The Progress of Insight
To present to the reading public a treatise on Buddhist meditation needs no word of apology today. In wide circles of the West, Buddhist meditation is no longer regarded as a matter of purely academic or exotic interest. Under the stress and complexity of modern life the need for mental and spiritual regeneration is now widely felt, and in the field of the mind's methodical development the value of Buddhist meditation has been recognized and tested by many.
It is, in particular, the Buddha's Way of Mindfulness (satipatthana) that has been found invaluable because it is adaptable to, and beneficial in, widely different conditions of life. The present treatise is based on this method of cultivating mindfulness and awareness, which ultimately aims at the mind's final liberation from greed, hatred, and delusion.
The author of this treatise, the Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw (U Sobhana Mahathera), is a Buddhist monk of contemporary Burma and an eminent meditation master. A brief sketch of his life is included in this volume. The path of meditation described in these pages was, and still is, taught by him in his meditation centre called Thathana Yeiktha, in Rangoon, and is also set forth in his lectures and books in the Burmese language.
The framework of the treatise is provided by the classical "seven stages of purification" (satta-visuddhi), just as in Acariya Buddhaghosa's famous Visuddhimagga.On gradually reaching these stages, various phases of insight knowledge (nana) are developed, leading on to the stages of ultimate liberation. The approach followed is that of "bare insight" (sukkha-vipassana) where, by direct observation, one's own bodily and mental processes are seen with increasing clarity as being impermanent, liable to suffering, and without a self or soul. The meditational practice begins with a few selected subjects of body-contemplation, which are retained up to the very end of the road. With the gradually increasing strength of mindfulness and concentration the range widens and the vision deepens until the insight knowledges unfold themselves in due order, as a natural outcome of the practice. This approach to the ultimate goal of Buddhist meditation is called bare insight because insight into the three characteristics of existence is made use of exclusively here, dispensing with the prior development of full concentrative absorption (jhana). Nevertheless, and it hardly needs mention, here too a high degree of mental concentration is required for perseverance in the practice, for attaining to insight knowledge, and for reaping its fruits.
As stated in the treatise itself (p.5), it is not the author's purpose to give a detailed introduction to the practice for the use of beginners. The foremost concern in this work is with a stage where, after diligent preliminary practice, the insight knowledges have begun to emerge, leading up to the highest crest of spiritual achievement, Arahantship. Of the basic exercises, the treatise gives only a brief indication, at the beginning of Chapter I. Detailed instruction about these may be gathered by the student from the author's Practical Insight Meditation or the translator's book The Heart of Buddhist Meditation. Also a knowledge of the Buddha's original "Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness" (Satipatthana Sutta) will be indispensable.
This treatise was first written in the Burmese language and later, in 1950, a Pali version of it was composed by the author. As the treatise deals chiefly with the advanced stages of the practice, it was originally not intended for publication. Handwritten or typed copies of the Burmese or Pali version were given only to those who, with some measure of success, had concluded a strict course of practice at the meditation centre. For the use of meditators from foreign countries, only a few cyclostyled sheets in English, briefly describing the phases of insight knowledge, were issued instead of the treatise itself. This was done to enable the meditator to identify his personal experience with one or other of the stages described, so that he might direct his further progress accordingly, without being diverted or misled by any secondary phenomena that may have appeared during his practice.
In 1954 the Venerable Author agreed to a printed edition of the Pali version in Burmese script, and after this first publication he also permitted, at the translator's request, the issue of an English version. He had the great kindness to go carefully through the draft translation and the Notes, with the linguistic help of an experienced Burmese lay meditator, U Pe Thin, who for many years had ably served as an interpreter for meditators from foreign countries. The translator's gratitude is due to both his Venerable Meditation Master, the author, and to U Pe Thin.
Homage to Him, the Great Omniscient Sage, Who spread the net of rays of His Good Law! These rays of His Good Law -- His very message true -- Long may they shed their radiance o'er the world!
This treatise explains the progress of insight, together with the corresponding stages of purification. It has been written in brief for the benefit of meditators who have obtained distinctive results in their practice, so that they may more easily understand their experience. It is meant for those who, in their practice of insight, have taken up as their main subject either the tactile bodily process of motion, evident in the rising and falling movement of the abdomen, or the tactile bodily process based on three of the primary elements of matter evident in the sensation of touch (bodily impact). It is meant for those who, by attending to these exercises, have gained progressive insight as well into the whole body-and-mind process arising at the six sense doors, and have finally come to see the Dhamma, to attain to the Dhamma, to understand the Dhamma, to penetrate the Dhamma, who have passed beyond doubt, freed themselves from uncertainty, obtained assurance, and achieved independence of others in the Master's dispensation.
Purification of conduct means here, in the case of male and female devotees (upasakas and upasikas), the acceptance of the precepts, and the proper guarding and protecting of their observance -- whether it be the Five Precepts, the Eight Uposatha Precepts, or the Ten Precepts.
In the case of bhikkhus,
purification of conduct is the well-kept purity of the fourfold conduct
incumbent upon monks, beginning with restraint according to the disciplinary
rules of bhikkhus, called the Patimokkha. Of that fourfold conduct, the
restraint according to the Patimokkha rules is of first importance, because
only when that restraint is pure will one be able to accomplish the development
There are two kinds of meditation development, tranquillity (samatha) and insight (vipassana). A person who, of these two, has first developed tranquillity, and after having established himself in either access concentration or full concentration, subsequently contemplates the five groups of grasping, is called a samatha-yanika, "one who has tranquillity as his vehicle."
As to his method of attaining insight, the Papancasudani, commenting on the Dhammadayada Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya, says: "Herein, a certain person first produces access concentration or full concentration; this is tranquillity. He then applies insight to that concentration and to the mental states associated with it, seeing them as impermanent, etc.; this is insight." In the Visuddhimagga, too, it is said: "He whose vehicle is tranquillity should first emerge from any fine-material or immaterial jhana, except the base consisting of neither-perception-nor-non-perception, and he should then discern, according to characteristic, function, etc., the jhana factors consisting of applied thought, etc., and the mental states associated with them" (Path of Purification, XVIII,3).
He, however, who has neither produced access concentration nor full concentration, but from the very start applies insight to the five groups of grasping, is called suddha-vipassana-yanika, "one who has pure insight as his vehicle." As to his method of attaining insight it is said in the same Commentary to the Dhammadayada Sutta: "There is another person, who even without having produced the aforesaid tranquillity, applies insight to the five groups of grasping, seeing them as impermanent, etc." In the Visuddhimagga, too, it is said thus: "One who has pure insight as his vehicle _ contemplates the four elements."
In the Susima-paribbajaka Sutta of the Nidanavagga Samyutta, too, it is said by the Buddha: "First arises the knowledge comprehending the actual happening of things (dhammatthiti-nana) and afterwards arises the knowledge realizing Nibbana (nibbane nana)."
When purification of conduct has been established, the meditator who has chosen pure insight as his vehicle should endeavour to contemplate the body-and-mind (nama-rupa). In doing so, he should contemplate, according to their characteristics, the five groups of grasping, that is, the bodily and mental processes that become evident to him in his own life-continuity (at his own six sense doors).
Insight must, in fact, be developed by noticing, according to their specific and general characteristics, the bodily and mental processes that become evident at the six sense doors. At the beginning, however, it is difficult to follow and to notice clearly all bodily and mental processes that incessantly appear at the six sense doors. Therefore the meditator who is a beginner should first notice the perfectly distinct process of touch, perceived through the door of bodily sensitivity; because the Visuddhimagga says that in insight meditation one should take up what is distinct. When sitting, there occurs the bodily process of touch by way of the sitting posture and through touch sensitivity in the body. These processes of tactile sensitivity should be noticed as "Sitting _ touching _," and so forth, in due succession. Further, at the seated meditator's abdomen, the tactile process of bodily motion (that is, the wind, or vibratory, element) which has breathing as its condition, is perceptible continuously as the rise (expansion) and fall (contraction) of the abdomen. That too should be noticed as "rising, falling," and so forth. While the meditator is thus engaged in noticing the element of motion which impinges continuously on the door of bodily sensitivity in the abdomen, it becomes evident to him in its aspects of stiffening, of vibrating, and of pushing and pulling. Here, the aspect of stiffening shows the motion element's characteristic nature of supporting; the aspect of vibrating shows its essential function of movement; and the aspect of pushing and pulling shows its manifestation of impelling.
Hence the meditator, noticing the tactile bodily process of rise and fall of the abdomen, accomplishes the observation of the bodily process (rupa), by getting to know the characteristic nature, etc., of the element of motion. Later when he has accomplished the observation of mind (nama) and the observation of both body and mind (nama-rupa), he will also come to know the general characteristics of the processes concerned -- their impermanence, liability to suffering, and their being void of a self.
But while he is engaged in just noticing the rising and falling of the abdomen and other tactile processes, there will appear thoughts of desire, etc., feelings of pleasure, etc., or acts such as adjusting various parts of the body. At that time, these activities (of mind and body) must be noticed, too. After noticing them, he should turn again to the continuous noticing of the tactile process of the rising and falling of the abdomen, which is the basic object of mindfulness in this practice.
This is a brief sketch of the methodical practice of insight. It is not the place here to treat it in detail, because this is a brief essay on the progress of insight through the stages of purification; it is not a treatise explaining in detail the methodical practice of insight.
During the early part of the methodical practice, as long as the meditator's mind is not yet fully purified, wandering thoughts arisen by his thinking of objects of sense desire, etc., will also appear intermittently between thoughts of noticing (the objects of meditation). Sometimes the beginning meditator will perceive occurrence (of these interruptions) and sometimes he will not. But even if he perceives them, it will be only after a short time has elapsed after their appearance. For then the momentary concentration of his mind is still very tender and weak. So these wandering thoughts continue to hinder his mind while it is occupied in developing the practice of noticing. Hence, these wandering thoughts are called "hindering thoughts."
When, however, the momentary concentration of his mind has become strong, the thought process of noticing becomes well concentrated. Hence, when attending to the objects to be noticed -- the abdominal movement, sitting, touching, bending, stretching, seeing, hearing, etc. -- his noticing thoughts now appear as if falling upon these objects, as if striking at them, as if confronting them again and again. Then, as a rule, his mind will no longer go elsewhere. Only occasionally, and in a slight degree, will this happen, and even in those cases he will be able to notice any such stray thought at its very arising, as expressed in common speech; or, to be exact, he will notice the stray thought immediately after its actual arising. Then that stray thought will subside as soon as it is noticed and will not arise again. Immediately afterwards he will also be able to resume continuous noticing of any object as it becomes evident to him. That is why his mind at that time is called "unhindered."
While the meditator is thus practising the exercise of noticing with unhindered mind, the noticing mind will close in upon and fix on whatever object is being noticed, and the act of noticing will proceed without break. At that time there arises in him in uninterrupted succession "the concentration of mind lasting for a moment," directed to each object noticed. This is called purification of mind.
Though that concentration has only momentary duration, its power of resistance to being overwhelmed by opposition corresponds to that of access concentration.
In the Commentary to the Visuddhimagga, in the explanation of the chapter relating to mindfulness of breathing, it is said thus: " 'Momentary unification of mind' means the concentration of mind lasting only for a moment. For that (type of concentration), too, when it occurs uninterruptedly with its respective object in a single mode and is not overcome by opposition, fixes the mind immovably, as if in absorption."
"It occurs uninterruptedly with its respective object" refers to the uninterrupted continuity of the thoughts engaged in noticing; after noticing one object, one attends, in the same manner, to another that follows immediately; again, having noticed that object, one turns to the next one, and so on.
"In a single mode" means: though the objects to be noticed, as they present themselves, are numerous and varied, yet the force of concentration of the mind uninterruptedly engaged in noticing remains virtually on the same level. For what is meant here is: just as the first object was noticed with a certain degree of concentration, so the second, third, and other subsequent objects are noticed in each case with the same degree of concentration.
"Is not overcome by opposition": this means that the momentary concentration in its uninterrupted flow is not overwhelmed by the mental hindrances.
"As if in absorption": this means that the strength of the momentary concentration is similar to that of concentration which has reached full mental absorption. However, such similarity of momentary concentration with fully absorbed concentration will become evident (only) when the methodical practice of insight reaches its culmination.
But is it not said in the Commentaries that the term "purification of mind" applies only to access concentration and fully absorbed concentration? That is true; but one has to take this statement in the sense that momentary concentration is included in access concentration. For in the Commentary to the Satipatthana Sutta it is said: "The remaining twelve exercises are subjects of meditation leading only to Access Concentration." Now, in the case of the subjects dealt with in the sections of the Satipatthana Sutta on postures, clear comprehension and elements, the concentration of one who devotes himself to these exercises will be definitely only momentary concentration. But as the latter is able to suppress the hindrances just as access concentration does,[23
] and since it is the neighbourhood of the noble-path attainment concentration, therefore that same momentary concentration is spoken of by the name of "access" (or "neighbourhood") and also the meditation subjects that produce that momentary concentration are called "meditation subjects leading to access concentration." Hence it should be understood that momentary concentration, having the capacity to suppress the hindrances, has also the right to the name "access" and "purification of mind." Otherwise purification of mind could not come about in one who has made bare insight his vehicle by employing only insight, without having produced either access concentration or fully absorbed concentration.
Endowed with purification of mind and continuing the practice of noticing, the meditator now comes to know body-and-mind analytically as follows: "The rising (upward movement) of the abdomen is one process; the falling (downward movement) is another; sitting is another; touching is another," etc. In this way he comes to know how to distinguish each bodily process that he notices. Further he realizes: "The knowing of the rising movement is one process; the knowing of the falling movement is another." In that way he comes to know each mental act of noticing. Further he realizes: "The rising movement is one process; the knowing of it is another. The falling movement is one process; the knowing of it is another," and so on. In that way he comes to know how to distinguish each bodily and mental process. All that knowledge comes from simply noticing, not from reasoning; that is to say, it is knowledge by direct experience arrived at by the mere act of noticing, and not knowledge derived from ratiocination.
Thus, when seeing a visual object with the eye, the meditator knows how to distinguish each single factor involved: "The eye is one; the visual object is another; seeing is another, and knowing it is another." The same manner applies in the case of the other sense functions.
For at the time, in each act of noticing, the meditator comes to know analytically the mental processes of noticing, and those of thinking and reflecting, knowing them for himself through direct knowledge by his experience thus: "They have the nature of going towards an object, inclining towards an object, cognizing an object." On the other hand, he knows analytically the material processes going on in the whole body -- which are here described as "the rising and falling movements of the abdomen," "sitting," etc., knowing them thus: "These have not the nature of going or inclining towards an object, or of cognizing an object." Such knowing is called "knowing matter (or the body) by its manifestation of non-determining." For it is said in the Mula-Tika, the "Principal Sub-commentary" to the Abhidhamma Vibhanga: "In other words, 'non-determining' (as in the passage quoted) should be understood as having no faculty of cognizing an object."
Such knowledge as this, which analyses in each act of noticing both the bodily process noticed and the mental process engaged in noticing, according to their true essential nature, is called "analytical knowledge of body and mind."
When that knowledge has come to maturity, the meditator understands thus: "At the moment of breathing in, there is just the rising movement of the abdomen and the knowing of the movement, but there is no self besides; at the moment of breathing out, there is just the falling movement of the abdomen and the knowing of the movement, but there is no self besides." Understanding it thus in these and other instances, he knows and sees for himself by noticing thus: "There is here only that pair: a material process as object, and a mental process of knowing it; and it is to that pair alone that the terms of conventional usage 'being,' 'person' or 'soul,' 'I' or 'another,' 'man' or 'woman' refer. But apart from that dual process there is no separate person or being, I or another, man or woman."
This is called purification of view.
When purification of view has come to maturity, the conditions necessary for the bodily and mental processes observed will also become evident. Firstly, the consciousness that is the condition of the (respective) bodily process will be evident. How? For instance, when bending the arms or legs, the consciousness intending to bend these limbs is evident. So the meditator first notices that consciousness, and next he notices the act of bending, and so on. Then he understands by direct experience: "When there is consciousness intending to bend a limb, the bodily process of bending arises; when there is consciousness intending to stretch a limb, the bodily process of stretching arises." And in the same way he understands other instances too by direct experience.
Again, he also understands by direct experience the condition for the mental process, in the following manner: "In the case of consciousness desirous of running off the track, there arises first a corresponding consciousness giving initial attention (to the distracting object). If that consciousness is not noticed (with mindfulness), then there arises a consciousness that runs off the track. But if the consciousness of initial attention to the distracting object is noticed and known, no stray thought will arise. It is similar in the case of other (types of consciousness, for instance when taking delight or being angry, greedy, etc.). When both the sense door of the eye and a visual object are present, there arises visual consciousness; otherwise visual consciousness will not arise; and so it is in the case of the other sense doors. If there is a noticeable or recognizable object, then there arises consciousness engaged in noticing or thinking or reasoning or understanding, as the case may be; otherwise no such consciousness arises. Similarly he understands what occurs in every other instance (of mind-door cognition).
At that time, the meditator will generally experience many different painful feelings arising in his body. Now, while one of these feelings is being noticed (but without concern), another feeling will arise elsewhere; and while that is being noticed, again another will appear elsewhere. Thus the meditator follows each feeling as it arises and notices it. But though he is engaged in noticing these feelings as they arise, he will only perceive their initial phase of "arising" and not their final phase of "dissolution."
Also many mental images of various shapes will then appear. The shape of a dagoba, a monk, a man, a house, a tree, a park, a heavenly mansion, a cloud, and many other such images will appear. Here, too, while the meditator is still engaged in noticing one of these mental images, another will show itself; while still noticing that, yet another will appear. Following thus the mental images as they arise, he goes on noticing them. But though he is engaged in noticing them, he will perceive only their initial phase, not the final phase.
He now understands: "Consciousness arises in accordance with each object that becomes evident. If there is an object, there arises consciousness; if there is no object, no consciousness arises."
Between sequences of noticing he also, by considering inferentially, comes to know thus: "It is due to the presence of such causes and conditions as ignorance, craving, kamma, etc., that body-and-mind continue."
Such discernment through direct experience and through inference as described, when noticing body-and-mind with their conditions, is called "knowledge of discerning conditionality."
When that knowledge has come to maturity, the meditator perceives only body-and-mind processes occurring in strict accordance with their particular and appropriate conditions and he comes to the conclusion: "Here is only a conditioning body-and-mind process and a conditioned body-and-mind process. Apart from these, there is no person who performs the bending of the limbs, etc., or who experiences feelings of pain, etc."
This is called purification (of insight) by overcoming doubt.
When this "purification (of insight) by overcoming doubt" has reached maturity, the meditator will discern distinctly the initial, middle, and final phases of any object noticed by him. Then, in the case of various objects noticed, he will discern distinctly that only after each earlier process has ceased, does there arise a subsequent process. For instance, only when the rising movement of the abdomen has come to an end, does there arise the falling movement; only when that has ended, is there again a rising movement. So also in the case of walking: only when the lifting of the foot has come to an end, does there arise the carrying forward of the foot; only when that has been completed, does there follow the placing of the foot on the ground.
In the case of painful feelings, only after each single feeling occurring at its particular place has ceased, will another new feeling arise at another place. On noticing the respective painful feeling repeatedly, twice, thrice or more, the meditator will see that it gradually grows less, and at last ceases entirely.
In the case of the variously shaped images that enter the mind's field, it is only after each single image noticed has vanished, that another new object will come into the mind's focus. On noticing them attentively twice, thrice or more, he will see well that these mental objects which are being noticed move from one place to another, or they become gradually smaller and less distinct, until at last they disappear entirely. The meditator, however, does not perceive anything that is permanent and lasting, or free from destruction and disappearance.
Seeing how each object, even while being noticed, comes to destruction and disappearance, the meditator comprehends it as impermanent in the sense of undergoing destruction. He further comprehends it as suffering (painful) in the sense of breaking up after each arising. Having seen how various painful feelings arise in continuous succession -- how if one painful feeling ceases, another arises, and when that has ceased, again another arises -- having seen that, he comprehends the respective objects as just a conglomeration of suffering. Further, he comprehends the object as consisting of mere impersonal phenomena without a master, in the sense of not arising of (or by) themselves, but arising subject to conditions and then breaking up.
This comprehension of an object noticed, as being impermanent, painful, and without a self (impersonal), through knowing its nature of impermanency, etc., by means of simply noticing, without reflecting and reasoning, is called "knowledge by comprehension through direct experience."
Having thus seen the three characteristics once or several times by direct experience, the meditator, by inference from the direct experience of those objects noticed, comprehends all bodily and mental processes of the past, present, and future, and the whole world, by coming to the conclusion: "They, too, are in the same way impermanent, painful, and without a self." This is called "knowledge of comprehension by inference."
Alluding to this very knowledge, it is said in the Patisambhidamagga: "Whatever there is of materiality, past, present or future, internal or external, coarse or fine, inferior or superior, far or near, all materiality he defines as impermanent. That is one kind of comprehension," and so on.
Also in the Commentary to the Kathavatthu it is said: "Even if the impermanence of only a single formation (conditioned phenomenon) is known, there may be consideration of the rest by induction thus: 'All formations are impermanent.' "
The words "All formations are impermanent" refer to an understanding by induction, and not to an understanding by perceiving a (co-present) object at the same moment. (This passage is the authority for the usage of the term "inductive insight.")
Also in the Commentary to
the Majjhima Nikaya it is
said: "Because in the case of the realm of
neither-perception-nor-non-perception, the insight into the sequence of mental
factors belongs to the Buddhas alone and not to the disciples, he (the Buddha)
said thus thereby indicating the insight by groups._" (This passage is the
authority for the usage of the term "comprehension by groups.")
4. Knowledge of Arising and Passing Away: