Archive for the ‘Pariyatti’ Category

2300 years ago emperor Ashoka‘s son, a Buddhist monk by the name of Mahinda, was sent to Sri Lanka to propagate the Buddha’s message  to the people of Sri Lanka. He met the king, who happened to be on a hunting expedition in a forest and was invited to the capital of the country, Anuradhapura.

In the royal park Mahamegha (lit. “great rain shower”) the first Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka thought for a moment what discourse of the Buddha would benefit his audience best and then decided to recite (from memory) the Cula-hatthipadopama Sutta (which you can read here). Yes, that was it.

Within a very short time, the island of Sri Lanka adopted the original teachings of the Buddha by listening to the discourses which the monks had handed down (at that time) for a mere 250 years. With the embrace of the Dhamma an astonishing cultural blossoming ensued. Large monasteries where build, giant stupas constructed, people gave up hunting and became mostly farmers and merchants. Cave monasteries where constructed even in the most hidden jungles and corners of the island. Eventually, when Northern India lost the sources of early Buddhism through historic calamities it was Sri Lanka that became a heritage (or time capsule) for Asian Buddhists who would travel from as far as China in search of the original teachings of the Buddha.

Fast forward to the 1990’s  😉

When I went to Sri Lanka in 1994 for the first time, I had no expectations as to the country except for one: it would be a great place to find printed editions of the Buddha’s discourses in Pali (remember these where pre-Internet times ;-). Somehow I was under the impression it would be very easy in a Buddhist country with such an amazing history to find a set of printed Pali texts. I was in for a big surprise.

In the 1990’s when you asked someone where you could buy the “Middle Length Sayings” of the Buddha, you would earn blank stares – not just from lay people, also from monks. Remember, this is similar to going to Italy and asking someone where you could by the New Testament of Lucas and nobody would have any clue what you are talking about.

Many monks then where strongly convinced that meditation would lead to mental illness and should  better not be undertaken. The belief that rebirth in a divine world by offering food, money and wealth to monks was the best choice of a declined age was very prevalent.

Even though the last 100 years had seen certain waves of attempts to revive Buddhism in Sri Lanka (which I later learned from the wonderful book “Forest monks of Sri Lanka”) what I found in the country was a thin shell of the Buddha’s teaching mostly held together by the 2300 year old culture that showed cracks here and there but had stopped to breathe the living wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings which it had enshrined, literally, behind thick vitrines but forgotten to utilize.

The Buddha’s discourses had become objects of worship carefully kept behind closed bookshelves. The Pali language knowledge amongst monks (with some exceptions of course) was abysmal. The general public had almost no idea what the Buddha taught other than what the “priests” would tell them which very often boiled down to a simple idea that they had missed their chance and had to wait for the occurance of the next Buddha.

The reason why the country had sunk to a level of European pre-reformation days was (amongst many others) in my humble opinion the absolute lack of knowledge about the teachings of the Buddha.

Let me explain. When a monk entered his monastic training in those days, he was supposed to first learn the Pali of the commentaries. It would take him years to master that. At which point he could then start (!) to learn the Pali of the actual discourses of the Buddha which most never ventured into. Secondly, the only modern translation of the discourses of the Buddha which had been done in the 1950’s was fabricated by a few scholar monks who sometimes would simply transpose the Pali into an archaic sanskritized Sinhalese which nobody was able to understand. This translation fostered the idea that the Buddha’s teachings where simply too difficult for the ordinary person to grasp. It would be, again to use a rough simile, as if a country like the modern United States had only one bible translation available and that would be the King James Bible (or actually something even older).  You can imagine how daunting the idea appeared to most Sri Lankans to “read” the teachings of the Buddha. Very soon even this first general attempt to translate the Tipitaka, the so called “Buddha Jayanthi Tripitaka” edition went out of print and dispersed over the island with very few temples or monasteries owning full collections.

It is still amazing that on top of this decline in Buddhist learning several attempts for revival were made by individual monks who tried to re-establish virtue and meditation in the Sangha. This lead to the emergence of the so called “arannya” or forest hermitages which usually where place for meditation and Dhamma study for the few monks (and sometimes lay people) who were looking for the teachings of the Buddha and tried to practice them. They usually were located in remote areas and limited as to their impact on the general public and Buddhist practice.

Then, in 1997, something amazing happened.

The Dhamma started raining again on the island of Sri Lanka. Based on the historic backdrop you might be able to understand that when a young monk one day “accidentally” ran across the word of the Buddha he was mesmerized and surprised to find that since his ordination he had never been taught or heard of the discourses of the Buddha. It sparked a decade long search in which he toured through all the contemporary forest hermitages to learn from the few living masters which the Sri Lankan forest monk tradition had timidly created. It even led him to the Himalaya’s ready to learn concentration meditation from the yogi’s and practice in the solitude of the mountains. Then one day he realized that all the while the Buddha himself (in form of his teaching) existed right in front of him, an untapped reservoir of wisdom, ready for anyone who would embrace it confidently – well, if you were humble enough to dedicate yourself to it.

He went back to Sri Lanka and decided to let go of his own opinions but rather try an experiment: To completely put into practice the Dhamma according to the Sutta Pitaka itself – in other words, to make the Buddha’s discourses his teacher. Without help of the commentaries (which is almost a sacrilege if you know the importance which is attached to commentarial and abhidhamma literature in Theravada countries). Without looking for outside help or even trusting his own opinions – unless verified contextually by other suttas.

As samsara has it, I ran into him coincidentally that very year, when passing through a meditation monastery where he was just one among the many young monks at that time. I used to encourage Sri Lankan monks all the time to pick up reading the sutta’s to which in this particular case they responded saying: “ha, you are just like this monk. he tells us the same thing. when you go to his cell, you can see the whole tipitaka nicely stacked up” (remember: which was an amazing thing at that time and meant that he had spent long time hunting down the books all over the country).

I was very keen on meeting this strange and extraordinary Sri Lankan bhikkhu who seemed to have (in my eyes) a Western approach to Buddhism in that he did the most rational thing someone would attempt in Theravada Buddhism: study the Buddha’s own words – which for (all the reasons listed above) seemed to escape most of my Sri Lankan friends and thus made him very peculiar. After a short conversation and some great advice (which would alter the trajectory of my life) I left him and forgot about this episode for a long time. The name of this young monk was: Ven. Kiribathgoda Gnanananda.

Fast forward to 2010. Sri Lanka in the Age of Reformation.

You can imagine my surprise when ten years later a reform movement hit Sri Lanka which in its size, reach and quality does not seem to have an equal. Maybe it was the long span of darkness which makes its light shine so bright. Either way, what is astonishing is the impact it has had so far on society as a whole. All of a sudden young men and women (very often with a Universitybackground) give up families and possessions and ordain. Tens of thousands of lay people gather around stupas to sit for hours in the sun listening to the word of the Buddha – and mind you – not the artistic creative preaching of a modern interpreter of the Buddha’s message – quite the opposite – they will listen to an almost unchanged contemplative reading of a particular sutta.

This reform movement (even though it does not consider itself a movement nor a reform, but from a Western standpoint that is how it appears to me) inspired by this young monk started very humbly. In 1997 they began with a small monastery with a couple of lay people coming to the Dhamma talks offered. However something was fundamentally different from the very beginning.

In an attempt to follow the Buddha’s footsteps as close as possible the monks of this group do not present their own opinions about the Dhamma. You can see them sit with usually with an open book of some discourse of the Buddha and slowly and painstakingly careful will they take the audience through a sutta of the Buddha making sure that everyone remembers and reflects over this teaching even long after they have left the monastery. In fact, the idea of carefully reflecting over the Buddha’s teaching becomes a corner stone of their method.

Not adding their own opinion but just contemplatively slow absorbing and (memorizing) the meaning and advice of the Buddha as he gave it 2500 years ago became the “brand” of this group which following in the footsteps of Mahinda who brought the Dhamma to Sri Lanka created the inspiration for the name this group is now known as in Sri Lanka:  “Mahamegha” (or Maha-meo-nawa in Sinhala, which means ‘rain shower’ in English and was the name of the location of the first sermon of Dhamma in Sri Lanka).

Their symbol, adopted from the time of emperor Ashoka becomes the ancient Dhammawheel protected by two lions. Their admission standards (to become a monk or nun) are very high for a Theravada country – young lay men and women spend up to a year and longer in preparation before allowed to enter the order. Their emphasis on purity in conduct and virtue is exemplary, the training programs for young monks is the study and memorization of the Sutta Pitaka. Their meditation practice includes every meditation advice given by the Buddha in his discourses (from Metta, Buddhanussati, Anapanasati to Satipatthana and Aniccanupassana).

Within a short time their popularity exploded and everyone in Sri Lanka is rubbing their eyes how something like this is possible so suddenly. Ven. Gnanananda, the driving motor behind the popularization of quite ancient and original form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka published a modern translation of the Suttas in a contemporary very easy to understand Sinhala which of course helped to make Mahamevnawa even more popular. At this point in time (2012) Mahamevnawa (or Pali: Mahamegha) has reached vast portions of Sri Lanka’s society. For the first time in centuries the word of the Buddha is freely available again and handed back to anybody who is interested to “see the Dhamma for himself”.

Some particular characteristics of Mahamevnawa:

.) Teaching style: Similarly to the practice of the early Buddhist Sangha. Mahamevnawa’s teaching style is very unique. The monks will read from the Suttas, helping to explain the Sutta by quoting from other relevant passages in the discourses of the Buddha, keeping their own commentary to an absolute minimum. Suttas are picked depending on occasion and level of training of the audience. The Suttas are read in Sinhala or English (in the native language of the audience) to facilitate true undestanding of the meaning with occasional reference to Pali when deemed helpful. Usually Dhamma “talks” like this are alternated with sitting meditations. Attention and memorization of the discourses his highly encouraged. Mahamevnawa’s Dhamma talks will feature many questions to the audience by the monk which in most cases make sure that the audience follows and in fact makes an effort to memorize the key points of the Sutta in discussion. At the end of such Dhamma talks “Q&A” sessions are quite common.

.) Practice: Mahamevnawa has an extensive program for lay people which includes reading some preliminary books before everyone is encouraged to do their own Dhamma study by frequently reading suttas (according to some kind of recommendation) and contemplating the word of the Buddha. Precepts are emphasized frequently and strongly as well as is saddha, or confidence in the Buddha as teacher and the Dhamma as the raft. Mahamevnawa will point to suttas which make clear that even progress on the path is caused and conditioned. There seems to be the understanding that the Dhamma should work quite naturally: If you lay the right foundation progress is not just to be expected, positive changes  and rewards of the Dhamma practice are inevitable and “quite natural”. But there is no rush or “hunt for experiences” on the other hand, rather an emphasis on building a proper foundation, step by step.

.) Ceremonies. In the early days of Mahamevnawa rituals where kept to a bare minimum (This was criticized in Sri Lanka). As the popularity of the movement has reached vast parts of society some symbolic offerings have been included in their practice. (This is now criticized in Sri Lanka) 😉 The ceremonies they organize however, are always combined by recitation of discourses and verses in Sinhala/English to encourage mental qualities like confidence and inspiration which are deemed helpful for the practice of the Dhamma (in other words they are not seens as an end in and by themselves) and are usually of a style reminiscent of the Sutta Pitaka’s Apadana. Just to give you another example of their philosophy: When careful analysis of the Sanchi stupa (one of the few remaining stupas in India from the time of Ashoka) revealed that the early Buddhist community worshiped the last seven Buddha’s as their spiritual teachers, Mahamevnawa introduced “Sat Budu Vandanawa” or a commemoration ceremony along the lines of what we can see in Sanchi on this ancient stupa as part of their yearly programs offered in their centers. During such an event the qualities of the seven last Buddhas (which are mentioned in the suttas) are turned into a contemplative reflection in Sinhalese – so that the audience can reflect over the qualities of the Awakened Ones. This follows their credo to “model our practice closely in accordance with the early Buddhist Sangha”. From a Western stand point all ceremonies will probably always seem more extravagant as we are used to (well, besides maybe Tibetan practices) but it would be misleading to judge the entire philosophy of Mahamevnawa based on this.

.) Meditation in general:  They seem to be the only contemporary school of Buddhism (besides a similar small group in Germany) to my knowledge which practices meditation “directly from the book”. Meaning that many of their meditations start out as contemplations (which you are encouraged to learn by heart). The contemplation is considered to be the vitakka/vicara part which will lead into jhana. Especially for lay people they are very strong on guided meditations to encourage people to meditate. Mahamevnawa monks, nuns and lay people don’t just practice all kinds of meditations (whatever you come across in the suttas you can be sure a Mahamevnawa monk or nun will have experience with), they also will practice them exactly as found in the suttas while gracefully ignoring the commentarial tradition. In fact Ven. Nyanavira would be delighted to see their clipped list of books in the Sutta Pitaka which they actually pay most attention to.

.) Jhana. Exactly as in the suttas. Lay people and monks are encouraged to develop them – but not as a purpose of and in itself. They are seen as a natural outcome of all the other steps which the Buddha encourages people to practice. They are also seen as the method by which the vipassana contemplation will dramatically deepen.

.)Vipassana. Exactly as in the suttas. Here is a little story which will give you a good idea of Mahamevnawa’s philosophy on this topic: One day a monk came to Ven. Gnanananda and asked him for advice for his vipassana or insight meditation. He asked whether Ven. Gnanananda had some kind of special technique or system which he could recommend (similar to the Burmese Vipassana). Ven. Gnanananda agreed very positively, took the visiting monk with him to his hut and opened the door. In the back of the hut was a copy of the Suttapitaka. He pointed to it and said: “This is my teacher who knows all about Vipassana. Everything you need you can find in there. In particular the Samyutta Nikaya (the grouped discourses) has a lot of great advice on insight meditation. All you need is right there.” – the monk was disappointed, so the story and left. 😉 It is actually very impressive (though a novel idea if you have been practicing with some kind of Burmese Vipassana which I guess many of you have) that someone would take the Suttas themselves literally as blue print for insight meditation. To understand how this works let me  give you an idea: Say you learn the Anatta Lakkhana Sutta by heart (or close to its meaning) and then in your mind repeatedly go over it (in that sutta the Buddha talks about the non-self characteristic of all sense impressions as a tool to attain complete liberation and freedom of the mind). While doing so your mind enters a deeply concentrated state. Now, still investigating according to the direct advice of the Buddha you practice vipassana. Et voila. I think if you boil it down to one idea, it is that “yoniso manasikara” in this sense is understood to mean “careful or radical investigation” rather than “direct attention” (which would be more the commentarial reading anyway).

.) Ordination, monasteries and nuns. At the current moment Mahamegha/Mahamevnawa is still (almost) only a Sri Lankan movement. However there are signs that that is about to change. In Sri Lanka itself they have over 40 branch monasteries and half a dozen more overseas. The overseas monasteries are where the Sri Lankan monks trained in this inspiring culture of “Let’s listen to the Buddha himself for a change” meet the Western Buddhist world (or Asian Buddhists if you include  Korea and other countries). There are about 600 monks affiliated with Mahamevnawa in Sri Lanka including 4 nun training centers.

.) Retreat opportunities. As is typical for Sri Lankan forest monasteries the Mahamevnawa meditation centers are usually open for the general public to join the monks and nuns in their daily practice. Typically this requires that you will take the 8 to 10 precepts during your stay at their facilities. Food and lodging will be free of charge but of course you are welcome to offer a donation (not to the monastics though! all money matters are handled by the lay organizations which run the financials of the monasteries). Make sure you inquire from the monasteries if you can stop by for a visit and also how long you are intending to stay. References which indicate a little bit about your background will help. During your stay you will receive free meditation advice, be able to regularly listen to Dhamma talks and in general follow their monastic timetable (which means getting up early, cleaning the monastery, doing meditation, helping with meal preparations, a long calm afternoon for meditation and some morning and evening chanting sessions).

What’s next? If you happen to live close to one of their meditation monasteries / centers (called “asapuwa”) and if you are interested in their approach to Buddhist training I would highly encourage you to join or support their communities.

Even though they are mainly driven by Sri Lankan expats at this point the overseas monks do speak English and are very eager to share the Dhamma with anybody no matter what your cultural, ethnic or religious background may be. One way to become active in their communities is to offer dana to the Sangha and thus always get an opportunity for a personal Dhamma talk with the opportunity to ask questions on meditation etc. If you are willing to help even more there is always the need in “bridging the cultures” to facilitate that the Dhamma reaches those who are eager to learn it.

As the second generation of Sri Lankans overseas blends into their new home cultures so Mahamevnawa, by bringing the fundamental principles of the Dhamma to different cultures, is also in the process of learning how to translate their direct reading of the Buddha’s discourses into various cultures other than the Sri Lankan. Any help to further this development can be considered great merit and will help the Dhamma to last a little while longer (You will feel the same way once you had a chance to meet their well trained monks and nuns). Either way, their centers are definitely a great place to meet very refined human beings and find noble friendships along the path to Nibbana. Please leave comments if you have any further questions.

Further reading:

.) Newspaper article interview with Ven. Gnanananda about Buddhism in Sri Lanka

.) Gallery with pictures from some of their (branch) monasteries and here

.) Biography of the Ven. Kiribathgoda Gnanananda

.) Dhamma websites affiliated with Mahamegha/Mahamevnawa:





Ven. Anandajoti Bhikkhu’s impressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and under sarati we find:

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is literacy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

iti pajanati

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Courtesy: jsarcadia (click image)

In the Middle Length sayings, one of the few parts of the Pali Canon most Western Buddhists actually do get exposed to, there is a very interesting and beautiful triage of suttas which circle around the following stanza uttered by the Buddha:

Atītaṃ nānvāgameyya, nappaṭikaṅkhe anāgataṃ;

Yadatītaṃ pahīnaṃ taṃ, appattañca anāgataṃ.

Paccuppannañca yo dhammaṃ, tattha tattha vipassati;

Asaṃhīraṃ asaṃkuppaṃ, taṃ vidvā manubrūhaye.

Ajjeva kiccamātappaṃ, ko jaññā maraṇaṃ suve;

Na hi no saṅgaraṃ tena, mahāsenena maccunā.

Evaṃ vihāriṃ ātāpiṃ, ahorattamatanditaṃ;

Taṃ ve bhaddekarattoti, santo ācikkhate muni

The name of the sutta is quite odd. There are existing basically two alternative English translations, because, in fact, “bhaddekaratta” could be translated as either “having one beautiful night” or “being rightly delighted alone”. More important than the name though (which sounds like both ideas could be intended 🙂 is the content. Lets have a look at one traditional English translation which runs along the following lines:

You shouldn’t chase after the past
or place expectations on the future.
What is past is left behind.
The future is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see right there, right there.
Not taken in, unshaken,
that’s how you develop the heart.
Ardently doing what should be done today,
for — who knows? — tomorrow death.
There is no bargaining
with Mortality & his mighty horde.
Whoever lives thus ardently, relentlessly both day & night,
has truly had an auspicious day: so says the Peaceful Sage.

The crucial lines are obviously 3 & 4. After poetically capturing the fact that neither past nor future are worth chasing after the stanza tries to capture a meditative mind-set which we should try to adopt instead to reap ultimate benefits.

Paccuppannañca yo dhammaṃ, tattha tattha vipassati;

Asaṃhīraṃ asaṃkuppaṃ, taṃ vidvā manubrūhaye.

Several remarks:  “Paccuppannañca yo dhammaṃ”  whatever object exists in this moment, “tattha tattha vipassati” there, there see it clearly.  Now, if we did not know better, this would be a straight forward description of what vipassana meditation is all about. The doubling of a word in pali could mean a generalization, translated as “wherever”. However, if you ever did some vipassana meditation yourself, you might remember the speed of which objects turn up and how, from one moment to the other you note a sound, then a thought, then again a feeling… “physically” (the mind tends to proliferate, remember) it feels (!) like a “there” and then “there” again … each time you try to simply see it, very good, clearly; or, if we look at the prefix “vi-” in its “splitting” characteristic [link] you look at the object in the present, wherever it manifests closer and closer, getting to know it real good.

Now we come to the even more interesting part. Bhikkhu Bodhis seems to follow in his translation Ven. Nyanananda, who interprets this verse to reflect the state of an arahants concentration on nibbana (arahatta-phala-samapatti). Personally, i think this text rather tries to show/teach the right mind set for the training which will lead, eventually, to that particular state. That is why in some translations you will find the term “Asaṃhīraṃ” translated as  “Invincible” (Thanissaros version quoted above seems more valid in this respect). After the above it should be clear that we have to deal here with a very insight related setting. Taking this position, let me guide you through a translation attempt: 

Asaṃhīraṃ consists of a- (un- in English, a negating prefix) and sam- (together) + hiram. Hiram comes from harati, “to collect, to gather up, to take up”. But hiram is not the normal verb form. It is the passive form (see PTS dictionary entry below). So, hiram will mean something like “to be taken up, to be gathered”. You take in/take up to gather and grow. This is what we try not (a-) to do!

Think about it: If a sense impression catches your attention your mind starts spinning around it, trying to heap up even more impressions – however, not by looking at it closely from where and how it originated in a fashion which would be “yoniso manasikaro” (yoniso = origin/source/womb/) but rather with “ayoniso manasikaro” with blind (avijja) thirst. So, the Buddha says, there is a different way of looking at things.

Putting it all together does this make sense then to suspect something along the lines of:

Whatever present object, clearly look at it wherever (it appears)

Not-being-taken-up-by-it, Not-being-shaken-by-it, knowing this practise it persistently.

In two of the three suttas surrounding this verse this important part of the stanza is explained by Ven. Mahakaccayana thus:

‘‘Kathañca, āvuso, paccuppannesu dhammesu saṃhīrati? Yañcāvuso, cakkhu ye ca rūpā – ubhayametaṃ paccuppannaṃ. Tasmiṃ ce paccuppanne chandarāgappaṭibaddhaṃ hoti viññāṇaṃ, chandarāgappaṭibaddhattā viññāṇassa tadabhinandati, tadabhinandanto paccuppannesu dhammesu saṃhīrati.

How, o friends, is one being carried away (taken up) by present objects? The sense of seeing and the forms both are the presence [lit. arisen-against each other]. When in this presence the consciousness is bound by attraction and impulse then, based on the consciousness bound by impulse and attraction one finds delight there. Finding delight in the present objects one “is taken up” (by them).

If the exercise of vipassana would wish for a poetic summary, this little stanza would leave nothing to desire for. But then, the whole Tipitaka is full of such verses 🙂

Recommended further reading:  Ideal Solitude, (Bhikkhu Ñana-nanda)



These guys definitely show a good taste in naming their sites…after the Bhaddekaratta Hermitage there seems to be some building of a Isipatana hermitage.



Mu~nca pure mu~nca pacchato
majjhe mu~nca bhavassa paaraguu
Sabbattha vimuttamaanaso
na puna jaatijara.m upehisi
Let go what has gone before
Let go that which comes after
Let go thy hold on the middle as well
And get beyond all existence
Thus with mind released in every way
Thou comest never more to birth and decay.

— Dhp v.348



PTS Definition:

Saŋharati [saŋ+harati] 1. to collect, fold up Vin i.46; ii.117, 150; M iii.169; J i.66, 422; Dāvs iv.12; PvA 73. — 2. to draw together Vin ii.217. — 3. to gather up, take up SnA 369 (rūpaŋ). — 4. to heap up Pviv.14 (saŋharimha=sañcinimha PvA 279). — asaŋhāriya (grd.) which cannot be destroyed (see also saŋhīra) S v.219. <-> Caus. II. ˚harāpeti to cause to collect, to make gather or grow Vin iv.259 (lomāni), 260 (id.). — Pass. saŋhīrati (q. v.). — pp. saŋhata. Cp. upa˚.
Anubrūheti   Anubrūheti [brūheti] to do very much or often, to practice, frequent, to be fond of (c. acc.), foster S i.178 (anubrūhaye); M iii.187 (id., so read for manu˚), Th 2, 163 (˚ehi); Cp. iii.12 (saŋvegaŋ anubrūhayiŋ aor.); J iii.191 (suññāgāraŋ). Often in phrase vivekaŋ anubrūheti to devote oneself to detachment or solitude, e.g. J i.9 (inf. ˚brūhetuŋ); iii.31 (˚brūhessāmi), Dh 75 (˚brūhaye = ˚brūheyya vaḍḍheyya DhAii.103). — pp. anubrūhita (q.v.) Cp. also brūhana. [=> The usage of this verb in the sutta above  is another indication (to me at least)  for this verse to highlight the training aspect of vipassana not its end result.]

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