Vipassana Research Institute
The Buddha taught the method that he himself practised. Unlike some of his contemporaries, who propagated systems of blind belief, the Buddha's emphasis was on a system of direct experience (paccanubhotipaccanubhoti). On the basis of his own life experience, he identified dukkha (suffering) as the universal disease and re-discovered the way leading to the eradication of this disease and so to a state of eternal happiness-paramam sukhamparamam sukham.1 This was achieved through the practice of Vipassana.
Etymologically, the word has been derived from the root 'pas' which means 'to see' with the prefix 'vi' which means 'visesa'-in a special manner or 'vividham'-from different angles. Thus literally the term Vipassana communicates the sense of observing or seeing in a special manner-Visesato passatiti vipassanavisesena passati ti vipassana2 or Aniccadivasena vividhena akarena passati ti vipassana3. (He sees from different angles as impermanent etc., thus it is Vipassana.)
This process is also described as seeing things as they really are (yatha bhuta nana dassanamyatha bhuta nana dassanam), not as they appear to be.
Pannattim thapetvapannattim thapetva visesena passati ti vipassana.
Putting aside concept, he sees in a special way, thus it is Vipassana.
Through this practice, the basic characteristic of anicca (impermanence) becomes clear. Thus the text states-
Aniccadivasena dhammeaniccadivasena dhamme passati ti vipassana.4
He sees phenomena as impermanent etc., thus it is Vipassana.
Once anicca has been well understood, the characteristics of dukkha (suffering) and anatta (egolessness) also become clear.
The most direct, natural, immediate way to experience impermanence is by observing sensations within ourselves because they are the most easily observed expression of the characteristic of anicca. By observing them, we are able to understand the reality not merely intellectually, but directly by experience.
Tisso ima, bhikkhave, vedana anicca sankhata paticcasamuppanna khaya-dhamma vaya-dhamma viraga-dhamma nirodha-dhamma.5
These three types of sensations, O meditators, are impermanent, compounded, arising owing to a cause, perishable, by nature passing away, detached and ceasing.
In the Brahmajala Suttabrahmajala sutta, the Buddha said that he achieved his enlightenment by observing the entire field of vedana and its cessation-
Vedananam samudayam ca atthangamam ca assadam ca adinavam ca nissaranam ca yatha-bhutam viditva anupada-vimutto, bhikkhave Tathagato.6
Having experienced as they really are, the arising of sensations, their passing away, the relishing in them, the danger in them, and the release from them, the Enlightened One, O monks, has become free without grasping.
Explaining how and where these sensations are to be observed he said-
Seyyathapi, bhikkhave, agantukagaramagantukagaram. Tattha puratthimaya pi disaya agantva vasam kappenti, pacchimaya pi disaya...uttaraya pi disaya... dakkhinaya pi disaya... khattiya pi... brahmana pi... vessa pi... sudda pi... Evameva kho, bhikkhave, imasmim kayasmim vividha vedana uppajjanti. Sukha pi vedana uppajjanti, dukkha pi... adukkhamasukha pi... samisa pi sukha... samisa pi dukkha... samisa pi adukkhamasukha... niramisa pi sukha... niramisa pi dukkha... niramisa pi adukkhamasukha... vedana uppajjati ti.7
Suppose, O meditators, there is a public guest-housepublic guest-house. People come there to stay from the east, the west, the north and the south. People who are Kshatriyas, Brahmins, Vaishyas and Shudras. Similarly, O meditators, various sensations arise in this body. Pleasant bodily sensations, unpleasant bodily sensations, neither unpleasant nor pleasant bodily sensations, arise. Pleasant bodily sensations arise with attachment, unpleasant bodily sensations arise with attachment, neither unpleasant nor pleasant bodily sensations arise with attachment. Pleasant bodily sensations arise without attachment, unpleasant bodily sensations arise without attachment, neither unpleasant nor pleasant bodily sensations arise without attachment.
Yatha pi vata akasevata akase, vayanti vividha puthu;
Puratthima pacchima ca pi, uttara atha dakkhina.
Saraja araja ca pi, sita unha ca ekada;
Adhimatta paritta ca, puthu vayanti maluta.
Tathevimasmim kayasmim, samuppajjanti vedana;
Sukhadukkhasamuppatti, adukkhamasukha ca ya. 8
Just as in the sky different windsas different winds in the sky blow, from east and west, from north and south, dust-laden or dustless, cold or hot, fierce gales or gentle breezes, many winds blow. So also pleasant, unpleasant or neutral sensations arise within the body.
How, then, does the observation of these body sensations lead to liberation? What is the release from vedana which the Buddha declared he had experienced? In the Vedana-samyutta of Samyutta Nikaya he explained-
Yam vedanam paticca uppajjati sukham somanassam, ayam vedanaya assado. Ya vedana anicca dukkha viparinama-dhamma, ayam vedanaya adinavo. Yo vedanaya chandaraga-vinayo chandaragappahanam, idam vedanaya nissaranam.9
The relishing of sensation is the physical and mental happiness arising from sensations. The danger in sensations is that they are impermanent, the cause of suffering, and subject to change. The escape or release from sensations is the removal and abandonment of craving for the stimulation of sensations.
Relishing sensations is the habit of an untrained mindhabit of an untrained mind. This habit generates tanha (craving) with every sensation one experiences. Observing them, however, one understands that they are all impermanent and therefore suffering. Realising this, the meditator no longer develops craving but instead becomes an impartial observer. By doing so, he sets in motion a process by which the old conditioning of the mind manifests itself in sensations.
The more he observes dispassionately with the understanding of anicca, the deeper are the layers of impurities that arise and get eradicated. The Buddha said-
Yato ca bhikkhu atapi, sampajannam na rincatiatapi, sampajannam na rincati;
tato so vedana sabba, parijanati pandito.10
When a meditator, striving ardently, does not lose sampajanna, the thorough understanding of impermanence, even for a moment, such a wise person fully comprehends and experiences all sensations by exploring the entire field.
By constantly observing the sensations in the body, one experiences the arising and passing away. This constant observation of the body sensations based on the realisation of impermanence is sampajanna.11
Thus one who practises sampajannaone who practises sampajanna is a wise person. Instead of relishing or hating, he constantly observes the sensations with equanimity, understanding thoroughly their impermanent nature. This practice eliminates the very habit of reacting as well as the stock of past conditioning of the mind. In doing so, the meditator frees his mind from craving, aversion and ignorance, from all the defilements of the mind, and goes beyond vedana. He attains nibbana, the final emancipation. In the words of the Buddha-
So vedana parinnaya, ditthe dhamme anasavo,
kayassa bheda dhammattho, sankham nopeti vedagu ti.12
By understanding sensations in their totality, a serious seeker (in this very life) becomes freed of all defilements and becomes an arahanta or vedagu. Such a person, who is vedagu (one who has experienced the entire field of vedana and has gone beyond), is established in Dhamma, and after death, he attains the indescribable state beyond the conditioned world, nibbana.
Notes: (All references VRI edition)
1. Majjhima Nikaya 2.215-216
2. Visuddhimagga-Mahatika 2.427, Dukamatikapadavannana
3. Atthasalini, 124-134
4. From the discourses of Sayagyi U Ba Khin
5. Samyutta Nikaya 2.4.257
6. Digha Nikaya 1.36
7. Samyutta Nikaya 2.4.262
8. Ibid. 2.4.260
9. Ibid. 2.4.263
10. Ibid. 2.4.260
11. For explanation, see Samyutta Nikaya 3.5.399-404
12. Samyutta Nikaya 2.4.251