Archive for the ‘Bhavana’ Category

wallpaper-164121The Buddhist world has seen its fair share of “gurus” and “masters” who introduced “secret meditation techniques” and found instructions nobody had ever seen before because they “allegedly” got lost or distorted over time – only to be (re-)introduced by the new spiritual leader, usually with side effects in favor of the discoverer commonly known as “lābhasakkāra“. But that could not be further from the Buddha’s Dhamma:

Buddha: ” Now, Siha, make a proper investigation. Proper investigation is good in the case of well-known men like yourself.””

General Siha: “I, Lord, am even exceedingly pleased, satisfied with that which the Lord said to me : ‘ Now, Siha, make a proper investigation . . . like yourself.’ For if. Lord, members of other sects had secured me as a disciple, they would have paraded a banner all round Vesali, saying : ‘ Siha, the general, has joined our disciplehood.'”

Buddha: For a long time, Siha, your family has been a well-spring to the Niganthas (Jains). You will bethink you to give alms to those who approach you ? ”

General Siha: ” I, Lord, am even exceedingly pleased, satisfied with that which the Lord said to me : ‘ For a long time, Siha, your family . . . those who approach you ? ‘ I have heard, Lord : The recluse Gotama speaks thus : ‘ Gifts should be given, to me only, not to others should gifts be given ; gifts should be given to my disciples only, not to the disciples of others should  gifts be given. What is given to me is alone of great  fruit, what is given to others is not of great fruit ; what is  given to my disciples is alone of great fruit, what is given to the disciples of others is not of great fruit.’ But then the Lord  urged upon me giving to the Niganthas too. Indeed, Lord,  we shall know the right time for that. So I, Lord, go for a third time to the Lord for refuge and to dhamma and to the Order of monks. May the Lord accept me as a layfollower going for refuge from this day forth for as long as life lasts.” [1]

The idea of such a secretive teaching – only open to the initiated – is truly missing from the picture the suttas paint of the time when the Dhamma was taught by the Buddha himself – and no matter how excited you might be about modern mainstream Buddhism – once you familiarize yourself with only a few original discourses of the Buddha – you will immediately start to see and feel that incredible rational, carefully questioning, personally investigative teaching which makes modern interpretations of Buddhism sometimes seem wildly out of touch – not just with reality but indeed, with the most ancient form of Buddhism. The teaching we can study in the ancient discourses of the Buddha will probably remind you of … wait a second! … some kind of scientific methodology in analysing life and then again some kind of pragmatic engineering practice when it comes to solving the mind-body machinery’s suffering. But I am getting off topic 😉

Back to the topic: For anyone still searching for the “lost key” or “secret passageway to Nirvana” I highly recommend a look at the following extremely “mundane” discussion between two senior disciples of the Buddha as recorded and passed down in the Pali Canon, at least 300 BC:

[Anuruddha & Sariputta discuss meditation]

Anuruddha: “Brother Sariputta with the divine eye, which is clarified and supernormal, I am able to perceive a thousandfold world system. My energy is strong and inflexible; my remembrance is alert and unforgetful; my body is calmed and unexcited; my mind is collected and unified. Yet my mind is still not freed, without clinging, from the defiling taints (asava).”

Thereupon Sariputta replied: “When you think, brother Anuruddha, that with your divine eye you can perceive a thousandfold world system, that is self-conceit in you. When you think of your strenuous energy, your alert mindfulness, your calmed body and your concentrated mind, that is agitation in you. When you think that your mind is still not liberated from the cankers, that makes for scruples in you. It will be good if the revered Anuruddha would discard these three things, would not pay attention to them and would instead direct his mind towards the Deathless-element (Nibbana).”

Having heard Sariputta’s advice, Anuruddha again resorted to solitude and earnestly applied himself to the removal of those three obstructions within his mind (AN 3:128), more: Wheel 262, BPS.

wallpaper-1189895This passage is remarkable (besides the fact that it haunted me for the last 20 years). I cannot remember how many times it came up when I had discussions about progress in meditation with various friends and students. But just recently it hit me that what we see in this episode and which I was most consciously unaware of is the fact this itself, is a documented case of someone seeking and receiving (!) meditation instructions at the time of the Buddha.

It may or may not be such a novel thought for you. But please take some time and really think about it. There is something truly remarkable about the fact that we get a direct peek into the (typical?) way meditation interviews where conducted at the time of the Buddha. Now, there are arguably many more similar instances (Buddha giving Rahula instructions, monks coming to the Buddha asking for personal instructions etc.) but in many of those cases it could be argued that they serve the purpose of a more philosophical discussion than literal instructions on meditation practice. Such a case is really hard to make when you read the above exchange between Sariputta and Anuruddha. There seems to be no other way you can take this as just what it is: a meditation interview.

In this short sutta, there is nothing real philosophical. The style is prosaic, no-nonsensical, non-mystical, pragmatic in its approach regarding the discussion of meditation obstacles. Its prosaic direct style is similar to other sutta passages but here clearly no philosophy is discussed. What Sariputta says is exactly what he means. He takes in Anuruddha’s problem and gives him an advice. Their topic is pretty serious. We can be sure that if this text was transmitted correctly, Sariputta does not just make a joke. His meditation advice which to us might sound “ZEN” style is probably exactly how meditation interviews were conducted at the time of the Buddha. It probably also show us that pointing out hindrances and trying to get rid of them was mentioned and applied in exactly the very same manner. You DID exactly what you HEARD and there was no “secret silver bullet” in between the two. Some secretly transmitted extra layer of instruction which is now lost forever. This will also explain why people nowadays are so confused about “missing” jhana instructions when they are, literally, all over the place staring the reader in their eyes – but unfortunately not in a format which lends itself to a modern reader lacking the mindset (or context) of the Pali texts. This would be the perfect job for a generation of new translators!

This should seriously give us to think. If we were to interpret this episode as indeed to be a record of how a “typical” meditation instruction went down, then this would unlock a lot of other parts in the canon. Passages which would then have to be read in the very same way straight forward (non-commentarial) way: i.e. at face value, making the search for some “hidden” or “newly to be developed” meditation system unnecessary or even questionable (at least if you take the Buddha-Dhamma as your teacher, that is). It should also trigger our inquisitive nature into “trying out sutta practices” which before we just looked at as “spectators” – not realizing that what we read are actual DIY instructions.

So Venerable Anuruddha, obviously at this point quite knowledgeable in the fourth jhana and experienced in directing his mind (abhininnāmeti) towards some, let’s say “special skills” born out of the power of a very concentrated mind, struggles with the part for which he undertook his training – Nirvana – and is puzzled why the very path (which is as such described in numerous suttas all over the tipitaka) that lead him to the fourth jhana and such exalted mental powers – does not automatically lead to Nirvana.

Consider another important observation: The way Ven. Anuruddha is displayed in this text (including Ven. Sariputta) borders on the comical. The text has no problem to depict these Buddhist icons in such a struggling human way – which is very encouraging as to its authenticity and in stark contrast to commentarial exaggerations like Buddhaghosa’s hard-to-digest Dhammapada hagiography. Instead here we have one practitioner who was able to replicate an experiment (=Sariputta) and another stops by to ask why his perfect setup is failing (=Anuruddha). He is then told that he is too worried or taken in by his own experiential setup and that he should not lose sight of the main goal over the side-effects of his operation.

wallpaper-2334520But unlike later Mahayana sources which enjoyed outright ridiculing Sariputta (cf. Lankāvatara….) as the pinnacle of Arahant-wisdom – in this present old Indian record the story is short, unembellished, getting to the point, recording a valuable lesson which helped Anuruddha accomplish the highest goal for which the Buddha actually started teaching: Nirvana.

If this is a meditation interview, you should seriously consider and think about the Gelañña Sutta in the Samyutta Nikaya. If you ever wondered what a meditation instruction from the Buddha would look like when you could go and visit him with a time machine, or when the Buddha would give a 10 day retreat and explain the exercises: The Gelañña Sutta  sutta should prepare you well enough and leave nothing to wish for – even without a time machine. Well, in a certain way, it IS a time machine…

Surely, all of the above (especially after reading the Gelanna Sutta) raises the question (again) of how contemplation played part in the meditation techniques at the time of the Buddha, how all of the above is related to “sati” (remembrance, aka ‘mindfulness’) and memory in general as well as “thinking and reflecting” as “vitakka vicara” as a tool for increased mindfulness and how its intrinsic connection with the experience of jhanic bliss, happiness and calmness is bound so much more holistically to the development of insight when compared to the current (bluntly mechanical) mainstream Theravada practices of vipassana (with a few exceptions of course, here and there).

Consider this:

Sitting down, closing your eyes, the meditation on Anapana-sati according to the sixteen steps outlined by the Buddha is a case in point. If you start at the beginning 😉 the exercise is pretty clear: From the outline describing how you should sit and observe the breathing carefully – the exercise is clear. For the pure novice, it will likely take weeks/months to pass beyond this point. For the experienced meditator it will take only seconds to a few minutes until his mind’s continuous  observation falls into a lock-step with the inhaling and exhaling. Automatically – as a necessity – the fully continued awareness of the breathing process will lead to a heightened awareness of all the subtleties in the breathing process.

So far the first two steps happen naturally and just require training. They are logical, inviting for self-investigation (ehi-passiko) one of the principles of the Dhamma and can be affirmed by anyone who ever gave it a try (paccattam veditabbo viññūhi).

After that the Buddha’s exposition in the Anapanasati sutta switches from a passive (relative – it still needs a lot of skillful exercising to achieve this) observation (pajāṇāti) to a very active approach: in Pali the Buddha now has the meditator “train himself” (sikkhati) to feel the whole body while breathing and then calm down the activity of the body (which manifests itself to the meditator quite clearly as the breathing ) – the more he calms down his breathing, the stiller the mind. This is similar to the idea of a surfer standing on a surf board, highly aware of his posture, board and waves, maybe in an intuitive way if he is very skilled – but the effect is the same: while the surfer stays on the board, the meditator stays with full awareness on his breathing, body and relaxed and calm mind … at that point it is just a question of time (and usually not very long) that mental elation, bliss, pīti comes into the picture -which again the exposition of the Buddha explains as the next stage in sutta on breathing meditation.

Thus here in the Anapanasati Sutta too we find clear meditation instructions which have only one (well maybe more than that, but mainly one) big hindrance to be recognized as such: the clarity of the translator to recognize the instruction as such and phrase it in such a modern equivalent way so as to make it recognizable to be a pragmatic instruction and not a “philosophic discussion”. As you may have guessed, this works best when your experience backs your translation effort. To this end, it would probably be easier if you’d walk into a bookstore and found 50 different translations of the Middle Length sayings – such a competition would probably drive the investigation and deep analysis of the Buddhist texts which – being what they are – is mostly going to benefit their practical application and will less result in theological hair-splitting (as revelation based religions are in danger of).

Unfortunately we do not have such a variety of translation efforts (yet) but that might change in the future. The main situation to keep in mind is that in the current environment it is important to remember the amazing clarity the original texts preserve while at the same time  centrifugal forces of entropy (whether through Western cultural nihilism or Eastern monastic hedonism ;-)) make it easier for us to miss the simple, straightforward, highly pragmatic core teachings of the Buddha.[2]

wallpaper-772514Therefore: I highly suggest to carefully read about the experiment from those who actually succeeded in it (before all others who had an easy time repeating empty words). One example: Reading the Theragatha or Therigatha can reveal a host of information from a very pragmatic side. Just one quick example: the never ending discussion how to interpret the jhanas is beautifully captured by “first hand” experiences like this one and are a wonderful record to compare against your own experience:

Lahuko vata me kayo phuttho ca pltisukhena vipulena

Tulamiva eritam malutena, pilavativa me kayo”ti

Light, varily, feels my body filled with joy and bliss

Like a cotton ball carried by the breeze, floating… [Thag 1.399]

When you read how the first generation of “investigators” (savakas, i.e. listening (sic!) students) carefully replicated the path in themselves with tremendous success try to take most of their meditation records (can’t avoid that historical entropy and noise in any communication) so literal that your personal investigation will lead you to find out what produces the very same results and what does not. It is only logical that for you to succeed in this, you have to know the path well enough before attempting to walk it. Provided such knowledge and paired with a determined pragmatic mindset you will sooner than later see the path re-appear by itself.[3]




[1]‘‘Dīgharattaṃ kho te, sīha, nigaṇṭhānaṃ opānabhūtaṃ kulaṃ, yena nesaṃ upagatānaṃ piṇḍakaṃ dātabbaṃ maññeyyāsī’’ti. ‘‘Imināpāhaṃ, bhante, bhagavato bhiyyosomattāya attamano abhiraddho, yaṃ maṃ bhagavā evamāha – ‘dīgharattaṃ kho te, sīha, nigaṇṭhānaṃ opānabhūtaṃ kulaṃ, yena nesaṃ upagatānaṃ piṇḍakaṃ dātabbaṃ maññeyyāsī’ti. Sutaṃ me taṃ, bhante, samaṇo gotamo evamāha – ‘mayhameva dānaṃ dātabbaṃ, na aññesaṃ dānaṃ dātabbaṃ; mayhameva sāvakānaṃ dānaṃ dātabbaṃ, na aññesaṃ sāvakānaṃ dānaṃ dātabbaṃ; mayhameva dinnaṃ mahapphalaṃ, na aññesaṃ dinnaṃ mahapphalaṃ; mayhameva sāvakānaṃ dinnaṃ mahapphalaṃ, na aññesaṃ sāvakānaṃ dinnaṃ mahapphala’nti. Atha ca pana maṃ bhagavā nigaṇṭhesupi dāne samādapeti. [Mahavagga, Vinaya Pitaka]

[2] Simile: Imagine Einstein discovered the Relativity Theory and everyone becomes so fascinated by the term “relativity” itself that they start writing books about the “relativity” of the color red on the back of a ladybug. While that’s experiental as well, and has something to do with “relativity”, it’s not what Einstein meant. Yes, you are laughing, what an absurd idea. But that is what happened to some very popular interpretations of Buddhism in the West. Take the term “interconnectivity” as a wild (and completely out of context) speculation on paticca samuppada. Similarly, in the days of the Buddha we meet – in the suttas – a generation of lay people and renunciants who, carefully investigating the Buddha’s “theory” of Dhamma by trying to replicate his experiment of “Awakening” carefully re-build his set of instruments, i.e. the noble eightfold path. We can witness and admire their entire honest, humble and utterly critical investigation into the truth the Buddha discovered – and it is sad, that still to this day, many Buddhist’s have such little exposure to the original discourses of the Buddha.

[3] Hoti so, āvuso, samayo yaṃ taṃ cittaṃ ajjhattameva santiṭṭhati sannisīdati ekodi hoti samādhiyati. Tassa maggo sañjāyati. So taṃ maggaṃ āsevati bhāveti bahulīkaroti. Tassa taṃ maggaṃ āsevato bhāvayato bahulīkaroto saṃyojanāni pahīyanti, anusayā byantīhonti. [AN IV, Patipada Vaggo. Yuganaddha Sutta]

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Imagine you being a surfer. Even if you have never actually surfed, just imagine for a moment standing in the ocean, close to the beach, holding your board in both your hands, looking out at the sea, watching the waves. Let’s imagine you are a very practiced surfer, so your mind will note all the little details, feels comfortable with it and is in sync with the wind and the waves and your body. You notice and register all the details: How the water washes up your body, how the waves lift and sink your board, you feel the water currents, the wind and the reaction of your own body to it all. You are also aware of your mind, your reaction when you see a promising wave come closer, your anticipation…

All you are waiting for is that perfect moment, where your training, the wave and your board become one. But you also know, for that to happen, a lot of patience will be necessary. Whenever you feel a wave could carry you along for a ride, you try to catch it, ride with it, climb up on your board and find the balance.

But most of the time, you are thrown off the board even before the wave becomes strong enough to carry you or before you find your right balance.

Eventually though, once in a while, the conditions match perfectly. There is a wave, having built up in the water, rising higher and higher, unblocked. At the same time you and your board are ready. The wave comes and you catch it, it pulls you along, now you get up on your board – carefully but routinely – until you stand with your two feet on top of that board and you feel the feeling of joy and bliss as you are riding on the force of nature.

Finding and surfing the jhana is a very similar activity. However, in the case of the jhānas (“igniting, kindling”), it is you yourself who creates the waves or kindles the flame of concentration.

Here, in concentration meditation (samathā bhāvanā, calmness development) your meditation object (or rather its mental perception) is your surf board. You have to really know your meditation object well, like you have to get to know your surfboard. You have to have a good grip of it and most important of all: you have to learn to find your balance on the object without getting thrown off the topic especially by the five sens(ual) impressions.

Secondly, there is lots of patience and practice necessary. You have to get an intuitive feeling to know when the conditions are right. You also have to find the right spot in the ocean, away from the cliffs and rocks (mental hindrances). All of this, however, comes through continous practice. Sure, it will definitely help to have a surfing master as your teacher but even he is no substitute for practice, practice, practice. So while he will make sure that you hold the meditation surfboard properly, that you (technically at least) pull yourself on top of it, it is your dedicated practice rounds which make you better and better. Here too we can note, that if your technique is wrong your effort will be misdirected and it will take very long for you to succeed. At the same time, if your technique is correct, but you dont put enough effort into the sport, you will not get very far. Eventually though, you will have learned jhāna meditation like you learned how to ride a bike, go ice-skating or learned to balance waves. That does not mean, of course, that you will always catch a deep wave of bliss, but the probability of a good and long ride will be greater.

In order to become a master of concentration meditation you will have to get up on your meditation object a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand times – only to be shaken off again and again. The mind will go in all 6 directions…images, sounds… thoughts will cause you to loose your balance.

But when you did master the jhanic experience you are more like the experienced surfer, who does not care at all – not in the slightest, when he is not in top form one day or when he falls from the board more often than usual, because you are confident in your skills and you know that you can do it. You remember the days when you began, when part of your failure was your lack of confidence in your skills and that the only solution was lots of practice and as many successful “rides” as possible. The more successful “flight hours” of jhanic gliding you can collect, the more confident and experienced your mind becomes and the easier and more natural it will be to “light the flame” of samādhi.

Then you will also know, that the crucial moment is when you are up on that board and you have to find your balance.

The meditation object, like the surfboard in the water, is not a solid block of stone…it is alive, obviously, like anything mental, it is movement and flux. Balancing on a wave comes closer to what you have to do than for instance if you compare it to riding a bike. You need to find the strength and intuitive skill to stay on it as long as it takes to make your “ride” become almost self-sustained. The upasampajja viharati as the Buddha calls it, “having attained he dwells” is the mark of a jhanic experience where the effort of finding mental balance with the help of a meditation object turns into the “autopilot” like experience of deeper concentration which seems to go on without any effort, i.e. “a state”.

Once you reach a certain speed and are comfortable with your balance the wave will come and lift you up, higher and higher and now you are surfing along, experiencing the bliss of the first jhana. It is interesting to note, in this regard, that the better your balance will be, the stronger that wave is going to be experienced.

At this point, to stay with the picture, the second jhana would resemble that smooth sailing along as the wave starts to falter and you finish your surfing by gliding and floating along on the last impulses of that former wave.

Just at that moment, when the second jhana/phase of your surfing experience cannot get any calmer and smoother, a trapeze would appear in front of you, hanging down from a helicopter, just in front of you…so you would grab that bar and it would lift you gently out of the water, now making your movement even more so a floating experience while the splashing sea falls further and further away down below.

Finally in our story, the fourth jhana is you way up in the sky, looking down at the ocean with great remoteness and calmness, alert of your situation, but at the same time so remote and equanimous of what goes on down there. You reached the perfect vantage point for observation. But this post is more about the starting point of your journey, the first jhāna, and its connection to a (mental) act of balancing.

At this point, let me go back to the surfer in the waves, who is waiting to catch a good ride and is constantly trying to balance himself on that little board. The balancing act which takes place in the mind of a meditator resembles the activity which all of you have experienced when you play a common memory game with your friends or kids. It is the game known as “I packed my bag” where you have to memorize a list of items which you take with you on vacation. Each one of you, in turn, has to imagine putting something into his bag and the other has to repeat that list and add one more item…after some time, the list gets longer and longer, you are getting into that strange position, where you are desparately trying to hold onto that mental collection of a list. That effort, that energy[1] that skill of not loosing something mental, something you need to keep in memory, that challenge, that desire to sustain it, to be and remain with it, that in fact is sati (remembrance )[2]. And it is indeed the same skill which allows you to balance out the little shocks and tremors while you are getting up on that board of your meditation object trying to stay on it as long as you possibly can while the “six animals” of the senses pull at you. Now you can see, why the Buddha, in that simile of the six animals (which I can only highly recommend)  mentioned the satipaṭṭhānas as the objects for concentration[3] Understanding the role of memory as the faculty of keeping a mental object in the presence of the mind and therefore a prerequisite for concentration meditation might also explain, at least to some extant, why we see the Buddha would sometimes define sammā sati with the skill or ability of recollecting what was heard or done a long time ago. In the following quote you can also see how effort+keeping in the mind=lead to samadhi:

Saddhassa hi, bhante, ariyasāvakassa evaṃ pāṭikaṅkhaṃ yaṃ āraddhavīriyo viharissati – akusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ pahānāya, kusalānaṃ dhammānaṃ upasampadāya, thāmavā daḷhaparakkamo anikkhittadhuro kusalesu dhammesu. Yaṃ hissa, bhante, vīriyaṃ tadassa vīriyindriyaṃ.

‘‘Saddhassa hi, bhante, ariyasāvakassa āraddhavīriyassa etaṃ pāṭikaṅkhaṃ yaṃ satimā bhavissati, paramena satinepakkena samannāgato, cirakatampi cirabhāsitampi saritā anussaritā. Yā hissa, bhante, sati tadassa satindriyaṃ.

‘‘Saddhassa hi, bhante, ariyasāvakassa āraddhavīriyassa upaṭṭhitassatino etaṃ pāṭikaṅkhaṃ yaṃ vossaggārammaṇaṃ karitvā labhissati samādhiṃ, labhissati cittassa ekaggataṃ. Yo hissa, bhante, samādhi tadassa samādhindriyaṃ. SN Apanasutta, Indriyasamyutta (PTS 5.225, 5.197) et al.

[The power of exercising]

Verily of the faithful, Sir, noble disciple can be expected that he will dwell arousing effort – to get rid / reject unhelpful (mental) objects, to attain to beneficial mental objects, to be very firm and strongly advancing and not giving up on beneficial (mental) objects. Such effort of his, Sir, that is the faculty of (right) effort.

[The skill of keeping in mind]

Verily of the faithful, Sir, noble disciple who applies his effort can be expected that he will remember (lit. be having rememberance), equipped with the highest prudence of remembrance, remembering what was done or spoken a long time ago. That which is his rememberance, Sir, that is the faculty of (right) remembrance.

[The gained faculty of concentration]

Verily of the faithful, Sir, noble disciple who applies his effort and has established his remembrance (ability to keep an object in mind) can be expected that he attains concentration letting go of (external) sense-objects[4], the mind’s one-pointedness. [5]

It is fascinating in this regard, quasi coming full circle back to the beginning discussion of how the first jhana resembles an act of balancing (a mental object) in the present moment, that we find the Buddha mentioning learning texts and Dhamma thoughts in one breath with building up mental concentration, by using such verbs as “anuvitakketi, anuvicareti” which themselves are found in the description of the first jhana.[6]

It does not surprise then, that Buddhaghosa in his description of how to attain a jhanic experience requires you to pick a “thought” or “name” for instance for the meditation object of “earth” to guide you into the absorption. Have a look at the following passage from the Visuddhimagga which shows in a powerful way how everything we mentioned before  falls together in this very very simple but straightforward exercise of holding a mental object in the presence of the mind (here a visualization of earth, light etc.) while at the same time applying the power of a dedicated thought/name/label to fixate the mind on the object. This is done by “repeating” (i.e. keeping in mind !) our object of attention and focusing on the mental perception (mental image) of a disk of earth:

Apica vaṇṇaṃ amuñcitvā nissayasavaṇṇaṃ katvā ussadavasena paṇṇattidhamme cittaṃ paṭṭhapetvā manasi kātabbaṃ. Pathavī mahī, medinī, bhūmi, vasudhā, vasundharātiādīsu pathavīnāmesu yamicchati, yadassa saññānukūlaṃ hoti, taṃ vattabbaṃ. Apica pathavīti etadeva nāmaṃ pākaṭaṃ, tasmā pākaṭavaseneva pathavī pathavīti bhāvetabbaṃ. Visuddhimagga, I, par. 57

Whatever name for earth he likes, be it “pathavī” (earth), “mahī” (Great One), “medinī” (Friendly One), “bhūmi” (Ground), “vasudhā” (Wealth-Provider), “vasundharā” (Wealth-Bearer), etc. – whichever suits (supports) his (meditative) perception, that he should say. However, “pathavi” (earth) is the common name (used), therefore applying the common (name) one develops meditation (thinking/labeling) “earth, earth”. (This authors transl. Cf. Nyanamoli’s in his Vism. IV, 29. [7]

The same entrance to the jhanas can of course be achieved with any other meditation object. Whether it is “Buddho, Buddho – if you think Buddhanussati; or “Long breathing in, long breathing out” if you think Anapanasati or even look at other religious traditions (Ave Maria, Visualization of light in Yoga, Tibetan Visualizations) etc etc… the same principle is successfully applied to generate internal concentration through the force of uninterrupted (narrow) recollection.

Having said all that, the surfing metaphor is just one among many other similar “balancing activities” which work well in describing what needs to be done and what can be expected when taking up concentration meditation – especially for those of you who have never meditated or think of meditation as something super-mystical.

You might want to compare your physical balance finding experience (which you most likely had as a child) with the list below and then you might be surprised to see how much of that experience actually resembles what you are trying to achieve in jhāna meditation.

  • How to ride a bike
  • How to glide on a skateboard
  • Ice-skating
  • How to ride on rollerblades
  • Balancing Beam

Don’t forget:  proper technique, lots of patience, and never stop exercising!

Dhp. 35


1.) Sammā viriya, anyone? 🙂 See the quote in the next paragraph.

2.) Though this particular case (kid’s game after all) may not be an example of sammā sati (or right remembrance on the path to Nibbana) due to the fact that your mind is moving back and forth on that list, moving back and forth between sense impressions and thus will not be able to collect and concentrate into a “state” it still gives you a good preliminary “feel” for what is necessary to “keep the mind tugged continuously” on an object(ive).

3.) which Dhammadinna mentions explicitely as objects for sati leading to samadhi in the famous MN Culavedallasutta.

4.) vossaggārammaṇaṃ karitvā “letting go of sense objects” – lit. “letting go” (vossagga) + “object” (ārammana) + “having done” (karitvā). I am not following the more commentarial explanation that this implies letting go of all senses and therefore indicates a nirvanic samādhi (More detail on this in Patisambhid 2.96). The passages where samādhi is explained in the suttas don’t seem to mention Nibbana in any way and even add paññā on top of this list (see next footnote). Looks pretty straightforward to me, simply indicating what a samādhi is -> a moving away from the outside objects by letting go of them and narrowing the mind down on (mental/inner) one (eka)  point/peak.

5.) In case you are missing “vipassanā” in this important list, have a look at parallel passages where sammā samādhi is augmented by a definition of samatha supercharged vipassana: “‘‘Katamañca, bhikkhave, samādhindriyaṃ? Idha, bhikkhave, ariyasāvako vossaggārammaṇaṃ karitvā labhati samādhiṃ, labhati cittassa ekaggataṃ – idaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, samādhindriyaṃ. ‘‘Katamañca, bhikkhave, paññindriyaṃ? Idha, bhikkhave, ariyasāvako paññavā hoti udayatthagāminiyā paññāya samannāgato ariyāya nibbedhikāya, sammā dukkhakkhayagāminiyā – idaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, paññindriyaṃ. Imāni kho, bhikkhave, pañcindriyānī’’ti. Navamaṃ.

6.) Almost as if memorization becomes a precursor/utility for meditative mental training: “So yathāsutaṃ yathāpariyattaṃ dhammaṃ vitthārena paresaṃ deseti, yathāsutaṃ yathāpariyattaṃ dhammaṃ vitthārena paresaṃ vāceti, yathāsutaṃ yathāpariyattaṃ dhammaṃ vitthārena sajjhāyaṃ karoti, yathāsutaṃ yathāpariyattaṃ dhammaṃ cetasā anuvitakketi anuvicāreti manasānupekkhati. AN 3.361 (PTS). What is interesting here is the sequence. Teaching others, quoting to others, chanting, reflecting the Dhamma which as (it was) heard and memorized (yathāsutaṃ + yathāpariyattaṃ). This little list shows how the Dhamma was considered to be internalized. At each of these stages pīti was said to be able to arise and lead to concentration. All these activities are applications of the memory. Anuvitakketi and anuvicāreti seem to denote a more contemplative mental activity (cf. the “Yaṃ kho, bhikkhu, rattiṃ anuvitakketvā anuvicāretvā divā kammante payojeti kāyena vācāya ‘manasā’” and also in “tappatirūpī ceva kathā saṇṭhāti, tadanudhammañca anuvitakketi, anuvicāreti, tañca purisaṃ bhajati” where they seem to just indicate simply “pondering and reflecting” vs. the more limited or rather disciplined application of “keeping one thought” in mind, as mentioned in the examples above (“buddho, buddho,…”; “earth, earth,…”;”long in, long out,…”) where we find them expressed with a form of sikkhati (evaṃ sikkhitabbaṃ – thus you have to train).

7.) To me, this is one of the most important paragraphs in Buddhaghosa’s Vism on jhāna practice. It outlines the application of a label/name in combination with the primary meditation object (the form or visualisation of earth, which is nothing else than a “saññā”, a mental perception. The same thing is done when applying oneself to breath (here breath becomes the saññā or meditative perception) and a thought is used to keep the mind fixed to it, to keep it in mind, to establish remembrance, non-forgetfulness (of the object) which in turn leads to samādhi. The same process can be applied to any other samathā meditation object, for instance in mettā bhāvanā, just to name some important ones, it is the “perception of friendship” which becomes the meditative object and a thought (the shorter the better) is used to tug the mind to it and keep the mental perception in the forefront, to make it grow, shut down the external sense perception and give rise to samādhi. Nothing mysterious, esp. not for those who learned how to ride a bike 🙂

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Is the practice of vipassanā the application of viriya (energy), sati (mindfulness), samadhi (concentration) but only when it generates wisdom (paññā), more specifically ñāṇadassana (knowing and seeing)?


The Sutta-Pitaka has a couple of texts which are not the word of the Buddha but close reporters. They originated and developed during the first 100 to 300 years after the parinibbana of the Buddha, such as the Theragatha, Culla- and Mahaniddesa, Patisambhidhamagga, Nettipakarana, Petakopadesa and Milindapanha. Although traditionally considered “canonical” they show traces of further developing pali, new terminology and efforts of systematization.

Thus they shed a very profound light on the early teachings of the Buddha as they supplement the Buddha’s own explanations from different angles with additional expressions, explanations. In fact they contain the understanding of Buddhism as present during the first few generations of “Buddhist meditation masters”. This is very helpful, because the more explanations on some of the profound concepts  in the teachings of the Buddha we can get the better we can understand their implications and meaning.

In the Cullaniddesa (which is a thesaurus style commentary on another text from the discourses of the Buddha), for instance, we read this beautiful passage. It is a comment on the Parayana-vagga of the Sutta-Nipata:

The Pali Text


‘‘Yāni sotāni lokasmiṃ, Sati tesaṃ nivāraṇaṃ;

Sotānaṃ saṃvaraṃ brūmi,paññāyete pidhiyyare’’.

Whatever streams there are in this world, mindfulness hinders them;

I tell you what blocks them, it is through wisdom that they are stopped.

The paraphrasing early commentary explains:

Sati tesaṃ nivāraṇanti. Satīti yā sati anussati paṭissati sati saraṇatā dhāraṇatā apilāpanatā asammussanatā sati satindriyaṃ satibalaṃ sammāsati satisambojjhaṅgo ekāyanamaggo – ayaṃ vuccati sati. Nivāraṇanti āvaraṇaṃ nīvaraṇaṃ saṃvaraṇaṃ rakkhanaṃ gopananti – sati tesaṃ nivāraṇaṃ.

“Mindfulness hinders them”. “Mindfulness”, is that mindfulness which is an observation, returning attention, mindfulness, carrying, non-floating [altern. repetition], un-forgetfulness, mindfulness, faculty of mindfulness, power of mindfulness, mindfulness as component of awakening, the direct path – this is called mindfulness.

Paññāyete pidhiyyareti. Paññāti yā paññā pajānanā vicayo pavicayo dhammavicayo sallakkhaṇā upalakkhaṇā paccupalakkhaṇā paṇḍiccaṃ kosallaṃ nepuññaṃ vebhabyā cintā upaparikkhā bhūrī [bhūri (ka.)] medhā pariṇāyikā vipassanā sampajaññaṃ patodo paññā paññindriyaṃ paññābalaṃ paññāsatthaṃ paññāpāsādo paññāāloko paññāobhāso paññāpajjoto paññāratanaṃ amoho dhammavicayo sammādiṭṭhi. Paññāyete pidhiyyareti – paññāyete sotā pidhīyanti pacchijjanti na savanti na āsavanti na sandanti nappavattanti. ‘‘Sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā’’ti jānato passato paññāyete sotā pidhīyanti pacchijjanti na savanti na āsavanti na sandanti nappavattanti. ‘‘Sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā’’ti jānato passato paññāyete sotā pidhīyanti pacchijjanti na savanti na āsavanti na sandanti nappavattanti. ‘‘Sabbe saṅkhārā anattā’’ti jānato passato paññāyete sotā pidhīyanti pacchijjanti na savanti na āsavanti na sandanti nappavattanti. ‘‘Avijjāpaccayā saṅkhārā’’ti jānato passato paññāyete sotā pidhīyanti pacchijjanti na savanti na āsavanti na sandanti nappavattanti. ‘‘Saṅkhārapaccayā viññāṇa’’nti…and so forth

“It is through wisdom ( knowing) that they are stopped”. “Wisdom”, that is the wisdom which is a knowing, examination, breaking apart, un-heaping the things  (see Thag 593), marking, up-marking (tagging), back-marking, skill, proficiency, experience, expertise, thought, on-looking, wisdom, wiseness, insight, clear-sight,  clear comprehension (lit. “together-knowing”), a spur, a knowing , the faculty of knowing, the power of knowing, the skill of knowing, confidence of knowing, the light of knowing, the shining of knowing, the lamp of knowing, the jewel of knowing, the unbewilderedness, the unheaping of things, the right view.

“It is through knowing that they are stopped” – it is through knowing that these streams are shut down, come asunder, do not flow, do not rush on, do not proceed, do not continue. “All formations are impermanent” thus knowing and seeing for such a one through wisdom these streams are shut down, they come asunder, do not flow, do not rush on, do not proceed, do not continue. “All formations are painful”, “All formations are impermanent”, “Ignorance based are the formations”, “Formation based is consciousness”…[dependent origination]….thus knowing and seeing for such a one through wisdom these streams are shut down, they come asunder, do not flow, do not rush on, do not proceed, do not continue.

[CullaNiddesa – Parayanavagga, pi]

A very enlightening paragraph, IMHO…here we can see that “sati” is defined as  the faculty of staying with an object and the concept of paññā is brought in (as a separate additional notion) and points towards the actual insight creating part of insight meditation!

Such a differentiation between sati and paññā would explain why the suttas see sati so close to the concept of samadhi.

Sati, most commonly translated as “mindfulness”, serves more or less as a foundation – together with viriya (energy) and samadhi (concentration) for ultimately the development of paññā (or “wisdom”, “knowing reality as it is”), as indicated in the above quote.

We could then take a step further and think of the paññā- or knowing-part in our vipassana practice as the actual “labelling” or “noting” activity which identifies the object, “tags” or “marks” it (sallakkheti) so to speak, to facilitate a seeing of the frames instead of the motion picture of existence, while sati just makes the mind stay with this mode of observation, holding it back from sinking or immersing into the storyline again, the identification, the creation of mental proliferation (papañcā) in varying degrees (understood as taṇhā, māna, diṭṭhi).

In other words:

Sati, as a faculty of memory appears in the early pali texts and commentaries as the ability to stay with an object (“saraṇatā dhāraṇatā apilāpanatā asammussanatā, i.e. “remembering, keeping, non-floating or repetition, non-loosing”).

Together with viriya, or energy, it allows the mind to raise concentration or samādhi. These three forces are said to be standing on the shoulders of each other* – which is also represented in the way we find them listed in the noble eightfold path.

Here it is sati’s only function not to immerse or sink into an object but to continuously follow it or carry it.

The identification with an object leads to the “floating with” objects and happens when we loose our awareness (sammosa), i.e. we become forgetful of the task at hand, forget to repeat. In this case our effort in an ongoing attention at the setup of experience itself, not its content. (Very much unlike concentration, where it is sati which keeps the attention one one particular object of concentration, a sense object. In insight meditation the attention is not at one particular sense object at the expense of all others – the attention is at the process itself, disecting it forcefully with applied paññā, i.e. sam+pajaññā). So in vipassanā we have shifted from the “normal” state of mind, which is attending ANY of the six sense objects’ content via concentration which meant attending only ONE selected sense object to now attending to the PROCESS of experience itself.

However, in order to do that – and to loosen the compelling story-telling force of the six sense objects (including thinking!!) we need paññā here in form of tagging/marking of some sort to quickly “know”, “recognize” something as what it is, “see” it and let go of it immediately. If we were to attend to any of these objects longer than necessary we are already proliferating inside the context of a content provided (even if we think in thoughts of the Dhamma) and thereby miss the actual role of paññā: seeing anything(!) as coming, going, painful in its unreliable nature, void of control, self-less, fake.

When we get carried away by the “story” the sense objects tell us (in our vipassana meditation), we therefore first loose our wisdom (paññā), then our concentration on the process, then our sati and eventually our energy. In fact, you could also view it the other way round: each of these mental skills developed props up the other one. Only by aligning them properly, paññā is able to do its job.

Therefore sati is said to be the power of observation, of not slipping into the objects but to be constantly aware of one (samatha) or their process (vipassana). An ability which first is trained, then mastered and eventually comes natural to (and in increasing amounts via Stream-Entry up to) the Arahant due to his freedom.

Here is the most fascinating aspect though: While this is probably no new information, the role of paññā as indicated in this text is separately defined from mindfulness.

Here, paññā is not just a mere synonym for sati or mindfulness! Yes, it almost looks as if sati alone is not the factor per se developing wisdom and enlightenment – at least according to the interpretation of a passage as quoted above.

Here, it appears, that in a sequence of strengthening faculties such as effort, mindfulness and concentration eventually a certain form of knowing or paññā has to be established in order to “realize” the four noble truth. This distinction between sati as support for concentration and sati with regard to a mode of observation leading to wisdom could be the reason for so much confusion with regard to the role of samātha vs. vipassanā meditation. Both need make use of the last three members of the noble eightfold path, but especially vipassana goes beyond in directing the developed (and concentrated) mind to the source of suffering in order to achieve wisdom.

That determining of the source and elements of existance is not something – or so it seems – that “just” happens to appear by mere observation of the conventional content and storyline our senses present to us as the finished product of their activity.

In the Buddha’s words, we might add, it is “yoniso” manasikāro not just “manasikāro” which is essential. It is the attention which goes to the source (yoni, lit. womb) of existence not simply attention (manasikāra) or even worse an attention which is a-yoniso – basically that kind of attention we use all day long, when we drive our cars, speak to other people, etc. There to “sati” and “manasikāra” are at work, but they further the delusion of permanence and personality.

So it is true, both samathā or concentration meditation and insight meditation need mindfulness: Both of them need ongoing observation. However, while the samathā meditation needs sati to stay with its one object (not necessarily applying paññā), the vipassana practice does not generate wisdom merely by utilizing sati.

Now that is a problem (for certain circles of vipassanā practice, especially in the weakened, wisdom-stripped form we find in the West). If sati alone would make us enlightened then sati would be the last member in the noble eightfold path, not samadhi. If samadhi alone would make us enlightened then there would be no mentioning of yathābhūta ñāṇadassana, or yoniso manasikāro, there would be no need to name the nexus of paticcasamuppada or the intrinsics of the mechanism of now, when consciousness is propped up by name and form. No need for sammādiṭṭhi and sampaññā and no need for entire Sutta collections like the book on the six sense spheres or the five groups of grasping.

But because these things  have to be seen, because they are the key for sati&samadhi to drill into, they make the cornerstone of Buddhist practice and obviously get mentioned more than anything else in the Tipitaka.

And because by looking at the 3D 6D movie of life in a way as to identify its individual frames and not fall for its story, it is paññā, the knowing, which is at the heart of vipassanā in form of developing ñāṇa (insight) and dassanā (seeing).

But it is not as mysterious as it sounds. Because indeed, if you go through the Cullaniddesa/SuttaNipata quote above you will see that what is understood as the practice of developing paññā or wisdom/insight in the early pali texts is ultimately linked to the practice of viriya, sati, samadhi as a manifestation of yoniso manasikara (attention which looks to the origin) or yathabhuta nyanadassana (the knowing and seeing of things as they present themselves, as they have come into existance).

An analogy. These three factors of the noble eightfold path which comprise “bhavanā” or “meditational development” are used as some sort of a laser. But any good laser is only as good as the work it is put to. It needs to be directed properly. This laser is not “Buddhist” by nature, but the direction it was pointed to, and the object it was applied and the person who understood why this would make a fundamental difference, indeed, was uniquely Buddhist. What is that direction? Obviously, the 4 noble truths, summarized in short as: the five groups of grasping, our obsession with them  and the true nature of their characteristics, which, if seen without making any exception, will lead to a transcendental (literally) experience.

The directing of this laser in the appropriate fashion is the wisdom part of the training. And the technique used – and here of course disagreement might abound – is some form of noting/labeling/naming/recognising/marking/calling out the characteristics of our experience, i.e. the five groups of grasping. But this is something which, if you get to this point in your own personal practice, you can of course find out easily – what method helps you best in not getting drawn into the ruminations of your 6 (!, again, including thinking!) senses, the tricky show they put up to pull us in – so far, personally, I haven’t seen anything working better than the noting technique esp. if used with a very limited set of labels (see this article, my favorite on the topic).

So, the bottom line is this, I guess: Sati supports Samadhi. Neither of them alone make the Christian mystic who experiences the Brahma Viharas in jhanic experiences an Arhant. Samadhi was practiced before and after the Buddha and observation, sati, if not sustained by concentration, is a weak laser, unreliable to uncover the fabric of existance not enough to support the generating of wisdom. The Buddha’s diamond to cut through delusion is wisdom, as in sila, samadhi, panna. And that paññā, while resting heavily on energy, mindfulness and concentration is knowing the nature of our experience as it presents itself to us. Again, not attending the s t o r y of our six senses but h o w they fabricate that story which keeps us trapped between longing and rejecting.

Lets close with some voices from the Commentaries…

Yaṃ viditvāti yaṃ dhammaṃ ‘‘sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā’’tiādinā nayena sammasanto viditvā.

“What one has experienced” – whatever object one has experienced, noting (lit. touching) it in this way “sabbe sankhara anicca” and so forth

Yaṃ viditvā sato caranti viditaṃ katvā tulayitvā tīrayitvā vibhāvayitvā vibhūtaṃ katvā, ‘‘sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā’’ti viditaṃ katvā tulayitvā tīrayitvā vibhāvayitvā vibhūtaṃ katvā, ‘‘sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā’’ti… ‘‘sabbe dhammā anattā’’ti…pe… ‘‘yaṃ kiñci samudayadhammaṃ sabbaṃ taṃ nirodhadhamma’’nti viditaṃ katvā tulayitvā tīrayitvā vibhāvayitvā vibhūtaṃ katvā.

“What one having experienced/learnt/got to know one proceeds mindfully” is having made the  experience, having weighed it, examined it, having developed it, having made it distinct; “all formations are impermanent” thus having made the experience, having weighed it, examined it, having developed it having made it distinct (vi-bhūta).

“all things are not-self”..etc..”whatever is subject to arising all that is also subject to cessation” thus having made the experience, having weighed it, examined it, having developed it having made it distinct.

…and the commentary on the Samyuttanikaya’s chapter on sense impressions contains a remarkable summary of vipassana instructions as they were known to Theravadin practice during the time of the commentaries (100 BC to approx. 300AD). This will be part of another separate post but here a straight forward translation as it adds some perspective to everything mentioned before:

So ‘‘vipassanaṃ paṭṭhapessāmī’’ti upādārūpakammaṭṭhānavasena cakkhupasādādayo pariggahetvā ‘‘ayaṃ rūpakkhandho’’ti vavatthapeti, manāyatanaṃ ‘‘arūpakkhandho’’ti. Iti sabbānipetāni nāmañceva rūpañcāti nāmarūpavasena vavatthapetvā, tesaṃ paccayaṃ pariyesitvā vipassanaṃ vaḍḍhetvā, saṅkhāresammasantoanupubbena arahatte patiṭṭhāti. Idaṃ ekassa bhikkhuno yāva arahattā kammaṭṭhānaṃ kathitaṃ hoti.

He thinks: “I will begin with the practice of vipassanā” and whatever form he has taken up by practising his meditation object having caught it from the eye, ear, etc. entrances he designates (points out, defines = vavatthapeti) it so: “This is the group of form” and if it is a mental entrance “This is a formless group”**.

Thus, having designated ALL of these so: “this is just name, just form” according to them being name-and-form, he develops (increases) his clear-sight (vipassana) having searched for their cause/origin/support, he attains the Arahantship by and by through seeing (sammasanto is lit. “touching”) the formations.


*Thus satipatthana could be understood as sati+patthana, the mindfulness and its objects. Sati directed towards the five groups of grasping is sati aiding in the development of wisdom (whereas sati applied on an object like “light” aids in the development of concentration on light, it is here that sati applied on the nature of the body, sensations etc. it aids in the concentration on the nature of reality, sparking insights into the mechanics of the five groups of grasping, developing detachment and finally release).

**This paragraph has a LOT to say about ancient vipassana practice and is very condensed in its description. A couple of notes: The meditator seems to make up his mind to start with vipassana (probably under the guidance of some meditation teaching preceptor) and then takes ANY of the six senses sense impressions as he “catches” (pariggaheti) them through one of the six sense organs (pasāda) and “designates, points out, determines” (see definition of vavatthapeti in the PED), i.e. he “labels” or “notes” them in this way: “This is a form” – if his awareness catches the object-aspect of the five groups of grasping and he labels “This is not a form” when he catches feelings, perceptions, intentions, conscious awareness of the object  (anything “subjective”) and notes that too.

This way he basically just experiences the five groups of grasping simply as what they are: namely “names” (or name evoking, see Nyananandas discussion on this in his first Nibbana sermons, anything “subjective”) and forms (the “objective” reality). By seeing them in this fashion he becomes aware of their foundation and relationship (paccaya) which is the interplay between name-form and consciousness. When he proceeds in this way, so the commentary, he eventually will realize arahantship (at the end of the path) by relentlessly “touching” or “observing” all formations in this manner.

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One may wonder why and how the modern vipassana movement was revived a little bit more than a century ago in Burma.

When we look back at the history of Theravada countries in the 19th century, many of these countries actually went through a phase of pali revival. The printing presses and first Asian publishers, supported by a wake of national identity and longing for independance, started to pickup Buddhist texts and support Buddhist causes. Knowledge disseminated quicker, easier. Burma’s leadership in pali studies was definitely a role model for Thailand and Sri Lanka. Reading the commentaries of course helped scholastically inclined personalities to further their knowledge, but eventually practically inclined monks soon focused their attention on the Visuddhimagga.

Some old temples in Sri Lanka give a prime example of this. If you go through their libraries you will be astonished to see how many printed editions of pali texts can be found which all originated around the same time as the vipassana system was revived in Burma. When this first Buddhist reformation was slowly underway (partially as a response to the relentless efforts of Christian missionaries) the Visuddhimagga with its chapters on samatha and vipassana meditation became a center point of interest.*

Not only does the Visuddhimagga (“Path to Purity”) explain concentration meditation in a very detailed fashion – at least giving you some bright ideas where to start – the same is true for insight meditation and references on its characteristics as explained in the later chapters of the Visuddhimagga.

Still, reading the Visuddhimagga (or in any translations) is a daunting adventure. Scholastic platitudes abound.

However, there is one reason why reading the Visuddhimagga especially in pali can be of added value: Many of the associations which are implicit can only be detected with some prior knowledge of the suttas and their terminology. These references are difficult to uncover when studying a translation (which had to deal with dry scholasticism and commentarial grammar) although Ven. Ñāṇamolis footnotes do a great job in this regard.

This is why recently I was struck when reading  the chapter on Bhanganupassana in the Visuddhimagga in pali. My first thought was: Is this a different book?!

This is where the journey starts:

738. Puna udayabbayañāṇe yogo kimatthiyoti ce? Lakkhaṇasallakkhaṇattho. Udayabbayañāṇaṃ hi heṭṭhā dasahi upakkilesehi upakkiliṭṭhaṃ hutvā yāthāvasarasato tilakkhaṇaṃ sallakkhetuṃ nāsakkhi. Upakkilesavimuttaṃ pana sakkoti. Tasmā lakkhaṇasallakkhaṇatthamettha puna yogo karaṇīyo.

Again yoking to the insight of rising and falling has which purpose? The purpose of noting/labelling/marking the characteristics [lit. ‘Noting the Notables’].

Because before the insight of rising and falling was besmeared with the ten defilements one was unable to note/label/mark the three characteristics as they really are (as they appear)**.

The next paragraph is not that important for our discussion, but I added it anyway, this time in Bhikkhu Ñāṇamolis translation, just so you get the context…

739. Lakkhaṇāni pana kissa amanasikārā kena paṭicchannattā na upaṭṭhahanti? Aniccalakkhaṇaṃ tāva udayabbayānaṃ amanasikārā santatiyā paṭicchannattā na upaṭṭhāti. Dukkhalakkhaṇaṃ abhiṇhasampaṭipīḷanassa amanasikārā iriyāpathehi paṭicchannattā na upaṭṭhāti. Anattalakkhaṇaṃnānādhātuvinibbhogassa amanasikārā ghanena paṭicchannattā na upaṭṭhāti. Udayabbayampana pariggahetvā santatiyā vikopitāya aniccalakkhaṇaṃ yāthāvasarasato upaṭṭhāti. Abhiṇhasampaṭipīḷanaṃ manasikatvā iriyāpathe ugghāṭite dukkhalakkhaṇaṃ yāthāvasarasato upaṭṭhāti. Nānādhātuyo vinibbhujitvā ghanavinibbhoge kate anattalakkhaṇaṃ yāthāvasarasato upaṭṭhāti.

Now the characteristics fail to become apparent when something is not given attention and so something conceals them. What is that? Firstly, the characteristic of impermanence does not become apparent because, when rise and fall are not given attention, it is concealed by continuity. The characteristic of pain does not become apparent because, when continuous oppression is not given attention, it is concealed by the postures. The characteristic of not self does not become apparent because, when resolution into the various elements is not given attention, it is concealed by compactness.

However, when continuity is disrupted by discerning rise and fall, the characteristic of impermanence becomes apparent in its true nature. [See our discussion on this in a prior posting]. When the postures are exposed by attention to continous oppression, the characteristic of pain becomes apparent in its true nature. When the resolution of the compact is effected by resolution into elements, the characteristic of not-self becomes apparent in its true nature.***

740. Ettha ca aniccaṃ, aniccalakkhaṇaṃ, dukkhaṃ, dukkhalakkhaṇaṃ, anattā, anattalakkhaṇanti ayaṃ vibhāgo veditabbo. Tattha aniccanti khandhapañcakaṃ. Kasmā? Uppādavayaññathattabhāvā , hutvā abhāvato vā…

And here the following differences should be understood: the impermanent, and the characteristic of impermanence; the painful, and the characteristic of pain; the not-self, and the characteristic of not-self. Herein, the five aggregates are impermanent. Why? Because they rise and fall and change, or because of their non-existence after having been.

‘‘Yadaniccaṃ taṃ dukkha’’nti (saṃ. ni. 3.15) vacanato pana tadeva khandhapañcakaṃ dukkhaṃ. Kasmā? Abhiṇhapaṭipīḷanā…

Those same five aggregates are painful because of the words: “What is impermanent is painful”. Why? Because of continuous oppression.

‘‘Yaṃ dukkhaṃ tadanattā’’ti (saṃ. ni. 3.15) pana vacanato tadeva khandhapañcakaṃ anattā. Kasmā? Avasavattanato, avasavattanākāroanattalakkhaṇaṃ.

Those same five aggregates are not self because of the words “What is painful is not self”. Why? Because there is not exercising of power over them.

So far so good. Now comes another important paragraph:

Tayidaṃ sabbampi ayaṃ yogāvacaro upakkilesavimuttena vīthipaṭipannavipassanāsaṅkhātena udayabbayānupassanāñāṇena yāthāvasarasato sallakkheti.

The diligent practicioner (yogāvacaro)  notes (sallakkheti) all of this (tay’idam sabbampi) as it presents itself (yāthavasara-sato) ** with a knowing and observation of the rising and falling, that is free from defilements (upakkilesa) and that is an insight which follows the path.

From a vipassana meditation standpoint the translation of this last paragraph makes sense. We continue noting (labelling/marking – sallakkheti) as “impermanent” etc. whatever our mind goes to (experiences) or whatever enters our mind.

The continuity of doing so has become possible because we overcame certain mental defilements which blotted our ability to continuously observe. Furthermore our knowing is observing the arising and disappearing and the clear sight (vipassana) is following with the practice.

It is interesting to see how the Visuddhimagga in this last little paragraph draws a similar bridge between the sutta’s description of the insight process and a noting process which Mahasi later re-energizes.

But this connection becomes even more obvious when you turn the page:


741. Tassevaṃ sallakkhetvā punappunaṃ ‘‘aniccaṃ dukkhamanattā’’ti rūpārūpadhamme tulayato tīrayato taṃ ñāṇaṃ tikkhaṃ hutvā vahati, saṅkhārā lahuṃ upaṭṭhahanti, ñāṇe tikkhe vahante saṅkhāresu lahuṃ upaṭṭhahantesu uppādaṃ vā ṭhitiṃ vā pavattaṃ vā nimittaṃ vā na sampāpuṇāti. Khayavayabhedanirodheyeva sati santiṭṭhati. Tassa ‘‘evaṃ uppajjitvā evaṃ nāma saṅkhāragataṃ nirujjhatī’’ti passato etasmiṃ ṭhāne bhaṅgānupassanaṃ nāma vipassanāñāṇaṃ uppajjati.

Now, this is a pretty powerful paragraph. It starts out like this:

Having thus noted/marked, again and again weighing and examining form- (object) and non-form- (subject) related things thus: “impermanent, painful, not self”, he proceeds, his knowing having become really swift, and the formations establish (themselves) lightly/easily; and, while his knowledge is fast and the formations appear easily he does not obtain the rising, staying, persisting nor object. Quite contrary his sati establishes itself firmly in the destruction, cessation, breaking up and cessation.

For him who sees thus: “So having come into being so namely these formations cease” in this state the vipassana insight called ‘Observation of Breaking up’ arises.

{Here, for comparison purposes, Ñāṇamolis translation. It is really an excellent translation, but does not attach any importance to the way the punappunaṃ ‘‘aniccaṃ dukkhamanattā’’ti is being used.}

>>When he repeatedly observes in this way, and examines and investigates material and immaterial states, [to see] that they are impermanent, painful, and not self, then if his knowledge works keenly, formations quickly become apparent.<<

{whereas slightly more literal it would read: again and again weighing … thus: “impermanent, painful, not self”.}

So, one paragraph before Buddhaghosa tells us that a diligent practicioner (yogāvacaro)  notes/labels/observes/marks (sallakkheti) all of this (tay’idam sabbampi) as it presents itself (yāthavasara-sato)**. He was referring to the suttas ‘‘Yaṃ dukkhaṃ tadanattā’’ti formula of explaining the observation of the three characteristics but in this powerful passage he ties those two ideas closer together and says that

Tassevaṃ sallakkhetvā, punappunaṃ ‘‘aniccaṃ dukkhamanattā’’ti tīrayato

For him who thus noted, again and again observing so: “imperment, dukkha, non-self”.

…eventually the insight knowledge of bhanga or dissolution arises….(which, BTW quite a few among readers of this blog have probably experienced in their own vipassana meditation. Here a short “contemporary” word on this insight experience by Mahasi Sayadaw:

At such a stage, the arising of formations, that is, the first phase of the process, is not apparent (as it is in the case of knowledge of arising and passing away), but there is apparent only the dissolution, that is, the final phase, having the nature of vanishing. Therefore the meditator’s mind does not take delight in it at first, but he may be sure that soon, after becoming familiar (with that stage of the practice), his mind will delight in the cessation (of the phenomena) too, which is called their dissolution. With this assurance he should again turn to the practice of continuous noticing. [Mahasi Sayadaw, Progress of Insight, Chapter 6]

So our current meditative experience using a noting system as an approach to establish our attention/witnessing (sati) of the five groups of grasping seems quite in line with the Visuddhimaggas explanation at this point.

And the Visuddhimagga draws a direct connection between this insight activity and the “seeing and knowing of the rising and falling” as mentioned in the suttas, where it is said that this type of insight into impermanence serves as a  trigger to the process of enlightenment. If this is the case, than the idea of a meditation as expressed in such lines as

‘‘Sukhaṃ vā yadi vā dukkhaṃ, adukkhamasukhaṃ saha;
Ajjhattañca bahiddhā ca, yaṃ kiñci atthi veditaṃ.
‘‘Etaṃ dukkhan” ti ñatvāna, mosadhammaṃ palokinaṃ;
Phussa phussa vayaṃ passaṃ, evaṃ tattha virajjatī’’ti.

Whatever there is that can be felt/experienced, inside or outside,
Pleasure or pain, or neither pleasure nor pain;
Having known it so: “This is painful” of deceptive nature, disolving
In every moment of contact (“phussa, phussa” – lit. “touched, touched”)
Seeing its passing away, thus he there becomes disenchanted.

[Sutta Nipāta, Dvayatānupassana Sutta, v. 743, en]

..is exactly as what the Visuddhimagga sees here too: a description of meditation, rather than just a philosophical statement. A sujet for and application of meditation rather than a religious dogma or purely philosophical statement.

While we happen to be at this point: The Visuddhimagga then goes on to quote the Patisambhidamagga and makes a profound remark:

‘‘Kathaṃ ārammaṇapaṭisaṅkhā bhaṅgānupassane paññā vipassane ñāṇaṃ? Rūpārammaṇatā cittaṃ uppajjitvā bhijjati, taṃ ārammaṇaṃ paṭisaṅkhā tassa cittassa bhaṅgaṃ anupassati.

How is the observation of the breaking up of objects a knowledge with regard to insight?

The mind too, which has the form as its object, arises and breaks up. He watches the breaking up of that mind which (just) observed the breaking up of a form object.

This is really quite an amazing thing to watch/experience in vipassana. As these old texts (the Patisambhidamagga  was probably canonized around 150-200 years after the Buddha) highlight it is quite a show and a sign of an advanced state of mindfulness and skill in observation to be so un-fooled by the mind that one is even able to see the impermanence of the “watcher”. The Visuddhimagga adds:

Tassa cittassa bhaṅgaṃ anupassatīti yena cittena taṃ rūpārammaṇaṃ khayato vayato diṭṭhaṃ, tassa cittassa aparena cittena bhaṅgaṃ anupassatīti attho. Tenāhu porāṇā ‘‘ñātañca ñāṇañca ubhopi vipassatī’’ti.

“He watches the breaking up of that mind” – having seen the cessation and dissappearing of the form object with his mind, he watches in the next moment (aparena, later) that particular mind’s breaking up. Therefore the ancient meditation masters (porāṇā) have said: “He sees clearly both: the known and the knowing”

So cool 🙂 It sounds like a ZEN koan:

ñātañca ñāṇañca ubhopi vipassatī

The known and the knowing – both of which he sees clearly.

Something you can imagine an old hermit monk to have said to his disciples,  which was later recorded in the Patisambhidhamagga and is now referenced by Buddhaghosa. Which is true for many other hints these late canonical and early none canonical texts give us with regards to early Buddhist meditation practice.


*so much so, that you can find old Sinhalese editions of the Visuddhimagga with interlinear translations. Sometimes one sentence in Sinhala, one in Pali. Or sometimes the left column on each page in Sinhala and the opposite in pali.

**yāthāvasarasato – a very interesting term.

However, the fascinating rendering of yāthāvasarasato as yatha-avasara-sato needs some backing. The PED simply translates it as “to see things as they really are” interpreting it as “yathava-sarasato”. Ñāṇatiloka and Ñāṇamoli translate it in this way too.

This might remind you of the discussion on this blog on a very similar term, used by the Buddha, “yathabhuta” were I was arguing that while “as it really is” is not completely wrong, there could also be something more meditation-relevant be implied. Every time you perceive an object in your vipassana meditation it is only after the fact (when it has already become “bhuta”, i.e. “when it appeared”, “has come into existance”) that you note it. But this is the point were you have to note it immediately – stopping the mind from falling into papañcā…its creative tendency to place subject and object apart and spin a story around them.

Let’s check some other places where this term appears:

399Sammappaññāya sudiṭṭhanti hetunā kāraṇena vipassanāpaññāya yāthāvasarasato diṭṭhaṃ.

which the sub-commentary explains as “Yāthāvasarasato diṭṭhanti yathābhūtasabhāvato paccakkhaṃ viya.”

So it is really being perceived as a synonym for yathābhūta and depending on how you interpret that word it might just simply mean “as it really is” or, focusing more on the subjective side of things, “as it found entrance”/”came into” (your mind), i.e. “appears to you”, “manifested itself to you”.

***[Ñānamoli’s footnote on this runs as follows]Commenting on this Vis. paragraph, Pm. [Visuddhimagga Commentary] says:’ “When continuity is disrupted” means when continuity is exposed by observing the perpetual otherness of states as they go on ocurring in succession. For it is not through the connectedness of states that the characteristic of impermanence becomes apparent to one who rightly observes rise and fall, but rather the characteristic becomes more thoroughly evident through their disconnectedness, as if they were iron dart. [Again, another discussion on this blog as to why the interruption plays such an important role and the role of mindfulness in this]. “When the postures are exposed”  means when the concealment of the pain that is actually inherent in the postures is exposed. For when pain arises in a posture, the next posture adopted removes the pain, as it were, concealing it. But once it is correctly known how the pain in any posture is shifted by substituting another posture for that on, then the concalment of the pain that is in them is exposed because it has become evident that formations are being incessantly overwhelmed by pain. “Resolution of the compact” is effected by resovling [what appears compact] in this way “The earth element is one, the wate element is another” [ah…a form of noting?! :-)], etc., distinguishing each one; in this way “Contact is one, feeling is another”, etc. distinguishing each one. “When the resolution of the compact is effected” means that what is compact as a mass and what is compact as a function or object has been analysed. For when …states have arisen… then, owing to misinterpreting that as a unity, compactness of mass is assumed through failure to subject formations to pressure….But when they are seen after resolving themby means of knowledge into these elements, they disintegrate like froth subjected to compression by the hand. They are mere objects (dhammas) occuring due to conditions and void.

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The Pali language has a very interesting verb called “maññati”. Or rather the way the Buddha uses this verb is very intriguing.

It is related to our English “to mean” or German “meinen”. It can be translated in a variety of ways such as “to think, believe, suppose, superimpose, to imagine, to dream, to mean, to measure, to appear, to be of the opinion of“…

This little verb is sometimes used by the Buddha to express a certain attitude which we should not entertain when facing the world in our insight meditation.

In the jhanas though, quite the opposite is true: up to the point of upekkha we do put ourselves into a relationship with the world. With a very narrow and focused one but with full intention. The grasping and holding of one {usually mental} object versus other sense impressions requires a great deal of identification. Eventually, however, when our meditation enters the realm of clear-sight (vipassana) it gets transformed into a pure vision.

Having said that, what does it really mean 🙂 to “mean” something?…………………

Doesn’t “meaning” always imply an opinion? A certain attitude, thought, perception, relationship, mental concept or opinion  about/towards a thing?

Therefore, in a passage like this:

90. ‘‘Ejā, bhikkhave, rogo, ejā gaṇḍo, ejā sallaṃ. Tasmātiha, bhikkhave, tathāgato anejo viharati vītasallo. Tasmātiha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu cepi ākaṅkheyya ‘anejo vihareyyaṃ vītasallo’ti, cakkhuṃ na maññeyya, cakkhusmiṃ na maññeyya, cakkhuto na maññeyya, cakkhu meti na maññeyya; rūpe na maññeyya, rūpesu na maññeyya, rūpato na maññeyya, rūpā meti na maññeyya; cakkhuviññāṇaṃ na maññeyya, cakkhuviññāṇasmiṃ na maññeyya, cakkhuviññāṇato na maññeyya, cakkhuviññāṇaṃ meti na maññeyya; cakkhusamphassaṃ na maññeyya, cakkhusamphassasmiṃ na maññeyya, cakkhusamphassato na maññeyya, cakkhusamphasso meti na maññeyya. Yampidaṃ cakkhusamphassapaccayā uppajjati vedayitaṃ sukhaṃ vā dukkhaṃ vā adukkhamasukhaṃ vā tampi na maññeyya, tasmimpi na maññeyya, tatopi na maññeyya, taṃ meti na maññeyya.

‘‘So evaṃ amaññamāno na kiñcipi loke upādiyati. Anupādiyaṃ na paritassati. Aparitassaṃ paccattaññeva parinibbāyati. [Samyutta Nikaya, Salayatana]

…we can see that the Buddha asks us  not to entertain any “opinion” about sights nor the way we perceive sights, sounds…thoughts. Clearly, it left Dandapani puzzled, when the Buddha mentioned that his teaching is the teaching of no-view, of less concepts – even with regard to his own teaching. His teaching is the no-conceptualization-conceptualization :-), or what we call “a raft”.

Therefore in our vipassana sessions (based on proper instruction and technique) our practice should reflect the above quoted passage of the Buddha and follow along these lines:

  1. do not form an opinion about the seeing, hearing…thinking
  2. do not form an opinion or believe to be in the seeing,hearing…thinking
  3. do not form an opinion that you are apart of the seeing,hearing…thinking
  4. do not form an opinion that “seeing is mine”
  5. do not form an opinion or believe to be sights, sounds…thoughts
  6. do not form an opinion to be among them
  7. nor entertain an opinion that you are apart from them
  8. do not think, believe, opinionate that “these sights are mine“.
  9. do not form an opinion about the knowing of the seeing, hearing….thinking
  10. do not think that you are in the knowing of the seeing
  11. nor do believe or think that you are apart from the knowing of seeing
  12. nor do think that any “knowing of seeing is mine”
  13. do not form an opinion towards the contact, the moment of experience of seeing, hearing…thinking
  14. do not form an opinion to be in the experience of seeing
  15. nor do think or believe that you are apart from that experience of seeing
  16. or that the “experience of seeing is mine
  17. and even when it comes to any feeling, pleasant, unpleasant or neutral which arises based on that experience of seeing
  18. do not form an opinion about it
  19. do not form an opinion to be in (part of it)
  20. do not form an opinion to be apart from it (outside)
  21. do not form an opinion “this feeling is mine”

Hope you read carefully through that list. No redundancy but guided meditation. In fact we can see a very thorough  application of the famous formula “in the seen, just the seen” in each present moment. A clear instruction of how to face ‘it’ (i.e. what has ‘become’, aka yathābhūta, each moment).

But thats not the entire message. We can also take this as a gauge (!) when we think about our own particular vipassana technique we apply. Check for yourself, does your vipassana technique move your attention in such a direction as noted above or do you still attach to certain objects forming an opinion about them?

A proper vipassana method should therefore help us to establish a vision of insight without any opinion, any predisposition, any fabricated perception. Just letting the bare experience experience itself. Over and over and over again. This has to include the method itself…it just becomes another object of vipassana. How could such a technique look like? Venerable Nyanananda gives us a hint in the following remarkable essay:

What prevents this insight is that grasping or `upàdàna‘. Generally in the world, very few are keen on emptying the well. The majority simply draw water to make use of it. But there is no end to this making use of the water. Only when one decides upon emptying the well, will one be drawing water just to throw it away without grasping. This is the position of those who are keen on seeing the emptiness if the world, and it is they that are fully appeased in the world. The word `parinibbutà‘ in this context does not mean that the arahants have passed away. They live in the world fully appeased, having extinguished the fires of lust, hate and delusion. [One of the most excellent articles by Ven. Nyanananda summarizing their (Nyanarama and his) understanding of insight meditation after studying vipassana approaches for over half a century. In theory AND practice.]

With regard to the above quoted passage from the Samyutta Nikaya, could it be true that we find our entire Buddhist meditation explicitely explained in such redundant sutta passages? I’d say yes 🙂

The following text passage might serve as another example. (That is if you grant our little “iti – sallakkheti” theory, as entertained in this blog, some validity). So the question could be: do some of the most boring repetitions in the suttas in fact breath the air of pure pragmatism, if looked at from the pragmatic angle of a vipassanā meditator who needs to note anything in the same neutral way in order to make progress? Funny that such a question needs to be raised in the first place if you think about the life and teaching of the Buddha and his utter pragmatism, his focus on the three characteristics and his explanation on what will get you to the same vision and knowledge as is his…

‘‘Taṃ kiṃ maññatha, bhikkhave, rūpaṃ niccaṃ vā aniccaṃ vā’’ti?

What do you think/believe/what is your opinion, o monks, is form permanent or impermanent (does it stay or does it go?)

‘‘Aniccaṃ, bhante’’.

It is impermanent, Sir.

‘‘Yaṃ panāniccaṃ dukkhaṃ vā taṃ sukhaṃ vā’’ti?

But what is impermanent, is that satisfying or unsatisfactory?

‘‘Dukkhaṃ, bhante’’.

It is unsatisfactory, Sir.

‘‘Yaṃ panāniccaṃ dukkhaṃ vipariṇāmadhammaṃ, kallaṃ nu taṃ samanupassituṃ – ‘etaṃ mama, esohamasmi, eso me attā’’’ti?

But what is impermanent, unsatisfactory, ruled by constant change, is it smart to observe it [sam-anu-passati: together-follow-looking] thus [iti – do not skip the word!!!]

“This is mine. This I am, this is my self”?

‘‘No hetaṃ, bhante’’.

No, really not, Sir.

…{same goes for the other 5 groups/or senses}

‘‘Tasmātiha, bhikkhave,

Therefore, o monks,

yaṃ kiñci rūpaṃ

w h a t e v e r   form

atītānāgatapaccuppannaṃ ajjhattaṃ vā bahiddhā vā oḷārikaṃ vā sukhumaṃ vā hīnaṃ vā paṇītaṃ vā yaṃ dūre santike vā

be it past, future, present, inside, outside, coarse, subtle, low or refined, close to you or far away [i t  d o e s      n o t     m a t t e r – this is probably the part a vipassana teachers repeats MOST often in his instructions]

sabbaṃ rūpaṃ

all form

– ‘netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā’ti evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṃ.

have to be seen, together with full knowing, as they have become (or ‘as they are’) thus: “This is NOT mine, This I am NOT, This is NOT my self”.

Yā kāci vedanā… yā kāci saññā… ye keci saṅkhārā… yaṃ kiñci viññāṇaṃ

Again, the same goes for all other groups, i.e. characteristics of experience of a single moment in time. The experience of an object (a form), a feeling, a perception of it, an intention related to it, a knowing/bein conscious of it. No matter what they are, how they are, where they are, they all need to be treated in the same non-opinionated fashion.

Evaṃ passaṃ, bhikkhave,

Seeing thus o monks (not “meditating” or “doing jhana” etc. etc. but “seeing” pres. part. of passati, to see.) the stress lies on the way this particular seeing/vision as it was just described

sutavā ariyasāvako rūpasmimpi nibbindati, vedanāyapi nibbindati, saññāyapi nibbindati, saṅkhāresupi nibbindati, viññāṇasmimpi nibbindati;

the hearer [the one who actually listened, learned and does practice accordingly :-)], the noble follower, gets weary off (nibbindati… lit. to “not find anything in something any more” … means getting weary of a thing, to have enough of, be satiated, turn away from, to be disgusted with, loosing interest in it)

gets weary of forms, feelings….consciousness

nibbindaṃ virajjati,

getting weary his (passion) fades away (vi-rajjati, lit. de-coloring, fading away)

virāgā vimuccati.

from the fading away he is detached (released).

Vimuttasmiṃ vimuttamiti ñāṇaṃ hoti.

When released (loc abs…in the moment/right after his realization) he has this (experiental) knowledge/insight thus “liberated/freed”

‘Khīṇā jāti, vusitaṃ brahmacariyaṃ, kataṃ karaṇīyaṃ, nāparaṃ itthattāyā’ti pajānātī’’ti.

and he knows thus: “extinct is birth, lived is the holy life, done is what had to be done, there is no more of this state of being’.”

It might be partially a philosophical statement but more than that, I honestly do believe this was intended to be a meditation instruction. If you look at how the Buddha addresses the monks…it gets pretty powerful. And he also uses the gerundium daṭṭhabbaṃ “has to be seen as”. If you take it as an instruction for meditation and go through the pali there is no reason why you could not start meditating on this (even while you would hear the Buddha say it). Those of you out there, who have done some vipassana retreats before probably can relate to this idea better than others, I guess.

But again, I tried to be extremely literal, showing several alternative semantics….you might not see any meditation related context…its just that when I try to put myself into the shoes of people who sat across the Buddha…what would be the most important thing on their minds?? Honestly, what would be your thoughts? Would not you think: Please tell me more about how samsara works and how to attain that Nibbana you are talking about…well, especially when faced with samsara :

This was said by the Lord…

“Bhikkhus, the skeletons of a single person, running on and wandering in samsara for an aeon, would make a heap of bones, a quantity of bones as large as this Mount Vepulla, if there were someone to collect them and if the collection were not destroyed.”

The bones of a single person
Accumulated in a single aeon
Would make a heap like a mountain —
So said the Great Sage.
He declared it to be
As great as Mount Vepulla
To the north of Vulture’s Peak
In the hill-fort of Magadha.
But when one sees with perfect wisdom
The four noble truths as they are —
Suffering, the origin of suffering,
The overcoming of suffering,
And the noble eightfold path
Leading to relief from suffering —
Having merely run on Seven times at the most,
By destroying all fetters
One makes an end of suffering.

[Itivuttaka, I. 24]


Recommended reading: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.074.than.html

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…sounds like Zen, might be Zen, but is no Zen?

Hidden within in the scholastic bodies of ancient Theravadin commentarial literature dwell gems of wisdom taught by ancient Masters of Buddhist meditation. One such beautiful little gem, an allegory, really needs some more attention.

Everyone knows about the 10 pictures in the ZEN tradition of “Taming the Wild Ox” but only a few know that a similar story of a farmer who is out looking for his oxen can already be found in the Visuddhimagga, a commentary on Theravada Buddhism compiled about 500 AD. The Visuddhimagga, the crown jewel of commentarial literature is far more than a dry scholastic theoretical treatise. Based on the suttas, commentaries and Buddhist practice of the 1-3rd century the famous commentator Buddhaghosa put together many pragmatic meditation instructions both of concentration and insight meditation.

This particular story, the potential boilerplate version for the now famous ZEN story, appears in the Wisdom section of the Visuddhimagga, chapter XXI, and describes and compares the insight process of a meditator to a farmer’s different stages of search and discovery of his lost ox.

While in ZEN this story became quite mystical and, well, Zen-like 🙂 it is pretty down to earth and sounds Theravadin clear cut (bordering to boring) in pali. Have a look at the following few lines with an attempt in translation further below:

793. Goti ekassa kira kassakassa rattibhāge niddaṃ okkantassa vajaṃ bhinditvā goṇā palātā, so paccūsasamaye tattha gantvā olokento tesaṃ palātabhāvaṃ ñatvā anupadaṃ gantvā rañño goṇe addasa. Te ‘‘mayhaṃ goṇā’’ti sallakkhetvā āharanto pabhātakāle ‘‘na ime mayhaṃ goṇā, rañño goṇā’’ti sañjānitvā ‘‘yāva maṃ ‘coro aya’nti gahetvā rājapurisā na anayabyasanaṃ pāpenti, tāvadeva palāyissāmī’’ti bhīto goṇe pahāya vegena palāyitvā nibbhayaṭṭhāne aṭṭhāsi. Tattha ‘‘mayhaṃ goṇā’’ti rājagoṇānaṃ gahaṇaṃ viya bālaputhujjanassa ‘‘ahaṃ mamā’’ti khandhānaṃ gahaṇaṃ, pabhāte ‘‘rājagoṇā’’ti sañjānanaṃ viya yogino tilakkhaṇavasena khandhānaṃ ‘‘aniccā dukkhā anattā’’ti sañjānanaṃ, bhītakālo viya bhayatupaṭṭhānañāṇaṃ, vissajjitvā gantukāmatā viya muñcitukamyatā, vissajjanaṃ viya gotrabhu, palāyanaṃ viya maggo, palāyitvā abhayadese ṭhānaṃ viya phalaṃ.

The “ox”. Once there was a farmer, as they say, who in the night became overwhelmed by sleep and his oxen broke through the fence running away.

When we woke up in the early morning and went to where he kept his oxen he realized that they had run away [“palātabhāvaṃ ñatvā” – having known their running-away-nature]. Then he followed their tracks and saw the king’s oxen. He labelled [sallakkheti]  them “These are mine” (mistakenly) and took them with him. Later, when the sun had come out, he realized (sañjānitvā) “Not are these my oxen, they belong to the king”. When they will catch me thus “He is a thief” the king’s men will make me come into distress and misfortune. I will therefore quickly send them away. Full of fear he quickly ran away and later, free of fear found a place to rest.

In this story grasping the king’s oxen thus “my oxen” is the same as the foolish worldling’s grasping of the groups (khandhas) thus “I, mine”. The realization in the morning (when the sun came out) with “These are the king’s oxen” is similar to the Yogis realization of the groups thus “impermanent, suffering, non-self” with the help of the three characteristics. The time he is afraid resembles the arising of the insight knowledge of fear and the wish to expel them is similar to the insight knowledge of desire for freedom. The actual dismissing them is the gotrabhu-insight knowledge. Their running off is similar to the attainment of Nibbana (magga) and when he ran away, that place free from any fear is a synonym for the fruit of Nibbana (phala, the meditative state).

This was a pretty self explaining metaphor. A nice analogy which was intended to help understanding exactly what and how we react when vipassana meditation starts to uncover the true characteristics of life. From the insight into seeing and falling, over a period of fear and disorientation to the desire to let go and the eventual freedom ensuing with the peace of Nibbana. For further information read on “the insight knowledges

If this is really the same “Meme” then it is interesting to see how 300-500 years later this story surfaces in ZEN writings in Japan. Here is a short quote on the ZEN history and Chinese whispers [ :-), the story really went through China as the Visuddhimagga or more likely the Vimuttimagga where translated in China in the 6th century and found their way into the Chinese Chan culture. Especially the pragmatic aspect of the Vimuttimagga/Visuddhimagga must have had a strong influence on Chinese Chan masters].

Among the various formulations of the levels of realization in Zen, none is more widely known than the Oxherding Pictures, a sequence of ten illustrations annotated with comments in prose and verse. It is probably because of the sacred nature of the ox in ancient India that this animal came to be used to symbolize man’s primal nature or Buddha-mind. The original drawings and the commentary that accompanies them are both attributed to Kakuan Shien (Kuo-an Shih-yuan), a Chinese Zen master of the twelfth century, but he was not the first to illustrate the developing stages of Zen realization through pictures. Earlier versions of five and eight pictures exist in which the ox becomes progressively whiter, the last painting being a circle. [Hm, should we think Nibbana?! Like in our Visuddhimagga story…]

This implied,that the realization of Oneness (i.e., the effacement of every conception of self and other) was the ultimate goal of Zen. But Kakuan, feeling this to be incomplete, added two more pictures beyond the circle to make it clear that the Zen man of the highest spiritual development lives in the mundane world of form and diversity and mingles with the utmost freedom among ordinary men, whom he inspires with his compassion and radiance to walk in the Way of the Buddha. [Sources: Here]

“Since the ninth century, students of Zen Buddhism have drawn a parallel between the individual
path to enlightenment and the story of the herder and his missing ox. There are 10 stages in the
parable, beginning with the search for the ox, in which a boy is racked with doubt because “Nothing
has been lost in the first place,/ So what is the use of searching?” In the final stage, the boy
reappears as the Buddha of the Future, enlightened. The scroll reprinted here is the oldest
known version of the Japanese Ten Oxherding Songs, dating to 1278, and the only known
example with illustrations in color along with the calligraphy. [Source: Here]

This is a beautiful clear example for the differences but also joint history of Zen-Mahayana and Theravadin Buddhist practice. But of course, not necessarily do we have a connection here. The idea of using an oxen to display levels of progress suggests it, but oxen are all over the place and taming them could have been used regardless of any older tradition.

It is funny though, that our Visuddhimagga text starts to get interesting where the Zen pictures stop. When the farmer realizes his deadly mistake, he quickly lets go of the oxen. Our Zen farmer, after bringing the oxen home, seems content. Maybe its his oxen after all 🙂

OR, if you look at some of the ZEN interpretations there are actually some which could be better understood if someone would take this Visuddhimagga text and check the pictures again…If  you follow this link you can see how the farmer now roams about, in a secure place and the oxen is gone…maybe he let it go,  like the Visuddhimagga suggests would be prudent 🙂 ! Just have a look at some of the descriptions of step 7 and 8 in the story of the oxen with the pali text.

Ox lost, man remaining

As an expression of the Theravada spirit of this Blog, however, we let our search for the oxen end in the beautiful empty circle, a synonym for Nibbana:


(1)If you were to just follow the “idea” of taming a bull and look for references in the suttas, you might come up with an article like this by Ven. Walpola Rahula. My guess is he was not aware of this particular similie in the Visuddhimagga which fits the story of the bull much better than other references to the general theme of “taming” the mind like an unruly animal. The Zen story revolves around stages of development – exactly the same ideas as in the analogy given in the Visuddhimagga – a picturesque walk through a ZEN’s version of the insight knowledge…

(2) Other references: Herding the Ox

(3) Visuddhimagga/Vimuttimagga in Chinese Tripitaka: “Samghapala (459-524 C.E.), the translator of the Chinese ver sion of the A-yu-wang jing, was a monk from the kingdom of Funan (in the eastern part of present-day Thailand), who came to China during the Qi dynasty (479-501 C.E.) and stayed at Zheng guan Monastery in the capital, where he studied Mahayana texts under the Indian monk Gunabhadra and “mastered the languages of several countries”. When Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty came to power, he invited Samghapala in the fifth year of Tian jinn (506 C.E.) to translate Buddhist texts into Chinese. In the course of the subsequent seventeen years, he translated eleven Buddhist texts into Chinese, making a total of forty-eight fascicles, including the A yu-wang jing and the Vimuktimarga, with the assistance of Chinese Buddhist monks and lay scholars under imperial patronage. In the fifth year of Pu-tong (524 C.E.), he died of illness at the age of sixty-five at Zheng-guan Monastery.”

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“Tell me, which part of the Tripitaka is the most ancient? Which part would I want to read, study and practice if I look for the most authentic instructions?”

The answer is very simple.

There are two little collections of verses in the entire Pitaka which take up a very unique position. They are kind of tugged away in the mass of teachings but here is what is so special about them:

First of all, they had already been memorized and were cherished by the young Buddhist community during the lifetime of the Buddha. How do we know? Well, there are other ancient suttas in the Tipitaka which refer to these verses as common knowledge amongst lay people and monks during Buddha’s lifetime.

Secondly these two collections are the only ones which have such an ancient commentary attached to them, that that commentary itself is now part of the Tipitaka.

And finally, after a mere 250 years, emperor Ashoka when recommending texts for study selected a few of his recommendations from these collections.

Which are those two?

The “Book of the Eights” (Atthaka-vagga) and the “Book of the Way Beyond” (Parayana-vagga).*

Having set the stage, let us focus on the Parayana Vagga for a second.

It consists of questions and answers between sixteen (young) brahmin priests who all came to see the Buddha.

When we read these verses we can see that some of the terms which would later become standard repertoire of the Buddhist teaching are still in their “infancy”, i.e. we see how the Buddha originally started using them before everyone knew what they meant and they became (Buddhist) technical terminology.

When the sixteen brahmins come to the Buddha “Ajita” starts with very general questions about the world and what might be wrong with it.

But very soon the topic moves into a philosophical/psychological arena.

Ajita wants to know why our minds make us behave like they do and the Buddha responds that that is because of the six streams, i.e. the six sense impressions.

Now Ajita is curious and wonders what one could do about that and the Buddha responds with two tools: sati (“mindfulness”/”remembering”/”witnessing”) and panna (wisdom/knowing).

But Ajita wonders: Isn’t that mental activity as well? How could we ever get beyond all streams? And the Buddha answers, you are right, eventually, what you are looking for is “viññāṇassa nirodhena** the extinguishing of the apart-knowing (vi-ñāṇa), generally known and translated as “consciousness”. It is that part of our knowing/consciousness which is able to distinguish (“vi-“, as indicated by the prefix).

Now the next brahmin priest, Tissa-Metteyya takes up the state of such a developed person and wants to know more about the attainment such an “arahant”, i.e. “worthy” person would live in.

Having attained a preliminary understanding of the Buddha’s message we enter round too of their Q&A:

The third question is from another brahmin ascetic, Punnaka, who wants to know about his and his ancestors practice. Did their rituals and worshipping, their sacrificing and prayers lead at least some of them towards that same goal the Buddha is referring to? Of course that question was bound to come. If what you are saying is right and it really sounds extremely fascinating, then what about our (ancient) religious practices and traditions.

And Buddha’s answer is a clear “sorry, no”. Fire worshipping priests of yore did not attain to that state of Nibbana… And he gives a reason as well: The very fact that wishing, desiring and hoping was ALL their practice consisted of they would never get beyond “existence”.

Mettagu, the next brahmin to ask a question is now puzzled…if religious tradition does not help overcome suffering then what is the source of all suffering according to the Buddha. If it has nothing to do with God(s) trying to challenge us or helping us in our salvation…Now we would expect a very long answer but the Buddha explains the source of all suffering there is, was and ever will be in one word:


How can this one short answer give an explanation to the complexities of life, you might ask? Once you get the implications behind the meaning of this word you are almost enlightened 🙂

Upa-dhi, literally means something on which you stand. “Upa” means “on” and the root “dhā” implies “standing”. So whenever we stand on something we create the basis for suffering. Whatever we identify with, attach with, make our self part of or foundation for ourselves this will lead to suffering. From a simple feeling, sense impression, act of volition  with which we attach and identify to the grand (composite) scale of identifying with sports cars or relationships, wealth, poverty, politics, religion etc. etc. The source of our sorrow, pain and suffering, in one word, really, is just “upa-dhi” – Making and Taking something as the foundation of yourself.
At this point in the conversation  “Mettagu” is very impressed with the Buddha’s explanations so far and is the first (but not the last one) to ask for a meditation instruction (and the reason for this blogpost in the first place) 🙂

Let’s have a look at the Buddha’s four line gatha (verse) advising Mettagu how to realize Nibbana, the freedom of suffering, the state of non-upadhi:

Mettagu asks:


Kathaṃ nu dhīrā vitaranti oghaṃ, jātiṃ jaraṃ sokapariddavañca;

Taṃ me muni sādhu viyākarohi, tathā hi te vidito esa dhammo’’.

Well how did the wise ones cross over the flood? Over Birth, Age, Sorrow and Despair?

O Sage, please explain this to me very well, because you have experienced/known this dhamma (thing, principle, etc. etc)

[This and following verses, Sutta Nipata, Chapter 5: pali]


And the Buddha says, no problem, listen well and I will explain everything to you:


‘‘Kittayissāmi te dhammaṃ, Diṭṭhe dhamme anītihaṃ;

Yaṃ viditvā sato caraṃ, tare loke visattikaṃ’’.

I will tell you this dhamma, seen in the now – not based on hearsay (history, tradition, culture…)

Which having experienced/understood it and (then) practicing it (lit. walking in remembering it)

You will cross over the world entanglements.


Now we would expect the Buddha to give us a clear, easy to understand, well defined instruction for our meditation, correct? After all, the Buddha mentioned in other occasions, that his teaching is open for all to come and see. In contrast to other teachers which have something called “the fist of a teacher” meaning that they would hold back information for only the “initiated” people, the Buddha’s Dhamma fulfills more the reasoning of science: visible and open for public scrutiny; an invitation for all to study it, see it and (if possible) replicate it.

Unfortunately, looking at most contemporary translations, you would wonder WHERE that meditation instruction has gone. It seems, as if the Buddha only leaves Mettagu with a very general description of what needs to be done. Well, you would think, “probably he explained it in more detail later, not recorded in the text”. Or did he? 

However, here is my objection: Why would a text, which was up to this verse so detailed and even modern in its dialog suddenly stop explaining on such a detailed level and introduce mere commonplaces? Especially when we see how the entire conversation is structured and culminates at this very important pragmatic point.

And so looking very closely at the following verse especially with regard to observations we made in prior blog posts*** , we really CAN decipher a clear cut meditation instruction in the next few lines, but in order to do that, we have to “update” or “revise” a couple of standard-English terms used in Pali translations. Are you ready? Let’s go:

1061. ‘‘Yaṃ kiñci sampajānāsi,
Uddhaṃ adho tiriyañcāpi majjhe;
Etesu nandiñca nivesanañca, 
panujja viññāṇaṃ bhave na tiṭṭhe.”


First, a very very literal approximation:

Yaṃ kiñci sampajānāsi … what-ever (that-whichever) you perceive (know/experience/are aware of)

Uddhaṃ adho tiriyañ c’āpi majjhe … above, below, around and in the middle

etesu – panujja …. In these (with regard to these) having given up/dispelled/removed/pushed away

  1. nandi … delight
  2. nivesana … living-in (forming a home, settling, entering into, a place to stay, settlement). I really like the psychology of this word…In your vipassana meditation you can nicely observe how you “enter and settle” into the world based on “not seeing” sense contact but falling for the movie/story-line it is weaving.
  3. viññāṇa … lit.apart-knowing (the distinguishing, mental categorizing, analysis)

bhave na tiṭṭhe … you may/will not not stand (opt. of tiṭṭhati) in “being”.


Okay, here now the entire verse:


Whatever you experience (in your meditation)

above, below around and in the middle –

Towards these any delight and entering into

Having dispelled (and) consciousness (or discriminating) –

Do not stay in the being  (i.e. moment) 


The entire setup reminds us of a couple of things: 

First of all it looks like a meditative environment. Whatever you perceive in all directions. Whatever your mind is aware of in any direction. No matter what you perceive. Think: Closed eyes, concentrated mind…and now you experience the “stream of the six senses” and it feels like the sixfold sense information is experienced in and around you. The body “below”, the “sound” around or above. The “thought” in the middle.

What should you do with that? How should you approach it? The Buddha’s answer indicates an increasing refinement: Make sure that you give up “delight” towards any of those experiences. Make sure you do not “build a house” on them…Do not “move into them”, try not to “identify” with them.

Eventually you are trying not to stay in the ever-ongoing “being” in the moment. If there “is” in the moment, then there is a “you” and a “they”. There is a birth, a sorrow and a death for “you”.

Interesting also how viññāṇa is used in this context. You can either add it to the list of nandi, nivesana and vinnana as more and more refined ways of how we build our identification in the present moment, or alternatively, if you wanted to stick with the general translation of viññāṇa as “consciousness” you could say they indicate that you should try to give up “conscious delight” or “conscious housing” in anything surrounding you.


Mettagu is very excited with this answer and wants to know if there is more, but the Buddha basically finishes his question indicating that this is all you need to practice on the way to full enlightenment.

We could be satisfied at this point with the Parayanavagga and be glad to get such a deep insight into Buddhist (vipassana/insight/sati/wisdom…) meditation. But wait! More good things to come.


Dhotaka, the next brahmin asking Buddha a question, obviously was listening to Mettagu’s instruction. Now he himself would like to get a personalized meditation instruction to attain Nibbana, that attainment/state the Buddha had described as freedom from suffering. (Beautiful are the references and metaphors on Nibbana “ākāsova abyāpajjamāno” – undisturbed like the sky/space, “santi” the peace, “vivekadhamma” the principle of solitude etc.)

It is interesting to see that when you look at Dhotaka’s question, it seems as if he is expecting a very personalized instruction.

But when we look at Buddha’s answer we see that the Buddha starts out in the same way as for Mettagu, maybe implying ‘Dhotaka, this thing is true for all people. Mettagu’s instruction was not limited to him as a person but an example of a general principle’. This, of course, might be in between the lines, but let’s have a look at the second meditation instruction which the Buddha shares with our 16 brahmin ascetics and which is not “in between the lines” but literally an instruction for meditation:

‘‘Yaṃ kiñci sampajānāsi,
Uddhaṃ adho tiriyañcāpi majjhe;
Etaṃ viditvā “saṅgo”ti loke,
bhavābhavāya mākāsi taṇha’’nti.

First two lines are identical to the previous meditation instruction given to Mettagu. This is important! Like in a mathematical formula we can now assume that the last two lines offer additional insight into what the last two lines  of “Mettagu’s instruction” stood for. Here the Buddha gives a little variation to enhance Dhotaka’s understanding of his meditation instruction given to Mettagu.

So, if your question was: How do I train my mind not to go for delight/housing in the present moment, how can I leave “bhava”, the identification of me and mine in each moment…Here is Buddha’s even more explicit answer:

Whatever you experience, above, below around and in the middle (in your meditation)

Etaṃ viditvā “saṅgo”ti loke ….Having known/experienced/perceived that,  (then think/mark/tag) “This is a shackle” with regard to the world

bhavābhavāya mākāsi taṇham … from (moment of) being to (moment of being) do not do/make thirst. Or “do not make thirst to neither being nor non-being” – bhavabhava allows both interpretations. 


The “etam viditva” refers to the first two lines. Whenever you experience something around/in you in your vipassana meditation it already occured. However, now immediately after that experience, which means immediately when you become aware of it, you are supposed to do this:

“It is a shackle”

Hmmm… Does not that just sound like a version of our good old labeling? Yes, and of course, this crucial part of the instruction only makes sense, if you try to translate the direct speech in this case as …well, direct speech/thought and do not morph it into a vague general meaning of “you have to understand it as shackle”.

If you leave it in its literal form you would actually rather tend towards a translation like the following:

“Whatever you experience of the world, above, below, around and in the middle, 

Right after having known/experienced it (know it as/think of it as/apply a label of) “This is a shackle”.

The ” … ” is indicated by the “(i)ti” which means “so” in pali and stands for a direct or indirect speech or thought. Something someone tells or thinks. ***

If you were to follow your sense impressions (streams) in this fashion, of course, you would minimize the application of thirsting for objects/content. Instead of proliferation and conceptualization you start to see through the fabric of impressions and impulses and the “rising and falling” starts to become visible. Something most of you who did some vipassana at one time in their life probably experienced.

Seeing the rising and falling is a very important step in the process of insight, as implicated in many other passages we can find in the Suttas.

As you can see from the above, this was only a very abbreviated discussion on the first few verses of the Parayana only  with a little highlighting of the meditation instructions therein. Definitely a little yet very deep text reflecting Buddhism as it was intended by the Buddha and all of that in condensed powerful verses.

I hope you enjoy reading the Parayana and let me know about your insights into its theory and application,




* Here is a wikipedia entry on those two chapters of the Sutta Nipata.

** On viññāṇassa nirodhena see other blog posts like this, this and this.

*** If you will, this entire article serves as yet another ‘evidence’ connecting the (in)direct speech/thought  particle “iti” which stands for something said or thought with the modern day application of “labeling” your experience in insight meditation practice. When you “label” something you in fact “tag” it as if “adressing” it with a short “statement” – the same idea “iti” conveys, but, Buddha’s time being an oral not a literate culture, the meaning of “label” is equivalent to the usage of “iti”. Here, here and here some prior articles on this topic.

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Famous words by the Buddha:

Vuttaṃ kho panetaṃ bhagavatā: yo paṭiccasamuppādaṃ passati so dhammaṃ passati; yo dhammaṃ passati so paṭiccasamuppādaṃ passatīti. Paṭiccasamuppannā kho panime yadidaṃ pañcupādānakkhandhā. Yo imesu pañcasu upādānakkhandhesu chando ālayo anunayo ajjhosānaṃ so dukkhasamudayo. Yo imesu pañcasu upādānakkhandhesu chandarāgavinayo chandarāgappahānaṃ, so dukkhanirodho’ti 

Now, the Blessed One has said, “Whoever sees dependent arising sees the Dhamma; whoever sees the Dhamma sees dependent arising.” And these things — the five groups of grasping — are dependently arisen. Any desire, embracing, grasping and holding-on to these five groups of grasping is the origination of suffering. Any subduing of desire and passion, any abandoning of desire and passion for these five grasping-groups is the cessation of suffering. [MN, 28]”

Intriguing, indeed. But what does it mean “to see dependent origination”?

Surely, it does not imply simply some intellectual grasp of this list of concepts which are mentioned in almost every Buddhist book.

It should be clear from this passage quoted from the Middle Length Sayings and many other instances that the concept of paticcasamuppada tries to focus on this very  present  moment – how it comes about, what it consists of and how it conditions the next moment(s).


Now we don’t know about time, but whatever present moment of reality we look at we find and recognize these factors which the Buddha explained as paticcasamuppada…and, like in layers of different abstraction [think: OSI Model] all of them rest on the preceding ones or wrap them into higher levels of complexity: Build on the background of ignorance does consciousness and name and form play through the senses. And from mere tanha for more arises via mana into full fledged views and ideas (ditthi) our ego. Not so much in time, as you can see, as in layers of complexity or papanca, proliferation. 

If you will, paticcasamuppada explains life. And every time you are able to explain something thoroughly you can manipulate it (sounds like science? Well, not materia-listic science but real-istic science.**

If you are still following conventional commentarial explanations that dependent origination mainly talks about three lives, the things I just mentioned but especially the interpretations which follow will definitely escape you. Therefore, to make most out of this post (or for later referencing) please read these articles/clarifications first, before you continue..or come back to them, in case you like to better understand what the following observations are based on:

  1. Ñāṇavīra (probably the first in modern times to note this),
  2. Ñāṇananda – discusses this in even more detail than Ven. Nyanavira from Nibbana Sermon 2 to at least Nibbana Sermon No. 6
  3. Buddhadasa – the only Thai monk who follows this refined understanding
  4. and Bhikkhu Bodhi’s abhidhammic-materialistic criticism who brings forth all arguments against seeing paticcasamuppada mainly focusing on the present moment, but could be easily refuted, IMHO).

And while you could still apply paticcasamuppada to explain rebirth, that is definitely not at its center core…If that did not become clear yet, wait till the end of this blog post :-). Wait, lets restate this: Paticcasamuppada only talks about re-birth: The rebirth which takes place in each moment. Once you understand continuity through conditions on this scale, it is kind of a given that life will go on no matter what – as long as those conditions are in place.

For the Buddha the problem did not lie in a past or future life, but the present moment.

Let me introduce you to a (maybe clumsy) simile which might make you aware of how your every day vipassana meditation can be seen in terms of navigating through the layers of paticcasamuppada:


Imagine there is a leak in a pipe or fountain and water gushes and streams out. Lets say “you” are a little ball, which dances on this fountain of water.

Every time your noting is quick and fast what will happen is that you start diving down into that fountain at various levels, sometimes closer to its source sometimes only superficial. What is the source? The birth of this very moment. Now, and now, and now….you get it.

That is why sometimes you only note concepts, emotions…the world…at a very conceptualized, proliferated level.

Here it is that you break precepts, or get into fights, that you vote for parties or fight over religious dogmas.

At other times you note your identification with these things. Further breaking into those layers of experiential abstraction at other times you note the feeling which underlies these objects.

Increasing concentration and insight further and you sometimes go as deep as contact…towards the event horizon of each current moment.

buddha1You note consciousness and name and form in its barest notability. And as we know from the definition of paticcasamuppada… the interplay of consciousness and name and form in this moment is based on intentions of the moment(s) [and yes, lifes] before…which in due course can only arise when ignorance of exactly this entire process wraps us up.


So the past is made up of myrads of moments like the present one. And because in those moments you “were” under the influence of not knowing you created intentions, preparations, determinations, creations – whatever we should call those sankharas which lead to new moments of existance like the current one. And here, in this moment again, you are wrapt up in avijja, or “ignorance” of that process of being wrapt up. And so now too, you work on the foundation for future moments. But this present moment, could be the very last.

I admit, this is difficult to understand. So yes, I just threw the common understanding (and until recently also my) understanding overboard which says that in and through vipassana we only [sic] “break paticcasamuppada at the feeling level”.

I say we can and do break into these links at various levels all the time in our vipassana sessions.

Sometimes we note a feeling. What about the rest of the 5 groups of grasping in that moment? Are the five groups of grasping chained and come one after the other in time like “moments”. No, they do not. These terms are just names to describe experience. And sometimes our awareness (part of name and consciousness) witnesses one part of itself in a moment of vipassana. But then, in the next moment, we are already at the next moment of life.

However, until we get down to the level of consciousness and name and form – we (our “I”, you remember, the little ball) is all the time pushed up again by the fountain. 

Does not that feel exactly like vipassana? Sometimes a series of extremely refined “notings” and sometimes we find ourselves caught up in larger emotions and ideas. We are delving into (i.e. recognizing)  parts of the now-reality in varying degrees of abstraction: More often emotions, ideas. Less often pure object. Even less often just the feeling of a moment. Rarely what lies beyond – where in the “contact” consciousness and name-and-form align.

So what are we trying to get to?

If in this moment we would be able to stop at the level of consciousness and name and form (where the present moment is conceived in) we would have removed the vail of ignorance, destroyed sankharas (at least for one moment) and thus “we” would extinguish the foundations for the birth of (or better “into”?) the next moment.

In that one moment the entire pyramid of life comes falling down.  Vinnanassa nirodhena … etth’etam uparujjhati…  …bhavanirodho nibbanam …sankharasamatho etc. etc.

The implications of understanding this (i.e. theoretically and even more so pragmatically) are quite numerous.(*)

We now understand what in fact we are trying to achieve in our vipassana -mindful-noting-pure-attentional mode. We understand, that it is not time (although that might be helpful) but rather skill/ability gained through pushing this mental cultivation towards the brink of experiental existance…

Have you ever tried to extinguish a candle flame with two fingers? Sometimes you need several attempts..you get closer and further away from the wick but one moment you succeed and the dancing burning fighting flame disappears… smoke (phala samapatti?) indicates the attainment but overall peace concurs.

So what is paticcasamuppada?

A description of experience (like the 5 groups of grasping and the six sense impressions). However, it also indicates the conditions keeping samsara going which, if tumbled lead instantly to the cessation of samsara. Whereas the description of the 5 groups of grasping needs additional qualifiers (groups of grasping) the paticcasamuppada is a self-sufficient explanation of the entire Dhamma.

Again, we might think of the similes of trees and seeds which the Buddha sometimes used for explaining the “sprouting” of consciousness. Each moment of life is like the sprouting of a seedling, planted by the previous fully blossomed paticcasamuppada into the tree of “suffering” and each new seedling in every moment almost instantaneously blossoms into a new tree…and so on… (like the simile of the forest, our life is a growing forest – or a forest fire, as no other trees seem to be left standing)

So with vipassana it seems as if we stop or slow down the blooming or growing of this flower/tree for a short period.

Sometimes we slow down that process just before the flowers open sometimes we delve deeper and stop the growth of its stem or even closer to its root… But we never fully succeed in stopping it at the moment where the seed touches earth. (Whether it is really a when and not a what, I leave that question open for Arahants to answer 🙂

So, in most cases we note and see one part of this process of “growth into concepts” or growth of papanca (proliferation) and each time we only succeed in slowing down for a moment.

It seems however, that that is enough, over the long course of insight meditation to do two things:

  1. We start to get an experiental understanding of the entire process of “becoming a self” in each present moment
  2. We start to get “skilled” in our reflective attention (pati-vekkhana == looking back, pati-san-cikkhati == looking back) until there will be one moment where we catch the process where consciousness gets born on grounds of the sankharas of previous moments.

The funny/paradox thing is this: as we unravel our avijja in this moment to see the beginning of this moment we – in the moment we do succeed – also destroy the very foundation for this to happen in the next moment – bam! and before you know it – cessation. Skilled cessation through the power of developed insight.

Of course, having seen that, the mind never completely functions like it did before. It found its own samsara-off switch, 😉 .



(*) Still, this article itself is floating in uncharted territory. I haven’t read the SN, Nidanavagga in quite some time but will try to provide citations to support this line of interpretation (in the next couple of months) – or make you aware of suttas which are in conflict with this paticcasamuppada interpretation.

(**) real. lat < res ‘the thing’ < > same idea in pali for dhamma

Further Reading: This is a nice read very much along the lines of recent observations made on this blog as well: The five groups of grasping as fuel for experience and DO as a description of experience not of things. Thanks, Jaya!

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[This story is part of our Arahant series.]

Once, they say, the elder Mahāsīva of ‘Mountainpeak’ lived in the city of Mahagama, in Tissa’s Abbey.

There, he taught eighteen groups of young monks in the three baskets – the traditional teachings of the Buddha as they had been handed down – in full length and according to its exact meaning. Following the elder’s instruction sixty thousand monks achieved holiness.

One of those young monks thought to himself: “O, what a blessing this happiness of salvation is! I bet our teacher enjoys it too.” And as he explored his teacher’s heart, he realized that his teacher was still a worlding, someone who was still subject to the cycle of rebirth who had not even attained to the state of a stream enterer.

The young monk thought: “Through a clever gift, I will arouse urgency in my teacher!” He left his hut and went to Mahasiva, venerating his teacher with a deep bow. Finishing all obligations of a pupil he sat down.

Then the Elder Mahasiva said to his disciple: “Why have you come, brother alms-goer?” – “’When the Venerable Sir will offer me an opportunity, I would like to learn a verse of the Dhamma (dhammapada)‘, this was my idea with which I came to the Venerable Sir.” – “Many monks learn from me at this time, brother. I do not think that there will be any opportunity for you.”

And when he had not received any opportunity from his teacher for a whole night and a whole day he went back to Mahasiva and asked him: “If you have so little time, Venerable Sir, how do will you be able to give death an opportunity?” Mahasiva thought: “This monk has not come to learn from me. He has come, to shake me up, that is why he came.

Then his disciple said to him: “Like all the other monks, o Sir, who benefited from your instruction so you too need to develop your own mind and benefit from the teaching of the Tipitaka.”

After these words he venerated his teacher a last time and vanished before his teacher’s eyes by mental power into the jewel-colored sky.

After his former student had filled him with a sense of urgency he finished all classes in the afternoon and evening. Then he prepared his bowl and robe, and after he gave a final lesson in the morning he took on all thirteen ascetic practices of purification (dhutaṅga) with firm determination and departed for the monastery of ‘Mountainpeak”. There, he removed bed and chair from his monk’s cell and made this silent vow: “Until the achievement of holiness I will not sit on a chair nor rest on a bed.”

Then he directed his mind on walking meditation with the thought: “Today, verily, will I attain holiness, today, verily, will I acquire holiness.”

Without gaining any holiness, however – despite all efforts to reach it, came along the day of the big pavarana – the full moon ceremony at the end of the three months of the rain season retreat. When he realized that he still had not achieved path nor fruit of Nirvana, Mahasiva thought: “O, how difficult is this for me, although devoted to Vipassana to attain to holiness (arahatta)!”

However, without giving up and only practicing standing and walking meditation for thirty years he applied himself to the work of a true ascetic.

One night, when the full moon disc of another pavarana ceremony lit up the nightly sky, he thought: “What is probably brighter? The bright moon or my unbroken virtue?”

And as he reflected on his virtues as a monk which since the day of his higher ordination he had not broken, not even the smallest of all rules, a deep joy and satisfaction arose in him.

On the foundation of this joy his mind concentrated and he attained the supramundane knowledges, and together with analytical knowledge, experienced the Nibbana of an Arahant.” 

Manorathapurani,  AN Commentary

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Buddha’s path

This post is based on some of the observations made in this post. It might help to understand this article.

One day the Buddha mentioned to his students that his own meditation object with which he realized Nibbana was the mindfulness or “remembering of in-and-out-breathing” meditation, short for  “Ana-pana-sati” 🙂

‘‘Ahampi sudaṃ, bhikkhave, pubbeva sambodhā anabhisambuddho bodhisattova samāno iminā vihārena bahulaṃ viharāmi. Tassa mayhaṃ, bhikkhave, iminā vihārena bahulaṃ viharato neva kāyo kilamati na cakkhūni; anupādāya ca me āsavehi cittaṃ vimucci. [SN, Mahavagga, Anapanasatisamyutta]

I too, o monks, before my awakening as a yet not fully awakened one as someone looking for awakening [i.e. bodhisatto – so all Buddhists below stream enterers are de facto bodhisattos :-). Theravada is full of them!] used to dwell quite often in this abiding. And through dwelling very often in this abiding o monks, neither did my body get tired nor my eyes; and I was released from the influxes of the mind [āsavehi cittaṃ vimucci = an expression for the attainment of nibbana. It is rather indirect and expresses one of the benefits of nibbana].

We know from many sutta passages that the Buddha entered the 4 jhanas before his insights into the 4 noble truths led to his final insights into the impermanent, unsatisfiable and ego-less nature of the world. We also know that he remembered his former lives and saw the working of the principle of karma based on that strong concentration he gained during the first part of the night. 

Is there any chance to pin down what happened when he directed his mind to the “discovery” of the 4 noble truths? Is there any other account on what he was practicing during that night? In fact we have a second account. And that is the sutta on Anapanasati. Here the Buddha talks about how to properly practice and develop meditation using breath as one’s primary object for meditation.

It is quite fascinating to see how the Buddha details this exercise which encompasses elements of jhanic meditation, vipassana, the 4 satipatthana and the 7 factors of enlightenment.

We can see how his whole system of meditation could have originated from this one exercise. Many of you probably know how one deep insight/experience allows you to talk about it in various ways. In order to share your experiential insight you can use examples, stories or come up with classifications. In a certain way that is what the Buddha did. Born from this one night in Uruvela he organized, exemplified, classified and taught the long lost path to the “inner city”.

It is important to remember: The teaching of the Buddha is only a means for a very specific final goal – the experience of Nibbana. There are many benefits on the path to Nibbana, but none of which include clinging to views and fighting for words.


Viññātasārāni subhāsitāni, sutañca viññātasamādhisāraṃ;

Na tassa paññā ca sutañca vaḍḍhati, yo sāhaso hoti naro pamatto. [Suttanipata, Kiṃsīlasuttaṃ]

Well spoken words have understanding as their essence

And what you heard and understood – it all has concentration as its essence.

But neither knowing nor learning grow,

For that man who is superficial and negligent. [Simply beautiful!]

Therefore, it appears paramount to see beyond any particular method described in this instruction and derive the key elements of practice. Once we isolate them and understand their significance we can see that although there seem to be so many pathways and descriptions on how to practice that essentially there is only one way to go.  

All instructions are nothing more than variations on the same theme – which is a combination of samatha and vipassana (or a gradual training in sila/samadhi/panya or the noble eightfold path or….) – the entire body of the Buddha – Dhamma (Buddhadharma, for you Mahayana friends out there :-). 

añño esa, āvuso, gatakassa maggo nāmāti āha [See story for details]

Remember what we said about people trying to get to the peak of a mountain: From below the peak seems so far away, and there seems to be a multitude of ways to go up there of which you have no clue which are the safest, the shortest, the longest, the steepest…no idea. You can only find out by a.) taking the hand of a trusted tour guide and/or b.) start walking. Once of course you get to the peak like the Buddha, in whatever direction you look you see a path to where you are right now. The birds eye and the knowledge of your experience allows you to guide anyone interested in climbing to the peak. 

And thus while Anapanasati is still a core exercise today for both practices – jhana and vipassana meditation – , you could essentially take any other meditation object to induce concentration (like the 4 brahmavihara, kasina, etc) after some prior training in moral restraint (the most basic form of concentration training) and enter into a form of deep continuous watching, vipassana.

Let me try to walk you through “Buddha’s meditation”. This posting is NOT supposed to be an instruction for meditation but rather an illustration of how samatha and vipassana co-operate:


148. ‘‘Kathaṃ bhāvitā ca, bhikkhave, ānāpānassati kathaṃ bahulīkatā mahapphalā hoti mahānisaṃsā? Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu araññagato vā rukkhamūlagato vā suññāgāragato vā nisīdati pallaṅkaṃ ābhujitvā ujuṃ kāyaṃ paṇidhāya parimukhaṃ satiṃ upaṭṭhapetvā. So satova assasati satova [sato (sī. syā. kaṃ. pī.)]passasati.

And how, o monks, the remembering of in-breath-out-breath, how often done will have great fruits and great benefits? Here, o monks, a monk, gone to the forest or gone to the foot of a tree or gone to an empty building and sits down with crossed legs having straightened body having set up around the nose  remembering. 

This first passage is pretty straightforward. The only remarkable thing is probably the expression “parimukham satim upatthapetva”. In general it is clear from the context what this has to mean: “to direct ones attention towards that part of the face where one can feel the breath”. Still, it is interesting to see how and what words are used. Especially in the light of recent ideas i discussed on this blog about taking a more literal look at sati, i.e. as “remembering” and then to see where that might take one. So here it says that, after finding a suitable spot for meditation and putting our body into a comfortable position for a meditation, have to set up (lit. upa-thapeti up-placing, erecting, setting up) sati. Yes, we could go with the general translation of sati as mindfulness and say to establish mindfulness around the face. In fact this implies that we need to remember, focus on the breath. Stressing the “memory” connotation of sati emphasizes that it is not just one moment of awareness which is necessary, but rather a continuous activity which we need to be actively pursued. We need to “keep the breath in mind”.  Next we will see how the Buddha helps us to get from here into the jhanas:

‘‘Dīghaṃ vā assasanto ‘dīghaṃ assasāmī’ti pajānāti, dīghaṃ vā passasanto ‘dīghaṃ passasāmī’ti pajānāti; rassaṃ vā assasanto ‘rassaṃ assasāmī’ti pajānāti, rassaṃ vā passasanto ‘rassaṃ passasāmī’ti pajānāti; ‘sabbakāyapaṭisaṃvedī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘sabbakāyapaṭisaṃvedī passasissāmī’ti sikkhati; ‘passambhayaṃ kāyasaṅkhāraṃ assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘passambhayaṃ kāyasaṅkhāraṃ passasissāmī’ti sikkhati.

[1] Breathing in long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in long’; or breathing out long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out long.’ [2] Or breathing in short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in short’; or breathing out short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out short.’ [3] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in feeling the entire body.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out feeling the entire body.’ [4] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in calming my bodily activity.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out calming bodily activity.’

This second part is split into two approaches. The first (and only in this whole meditation instruction) talks about getting to know our breath. Getting to know it as long/short or “coarse and refined”. This is the inital “getting in touch with our breathing” phase. It allows us to settle and get in touch with the point of concentration, our breathing.

Secondly the “real” training part (“sikkhati” – he trains, exercises) starts the process of inducing the jhanas. After we mentally lock the breathing with a feeling/conscious perception of our entire body the next step starts to work like a self-hypnosis: We “tell” our body to calm done even further. The breathing becomes refined – but not as a singular activity, but rather a body-encompassing ‘whole’ experience. Now we are going into the jhanas 1 and 2:

‘‘‘Pītipaṭisaṃvedī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘pītipaṭisaṃvedī passasissāmī’ti sikkhati; ‘sukhapaṭisaṃvedī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘sukhapaṭisaṃvedī passasissāmī’ti sikkhati; ‘cittasaṅkhārapaṭisaṃvedī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘cittasaṅkhārapaṭisaṃvedī passasissāmī’ti sikkhati; ‘passambhayaṃ cittasaṅkhāraṃ assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘passambhayaṃ cittasaṅkhāraṃ passasissāmī’ti sikkhati.

[5] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in feeling rapture/elation.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out feeling rapture/elation.’ [6] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in feeling  happiness.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out feeling happiness.’ [7] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in feeling mental activity.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out feeling mental activity.’ [8] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in calming mental activity.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out calming mental activity.’

It is quite obvious that the Buddha is talking about a jhanic experience here. Sorry, i need to correct. He is not talking about the experience of a jhana, he is pointing out how to archieve one. Each of these little instructions can be read like a mental determination by the meditator: “I will breath in, feeling elation”, “I will breathe out, feeling elation”.  If he already “had” gained piti and is only acknowleding the fact, we would read something like

“pītipaṭisaṃvedī assasāmī’ti pajānāti 

But that is not what the text says. We have a future form in each sentence … something expressing a wish, a “may I”. And then there is the verb “sikkhati” – the training. It almost sounds like “autogenous training”.  So after calming down the body and breathing he trains himself “may i feel piti”, “may i feel sukha”. It sounds strange that these things get spelled out, but its not that strange if you are familiar with Leigh’s or Ayya Khemas accounts of the 4 jhanas (search ‘smile’) you know that they do something very similar … for instance the famous “looking for the smile”. In fact, especially with metta meditation it is so easy to enter the jhanas because the smile of loving kindness comes with the start of the excercise, free of charge.

So here, this person is looking for the piti AFTER he connected with his whole body and started to calm it down. Then, when he IS experiencing piti and sukha he continues to the second jhana. Now it is fascinating to see, that we entered the first jhana by first “connecting with the whole body” and then by “calming it down”. The same is done here at this point once again: “Cittasaṅkhāra” might stand for the piti and sukha just experienced (or still a form of vitakka, or both). In order to go beyond those “coarse” qualities of the first jhana (i.e. into jhana no. 2-3) we need to get a mental “generalization” of them. By summarizing them as a “mental activity” or “mind representation” we transcend the piti and sukha – we move above them, away from their mesmerizing (in-drawing-grip) by simply reckognizing that they are, indeed, “just mental activity themselves” which keep us from entering even deeper states of concentration. They have fullfilled their purpose. Finally for the 2nd jhana to be established, the Buddha asks us to now calm down that “mental feeling chatter”.

From here our journey takes us to the third and 4th jhana:

‘‘‘Cittapaṭisaṃvedī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘cittapaṭisaṃvedī passasissāmī’ti sikkhati; ‘abhippamodayaṃ cittaṃ assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘abhippamodayaṃ cittaṃ passasissāmī’ti sikkhati ; ‘samādahaṃ cittaṃ assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘samādahaṃ cittaṃ passasissāmī’ti sikkhati; ‘vimocayaṃ cittaṃ assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘vimocayaṃ cittaṃ passasissāmī’ti sikkhati.

[9] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in feeling/being aware of the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out feeling/being aware of the mind.’ [10] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in deeply gladening the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out deeply gladening the mind.’ [11] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in unifying the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out unifying the mind.’ [12] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in releasing the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out releasing the mind.’

Again, after having calmed down the content of our mind which brought us to such a refined state of concentration the next step is to get in touch with an even subtler “concept” a subtler “representation” of what is going on. We determine to “simply feel the mind”. This part of the exercise might sound most familiar to our Western way of talking about “become one”, “experience the stillness of your mind” etc. etc. So, what then does the “abhippamodayaṃ” stand for? Haven’t we already gone beyond piti and sukha? It is very easy to see that these two lines are hinting at the 3rd jhana if you look at the definition for the third jhana real quick:


With the fading away of rapture dwelling equanimous,

sato ca sampajàno, sukhan ca kàyena patisamvedeti,
mindful (staying on his object/remembering it), clearly knowing it, experiencing happiness through the body,

yan-tam ariya acikkhanti. “Upekkhako satimà sukhavihàro”ti,
about which the Noble Ones declare: “He lives pleasantly, mindful, and equanimous”

tatiyam jhànam upasampajja viharanto. 
dwelling (thus) having attained the third absorption.


In turn samadaham and vimocayam would denote our intention of transcending jhana 3 and moving into an even further concentrated and equanimious state of mind, the 4th jhana. The only “strange” term here might be “vimocayam” to “free” our mind. But again, with a look at the general description of the 4 jhanas it is this quality of having gone beyond all former mental states of happiness and unhappiness (a form of freedom) that we now dwell in the 4th jhana.


pubbeva somanassadomanassànam atthangamà,
and with[case: ablativ; due to/from ] the previous disappearence of mental well-being and sorrow,

adukkhaü, asukhaü, upekkhà-satipàrisuddhiü, 
without pain, without pleasure, and with purity of equanimity-remembering [now equanimity is at the center of focus, it is pure in as much as the mind does not leave it – the constant memory (aka mindfulness) of equanimity is purified],

catuttham jhànam upasampajja viharanto.
dwelling having attained the fourth absorption. [link]


Certainly, the next step looks like the beginning of something new: Vipassana. With the “perfection” in samma samadhi comes power to examine the reality fabric of life, the 5 groups of grasping. Look at how similar this terminology is when compared to many of the short suttas on insight which we discussed in the post on “the process of awakening“. This fact actually was the main intent of going into this sutta in the first place. Let’s have a closer look how we can utilize the gained power in concentration and what the Buddha wants us to apply it to. Because, the simple “directing his mind to the 4 noble truth” is in fact (as we can see here) the major task to accomplish. Getting jhanic concentration is nothing, compared to the following work:

‘‘‘Aniccānupassī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘aniccānupassī passasissāmī’ti sikkhati; ‘virāgānupassī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘virāgānupassī passasissāmī’ti sikkhati; ‘nirodhānupassī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘nirodhānupassī passasissāmī’ti sikkhati; ‘paṭinissaggānupassī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, ‘paṭinissaggānupassī passasissāmī’ti sikkhati. Evaṃ bhāvitā kho, bhikkhave, ānāpānassati evaṃ bahulīkatā mahapphalā hoti mahānisaṃsā.

[13] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in observing impermanence.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out focusing observing impermanence.’ [14] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in observing dispassion [literally, fading].’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe observing dispassion.’ [15] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in observing cessation.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out observing cessation.’ [16] He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in observing relinquishment.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out observing relinquishment.’


So here he trains himself to see impermanence. Remember, before the text was saying that one had to feel / experience something. Happiness, concentration etc. Now, we turn towards an activity of observation – based on the breath (and many modern vipassana systems take the breath as their anchor point for observation – so does the Ledi-UBaKhin-Goenka group as well as the Nyanarama-Nyanananda-(AyyaKhema-Amatagavesi etc etc.) group of people).

If you read this sutta isolated though, you would definitely have a lot of questions. For one, the whole walk-through of samatha meditation is so clear when you know that this text refers to the jhanas – and how it does that. You can vividly imagine how each of these determinations or steps is a push into the direction of experiencing of the jhanic concentration states.

The last paragraph includes (and triggered!!) the whole gamut of what the commentarial literature generally known as “vipassana nyana” or insight stages. Let us try and hint at some of the discussions going on regarding this paragraph.

However, before you continue, here are 3 other posts which on which some of the following remarks are based:

  1. The method of noting in pali texts
  2. Additional meaning behind the term “sati”
  3. The insight passages in the Samyutta Nikaya
  4. Nirodha and Nibbana

Aniccanupassana is pretty straightforward and we it is clear as to what this term implies. Many suttas talk about the fact that we need to see the impermanence of any incoming of the five groups of grasping – in whatever form or facette they present themselves to us. Here is an explanation on Aniccanupassana in the context of the breathing meditation as explained in the Patisambhidamagga:


180. Kathaṃ ‘‘aniccānupassī assasissāmī’’ti sikkhati, ‘‘aniccānupassī passasissāmī’’ti sikkhati? Aniccanti kiṃ aniccaṃ? Pañcakkhandhā aniccā. Kenaṭṭhena aniccā? Uppādavayaṭṭhena aniccā…

‘‘Rūpe aniccānupassī assasissāmī’’ti sikkhati, ‘‘rūpe aniccānupassī passasissāmī’’ti sikkhati. 

‘‘Vedanāya…pe… saññāya… saṅkhāresu… viññāṇe… cakkhusmiṃ…pe… jarāmaraṇe aniccānupassī assasissāmī’’ti sikkhati, ‘‘jarāmaraṇe aniccānupassī passasissāmī’’ti sikkhati. Aniccānupassī assāsapassāsavasena dhammā upaṭṭhānaṃ sati anupassanā ñāṇaṃ. Dhammā upaṭṭhānaṃ, no sati; sati upaṭṭhānañceva sati ca. Tāya satiyā tena ñāṇena te dhamme anupassati. Tena vuccati – ‘‘dhammesu dhammānupassanāsatipaṭṭhānabhāvanā’’ti. –

How is “He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in observing impermanence.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out focusing observing impermanence.'” to be understood? “Impermanent” – what is impermanent? The five groups are impermanent. What is the meaning of impermanent? The meaning of impermanence is the rising and disappearing…

He trains himself: “I will see the impermence with regard to the form breathing in”. He trains himself: “I will see impermanence with regard to form while breathing out.”…feeling, perception,…Through this keeping-in-mind (sati as memory)/ through this knowing he observes these things. For this reason it was said: He develops satipatthana observing the dhamma with regard to the dhammas.

[This among many other passages shows that the Patisambhidamagga encapsulates much more pragmatic meditation-related information than it’s semi-commentarial status would make u]


Some have argued that viragananupassi and nirodhanupassi stand for the contemplation of anicca, dukkha, anatta (So an idea in Ledi Sayadaw’s book vipassanadipani). It seems unlikely at least in our case, because we find suttas where for each contemplation (on dukkha and anatta) the Buddha closes with the words that they lead to viraga and nirodho. (In fact, the sequence anicca/dukkha/anatta – seeing will lead to viraga-nirodha-vimutti is extremely frequent in all parts of the suttas. More here)

Secondly, if anicca-anupassana stands for the observation of seeing the rising and falling (=both of which are factors of impermanence) then it is equally unlikely that nirodhanupassana is again a focus on the falling/vanishing aspect of our experience. Except if we understand these 4 steps to correlate to the vipassana nyana in which case:

  • aniccanupassana –  observation of impermanence
  • viraganupassana – we start looking at it disenchanted. turning away from the middle part of a rising/persisting/falling object we get disillusioned, so much so that we start to see the ending in every moment which leads to
  • nirodhanupassana – we start to see the vanishing / dissappearing aspect more (which correlates to the bhanganyana in the commentaries). this in turn leads to 
  • patinissaganupassana – the mode of letting go and thus stands for the vipassana nyanas of adinava and muncitukamyata maybe even sankharupekkha.

An alternative interpretation for the last step in this series would look like this

  • aniccanupassana – our mode of observation (could also equally be “dukkhanupassana or anatta-anupassana”)
  • viraganupassana – a process of disenchantment starts
  • nirodhanupassana – we experience a nirodha moment
  • patinissaganupassana – we are now experiencing the phala (attainment) which made us “give up” or “let go”  or literally “throw back” all 5 groups of grasping in a very profound manner.

So while in the first “sequence” patinissaggo is part of the process of turning a moment of nirodha into a nibbana, the second interpretation seems more like the experience of the state of phala-samapatti. One could argue that both interpretations are equally valid. After all, even modern vipassana meditation masters acknowledge that the way to enter the phalasamapatti state is to simply do a determination before noting according to ones technique. This would eventually result in a nirodho where one would “jump” or “let go” and thus re-attain nibbana or dwell in an adjacent state of mind (samapatti).


Here again the Patisambhidamagga comes to the rescue and has a similar two-fold outlook on patinissaggo. Hard to tell if that subtlety is really what is meant though:

“Rūpaṃ pariccajatīti – pariccāgapaṭinissaggo. Rūpanirodhe [see also ‘Ye ca kho keci, soṇa, samaṇā vā brāhmaṇā vā rūpaṃ pajānanti, rūpasamudayaṃ pajānanti, rūpanirodhaṃ pajānanti, rūpanirodhagāminiṃ paṭipadaṃ pajānanti’ here rupanirodho is simply the vanishing of rupa, the disappearing of the sense impression] nibbāne cittaṃ pakkhandatīti – pakkhandanapaṭinissaggo” –

There are two “relinquishments…he gives up the form this is called the rejecting-relinquishment. In the destruction of form this nibbana his mind rejoices in – this is called the rejoicing-relinquishment.

Patisambhidamagga,  paragraph 180


(With regard to nirodha it is important to understand that nirodha means what it says: “cessation“. Sometimes it gets translated as “quenching” by translators in order to avoid the proximity to “destruction” but this is v e r y far stretched. If the original text does not fit our understanding maybe something is wrong with our understanding of the text. The following will make this clear.)

There has been said much more and much better on this topic of “nibbida-viraga-nirodha”. For example from the most venerable Nyanananda.  It is going to be a lengthy quote, but quite an important one. This is from his 16th sermon on Nibbana:


The worldling who attends to the arising aspect and ignores the cessation aspect is carried away by the perception of the compact. But the mind, when steadied, is able to see the phe nomenon of cessation: thitam cittam vippamuttam, vayancassànupassati, ”the mind steadied and released contemplates its own passing away”.

With that steadied mind the arahant attends to the cessation of preparations. At its climax, he penetrates the gamut of existence made up of preparations, as in the case of a flame, and goes beyond the clutches of death.

As a comparison for existence, the simile of the flame is quite apt. We happened to point out earlier, that the word upàdàna can mean “grasping” as well as “fuel”. The totality of existence is sometimes referred to as a fire. The fuel for the fire of existence is grasping itself. With the removal of that fuel, one experiences extinction.

The dictum bhavanirodho nibbànam clearly shows that Nibbàna is the cessation of existence. There is another significant discourse which equates Nibbàna to the experience of the cessation of the six sense-bases, saëàyatananirodha. The same experience of realization is viewed from a different angle. We have already shown that the cessation of the six sense-bases, or the six sense-spheres, is also called Nibbàna.

The discourse we are now going to take up is one in which the Buddha presented the theme as some sort of a riddle for the monks to work out for themselves.

Tasmàtiha, bhikkhave, se àyatane veditabbe yattha cakkhum ca nirujjhati rupasannà ca virajjati, se àyatane veditabbe yattha sotanca nirujjhati saddasannà ca virajjati, se àyatane veditabbe yattha ghànanca nirujjhati gandhasannà ca virajjati, se àyatane veditabbe yattha jivhà ca nirujjhati rasasannà ca virajjati, se àyatane veditabbe …se àyatane veditabbe yattha mano ca nirujjhati dhammasa¤¤à ca virajjati, se àyatane veditabbe, se àyatane veditabbe.

“Therefore, monks, that sphere should be known wherein the eye ceases and perceptions of form fade away, that sphere should be known wherein the ear ceases and perceptions of sound fade away, that sphere should be known wherein the nose ceases and perceptions of smell fade away, that sphere should be known wherein the tongue ceases and perceptions of taste fade away, that sphere should be known wherein the body ceases and perceptions of the tangible fade away, that sphere should be known wherein the mind ceases and percep tions of mind objects fade away, that sphere should be known, that sphere should be known.”

There is some peculiarity in the very wording of the pas sage, when it says, for instance, that the eye ceases, cakkhunca nirujjhati and perceptions of form fade away, rupasannà ca virajjati. As we once pointed out, the word viràga, usually ren dered by “detachment”, has a nuance equivalent to “fading away” or “decolouration”. Here that nuance is clearly evident. When the eye ceases, perceptions of forms fade away.

The Buddha is enjoining the monks to understand that sphere, not disclosing what it is, in which the eye ceases and perceptions of form fade away, and likewise the ear ceases and perceptions of sound fade away, the nose ceases and percep tions of smell fade away, the tongue ceases and perceptions of taste fade away, the body ceases and perceptions of the tangible fade away, and last of all even the mind ceases and per ceptions of mind objects fade away. This last is particularly note worthy.

Saëàyatananirodhaü, kho àvuso, Bhagavatà sandhàya bhàsitam. “Friends, it is with reference to the cessation of the six sense-spheres that the Exalted One has preached this sermon.”

When those monks approached the Buddha and placed Venerable ânanda’s explanation before him, the Buddha ratified it. Hence it is clear that the term àyatana in the above passage refers not to any one of the six sense-spheres, but to Nibbàna, which is the cessation of all of them.

The passage in question bears testimony to two important facts. Firstly that Nibbàna is called the cessation of the six sense-spheres. Secondly that this experience is referred to as an àyatana, or a `sphere’. [link]



This is whay at this point you most likely remember the one book on this important part of Buddhist meditation by the most Venerable Ñāṇārāma Mahāthera: The seven contemplations

If you are really really interested in a full study on the last 4 steps of insight meditation this book is highly recommended.

It is even more readable and informative than the famous “The seven stages of purification and the insight knowledges”. However, unlike the latter there seems to be no online version available (at least not in English – could someone ask the BPS to release the material?).

If you happen to own this book, open chapter 8 and read the summary. It will give you a very profound explanation on the sequence of nibbida, viraga, nirodha and patinissaggo.

Below are some other instances in the suttas where this formula appears. As always we can approxmiate to the meaning of pali texts best by simply looking at our passage in various contexts.

Below a collection of some such passages where these 4 stages of insight meditation or “modes of observation” occur:


 Idha devānaminda bhikkhuno sutaṃ hoti: sabbe dhammā nālaṃ abhinivesāyāti. Evañca taṃ devānaminda bhikkhuno sutaṃ hoti: sabbe dhammā nālaṃ abhinivesāyāti, so sabbaṃ dhammaṃ abhijānāti. Sabbaṃ dhammaṃ abhiññāya sabbaṃ dhammaṃ parijānāti. Sabbaṃ dhammaṃ pariññāya yaṃ kiñci vedanaṃ vedeti sukhaṃ vā dukkhaṃ vā adukkhamasukhaṃ vā, so tāsu vedanāsu aniccānupassī viharati, virāgānupassī viharati, nirodhānupassī viharati, paṭinissaggānupassī viharati. So tāsu vedanāsu aniccānupassī viharanto, virāgānupassī viharanto, nirodhānupassī viharanto, paṭinissaggānupassī viharanto na ca kiñci 1 loke upādiyati. Anupādiyaṃ na paritassati. Aparitassaṃ paccattaññeva parinibbāyati. Cūḷataṇhāsaṅkhayasutta, MN

Here, king of gods, the bhikkhu becomes learned, that anything is not suitable to settle in. Becomes learned, learning all things thoroughly and accurately recognising all things Feels all feelings pleasant, unpleasant or neither unpleasant nor pleasant. In those feelings he sees impermanence, detaches the mind from them, and sees their cessation, and gives them up. Abiding seeing impermanence, detachment, cessation and giving up of those feelings, does not seize anything in the world. Not seizing does not worry. Not worried is internally extinguished. [MN 37]


or this one:


‘‘Sato, bhikkhave, bhikkhu sampajāno kālaṃ āgameyya. Ayaṃ vo amhākaṃ anusāsanī. Kathañca, bhikkhave, bhikkhu sato hoti? Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu kāye kāyānupassī viharati ātāpī sampajāno satimā, vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassaṃ; vedanāsu vedanānupassī viharati…pe… citte cittānupassī viharati…pe… dhammesu dhammānupassī viharati ātāpī sampajāno satimā, vineyya loke abhijjhādomanassaṃ. Evaṃ kho, bhikkhave, bhikkhu sato hoti.

Note: When you think about this…it almost seems as if the Buddha thought: Okay, what is the best way i can get my monks to see the true nature of the 5 groups of grasping. They are so subtle….Hm….That’s it! Why don’t i spell out an excercise which sounds more tangible but when they follow it in due course will get to a much more refined vision of the rising and vanishing of these 5 groups. So, there is body (= rupa) and feeling (= vedana) and lets call the rest  simply “the mind” and its objects “mind objects” (= sanna, sankhara, vinnana). And thus the 4 satipatthana were born, another king’s path to seeing the 5 groups of grasping (1. noble truth), seeing their arising (2. noble truth) due to tanha and upadana, seeing their destruction (3. noble truth) and establishing a practice to the realization thereof (4. noble truth).

‘‘Kathañca, bhikkhave, bhikkhu sampajāno hoti? Idha, bhikkhave, bhikkhu abhikkante paṭikkante …bhāsite tuṇhībhāve sampajānakārī hoti. Evaṃ kho, bhikkhave, bhikkhu sampajānakārī hoti. Sato, bhikkhave, bhikkhu sampajāno kālaṃ āgameyya. Ayaṃ vo amhākaṃ anusāsanī.

[..so far so good..this is exactly as in the Satipatthana sutta. But look how this text continues here. This sutta reads like a comment on the satipatthana (esp. vedana part) itself. This is very good for all sorts of cross-reference:]

‘‘Tassa ce, bhikkhave, bhikkhuno evaṃ satassa sampajānassa appamattassa ātāpino pahitattassa viharato uppajjati sukhā vedanā, so evaṃ pajānāti – ‘uppannā kho myāyaṃ sukhā vedanā. Sā ca kho paṭicca, no appaṭicca. Kiṃ paṭicca? Imameva kāyaṃ paṭicca. Ayaṃ kho pana kāyo anicco saṅkhato paṭiccasamuppanno. Aniccaṃ kho pana saṅkhataṃ paṭiccasamuppannaṃ kāyaṃ paṭicca uppannā sukhā vedanā kuto niccā bhavissatī’ti! So kāye ca sukhāya ca vedanāya aniccānupassī viharati, vayānupassī viharati, virāgānupassī viharati, nirodhānupassī viharati, paṭinissaggānupassī viharati. Tassa kāye ca sukhāya ca vedanāya aniccānupassino viharato, vayānupassino viharato, virāgānupassino viharato, nirodhānupassino viharato, paṭinissaggānupassino viharato, yo kāye ca sukhāya ca vedanāya rāgānusayo, so pahīyati.


If  in that remembering and aware monk, o monks…an agreable sensation arises, he thus knows: “Arisen is an agreable sensation. This is was caused by something not without cause. Based on what? Based on this very body. But this body is impermanent, fabricated, dependently originated. How could this sensation therefore be permanent?! He dwells seeing impermanence of agreable feelings with regard to the body…dwells seeing the fading…dwells seeing the cessation….dwells seeing the giving up. Whatever there was of a tendency of craving towards body or feeling that will vanish in him.


Another note: It is interesting how Goenka always relates vedana to the body…and it is strange in a way. This text in particular might move the body in the foreground (the body, in fact, is a synonym for “form” as all our physical objects we perceive are “routed” through this antenna. From a deeper perspective however, speaking of the “six sense spheres” is more precise. So, of course, vedana can also be triggered by thoughts…(or any of the six sense objects) but then, that has always been a problem, to “note” in vipassana even the most refined mental concepts and the thoughts springing up from dhamma-related content…[Like this one, 🙂 ]


When it comes to the benefits this meditation on breathing is able to generate (i.e. Nibbana, no by-products implied here) we find a couple of suttas in the Samyutta Nikaya which describe the resulting state of mind of a master of this meditation. After the attainment of nibbana this is how an Anapanasati concentration would look like:

‘‘Evaṃ bhāvite kho, bhikkhave, ānāpānassatisamādhimhi evaṃ bahulīkate, sukhaṃ ce vedanaṃ vedayati, sā ‘aniccā’ti pajānāti, ‘anajjhositā’ti pajānāti, ‘anabhinanditā’ti pajānāti; dukkhaṃ ce vedanaṃ vedayati, ‘sā aniccā’ti pajānāti, ‘anajjhositā’ti pajānāti, ‘anabhinanditā’ti pajānāti; adukkhamasukhaṃ ce vedanaṃ vedayati, ‘sā aniccā’ti pajānāti, ‘anajjhositā’ti pajānāti, ‘anabhinanditā’ti pajānāti’’.

Having thus developed, o monks, the concentration of breathing in and out, having does practiced it often, whenever he feels a feeling he knows “impermanent”…”un-identified”…”undelighted”…[the same for painful or neutral feelings]

It is important to understand that this last paragraph reflects on the state of a Stream-enterer … Arahant – and not someone who just started out with this meditation. While “newcomers” will have to exert (sikkhati) themselves to look at any feeling etc. in a fashion of pure and total observation – this mode of observation comes naturally to the enlightened being.

We have to make sure that our training encompasses everything that arises while we are bent on observing impermanence. Even thoughts about the Dharma are thoughts. A thought like “Just let it go” is an object, with a mind-consciousness and a mind-feeling and a mind-perception entailed. Don’t get fooled by this subtle grasping but rather:

Sukhaṃ vā yadi vā dukkhaṃ, adukkhamasukhaṃ saha;
ajjhattaṃ ca bahiddhā ca, yaṃ kiñci atthi veditaṃ.
Etaṃ dukkhaṃ ti ñatvāna mosadhammaṃ palokinaṃ;
phussa phussa vayaṃ passaṃ, evaṃ tattha virajjati; 
Vedanānaṃ khayā bhikkhu, nicchāto parinibbuto’ti.

If it is a agreeable or unagreeable or neutral feeling

within or without, WHATEVER it is you feel

“This is suffering” having it known {noted} as such

of deceiving nature destined to decay

Whenever whenever you are hit with a sense impression

See it disappearing

So will it there fade away

The monk from the cessation of feelings

Is wishless and completely extinguished.



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