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founded by S. N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin






Pali Tipitaka as the Source of Vipassana

- By Prof. Mahesh Tiwary

The Pāli Tipitaka is the repository of the Buddha's teachings. After attaining perfect Enlightenment, he made a righteous journey (carika) through the villages, towns and cities of the country and met the people in general. The farmers, labourers, merchants, service men, scholars etc. came into contact with him, and with curious inquisitiveness, got the opportunity to talk to him. The Buddha, the compassionate teacher, treated them with patience, encouraging them to be more inquisitive and ask more questions. He analysed the mental elevation (ajjhasaya), latent factors (anusaya) and belief (adhimutti) of the persons concerned and gave the sermons to suit the core of the heart of each one. His sermons had neither any discrimination nor was anything kept secret. They were just like the showering of clouds, saturated with cold water, over low and high lands without any consideration. In this way, he continued his wayfaring for forty-five years. All his teachings were recited by his five hundred arahanta disciples, three months after his demise, and classified into three divisions, namely; the monastic rules (Vinaya), popular discourses (Sutta), and preponderate expositions (Abhidhamma). These three divisions are collectively known as the Tipitaka.

It is a fact that the teachings were given by a wayfarer but they had the nature of a soothing stream bringing down harmony on this earth. He was sanguine to the basic problem of the people and through continuous effort discovered a path for the eradication of this problem. In other words, the Buddha's Dhamma was a psycho-ethical outline as well as a practical path for experiencing the truth in day to day life. It had only one problem and one solution, with one path proceeding rhythmically between the two. The one problem is the suffering of mankind. The one solution is the attainment of a state where there is no suffering at all. The path between the two is the three stepped middle path proceeding without impediment, avoiding the two extremes of the life of care and luxury and that of austere penance. Its three steps are sila (moral precepts), samadhi (one pointedness) and panna (right understanding). Sila curtails the physical and vocal misdeeds; samadhi minimises the mental immoral reactions and panna unfolds the nature of reality by removing the darkness of ignorance and generating the light of wisdom. This panna is Vipassana.

The term vipassana has two component parts, namely, vi + passana. Vi means minutely, perfectly, exactly, sincerely, inwardly, intrinsically, etc. Passana means looking, observing, analysing, introspecting, investigating, etc. Thus literally, it means observing the things all around us minutely. In the ethical sense, it is directed to observing sincerely the acceleration of the activities inspired by moral roots, namely, alobha (sacrifice), adosa (friendliness) and amoha (right understanding). It functions just like an honest doorkeeper in putting a watch over the non-arising of immoral roots. They are to remain dormant, gradually be minimised and finally uprooted. In popular religious belief, it means observing minutely that all our activities are inspired by the teachings of the Buddha. Further, in the sense of practice, it begins with awareness towards the incoming and outgoing breath. It makes one aware at every moment that such and such breath is coming in or going out. In a highly technical sense, it is used to denote a cautious watch of the intrinsic nature of reality as it really is. It makes it crystal clear that everything is impermanent (sabbe sankhara anicca), everything is subject to suffering (sabbe sankhara dukkha) and everything is substanceless (sabbe dhamma anatta).

Vipassana has been used in the teachings of the Buddha in all these senses. The contents are different in tune with the mental elevation of the persons concerned. In the present paper, however, our attempts are to introduce some of these contents to highlight the aspects of Vipassana in the Pāli Tipitaka.

The Vinaya-Pitaka starts with the scene of attaining enlightenment by the Buddha. He was under the Bodhi tree, becoming completely free from all the pollutions. On that occasion, he broke out with spiritual awakening:


aneka-jati samsaram, sandhavissam anibbisam,

gahakarakam gavesanto, dukkha jati punappunam.

gahakaraka, ditthosi. puna geham na kahasi.

sabba te phasuka bhagga, gahakutam visankhitam.

visankhara-gatam cittam, tanhanam khayamajjhaga.1

"Through many a birth, I wandered in samsara, seeking, but did not find the builder of the house. Sorrowful is it, to be born again and again."

"O House-builder, thou art seen. Thou shall build no house again. All thy rafters are broken. Thy ridge-pole is shattered. My mind has attained the unconditioned. The end of craving is achieved."

In this verse there is the hidden role of Vipassana in exposing the nature of things as impermanent (anicca-bodha). Three events have been illustrated here. The first one is the running from one state of existence to another. The second one is the breaking down of the rafters and the ridge-pole. The third one is the removing of the thickets of craving from the consciousness. All these three events speak of impermanence, the arising and passing away of things. Everything that has come to arise, must cease to exist.

The nature of impermanence has further been expressed in the process of realisation of the truth. The Buddha turned the wheel of righteousness at Isipatana-migadaya. The five ascetics heard his discourses and were exceedingly delighted to understand the flavour of Dhamma.

Out of them, Rev. Kondanna penetrated into the truth first and obtained the "pure and spotless eye" (dhamma cakkhu udapadi). What was his realisation? It was nothing but the realisation of impermanance. He clearly grasped that: "Whatsoever is subject to the condition of origination, is subject also to the condition of cessation." 2

Yam kinci samudaya-dhammam, sabbam tam nirodha-dhammam ti.

The same realisation of impermanence is seen with the other four ascetics at Isipatana-migadaya. The Buddha administered the exhortation and instruction with a discourse relating to Dhamma, and Rev. Vappa and Rev. Bhaddiya obtained the "pure and spotless eye." They clearly understood that-"Whatsoever is subject to the condition of origination, is also subject to the condition of cessation." 3 Rev. Mahanama and Rev. Assajji also understood the same truth.

The story of the conversion of Yasa, the merchant's son at Varanasi, his four friends and those of Sariputta and Moggallana, the disciples of Sanjaya, at Rajagaha, was very popular in the Vinaya-Pitaka.4 They were also instructed by the Buddha in the Dhamma. They experienced the nature of Dhamma and had realisations similar to the above. This speaks of the fact that anicca-bodha, realisation of the impermanent nature of things, is the first step of Vipassana.

The other function of Vipassana is to make one understand "suffering and substancelessness." This has been exhibited with reference to five monks at Isipatana-migadaya. The Buddha spoke to them about the five aggregates of a being. He proceeded thus: "the rupa (body) is not the self." If the body were the self, the body would not be subject to disease, and we should be able to say: "Let my body be such and such a one. Let my body not be such and such a one."

But since the body is not the self, therefore the body is subject to disease and we are not able to say: "Let my body be such and such a one. Let my body not be such and such a one." Similarly the vedana (sensation), sanna (perception), sankhara (mental disposition) and vinnana (consciousness) are not the self.

The catechetical method of exposition of the Buddha proceeds further with reference to the five aggregates. It runs as follows:

"Now what do you think, O Monks, Is the rupa (body) permanent or perishable?"

"It is perishable, Lord."

"And that which is perishable, does that cause pain or joy?"

"It causes pain, Lord."

"And that which is perishable, painful, subject to change, is it possible to regard it as: this is mine, this is I, and this is my self?"

"That is impossible, Lord."

Similarly, he put questions about vedana (sensation), sanna (perception), sankhara (mental disposition) and vinnana (consciousness), and received the answers in the same way. Then he concludes: "Considering this, O Monks, a learned one becomes weary of body, weary of sensation, weary of perception, weary of mental disposition and weary of consciousness. Becoming weary of all that, he divests himself of passion; by absence of passion he is made free; when he is free, he becomes aware that he is free; and he realises that rebirth is exhausted; there is no further return to this world." 5

Such catechetical adumbration is also attestified in the Mahapunnama Sutta and Punnovada Sutta. The Buddha is seen proceeding with the questions:

"Is material shape (rupa) permanent or impermanent?"

"Impermanent, revered Sir."

"But is what is impermanent painful or is it pleasant?"

"Painful, revered Sir."

"And is it right to regard that which is impermanent, suffering, liable to change, as, 'this is mine, this am I, this is my self?'"

"No, revered Sir."

Similarly, he asked about the feeling, perception, mental tendencies and consciousness. He thereupon concludes that: "if he sees this, Monks, the instructed disciple of pure ones turns away from material shape, turns away from feeling, turns away from perception, turns away from mental tendencies, turns away from consciousness; turning away he is detached, by his detachment he is freed, in freedom there is the knowledge that he is free." 6

With these illustrations, it becomes clear that Vipassana is a practice which serves as an eye-opener to investigate the fact that everything is impermanent, subject to suffering and substanceless.

Further, the Dhammapada exposes the facts saying that: "When one discerns with right understanding, that all conditioned things are impermanent, sorrowful and all the dhammas are without a soul, one is disgusted with ill and is set on the path of purification." 7 "Whenever one reflects on the rise and fall of the aggregates, the impermanent nature of the complex of personality, one really realises the truth, finds joy and happiness within and finds oneself on the path of Deathlessness." 8 This is the real way of observing things and understanding them perfectly. It is said that "the monk who has retired to a lonely abode, makes his mind calm and perceives the nature of reality as impermanent, experiences the joy, transcendental in nature, that surpasses all mundane limits."9 Such a realisation puts one on the path, true in nature.

The other role of Vipassana is seen in unfolding the process of existence by exhibiting the impermanent nature of things. It is apparent from the Law of Dependent Origination (paticca samuppada). It appears from the Vinaya Pitaka that when the Buddha attained perfect Enlightenment, he had the realisation and experience of the truth, and that one is in the process of becoming. He saw that this process comes into being with the continuous binding of twelve links, revolving ceaselessly depending on each other. Man goes on transmitting himself from one state of existence to another, submerged in the ocean of suffering and he does not find even a moment's rest to think over his pitiable condition. The Buddha sincerely pondered over it and saw that if even one chain of this is broken, the others will naturally be broken too. This he remarked as understanding of his Dhamma. Therefore, he said that the Law of Dependent Origination is the profound doctrine and that a clear understanding of it means a clear realisation of his Dhamma.10

What is this Law of Dependent Origination? It explains that nothing is static. Everything is in the process of becoming. It continues by mutual dependence. "When there is one, the other comes into being depending on that. When there is no existence of one, there is no becoming of the other." 11 This speaks of the two aspects of existence. It goes on continuing depending on the factors bound together without interruption. This he named anuloma-paticca samuppada. Again by breaking of one, the others also disappear. This he named as patiloma-paticca samuppada.

The twelve links that bind one to the process of becoming are:

(1) Avijja (ignorance),

(2) Sankhara (mental dispositions),

(3) Vinnana (patisandhi consciousness),

(4) Nama-rupa (mind and matter),

(5) Salayatana (six senses),

(6) Phassa (contact),

(7) Vedana (feeling),

(8) Tanha (desire),

(9) Upadana (strong desire, attachment),

(10) Bhava (becoming),

(11) Jati (birth), and

(12) Jara-marana (old age and death).

The circle of existence moves ceaselessly with each of these depending on each other. It is said that: "depending on ignorance, there is the springing up of the sankharas; depending on sankhara, there springs up the birth consciousness; depending on the birth consciousness, there comes into being the mind and matter; depending on mind and matter, there arise the six sense organs; depending on the six senses, there comes into being contact; depending on contact, there arises feeling; depending on feeling, there springs the desire; depending on desire, there arises attachment; depending on attachment, there again starts the becoming; depending on becoming, there arise the old age, death, etc." In this way the process of existence continues, which causes the continuity of suffering. But this process is not a static fact. It can be broken. How? The breaking up of one is to put a stop to further linking. It means when there is no more ignorance, there are no more sankharas. When there is no sankhara, there is no birth-consciousness, there are no mind and matter and so on. In this way the process of existence is broken, it falls flat. This, the Buddha regarded as his most vital achievement. It is possible by understanding the impermanent nature of the links. So long as the man takes them as static, he is in the process of becoming. But as soon as there is the dawn of Vipassana, rigidity vanishes and there is a clear chance of getting freedom.

Further, a basic fact in the characteristics of a human being is that he may think of the impermanence of others but he remains rigid about himself. He has doubt that he is also impermanent. He runs under such darkness of ignorance and apparently has no hope to be free. But such doubt is removed by Vipassana. In the process of the practice, one sees with one's intrinsic eye that there is no concept of mass (ghana-sanna) at all. There is only a flow, appearing and disappearing. This has been clarified by the Buddha in the Samannaphala Sutta of the Digha-nikaya.12 Hearing the discourse of the Buddha, a person develops faith in him. This person follows the moral precepts and practises the different stages of samadhi. Getting maturity in samadhi, his mind becomes serene, pure, translucent, cultured, devoid of evils, supple, ready to act, firm and unperturbable.

Achieving such a state of mind, he finds himself transferring to the domain of Vipassana. " He applies and bends down his mind to the 'Insight' that comes from Vipassana." Then he grasps the fact as it really is. He analyses his personality and finds that: "This body of mine has form, it is built by four elements, it springs from father and mother, it is continually renewed by so much boiled rice and juicy food. Its very nature is impermanent, it is subject to erosion, abrasion, dissolution and disintegration. There is this consciousness of mine too, bound up, on that does it depend." 13 In this way, he investigates face to face his own personality, made of two things, mind and matter, impermanent, subject to erosion, abrasion, dissolution and disintegration.

His observation is real and factual. It is just like observing a Veluriya gem and a thread passing through it. It is illustrated as follows: "Just, O King, as if there were a Veluriya gem, bright, of the purest water, with eight facets, excellently cut, clear, translucent, without a flaw, excellent in every way. And through it, a string, blue or orange coloured, or red or white or yellow should be threaded. If a man, who had eyes to see, were to take it into his hand, he would clearly perceive how the one is bound up with the other."14 The combination of the two is impermanent and subject to disintegration. This clear introspecting takes one nearer to the process of Vipassana.

The other aspect of Vipassana may be seen in arousing constant awareness at the mind-door. It generates awareness and functions as a door-keeper in keeping a watch over the non-arising of immoral states and arising of moral states. As when a door-keeper is alert at the door, the undesirable persons, though they have come, do not dare to enter into the room. Similarly, with the presence of mindfulness (sati), the immoral states dare not raise their heads on the surface of mind. This mindfulness has been emphasised by the Buddha as "the one and only path leading to the purification of beings, to passing far beyond grief and lamentation, to the dying out of ill and misery, to the attainment of right knowledge, and to the realisation of nibbana." It manifests as the four fold setting up of mindfulness, technically known as: kayanupassana, vedananupassana, cittanupassana, and dhammanupassana.15 Each of them has been explained minutely in the Maha Satipatthana Sutta.

Vipassana, as has been pointed out in the beginning, has other functions too. A new context is in the Vedana-samyutta of the Samyutta-nikaya.16 Along with sati, there is the development of sampajanna. Sati is mindfulness and sampajanna is the panna, right understanding.

The process of arising of vedana is:"Depending upon contact (phassa), feeling (vedana) arises and depending on feeling, desire (tanha) arises, and so on.17 The feeling may be of two, three, five, six, eighteen, thirty six or one hundred and eight types.18 "As diverse winds blow in the sky-from the east, west, north, south, dusty, dustless, cool, hot, soft and boisterous, even so in this body diverse feelings-pleasant feelings, unpleasant feelings, and neutral feelings arise."19 Whenever any type of feeling arises due to contact, one should be aware of it, and with the help of sampajanna (right understanding), one should not develop tanha (desire). Rather vedana should be transformed into sampajanna. Then instead of developing tanha, the trend should be towards samatha. One should proceed from the first stage of jhana to the nirodha-samapatti. The text says, "When one has attained the first absorption, speech has ceased. When one has attained the second absorption, the application and sustained application of mind have ceased. When one has attained the third absorption, zest has ceased. When one has attained the fourth absorption, inbreathing and outbreathing have ceased. When one has attained infinite space, perception of objects has ceased. When one has attained the infinite consciousness, the perception of the realm of infinite space has ceased. When one has attained the realm of nothingness, the perception of the realm of infinite consciousness has ceased. When one has attained the realm of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, the perception of the realm of nothingness has ceased. Both perception and feeling are ceased when one has attained the cessation of perception and feeling (sannavedayitanirodham)." One becomes free from the asavas. The lust (lobha), hatred (dosa) and illusion (moha) are destroyed forever. One can achieve the state of nibbana in the present state of existence. One is then called vedagu. Again after the destruction of the body, one is in the state of anupadisesa nibbana, indescribable, uncommentable in Nature: "sankhyam nopeti vedagu."20

Vipassana as an intrinsic study has been exhibited in the Abhidhamma-Pitaka. It appears there in five different words: pannindriya, pannabala, sammaditthi, sampajanna, and amoha. Here there is a difference in the letters but the meanings of all the five are the same as that of Vipassana. What is it? It is "understanding, search, research of the truth, discernment, discrimination, differentiation, erudition, proficiency, subtlety, criticism, reflection, analysis, breadth, sagacity, leading, insight, intelligence, incitement, wisdom as faculty, wisdom as power, wisdom as a sword, wisdom as height, wisdom as light, wisdom as glory, wisdom as splendour, wisdom as a precious stone, the absence of dualness, searching out the truth and right view." The same explanation is available for vipassana, pannindriya, pannabala, sammaditthi, sampajanna, and amoha.

What is it? It is right understanding. What is that? Abhidhamma covers the same problem of suffering of mankind. For proper understanding and elimination of suffering, there are four ultimate realities. They are the citta (consciousness), cetasika (psychic factors), rupa (material qualities) and nibbana, which is a state where there is no suffering at all. Right efforts are needed to eliminate suffering.

How is it possible? Firstly, there is the analysis, and then the process of going from the state of gross to the state of subtle. The citta has been analysed into 121 types. Out of them, twelve are immoral, thirty-seven are moral, fifty two are resultant and twenty are inoperative types of consciousness. The cetasika has also been analysed as fifty-two in number. Their further classification is seen as thirteen common to all, fourteen immoral and twenty five as moral. Rupa has been divided into twenty-seven and later on twenty-eight divisions. It is neither moral nor immoral. Nibbana has one type. It is beyond moral and immoral limitations. It is abyakata.

Analysing them like this, there is the effort of advancing gradually from the gross to the subtle, subtler, and subtlest state.

The citta and cetasika exist together. In kama-loka and rupa-loka, rupa also exists with them. Nibbana, though present all the time, manifests in the lokuttara plane.

For the sake of assessment, the consciousness (citta) has been divided into four planes. They are the kamavacara-citta, rupavacara-citta, arupavacara-citta and lokuttara-citta.21

Kamavacara-citta is a type of consciousness which roams in the world of desire. It is fickle, restless and unsteady. It goes on moving and creating attachment in worldlings. The more it moves, the more it creates attachment. The greater is the degree of attachment, the greater is the amount of suffering. This kamavacara-citta is the main source of suffering.

The practitioner should know clearly the moral, immoral, inoperative and resultant types of consciousness. In kamavacara-citta, there are eight moral, twelve immoral and eleven inoperative and twenty three resultant. He should also know the role of psychic factors which make consciousness moral or immoral. Knowing them, he should try to avoid the immoral ones and develop the moral ones. With the moral or inoperative types of consciousness associated with nana (right understanding), a determination takes place to understand suffering and be rid of. He proceeds further for such minimisation at this stage. Such determination is for kamavacara-citta. It is a gross type of consciousness.

Rupavacara citta is a jhana-citta. The fickle, unsteady and roaming nature of consciousness is suspended and concentration on a gross object starts here. Rupa itself means a gross object, having some form or colour. It is a material one. The activities of the consciousness of roaming here and there are checked and it is allowed to become concentrated on the aforesaid object. It may be natural that the consciousness does not like to be concentrated. It runs away from the object but the practitioner remains patient and draws it from different directions and puts it back on the object. In this way, a moment comes, when the mind develops concentration on the object of rupa. It has five stages, one subtler than the other. One proceeds to attain concentration on all the five stages and achieves firm one-pointedness. This is called rupavacara-citta.

Arupavacara-citta is a still higher jhana consciousness. Arupa means formless. It refers to an object which has neither form nor colour. After achieving maturity on the object of rupa, the practitioner exerts to meditate on the object of arupa. Gradually his mind gets trained and develops concentration on formless objects. It has four stages, successively subtler than the previous one. He develops concentration on the formless object in all the four stages. It is called arupavacara-citta.

With the practice of rupa-jhana and arupa-jhana, the state of mind becomes very subtle. It is pure, faultless, free from pollution, subtle, concentrated and pliable. The practitioner transfers himself to the lokuttara bhumi of consciousness to realise his goal. He then has the lokuttara-citta. What is that? Loka means the process of repeated existence. Uttara means above. Thus lokuttara-citta is a type of consciousness beyond the loka. Finding this type of consciousness the practitioner makes an introspection. By observing the consciousness minutely, he sees that although it has become very subtle, there are still ten fetters there in a very reduced form. Although they are in a reduced form, there is still a possibility that they may flare up with a combination of fuel. As long as they are not uprooted and fully destroyed, it is difficult to attain nibbana.

There are ten fetters, namely: sakkaya-ditthi (belief in a permanent soul), vicikiccha (doubt), silabataparamasa (belief in purification by rites and rituals), kama-raga (desire for sensual pleasures), patigha (ill-will), rupa-raga (desire for rupi-divine kingdom), arupa-raga (desire for arupi-divine kingdom), mana (conceit), uddacca (distraction), and avijja (ignorance). They cannot be destroyed at one stroke; they are destroyed gradually. The practitioner proceeds towards their destruction. He first destroys the first three and becomes a sotapanna. Sota means the path leading to nibbana. Apanna means set in. He is set in the path leading to nibbana. He visualizes the nibbana but it is not yet attained. Nibbana becomes the object of his consciousness.

Then he comes across kama-raga and patigha. They are very powerful and cannot be easily destroyed. He first of all makes them weak. After that, he becomes a sakadagami or once-returner. If he does not attain nibbana in this state of existence, he has only one more life in this world.

He proceeds further and destroys the two fetters that were weakened. With their destruction, he becomes an anagami or never returner. If he does not attain nibbana here, he will not come again to this world. He is born in the rupa divine kingdom known as suddhavasa and gains liberation there.

In the end, five fetters remain. He makes his final effort to uproot and destroy them. He is successful in their destruction. He then becomes an arahanta, which means emancipated being. He understands clearly that "the process of repeated existence is over, the holy life has been led successfully, the assigned duties have been fulfilled, the goal has been achieved, one does not have to come here again."22

This wayfaring from kamavacara-citta to lokuttara-citta, with subtle observation, is possible by one and only one practice, and that is the practice of Vipassana. At each stage, the gross consciousness disappears and a subtler one appears. In the end, an immensely pure and subtle consciousness arises and that is the stage of nibbana.


1. Dhp 153-154

2. Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 17, p. 97.

3. Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 17, p. 96.

4. Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 17, p. 146.

5. Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 17, p. 100-101.

6. MN 3.90, 408-410.

7. Dhp 277-279

8. Dhp 374

9. Dhp 373

10. Yo paticca samuppdam janati, so dhammam janati, yo dhammam janati, so paticca samuppadam janati. DN 3,44

11. Imasmim sati idam hoti, imasmim asati idam pi na hoti DN 3. 44-47

12. DN 1.234-235.

13. Ayamkho me kayo rupi catumahabhutiko matapettikasambhavo odanakummasupacayo aniccucchadanaparimaddanabhedana viddhamsanadhammo; idam ca pana me vinnanam ettha sitam, ettha patibaddha'nti.

DN 1.235

14. Dialogues of the Buddha (PTS) Vol 1, page 87

15. DN 2.372-405

16. SN 2.4.249-279

17. Tisso vedana phassaja phassamulaka, phassanidana, phassapaccaya. SN 2.4.258

18. SN 2.4.267

19.Yatha pi vata akase, vayanti vividha puthu.

Puratthima pacchima capi, uttara atha dakkhina.

Saraja araja capi, sita unha ca ekada.

Adhimatta paritta ca, puthu vayanti maluta.

Tathevimasmim kayasmim samuppajjanti vedena.

Sukhadukkhasamuppatti, adukkhamasukha ca ya.

Yato ca bhikkhu atapi, sampajannam na rincati.

Tato so vedana sabba, parijanati pandito.

So vedana parinnaya, ditthe dhamme anasavo.

Kayassa bheda dhammattho, sankhyam nopeti vedagu'ti. S.N. 2.4.260.

20. Tassanurodha athava virodha, vidhupita atthagata nasanti.

Padam ca natva virajam asokam, samma pajanati bhavassa paragu'ti SN 2.4.254

21. DS 3-146

22. Khina jati, vusitam brahmacariyam, katam karaniyam, naparam itthataya'ti pajanati. DN 1.248.