What Does Vipassanā Actually Mean? Part 5: A Deep Foundational Practice?

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

But what if vipassanā practice is there all through the suttas, but without the label “vipassanā”? What if it is a foundational practice that is so integral to the practice that it is there in every aspect of the teaching without having a proper name? I first came across this idea in the wonder blog Theravadan (http://theravadin.wordpress.com/). In this view, the term vipassanā is misleading because the practice is generally not called “vipassanā” in the suttas. According to Theravadan:

So the term he [the Buddha] is using is hardly ever “vipassana” (some suttas, mostly commentaries use this term) and not “noting”  (commentaries use this term, sallakkheti). The Buddha uses “sati – remembering”  instead or he uses “yoniso manasikaro – proper attention” or he uses “iti pajanati – to know “thus” or he uses various verbs related to “samanupassati – seeing,observing” etc. etc.

This is a reasonable theory. Does it hold up? Just because the Buddha might not have used the term vipassanā in the way we do now, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t other terms in the sutras that fit the bill. Sati (mindfulness) for various reasons is not a good candidate. I’ll talk about sati in another post. The best candidate is probably Yoniso Manasikāra.

Yoniso means wise, or proper, or perhaps thorough. Manasikāra is attention, meaning the faculty of observing. Taken together yoniso manasikāra is a widely attested practice in the suttas of directing ones attention in positive, useful ways and avoiding unhelpful ways.

Sticking an a- on most pali words turns them into their opposite, so ayoniso manasikāra means unwise attention. How can attention be unwise? Isn’t the teaching that we just turn our attention to whatever arises? Indeed NO. Without a doubt the suttas teach that we should direct our attention in certain ways and avoid others. Directing our attention to the sexually appealing aspects of another person is unwise because it arouses lust. Directing attention toward the meta is wise because it releases us from ill-will.

Ven. Analayo has a wonderful discussion of yoniso manasikāra in his essay From Grasping to Emptiness.

[W]ise attention serves as a heading for all the methods listed in the Sabbāsava-sutta, a position that reflects its relevance in relation to the task of eradicating the influxes.

Of the seven methods for overcoming the influxes listed in the Sabbāsava-sutta, the first requires directing wise attention to the four noble truths, which will lead to the attainment of stream-entry. Such wise attention stands in contrast to unwisely attending to meaningless questions of the type “am I at present?”, etc. (MN I 8). The other six methods involve reflecting “wisely”, yoniso, in order to:

– establish sense-restraint,

– properly use one’s requisites,

– patiently endure vicissitudes of climate, etc.,

– avoid dangerous situations,

– remove unwholesome thoughts from the mind,

– develop the factors of awakening.

The range of activities assembled in the Sabbāsava-sutta reflects the compass of wise attention, which covers proper use of requisites just as much as developing the mental qualities that lead to attaining awakening.

Analayo doesn’t say so, but this sutta also shows the place on the path for yoniso manasikāra. It isn’t a culminating factor in the path but rather a function of Right Effort. Wise attention gets us into a mental place where we are ready to do Right Mindfulness. Carefully and wisely observing the mind is an essential part of the path, yes, but it is not a meditation practice that goes beyond jhana. Rather, it is a mental tool that gets us to a place where we can begin to practice jhana.


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