānissitā  anuttaraṁ sammāsaṁbodhimabhisaṁbuddhā| tasmā ñātabbam: paññāpāramitā mahā-manto(11) anuttara-manto asamasama-manto sabbadukkhapasamana-manto saccam-amiccatā paññāpāramitā-vutto. manto tam yathā- “gate gate pāragate pārasaṁgate bodhi svāhā”| evaṁ Sāriputta gambhīrāyaṁ paññāpāramitāyaṁ cariyāyāṁ sikkhitabbaṁ bodhisattena (12)||

atha kho bhagavā tasmā samādhim uṭṭhāya ariyo Olokitissarassa bodhisattassa sādhukam adāsi- “sādhu sādhu kulaputta| evametam kulaputta, evametam gambhīrāyaṁ paññāpāramitāyaṁ cariyaṁ caritabbaṁ yathā tayā vidiṭṭham| anumodayate tathāgate arahate||

idam avoca bhagavā| attamano āyasmā sāriputto ariyo Olokitissaro ca bodhisatto sā ca sabbāva parisā devamānussāsuragandhabbaca loko bhagavato bhasitam abhinandunti||

iti paññāpāramitāhadayasuttaṁ samatittham|


(1)In a proper pali text we would of course have a reference to the Buddha at this point like: “namo tassa Bhagavato”..instead this text venerates omniscience (sabbanna). With regard to the title: the ‘hadaya’, lit. meaning ‘heart’, i.e. ‘essence’ must be a Sanskrit expression as well. In pali such a ‘stamp’ or concise teaching by the Buddha would be called ‘uddesa

(2)sammasambodhim/animitta/phalasamapatti in pali. but that would be too arahantish, that’s why we need a new term here, after all, it’s a Mahayana text 🙂

(3)Hey, the Bodhisatta is doing vipassana!! vi-ava-loketi (to look at precisely) Well, why not! After all, this is about training the wisdom paramita of a Bodhisatta. So someone looking to become a Buddha sure needs training in vipassana. And, as we know from modern day vipassana trailblazers like Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw and Ven. Sri Matara Nyanarama, someone with a defined “prarthana/patthana” will not get beyond the vipassana stage of sankharupekkha-nyana :-). In this sense, this is nothing new to the ancient Buddhist tradition.

(4)Interesting: The Buddha would talk about the 5 groups always with regard to grasping (pancupadanakkhandha). The problem for him was the upadana – grasping/holding on to – the 5 groups. However, the methods he taught (esp. in Samyutta Nikaya, Khandha Vagga) to remove this inherent grasping involved labeling/seeing those 5 groups of grasping as “empty”. This seems to be exactly what the Bodhisatta Avalokitissaro or Olokitessaro does. Funny name, by the way. Is he really the Master of Compassion, as Mahayana traditionally explains his name (to look after or over beings from above, ava-lokita, in the same sense as the pali commentaries use this word such as ‘buddhacakkhunā lokaṃ oloketi – looking at the world with they eye of a Buddha’) or rather did he get his name from his mastery in insight meditation practice as the verb vi-ava-loketi in this context hints at…I guess it depends where the name of this fabled person appears for the first time.. On another note though, it implies some form of knowledge about the practice of vipassana/sammasati as seen in this sutta and could be taken as a Mahayanic acknowledgement of vi-passana to developing wisdom. Here is an example how oloketi is used in a similar context in the ancient (pali) Mahaniddesa:

“ākiñcaññāyatanaṃ samāpajjitvā tato vuṭṭhahitvā tattha jāte cittacetasike dhamme aniccato vipassati, dukkhato vipassati, rogato…pe… nissaraṇato vipassati dakkhati oloketi nijjhāyati upaparikkhatīti– tato tattha vipassati. – Having attained to the meditation stage (sphere) of Nothingness and from there having emerged whatever mindmental objects are born there he looks at them as impermanent, as suffering, as disease … etc…for escape, he looks closely (vipassati), sees (dakkhati), looks at (oloketi), muses (nijjhayati) and reflects (upaparikkhati) over them. [link]” –

as a side note: here you see how Buddhas advice to use these terms as labels (see: ‘this is empty’ – “rupam sunnam’ti pajanati) towards a more descriptive explanation (see as empty – sunnato vipassati). The former makes it a clear exercise to train with right away; the latter makes you wonder just how to do it. A fine but crucial difference – even if at the time when these commentaries were written this method of noting may have been still in place). See others posts on this topic on this blog, keyword “iti and sallakheti”.

(5) buddhanubhavena…a word which is found in later pali texts / commentaries as well. Especially in the context of pirit chanting…’by the power/might of the Buddha’

(6) “Emptiness”. Rather than a property in itself, the usage of “empty” in the old pali texts denotes the fact that sensing is based on forms-senses-and consciousness all three having to come together. They are thus void of a persisting independent entity, because they vanish as soon as the conditions for a sense impression vanish. This inherent characteristic of the empty nature of the sensory process (esp. how it presents itself to “us”) was substantialized in Mahayana and (as all other ‘names’ and ‘concepts’ ) it started to take on a life of its own. A text from the pali canon where a similar usage of the terms found so far can be  located is the Patisambhidamagga (which was ascribed to Sariputta himself. Maybe that pun was intended, especially if you think how Sariputta became a symbol for the conceptual excess in Abhidharma scholastic literature)

Katamaṃ vipariṇāmasuññaṃ? Jātaṃ rūpaṃ sabhāvena suññaṃ. Vigataṃ rūpaṃ vipariṇatañceva suññañca. Jātā vedanā sabhāvena suññā. Vigatā vedanā vipariṇatā ceva suññā ca …pe… jātā saññā… jātā saṅkhārā… jātaṃ viññāṇaṃ… jātaṃ cakkhu…pe… jāto bhavo sabhāvena suñño. Vigato bhavo vipariṇato ceva suñño ca. Idaṃ vipariṇāmasuññaṃ.

Important difference of course: To the Buddha, ’emptiness’ as any other mental concoction has no value in itself. Rather – and only for the purpose of meditative training – it is important to see the vanity/emptiness/unreliability of any of the six sense impressions. This is why the pali texts talk about ’empty (of)’ and use the adjective, whereas in this age of the game Buddhism (Mahayana) had turned this concept [sic] into a philosophic reality. This is how suddenly samsara and nibbana would look identical and instead of using the boat to get to the other shore we start building our house on the boat. That will defnitely make it more habitable for others and prolong the journey for all.

(7) In the Sanskrit text it says “pṛthak” which is pali “puthu”. However, in pali texts the word “añña” is used instead.

(8) In this last paragraph complete and utter relativism sets in. If it wants to show/prove the emptiness of concepts it definitely goes into a ZEN-like training mode: Instead of describing the way how to overcome the spell of overpowering concepts (even Dhamma-thoughts are thoughts after all) it trashes all Buddhist and worldly concepts. See my discussion on the Lankavatara Sutta where a similar Mahayana-trait emerges.

(9) Funny: “Even though I have not attained to anything (being a Bodhisatta) I am already at the final nibbana, because, well, after all everything is nothing – and I have attained to that. 🙂 Okay…

(10)The Sanskrit text has a word which in pali would be “āsitā” (relied on/ based on). However in pali a similar word is more common for this purpose: “nissita” – meaning is the same.

(11) The word “mantra” in pali “manto” appears in the commentarial literature as well and means a “spell” a magic formula.

(12) This final paragraph is the climax of decay from a Theravadin point of view. The highest quality a future Buddha has to train himself in is reduced to uttering a mantra. While we started out with a tone and voice related to the pali texts we now either are faced with a koan or a mythical phrase which this text wants to make us believe is the source of the ultimate development in wisdom. I have my doubts 🙂 But I guess there are many other (more subtler) ways of reading this text.

So, besides the mantra, the following summary found on the Wikipedi website seems to make sense. This Mahayana text looks and feels like a response to the Abhidharmic materialism (which the Theravadin commentaries and Abhidhamma are equally infected with):

The specific sequence of concepts listed in lines 12-20 (“…in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, … no attainment and no non-attainment” is the same sequence used in the Sarvastivadin Samyukt Agama; this sequence differs in the texts of other sects. On this basis, Red Pine has argued that the Heart Sutra is specifically a response to Sarvastivada teachings that dharmas are real.

Avalokiteśvara addresses Śariputra, who was, according to the scriptures and texts of the Sarvastivada and other early Buddhist schools, the promulgator of abhidharma, having been singled out by the Buddha to receive those teachings. Avalokiteśvara famously states that, “Form is empty (Śūnyatā). Emptiness is form.” and declares the other skandhas to be equally empty — that is, empty of an independent essence. [Because they appear based on conditions] Avalokiteśvara then goes through some of the most fundamental Buddhist teachings such as the Four Noble Truths and explains that in emptiness none of these labels apply. This is interpreted according to the concept of smaran as saying that teachings, while accurate descriptions of conventional truth, are mere statements about reality — they are not reality itself — and that they are therefore not applicable to the ultimate truth that is by definition beyond our comprehending. Thus the bodhisattva, as the archetypal Mahāyāna Buddhist, relies on the perfection of wisdom, defined in the larger Perfection of Wisdom sutra to be the wisdom that perceives reality directly without conceptual attachment. This perfection of wisdom is condensed in the mantra with which the sutra concludes.

As mentioned before, this idea and warning not to take concepts literally but to use them on the path to Nibbana can be found in the Suttas everywhere. It sure is a mirror of the times this text was written in that this kind of emphasis had to be made at all. Mahayana, the re-invention of the wheel.

To finish this little exercise let me close with a pragmatic word from the Buddha:

“Katamā cāvuso, suññatā cetovimutti”? “Idhāvuso, bhikkhu araññagato vā rukkhamūlagato vā suññāgāragato vā iti paṭisañcikkhati– ‘suññamidaṃ attena vā attaniyena vā’ti.

And what, o friend, is the emptiness mind-liberation [implies a meditative state of the mind]? Here, o friend, a monk goes to a forest or to the root of a tree or an empty house and he thinks thus: “This is empty of a self or something belonging to a self” [link].


  • A grammatical study of this text can be found here and here
  • A little bit out of date now, but amazing compendium nevertheless: History of Indian Buddhism.
  • See another post on the related topic of the Lankavatara Sutra, another re-invention of the wheel

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Buddhist Genesis

Most of you are probably familiar with the Christian/Jewish bible’s Genesis, the little story about how Mahabrahma (aka ‘God’) created the world….

From a Buddhist cosmological [what a contradiction in terms, :-)] standpoint, this particular event was not really unique – depending on your timeframe of course – but what if we, just for the fun of it, ask ourselves what did the Buddhists put at the very beginning of all their sacred texts and literature? What special emphasis did they create by establishing one particular text at the head of their ‘holy scriptures’, i.e. the Pali Canon of Early Buddhism.

Traditionally the Pali Canon starts with rules for monks and nuns. But if we skip that part and look at the collection of discourses the first book introduced to the reader is the Digha Nikaya, the ‘Collection of Long Discourses’. The text in this book which ancient compilers put at the beginning is a discourse by the Buddha called the Brahmajala sutta, i.e. ‘The Devine Net’.

So, how does this Buddhist ‘Genesis’ look like? In this text the Buddha starts out asking his followers never to feel angry if the Dhamma is ridiculed nor should they feel elated if the Dhamma is praised. He continues to explain how other religions come into their beliefs about various world- and soul- scenarios (among which the Buddha gives a fascinating account about how the belief in a monotheistic religion – and with it creation – is established).

However, central to this first text of Buddhist scriptures is the following recurring passage which so completely establishes what makes Buddhism so completely a non-religion.

Here the Buddha says:


But of these views, monks, the Tathagata (i.e. the Buddha) knows that arriving at such views, holding such views, believing such views, trusting such views will have such and such a consequence in terms of rebirth in the hereafter. This and much more the Tathagata is able to see, for he knows as it really is the coming to be and the passing away of sense experience, the satisfaction of sense experience and the way of escape from sense experience.

And because he does not cling to what he sees he is detached and he experiences for himself the peace of utter freedom.

These are advanced things, monks, matters that are deep, difficult to see, difficult to grasp, subtle, leading one who follows to tranquility and the sublime; things not to be arrived at by mere logic and reasoning, comprehensible only by the wise. These, monks, are the things the Tathagata teaches, having seen them for himself. These are the things which should be spoken of by one when he speaks in praise of the Tathagata.

Tayidaṃ, bhikkhave, tathāgato pajānāti – ‘ime diṭṭhiṭṭhānā evaṃgahitā evaṃparāmaṭṭhā evaṃgatikā bhavanti evaṃabhisamparāyā’ti, tañca tathāgato pajānāti, tato ca uttaritaraṃ pajānāti; tañca pajānanaṃ na parāmasati, aparāmasato cassa paccattaññeva nibbuti viditā. Vedanānaṃ samudayañca atthaṅgamañca assādañca ādīnavañca nissaraṇañca yathābhūtaṃ viditvā anupādāvimutto, bhikkhave, tathāgato.

‘Ime kho te, bhikkhave, dhammā gambhīrā duddasā duranubodhā santā paṇītā atakkāvacarā nipuṇā paṇḍitavedanīyā, ye tathāgato sayaṃ abhiññā sacchikatvā pavedeti, yehi tathāgatassa yathābhuccaṃ vaṇṇaṃ sammā vadamānā vadeyyuṃ.[DN 1 en, pi]


This very fundamental Buddhist premise does not only explain a good deal of the tolerance found and appreciated  amongst Buddhist cultures towards people of other denominations and traditions but also helps to understand the following result by a recent survey:



Quite astonishing, even for people who know how relatively easy Buddhism adopts to scientific views (yes, they are views as well). And while Natural Science usually tries to critically approach physical ‘realities’ and establish laws from the observation of conceived reality, Buddha (‘the physician’) went a step further and was interested in how the interplay of concepts (name), physical objects (forms) and consciousness creates our perceived world. His science is still known to Buddhists as “the Law” (Dhamma/Dharma)

Therefore, asked about the world, the Buddha would try to change the inquirers premise:

“Monks, I will teach you the All. Listen & pay close attention. I will speak.”

“As you say, lord,” the monks responded.

The Blessed One said, “What is the All? Simply the seeing & forms, hearing & sounds, smelling & aromas, tasting & flavors, feeling & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas. This, monks, is called the All.  Anyone who would say, ‘Repudiating this All, I will describe another,’ if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his statement, would be unable to explain, and furthermore, would be put to grief. Why? Because it lies beyond range.” [SN 35.23 and SN 35.82 en– cakkhu etc. is better translated as seeing or eye-sense as it involves more than just the physical sense organ which would be akkhi]

Still, due to the overwhelming attraction of thoughts and ideas, Buddhism as a religion had to come up with creation-like stories to satisfy the thirst for … stories 🙂 . One of the most ancient ones is definitely the Agganna Sutta [pi]- which, funny enough, most Buddhists have never heard of.

In it we find signs of evolution, physical that is, but the major driving force behind evolution in this text is not attributed to some random magic materialism but rather the governing force of karma (i.e. intentions/actions of beings) driving their physical representation depending on the mental ups and downs in individual beings, societies and cultures in the universe. In the light of the above quoted passages it still should be clear that Buddhism is less interested in these facets of (physical/natural) samsaric re-cycling (pun intended) or evolutionary and devolutionary whirlpools but rather focuses on the sources of the movie projection. 

  1. Loop Quantum Gravity Theory and the Big Bounce – this is a very good summary.
  2. More on Aggannata and Creation in Buddhism: http://www.hrsolidarity.net/mainfile.php/1999vol09no10/1929/
  3. It would be interesting to see what later Buddhist traditions put at the very beginning of their body of scriptures. Maybe one would be able to see a shift in emphasis towards other ideas?
  4. Some further reference in comparison between the idea of a first (only) God and Buddhism: “Christianity in Buddhism”

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Many people  (especially those who intensively try to put the Buddhas eightfold path into practice) have thought about the meaning of samma sati or “right mindfulness”. In fact, the meaning of this important aspect of Buddhist practice had troubled me for a long time 🙂 (1)

The problem occurs when we start looking closer at the oldest Buddhist scriptures available, the Pali texts and look for the meaning and connotations of this important Buddhist term. Before we begin, however,  a very short introductory remark:

Why is ‘sati’ so important with regard to the path to Nibbana?

Because it is at the center core of the entire Buddhist meditation:

“Now what is concentration, lady, what is its topic, what are its requisites, and what is its development”

“Singleness of mind is concentration, friend Visakha; the four foundations of sati are its topic; the four right efforts are its requisites; and any cultivation, development, & pursuit of these qualities is its development.” [Dhamma Dinna in MN 44]

So, what is wrong with translating sati as mindfulness? Well for one, the word does mean something different, as almost any pali dictionary would show:

Sati (f.) [Vedic smṛti: see etym. under sarati2] memory, recognition, consciousness, D i.180; ii.292; Miln 77 — 80; intentness of mind, wakefulness of mind, mindfulness, alertness, lucidity of mind, self — possession, conscience, self — consciousness D i.19; iii.31, 49, 213, 230, 270 sq.; A i.95; Dhs 14; Nd1 7; Tikp 61; VbhA 91; DhsA 121; Miln 37; etc. [link]

and under sarati we find:

Sarati2 [smṛ, cp. smṛti=sati; Dhtp 248 “cintā”; Lat memor, memoria=memory; Gr. me/rimna care, ma/rtu witness, martyr; Goth. maúrnan=E. mourn to care, etc.] to remember D ii.234; Vin i.28; ii.79; J ii.29. …. — Caus. sāreti to remind Vin ii.3 sq., 276; iii.221; sārayamāna, reminding J i.50; ppr. pass. sāriyamāna Vin iii.221; w. acc. D ii.234; w. gen. Dh 324; J vi.496; with foll. fut. II. (in ˚tā) Vinii.125, 4; iii.44, 9, etc. — Caus. II. sarāpeti Vin iii.44; Miln 37 (with double acc.), 79. [link]

Well, what the heck does remembering (->sati, nominalized from the verb sarati, to remember) or remembrance have to do with mindfulness?

There are two ways we can solve this mystery: We can look at the actual meditation technique the Buddha wanted us to perform and which he used the term sati for. From there we look at our experience and chose the best English equivalent which comes to our mind. Think Vipassana. Think Noting. Though many people will think “slow motion” and mistake it for sampajanna, but more about this below.

The other approach is a linguistic / historic approach. And though in terms of practice the Vipassana exercises have always made sense to me, especially compared to the instructions by the Buddha found in hundreds of Suttas in the Samyutta Nikaya  etc… i always wondered about the linguistic puzzle – sati seemed to imply something different than ‘mindfulness’. Either the term was not translated precise enough or some background information felt missing.

Nowadays when we are interested in practicing mindfulness in a Buddhist context we tend to think about Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw and Ledi Sayadaw and Goenka retreats who brought the Vipassana Meditation from the jungle back into mainstream Theravadan teaching. Whenever you have a chance and study their explanations on how to put the Sati Patthana Sutta into practice they will talk about “Labelling” or “Noting” sense impressions (and in their pali expositions will use the term sallakheti – as did Ven. Buddhaghosa in his Visuddhimagga (2).

But back to the use of sallakkheti. Where did this term come from? While the Commentarial literature uses the term sallakheti, meaning “to label”, when describing the intrinsics of Vipassana practice, sure the Buddha never did! He never used a word like sallakkheti but sati instead! Hence the scepticism of so many people in the beginning towards Burmese vipassana. So, where is the connection, what are we missing?

It is literacy!

Why would the Buddha make use of a term of which basically no one at his time had any practical experience with? Writing, though known, was only used for correspondences between kings – on a highly official basis. Performed by a guilt of writers. No one ordinary used writing for making shopping lists – even the Brahmins did not dare to entrust anything of (religious) importance to the fragility of palm leaves in a tropical climate.

If you wanted to make a shopping list at the time of the Buddha, if you wanted to catch and ‘note’ and witness something, you needed to use …yes,  your memory! The notion of labelling and noting makes sense to us in an age of literacy. Or to listeners / readers at the time of Buddhaghosa (and probably even before that, approx. since the 1st century before CE when the Buddhist texts were put to palm leafes for the first time) and literacy and writing started to replace what until then was an extraordinarily and highly cultivated general ability to memorize and to mentally take note.

2500 years ago the Buddha did not say to his monks: “Whenever you see a form, hear a sound, etc. just ‘take a note‘”. And so he did not say “please label the sense impressions”.

But he used the proper pali word for the same activity based on the prevalent oral culture and so he asked people to use “sati” or “remembering” to “take a (mental) note”  to “mentally witness” of what just occured.

Therefore, we could very well render samma sati in the noble eightfold path as “right noting” or “right witnessing” or “right attention”.

Now, based on this observation, the following utterances make even more sense:

yoniso manasikara” (Important: not just attention – but attention directed towards the source)

“ditthe ditthamattam” – in the seen only the seen, [Udana 1.10]

iti pajanati

And so, yes, it is about the direct experience, the direct seeing (therefore the additional use of words like vi-passati, nyana-dassana, pajanati, pacca-vekkhati, etc. etc.  when describing the mediators activity- all related to the action of seeing not thinking or reflecting or pondering over.) Thus the 4 sati-patthana, or foundations/pillars of sati are used as anchor points for our concentration. A highly concentrated mind, based on a firm grounding and preliminary training in keeping moral precepts is able to create a mental differential between the point of concentration and the sense objects ‘catching our awareness’ = their rising and falling… Thus, while sati has a very specific meaning (Buddha loved clarity, like any other good scientist 🙂 Sati or Vipassana meditation can and should never be done without the proper preparation.

By now you will wonder how the term sati became so established as “mindfulness”. Well, mindfulness will be a result of ones practice of noting, especially during the noting…during the seeing. However, the best term translated as mindfulness is in fact a separate pali word called “sam-pajanna“, lit. ‘to know together with’ – so to know while you do something that you do it, as in this exercise:

“Furthermore, when going forward & returning, he makes himself fully alert; when looking toward & looking away… when bending & extending his limbs… when carrying his outer cloak, his upper robe & his bowl… when eating, drinking, chewing, & savoring… when urinating & defecating… when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, & remaining silent, he makes himself fully alert.

“In this way he remains focused internally on the body in & of itself, or focused externally… unsustained by anything in the world. This is how a monk remains focused on the body in & of itself. [Funny how this part gets always neglected though it seems to be the central part in the whole practice of the 4 satipatthana – but more on this one maybe another time]

“Puna caparaṃ, bhikkhave, bhikkhu abhikkante paṭikkante sampajānakārī hoti, ālokite vilokite sampajānakārī hoti, samiñjite pasārite sampajānakārī hoti, saṅghāṭipattacīvaradhāraṇe sampajānakārī hoti, asite pīte khāyite sāyite sampajānakārī hoti, uccārapassāvakamme sampajānakārī hoti, gate ṭhite nisinne sutte jāgarite bhāsite tuṇhībhāve sampajānakārī hoti.[MN 10, link]

And this concept has been moved to the forefront in many essays about Theravadan (sati-) meditation.

Even if sati and sampajanna go together, the unclear understanding of sati lead to such strange believes that if you just ate your ice-cream with intense scruteny and would deeply “mindfully” indulge into your emotions while eating it, you would practice for enlightenment. While this way of observation definitely intensified the sense impressions (due to the simple fact of strong concentration) it does little to actually see the rising and falling of those sense impressions. You could say that this ability/wisdom(3), to eventually see the rising and falling (appearing and disappearing) of sense impressions is the demarkation line between proper practice of sati according to the suttas and indulgence in sensual pleasures with hightened concentration.

It is this wisdom of seeing the rising and falling which will make the mind turn away from samsara, sure, realizing its frame like structure makes the movie’s compelling story and its grasp on our minds fade and dispassion and eventually freedom will result – bhavanirodho nibbanam. While the Buddha explained this pretty clearly he also said that there can be something called “wrong sati” or miccha sati (wrong attention) – So, quite contrary to popular believe, mindfulness per se is not “inherently good” – if it does not go to the root of the experience it might easily turn into some form of … shall we say Tantrism? Definitely a deeper enjoyment of the sensual experience due to strong concentration but without the disillusioning effect of samma sati – a noting which needs to be done in the right fashion (i.e. in an un-identifying manner, deconceptualizing).

Unfortunately, while eating that ice-cream and just “being with the activity” we are carried away by a stream, a wave of sights, tasts, feelings, thoughts – which we do not see as such: We outright identify with them in every moment; object and consciousness establishing reality which we grasp/become and this is where our thirst is working  – it’s not the ice cream’s fault that we suffer…so when people start thinking of what they have to give up in order to overcome their craving – right there, right at that moment, right in that very thought alone lies freedom and bondage – Mara binding them to existance they suffer when the ice melts. And death smiles knowing you won’t escape – or you smiling, because you already did escape 🙂

(1) A recent discussion on a similar thought here and here . This is how i would reconcile these two positions: The aspect of memory/remembering which Ven. Thanissaro focuses on is the aspect of noting/labeling using a concept like “form, form” or “feeling, feeling” to stop the proliferating process of the mind in its tracks. Concentration is needed to not get overwhelmed by overpowering sense impressions and to at least find some temporary footing at a meditation object. However, the use of names to unlock the mystery of name-and-form in this vipassana exercise has as its goal to create an extreme clear vision (nanadassana) of what is happening in each moment of the interplay of the five groups of grasping in each moment of being/life. So yes, it is bare attention, but not in an indulging sense but rather in a very controlled and precise deep way. A method which will after diligent application create a direct experience/seeing of the rising and falling of all sense impressions/5 groups of grasping leading to the peace of nibbana as described above and other places.

(2) guess where the Burmese ‘re-discovered this practice from’ 🙂 – while the ZEN Buddhists were fascinated by Visuddhimagga’s (actually Vimuktimargas see comments below) concentration/jhanic/dhyanic/chan/zen aspects, the Burmese were even more impressed by its explanations about how to reach full enlightenment by insight meditation).

(3) Terms like these show the more active and “knowing/knowledge through observation” quality of “panna” or “wisdom” as it is usally translated  moving it much closer to the practice of sati then any form of abstract knowledge: manasikārakusalatā paññā – wisdom from proper attention, āyatanakusalatā paññā – wisdom from skill with regard to the senses, paccuppannānaṃ dhammānaṃ vipariṇāmānupassane paññā udayabbayānupassane ñāṇan – wisdom through a following-seeing of objects in the present moment as they change, follow-seeing of the appearing and disappearing.

(4) Two most interesting book on this topic are “In the mirror of Memory”  edited by Janet Gyatso (esp. Collette Cox’ article), a wonderful compilation of all kinds of Indian sources on the connection between sati

…Mindfulness is chosen here not, as in many cases, to avoid confusion with the psychological function of smrti as memory, but precisely for the opposite reason; that is, to indicate at the outset what this chapter will illustrate: that the contexts for the operation of smrti suggested by the term mindfulness actually encompass the psychological functions of memory as they were understood within Indian Buddhism. [link]

and memory and “Mindfulness in Early Buddhism” by Tse-fu Kuan. Just don’t forget to practice 🙂

Next in this series: Coming back to remember: Sati II


UPDATE: For those of you who found this post via a search engine or direct link, I would like to invite you to read the following post on yoniso manasikara” and “understanding vipassana” in addition to the above article. The closer you look at sati the more obvious it is how “remembering” (one’s object) is essential to what samma sati was intended to mean and how that faculty of the mind, which keeps us on an object is utilized for jhanic meditation as well as in observation of the six sense-spheres. You might also be interested in Malunkyaputta’s Vipassana instruction. Please also check out How To Really Cleanse Your Mind as it focuses on the memory aspect for sati even further with some influence on my understanding due to great Sutta Dhamma talks by Mahamevnawa monks in recent months.

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