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How is "Vipassanavada" defined?

I saw a reference to vipassanavada by @sujato in another thread and was surprised that I hadn’t heard that term before. I have a vague idea as to what it means but after a search, not much is coming up. From where does that term originate and what falls under that heading?

Thank you!

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It’s a term used to describe the view on meditation with practicing only “vipassana” meditation.
It means vipassana doctrine.
Bhante Sujato wrote a whole book about the issue of separating Samatha & Vipassanā, the wrong usage of that term and all misunderstandings.
Bhikkhu Sujato - A Swift Pair of Messengers.pdf (1.3 MB)

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To expand on Nipaka’s helpful summary, vipassanavāda is the doctrine that was developed in 20th century Burma, which divided meditation into the “lesser” samatha practices, and the more “advanced” vipassana, and then dismissed samatha, arguing that it is unnecessary or even dangerous. This is the theoretical foundation of many of the most influential modern meditation movements, especially Mahasi and Goenka.

This doctrine claims to have roots in the canonical Satipatthana Sutta, but as I explain at length, this is not so. While the lack of Sutta support had been pointed out before, it was often assumed that these methods were based on the traditional Theravada commentaries. However, while they do, indeed, draw upon certain tendencies found in the commentarial literature, even there, they take certain rather marginal and ambiguous concepts and make them the centerpiece.

The Pa Awk movement, on the other hand, is perhaps the closest large scale meditation group that actually practices what the commentaries teach, if that is what you wish to do.

By coining the phrase Vipassanavāda I wanted to draw attention to the fact that this meditation movement was critically based on a specific theoretical foundation, which was amenable to the methods of historical and philosophical criticism.

Often meditators dodge this by arguing that it’s their experience, and thus there is no common basis on which to discuss. The problem is that experience is shaped by attention; attention is directed by desires; and desire is influenced by thoughts and ideas. Meditator’s experience is not some value-free given, it is the outcome of the particular way they use their mind, and that is shaped by the teaching they are following.

The vipassanavāda has enough distinct and rather peculiar ideas and interpretations that in my view, on a doctrinal level it qualifies as a distinct school of Buddhism. That’s not to say that they are literally a distinct school, for they don’t perceive themselves as such. It’s a way of dramatizing the scale of the diversity within modern Theravada.

This is something that I think is often overlooked. If you compare with, say, the differences between the schools discussed in the Kathavatthu, the differences between say, the Vipassanavāda, and the Thai forest tradition, and a Sri Lanka sutta teacher such as Kirithnadgoda Gnananda are far greater. Not to speak of the secular teachers, whose interpretations often lie far afield of anything within any historical conception of Buddhism.

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Serenity and insight (vipassana) have always been twin paths in Theravada (AN 4.170) however during the Christian era devotional practices dominated in accord with the spirit of the age. As the second millennium of that era was drawing to a close, a resurgence in meditation took place.

“The interest in meditation was re-awakened in Myanmar (Burma) in the 18th century by Medawi (1728–1816), who wrote vipassana manuals. The actual practice of meditation was re-invented in Theravada-countries in the 19th and 20th centuries and simplified meditation techniques, based on the Satipatthana sutta, the Visuddhimagga, and other texts, emphasizing satipatthana and bare insight were developed.”

Vipassana movement - Wikipedia.

Western Theravada is founded on the writings of Nyanaponika, Nyanatiloka, Bikkhu Bodhi and other western monks who lived in Sri Lanka and wrote about the Burmese vipassana method.

“In 1952, both Venerable Nyanatiloka Thera and Nyanaponika Thera were invited by the Burmese (Myanmar) Government to be consultants to the Sixth Buddhist Council, to be convened in 1954 to re-edit and reprint the entire Pali Canon and its commentaries.[5] After their work with the Council was completed, Ven. Nyanaponika Thera stayed in Burma for a period of training in Vipassana (Insight Meditation) under the renowned meditation teacher Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw Thera.[6]

The experience he gathered motivated him to write his best-known work, The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, published by the Buddhist Publication Society.”

I lived in Sri Lanka at the time Bikkhu Bodhi and Ven. Analayo were there and had the same Sri Lankan teacher as Analayo, Pemasiri Thera, however learned mostly from studying Bikkhu Bodhi’s “The Noble Eightfold Path.”

All these scholar-monks are teachers of the vipassana path, while the teachers with a Thai background, Ajahn Brahm and Thanissaro focus on serenity. Vipassana means the use of insight to develop progressively higher right view, summed up in sila, samadhi, panna, where the wisdom factors, not right concentration, are the focus of the path.

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I do not think that’s a fair description of Mahasi Sayadaw. Here are just a few quotes from him that I believe offer a more holistic assessment:

“Some people talk disparagingly of concentration meditation. The Blessed One himself had however recommended cultivation of the concentration meditation too. When jhanic concentration is achieved, that concentration can be used as an ideal basis for meditation. (Commentary on Anattalakkhanasutta: 71)”

"After thus ensuring the purity of his sila, the Bhikkhu should strive for attainment of one, two, three or all four jhanas. If unable to do so he should work for gaining at least the access concentration in the neighbourhood of jhanas. If he cannot work separately for the jhanic concentrations, he must try to achieve the khanika samadhi (which has the same characteristics of suppressing the hindrances as the access concentration) by contemplating on the four primaries. etc. This does not involve establishment of concentration as such but by keeping close awareness of the true nature of nama, rupa concentration automatically arises. But by having the attention dispersed over many objects or having it fixed on objects which are not easily discernable, concentration takes a long time to come about. Confining to limited objects which can be distinctly noted will facilitate and hasten development of concentration.

Therefore we are instructing our yogis to start with noting vayo dhatu … in the region of the abdomen. (Commentary on the Wheel of Dhamma: 92-93)"

“it is relatively easy to attain the second path knowledge and fruition knowledge fairly soon after attaining the first, but it will probably take a long time to attain the third path knowledge and fruition knowledge after the second. The reason for this is that only training in morality need be completely fulfilled in order to attain both the first and second path knowledge and fruition knowledge, but you must also completely fulfill training in concentration (samādhisikkhā) in order to attain the third path knowledge and fruition knowledge. Therefore, someone who has already attained the first path knowledge and fruition knowledge can easily attain the second, but it is not so easy to then attain the third. (Manual of Insight: 300)”

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To add, a few selected quotes from his direct disciples:

“Yogi, practise the samatha kammatthana: the metta kammatthana and Buddhanussati kammatthana. To develop the full strength of samadhi, don’t you have to get the help of samatha kammatthana? (Ashin Kundalabhivamsa, Correct Way of Progressing to Higher Magga and Phala: 45)”

“Only when samādhi develops, vipassanā ñāṇa develops. (Ashin Kundalabhivamsa, Nine Essential Factors Which Strenghten the Indriya of a Vipassana Yogi: 30)”

“Since metta is easier for most people to develop and it benefits everyone, the practice of loving-kindness really ought to become widespread. (Sayadaw U Pandita, Get very, very close)”

“I had practised without any sleep continuously for about fifteen days. (Sayadaw U Jatila, Dhamma Discourses: 21)”

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I think that’s a fair enough criticism, it was a quick summary of a complex issue. It’s certainly true that Mahasi himself was less dogmatic and extreme than many, and that there are different views and perspectives within his followers.

One anecdote worth knowing about Mahasi. When he visited England, he was asked by a senior monk about Ajahn Sumedho’s “sound of silence” meditation. He said that in real samadhi, you don’t hear anything.

Nevertheless, the point remains. The disparaging tone of the vipassana movement towards samatha practice was an extremely common and prominent part of my own experience in Thailand and Malaysia in the 90s. I know this, I was there, that was me for a time!

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I see now that the reason I wasn’t finding any references to the term vipassanavada is because the Venerable @sujato coined it as clever portmanteau of vipassana and vada. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m guessing that vada here is used in the same vein as vadanhi: theory or creed controversy.

I appreciate the elucidation by all here of the Burmese vipassana movement. Although not new information, it’s nicely summed up and put in context with the term vipassanavada.

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I don’t know if you intended to imply that Ven. Anālayo is a teacher of the vipassana path (which I assume to be synonymous with the dry insight path) or if I just misunderstood what you wrote, but I would disagree that he falls into this group. He frequently discusses the need for both calm and insight to be developed and sees the separation of the two into distinct paths as a false dichotomy that doesn’t reflect early Buddhism. He also teaches three main meditation courses (satipaṭṭhāna, ānāpānasati, and brahmavihāras/emptiness) in which he emphasizes both aspects of development.

From Early Buddhist Meditation Studies (pp. 173-175):

Tranquillity and insight are closely interrelated in the early discourses, and it is only in later tradition that these came to be seen as two distinct paths of meditative practice. An illustrative example is when the Āneñjasappāya-sutta and its parallels showcase the contribution the cultivation of insight can make for the development of tranquillity. An example for the contribution of tranquility to insight can be seen in the Cūḷasuññata-sutta and its parallels, which employ the perceptions of the immaterial attainments for the sake of a gradual deepening of insight into emptiness. The possibility of such cross-fertilization between tranquillity and insight shows that in the early discourses these two do not function as separate paths, but rather constitute complementary dimensions of the path.

In view of the loss of recognition of the transformative potential of the absorptions in later tradition, it seems to me that modern scholars and practitioners are to some extent correct in identifying that there is a problem. But I think they miss the point as long as their criticism continues to affirm implicitly the dichotomy between tranquillity and insight. In this way, the in itself justified criticism of the demotion of the absorptions in later exegesis keeps missing the point as long as such criticism continues to be based on the same dichotomy. Once this dichotomy is set aside as the natural but unfortunately misleading result of the influence of later exegetical systematization, it seems to me the situation becomes clearer. The absorptions do indeed offer a substantial and important contribution to the path to liberation, but this contribution stands in dependent interrelation with the contribution to be made by the cultivation of liberating insight.

In sum, I would propose that the solution to the bifurcation into tranquillity and insight is not found by attributing qualities of the one to the other, but by returning to an appreciation of their complementary and interrelated role as reflected in the discourses. Neither dry insight on its own nor absorption by itself can do justice to what the early discourses have to offer in terms of meditation practice. The first can become impoverishing, the second risks missing the main point. Instead, both are at their best when cultivated in harmonious conjunction. In short:

There is no meditation/absorption for one without wisdom,
There is no wisdom without meditating.
One in whom there are meditation/absorption and wisdom,
Is indeed close to Nirvāṇa.

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I agree with your statement about Ven. Analayo. I think he is a classic example of a monk or nun who, ordained in a particular tradition, eventually doesn’t identify with that tradition in practice or teaching.

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Just like Thera-vada, “doctrine of the Elders”.

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This is too narrow a definition. ‘Dry insight’ is one extreme of vipassana but it covers any practice where the wisdom factors are the focus of the path, activated through the purifying interaction of sila-samadhi-panna. All vipassana has some degree of samadhi, it is necessary to the process, just as a doctor has to tranquillize the patient to operate on the problem. Also desire and anger are emotional, and require tranquillity to be overcome, while ignorance requires insight.
To be brought up in Buddhism through the Sri Lankan school means one understands vipassana and it therefore forms the root of the practice. This is exhibited through Analayo’s writings, for example:

Analayo and Bikkhu Bodhi plus the other authors mentioned above present the Sri Lanka vipassana teaching in a united form, the only difference being bare awareness, which Bikkhu Bodhi disagreed with, and Analayo should be regarded as the one carrying the vipassana teaching into the current era.

You might be correct in the sense that Analayo’s book “Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization” has had significant influence on the modern vipassana movement. However, Analayo has recounted in detail how when writing his PhD thesis he became aware of parallels to the Pali texts in Chinese and other languages. After the publication of that book, he learned those languages and he began to shift away from a strictly Theravada position. Yet, like anyone, he does have his positions, evident with his disagreements with Thanissaro. But I think he’s pretty open to questioning tradition in light of his comparative work. When I think of comparing Analayo to vipassavada, I don’t really know what to think. If I’m not mistaken, he resides primarily at Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, which my impression would fall under the category of “vipassavadan”. The article you quoted above was written in 2012. In reading it, my impression was that he was breaking down these teachers, their teachings and the origins of such in a clinical way. But I couldn’t tell from his summation whether he agreed or not, my mind leaning towards yes.

“In sum, then, it seems that in spite of considerable variety found among modern day insight meditation techniques – as exemplified in the approaches to insight taught by Mahāsi Sayādaw, S.N. Goenka and Pa Auk Sayādaw – a common reference point for Theravāda insight meditation can be found in the scheme of insight knowledges. This, in turn, can be understood as a detailed elaboration of a basic dynamics of insight already found in the early discourses.”

Yet, as @Christopher pointed out, Analayos’s more recent publications offer a more balanced approach.

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I didn’t introduce the idea of the vipassanavada in order to classify teachers one way or the other. There are, it is true, many meditation teachers who merely repeat the instructions of their school (in the case of the Goenka school, they simply play a recording of an old retreat every time). But any genuine spiritual guide will have an openness and a flexibility to them. A doctrinal perspective should inform one’s approach, not determine it.

It is like how, in my experience, therapists relate to the schools of therapy. They recognize that most of the work is done through the genuine intent of the client and the personal connection with the therapist; and the therapeutic theory offers support and a framework for that.

In other words, meditation teaching should be pragmatic and empathetic, not dogmatic.

By identifying certain trends and tendencies in 20th century teachings on meditation, I was hoping to highlight the extent to which these ideas are, in fact, the product of the 20th century, and have a specific cultural and historical context. This allows us to understand how the apparently uber-orthodox Theravadins ended up with a meditation system so different from the Suttas. And it helps us to understand the ways in which such an approach shapes our experiences in meditation itself.

Sometimes it helps to name the thing. This is, in fact, one of the lessons I learned in my time practicing Mahasi technique. By naming the elements of experience, they lose their hold. We can start to see them as passing phenomena, rather than attaching to them as “I”. In naming the vipassanavada I applied this lesson to the movement itself. What exactly is this thing that has taken such a hold on the global meditation imagination in modern times?

I think it’s also worth bearing in mind that this is not for people who want to practice these systems. In my own life as a meditation teacher, I come across people who practice these things all the time, and I always simply give them my support. Rather, this is for people who do these practices, then read the suttas, and wonder at the discrepancies. What’s going on? It’s important that people know that they are not alone, and there is nothing wrong with questioning or criticizing. There are genuine issues with the vipassanavada approach, and a historical perspective can help inform our response to that.

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Vipassana is not a modern movement, it is the innovation discovered by the Buddha which distinguishes Buddhism from Hinduism:

“The 6 ‘higher powers’, or supernormal knowledge’s, consist of 5 mundane ( lokiya , q.v.) powers attainable through the utmost perfection in mental concentration ( samādhi , q.v.) and one supermundane ( lokuttara , q.v.) power attainable through penetrating insight ( vipassanā , q.v.), i.e. extinction of all cankers ( āsavakkhaya ; s. āsava ), in other words, realization of Arahatship or Holiness.”—Nyanatiloka

This is not supported by the quote you give, and is, moreoever, historically inaccurate.

  • There is no evidence of a vipassana “movement” or “meditation school” before the modern era.
  • There is no support in the suttas for the claim that the Buddha “discovered” vipassana.
  • Vipassana as taught in the suttas does not refer to a meditation method or a school, but to a quality of mind that is to be developed in balance with samatha.
  • Scholars do not refer to “Hinduism” in the time of the Buddha, since much of what we today mean by Hinduism did not yet exist. It’d be like calling Noah or Abraham “Catholics”. Rather, we use “brahmanism”.

Pre-Buddhist Brahmanical scriptures do indeed include aspects similar to what we refer to as vipassana. Yajnavalyka’s neti, neti is a prime example. When faced with false illusions of self, he took the method of negation, dismissing all transient phenomena. Obviously it is not identical with the Buddhist approach, as his ultimate goal was to arrive at the true self. Yet it is a significant precursor.

Later Brahmanical texts such as the Yoga Sutra include passages similar to Buddhist meditation teachings on both samatha and vipassana. The text is highly compressed and obscure, however, and must of course be interpreted according to its own philosophy.

For example, take the following. Translation from BonGiovanni, adjusted by me using renderings familiar from Buddhism.

vitarka-vicārānandāsmitā-rūpānugamāt saṃprajñātaḥ
Awareness is accompanied by initial and sustained application, bliss, and form.

Regardless of details, this is clearly using language derived from the jhana formulas.

Now consider this.

avidyāsmitā-rāga-dveṣābhiniveśāḥ kleśāḥ
Ignorance, egotism, greed, hate, and dogmatic insistence are defilements.

Or this:

anityāśuci-duḥkhānātmasu nitya-śuci-sukhātma-khyātir avidyā
Ignorance is taking the impermanent for the permanent, the impure for the pure, suffering for pleasure, and non-self as self.

So the historical record shows that there were important parallels to the Buddhist practices of both samatha and vipassana in the Brahmanical tradition both before and after the Buddha. No, what we find on vipassana is not identical with what is in the suttas; but then, neither is what we find on samatha. There are similarities and differences, and it is the work of historical scholarship to understand these.

If we want to understand the Buddhas in his context, we cannot simply make blanket assertions without carefully studying the relevant texts. So far as I know, no-one in the vipassanavada, certainly none of its founders, ever did so.

Rather than just repeating the tenets of the vipassanavada, I would urge you, if you are interested, to read some of the relevant historical literature, and familiarize yourself with the methods of historians. You will be rewarded with a richer and more nuanced understanding of what we are doing here.

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There is nothing called Vipassanavada. Vipassana means, “pannaththi tapethva visesena passathi vipassana”

Samatha was there even during the days of Buddha and it is all about Mindfulness and Concentration development. Also Vada in Marghadi language means discussion between differeing view holders, dispute.

According to the SN/SA suttas, vipassana refers to “jaanaati” “passati”, i.e., one knows and sees things as they really are (yathaabhuuta.m). This is not found in Brahmanism/early Hinduism.

The teaching of jaanaati, passati, indicated in the SN/SA suttas, is for the development of knowledge of liberation (vimutti-~naa.na). This is a meditation method in the sense of directing the mind in daily life.

Bhante,

I think that’s very true. I must say, though, that the teachers I have had at my local monastery (mostly ordained in Thailand, though not all Thai) were very open, and adjusted their advice to suit the student, perhaps suggesting something quite different, like metta. They certainly did not discourage samadhi, just encouraged us to maintain mindfulness of whatever developed and I’ve always had the impression that developing good samadhi was encouraged. In fact, I’d characterise the way I was taught as developing samadhi by having some grounding object, such as breath (usually at the belly), touch, walking, and paying attention to whatever else arises. Some, to me, miss the point by focusing on the noting (which is just a technique), or trying to provide some single label for the approach, such as “postures”.

However, I would also say that I have come across one or two (lay) people who have insisted that developing too much samadhi is not line with the approach. So there are clearly some who have very rigid approaches.

There is an interesting podcast on Insight Myanmar where Alan Clements describes his experiences with Mahasi Sayaw and other teachers:


His opinion is that Vens Mahasi and U Pandita were never particularly rigid, and that it was others who took parts of what they taught and turned it into a “vada”. He’s actually quite scathing about some who claim to be “authorised to teach”.

Stepping back further, I think the terminology “dry insight” is rather misleading. As I understand it, the Commentaries state that at least access concentration is required for significant insight, and my impression was that that was what Mahasi and his associates taught (we’ve already had some quotes provided by @Florian suggesting that jhana is ideal if one is able to develop it, and it’s easy to find other teachers stating that, e.g. here : Vipassana Meditation Course: Preliminary Stages) .

Since my experience is somewhat “second hand” I can’t speak authoritatively about it what everyone is or was teaching. However, my experience with several teachers was a flexibility and a concern for the particular needs of the student. It’s unfortunate if there are some who take any approach and turn it into something rigid.

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Citation required. I have discussed all these cases in detail before, but let us take your claim on the surface.

In fact in the EBTs yathābhūtañāṇadassana is usually (possibly always) associated with the insight of stream-entry, not the process of meditation. Linking the two seems to have been done first in the Patisambhidamagga (Ps 1.4:37). Nowhere in SN, or anywhere else in the EBTs, is vipassanā equated with yathābhūtañāṇadassana.

Here are all the references to vipassanā in SN. I hope I haven’t missed any.

SN 5.2, the bhikkhuni Somā:

What difference does womanhood make
when the mind is serene,
and knowledge is present
as you rightly discern (vipassato) the Dhamma.

SN 17.10:

They persistently practice jhana
with subtle view and discernment (diṭṭhivipassakaṁ)

SN 35.245:

‘A swift pair of messengers’ is a term for serenity and discernment.

SN 36.6:

A learned person who has comprehended the teaching
discerns (vipassato) this world and the next.

SN 41.6:

Two things are helpful for attaining the cessation of perception and feeling: serenity and discernment.

SN 43.12 and SN 43.2 contain stock passages saying that vipassana and samatha are the path to the unconditioned.

SN 45.159 says that both samatha and vipassana should be developed with direct knowledge.

As always, the suttas present samatha and vipassana not as separate meditation methods, still less schools, but as complementary qualities of mind to be developed through the practice of the path.

This is a “no true Scotsman” fallacy.

When the topic was brought up, I cited clear and relevant cases where brahmanical scriptures use language that is virtually identical with that found in Buddhist texts on vipassana. Clearly there is a substantial overlap between the two. It’s okay! it’s normal! But to you this is insufficient, because it is not “real” vipassana. You can’t shift the goalposts like this. Obviously it is true to say that vipassana, as generally conceived in the Buddhist tradition, is closely related to the perception of impermanence, etc., and that this is also found in the Yoga Sutra.

See, here’s the thing. Ask yourself, “I am really interested in what the Brahmans say on this?” If you were truly interested, wouldn’t you want to read the actual texts, and spend the time to understand what they are saying?

I am, because to me a spiritual path cannot be conceived and taught apart from its context. Language and concepts are freely shared. One of the advantages that we have in Buddhism is that the Buddha was aware of this and clearly said where he disagreed with the brahmins, or when he changed the meaning of their ideas. We don’t have to make this stuff up: we can just read the suttas. If the Buddha wanted to say that “vipassana” was a special method that he had developed that was not found among the brahmins at all, why didn’t he say so?

Fortunately we do have the brahmanical texts, and someone who is interested can easily spend the time to read them. We can learn for ourselves what is in them, and can see that there is much that is similar, and much that is different from the Suttas.

Why is it, then, that the vipassana movement hasn’t actually done this? Why would a person base an argument on assertions about facts that they haven’t even bothered to learn?

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