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vipassanā (Pali; Skt. vipaśyanā; T. lhag mthong ལྷག་མཐོང་; C. guan 觀) is translated as "insight," etc.

The practice of insight (vipassana) is one of two branches of meditative cultivation (bhāvanā) within Buddhism, the other being calm (samatha).[1] Calm meditation cultivates concentration (samadhi) and stability within the mind. Insight meditation cultivates clarity and wisdom.

Insight meditation seeks to develop "insight into the true nature of reality." Rupert Gethin states:

Insight meditation aims at understanding three aspects of the nature of things: that they are impermanent and unstable (anitya), that they are unsatisfactory and imperfect (duḥkha), and that they are not self (anātman). The philosophical nuances of these three terms may be expressed differently in the theoretical writings of various Buddhist schools, but in one way or another the higher stages of the Buddhist path focus on the direct understanding and seeing of these aspects of the world.[2]

Samatha and vipassana

Within Buddhism, the cultivation of calm (samatha) is pursued together with the cultivation of insight (vipassana). This two practices are both necessary in order to achieve the goal of the Buddhist path.

Rupert Gethin states:

The goal of Buddhist practice is to bring to an end the operation of these defilements (kleshas). The basic method is to restore to the mind something of its fundamental state of clarity and stillness. This clarity of mind provides the opportunity for seeing into the operation of the defilements and the mind’s true nature, for seeing things as they really are, for fully awakening. The way of returning the mind to its state of clarity is by the use of the techniques of calm meditation, which can temporarily suppress or block the immediate defilements that disturb the mind; the way of seeing clearly into the nature of the mind is by the methods of insight meditation, which, in association with calm, can finally eradicate those defilements.[3]

A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma states:

In Buddhism two approaches to meditative development are recognized, calm (samatha) and insight (vipassana). Of the two, the development of insight is the distinctively Buddhistic form of meditation. This system of meditation is unique to the Buddha’s Teaching and is intended to generate direct personal realization of the truths discovered and enunciated by the Buddha. The development of calm is also found in non-Buddhist schools of meditation. However, in the Buddha’s Teaching calming meditation is taught because the serenity and concentration which it engenders provide a firm foundation for the practice of insight meditation. Each of the two types of meditation has its own methodology and range of meditation subjects.[4]

The MacMillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism states:

Vipassana meditation entails perfecting the mental faculty of mindfulness (smṛti; P. sati) for the purpose of analyzing objects of meditation, such as mental states or the physical body, for manifestations of the three marks. When fully developed, vipassana leads to the attainment of liberating prajña (P. pañña; wisdom) and the ultimate goal of nirvana (P. nibbana) or the cessation of suffering and freedom from rebirth. Samatha meditation entails the cultivation of mental concentration (samadhi) for the purpose of strengthening and calming the mind. When fully developed it leads to the attainment of dhyana (P. jhana), meditative absorption or trance, and the generation of various abhijñā (P. abhiñña; higher knowledges).[5]

Ajahn Brahm states:

Some traditions speak of two types of meditation, insight meditation (vipassana) and calm meditation (samatha). In fact the two are indivisible facets of the same process. Calm is the peaceful happiness born of meditation; insight is the clear understanding born of the same meditation. Calm leads to insight and insight leads to calm."[6]

The practice of vipassana


Rupert Gethin states:

With the essential work of calming the mind completed, with the attainment of the fourth dhyāna, the meditator can focus fully on the development of insight and the wisdom that understands the four truths. Insight meditation aims at understanding three aspects of the nature of things: that they are impermanent and unstable (anitya/anicca), that they are unsatisfactory and imperfect (duḥkha/dukkha), and that they are not self (anātman/anattā). The philosophical nuances of these three terms may be expressed differently in the theoretical writings of various Buddhist schools, but in one way or another the higher stages of the Buddhist path focus on the direct understanding and seeing of these aspects of the world.
The culmination of calm meditation is the attainment of a state of calm where the mind rests in complete ease and contentment — either access concentration or one of the four dhyānas; the culmination of insight meditation is likewise a state of calm and ease — one of the dhyānas or also (according to the Sarvāstivādins) the state of access concentration. But the difference is that in the final stage of insight meditation the mind settles not with an abstract concept as its object, but in the direct seeing of suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the path leading to its cessation. There are thus two varieties of concentration — one achieved solely as a result of calm meditation, the other achieved as a result of both calm and insight meditation. The latter may be either ordinary (laukika/lokiya) or transcendent (lokottara/lokuttara) depending on whether it involves a direct experience of nirvāṅa or not.
The point at which a meditator actively turns to the contemplation of phenomena as impermanent, suffering, and not self is not fixed either for the ancient manuals or in modern practice. The theoretical models of the paths set out in the classical manuals of Upatissa, Buddhaghosa, and Vasubandhu accommodate two basic approaches: one in which the meditator practises the dhyānas fully before turning to the development of insight and one in which the meditator attempts to cultivate insight with only a minimal basis of calm.
Just as the manuals provide various schemata for the stages of calm meditation, so also they provide different accounts of the stages of insight meditation. After Buddhaghosa, the Theravādin tradition works primarily with a system of seven ‘purifications’ (visuddhi) alongside a series of eight (or sometimes ten) knowledges. From the north Indian tradition, and especially the writings of Vasubandhu and Asaṅga, the Mahāyāna traditions of China and Tibet inherit a system of five paths (mārga) and four ‘stages of penetrative insight’ (nirvedha-bhāgīya) which comes to be set alongside a system of ten ‘levels’ (bhūmi) of the bodhisattva paths to buddhahood.[2]

Seven stages of purification

In the Pali tradition, the Sri Lankan scholar Buddhagosa presents the stages of vipassana meditation within the scheme of the seven stages of purification.

The seven stages are:

  1. Purification of conduct (sīla-visuddhi)
  2. Purification of mind (citta-visuddhi)
  3. Purification of view (ditthi-visuddhi)
  4. Purification by overcoming doubt (kankha-vitarana-visuddhi)
  5. Purification by knowledge and vision of what is path and not-path (maggamagga-nanadassana-visuddhi)
  6. Purification by knowledge and vision of the course of practice (patipada–nanadassana-visuddhi)
  7. Purification by knowledge and vision (nanadassana-visuddhi)

Within this scheme:

...the first two (‘purification of conduct’ and ‘purification of consciousness’) are concerned with good conduct and the practice of calm meditation... Together these two purifications are seen as the roots for the five purifications directly concerned with insight.[2]

Five paths

Within the Sanskrit tradition, the Indian scholars Vasubandhu and Asanga present the stages of insight within the scheme of the five paths.

The five paths are:

  1. The path of accumulation (saṃbhāra-mārga)
  2. The path of preparation or application (prayoga-mārga)
  3. The path of seeing (darśana-mārga)
  4. The path of meditation (bhāvanā-mārga)
  5. The path of no more learning or consummation (aśaikṣā-mārga)

Within this scheme:

The path of [accumulation] covers the general basis of the spiritual life in the form of faith, generosity, good conduct, and the preliminary development of calm and insight. The path of application consists of the further development of calm and particularly insight. The path of seeing involves a direct seeing of the four truths in the manner of the seventh purification of Buddhaghosa’s scheme. The path of development is twofold: either ordinary (laukika) or transcendent (lokottara). The ordinary path of development consists in mastery of calm, the attainment of the dhyānas and formless attainments. The transcendent path of development consists in the final eradication of attachment to these meditative attainments and the realms of the cosmos that correspond to them. The ordinary path of development may thus precede or succeed the paths of application and seeing: in the case of a practitioner who develops the dhyānas before turning to insight it precedes, and in the case of one who develops them after stream-attainment (accomplished by the path of seeing) it succeeds. The path of completion is equivalent to the final attainment of arhatship. [...] In the Mahāyāna this scheme of five paths becomes the basis for the ten stages of the bodhisattva path.[2]

Some distinctions within traditions

Pali tradition

Within the Pali Canon

The Pāli canon emphasized pairing vipassana meditation with samatha.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu states:

When [the Pāli suttas] depict the Buddha telling his disciples to go meditate, they never quote him as saying 'go do vipassana,' but always 'go do jhana.' And they never equate the word "vipassana" with any mindfulness techniques. In the few instances where they do mention vipassana, they almost always pair it with samatha — not as two alternative methods, but as two qualities of mind that a person may 'gain' or 'be endowed with,' and that should be developed together.[7]

The MacMillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism states:

The most common method of meditation described in the Pali canon relies on vipassana and samatha practiced together. In this method, jhana is first induced through samatha. The meditator then exits from that state and reflects upon it with mindfulness to see that it is characterized by the three marks. In this way jhana is made the object of vipassana meditation. One who uses this method is called a tranquility worker (samatha yanika), and all buddhas and their chief disciples are described as having practiced in this way. A less common method found in the canon relies on vipassana alone. Developing concentration to a lesser degree than jhana, the meditator examines ordinary mental and physical phenomena for the three marks as described above. The meditator who uses this method is called a bare insight worker (suddhavipassana yanika).[5]

18th century vipassana revival movement in Burma

The MacMillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism states:

By the tenth century C.E., vipassana meditation appears to have fallen out of practice in the Theravada school. By that time it was commonly believed that the religion of Gautama Buddha had so declined that liberation through insight could no longer be attained until the advent of the future Buddha Metteyya (Skt. Maitreya) many eons from now.
In the early eighteenth century, however, renewed interest in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness) led to a revival of vipassana meditation in Burma (Myanmar). After encountering initial resistance, the practice of vipassana was endorsed by the Burmese Sangha and embraced by the royal court. By the late nineteenth century, a distinct praxis and organizational pattern had emerged that set the stage for the modern vipassana movement of the twentieth century. Led chiefly by reform minded scholar-monks, a variety of simplified meditation techniques were devised based on readings of the Satipatthana-sutta, the Visuddhimagga (Path to Purification), and related texts. These techniques typically follow the method of bare insight.
The teaching of vipassana also prompted the development of new Buddhist institutions called wipathana yeiktha or insight hermitages. Initially attached to monasteries, these evolved into independent lay oriented meditation centers. A related development was the rise of personality cults devoted to the veneration of prominent meditation teachers as living arhats. In terms of impact, the popularization of vipassana represents the most significant development in Burmese Buddhism in the twentieth century.
Thailand has also witnessed a revival of vipassana practice in the modern period, and both Burmese and Thai meditation teachers have been instrumental in propagating vipassana in Sri Lanka, India, and the West.[5]

Sanskrit tradition


Within the Sanskrit tradition, the following traditional texts are important references for vipassana practice:

In the Abhidharma-samuccaya, śamatha and vipaśyanā are presented in the context of the "path of accumulation" (saṃbhāra-mārga).[8]

East Asian Buddhism

Key texts on vipashyana in the East Asian Buddhist tradition include:

The The Treatise on the Awakening of Faith According to the Mahāyāna states:

He who practices 'clear observation' should observe that all conditioned phenomena in the world are unstationary and are subject to instantaneous transformation and destruction; that all activities of the mind arise and are extinguished from moment or moment; and that, therefore, all of these induce suffering. He should observe that all that had been conceived in the past was as hazy as a dream, that all that is being conceived in the future will be like clouds that rise up suddenly. He should also observe that the physical existences of all living beings in the world are impure and that among these various filthy things there is not a single one that can be sought after with joy.[9]

Tibetan Buddhism

In Tibetan Buddhism, the practice of śamatha and vipaśyanā is strongly influenced by the Stages of Meditation (Bhavanakrama) of Indian master Kamalaśīla. Kamalaśīla defines vipaśyanā as "the discernment of reality" (bhūta-pratyavekṣā) and "accurately realizing the true nature of dharmas".[10]

According to Thrangu Rinpoche, when śamatha and vipashyana are combined (following the Madhyamaka approach of Shantideva and Kamalashila), through śamatha disturbing emotions are abandoned, which thus facilitates vipashyana, "clear seeing." In this context, vipashyana is cultivated through reasoning, logic and analysis in conjunction with śamatha. In contrast, in the tradition of the direct approach of Mahamudra and Dzogchen, vipashyana is ascertained directly through looking into one's own mind. After this initial recognition of vipashyana, the steadiness of shamatha is developed within that recognition. According to Thrangu Rinpoche, it is however also common in the direct approach to first develop enough shamatha to serve as a basis for vipashyana.[11]

Modern day vipassana movement

The modern day Vipassana movement is based teachings and practice that developed in Burma and Thailand since the 18th century. This movement has gained wide renown mainly through American Buddhist teachers such as Joseph Goldstein and others. It is particularly rooted in the meditation techniques of Burma and the Thai Forest Tradition.[12]


In the Sanskrit term vipaśyana:[13]

  • Vi is short for vishesa (Skt. viśeṣa), which means ‘special’, ‘superior’, or ‘particular’
  • Pashyana (Skt. paśyanā) means ‘to see’ or ‘to look’

The Tibetan translation for this term is lhak-tong (lhag mthong):[13]

  • Lhak (Wyl. lhag) is ‘unique’ and
  • tong (Wyl. mthong) is ‘seeing’.


  1. Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. vipaśyanā.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Gethin 1998, s.v. Chapter 7, section "The stages of insight meditation".
  3. Gethin 1998, s.v. Chapter 7, section "The practice of calm meditation".
  4. Bhikkhu Bodhi 2000, s.v. Chapter IX: Compendium of Meditation Subjects.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Buswell 2004, sv. vipassana.
  6. Brahm 2006, p. 25.
  7. Thanissaro Bhikkhu 1997.
  8. Asanga 2001, p. xxi.
  9. Hakedas 1967, p. 33.
  10. Adam 2006, pp. 78-79.
  11. Thrangu Rinpoche 2004.
  12. McMahan 2008.
  13. 13.0 13.1 RW icon height 18px.png Vipashyana


External links