Theravada Meditation: Vipassana Jhanas
Last Quarter Moon Uposatha Day , March 15, 2012
index to series
Last Quarter Moon Uposatha Day index to series
The Twentieth Century and perhaps late Nineteenth Century saw the arising of a new plethora of meditation techniques in the Theravada world, most notably the methods of “Vipassana Meditation” that developed in Burma. These generally take the Visuddhimagga (which we discussed last week) as a primary influence, and particularly make use of the terminology of the Visuddhimagga, but whereas the Visuddhimagga presents two methods, Samatha and Vipassana meditation, the Vipassana schools highlight Vipassana (hence their name).
The most influential method in many Theravada countries and in America is that developed in Burma by Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw. I would like to focus specifically on this method today but only enough to compare it to Buddha’s meditation.
Prerequisites of Mahasi School Medititation.
Wisdom and Virtue. As for Buddha’s meditation, and in the Visuddhimagga.
Everyday Mindfulness. The basic method of noting, described below is recommended for all the yogi’s waking hours.
Methods of Mahasi School Meditation.
Removal of the hindrances. As in Buddha’s meditation.
Undistracted reflection on themes conducive to insight. Some vipassana methods use samatha practice to settle the mind to a certain point before undertaking vipassana per se. The Mahasi method is purely vipassana, that is, it does not make use of any preparatory samatha practice or fixed concentration.
The Mahasi method is a practice of noting which entails moment to moment awareness of impermanence. Noting here means mentally naming what has just arisen, “lifting, swallowing, listening, thinking, touching, intending.” Noting itself is an innovation not found as a continuous practice in Buddha’s meditation, but is much in his spirit of clear comprehension of whatever arises.
The Mahasi method, like Visuddhimagga, uses five aggregates of grasping (form, feeling, perception, formations and consciousness) as themes of meditation, and optionally makes use of following the breath as part of contemplation of body, with recommended focus on the feeling of the breath in the abdomen. For each theme of contemplation the qualities of impermanence, suffering and non-self are to be observed. The method differs only in details from the Buddha’s meditation.
The Experience of Mahasi School Meditation.
In Buddha’s meditation, samadhi (S-samadhi, Sutta-samadhi or S-jhana) is a primary experience of meditation. In the Visuddhimagga this experience is called “momentary concentration,” about which little is said. However, since the method in either case is close to the Buddha’s method we would expect the emergent experience to be similar.
Concentration is centered, not fixed. Mahasi Sayadaw describes the concentration (samadhi) that occurs during vipassana meditation in terms of the observing consciousness not wandering away from the task of noting whatever arises. This momentary concentration deepens as follows.
… there arises tranquility of mind and along with it appears mental agility, etc. … body and mind are agile in functioning swiftly, they are pliant in being able to attend to any object desired for any length of time desired. … Insight penetrates objects with ease.
Clearly samatha (serenity) arises in vipassana. Mahasi Sayadaw’s disciple, Pandita Sayadaw describes this concentration experience that arises from the Mahasi method “vipassana jhana,” in contrast to “samatha jhana” (VM-jhana, Visuddhimagga-jhana) as follows:
Vipassana jhana allows the mind to move freely from object to object, staying focused on the characteristics of impermanence, suffering and absence of self that are common in all objects. … Rather than the tranquility and absorption which are the goal of samatha jhana practitioners, the most important results of vipassana jhana are insight and wisdom.
Pandita Sayadaw in fact analyzes vipassana jhana in precise Sutta terms, correlating this concentration with the specific factors and jhana stages described in the Suttas. Actually, we can anticipate this correlation since the method that gives rise to vipassana jhanas is close to the Buddha’s method that gives rise to S-jhanas.
Investigation continues in samadhi. VM-vipassana includes S-mindfulness and S-vipassana, all of which involve investigation. Vipassana jhanas arise from these and there is no indication that this samadhi shuts down investigation; investigation continues with a more subtle mind (which is S-vipassana). This is fully in accord with Buddha’s description of jhana.
The main conclusions in looking at Mahasi’s method are that it is largely equivalent to the Buddha’s method and results in the same kind of experience. The differences are largely terminological, but even this is corrected with the term vipassana jhana, related to the Buddha’s and Visuddhimagga’s terms as follows.
Vipassana jhana (= VM-momentary concentration) is S-jhana (= S-samadhi).
That is, vipassana jhana is the jhana or samadhi the Buddha had been talking about all along! Although samatha jhana doubtless arises in fixed concentration, and I speculate that it was something the Buddha was intimately familiar with from his early training, there is no indication at all that the Buddha was interested in teaching samatha jhana.
The lesson to be learned from the “discovery” of vipassana jhanas is that made at the beginning of the series on Buddha’s meditation and its variants, that meditative experience has a corrective influence on the textual tradition and its interpretation. The yogi’s practice is not based on texts alone, but also on the experiences that arise through practice. Given enough hints from the texts and an understanding of the goal of meditative practice in Buddhism the integrity of the teachings will be maintained or tend to be restored in practical terms if they have gone astray. (I speculate that where understanding goes astray is generally through a intellectual understanding not backed by practice. There is a curious natural pun in the Pali language: the word “ajjhayaka” has two meanings (1) non-meditator and (2) scholar.)
The Visuddhimagga does not contradict the Buddha’s method once the terminological correspondences are understood. However it does fail grievously to highlight and extoll the relevant sense of jhana or samadhi the way the Buddha does, in fact it marginalizes it. Although jhana is an emergent experience that arises through the method, highlighting it as something we return to over and over, as a place we dwell, does inspire us to think about practice in a particular way. Keep in mind that samadhi, equated with jhana, is one of the eight folds of the Noble Path. Recall also the many ways the Buddha extolls jhana/samadhi. (and clearly not samatha).
Sit jhana, bhikkhus!
When right samadhi does not exist, for one failing right samadhi, the proximate cause is destroyed for knowledge and vision of things as they really are. – A.V.4.9-11.
Bhikkhus, develop samadhi. A monk with samadhi understands in accordance with reality. – SN 22.5
The knowledges are for one with samadhi, not for one without samadhi. – AN 6.64
A monk who develops and makes much of the four jhanas slopes, flows and inclines toward Nibbana.
There is no jhana for one with no wisdom, no wisdom for one without jhana. But one with both jhana and discernment, he’s on the verge of nibbana. – Dhp 372
I say, bhikkhus, that the knowledge and vision of things as they really are too has a proximate cause; it does not lack a proximate cause. And what is the proximate cause for the knowledge and vision of things as they really are? It should be said: samadhi. – SN 12.23
You will probably find that if you substitute “momentary concentration” or “vipassana jhana” for each reference to “samadhi” or “jhana” above, the result is completely comprehensible, but nonetheless lacks sparkle and weight.