It has often been noted that Vipassana is not found in the Noble Eightfold Path. For someone practicing Vipassana this is very curious. After all, we have been led to believe that Right Insight is the key ingredient to Buddhism, the unique contribution that the Buddha made. So why isn’t it there?
Various attempts over the years have been made to bodge it in there. It is sometimes explained that it is the FIRST step of the path: Right View. The arguement goes that everyday right view is just understanding the teaching on an intellectual level. Transcendent Right View is understanding those same teachings with the depth of insight. That sounds good. The only problem is that there is no support for this in the canon.
Sometimes Vipassana is explained as being Right Mindfulness. The idea here is that we carefully explore each of the foundations of mindfulness (Contemplation of the Body, Contemplation of Feelings, etc.), and this give rise to insight. Again, this sounds good, but it’s obviously trying to retrofit a modern understanding of how practice SHOULD work into an ancient list.
I find that when most people try to practice Vipassana right out of the gate, they might find some insight, but mostly what they reap is anxiety and more stress. As usual, I think that the better path is to look to the ancient teachings and take them as they come, not as we WISH they were. You have to understand two things for the Eightfold Path to make sense: 1.) it comes in order and 2.) there are actually 10 steps to the Eightfold Path.
IT COMES IN ORDER
Each step of the Eightfold Path builds on the previous step. It begins with Right Understanding. You have to learn a bit. That’s the beginning of practice. Read a book. Listen to an inspiring talk. Learn a sutta. You don’t have to learn everything right away, just enough to get started. Then comes Right Commitment. Now here’s where order becomes important. If your Commitment flags, go back to Step 1. Listen to an inspiring Podcast. Learn about a great figure from Buddhism. This will give you renewed energy to recommit to practice.
Next are the 3 steps of ethics: Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood. I admit, the order of these doesn’t seem to be important. They come as a group. But when you find yourself unable to control your lies, look back to the previous step. Practice to deepen your commitment.
Right Mental Qualities is the step that pivots toward meditation. It is useful all the time, but it is the key that leads to successful meditation. It is usually translated as Right Effort, but since it is the effort to achieve and maintain right mental qualities, I find this a more useful definition. This is the step that too many people skip when they are practicing meditation. Too many people want to go right to Right Mindfulness, but mindfulness is very difficult without the right mental qualities. How do you know that it’s the right time to pivot from Right Mental Qualities to Right Mindfulness? It’s when mindfulness is easy. When you can almost effortlessly rest your mind on your breath (or whatever your subject of meditation) without stress or anxiety.
Right Mindfulness is not carefully analyzing the aspects of your mind. Rather it is the process of becoming so completely absorbed in your subject of meditation that you slide quite peacefully (free from distractions, free of unwholesome mental qualities) into jhana. And the four jhanas themselves are Right Samadhi.
So where does “Vipassana” come into the picture. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, vipassana is not a practice (at least for the Buddha) but rather a state of mind that is perfected in jhana. Jhana strengthens peace (samatha) and clear seeing (vipassana). But then what?
It’s not well known, that the Noble Eightfold Path actually has 10 steps! It seems strange, but there you have it. In the Mahacattarisaka Sutta, for example, the Buddha lays out the traditional Eightfold Path, then gives the result of those eight steps as the final two. The ninth step of the path is Right Insight and the Final step is Right Liberation. The final step is of course not a step but an arrival: Nibbana itself. But what to make of Right Insight? Right insight is clear seeing into the true nature of things. Like the other steps, it is a practice. Namely, you have to look. But now you are looking with the eyes of jhana. The Buddha calls fourth jhana the “perfection of mindfulness through equanimity.” The result of this kind of peace and clarity is insight.
Now, you may be saying, what does this have to do with practice? Just this: as with the other steps of the path, if you want to strengthen your insight, go to the previous step of the path: Right Samadhi. In order to achieve liberating insight, strengthen your jhana. But then, you already knew that, right?
If you want to read more about Vipassana, check out my series here: What Does Vipassanā Actually Mean? Part 1: Do we have it wrong?