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What is Vipassana or Insight Meditation?

From Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia
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by Cynthia Thatcher

 Vipassana (insight meditation) is the ultimate expression of Socrates' dictum, "know thyself." The Buddha discovered that the cause of suffering can actually be erased when we see our true nature. This is a radical insight. It means that our happiness does not depend on manipulating the external world. We only have to see ourselves clearly— a much easier proposition (but in the ultimate sense, knowing oneself with clarity reveals there is no permanent self, as the Buddha taught).

Vipassana meditation is a rational method for purifying the mind of the mental factors that cause distress and pain. This simple technique does not invoke the help of a god, spirit or any other external power, but relies on our own efforts.

Vipassana is an insight that cuts through conventional perception to perceive mind and matter as they actually are: impermanent, unsatisfactory, and impersonal. Insight meditation gradually purifies the mind, eliminating all forms of attachment. As attachment is cut away, desire and delusion are gradually diluted. The Buddha identified these two factors— desire and ignorance— as the roots of suffering. When they are finally removed, the mind will touch something permanent beyond the changing world. That "something" is the deathless, supramundane happiness, called "Nibbana" in Pali.

Insight meditation is concerned with the present moment— with staying in the now to the most extreme degree possible. It consists of observing body (rupa) and mind (nama) with bare attention.

The word "vipassana" has two parts. "Passana" means seeing, i.e., perceiving. The prefix "vi" has several meanings, one of which is "through." Vipassana-insight literally cuts through the curtain of delusion in the mind. "Vi" can also function as the English prefix "dis," suggesting discernment— a kind of seeing that perceives individual components separately. The idea of separation is relevant here, for insight works like a mental scalpel, differentiating conventional truth from ultimate reality. Lastly, "vi" can function as an intensive, in which case "vipassana" means intense, deep or powerful seeing. It is an immediate insight experienced before one's eyes, having nothing to do with reasoning or thinking.

Is insight meditation a religion?

No. Although it was discovered by the Buddha, insight meditation is not Buddhism. It is the method by which the Buddha and his disciples freed themselves from every form of suffering and attained awakening. This simple technique is a democratic method, open to people of any faith or those who ascribe to none.

Is insight meditation an escape from reality?

No. On the contrary, it is the ultimate confrontation with reality.

Two Kinds of Meditation: Mindfulness and Concentration

The complete term for insight meditation is "vipassana-bhavana." "Bhavana" means a system of mental training that cultivates wisdom or concentration.

All meditation techniques can be classified into two types: insight meditation (vipassana-bhavana), and tranquility meditation, or concentration (samatha-bhavana). In tranquility practice you fix the attention on a single object until the mind enters a deep, trance-like stillness. You develop enough concentration to quiet the mind and suppress mental impurities such as anger. When you stop meditating, however, the negative emotions eventually return.

The practice of insight, on the other hand, cultivates wisdom. The student develops systematic mindfulness in order to see the real characteristics of existence: unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, and impersonality. All the activities of daily life can be objects of mindfulness: bodily actions, feelings, thoughts and emotions— even painful ones. Nothing is suppressed.

In mindfulness practice, a meditator notes and lets go of different objects as they appear and pass away, instead of keeping the mind fixed on one thing exclusively. Although some concentration is needed for vipassana practice, it is only the level called "momentary concentration," which is weaker than that required for deep tranquility-states (jhana).

The path of concentration results in short-term calmness, bliss, and, when fully perfected, psychic powers. The path of insight, on the other hand, leads to wisdom and permanent freedom from suffering. This freedom is called "Nibbana," the deathless.

We practice vipassana meditation in order to see the mind, to know it rather than control it, as Bhikkhu Sopako Bodhi says. To see your own mind clearly is to see ultimate reality.

Many of us find excuses to avoid cultivating the mind. There is the familiar objection, "I don't have enough concentration to meditate." But strong concentration, as we said, is not a requirement for insight meditation.

Ask yourself this: does a sick person need a special aptitude to take penicillin? No— he takes it because he is ill. Like medicine, meditation is not something for which one needs an aptitude, but a prescription for illness; and the worse it tastes, the more it's likely needed. The Buddha said that all of us suffer from the mental sickness of desire, aversion and delusion. But anyone— repeat, anyone— can achieve mental health and happiness by "taking" vipassana.

What is Mindfulness?

Vipassana practice cultivates mindfulness. Mindfulness in insight meditation refers to bare awareness of the physical and mental phenomena occurring in the present moment. These phenomena include the movements of your body, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations of touch, pain or pleasant feeling, thoughts, etc.

The present moment refers to the initial instant that a phenomenon (called an "object") such as a sound, sight or movement makes contact with consciousness. Think of a match striking the side of the box, resulting in flame. That's what the contact of the present moment is like. The mind is one thing, the object another. When they strike together, a moment of experience happens: a moment of hearing, seeing, smelling, moving, touching, tasting, feeling or thinking.

Mindfulness is the mental factor aware of this contact from one moment to the next. Furthermore, mindfulness knows the beginning and ending of each instance of contact. That is, it sees each sight or sound arise and then immediately pass away.

With mindfulness you do not judge or react to passing phenomena, but merely note them impartially, without attraction or repulsion. We should emphasize that mindfulness of the body, thoughts, feelings, sense-impressions, and so on does not mean thinking about those things, but merely knowing them with bare attention as soon as they arise (i.e., at the moment of contact), then letting them go. The technique of simply knowing and letting go of sensations without reacting to them eventually purifies the mind of all unwholesome traits.

The Country of Now

To be mindful of the present moment is to stay in the ultimate now, to be acutely aware of what is happening in body and mind at the present instant. At such times you don't remember past events or anticipate the future. Truly speaking, the last breath is in the past. It is gone. The next breath hasn't happened yet. Only the present breath (or sight, sound, movement, etc.) is real.

But how can we survive in the world while staying in the present to such a degree? In order to function in everyday life, of course, we have to plan and remember. We have to evaluate sights and sounds. Most of the time we have to use language and abstract thinking. In that case we cannot stay precisely in the present moment, although we can use general mindfulness and clear comprehension to be more aware of our activities and thoughts.

But we can set aside a special hour or so every day to cultivate mindfulness. During that time we can let go of concepts, thoughts, and mental "fashionings" of every kind. Whether it's an hour every morning or a year-long retreat, during that period there's no need to think about yesterday's crisis or make a mental leap toward the future, not even to the next breath.

What is sometimes misunderstood, however, is the degree to which "nowness" should be taken during vipassana practice. It is more extreme and precise than most of us think. And it is quite different from the mindfulness we might use in daily life.

People mean different things by the terms "now" or "the present." In a practical sense, we might think of nowness as having degrees. Imagine you're standing on a high ridge looking at a forest through a camera lens. As you zoom closer, details of the individual trees emerge clearly. As you zoom out, the trees appear less distinct.

Here we're using distance as a metaphor for time. To those standing far from the forest, living in the present could mean enjoying life from day to day without planning for retirement. For a person who zooms in closer, staying in the now could mean paying attention while doing the dishes— keeping the mind on the task instead of letting it stray to the argument of yesterday morning.

But is this as close as you can get to the trees? Is this what it means to stay in the present to the ultimate degree? As a matter of fact, it isn't. We may believe it is the limit only because we haven't systematically cultivated mindfulness. But with strong mindfulness we can actually zoom in much closer. Then we find that the "now" opens up into many more levels.

Gradually it is seen that our previous lack of awareness distorted our perception of the inner and outer landscape. As mindfulness gets sharper we will be able to perceive many more details, subtleties that had never been noticed before, until we are able to clearly perceive the moment when the mind makes initial contact with an object.

If we do this systematically we'll begin to see things differently— as the mirror image of what we'd thought they were. What we had believed permanent turns out to be momentary. What we thought desirable no longer seems so. What we believed to be self is clearly seen to be a matter of impersonal components. This is to cross the border of conventional truth into the province of ultimate reality and see things as they actually are. It is by seeing these characteristics clearly that we'll be able to let go of attachment and become free of suffering.

Letting Go of Memory and Names

How do you take the practice of nowness to the next level so as to see ultimate reality clearly? The answer is: by letting go of conventional knowledge temporarily, which includes letting go of memory. Not only memories from childhood, or yesterday, or one minute ago; not only the memory of our last breath.

In order to gain ultimate knowledge you have to give up, for a time, the labels and concepts of conventional knowledge. Some call this "beginner's mind." That means that in order to reach a high level of vipassana insight you must temporarily let go of the names for things, because naming is actually a very subtle form of remembering, a tiny reflex back to the past. But you don't have to worry that anything will be lost— the memories and names will return as soon as you need them or as soon as you stop the period of intensive practice.

What does it mean to "let go of names"? In order to understand this, let's take a look at the process of perception as described in Buddhist philosophy. The perceptual process has two parts. Say that you're looking at a piano. At first you see an unidentified colored shape (this is the initial moment of contact with the object, to which we referred earlier). A split-second later the mind recognizes the name of the object, "piano." Those two moments occur one right after the other, so quickly that in daily life they're indistinguishable. But with strong mindfulness and insight it is possible to perceive the initial moment of bare seeing before memory comes up with the name.

The same stages of perception occur whenever you experience a sound, smell, taste or touch. Pure sound-waves are cognized first; in the next moment you recognize the sound. A fragrance is sensed before it is named. The same is true of touches, tastes, and mental phenomena.

The truth is, although you may have general mindfulness, whenever you recognize a sight, sound, etc., you cannot be said to be staying exactly in the present moment, to the highest degree possible. "If we could focus precisely on the present moment," Achan Sobin wrote, "… the eye would not be able to identify objects coming into the area of perception. Sound, which merely has the function of entering the eardrum and causing it to vibrate, would not be concretized as speech or music, etc. In fact, it is possible to focus on the split-second between hearing sound and recognizing it in the conventional manner." (Wayfaring: A Manual for Insight Meditation).

Although it may seem impossible to be clearly aware of a form before recognizing it, this event happens naturally during vipassana practice when mindfulness and insight are very strong. With experience in meditation you will not have to believe or disbelieve, because you will know this firsthand. To know a phenomenon with mindfulness before it is overlaid with concepts is to experience reality as it actually is, in its pristine state.

That does not mean that in daily life you will go around bumping into objects you don't recognize. Again, conventional perception, along with all the names and concepts necessary for everyday functioning, will be there as soon as you need it. It can be accessed anytime.

But in regard to memory, someone might think, "I cherish my happy memories. Why should I give them up?" Again, your memories will not be permanently erased. You'll be able to recall a certain event whenever you want to. But the more you train the mind to stay in the present moment, the more you'll see that clinging to the past and living in the future actually cause suffering. Attachment to pleasant memories makes us long for something that is gone, and this longing is in itself painful. What disappears in vipassana practice are not the memories themselves, but the distress that comes from attaching to them.

Conventional Truth vs. Ultimate Reality

The Buddha distinguished between conventional and ultimate truth. The former refers to the names and concepts by which we interpret our experience. Conventional truth is relative and conceptual. It changes from person to person. But ultimate truth is the same for all. It is true in the absolute sense.

A name is a concept; it isn't ultimately real. It is only a convention we impose on something. Remembering the name of a thing, whether we are referring to a sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, feeling or some other form, is not the same as directly experiencing it.

Ultimate reality refers to the raw sense-data of moment-to-moment experience: the actual instances of color, sound waves, tactile sensation, fragrance, and so on, that the brain continually registers. These sensations exist whether or not we think about them. They are not affected by the names or associations given to them.

Most cultures have a name for the phenomenon called "thunder" in English. Brazilians say "trueno," the French, "tonerre." Although the names differ, the phenomenon doesn't. The event denoted by "thunder" is the same thing no matter what we call it. Truly speaking, it is impossible to hear thunder. What we actually hear is sound. Although a particular sound can be called by many names, sound waves themselves have the same properties, and follow the same physical laws, in all cultures.

Insight meditation is only concerned with ultimate reality, not conventional truth. Ultimate reality has two components: nama and rupa.

Nama and Rupa

Achan Sobin once said, "There is no vipassana without nama and rupa." They are insight meditation distilled to its essence. "Nama" means mind. The mind is comprised of two things: 1) consciousness, and 2) mental phenomena or mental factors such as intention, feeling, desire, mindfulness, and so on. The general word "nama" includes both consciousness and mental factors.

"Rupa" means matter. Practically speaking, rupa refers to bare sense-impressions: color, sound, taste, scent and tactile sensation (tactile sensation is experienced as temperature, pressure, and motion). Although we don't usually think of them this way, in Buddhist philosophy sense-impressions are considered a type of matter. They are, in fact, our only direct experience of the latter.

Nama and rupa are the two things left when we give up names and concepts. Strictly speaking, they are the only proper objects of mindfulness.

Nama and rupa serve two functions in our moment-to-moment experience: 1) the function of knowing, and 2) the function of being known.

The faculty that knows is nama, the mind. It is aware of something. Let's call it the "knower" (but this "knower" should not be equated with a self; it is impersonal, anatta.) The x being known is called the "object." An object by very definition lacks awareness.

Rupas, material forms, are always objects, not knowers. Rupa is not conscious. Sound cannot hear. Color cannot see. Material phenomena must be "touched" by a mind in order to be experienced. When the mind is aware of color, seeing happens. When it's aware of sound, hearing occurs. Color and sound are objects.

Each moment of life contains one "knower" and one object. When these two things come together, experience happens. For example, sound vibrations are rupa; the mind perceives the sound. When you move your arm, the motion is rupa; nama, the mind, is aware of the movement. A fragrance is rupa; the mind perceives the scent. Color is rupa; nama, the mind, cognizes color.

Now here's where it gets a bit tricky. Although rupas are always objects, not all objects are rupas. An object refers to anything of which the mind is aware. It can be either corporeal or incorporeal. Mental phenomena such as thoughts and feelings can also become objects-objects of the mind— because we can be aware of them.

In that case, one mental phenomenon is known by another mental phenomenon. Having two namas in one moment may seem confusing, as if there would be two knowers. But only one nama at a time can be the knower. A single moment of nama or unit of mind can perform only one function at a time. It cannot be both knower and object simultaneously.

What happens in some cases of knowing a mental form is that the mind in the present takes as its object the previous moment of consciousness, the one that arose and passed away a split-second before. In other words, the mental phenomenon being known— the nama serving as the object— is already over with. (Technically, when the previous moment of consciousness becomes the object of the present, we are knowing an object from the past. But it is so close in time that it still counts as a legitimate object for mindfulness, still counts as a "present" object. This is a different situation from when the mind turns to memory to retrieve the name of a form.)

Simply put: rupas are known. Namas know (rupas and other namas). The knower is always nama. The object can be nama or rupa.
In meditation:
color, sound,
smell, taste,
touch, motion THE FACULTY

Although they are fundamental, ultimate realities (individual namas and rupas) are not permanent. In fact they are in continual flux, appearing and passing away faster than lightning flashes. Under ordinary circumstances we're unable to perceive this flux. But it's possible, by practicing insight meditation, to train our minds to see it. To see nama-rupa arising and passing away is to know oneself. To know oneself is to know the universe.

The Absence of "I"

When observing nama and rupa you shouldn't think in terms of a self or describe your experience with words. When observing the body, for instance, you wouldn't think, "I feel a cramp in my leg." You would only be aware of the feeling. As a training technique a beginner can label the sensation "pain," or "feeling," but without regarding it in terms of "I" or mentally linking it to a body part.

To take another example: during walking meditation a student is just aware of the bare sensation of motion instead of thinking, "now my foot is moving," or even knowing the concept "foot." No matter which body part is moving, every instance of motion is rupa, physical form. In ultimate terms, all rupas are equal. The only difference is that they occur in different moments. Namas and rupas are not selves. Nor do they belong to a self.

The physical body is rupa because it is comprised of matter. It can be moved into different shapes called "postures." Let's say that you place the body in the sitting posture. Normally you'd think, "I am sitting," which is true in the conventional sense. But according to ultimate reality, it is only rupa that is sitting, only material form, not a self or an "I." In the ultimate sense, it is not even a man or a woman who is sitting, but only physical elements.

What about nama? Ultimately speaking, nama, the mind, is not a self either. Nama is the faculty that knows the body is sitting. But this consciousness is not equivalent to a self. It is merely an impersonal awareness that arises and passes away from moment to moment.

Life continues because in the next instant a new moment of consciousness arises. New units of consciousness keep arising and dying out one at a time, and it is this entire stream that we normally regard as a being or person. Although we usually think of a person as a relatively permanent entity possessing a lasting soul or self, in fact the mental continuum is comprised of separate, but sequential, units of consciousness. The notion of a permanent self, the Buddha taught, is nothing more than a fiction. It does not actually exist in either body or mind.

Our moment-to-moment experience in terms of nama-rupa can be summarized as follows:

Movement is rupa; nama knows (is aware of) movement.
Posture is rupa; nama knows posture.
Color is rupa; nama sees color.
Sound is rupa; nama hears sound.
Scent is rupa; nama smells scent.
Tactile sensation is rupa; nama knows tactile sensation.
Flavor is rupa; nama tastes flavor.


In any type of meditation we have to give the mind something to focus on. This "something" is called the "meditation object." In vipassana practice the only appropriate objects are those which occur in the present moment. Sometimes we generate these objects deliberately, as in the hand motions exercise (see Hand Motions). Sometimes we merely observe what occurs naturally, such as the abdominal movements that happen when we breathe.

In fact, the abdominal movement occuring in respiration is the most frequent meditation object. The abdomen expands when you inhale and deflates when you exhale. In vipassana these two movements are called, respectively, "rising" and "falling." The rising motion is one object; the falling motion is another.

Since these motions never cease as long as we live, they make extremely convenient objects. You can practice insight meditation at any time simply by observing the abdominal movements. (There are many other objects for vipassana practice, explained in more detail below and in How to Meditate.)


Another requirement is persistence. If you have tried practicing insight meditation, you know that keeping the mind in the present isn't as easy as it sounds. Perversely, the mind always wanders away. That's all right. It takes patience to change the habit of a lifetime. But it's important not to get upset with yourself. You should regard the mind's wandering as an opportunity to see impersonality, nonself.

Nonself means that all the phenomena in the universe arise because of conditions which are not amenable to control by anyone's will. We can still effect changes, but only by creating the right causes, not by sheer willpower. And creating those causes takes time.

So how should you respond when consciousness wanders away from the meditation object? Simply note "thinking," saying the word silently in the mind, then bring your attention back to the meditation object. As soon as you notice the mind slipping into the past or dreaming about the future, sweep it back to the present moment where a new object, a new sound, thought or movement is already erupting.

Persistence is key because you will have to bring the mind back again and again— literally thousands of times, until it becomes habitual. Don't try to suppress any emotions or thoughts that may arise. Allow these phenomena to appear naturally. Simply be aware of them when they occur.

Soap Bubbles

Imagine a bottle of children's soap bubbles. Before you blow into the plastic wand, no bubble exists. As soon as you blow into it, however, something begins to form. A thin film balloons into a pouch and forms a bubble that breaks free— an independent, floating sphere. A form has appeared that had not existed a few seconds before. You have seen it "being born."

Then before your eyes the bubble bursts. Now it no longer exists. You can't find any trace of it. But during this process you witnessed the entire "existence" of the bubble, from its birth to its death. That is the general concept of watching an object in vipassana.

In ultimate terms every phenomenon, such as a movement or a sound, arises, persists, and bursts like a bubble, all in the space of one moment. In the correct practice of insight meditation a student observes an object through all three of these phases.

For instance, say that a meditator was observing the abdominal movements. During one rise of the abdomen, the student would closely track the movement for its entire duration, from the beginning of the motion through to its end.

The attention should be equally alert during every phase of the motion. The rising movement has a beginning and end. (As does the falling movement.) It isn't enough just to notice the development in the middle. We should see the beginning— and end-points, too.

After the abdomen stops rising, it falls back. This movement is a new "bubble," so to speak, a new object, different from the rising motion. A student then watches the falling movement in all three phases: beginning, middle and end.

In truth, the rising-falling motions do not make a continuous loop. The abdomen must stop expanding for a split second before it begins to fall, before the exhalation begins. Think of the rising motion as the upward arc of a rock thrown in the air. On reaching the highest point, the rock stops for a split-second before dropping. Likewise, the abdomen has to stop expanding before falling back.

To stay in the present moment means that when the abdomen falls you aren't thinking about the last rising movement, since it has already disappeared. To think of it then would be to stray back to the past, to continue to dwell on an object that no longer existed.

When you are exhaling, where is the previous inhalation? It does not exist. It is only a memory, no longer a real, present-moment object. Then after a second or two the exhalation ends, and a new inhalation occurs. Now the exhalation is in the past and the new inhalation (that is, the new rising movement) is the present object.

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness

The Buddha identified four classes of objects suitable for cultivating insight: the body, feeling, consciousness, and dhamma-objects. These are called the "Four Foundations of Mindfulness."

Body objects refer to motion and posture; feeling objects include sensations of pain, pleasure, or neutrality. "Consciousness" refers to thoughts and the mental factors that color the mind, factors such as desire, delusion, mindfulness, etc.

The last category, dhamma objects, is a varied group that includes both mental and material phenomena. Dhamma objects include emotions such as lust, anger, sloth, restlessness and doubt (the "five hindrances" to meditation). This group also includes pleasant emotions such as joy. On the material side, dhamma objects refer to the five sense-impressions: sights, sounds, odors, touches and tastes.

In order to raise a building you need a foundation. With these four kinds of objects as material, you can build a strong foundation for mindfulness. Wisdom will arise automatically when the foundation is laid. The beauty of it is, you don't have to look for the construction materials. They are literally at hand, no further away than your own body and mind. But they have to be noted in the present moment to count toward the foundation. The foundations of mindfulness are described in detail in the Satipatthana Sutta, the insight meditator's "Bible."

The Rate of Reality

How long does it take a bolt of lightning to flash? An instant? Now chop that instant finer and finer, and you'll have some idea of the duration of the mind. Ultimately speaking, our experience is made up of individual cognitive moments that occur one after another. Mind and object flash into being and fizzle out together in fractions of a second. The speed of their birth and death is incredible. It is said that in the duration of a single lightning flash, millions of thought-moments occur.

In other words, although we tend to think of consciousness as an unbroken line stretching back to our birth, consciousness actually occurs as a series of separate, extremely brief cognitive events called "mind-moments." Each mind-moment disappears completely before the next one arises. The Buddha taught that nothing carries over from one instant to the next, not even a core called "soul" or "I."

However, because mind-moments arise and die so quickly we cannot see them individually. They blur into one continuous stream, just as the blades of a spinning fan seem to blur together. This is significant because the blurring of moment-to-moment experience creates the illusion of continuity and lastingness. This prevents us from perceiving the truth of impermanence.

Normally our mindfulness is too weak to keep up with the changes occurring from moment to moment. That's why we need to develop it by training the mind. In order to clearly see the impermanence of consciousness we need to make our mindfulness faster and stronger.

But how can we perceive something that's moving so fast? Even if we stared at a moving fan for many days we wouldn't know whether it had three or five blades, since we'd only see a blur of color. The solution would be to unplug the fan.

But unlike the fan, we can't slow the rate of ultimate phenomena for our convenience. It is set, absolute. Still, as observers, we can try to catch up. We can, so to speak, accelerate our own rate of observation. We can cultivate mindfulness until it is strong enough to glimpse ultimate phenomena in sufficient detail to know their characteristics.

Let's say that you're standing beside the freeway and someone drives past at seventy m.p.h. You would know that a car had passed, but the driver's face wouldn't be clear. The car would have zoomed by too quickly for you to catch any details. You then jump into your own car and follow the vehicle until you catch up with it, pulling into the lane beside. Now that you're traveling at the same speed you can see the other driver clearly, can make out the color of his eyes and hair.

When mindfulness is strong it "catches up to the car." Although in truth it is not entirely or primarily a consideration of time, when mindfulness is powerful it can see many of the lightning-quick changes of mind and body (even though it cannot catch the individual mind-moments; not, at least, until reaching the highest level of vipassana-knowledge). When this occurs, the three characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and impersonality become evident.

We might believe it is impossible to perceive such rapid changes. But the good news is that even one or two moments of seeing a phenomenon arise and pass away can change our lives if that perception is very clear.

When mindfulness and insight-knowledge become this strong, wisdom and other factors join in. The Buddhist suttas tell us that when all these mental factors come together, the mind, in a matter of moments, transcends nama and rupa. It is said that awareness touches something immune to change, an element free of all suffering. That experience is called "awakening" or "enlightenment."

But in order to make mindfulness fast or strong enough we have to train it first by slowing down— slowing down our actions, that is. That may sound paradoxical, but think of a piano student. In order to play like the wind in concert he has to spend months training with slow practice.

Just being aware in a general way is not enough if we want to see the impermanence of the mental stream. For that reason we practice a precise method called "moment-to-moment" mindfulness.

This refers to the step-by-step observation of body and mind, literally from one individual moment to the next. In walking meditation, for instance, each step is broken down into six separate movements, each constituting a separate "moment." Like splitting hairs, the meditator's awareness becomes more subtle and precise. He is able to see shorter and shorter moments very clearly. The more he practices, the more momentum mindfulness gathers, until it can "catch" and clearly see nama and rupa arising and passing away in the present moment.
The Juggler

The way of focusing on objects in vipassana meditation differs from that of tranquility (samatha) practice. Imagine a juggler. A juggler's focus is touch-and-go. The same is true in insight meditation. "Focus and forget it" is the motto. The student has to apply both halves of the maxim if he wants to get maximum benefit from practice.

The juggler has to focus in order to catch the ball. He has to know where to put his attention, and then keep his mind on that spot. While the next ball is coming toward him, he can't think about the last one. He'll fail if he's distracted by a noise or his gaze drifts away. The meditator, too, has to keep his attention in the present moment or he'll drop the ball— that is, become distracted from the meditation object.

Now for the "forget it" part: as soon as the juggler catches a ball he lets it go— otherwise how could he catch the next one? His attention doesn't stick. He keeps it moving, jumping from one object to the next. What kind of performer would pause to gaze at the ball he'd just caught, unwilling to surrender it because he liked the color? Likewise, as soon the meditator notes an object he should drop it, or he won't be able to catch the next phenomenon. His attention, although uninterrupted, doesn't cling to anything.

If the same object— a sound, say— appears again after being noted once, the meditator might observe it a second time then let it go again, and so on. He would note, "hearing … hearing … hearing …" in a sequence of moments, letting go after each one.

The Five Senses

The vipassana student should understand how to observe the five sense-impressions— sights, sounds, smells, touches and tastes— since these are the objects that most often trigger desire and hatred. The Malukyaputta Sutta says, "As phenomena are seen, heard, thought of, or known, just let them be as they are seen, heard, thought of, or known at that moment. When you see, just see; when you hear, just hear; when you think, just think; and when you know, just know" ("knowing" includes smelling, tasting and touching).

To let these phenomena be as they are "at that moment" means not to identify or describe them in any way. As soon as you see, hear, smell, taste, touch, think or know something, just be aware of the bare sensation. Don't add your good or bad mental description. And don't continue to think about the sight or sound after the initial moment of contact. New contacts from sense-objects keep occurring all the time. If you hang on to a past sensation you can't attend to the one happening in the present moment, since the mind can know only one object at a time.

When mindfulness and insight are strong they will be able, so to speak, to cut off the mental stream at a very early level. To see things as they are "at that moment" means to see them as they are prior to the act of naming them. Strong mindfulness can stop the mental flow at the point of receiving a bare phenomenon, before the mind tags the object with a name.

When you catch the sensation before the name appears, there won't be a feeling that it's good or bad. All formations will be regarded as essentially equal: neutral and without meaning, with no essential difference between a sound, feeling, or thought. That is the reality. It is the way things actually are. It is only the mental creations we impose on phenomena that assign them values as beautiful or ugly, pleasant or unpleasant.

The aim during meditation is to be aware only of the bare act of seeing, hearing, smelling, moving, thinking and so on. When you refrain from conceptualizing about an object, greed, hatred and delusion won't have a chance to spring up. Then you'll see that each sense-impression lasts only an instant before disappearing.

However, as a beginner or intermediate meditator you probably won't be able to "just see" or "just hear." You will still be aware of names, and the assumed values that haunt them. That's all right. Just don't focus on those conventional labels. Don't think, "Now I'm seeing a chair, hearing a bird, moving my foot." Instead it's just: seeing, hearing, moving. Let the conventional meanings be there, but ignore them. Don't be swayed by judgments of good or bad. At the same time, aim for the target of pure phenomena as much as you can. As clear comprehension grows you will find yourself more and more able to distinguish pure phenomenal reality from what is merely conceptual.

Separate Yourself

During insight meditation it is possible to make any phenomenon into an object of mindfulness instead of identifying with it. You can separate your self from the show of sensation that is continually arising and passing away. By doing this you protect the mind from suffering. It becomes apparent that thoughts, emotions and feelings are not in fact parts of the knower. Since they are actually impersonal objects, not the subject, you can turn the beam of awareness around and look at them as if they were "outside" of you.

So whenever you will feel that some phenomenon is inseparably part of the knower, is too close to observe because it is part of your self, turn your awareness around one-hundred-eighty degrees and observe that very thing. This is another way of saying, "don't become the object."

The more you progress in meditation, the more you'll run out of things in the "self" category; the more you will see that everything can be known, even the mind. And when you know an object with impartial awareness you are separate from it. You are not involved in it. You have taken your self out of it.

Ultimately speaking, even the mind is other, is impersonal because it doesn't follow our wishes. That is one meaning of nonself. We can keep turning awareness back onto itself to observe the knower more and more, one instant after the next. In this way mindfulness sweeps every form of distress out of the mind. Eventually, the suttas tell us, we will touch something beyond the conditioned world of mind and matter.

But normally we mistake objects— especially thoughts, emotions or feelings— for aspects of our selves. We think, "I'm sleepy" or, "I'm bored." Note the "I" here. It is a necessary convention of everyday speech. The problem is that we believe in the fictitious self that "I" denotes. The identification to self slides in almost invisibly. The mind, in a rapid sleight of hand, assumes boredom to be part of itself rather than an object to be observed.

If boredom, tiredness, or other mental states arise, turn the beam of awareness onto them and note "boredom" or "tiredness." Do not appropriate them as aspects of your self that somehow belong to you. Pull your awareness back from those objects and watch them to see what they're like, to see that such conditions arise momentarily only to disappear.

Since they arise and vanish so quickly, how could they be parts of a permanent self? When you disengage from the boredom, sleepiness, or anxiety, when you realize that it isn't intrinsically merged with the knower and instead make it into an object of awareness, everything changes.

If you can turn the beam of your awareness onto mental phenomena your mind will not get entangled with suffering. You can direct this beam of mindfulness toward anything. There is nothing that stands within the imaginary circle of self that cannot be made into an object. Whatever appears, you can mentally separate your awareness from it and look at it. If you keep this up, then, no matter what arises, mindfulness will be able to keep the mind free of attachment, agitation and distress.

Stop the Wheel

Although the benefits of mindfulness can be seen right in the present, it is only in the context of the Buddhist teaching of rebirth that the raison d'être for mindfulness practice becomes fully clear. In the ultimate sense, mindfulness is practiced with an eye toward improving, and eventually preventing, future lives.

Buddhism teaches that every being is reborn over and over again into various realms according to his actions. Until a person's mind is completely purified there is no end to the cycle. The ultimate goal of the Buddhist, and of vipassana practice, is release from this cycle of birth and death, release from the round of conditioned existence, called "samsara." It is possible for that release, called "Nibbana," to occur in the present lifetime if we can develop mindfulness and wisdom to a sufficient degree.

The Buddha taught that birth and death (and the time in between) always entail some degree of dukkha, unsatisfactoriness. Although we might be relatively happy now, existence is tainted at the most basic level because its components, mind and matter, are unstable and impermanent, continually arising and vanishing. Any satisfaction we might gain from them is temporary and tinged with fear about its loss. Even at its best, mundane happiness is a mix of pleasure and anxiety. Happiness and unhappiness are inseparable, just as the head of a coin is inseparable from the tail. As the Player King in Hamlet said, "Where joy most revels, grief doth most lament."

But the Buddha taught that the condition called "Nibbana," which transcends birth and death, is a superior, pure happiness, free of any tinge of anxiety. And it is permanent.

Although our lives might be relatively pleasant now, all beings, the Buddha said, have accumulated some degree of unwholesome kamma (karma) from past performance of harmful or unwise actions (including actions performed during previous lifetimes). Those past actions can give a result at any time. We cannot predict when. Because of this, there is always the possibility we might be reborn into an unpleasant state or have to endure painful conditions such as severe illness, destitution, etc., at some future time.

But in the absence of birth there is no danger. No suffering can occur. Lack of birth does not mean nothingness in the usual sense. It means the element called "Nibbana," the cessation of greed, hatred and delusion, which the Buddha called the highest happiness.

The practice of mindfulness ultimately stops the cycle of birth-death-rebirth. Desire and ignorance are the necessary conditions for rebirth. Mindfulness practice gradually washes desire, hatred and delusion from the mind. When delusion has been eliminated, rebirth cannot occur, and neither can suffering.

Digging Out the Root

External events are not the real causes of sorrow. They are just the branches. The root lies within us. The purpose of vipassana practice is to eliminate the root cause of suffering, not merely to make us feel good temporarily. But in order to pull out the root it will help to know how it came to be established.

The question is, how does suffering arise in the first place? Every form of suffering (even those that seem accidental) is the result of a process, a process generated in the mind. An example will show how dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) is generated by a cause and effect sequence, a sequence that hinges on our reactions to sights, sounds and so forth.

Let's say that you walk into a store and see a silver vase. Ultimately speaking, the bare cognitive reception of seeing is neither good nor bad. The color itself isn't pretty or ugly. But instead of stopping at that bare sensation of seeing your mind goes farther and adds the concept of beauty or ugliness.

Let's assume that in this case it adds the concept of beauty. Having perceived the sight as beautiful, you like and desire it. You keep thinking about it even after you leave the store, even when the image is no longer before you. The more you think about it, the more desire grows. Prompted by desire, the thought occurs to you to steal the vase.

In Buddhism, intentional thoughts are considered a form of action. The physical act of stealing the vase is also an action. Intentional mental, verbal and physical actions are called kamma (karma). Kamma always gives back a result to the one who performed it.

When these mental and physical actions— i.e., these kammas— are rooted in desire, hatred and delusion, they give an unpleasant result. This result takes the form of sensation: unpleasant sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations or mental phenomena. Our various actions, when rooted in delusion, also result in rebirth. Reborn into samsara, the wheel of birth and death, one must endure various kinds of suffering.

But if we can stop the gears at any one point, the whole sequence will end. The causal machinery that binds us to birth and death will collapse. At what point can we stop the process? At the point between the initial contact with an object and the act of liking or disliking it. If we train ourselves to repeatedly, systematically know sense-impressions with impartial attention, instead of reacting with attraction or aversion, the process that generates suffering will stop. Then we will no longer have to experience unpleasant kamma-results.

But we have to make sure that we are observing nama and rupa, or bare sensation, instead of conventional named things. Such descriptions as "now my foot is moving," or "I'm watching my breath," are still on the level of names and labels. Those objects— "foot," "breath,"— are still conceptual, not actual. The actual in these examples is just motion itself. Ultimately speaking, there is no one— no person— moving. Nor is it a leg or an arm that is moving, only physical elements. That is rupa. The motion is not happening to you or inside of you. It is only appearing and disappearing, as it were, in space. If, during vipassana practice, you can avoid the mistake of observing conventional objects and instead know nama and rupa, you'll make steady progress toward the goal.

This is the "Middle Way," a way between the two extremes of desire and aversion. The trick is catch things early enough so as to experience only bare phenomena at the moment of contact instead of conventional, named Things. Then it is easy to let go of desire and aversion. Since bare phenomena, nama-rupa, are neither good nor bad, it is not possible to like or dislike them. If you see nama and rupa very clearly, you'll inevitably think, "What's the big deal? Why on earth did I ever cling to that?" When reality is seen as it actually is, attachment and aversion fall away naturally, without the need for intense struggle. By continuing to observe mind and matter impartially you will eventually cease to generate new kamma, thereby cutting off the mental process that results in suffering. At that point, it's said, the mind will experience the highest happiness.