What Does Vipassanā Actually Mean? Part 4: Let’s Be Fair

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

I spent the last few days going through the Majjhima, Samyutta, Anguttara and Digha Nikayas to see if I was missing something. One thing that’s striking right away, is that there aren’t that many. If it was true that vipassanā is the sine qua non of Buddhist meditation. Why is there only one mention in the entire Digha? Set this against multiple direct references and untold indirect references to jhana in the same text, and the reality of the Buddhist practice is driven home.

I didn’t find anything in the Anguttara or Digha Nikayas that contradicted Dhammavuddho’s assertion that vipassanā really just means “hearing and understanding the Buddha’s teachings” rather than “noting the rising and passing away of phenomena.” In the Samyutta Nikaya there are precisely 5 mentions of vipassanā out of 2,889 suttas. This compares to dozens of mentions of jhana. Again, nothing to contradict Dhammavuddho.

In the Majjhima, there are more mentions of vipassanā, and a couple of  quotes challenge Dhammavuddho’s definition. “Right View is supported by sila (virtue), learning, discussion, samatha, and vipassanā.” (MN 43,14) Now, set against the other factors this way, it looks like vipassanā might taken to mean something other than just “understanding the teachings” in a surface way. It might even mean something like a deep bedrock understanding that arises from first learning about the teachings and merging that understanding with the perspective of jhana. But still nothing about “observing arising and passing away.”

I did, however, find one sutta that pretty powerfully challenges the Dhammavuddho definition of vipassanā, the Anupada Sutta, also in the Majjhima. Almost certainly this sutta was the basis for using the word vipassanā as its modern usage.

Let me step back and describe the sutta a bit. In it, the Buddha tells the story of Sariputta’s two week (!) quest for enlightenment. He praises Sariputta and names him his “son in dhamma”. His description of Sariputta’s practice is most of the sutta. Basically, Sariputta does jhana practice, but along the way carefully observes and knows each of the states he is engaged in a fine-grained, systematic manner. It sounds very much like modern vipassanā.

Now, this sutta makes a pretty convincing case for the modern definition of vipassanā, but hold on there for a minute big fella.  Having only one sutta that makes the case for vipassanā practice is telling. The other foundational practices all have many suttas that we can point to. Also, notice that Sariputta doesn’t just sit there with monkey mind noting “thinking”. Even in the most vipassanā of the ancient teachings, Sariputta first achieves jhana! The whole sutta is about him observing the factors of the 8 jhanas.

An even more important thing to understand is that this is one of very few suttas in the nikayas that does not have a counterpoint teaching in the agamas. The agamas are very old translations of the ancient teachings into Chinese. Having two very ancient sources for the teachings that are hugely separated by geography and religious schools is a good test for the antiquity of the suttas. Amazingly, they mostly hold up very well. One reason we can trust the Pali canon to the extent we do is because of this test. Now, the fact that this sutta is NOT in the agamas is a point of evidence that it is not authentic. Not a slam dunk, but taken with the fact that is stands in such stark departure from every other mention of vipassanā leads me to think that it is a later addition. Apparently Rhys Davis, the great early scholar of Buddhism agreed. In any case, the primacy of jhana practice is still here.

Even if you can’t go so far as to exclude a sutta because there is not correlate agama, the great scholar Piya Tan has another view of the sutta. From his essay The Buddha Discovered Dhyana:

The translation is problematic, to say the least…Iit can be safely said, this translation would not be accepted by the dhyana-attainers themselves. Let me propose a differ-ent translation of this key passage, from a more experiential angle, thus:

These states [the factors or nature of each dhyana and attainment] were established in him in succession (after they have occurred) (anupada,vavatthitā): it is known to him that those states arise; it is known to him that these states are present; it is known to him that these states disappear. (M 111.4/3:25) = SD 56.4

Notice what is not said here: it is not said that “he knows that those states arise; he knows that these states are present; he knows that these states disappear.” But it is in the present perfect, reflecting after the fact, outside of dhyana, “it is known to him…”

Ok, but is it possible that vipassanā is actually a firmly embedded practice in the suttas that just usually goes by a different name? Come back tomorrow…


10 thoughts on “What Does Vipassanā Actually Mean? Part 4: Let’s Be Fair

    1. Good question. Anapansati just means mindfulness of in and out breathing. Breath meditation. Vipassana takes anapanasati as step one in the program. It is a starting place and a way to develop the initial concentration needed to do the real work of mindfulness of other stuff.

      I don’t see it that way, of course!

    1. Absolutely. I think from that perspective, they are just different results of a single practice. The problem arises when people try to say that there are two completely separate practices. And even worse: only one of those two is necessary! Thanks so much for your comments.

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