Theravada Meditation: Visuddhimagga Vipassana
Full Moon Uposatha Day , March 7, 2012
index to series
Last week I began discussing the Visuddhimagga, a massive meditation manual compiled almost a thousand years after the Buddha (and 1500 years before us), that itself claims to accurately represent the Buddha’s intention in the Suttas. The Visuddhimagga, though seldom followed exactly in the modern Theravada tradition, has had a great influence on it, and particularly, I hope to show, in creating the terminology used to talk about meditation.
As mentioned last week, Visuddhimagga provides two rather distinct methods of meditation, serenity (samatha) and insight (vipassana), where the Buddha presents a single method, albeit with a number of parts. Last week I used our handy template to compare samatha meditation to the Buddha’s meditation, and we found very limited correspondence. In particular the Visuddhimagga‘s application of fixed concentration seems to have no counterpart in the Buddha’s meditation. This week I undertake to compare vipassana meditation as presented in the Visuddhimagga using the same handy template with the Buddha’s meditation. Here the correspondence will turn out to be very close.
Last week I introduced the annoying prefixes “VM-” and “S-” and attached each to the term “jhana.” Quite simply, the word “jhana” as used in the Visuddhimagga does not have the same meaning as the word “jhana” as used by the Buddha. This is the first shift in meaning. “VM-jhana” refers to how the Visuddhimagga understands jhana, roughly as fixed concentration or absorption. “S-jhana” refers to how the Buddha understands jhana in the Suttas, roughly as centered concentration, unabsorbed but openly aware. I will extend the use of these prefixes today, particularly for the word “vipassana.”
Prerequisites of Visuddhimagga Vipassana Medititation.
The Visuddhimaga sees practice in stages, in which one stage feeds into the next. Vipassana meditation follows samatha meditation and therefore at least the same prerequisites are statisfied that I described last week, particularly the prerequisite virtue is described in great detail. Before Vipassana occurs also the intellectual understanding of wisdom. So both wisdom and virtue are woven into vipassana meditation, as in the Buddha’s meditation.
However samatha meditation, and with it VM-jhana, is itself is now an optional prerequisite for VM-vipassana. The serenity vehicle guy (samatha-yankika) is instructed to leave VM-jhana in order to pursue VM-vipassana meditation, thus keeping both methods distinct. VM-jhana is thereby only indirectly applicable to VM-vipassana meditation but is said to support it. However, peculiarity of samatha as a (optional) prerequisite to vipassana is that vipassana, as we will see momentarily, is generally identified with mindfulness practice and in the Buddha’s framework mindfulness precedes samadhi; consider for instance the traditional order of the Noble Eightfold Path. Also there is nothing in the Suttas about leaving jhana before practicing vipassana.
Methods of Visuddhimagga Vipassana Medititation.
Removal of the hindrances. These are much as in Buddha’s meditation.
Undistracted reflection on themes conducive to insight. These are differently formulated, but are largely equivalent to the themes discussed in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. These themes are organized primarily around the khandhas (skandhas or aggregates): materiality, feeling, perception, volition and consciousness, whereas the Four Foundations of Mindfulness are body (materiality), feeling, consciousness and everything else. The technique is to examine a chose theme in particuar with regard to impermanence, suffering and insubstantiality. The method of Vipassana meditation does not seem to differ much from Right Mindfulness.
The Experience of Visuddhimagga Vipassana Medititation.
Concentration is centered, not fixed. The Visuddhimagga refers to momentary concentration (khanika-samadhi) as a necessary component of penetration, that is of the arrival of insight. Unfortunately it says very little about momentary concentration. As its name suggests concentration fixes for at least a moment on a single thing, but otherwise is free to move about. These moments of concentration can form a continuity such that the term khanika-ekaggata, unification or centeredness of momentary concentration, is possible. The Paramathamanjusa, the Pali commentary to the Vissudhimagga, apparently makes an interesting observation, that the force of khanika-samadhi can be equivalent to full absorption in the jhanas.
Investigation continues in samadhi. Yes, or at least with momentary concentration. Given that momentary concentration in vipassana is the counterpart of S-jhana in the Buddha’s framework, it is surprising that Visuddhimagga gives so little attention to momentary concentration, Whereas the Buddha describes S-jhana in detail and then extols its virtues, admonishing practioners to abide in jhana, to return to it over and over, the Vissuddhamagga almost trivializes it, or its counterpart. This is not a difference in method or experience, but one in the way practice is inspired.
The upshot is that VM-Vipassana meditation seems to correspond to the Buddha’s meditation closely, differing in smaller details. This conclusion should be reassuring to the many modern vipassana practioners. However, a realignment of terminology seems to have occurred in the Visuddhimagga, plus the Visuddhimagga devotes considerable, in fact most, space and effort to the description of a method (VM-samatha) that has no counterpart in Buddha’s meditation.
Here is the way the terminology has been realigned:
VM-Samatha corresponds to nothing in the Suttas
VM-jhana (= VM-fixed concentration, uppana-samadhi) corresponds to nothing in the Suttas
VM-access concentration (upacara-samadhi) corresponds to nothing in the Suttas
VM-Vipassana encompasses S-mindfulness and S-vipassana
VM-momentary concentration corresponds to S-jhana (= S-samadhi)
VM-samadhi includes S-samadhi (S-jhana), but is much broader.
No wonder people talk past one another when they use any of the terms samatha, vipassana, jhana or samadhi in Theravada circles, which has widely adopted Visuddhimagga terminology alongside that of the Suttas.
I speculate that this shift in terminology began historically — we have no way of knowing when — with the meaning of “jhana.” The Buddha seems to have appropriated this word and given it a specific role in his framework as S-jhana, much like he appropriated “kamma” (“karma”) with a specifically Buddhist definition. But just as Buddhists in the West have to defend the word “karma” against the intrusion of a more widely known Hindu understanding, the same word, “jhana” may have been similarly challenged in the early days. My speculation is that the defense was unsuccessful at some place and time in the tradition that produced the Visuddhimagga and that “jhana” lost the meaning the Buddha had given it as centered concentration,.
Once this happened “samatha” and especially “vipassana,” which were for the Buddha aspects of jhana, became free agents and broadened their meanings. However, in sustaining the Buddha’s framework in practice it was necessary to acknowledge types of concentration that were not fixed, and therefore the new terms “access concentration” and “momentary concentration” were introduced.
To do Visuddhimagga justice, I should stress that the entire practice of Buddha’s meditation seems to be upheld in the Visuddhimagga framework, in fact in Vipassana meditation alone, in spite of the realignment of terminology. An important question is how useful the rest of what the Vissuddhimagga offers is, namely samatha meditation. The Visuddhimagga certainly develops samatha meditation as a highly refined and sophisticated technique. It is perhaps telling that in modern Theravada, samatha meditation is an historical innovation that has for the most part been ignored or marginalized. However in recent years samatha meditation has been successfully reintroduced into the daunting plethora of meditation techniques by Pa Auk Sayadaw in Burma and abroad and has a growing number of strong practitioner-advocates. I will not pursue usefulness of samatha meditation beyond this within this series.
Also, given that the terminology used to describe meditation has shifted in the Theravada tradition from the Buddha’s usage, a practical question arises, Should we try to shift it back? Actually to do so might cause even more confusion, at least for a time. For instance, what is now commonly referred to as “Vipassana” meditation would more properly be called “Jhana” meditation! (“Go sit jhana, oh bhikkus.”). But in fact this is what the Zen people have always called what is in its essential details the same thing: “zazen,” “sitting jhana.”
Next week I will talk about modern Vipassana meditation and how it accords with the Buddha’s meditation, and thus will end this series on the Buddha’s Meditation and its Variants.