Insight Meditation (Vipassana)
and Causes and Conditions
By not grasping onto anything, there is not
coming into existence of birth, ageing, death and suffering in the future. (It: 94.)
I have had the privilege of teaching Vipassana (insight meditation) in the West since the mid 1970’s. I started teaching the annual Bodh Gaya retreat in 1975 and the annual Dharma programme in Sarnath, India in 1999. I conducted my first retreat in the West in Australia in 1976, when the organizer was Sue Nicholson, aged 21, now known as Subhana Barzaghi, a senior Dharma teacher and Zen master. It is many years since I described myself as a Vipassana teacher, preferring the much broader term ‘Dharma teacher’. The word Vipassana has become closely identified in the Theravada tradition with certain meditation methods and techniques, and is far removed from its original meaning, namely ‘insight’ and bearing no connection whatsoever with any specific meditation technique. There is no telling how many individuals have entered an insight (Vipassana) retreat or course, residential or non-residential, East or West, but the number certainly runs into hundreds of thousands, possibly over a million or two, since the 1970s.’. Vipassana, or insight meditation, works as a challenging and powerful practice in the hands of skilful teachers. Misused or misapplied, the same practice can place enormous pressure on the mind and body of the practitioner.
A Vipassana retreat works as a powerful catalyst in people’s lives, a major stepping-stone into the depths of meditation, and offers a transformative experience. People have arrived for a weekend retreat on a Friday evening and left on Sunday afternoon with a different sense of themselves and of what matters. Insight meditation changes lives significantly, sometimes dramatically, and is a resource to dissolve problems. A growing number of people, with regular guidance from a teacher, have also entered into the discipline of a personal retreat, without fellow companions, with its emphasis on silence and solitude lasting from weeks to a year or more. This is another powerful resource for depths of insight.
The background to all Vipassana practices relies, appropriately, on a talk by the Buddha called the Satipatthana Sutta, (the Discourse on the Applications of Mindfulness, MLD 10) namely, body, feelings, states of mind and the Dharma consisting of the Four Noble Truths, mental hindrances, relationship of senses to sense objects. Different Vipassana approaches simply reflect different interpretations of this discourse. Despite the claims to purity of technique and reliance on Theravada commentarial literature, every Vipassana teacher takes a distinct approach even if that teacher has had the same teacher(s). Any teachers who claim that their methodology alone goes back to the Buddha delude themselves and their students.
Teachers use the form of a retreat to enable Dharma yogis to learn to use the powerful resource of method and technique to cultivate an authentic depth of calm (samatha) and insight (Vipassana) into impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and the non self (impersonal) characteristics of existence. The practice encourages direct observation of immediate experience of the body/mind process.
There is a general principle in the Buddhist tradition of Vipassana that Dharma practice involves three areas of training. It is also important to remember that these areas constitute part of the training, not all of it, as this manual endeavours to make clear.
1. The practice of ethics
2. The practice of mindfulness and meditation
3. Insights and the application of a liberating wisdom.
We meditate for insight into all three aspects of the training. Meditation includes practices to:
develop the capacity to sit still
stay steady with the breath
observe arising/passing of pleasant/unpleasant sensations in body
see through and let go of troublesome meditation states
dissolve the arising of ego
develop the power of meditative concentration
go to subtle levels of experience
open up the heart
abide with a choice-less awareness with all phenomena.
Generally speaking, meditators, new and seasoned, love the challenge of facing themselves, or more precisely, what is not themselves but often perceived as themselves.
Concerns about insight meditation
There are also concerns that need to be addressed in the world of insight meditation. These concerns include:
A view that ethics is confined to the five precepts
an exaggerated emphasis on striving
belief in meditation, meditation, and more meditation
belief that Vipassana technique alone leads to enlightenment
dryness of the formal practice
inability to cope with the wide variety of emotions
insufficient willingness to explore energies and place of sexuality
moralizing about ethics
practitioners discouraged from meditating with other teachers
rigidity of view and an inability to lighten up
tendency to get stuck in technique and same old ground in the mind
treating insight meditation as another kind of therapy.
Seasoned teachers and dedicated yogis feel concern about taking insight meditation out of the wider Dharma context. Despite these shortcomings, the insight meditation tradition nevertheless continues to provide a wealth of valuable practices to gain insight into hindrances to awakening. The practices cultivate the capacity to develop a wholesome and sane way of living so practitioners can face existence directly. These benefits are truly immeasurable.
The naming of concerns about insight meditation expresses a sincere critique serving the best interests of those dedicated to the full realization of truth. Long-standing dedicated practitioners connected with the tradition can get into a rut through constant repetition of methods, techniques and forms.
Serious meditators around the world have engaged in numerous retreats from a week long to years. Some have spent much time in monasteries and ashrams in the East, participated in equally long retreats in the West or undertaken a retreat at every available opportunity. These are hard-working meditators who also maximise use of everyday life for practice. They keep to the ethics, love noble silence, perhaps attend a local centre, and meet on a regular basis with their teacher(s).
Such meditators may ask themselves: “Am I clinging to formal practice, to attending retreats and courses? Have I become attached to meditation, to form, to silence?” It is a valid question that long-term meditators need to address. The very practices intended to liberate us from grasping and from emotional and psychological imprisonment can instead imprison the mind in a system of meditation. The long-term meditators have some honest inner reflection to embark upon. The Buddha encourages inquiry as a contribution to free the mind up. The Buddha encouraged such inquiry since it questions meditation habits. There are numerous questions in this area of Dharma inquiry. In alphabetical order:
Am I liberated or am I stuck?
Are there limits to the methodology?
Can insight meditation take one to the end of the path of practice?
Can insight meditation take the practitioner only so far along the vast way?
Can meditation, with form and technique, reveal the emptiness of form and technique?
Can the construction of the method reveal what is unconstructed?
Can the discourses of the Buddha shed light on where I currently am?
Does meditation feed the notion of the doer and something to do, or process unfolding?
Does the meditator settle for a radiant, objectless awareness as the end of the road?
Has the current attitude towards insight meditation become a habit?
Have I experienced already most of the benefits of the methods of Vipassana meditation?
Have I reached the end of the road with Vipassana?
Have I tasted liberation after all this practice?
How can a broad view of practice reveal an immeasurable liberation?
How can a narrow view of practice and exploration reveal an immeasurable liberation?
If I do not know an authentic liberation, then what holds me back from realization?
Is there a sense of the limitless with meditation or limited?
What conditioned tendency in habit or thought is getting in the way?
What am I prepared to explore to know immeasurable freedom of the heart and mind?
Dedicated meditators face themselves in a silent retreat, East or West, short term or long term, and then go back into the so-called ‘real world.’ A thirty-minute talk by the Dharma teacher on the closing morning of a retreat is clearly not sufficient to resolve this duality of being in a retreat and then being out in the world.
If Vipassana has not reached the end of the road, that unshakeable and fulfilling liberation, then where is the end of the path? It is vital that Vipassana teachers speak much more about the end of the Way, as well as the Way. Such teachers need to draw on their experiences, their understanding and insights into freedom of being, liberation from ‘I’ and ‘my’ and the awakening close at hand. Students feel inspired to explore deeply when they know that their teachers have the confidence to talk about the Supreme Goal of practice. Authentic glimpses into liberating realisations are important to share. The raindrop, the pond and the great lake all share the same taste – the taste of water.
The End of the Path
The vinaya of 227 disciplinary rules for Buddhist monks, discourages the monks from speaking directly about their realizations as it can lead to deluded claims, disputes or both. So, although ordained Buddhist teachers show great restraint about speaking from personal experience about the ultimate truth, non-ordained teachers can share their ‘personal’ realizations at the deepest level. Yet clear and direct teachings on the goal, itself, are rare among meditation teachers. Some teachers feel concern about sounding conceited. Others find it hard to articulate the most profound of experiences or may have adopted the monastic viewpoint about claims on the ultimate. Others may not feel qualified to speak on liberating truth. I attended one Vipassana teachers’ meeting where the great majority reported they had at least tasted ‘liberation.’ They may have had differing interpretations of this, but it would indicate some level of realization of the goal. Such teachers need to communicate their deepest realizations to practitioners to give inspiration and insight. It is a challenge to speak directly about profound experience, a life changing flash, a sudden realisation without it sounding like an ego trip. Fear is an expression of the ego. Fear of speaking about deep experiences is an ego trip. Wise sharing forms an act of sharing with others. There are teachers who show little interest in the goal. Their practice is what they talk about most.
Abhidhamma, Visuddhimagga and Vinaya
In Buddhist countries many monks and nuns place great stress on strict observation of the vinaya above all else, or studying of Abhidhamma as the higher teachings of the Buddha. It must be said that this view flies in the face of the Buddha‘s statement that those who study the Dharma but do not practice, cannot be said to be followers of the Buddha. The Buddha concerned himself with practical guidelines or disciplines to minimize suffering. Some rules appear outdated, such as whether a monk squats or stands up to urinate. He suggested changing the minor rules if necessary rather than clinging to the past.
I doubt if the Buddha would have been pleased to read the Visuddhimagga (the Path of Purification), the best known Theravada commentary on the Suttas by the 5th century monk Achariya Buddhaghosa, who set the tone for much of the Theravada tradition. He wrote that there are two types of monks – those who practice and those who study. The Buddha regarded only those who practice as true followers of Dharma. The thousand-page long Visuddhimagga addresses in immense detail the path from beginning to end. I remember some Theravada monks telling me that they regarded Buddhaghosa as a second Buddha. Achariya Buddhaghosa showed much more humility in his perception of himself when he acknowledged that he had not realised liberation which is hardly inspiring for practitioners who take up his approach.
At the end of his classic text, Buddhaghosa wrote:
“By the performance of such merit [by writing this book]
As has been gained by me through this
And any other still in hand
So may I in my next re-becoming
Behold the joys of Tavatimsa…
And having in my last life seen Metteya…
May I grace the Victor’s dispensation
By realizing its highest fruit.”
Acariya Buddhaghosa wrote that he hoped to make enough merit to take him to a heavenly realm until Metteya (Maitreya), the next Buddha, appears. It is a startling admission as liberated ones abide free from any desire to be here, there or between. It is not that The Path of Purification does not serve as time as a useful manual for sincere meditators, but the mammoth attention to detail and complexity of information leaves the reader with a strong impression that the path is long, hard and mechanistic. The reader may conclude there is little chance of reaching the goal. There is a very common view among Theravada and Mahayana monks that very, very few ever reach the goal. Other traditions of Asia, such as Zen and Advaita, show more confidence in pointing out the goal.
My two teachers never referred to Acariya Buddhaghosa. Ajahn Dhammadharo told me regularly: “Forget chanting and rituals. Forget studying the Commentaries. Forget Abhidhamma. Forget learning Thai language. Just practice.” I listened and followed the instructions of the Ajahn. Years later, I read in the suttas a similar statement of the Buddha. A Vajjian monk told the Buddha he could not keep all the vinaya rules and the Buddha told him to concentrate on virtue, meditation and wisdom. (A.111.85). Some Western monks identify themselves with the rules to such a degree, they become inflexible and intolerant of those who take a different view about the priorities in the Dharma. The upholding of rules then becomes more important than living with wisdom.
Dharma disciplines (vinaya) contribute to the mindfulness practice of monks and nuns, but it also can become the rationale for monks and nuns to cling to the rules. Other Theravada monks and nuns find themselves having to explain and justify some of the minor rules. They know there are far more important aspects of Dharma to inquire about. Some Western and Asian monks and nuns seem more assured that the goal is accessible and will emerge through skilful practice, sound teachings and ongoing dedication. This assurance needs to communicate itself in the West where self-doubt is so widespread. Profound realisations will sustain the passion for inquiry and awakening through the present and future generations of the noble Sangha, ordained, nomadic or householders. It is vital to keep alive the dialogue on the way AND the goal.
The Dharma of the Goal
It is widely known that many Buddhists spend a lot of time meditating on impermanence. It is certainly an important and challenging practice reminding practitioners not to project continuity onto change. Can this practice become a distraction from meditating on the goal? The goal has to be different from the practice. Impermanence belongs to the path of practice. If the goal were to witness impermanence, it would be a path without a goal. There would be a shore on only one side and a Dharma boat going eternally across without landing on another shore.
There is a danger of becoming glued to the perception of impermanence as if it were the ultimate reality. Impermanence implies that a thing exists while changing gradually or quickly from moment to moment and then no longer exists. We perceive existence and non-existence as the absolute true reality rather one way of conceiving the world. The act of letting go in meditation takes place through seeing impermanence of different things, objects and experiences. If we are not caught up in the spell of what exists and does not exist, the meditator can experience immediacy in other ways.. The insight into no “thing,” only causes and conditions confirms dependent arising – a profound aspect of the Buddha's message.
After I spent the best part of a year in the cave on Ko Pha Nga island, I realized I had even more questions on the goal of practice, so I took the boat back to the mainland to meet with Ajahn Buddhadasa. I was like an investigative reporter wanting answers to my relentless questions. The Ajahn treated me seriously and, at times, with a studied amusement. He never diverted my attention back into practice, nor threw back my questions as being merely intellectual or coming from my mind. He answered them, sometimes slowly, searching for the right English words. Occasionally, he would dismiss me. “Go and reflect,” he would say with a half smile.
I can still feel the excitement of leaving my hut in his forest monastery two or three times a week and slowly walking to his small outdoor reception area, cluttered with books, a few dogs (one he called “Ajahn”) and chickens. Gradually, his teachings of the far shore took root – an insight, a discovery, a point made clear, a realization, a big or small awakening. I felt happy with whatever came from our exchanges. The goal began to make sense, real sense. The way of life, the austerity, the years of insight meditation practice, the solitude, the nature, the words of the Buddha, acted as a catalyst for discovery. Like Gautama the Buddha, Ajahn Dhammadharo, my Vipassana teacher, and Ajahn Buddhadasa, offered only a respectful adult-to-adult relationship, rather than a devotional relationship. Ajahn Buddhadasa never defined the goal by a single experience. There is the seeing and knowing of the goal and the exploration of it.
Any clinging to meditation on impermanence holds the yogi back from insights into dependent arising or specific conditionality. “He who sees dependent arising sees the Dharma, he who sees the Dharma sees dependent arising.” (M 28. i.191). He could not state it more clearly. The Buddha neither settled for a relative view – of a self in the world who is born, lives and dies along with many others at the same or different times – nor for a true Self that transcends birth and death. He treated concepts of a self, relative or absolute, as a view of the mind or misinterpretation of a profound experience. The Buddha saw no foundation for such an interpretation in reality. He neither settled for a conventional view of existence, nor swung to the other extreme and took an absolutist view. He regarded the middle way as a liberating movement from such extreme positions.
The conditions for what arises are indispensable. For example, ageing, pain and death cannot arise unless there is birth. Birth cannot arise without existence as a condition and existence itself cannot arise without conditions. Existence gives rise to non-existence and vice versa. If this were not the case, then things would only arise but never cease. A primary condition for ageing and death is birth. One comes with the other. It could therefore appear that there is only the process of causation continually unfolding. It would mean that everybody, as well as everything, lives bound to conditions shaped by conditions. Yet, amidst this unfolding of conditions, there is an element of freedom not bound to any particular condition. This freedom expresses the goal.
Dharma practice takes a deep interest in dependent arising and this element of freedom. There is a certain knowing, not always clear and obvious, that we are not bound to the past; liberation stands free from dependency on past, present and future. In the Mahanidana Sutta (Greater Discourse on Causation), the Buddha made clear that we need to see the conditions for what arises. For example, consciousness cannot go beyond mentality/materiality; names/form, sense objects/ experiences since it requires the support of the physical forms for the presence of consciousness. There is no evidence to show that consciousness can exist with inherent existence, inside or outside the physical realm. Thus, experiences and sense data define consciousness and the condition of consciousness defines name and form. Consciousness arises inseparably connected with the rest of mind/body processes and our interpretation of the world. There is nothing worth holding onto neither consciousness, nor mentality and materiality. There is something liberating about realising this.
“Who makes contact with the world?”, a sincere seeker asked the Buddha.
“Not a proper question. I do not say one makes contact. The proper question is: through what condition does contact come to be?”
The proper answer is the sense bases. With contact as a condition feeling comes to be. (SX11.12.ii13)
The questioner then asks who feels, and the Buddha replied in the same way. Through what conditions do feelings come to be?
The meditation and inquiry on dependent arising, on causes and conditions, carries the intimation of liberation. Seeing of dependent arising is not the goal, nor separate from the goal. Dependent arising can neither arise nor can it stop, nor become extinct, as the following questions illustrate.
If dependent arising could arise then from what could it arise?
If it could stop, what would stop it?
Dependent arising cannot come. From where could it come?
It cannot go. To where could it go?
If dependent arising was one thing, then how could it show such differences?
If it was different things, how could it be called one thing, namely dependent arising.
If it was permanent, how could it keep changing?
If it was always changing, how could dependent arising become permanent?.
There is no finer commentator on the Buddha’s teachings than Nagarjuna, the 2nd century AD Buddhist monk/scholar from south India. He is the revered commentator on the core teachings of the Buddha through his classic text The Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā ). Master of precision, Nagarjuna made it ruthlessly and unambiguously clear what the Buddha is saying. Nagarjuna made sure that the goal is never far away and is accessible to all those deeply interested in truth. The goal of liberation reveals itself, as he pointed out, through understanding specific conditionality. In the opening verse on causality, he wrote:
“Nothing whatever arises. Not from itself, not from another, not from both itself and another, and not without a cause.”
Every verse is a meditation, a reflection, an inquiry or a dialogue with others to break out of any habitual views and standpoints explored in the 27 chapters.
A small example: Why can something not arise from itself? It would mean something could exist without any need for anything else; this is impossible. It would also mean that if something arose from itself, then it would never need to stop as there would be nothing else to affect it. It would be an eternal arising out of itself. A candle flame would come only from itself and never go out.
Although it is very, very difficult to comprehend conditionality and the emptiness of view, it is truly worthwhile reflecting upon. It is certainly worthwhile to be patient until, through meditation and reflection, understanding of contingency begins to emerge. These are questions that emerge in meditation, in times of deep reflection. Such questions cannot be resolved with the rational mind but through the emergence of insights.
If something arose solely from something else, then that some ‘thing’ else could produce something completely different from itself or something exactly the same as itself.
If something arose from both something else and itself, then what would that something be that is in the other and in itself?
Would that something in something else be the same or different?
If something neither arose from itself, nor other, nor both, then from what did it arise?
Can something arise without conditions?
If so, then life would consist of things and situations independently arising. Nothing would have any relationship to anything else.
If everything that happens is due to God, chance, fate, destiny, karma, evolution, DNA, past lives, then our lives are like corks in a stormy ocean.
If we claim that there are none of these influences, then we have free will and free choice for anything we want.
If we claim powerful influences shape our lives then what percentage of these major influences shape our lives? What percentage does not shape our lives?
If we say, we have free will, independent of these forces, then what would be an expression of a free will independent of such historical influences of causes and conditions?
As we go deeper into the Dharma, we go deeper into finding the wisdom about the way things have come to arise. A meditative concentration constitutes an important feature for going deeper to find wisdom. The exploration of the goal of a liberating wisdom matters as much as the exploration of the path to the goal. Generally speaking, Vipassana meditation teachers rarely speak of the goal; they speak far more about meditation and techniques and give strong encouragement to practice. From time to time, the Vipassana meditator may have a profound experience that he or she, or the teacher, may interpret as a major breakthrough, a deep realization and this can happen during a meditation, listening to a talk, or cutting the carrots during the morning work period. The insights from the deep experience may stay long after the experience has faded away.
It is task of the teacher to ‘squeeze the honey’ out of a yogi’s deep experiences. A teacher has the responsibility to inquire into a liberating experience of the yogi as it ranks at the top of the list of priorities. The task of a mature and skilful teacher is not only to point out the path and the goal but to offer real counsel and wise understanding equally of path and goal. A teacher who does not know the goal directly may have to rely on faith in the Triple Gem and the words of the Buddha in order to support practitioners to see and know the end of the path.
In my time in the Wat Chai Na Vipassana monastery from 1970 to 1973, local villagers and townspeople brought corpses to the monastery. They would place a body on a pile of wood in the open air in the centre of the monastery. The monks watched the faces of the deceased melt with the heat of the fire, the brains boil and the eyes disappear from the head. The very young, the middle-aged and the old died from sickness, accidents, abortions, hospital misdiagnosis, crime, terrorism, military raids, old age, suicide, murder, drowning, fire, poison and so on. The various conditions for death gave us much to reflect on.
Villagers in the province told us the army would throw suspected communist terrorists out of a helicopter above a village as a warning to the villagers as to what would happen if they harboured terrorists, while suspected terrorists would come to the monastery for refuge. The frequent acts of mindfulness and meditation on death, alongside the actual witnessing of corpses, brought life and death firmly together as a whole rather than in a state of conflict with each other.
The language of the goal varies according to background, tradition and tendencies. In the inquiry into the depth of experience, the teacher must be well equipped to point out emancipation through truth in a language the practitioner understands. The particular language isn’t very important. Otherwise, the yogi will experience a real difficulty in exploring the nature of Nirvana while the teacher will feel more comfortably reverting to talking about the path. The whole purpose of the path is to reach the end of it as quickly as possible as shown beautifully in this discourse:
In a conversation (MN 72) with Vaccha[G1] , the Buddha asked “Would you be aware that a fire had become extinct if it were in front of you?”
Vaccha said “Yes.”
“If you were asked what direction has that fire gone what would you say?”
“The question would not fit the case.”
Teachers need to take real notice of this dialogue with Vaccha. For the fire to arise, it depends on certain specific conditions, for example, such as wood and friction to generate a spark, dry leaves and air. When there is no friction, then the fire disappears. This is the extinguishing of the fire.
Nirvana is the cessation of the conditions that make us burn up and suffer. Nirvana, the happiness of liberation, includes non-grasping onto views for the grasping gives the views a selfhood. Belief in selfhood obscures liberation. There is no inherent truth in Being, God, Oneness, Evolution, Essence, Dharma, Enlightenment and so on, even if they start with a capital letter. Non-reification is a feature of the goal.
Ultimately, the path and goal language only serves as a useful metaphor. Some practitioners hesitate to employ such words like Nirvana, even if the fire of burning up inside has been extinguished. If Nirvana were an existence, a some “thing” like everything else, then it would be subject to arising and passing due to the conditions influencing it. If Nirvana were non-existent then there would be no point in practicing to realize the goal of Nirvana. If there is such a thing or state as Nirvana, then we have to assume that it is neither existent, as just explained, nor is it non-existent. The meditator cannot find an existing inside experience, nor outside. The Buddha made it clear using the analogy of the fire. Where is the fire when it has gone out? It is not to be found – here, there or in between. There is a knowing of the Cool, the Sublime and the Unconstructed – some of the concepts the Buddha employed to describe liberation.
We have the capacity to question our activities, including our commitment to the path and goal. For there is nothing to be taken for granted in the way we take up a viewpoint. The practitioner may claim that he or she walks the path to awakening. If our actions always remained until they came to fruition, then these acts would never go away. We would have to live with them moment to moment. If these acts faded away, then they would have no power to bring us to full awakening.
Practices would have no purpose since they could not bring the practitioner to any fulfillment. If the practitioner was a real self, then the practitioner would never go away, nor would the practice. Both would be forever locked in together.
The practitioner and the practice function in an inter-dependent way. The practitioner cannot be before the practice. If the practitioner or the practice were truly separate from each other it would mean that there could be a practitioner without any practice and a practice without any practitioner. A non-existent practitioner cannot engage in a real practice. If the practitioner is unreal, then so is the action.
The practitioner, the practice and the culmination of practice simply function as a threefold construct empty of any substance or inherent nature. There is a liberating relief to all of this. What we cannot construct matters.