Meditation: Insight Meditation (Vipassana)
Lecture No. 22, 27th May 2000

Author: Venerable Dhammasami,
Sri Saddhatissa International Buddhist Centre, London.


        Q: What is the purpose of meditation in Buddhism?

        A: To understand our mind so that we can clean it, protect it from being polluted and develop its capacity. Without knowing how our mind works, we cannot clean it nor can we develop it to its highest ability. A polluted mind cannot make us happy. Happiness is the highest goal in life; no matter in what terms or with what kind of achievements we measure our success.

        Q: There are Buddhists practising different types of meditation. Why it that?

        A: The working of the mind is complex due to various desires, intentions, like and dislike that human beings have. To suit different personalities, there are many techniques in Buddhist meditations. The Buddha Himself taught the same thing to different people in different ways.

        In brief though there are only two kinds of meditation in Buddhism, one that emphasises developing one-pointedness (Samatha) and the other that lays its main focus on developing understanding of the mind (Vipassana). The latter is known as Mindfulness Meditation or Insight Meditation as it uses mindfulness (awareness) to gain insight.

Insight Meditation

        In meditation, you may see people talking much about concentration; an advanced stage of it is one-pointedness. Many are contented with that concentration. As far as Insight Meditation is concerned, concentration is not an end but a useful instrument in brining insight into our life, especially our mind.

        Only insight into life more or precisely into mind will enable us to prevent doing what is harmful and to do good. Without insight into life, we live our life in darkness like a man walking in the dark not knowing where he is heading. Not only will he delay his journey but is also in a great danger of any sort. He may become frustrated and give up walking. Frustration is indeed a common suffering we all face. This form of meditation seeks to do away with frustrations of life here ad now.

Emphasised Element

        Although insight is central element of Vipassana Meditation, it does not come easily without a constant awareness, also called mindfulness (sati). Hence, developing of mindfulness at the beginning.

        One will see that mindfulness is present only on and off, not constantly at one's command. For this, one needs perseverance to go on.

How Is It Practised?

        Mind is so quick. It is hard to catch it. Harder is to use mind in cleaning mind or developing mind. It is therefore necessary to slow the speculative, confused and wandering mind. To do that, one needs to set the mind with a slower object like breathing. Breathing is physical and slow compared with mind.

        Now we are talking about meditation objects. Breathing is a meditation object. There are three kinds of meditation objects: physical (kaya), sensation (vedana) and thoughts (including emotions) (citta).

        In this form of meditation, one needs not focus only on breathing nor is breathing the ONLY meditation object. One starts with mindfulness on breathing by keeping awareness on nostril observing in and out breath.

        During this time, if there is tension or pain in the body, one then should release one's attention from breathing and focus on that tension or pain. One however should focus on breathing only for a short while and return to breathing. This is especially for beginners. This is to acknowledge tension or pain, and then return to breathing to continue developing awareness. If there is any thought, one should do the same by acknowledging it through noticing it for three or four times. Return to breathing after that. In this way, one is actually being aware of breathing (physical object), tension, or pain (sensation) and thoughts in the same sitting.

        Breathing is like one's home. One has to have a home to feel settled and stable. Nevertheless, one does not stay at home all the time. One needs to go to supermarket, school, work, and other places. However, one always keeps returning home wherever one goes.

        In the same way, one has to come back to breathing, which is a home in making mind settle and stable.

        Following this practice, one will come to understand how the mind works. Mind is being changed by like and dislike, ideas and opinions, attachment and aversion, speculation and confusion etc.

        The only thing a meditator has to do when seeing such things is to observe with non-judgemental awareness. Awareness will be judgmental in the beginning. But by observing those judgements, without giving in to them, one actually comes to establish a non-judgemental awareness. Sometime, this is called bare attention. Just like scientists using observation and unbiased treatment of data, a meditator should treat various meditation objects that he or she perceives with non-judgemental awareness.

        With constant non-judgemental awareness, if one continues to observe any physical object, the intention behind it, sensation and thoughts, one will gain insight into the nature of life. The process of observing the nature of phenomena is called " Mindfulness of Dhamma."

        In fact, mindfulness can be four depending on its objects: physical (kaya), sensation (vedana), thoughts and emotions (citta), and the nature of the first three (dhamma). The ultimate realisation brought about by this kind of insight eradicates all the unwholesome thoughts from our mind. That state after all defilements are completely removed is called Nibbana - undisturbed peace.

        All starts with simple mindfulness and is sustained by mindfulness all along. Mindfulness (sati) indeed leads the way all other factors, and therefore this practice is called the meditation that has mindfulness as foundation and leading factor (sati-patthana). Mindfulness gives rise to right understanding, right thought, right action, right speech, right effort, right concentration and right livelihood. When these eight factors are together, they make meditation the right one.

Related articles for further reading selected by the Course Organizer:

        1. Vipassana Meditation; Chanmyay Sayadaw, 1992.

        2. Samatha and Vipassana Hill Tract Missionary Sayadaw, 1989

        3. Mindfulness Meditation Made Easy; Ven. Dhammasami, 1999.

(Next Week: "Meditation: Retreats")

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