By The Most Ven Dr M Vajiragnana

Introduction | Meditation is Awareness | Techniques | Insight Meditation | Text Satipatthana Sutta


Insight meditation, Vipassana, is a practice unique to Buddhism. It trains us initially to see the mind-body process as it occurs within ourselves, and then to see the real nature of external things. We need to be aware of the Buddhist teaching with regard to the nature of the mind and body which is said to consist of five properties or aggregates - form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness, and the meditator comes to see these individually and as phenomena subject to continuous change.

The insight which we gain from this practice is unique because people do not usually look at their own experiences in this way. In everyday life, people often have distorted perceptions, views and opinions which cloud their insight into reality. Therefore, this method of insight meditation is said to be “going against the current” (patisotagami).

In the ordinary manner of looking at things our view is distorted in three ways. We see things which are impermanent as permanent, things which are unsatisfactory as satisfactory, and things which do not have any eternal, lasting attributes as things which have eternal, lasting attributes. Because of these threefold distorted perceptions and distorted views, we experience the troubles and hardships of life, known as Dukkha, which are fundamental to the human condition.


Enlightenment is nothing but seeing things in their proper, natural perspective, that is as changing all the time and therefore unsatisfactory. Because they are impermanent, we cannot expect external objects to bring us permanent satisfaction. Permanent happiness cannot be found from impermanent causes, although they can indeed bring us temporary satisfaction. Inevitably, however, they will change sooner or later, and here we make the mistake of trying to hold on and resist this change. This is what causes pain and unhappiness. Happiness and unhappiness depend upon the state of our minds. They are not to be found in the external world, but in how we react to the experiences we undergo. Two people may have the same experience, but they may react to it in completely different ways - one may enjoy it, the other may dislike it. The practice of meditation can bring us understanding of this situation by training us to concentrate on all aspects of our experience.

We are reluctant to face up to and accept change. We persist in wanting to hold onto things which we value - pleasure, wealth, happiness, life itself - while each slips inevitably through our fingers. We crave stability and permanence, but these cannot be found anywhere in the world. These unfulfilled desires are the cause of the basic unsatisfactoriness of human existence. As long as we try to grasp and hold on to conditions which are forever impermanent, we shall continue to experience suffering. One definition of the word nibbanais “no craving”. Nibbana is beyond the dualistic concepts of both happiness and unhappiness. Happiness and unhappiness are relative concepts - one cannot exist without the other; like light and dark, they can be defined only in relation to each other.

Ordinarily, we think of happiness and unhappiness as things which come through the senses (including mind which in Buddhism is considered as a sixth sense), but nibbana is not dependent upon the senses, it is beyond these dualistic concepts. It is a state which can be neither felt nor experienced. In fact one of the Buddha’s chief disciples, Venerable Sariputta, said that the very fact that there is nothing to be felt is indeed happiness. If there is anything to be felt, then this experience must be subject to change and it cannot, therefore, be true happiness. The mind in its ordinary state cannot grasp this because it seeks something tangible to be grasped through the senses. This sensual happiness is only momentary and is vulnerable to change.

Pain is caused by change. Change causes dukkha, not because things are changing, but because we mistakenly view things as permanent and not subject to change. In the human body, things are changing so consistently, so systematically that within seven years the body has been totally renewed.

Change is an important process. It is because things are changing that we have the opportunity to attain release from dukkha. If we look at changes in a positive way and accept them without resistance, they can help us along our path of spiritual development.

Growth is dukkha.Why? We have grown over the years, but never felt pain in this process of growth. It is not the growth itself which is dukkha, but our attitude towards the growth which is dukkha. It is our anxiety, worry and fear in relation to growth or change which cause dukkha. It is the function of insight meditation to show us how subtly our mind tries to deceive us with regard to our perception of existence.

When we face the truth directly and see life exactly as it is, we shall not allow ourselves to be trapped in this anxiety. Insight meditation is, therefore, not a system which helps us to run away from problems, to run away from reality or from truth, but it helps us to go into reality, to go into truth, to accept it, to be with it.

During insight meditation we train ourselves to observe all the processes of mind and body. We do not grasp at anything which attracts us, trying to hold on to thoughts and sensations which we find pleasant; nor do we reject whatever we find to be unpleasant. Do not be judgemental, but observe all the passing states of mind honestly and dispassionately. The phrase often used to describe this state is “choiceless awareness”. Do not cling, and do not condemn. Of course, we shall become aware of negative states of mind, as previously discussed, but try not to react against them. If we try to eliminate or repress these negative states by an effort of will, we may achieve some temporary success, but in the long run we shall succeed only in generating an equally powerful negative reaction, so this is not a skilful way in which to proceed. Observe everything as it is, remaining detached and aware that whatever comes into the mind is impermanent and subject to change from moment to moment. This process of mindful observation will weaken and eliminate the negative states of mind.

Imagine, if you like, that you are sitting, concealed, by a pool in a forest, watching quietly as different animals come to drink. Provided you remain silent and still, the animals will appear, take their drink, then depart, as long as you do not disturb them. You can observe your thoughts in a similar fashion.

The purpose of vipassana meditation is nothing less than the radical and permanent transformation of our entire sensory and cognitive experience. It is meant to affect the whole of our life experience and the skills learned during periods of seated meditation should be carried over into our everyday life.


During the course of our training in meditation, various changes are likely to occur. Quite naturally, as the mind becomes calmer and more receptive we start to notice many things within ourselves of which we were not fully aware previously. As the process advances we may become aware of physical and mental states of which we were totally unaware before. These observations are often quite startlingly clear or even alarming, and sometimes may be uncomfortable. For example, as physical stimuli are observed at first hand we can experience by degrees even very minor variations in the sense of touch. Previously, because of our preoccupation with ourselves we were unable to feel them. Some meditators may be aware of a greater intensity in their appreciation of colours or sounds, and occasionally such effects may be disturbing. Any anxieties will, however, pass away provided that the meditator remains objective and dispassionately views these effects with the same “choiceless awareness” with which he regards his breath, feelings, state of mind, and so on.

Similarly, very pleasant states may arise, feelings of tranquillity and joy or even of ecstasy. We may even experience piercing insights that can be so profound as to lead us to think: “This is it!” But again, however profound the feeling is, however pleasant it is, it must be considered dispassionately: this feeling is subject to change, remorse may be felt when it passes away, and because it is subject to change there is no abiding or permanent entity here. This understanding will lead us to view ourselves as being simply a “mind-body process” instead of a solid “me”. Failure to understand the real nature of these feelings and mental states may result in either a cessation of progress or may lead to the delusive conclusion that we have achieved the Ultimate Goal.

This very brief outline cannot possibly encompass all the different states of mind or the obstacles that are likely to arise. No account has been taken of any of the more profound effects such as beatific visions or horrific hallucinations. When such states arise, make every effort to contact a meditation master who will explain these mental phenomena and allay any fears.

Both methods of meditation can help deal with many of the hindrances to a happy and fulfilled life, but only Vipassana can provide insight into their permanent eradication. Samatha, in the development of the Jhana or concentrative absorptions, can inhibit or at best suspend the functioning of the five hindrances but provides no final end to them. Vipassana on the other hand reveals how the unwanted mental states arise, how they pass away and gives us knowledge of the factors upon which they depend, the intuitive knowledge of which will lead to their permanent eradication.

It should be borne in mind that although meditation helps us to see things as they really are, it also helps us to see ourselves as we really are! The path of self-knowledge is occasionally difficult, unpleasant, and full of fear. It all depends on our type of personality. Do not, however, be put off from the practice of meditation.

Ensure that your strength of purpose and objectivity are developed so that you may come to enjoy the fruits of meditation and the peace born of self-knowledge.


All the meditations which have been described may be considered as formal ways of training the mind, just as a musician develops his skills by practising scales. The mindfulness established during these periods of training should be regarded as preliminary to carrying this awareness into our entire waking life. We should strive to maintain mindfulness at all times.

In the course of the day be aware of your mental state, whether it is angry, fearful, or happy - just mentally note it. Whatever you do, whether it is work or during leisure hours, be aware of it, be aware of the body and its postures, whether it is standing, walking, reading, reaching, bending and so on. Be aware of what you say, be aware when you keep silence, be aware of eating, drinking, in fact be aware of everything you do. Live in your present action, the present moment. Let the past and the future look after themselves, the past has been and gone, the future has not yet arrived, so just live in the present.

Although we may give every impression of being fully occupied with what is happening here and now, in fact our mind is not always in the present. We give much of our attention to imaginary events, worries, problems, remembering, and even just allowing the mind to wander completely freely over any object to which it takes a fancy. We should not occupy our mind with unnecessary and often pointless thoughts.

Sometimes we may become aware of one thought repeating itself over and over. How many times have we said to someone, “Do you know I just can’t get this tune out of my head”? Some trains of thought repeat themselves in the same way and spiral round pointlessly. Occasionally we may become aware of holding “inner conversations” with some imaginary self, but all these phenomena should be noted with the same dispassionate care that we exercise in our sitting meditations. In all probability, as soon as the phenomenon has been noted, it will disappear. Thoughts rise like bubbles in the mind and the conscious awareness of them pricks them out of existence. Learn to live in the present and concentrate only on what is necessary here and now. It is not possible to do more than one thing at a time with any degree of real success, so we should give all our attention to the job in hand whether it is digging the garden, eating lunch or doing business. Even planning ahead should be a part of our mindful activities, as should remembering past experiences and results. These are all mindful activities of the present.


By following one or perhaps a number of the foregoing meditations we shall develop in the course of time insight into the process of life, the process of everyday life. The results of meditation do not all come at once and may or may not be accompanied by strong feelings of revelation or joy. It may happen that for a time we shall be unaware of any changes at all, but at some point we shall come to appreciate the way that the practice of meditation is inextricably bound to the practice of moral behaviour and the realisation of the value of such behaviour in relation to normal life. In practice the Buddhist way of life is divided into three: Sila, Samadhi, Panna.

1.Sila (Moral purity) is the basis upon which we can build a life free from guilt, remorse, feelings of inadequacy and generally unwholesome states of mind. This moral life consists of three parts: RightSpeech, Right Action, Right Livelihood.

Right Speech is abstention from lying, slander, and frivolous talk, and embodies all truthful forms of speech. Right Action is abstention from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, and using intoxicants or drugs which cloud the mind. Right Livelihood is not to make a living by doing anything which is harmful to others. This means not trading in armaments, intoxicants, or poisons, etc., nor by killing animals, nor by engaging in any activity which involves lies, cheating, and trickery. It is only by establishing a proper morality that the mind can become sufficiently calm and relaxed for progress to be made in meditation.

2.Sam a dhi or concentration is the practice of the meditations already outlined and is composed of: Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

3. Panna, wisdom, is developed through meditation or mental culture and is composed of two parts: Right View and Right Aspiration. Right View deserves some mention because it is the comprehension of ourselves, arising out of Vipassana, as being subject to change and suffering, and devoid of any abiding self. A proper appreciation of this view leads to the aspiration for spiritual development and the adoption of the moral life. Thus the whole scheme of Sila, Samadhi, Panna is an inter-related, inter-dependent whole.

Regarding the term “Right” in relation to morality, a clear definition is required, because “right” is subjective and relative. The Buddha taught that any word or deed, even if it is true, which is liable to cause harm to yourself or your neighbour or both of you, is wrong. Any truthful word or deed which is conducive to the benefit of yourself, your neighbour or both of you is right. Further, any act or speech which is not conducive to the realisation of the truth is also wrong, and any act or speech which is conducive to the realisation of the truth, is right. By such considerations, you cultivate Right Thought and quite naturally you begin to act correctly, you begin to speak in a right manner and to live in a right manner.

Understanding the real value of the moral life becomes clear as you make progress in meditation, by removing remorse and guilt, and so transforming such unskilful thoughts into Right Effort. Effort made in mindfulness and concentration leads to wisdom and an understanding of the interdependence of these three qualities. This process can be understood as being like a wheel, each part connected to the previous one and revolving in a continuous cycle of development, raising your understanding and consciousness gradually and effectively.

In the Buddhist Scriptures there is a beautiful analogy which helps us to understand the relationship between these different elements of the path. It is called “Growing the Mango Tree”: Right Understanding through insight (Vipassana-sammaditthi)compares with planting a sweet mango seed. The help through Virtue is like making a boundary (of earth around the place of planting to hold the water). The help through Learning is like sprinkling the seed with water. Discussing (with a teacher) is like cleaning the roots. The help through Samatha Meditation, by which obstacles to Jhanas and insight are cleared away, is like the removal of worms, slugs, etc. The help through powerful Insight is like freeing the sprout of cobwebs, etc. Just as a mango tree that has been looked after in this way will grow quickly and produce good and ample fruit, so will basic Right Understanding, if it receives such fivefold help, help us to progress along the path of spiritual development. (Anguttara Nikaya V.25)


“Meditation is impossible for one who lacks wisdom. Wisdom is impossible for one who does not meditate. One that both meditates and possesses wisdom is near nibbana.” (Dhammapada v.372)

Meditation can help anyone who is wanting to live a life free from tension, anxiety and other forms of misery. It enables us to experience a life full of peace and joy, filled with the kind of understanding which will allow us to observe events as they happen, without reacting to them in an unskilful way which generates negative thoughts and emotional disturbance.

It is only too easy to allow ourselves to nurture a frenzied state of mind. This destroys any possibility of being either peaceful or happy and gives rise to further dukkha. Dukkha is something which every being experiences until he attains the enlightenment of Nibbana, the complete understanding of the nature of all things and the total cessation of all forms of craving and desire.

The whole of Buddhist thinking is based on the Buddha’s explanation of the Four Noble Truths. These truths concern ‘dukkha’, a Pali word which has often been translated into English as ‘suffering’, but which can be better understood as ‘unsatisfactoriness, conflict, unsubstantiality, emptiness, dissatisfaction, or lack of enduring contentment’. It is perhaps better to leave the word untranslated as dukkha.

As the Buddha said:­ “Truly, from meditation arises wisdom. Without meditation wisdom wanes. Knowing this twofold path of gain and loss, let one so conduct oneself that wisdom may increase.” (Dhammapada v.282)