Vipassana (Sanskrit, Vipasyana

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Vipassanā (Sanskrit, vipaśyanā; insight) is direct intuition of the three marks that characterize all worldly phenomena: anitya (Pāli, anicca; impermanence), duḥkha (Pāli, dukkha; suffering), and anātman (Pāli, anatta; no-self). Buddhism classifies the cultivation of vipassanā as one of two modes of meditation (bhāvanā), the other being tranquility (śamatha; Pāli, samatha). Vipassanā meditation entails perfecting the mental faculty of mindfulness (smṛti; Pāli, sati) for the purpose of analyzing objects of meditation, such as mental states or the physical body, for manifestations of the three marks. When fully developed, vipassanā leads to the attainment of liberating prajñā (Pāli, pañña; wisdom) and the ultimate goal of nirvĀṆa (Pāli, nibbāna) or the cessation of suffering and freedom from rebirth. Samatha meditation entails the cultivation of mental concentration (samādhi) for the purpose of strengthening and calming the mind. When fully developed it leads to the attainment of dhyāna (Pāli, jhāna), meditative absorption or trance, and the generation of various abhijñā (Pāli, abhiññā; higher knowledges).

The most common method of meditation described in the Pāli canon relies on vipassanā and samatha practiced together. In this method, jhāna is first induced through samatha. The meditator then exits from that state and reflects upon it with mindfulness to see that it is characterized by the three marks. In this way jhāna is made the object of vipassanā meditation. One who uses this method is called a tranquility worker (samatha yānika), and all buddhas and their chief disciples are described as having practiced in this way. A less common method found in the canon relies on vipassanā alone. Developing concentration to a lesser degree than jhāna, the meditator examines ordinary mental and physical phenomena for the three marks as described above. The meditator who uses this method is called a bare insight worker (suddhavipassanāyānika).

By the tenth century c.e., vipassanā meditation appears to have fallen out of practice in the TheravĀda school. By that time it was commonly believed that the religion of Gautama Buddha had so declined that liberation through insight could no longer be attained until the advent of the future Buddha Metteyya (Sanskrit, Maitreya) many eons from now. In the early eighteenth century, however, renewed interest in the SatipaṬṬhĀna-sutta (Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness) led to a revival of vipassanā meditation in Burma (Myanmar). After encountering initial resistance, the practice of vipassanā was endorsed by the Burmese saṄgha and embraced by the royal court. By the late nineteenth century, a distinct praxis and organizational pattern had emerged that set the stage for the modern vipassanā movement of the twentieth century. Led chiefly by reform minded scholar-monks, a variety of simplified meditation techniques were devised based on readings of the Satipaṭṭhana-sutta, the Visuddhimagga (Path to Purification), and related texts. These techniques typically follow the method of bare insight. The teaching of vipassanā also prompted the development of new Buddhist institutions called wipathana yeiktha or insight hermitages. Initially attached to monasteries, these evolved into independent lay oriented meditation centers. A related development was the rise of personality cults devoted to the veneration of prominent meditation teachers as living arhats. In terms of impact, the popularization of vipassanā represents the most significant development in Burmese Buddhism in the twentieth century. Thailand has also witnessed a revival of vipassanā practice in the modern period, and both Burmese and Thai meditation teachers have been instrumental in propagating vipassanā in Sri Lanka, India, and the West.

See also:Abhijñā (Higher Knowledges); Anātman/Ātman (No-Self/Self); Anitya (Impermanence); Dhyāna (Trance State); Duhkḥa (Suffering); Prajñā (Wisdom)


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Mahasi Sayadaw. The Progress of Insight through the Stages of Purification: A Modern Pāli Treatise on Buddhist Satipaṭṭhana Meditation, tr. Nyanaponika Thera. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Forest Hermitage, 1965.

Mendelson, E. Michael. Sangha and State in Burma: A Study of Monastic Sectarianism and Leadership, ed. John P. Ferguson. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975.

Swearer, Donald K. "The Way to Meditation." In Buddhism in Practice, ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Patrick A. Pranke