Vipassanā (Pāli) or vipaśyanā (विपश्यना, Sanskrit) means insight into the impermanent nature, or anicca, of mind and body. Vipassana is one of India's most ancient techniques of meditation, attributed to Gautama Buddha. It is a way of self-transformation through self-observation and introspection. In English, vipassanā meditation is referred to simply as "insight meditation".
In a broader sense, vipassanā has been used as one of two poles for the categorization of types of Buddhist meditation, the other being samatha (Pāli) or śamatha (Sanskrit). Samatha is a focusing, pacifying and calming meditation, common to many traditions in the world, notably yoga. It is used as a preparation for vipassanā, pacifying the mind and strengthening the concentration in order to allow the work of insight. This dichotomy is also sometimes discussed as "stopping and seeing." In Buddhist practice it is said that, while samatha can calm the mind, only insight can reveal how the mind was disturbed to start with, which leads to prajñā (Pāli: paññā, wisdom) and jñāna (Pāli: , knowledge) and thus understanding, preventing it from being disturbed again.
The term is also used to refer to the Buddhist vipassana movement (modeled after Theravāda Buddhism meditation practices), which employs vipassanā and ānāpāna meditation as its primary techniques and places emphasis on the teachings of the Sutta. The primary initial subject of investigation in that style of meditation is sensation and feeling (Skt: Vedanā).
Vipassanā is a Pali word from the Sanskrit prefix "vi-" and verbal root √paś. It is often translated as "insight" or "clear-seeing," though, the "in-" prefix may be misleading; "vi" in Indo-Aryan languages is equivalent to the Latin "dis." The "vi" in vipassanā may then mean to see apart, or discern. Alternatively, the "vi" can function as an intensive, and thus vipassanā may mean "seeing deeply". In any case, this is used metaphorically for a particularly powerful mental self-perception.
A synonym for "Vipassanā" is paccakkha (Pāli; Sanskrit: ), "before the eyes," which refers to direct experiential perception. Thus, the type of seeing denoted by "vipassanā" is that of direct perception, as opposed to knowledge derived from reasoning or argument.
In Tibetan, vipashyana is lhagthong. The semantic field of "lhag" means "higher", "superior", "greater"; the semantic field of "thong" is "view" or "to see". So together, lhagthong may be rendered into English as "superior seeing", "great vision" or "supreme wisdom." This may be interpreted as a "superior manner of seeing, and also as "seeing that which is the essential nature". Its nature is a lucidity, a clarity of mind.
The actual instructions for Vipassana meditation are not often published in clear terms in public venues. This is simply to avoid confusion and prevent incorrect technique. The instructions are not esoteric or difficult but basically involve retraining the mind to avoid its innate conditioned response to most stimuli. In order to obtain maximum benefit, it is recommended that this be learned from a legitimate source as it does have deep cleansing effects.
Contemplations include understanding logically or through mental activity that the nature of phenomena is transitory and the nature of persons is selflessness, that the conceptual consciousness "I" does not exist.
One method is that there are 40 topics that can be concentrated by the meditator such as anitya (Pāli anicca, impermanence), (Pāli dukkha, suffering), roga (illness), and so on. The meditator can meditate on one of these until he sees the truth in everything in the universe.
In the experiential forms, meditation consists of the experiential observation of mind and matter (nāma and rūpa) in their aspects of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and lack of an inherent, independent essence or self.
Although it includes body awareness as part of the practice, it is not a "body scan" technique. The purpose is also not to release past trauma, but to bring full awareness of the mind, body and all sensations and be fully present. This practice is thought to develop a deep, experiential understanding of the impermanence of all phenomena and also brings to the surface and dissolves deep-seated complexes and tensions. The technique fosters development of insight and needs to be continued as a way of life in order to obtain lasting effects.
The meditation object is one's own consciousness, although it can be further refined to be one's consciousness while observing, say, the breath, as in anapanasati meditation. In this context, the modes of seeing refers to focusing on those aspects of consciousness which appear to have (or not have) these characteristics.
The underlying principle is the investigation of phenomena as they manifest in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness highlighted in the Satipatthana Sutta; namely: kaya (body or breath), vedana (feeling or sensation), citta (mind), and dhamma (mind objects). These phenomena differ from the khandhas (aggregates) because the citta factor is not connected to any aggregate, as it is the basic mood of the mind-body aggregate, while the dhamma encompasses all mind objects that are fruits of kamma (i.e., the vinnana, sanna and sankhara aggregates), and also all mind objects that are not a fruit of kamma, such as the Four Noble Truths.
To see through the mode of impermanence means to examine things to determine whether they are permanent. To see through the mode of unsatisfactoriness means to examine things to determine whether they are satisfactory or are imbued with suffering. To see through the mode of non-self means to examine meditation objects to see whether they are permanent, isolated, and enduring entities. In other words, to see through non-self relates to having a sense of non-doership and a sense of non-possessorship while examining things.
Most of Theravāda's teachers refer to knowledges evolving during practice. The meditator gradually improves his perception of the three marks of existence until he reaches the step sensations constantly disappear, which is called (Sanskrit: ), knowledge of dissolution.
Some steps are described as vipassanā jhānas, or simply as knowledges.
The Mahāyāna also introduced meditation upon visualizations, such as an image of Prajnaparamita in female, deity form, as a way to contemplate Buddhist teachings. Each component of the visualization evokes a particular teaching and the practitioner then contemplates using a visual symbolic representation.
Gradualism or Subitism and the realisation is a debate in the Mahāyāna. Nevertheless, Huineng, sixth patriarch of the Zen, considered the practice cannot be described as gradualistic nor subitist, but implies people with more or less clear minds.
Thrangu Rinpoche describes the approach using a guru:
"In the Sūtra path one proceeds by examining and analyzing phenomena, using reasoning. One recognizes that all phenomena lack any true existence and that all appearances are merely interdependently related and are without any inherent nature. They are empty yet apparent, apparent yet empty. The path of Mahāmudrā is different in that one proceeds using the instructions concerning the nature of mind that are given by one's guru. This is called taking direct perception or direct experiences as the path. The fruition of śamatha is purity of mind, a mind undisturbed by false conception or emotional afflictions. The fruition of vipaśyanā is knowledge (prajnā) and pure wisdom (jñāna). Jñāna is called the wisdom of nature of phenomena and it comes about through the realization of the true nature of phenomena." -Thrangu Rinpoche, Looking Directly at Mind : The Moonlight of Mahāmudrā
The ways these two aspects of meditation are practiced is that one begins with the practice of shamatha; on the basis of that, it becomes possible to practice vipashyana or lhagthong. Through one's practrice of vipashyana being based on and carried on in the midst of shamatha, one eventually ends up practicing a unification of shamatha and vipashyana. The unification leads to a very clear and direct experience of the nature of all things. This brings one very close to what is called the absolute truth.
Insight, or vipashyana (lhagthong), is extremely important because it can eradicate the mental afflications, whereas tranquility [shamatha] alone cannot. That is why we want to be able to practice tranquility and insight in a unified manner. This unified practice has three steps; first, we practice tranquility; then we practice insight; and then we bring the two together. Doing this will eradicate the cause of samsara (which is mental afflictions), thereby eradicating the result of samsara (which is suffering). For this reason, it is improper to become too attached to the delight or pleasure of tranquility, because tranquility alone is not enough. As was said by Lord Milarepa in a song:
- "Not being attached to the pool of tranquility
- May I generate the flower of insight."
Though the vipassana movement uses the term vipassana in its name, vipassana meditation is not specific to those traditions. All forms of Buddhism utilize vipassana meditation.