Chapter Three: Vipassana
Vipassana is “clear seeing” of the heart and nature of existence. It also means “insight”. It is a Pali language term associated with the original core of the Buddha’s teachings and practice system.
The focus of this chapter is on the teachings and practices that were introduced by a figure living 2500 years ago and which now are having a rapidly growing impact worldwide.
“Buddhism” has many forms, developing over those 2500 years, and that illustrates the flexible creativity always and typically in play in spiritual traditions. Some of these forms will also be looked at in the later chapter “Dzogchen”.
In this chapter, the examination will be of the development of the two key aspects of the basic spiritual practice shared by the Buddha: (1) cultivating calm abiding and a capacity to remain undistracted through a one pointed concentration practice, which in turn provides the basis for the capacity for (2) the clear seeing practices of choiceless awareness and thought free wakefulness that attend to the unfolding experiences of the body, our feelings, our thoughts (and mental activity), and perceptions.
The Buddha’s proposed spiritual practice matured and came to fruition with the realization of what he called the “unborn” and unconditioned” and thus effecting a liberation from the ways generating stressful alienation, unnecessary suffering, and ignorance. The term “cessation” is key here and the clarification over the course of this chapter on that aspect of the realization of Nirvana and enlightenment will hopefully help erase many common misconceptions held regarding this Condition without conditions (and, also without any dependence on some cause for it to dawn as the basis of one’s experience in living).
Thanks to a fairly reliable and credible canon of literature, it is possible to examine in depth and great clarity the practices and process shared by the Buddha over a 45 year period of teaching across northern India in regions north and south of the Ganges river plain.
Soon after the Buddha died, his community of practitioners met in a council and a key part of their agenda was to devise a system to record and pass on the teachings and practices. They would be passed on from generation to generation orally by monks trained to be very adept in memorizing. Around 300 or 400 years after his death, all of that was finally written down in many texts that are called as a body, the “Pali Canon”.
As a result, we have something of a good picture of the Buddha’s cultural milieu, where he traveled, who he conversed with, what other teachers and practice systems existed and much more.
These texts are called Sutras. And, these earliest texts provide the framework for teaching and practices still being passed on today!
Two of these texts will be the main focus of this chapter, in English known as (1) The Full Mindfulness of Breathing and (2) The Full Mindfulness on the Four Fields (or Foundations)—the body, the mind, feelings and emotions, and perceptions.
Central to this practice are yogic concentration practices but with an openness to experience via mindfulness of all elements of our unfolding life here. This mindfulness approach is the Buddha’s creative addition to the teachings and practices in play in his time, and before it.
From the earliest Sutras, we know that the Buddha had two teachers who taught him the practices of the dualistically oriented Yoga system practiced throughout northern India within a wide variety of movements that existed then. Related to that system, and itself developing in later times as a likewise dualistic philosophy, is the Samkyha school. In the last Chapter, some mention was made of some of the various movements that had the most significance and greatest presence. In order to understand clearly the basis for the Buddha’s system of liberation and enlightenment, it might help to expand on the background picture introduced in the last chapter.
The Buddha underlined the fact of his humanness and fallibility. He confronted notions of needing some Divine authority to grant the teachings and practices he presented a status of legitimacy. He developed his system by simply observing himself in profound depth, in the end relying on no one else in the process of awakening into the enlightened condition. He also insisted that what he taught should not be taken as an article of faith: everything had to be directly confirmed by the disciple in their own experience.
With all of the above, the Buddha certainly stood out in his milieu! But, his free styled creativity nevertheless reflected the times.
As noted in the previous chapter, this time period of the early Upanishads and of the Buddha is historically noteworthy for the transition from the rural, agricultural, and tribal to the urban, merchant-commerce, and king-republic orders. During this time period of a difficult transition, with growing unease and distress evident, there are larger numbers of people taking up the homeless lifestyle and focusing on a spiritual liberation to bring
them beyond the suffering and stress of the transitory nature of life. That nature being made more acutely clear in the conditions of this time period.
This homeless lifestyle became an integral part of the cultures of northern India at this time, commonly perceived as the spiritual vocation it was. A spirit of personal independence was more alive with the development of a merchant class born from the new manufacturing and more after the beginning of the Iron Age a little over three thousand years ago.
The original sutras of the Pali Canon are not the only helpful source material we have access to to help paint the picture of that time and setting. In the last chapter, it was noted what was described in the Bhagavad Gita chapters in book 6 of The Mahabharata. In the 12th book of the epic The Mahabharata are chapters called The Moksha Dharmas and therein the key movements, teachings and practices of the time are described in further detail.
In the course of the sage Bhisma instructing the newly installed King (in those chapters of Book 12 of the Mahabharata), we can see presentations that reveal the presence of the Brahmanic/Vedic order, the early Samkhya school of renunciation and discriminative examination of existence, the yoga/meditation school with a focus of gaining a direct experiential realization of the nature of existence (chiefly utilizing one pointed concentrative means), the Upanishadic revelations, worship of Vishnu movements, and worship of Shiva movements.
The Buddha stayed apart from the Brahmanic/Vedic order, completely dismissive of it. He adopted the sharp discriminative Samkhya way of examining existence, but dismissed their notion of the “atman” or a fixed and permanent self. He adopted the practices of yoga and meditation completely but dismissed its dissociative orientation as taught and practiced by so many then. The Buddha also apparently dismissed the conceptualizing of a fixed self (atman) and defined Essence as laid on in the Upanishadic revelations. And, of course, along with not having anything to do with the Brahmanic rituals, the Buddha did not practice devotion towards any of the gods or their incarnations.
The Buddha, in fact, had no body of metaphysics or philosophy that he imparted. Though he would enjoy at rare times the play of talking about the different schools and what they taught.
The first phase of the Buddha’s new homeless life, which started when he was 29 and he had renounced his various roles such as husband, father, son, and Prince, was focused on adjusting to his new circumstances. In the beginning everything was terrifying, and distracting.
The Buddha found first one, and then a second, Guru who taught him yogic meditation practices.
The first Guru (who had a community of a few hundred) taught the Buddha one pointed concentrative practices that induced states of increasingly refined bliss until a state called the “sphere of no thing ness” was realized. Of course this state was temporary, and though very blissfully expansive and superconscious in character, it was felt by him to be incomplete.
He found a second Guru who taught similar practices and the end goal of a “sphere or space of perception and non-perception”. The same limitations of the transitory and incomplete nature of these dissociative type practices were apparent to the Buddha.
Following his realization that these yogic practices left him still restless, distracted, suffering, and basically the same person as before (when he moved out of the blissfull states of absorption), the Buddha felt he had to get more radical in his approach in order to really cut to the heart of the matter and find liberation from the endless round of suffering and unease.
For a time that entailed practicing extreme physical austerities with a band of five other ascetics. That nearly killed him!
After refreshing himself with food, he set about with a new and open approach dependent on no philosophy, abstraction, or conceptualization about how things should proceed.
He just stayed with whatever manifested in himself and around him. With awareness simply attending to all that was unfolding in the field of his experience.
Today’s students and practitioners of Buddhist teachings and practices have a wealth of published material available to them. Translations of texts from the wide variety of Buddhist schools or systems, and the commentaries and explanatory examining texts, teachings, and practice, heavily populate bookstore shelves, clearly outshining in sheer number and volume all the nearby books covering the so called schools of Hinduism (like Advaita Vedanta, the focus of the previous chapter).
One of the contemporary works standing out on these booksellers’ shelves worldwide was Sam Harris’s 2014 book “Waking Up ~ A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion”. Therein (on page 35) he correctly notes the expressive manner of the second text this chapter will examine, The Satipatthana Sutta (or Sutra) or Full Mindfulness of the Four Fields (Body, Mind, Feeling, Perceptions): “Highly repetitious” and, perhaps excepting avid students, “exceptionally boring to read. Yet, he also notes (correctly, I feel!) this sutra is a “rigorously empirical guide to freedom from suffering”.
The two instruction talks on mindfulness by the Buddha to be looked at here, both expressed in this very boring repetitive manner apparently to aid the memorization of the instructions, represent a key fruition aspect of awakening practice which altogether, in the Buddha’s system, rests on a foundation of addressing all aspects and movements of one’s life: right view, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, and concentration. Mindfulness, with effort and concentration, are the maturest aspect of practice prior to the full breakthrough awakening.
The mindfulness process is interwoven with the development (in one’s practice) of six other “factors” contributing to awakening:
1.) First is the capacity to discern our various states, stay free of delusion, and further see and understand our life’s patterns (including the movements of thought).
2.) The Buddha notes, in the Full Mindfulness of the Four Fields or Foundations, that the aware-feeling inquiry involved in sustaining mindful awareness arouses a “tireless energy”. The factor of energy aroused and stabilized helps sustain one’s spirit, and inspiration, through this awakening process.
3.) Tied to the previous factor of “energy”, the development of “rapture” is noted to involve five deepening phases. The Buddha reported that the factor of rapture is enabled by by the “tireless energy” manifesting through a stable mindful focusing.
Initial signs of rapture are minor, slight thrills (perhaps producing goose bumps) through the body that may serve to straighten one’s posture. Then lightening like burst of rapturous energy may be momentarily experienced. A further deepening of rapture may be felt as intensely pleasurable wave like currents sweep over the body. A more refined feeling of upliftment, to the point when one may feel like they are floating and levitating, may next arise. A final degree of rapture is said to be an extremely refined thrill, seemingly all pervasive.
A key warning note is often imparted related to these experiences, not to become fixated upon and attached to these states of rapture. Let them arise as they will.
4.) The cultivation of calmness is the next phase identified by the Buddha as key to the awakening process. The mindful focusing on breathing is the practice the Buddha emphasized for developing the capacity to abide calmly in the face of unfolding experiences.
In a sense, this is a further refinement or deepening of that all-pervasive subtle thrill described in #3. Here, in a stable calm abiding state, there’s a deeper sense of ease and a simple enjoyment beyond the more excitable charge of the rapture states.
5.) In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the “conclusive” practice sequence is one-pointed concentration to states of meditative absorption and then awakening to one’s essential nature. In the Buddha’s “Noble Eightfold Path”, the awakening factor of “concentration” is the final step on that path, with mindfulness the preceding one.
An adept concentrative capacity involves developing a stabilized capacity to remain undistracted in an effortless and easeful manner. Which contributes to the stabilizing of the last of the six factors standing with “mindfulness” as the seven factors of awakening:
The Buddha identified maturing signs and levels of awakening awareness from one pointed concentration and meditative absorption. These deepening states are called “Jhanas”. The Buddha’s two gurus taught him the practices of experiencing increasingly more refined states of blissful absorption, where in a state of lucid awareness one begins to lose the sense of bodily solidity and experience has a “formless” feel to it. Enhanced or paranormal perceptual capacities may awaken here, like clairvoyance.
Many teachers consider cultivating these blissful states of “formlessness” a distraction from the main focus of fully awakening. Instead, concentrative efforts shed light on the ever shifting and fluid motion of our experience, where we clearly see the rising, appearance, and passing away of thoughts, emotions, sensations….the whole range of our experiences. Undistracted thusly, we are prone less to get lost in thought and reverie.
The Buddha taught a basic practice using breathing as the concentrative focal point in serving the development and deepening of the seven factors of awakening. That narration of the circumstances and content of the Buddha’s instruction on this is provided in the Anapananasati Sutra, or The Sutra on the Full Mindfulness (or, Full Awareness) of Breathing.
The narrator also reports in this sutra the Buddha noting that this instruction (related to breathing as the focal point) was the type of practice that would help practitioners in the practice described in the Satipatthana Sutra, or The Sutra on the Four Establishments (or, Four Foundations) of Mindfulness.
The narrator, who was present for the instructions on the full awareness of breathing, reports in the Anapanasati Sutra that the Buddha was gathered with disciples for a ceremony marking the end of the rainy season retreat on a full moon night.
The Buddha sat before his disciples that night and expressed his pleasure at the maturity and stability of practice he was seeing in his disciples. Many mature disciples had been instructing groups of newcomers to this awakening and liberating practice, during this long rainy season retreat. Each senior disciple instructing anywhere from 10 to 40 of these newcomers to the community.
The Buddha shared his observation that some of his disciples had fully awakened and were liberated by their complete realization of the “unborn” condition of our most essential nature. This realization entails the cessation of our entranced involvement with the movements of life and the clear and direct recognition of the motionless, insubstantial and non-objectified, spacious, uncaused (i.e. “unborn”), and unconditioned awareness that is our most essential nature.
Also, the basic features of unfolding existence are fully evident in feeling and awareness now:
~Impermanence: Nothing in existence lasts or stays the same; whatever manifests, comes to an end. Looking for a stable anchor for satisfaction in a particular aspect of manifest existence is not only a lost cause but further compounds our sense of unease and dissatisfaction.
~Dependent Origination: Everything manifesting is interdependent and linked together (seamlessly) in an endless chain of cause and effect.
~Emptiness: Nothing existing has an intrinsic, lasting, concretely objectified, and autonomous status in reality.
~No-self: Related to emptiness (as all the above signs of existence are inter-related), the realization here entails recognizing clearly (in awareness and feeling) that the sense of being an objectified and separate ego-I entity is an illusion that also breeds the suffering inducing states of being and ways of acting and feeling that continue to feed the reactive clinging and aversion that is the basis for bondage and unnecessary suffering.
The Buddha identified to the assembly the degrees of maturity in practice that he saw evident in his community; in addition to those fully awakened and liberated, there were the “no-returners”, “once-returners”, and “stream-enterers”.
A week later, on another moonlit night, the Buddha sat before assembled monks and gave expanded instructions on using the focal point of breathing. There had already been teachings on practices centered on mindful breathing-concentration, but on this night the Buddha shared how a mindful anchoring on the breath could not only be used to instill calmness, joy and blissful energy but in the practice of mindfulness on the “four fields” covering the whole range of our unfolding life experience. (A practice laid out in the Satipatthana Sutra.)
These long ago teachings have not only survived to this day, the practices are being widely shared and adopted.
Two contemporary resources (with clear translations of key texts) are strongly recommended:
Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening by Joseph Goldstein Copyright 2013 (JG) Sounds True
Awakening of the Heart: essential buddhist sutras and commentaries Thich Nhat Hanh Copyright 2012 by United Buddhist Church Parallax Press
[chapter in progress…..]