What Does Vipassanā Actually Mean? Part 3: Amassing Evidence

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

The last couple of days I’ve made the case that perhaps the Buddha didn’t teach a meditation method called vipassanā. But that can’t be the end of the story. After all, the Buddha does talk about vipassanā. So what is its place in the teaching?

Bhikkhus, these two things pertain to true knowledge. What two? Serenity [samatha] and insight [vipassanā]. When serenity is developed, what benefit does one experience? The mind is developed. When the mind is developed, what benefit does one experience? Lust is abandoned. When insight is developed, what benefit does one experience? Wisdom is developed. When wisdom is developed, what benefit does one experience? Ignorance is abandoned.

A mind defiled by lust is not liberated, and wisdom defiled by ignorance is not developed. Thus, bhikkhus, through the fading away of lust there is liberation of mind, and through the fading away of ignorance there is liberation by wisdom.

-AN II.4.31 translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

In another sutta (AN IV.170) Ananda says that there are 4 paths to of arahatship.

  1. Vipassanā followed by samatha
  2. Samatha followed by vipassanā
  3. Samatha and vipassanā developed together and
  4. When “a bhikkhu’s mind is seized by restlessness about the dhamma.”

Now first let me say that #4 is a bit strange. But for today let’s talk about the first three. When we take these two suttas together, the message to me is that samatha and vipassanā are both part of the path. On the other hand, the traditional definition of vipassanā as “insight” doesn’t look too good. I see why samatha could proceed insight, but why bother with samatha if one has already developed insight?

Meanwhile, Bhante Dhammavuddhu’s definition (see the post from 2 days ago) is looking pretty good. What does vipassanā lead to? Wisdom. That makes a lot of sense if you define vipassanā as “listening, repeating, and reflecting on the dhamma.” It makes less sense if you define vipassanā as either “insight” or “observing the arising and passing away of mental phenomena.”

So where does this leave us? I have been trying to track down every mention of vipassanā in the nikayas. I have yet to find any that completely contradict Dhammavuddho’s definition, but I still feel that there is a little more to it than just a mental understanding of the teachings. I think there is an element of depth that is missing from just a scholarly understanding. But as things stand, I see no evidence for a practice of vipassanā, I see no evidence for vipassanā as “arising and passing away of phenomena”. Instead, we see how important, how deep, how crucial an understanding of the teachings is to the Buddhist path.

Tomorrow will be the last day of this series (although surely not the last day I talk about vipassanā). In it I will try to answer the question, “What if there is such a thing as vipassanā, but it just isn’t called Vipassanā?”

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