Liberating Insight not a Buddha concept

The concept of “liberating insight” seems to have been imported into Buddhism from the other Indian traditions.
Liberation from Dukkha is not via an insight but via cessation of desires/aversions/delusions.
What do you think ?


Dear Alaber,

I’m not a scholar and such. But even to a simpleton as me, the Buddha’s method of dealing with liberation is far more extensive, well explained, and nobody can ever refute the Dhamma he left behind. Good enough for me and lessens papañca-ic thoughts about such things :smile: I have other things to really apply my energy to. Does it really matter if it was imported/borrowed? The Buddha was an innovator to say the least. And to put a twist on it, the Buddha knew liberation was possible because he was a monk under the previous Buddha Kassapa. So he didn’t invent it, in fact, he was conditioned to it.

No offence intended btw. Please forgive the directness.

Enjoy your vassa!

in mettā,


Indeed, the concept of liberation from a round of rebirths is comon to the three main extant strands of Indian philosophy: Buddhism, Jainism, and Brahmanism. In the Buddha’s day it was not accepted by all schools, but those schools have largely faded away. Since the concepts are not found in the Vedas, it is sometimes argued that they derive from the native Indian shramana tradition.

It should go without saying that while the general form of these ideas is shared, the specifics vary according the perspectives of the schools.

Could you provide further clarification on this? How is it so? Who says so? Why does one says so?

Could you please clarify what is the scriptural pali / sanskrit concept behind the term “liberating insight”?

The path pointed by the Buddha in the suttas/sutras talk about right insight, as being as part of a tenfold path - consisting of right view/assumption, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right stillness/samadhi, right insight/knowledge and right liberation - which is unique in its formulation, application and results.

Basically, insight or knowledge relates as well to the specific Noble Task of fully comprehending/understanding (parijānāti) the Noble Truth of Suffering.

In terms of the specific Noble Task of developing / cultivating (bhāveti) the path which the Noble Truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering talks about necessarily involves insight, as it is the ninth of the ten elements starting from right view and ending at right liberation - as formulated across the three main Nikayas.

In terms of the specific Noble Task of abandoning (pahīna) the causes of suffering pointed by the noble truth of the origin of suffering, right insight marks the threshold which empowers -through direct confidence and understanding - the previous/underlying elements of the path, in a positive feedback which can be confirmed by the gradual abandonment of the fetters which are used to confirm the attainments expected to result from the flourishing of path itself.

And lastly, in terms of the specific Noble Task of verifying (sacchikaroti) the Noble truth of the cessation of suffering, it is the element which allows for the right liberation to take place - this being the reference point from which the possibility of Nibbana is confirmed by experience itself.

Although other traditions may talk about insight / knowledge I am quite sure the Buddha’s use of the concept is unique. Mind as well that it seems that it was a very important threshold for defining who “goes beyond”:

“And what, bhikkhus, is the superior person? Here someone is of right view … right concentration. This is called the superior person.

“And what, bhikkhus, is the one who is better than the superior person? Here someone is of right view … right concentration, right knowledge, right liberation. This is called the one who is better than the superior person.”

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Indeed Bhante, and they all lack the harmony and context found in the concept of right insight / knowledge as seen in the path re-discovered by the Buddha.

For example, the insight of the Jains is all about an impossible omniscience, without clarifying how it is used in their path of liberation through exhaustion of kamma. It seems to me that, in their view, those who still nowadays die by starving and dehydrating themselves to death attain the same assumed liberation Mahavira attained…

I risk saying that the insight/knowledge of the God-believers is all about a fantastic gnosis of their fantasized ultimate deity, self. Again, it is very unclear what is its use, to what element of spiritual life or tasks it relates to, etc.

Last but not least, the insight or knowledge of modern non-believers is an impossible intellectual omniscience of the physical universe and its laws, as well its origins and ultimate destiny. Again, it is very unclear what is its use, to what element of spiritual life or tasks it relates to, etc - what are scientists supposed to do once they have found all the elementary sub-atomic particles? or maybe once they have calculated with ultimate precision the seconds since the big bang and the remaining seconds until the next big crunch?

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although your assertion is intriguing and the story of Buddha’s realization in the suttas doesn’t seem to bear unequivocal indication of such a singular, unitary and sudden event as “awakening” (if this is what’s meant by ‘insight’), there’re still such terms as Buddha (awakened), sammasambodhi (perfect awakening), bojjhanga (7 limbs of awakening) and the word bodha (bodhi) in the passage in MN 36

Siyā nu kho añño maggo bodhāyā’ti?.. satānusāri viññāṇaṃ ahosi: ‘eseva maggo bodhāyā’ti
Could that be the path to enlightenment?’ Then, following on that memory, came the realization: ‘That is indeed the path to enlightenment.’

on the other hand the word bodhi may get stripped of connotations of suddenness and momentary completeness if rendered as simply knowledge or wisdom

to the best of my knowledge contemporary Indian traditions which had soteriological agenda only recognized gradual liberation and liberation at death

The concept of Liberating Insight seems to be that through some sort of Insight one reaches Liberation.
Because there were no such concept presented by the Buddha but this concept existed in other Indian traditions (e.g. Jains) then after the Buddha, Buddhist monks felt pressured to introduce this concept into Buddhism. I think the “realisation of the 4 truths” had then become the Buddhist Liberation Insight.
This question is all about what constitutes Awakening.

In Buddha’s teaching right insight is part of a tenfold progression towards liberation which is marked by the extinction of the fetters. Insight fulfills specific noble tasks related to the noble truths.

Note that the factors of the path are all needed and apparently need to converge in full power for the fruitions to take place. This is definitely unique to Buddha’s teaching.

When describing his very enlightenment the Buddha explicitly talks about three knowledges and visions.

It is hard to say anything about the Jain’s doctrine and how they influenced the Sangha after Buddha’s parinibbana because they got absorbed and absorbed through the years different layers of spiritual teachings, also they have lost their scriptures long time ago. I think the opposite is more like than anything

Hence I would like to understand better where you got this idea from? Is it a specific author?

well, in the Wikipedia articles about Jainism i didn’t find mention of such a concept or a doctrine, there’s this sub-chapter named ‘Awakening’ but its content is a description of formation of the right view at the initial stage of the path to liberation and not a sort of a ‘liberating insight’

Jains’ liberation is expressly gradual

In Jainism, Samyak Gyana is analogous to Pali’s samma ñana in linguistic terms but analogous to Pali’s pañña-division of the eightfold path in doctrinal terms.

Notice however that the meaning in terms of function / role in their path is very different.

As you can see in their 14 staged path, the ultimate objective is the attainment of a most refined level omniscience by the soul - ayoga kevali.

In their cosmology, such omniscient soul, through exhaustion of kamma, gets completely disentangled from the samsara and “sticks” to the ceiling of the universe, aka Siddhashila.

This is very different to what the Buddha teaches…


The awakening Buddha attained to and (re) opened the path to is described in suttas like MN4 , MN36, MN85, AN3.58 and AN3.59 as constituting of three specific insight experiences, or visions:

  1. recollection and knowledge of manifold past lives

  2. understanding of how beings pass on according to their actions

  3. knowledge of the destruction of the taints, supported by the direct knowledge and vision of the four noble truths.

These three are usually grouped/referred to as three superior or true knowledges (tevijjo).

Note that in all of those suttas these knowledges are attained by the Buddha through the progressive attainment of the four jhanas.

The full jhana sequence is depicted as having the clear function of turning the thus stilled mind ‘purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability.’ Note as well that the four jhanas are the constitute conclusion of the noble eightfold path.

Note as well that in the pali formulae for all of the three knowledge aforementioned the root of what we usually translate in English as insight or knowledge (ñāna , nyana) is found.

Hence the awakening described by the Buddha is all about the attainment of three true or awakening insights / knowledges / visions.

Awakening Insight / Knowledge #1

“So evaṃ samāhite citte parisuddhe pariyodāte anaṅgaṇe viga­tū­pak­kilese mudubhūte kammaniye ṭhite āneñjappatte pubbe­nivāsā­nus­sati­ñāṇāya cittaṃ abhininnāmesiṃ.”

“When my concentrated mind was thus purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to knowledge of the recollection of past lives.”

Awakening Insight / Knowledge #2

So evaṃ samāhite citte parisuddhe pariyodāte anaṅgaṇe viga­tū­pak­kilese mudubhūte kammaniye ṭhite āneñjappatte sattānaṃ cutū­papāta ­ñā­ṇāya cittaṃ abhininnāmesiṃ

When my concentrated mind was thus purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to knowledge of the passing away and reappearance of beings.

Awakening Insight / Knowledge #3

So evaṃ samāhite citte parisuddhe pariyodāte anaṅgaṇe viga­tū­pak­kilese mudubhūte kammaniye ṭhite āneñjappatte āsavānaṃ khaya ñāṇāya cittaṃ abhininnāmesiṃ.

When my concentrated mind was thus purified, bright, unblemished, rid of imperfection, malleable, wieldy, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to knowledge of the destruction of the taints.

And to make sure we understand how the Buddha’s awakening experiences relate to the extinction of the fetters, let’s quote the MN11:

with the fading away of ignorance and the arising of true knowledge
he no longer clings to sensual pleasures,
no longer clings to views,
no longer clings to rules and observances,
no longer clings to a doctrine of self.
When he does not cling, he is not agitated.
When he is not agitated, he personally attains Nibbāna.

it’s commonly believed that knowledge of past lives isn’t necessarily associated with the knowledge of destruction of taints and is available to advanced jhana practitioners as a matter of course, these knowledges don’t appear to be interdependent or sequential

and if awakening is to be understood as a sudden and unexpected event, the arising of these knowledges to the Buddha wasn’t exactly that, because their acquisition was facilitated by the Buddha’s conscious, methodical and directed effort

if i go to search for something in Google and find it, the result of my search cannot be called awakening or eureka, it’s simply acquisition of knowledge

I couldn’t agree more. But we need to acknowledge that these three knowledges are repeated across the Suttas / Sutras as being the Buddha’s account of the culmination of his awakening experience and re discovery of the Dhamma.
Note as well that you mentioned “common belief” without presenting the grounds of such. Could you please kindly elaborate?

And also SN 12.70 seems to say that full awakening is also possible without the first two knowledges:


Also, Dhamma­cakka­ppavattana, the first teaching of the Buddha, one of the most important if not the most important, one that afaik is very widely preserved without much/any variation — fails to mention the first two superknowledges.


Interesting remark raivo!

It would interesting to better understanding if the mentioning of threefold knowledge is more common when the Buddha is speaking to Brahmins.

Note however that in the very sutta the Buddha says that, once liberated, the mind knowing and seeing thus things, one would wield various kinds of spiritual powers.

Namely, he lists the liberated mind as wielding six branches of super human knowledge ( chaḷabhiñña ), which includes the three aforementioned awakening insights (tevijjo).

Last but not least, note that even contemporary accounts of awakening do include such types of knowledge.

In the Thai Forest Tradition, notable individuals like Ajahn Mun, Ajahn Maha Boowa, Mae Chee Kaew, etc all mention having some sort of insight into their previous births and indicating how key it was for the insight into the destruction of the taints. I wonder if the same happens in Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

I do not see this part in the sutta I mentioned. Could you please clarify.

The way I understand it, aquiring the three knowledges is the usual way full awakening happens, because the first two knowledges are very helpful in getting a full picture of rebirth and kamma. You see how for countles lives you yourself have been thrashed around by your good and bad actions and that it’s the same for all beings. That makes stepping out from this whole process easier or even unavoidable.

But for some people with exceptionally strong wisdom these knowledges aren’t needed. They see that in the present there is no self to be found, only the five khandhas which are all impermanent, suffering and nonself so they don’t need to know what happened to these alien khandhas in the past or what would happen to them in the future, because they know for certain it has nothing to do with them.

See the series of questions and answers towards the end, after which Susima repents.

The Buddha questions Susima on his own attainments in a specific and given sequence and in a full order, revealing that Susima should indeed be striving himself to attain those things before all.

Starting from the development of the perception of impermanence, the Buddha progresses his questionnaire and from a certain point Susima starts acknowledging he has not yet attained some things.

I take those questions and its sequence as a checklist for one to measure his/her awakening.

Hence, noticing he has still got things to do he repents and takes home the full list to attain himself.

Notice the difference between Susima and the Buddha’s questions is just the order and full context. The Buddha is not saying anything about those arahants’ claim of paññavimutti, is he?

All he said after hearing the whole conversation and moving on to question Susima on his own attainment was:

“First, Susīma, comes knowledge of the stability of the Dhamma, afterwards knowledge of Nibbāna.”

Interestingly, the Pali formula for knowledge of the stability of the Dhamma is not very common in the suttas…

Well, while I don’t dispute the point of this sutta can be, as you higlighted, that there were arahants at the time of the Buddha which claimed have been liberated through wisdom, paññāvimutto, this does not change the the account of Buddha’s own awakening involved three awakening knowledges insights, the first two involving some sort of realization around the topic of rebirth.

I wonder if anyone has already seriously studied this particular topic. Maybe it is the case the Buddha would use the explicit insights into rebirth when having brahmin-background people in his audience…

The way I understand what’s going on here is that the Buddha is showing Susima that you can have understanding of the nonself nature of things without possessing the other superhuman abilities and knowledges. He’s doing to Susima what Susima did to those Arahants in order to draw out of him the understanding of how such a thing could be possible.

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Got it. But why then he repents at the end?