What Does Vipassanā Actually Mean? Part 1: Do we have it wrong?

This is the first post on my controversial view of Vipassanā. Here is the complete series:

Today Buddhists often are taught that the culmination of the Buddhist practice is a meditation technique called Vipassanā. You can take classes on Vipassanā meditation. There are foundations dedicated to Vipassanā meditation. The word itself has entered the common imagination in the same way that the word karma has.

The technique has things in common with other styles of meditation, but what distinguishes it is this: it culminates in a practice where you very carefully watch the arising and passing away of mental phenomena.

But here’s the problem: the Buddha never taught a practice called Vipassanā meditation.

If you look at the Eightfold path, right there coming in at number 7 is mindfulness meditation, and right there at number 8 is jhana practice. But no vipassanā! So what’s going on here?

Not long ago in the Theravadan world, Vipassanā was becoming the primary, in many cases only, meditation practice taught. There was an emerging consensus that so-called insight practice, all by itself, was all that was needed for liberation. Over the last few decades, though, jhana practice, the practice of concentration has made a major (and much needed) comeback. I’ll talk more about this in an upcoming post. For the moment, I’d like to address the idea that we may have completely misunderstood what vipassanā even means.

The great translator and scholar gives a one-word definition of vipassanā: insight. This is the standard definition. So my eyes popped open not long ago when I read the Bhante Dhammvuddho article Mindfulness, Recollection, and Concentration. Here is his take on vipassanā.

The suttas mentioned above imply that both samatha and vipassana are needed for liberation. However, we find in the suttas and vinaya that there were several instances where external sect ascetics who had practised samatha, upon hearing the Dhamma for the first time, attained liberation or arahanthood. So what is the vipassana ingredient here? …The vipassana ingredient is listening to the Dhamma, and would also include teaching, repeating, and reflecting on the Dhamma. Thus vipassana should be translated as contemplation.

Wow. This takes things a step further. Not only is Vipassanā not a specific meditation method, it isn’t even a practice of watch arising and passing. It is just plain old contemplation of the Buddha’s teachings.

I should mention up front that not everything Dhammavuddho says is exactly accurate. For example, he says that the Chinese translation of vipassanā used in the Chinese Agamas is “contemplation”. This is not accurate. The Chinese is actually translated as kan, which means to see. This translation is much closer to the “arising and passing” definition of vipassanā.

On the other hand, his explanation of why external ascetics can attain arahatship after hearing a teaching is pretty compelling.

Notice also that this puts a different kind of spin on the famous formula “sila, samādhi and paññā.” These three are supposed to be the 3 main practices of the Buddhist path.

Sila means moral/ethical behavior

Samādhi means jhana/concentration practice

Paññā means wisdom

Now, the standard understanding right now is that paññā means wisdom in the sense of vipassanā, but in retrospect this looks pretty forced when compared to just wisdom in the sense of “internalizing the Buddha’s teachings/

More tomorrow!


7 thoughts on “What Does Vipassanā Actually Mean? Part 1: Do we have it wrong?

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