A r/streamentry summary of Mahasi Sayadaw's book "The Manual of Insight"

A r/streamentry summary of Mahasi Sayadaw’s book “The Manual of Insight”

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e-book version: 2.1 - 2019-05-02

ToC

Preface

This e-book is a collection of texts by u/filpt, u/TetrisMcKenna and u/xugan97, submitted on Reddit r/streamentry during an online study of Mahasi Sayadaw’s book “The Manual of Insight”.

The purpose of this summary is not to be read instead of or before the “The Manual of Insight”, but as an additional resource that will assist the reader to better understand Mahasi Sayadaw’s book.

Chapter 1

Summary by u/filpt

My main takeaway as a layperson was that Mahasi thought it important to make clear that it is not necessary or practical to purify morality before starting meditation, that it is better to start since meditation itself works to purify morality.

It was also very interesting that he distinguishes different types of practitioners, saying that the majority of people need morality training and jhana practice to attain the peace required for practicing prolonged insight meditation, but a small minority of people do not need such training. Although the Pali cannon teaching he describes divides people into three categories, my interpretation is that those categories presumably are divisions on a spectrum of varying amounts of morality and jhana training needed to practice insight deeply enough to attain stream entry.

Summary by TetrisMcKenna

I too found the main thrust of the chapter from the perspective of this community is that well instructed meditation practice naturally purifies morality enough to sustain insight. It’s interesting, given that a common theme oft-argued in the pragmatic community is that morality isn’t necessarily changed by or even useful for insight practice, that Mahasi Sayadaw talks about it so specifically. Some relevant highlights:

“There is no basis in the Pali texts for the idea that these four kinds of morality should be purified for many days, months, or even years prior to taking up meditation.”

“This is also true of the moral precepts for laypeople. One can attain concentration, insight knowledge, path, and fruition the moment one’s perfections are well enough developed.”

“For laypeople, even if they have violated the precepts before, there is no barrier to path knowledge and fruition knowledge unless one or more of the five obstacles to the path knowledge and fruition knowledge hinders them”.

“But if one wants to fully purify it, one must practice meditation. One should not delay one’s meditation practice out of concern that one’s restraint of the senses is not yet fully purified. Meditation will enable one to accomplish all of the kinds of restraint, including restraint of the senses.”

”… restraint of the senses can only be fully purified by means of meditation. The more one’s meditation matures, the purer one’s restraint of the senses becomes. When one’s meditation is fully mature, this kind of morality will be fully purified”

“The practice of morality is not as exhaustive for laypeople as it is for monks. The purposes of laypeople are served by either the five precepts or the eight precepts topped with right livelihood”

I liked this verse from the Buddha he gives to a drunkard layperson who immediately became an arahant on hearing it, from the story of minister Santati’s enlightenment in the Niddesa:

“Let past defilements wither away, do not yield to future passions,”

“Do not grasp at the present—then the fires of defilement will be extinguished.”

Though Mahasi is quick to note that the commentary to the satipatthana sutta states:

“Although enlightenment may occur after listening to a talk, it is impossible to bring about any insight or enlightenment without meditating on body, feelings, consciousness, and mental objects.”

He uses this tale (amongst others) to show that for laypeople, morality is less of an obstacle to enlightenment than to monks:

“Since the minister was drunk for the entire week before hearing this verse from the Buddha, it is clear that his morality was not purified until immediately before his enlightenment. The simple fact that he was in his final life cannot explain this case. If he had been a monk, his violation of the monastic rules would have been an obstacle to his enlightenment even though he was in his final life.”

Mahasi goes on to explain what morality is, as well as its fruits:

“Morality is the abandonment of ignorance through knowledge and the abandonment of the perception of permanence through contemplation of impermanence; abstinence is morality; volition is morality; restraint is morality; and nontransgression is morality. All of these kinds of morality lead to a clear conscience, delight ( pamojja), joy ( piti), tranquility, and happiness.”

“Laypersons can use insight meditation to fully purify the four kinds of morality, regardless of whether or not they have practiced morality for a long time beforehand.”

“[Morality by means of restraint is] included in an insight meditator’s state of mind with every noting, and they thereby block and restrain the arising of immorality, mindlessness, ignorance, impatience, and idleness. This restraint protects one from self-indulgence. In an ultimate sense, morality by means of restraint includes only mindfulness, insight, forbearance, and effort.”

Some motivation for developing morality, take it as you will:

“In fact, morality should be regarded with the greatest honor and respect. Perhaps ninety-nine percent of the time, lower rebirth is the result of moral violations. More than half of those who enjoy human or celestial births may only be able to do so because they have practiced pure morality.”

“So you should protect your morality with great care, just as you would protect your very life. You should not be negligent about your behavior, thinking that you can correct it later. You might die at any time and be immediately reborn in the lower worlds if your morality is deficient. Morality is especially important for those who are practicing meditation.”

“If you purposely and properly purify morality, then you will have a clear conscience every time you reflect about morality luring your meditation practice. You will experience joy and delight, tranquility, happiness, and peace. By observing the physical and mental processes every time they arise, you will see things as they really are and gain further insight knowledge.”

All in all, good motivation to live an intentionally well-restrained life with a little legroom for the inevitable hiccups of lay-life when it comes to the actual impediment to path and fruit.

As an aside, some earlier quotes on what to think to deal with insults that may be useful for online communication given how combatative it can get at times!

“Insult is part of everyone’s life; it is one of the worldly vicissitudes. If even the Buddha himself was insulted, why not a person like me? The vicissitudes of life usually affect the minds of ordinary people. Only the noble can forebear the vicissitudes of life. I will follow their example.”

“The Buddha said that we must be patient even with a person who hacks us into pieces. If we become angry, we would not truly be his disciples. Being insulted is much less painful than being hacked up. Why shouldn’t I be able to follow this teaching of the Buddha?”

“The one who insults me is, in an ultimate sense, made up of mental phenomena led by anger and physical phenomena generated by that angry mental state. There is no person insulting me but only the five aggregates of mental (nama) and physical (rupa) phenomena that have already vanished at the moment of insult. They no longer exist. Now there is nothing to be angry with. If I remain angry, that would involve being angry with the subsequent phenomena, which would be similar to a person who hates the parents but takes revenge on their children or grandchildren after the parents have passed away.”

Chapter 2

Summary by u/filpt

Really enjoyed this chapter. Clear, straightforward and practical instruction for how to do good insight practice, and what to do when encountering difficulties. Expect this will be very helpful both for myself and when attempting to give advice to newbies.

Starting to get a feel for Mahasi’s “voice” as an author and individual, which is cool. Obviously it is a translation of an old book, but nonetheless starting to feel a pleasing calmness and “suchness” in the way he writes - he’s just methodically laying out the way things are, with occasional little fun scriptural quotes, but with no need for tricks, flair or flights of fancy. Somewhat reminds me of Thich Nhat Hanh (despite coming from a quite different tradition).

This chapter is in two halves, first an explanation of the insight method he is going to teach, and then a basic and accessible guide to avoiding various pitfalls the practitioner may run into.

Mahasi begins by making it clear that you get enlightenment by purifying the mind of “hindrances” to “solve the problem of attachment”, and that there are two ways (“vehicles”) to do this - “insight based on concentration”, and “concentration based on insight”. Mahasi makes a few arguments to justify his interpretation of the Pali canon which are way above my pay grade. However he does clearly explain the differences between the two vehicles and how they lead to enlightenment - briefly, in insight based on concentration you observe the 3 characteristics in concentration itself, in concentration based on insight you observe the 3 characteristics in momentary (i.e. moment to moment) concentration on sensory objects. He also very clearly says that absorption concentration (jhana) is not necessary for insight based on concentration, but that insight practice alone will lead to tranquility. Mahasi provides numerous references from the Pali canon and commentaries to back up these claims, and explicitly says, “there should be no doubt as to whether it [the aforementioned two vehicles] accords with the canon”.

This touches on a contentious topic in internet Buddhism discussions - “wet” vs “dry” insight. Some people say the Buddha taught that insight can only come from or alongside jhana practice (the “wet” approach), insisting that “dry” insight does not have scriptural support as a method for attaining enlightenment. Full disclose: I am biased since I practice exclusively dry insight - but in my reading Mahasi appears to make considerable effort to explain that jhana practice is not necessary, and that insight alone is a valid and effective method for attaining enlightenment.

”…those who take the vehicle of insight to enlightenment need not develop access or absorption concentration. Momentary concentration alone is enough for them to bring about the mental purification required for path knowledge and fruition knowledge.”

[then later]

“The principal emphasis of this book is to explain precisely this point: how those who take the vehicle of insight to enlightenment practice - that is, how to develop pure insight without a foundation of tranquility concentration. So there is no need to extensively explain mental purification [jhana practice] here.”

For me this puts the debate on whether dry insight can lead to enlightenment to rest (at least until I learn Pali and read all the source materials myself, or unless someone shows me I’ve misunderstood this chapter). Finally, Mahasi sets out his stall that this book is all about teaching insight based on momentary concentration on sensory objects - though he doesn’t go as far as saying why he chooses to teach this method instead of a wet method.

There then follows a clear and concise analysis of things that get in the way of proper moment-to-moment insight meditation (“hindrances”), why they arise and how to deal with them - spoiler alert: the solution is usually to note the hindrance. Kidding aside, Mahasi makes convincing arguments for why noting is so effective, providing good explanations for why noting is an appropriate solution to various problems, and specifically how to note to deal with each problem.

Among these are a number of subtle points on things that prevent people practicing insight well and attaining stream entry, which I’ve not seen clearly distinguished elsewhere in discussion on insight practice. Don’t have time now but can write up notes on this section later if there is interest, but I’d strongly recommend reading these sections yourself if you have a Theravadan style vipassana practice.

It is interesting also that (if memory serves correctly) MCTB is quite faithful to Mahasi from what I have read so far, will be interesting to see if that continues or if there is divergence. Alternatively I may be interpreting Mahasi’s words through a MCTB influenced lens.

Overall I found this chapter very interesting and useful and will certainly use it in my own practice and when I try to give guidance to people who are working on Stream Entry. I think this chapter is worth the price of admission alone for anyone serious about getting stream entry, and the more people who read and comprehend this chapter, the quicker enlightenment will spread.

Summary by u/TetrisMcKenna

Excellent summary of the what, why and how of the insight practice path in this chapter.

“By observing mental and physical phenomena every time they occur, one begins to realize that there is nothing but mental phenomena that experience objects and physical phenomena that cannot experience objects. As insight matures one realizes that certain causes produce mental and physical phenomena, and that mental and physical phenomena are effects of certain causes; there is nothing but cause and effect. When insight knowledge gradually matures still further, one realizes that phenomena are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self; phenomena disappear immediately after they appear, and they continuously disappear, moment after moment.”

“All of these realizations that arise from observation are called insight knowledge. Noble ones are liberated from the cycle of suffering by developing all of the stages of insight knowledge and experiencing nibbana. So each of these kinds of insight knowledge is called a cause of liberation for noble ones. Thus, we should develop insight.”

“One who fails to observe mental and physical phenomena every time they arise cannot see them as merely mental and physical phenomena. Furthermore, one does not realize their causality, impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, not-self, or their immediate disappearance upon arising and their continuous disappearance thereafter. Therefore, one mistakenly identifies these mental and physical phenomena with a personal entity, a person who is either born without any cause or created by a creator. One mistakes them for someone or something permanent and pleasant, everlasting, and unchanging.”

The theory of this technique seems to be that every time we take one of our perceptions as something other than impermanent, we are creating suffering. By detachedly noting the arising and passing of each perception as it happens, we can create a momentum of attention that can temporarily disrupt the hindrances that give rise to these ignorant perceptions and see clearly the perceptions for what they really are - the 3 characteristics.

Mahasi again balances the importance of morality vs insight practice:

“All kinds of wholesomeness—such as generosity, moral conduct, meditation, and voluntary service—are causes for liberation. [The Pali] phrase sabbepi kusala dhamma, means ‘each and every kind of wholesome action.’ In other words, every kind of wholesomeness contributes to the cause of liberation; any activity, if its purpose is to aid liberation, is considered a wholesome action.”

“Noble ones realize nibbana and escape from the cycle of suffering through all kinds of wholesome actions that they have cultivated. So if one wishes to escape the cycle of suffering, one should do one’s best to perform as much and as many kinds of wholesome acts dedicated to liberation from the cycle of suffering as possible: generosity, moral conduct, meditation, voluntary service, and so on. No wholesome action should be overlooked.”

“However, when intensively practicing insight, your first priority should be given to it, with the understanding that insight is the essential cause of liberation. Therefore, you should give special consideration to insight. You should not interrupt it for a minute or even a second. Insight is the noblest among worldly wholesome acts, as it is the cause for liberation when nibbana becomes one’s object with the attainment of path knowledge.”

Seems to be a recurring theme of “yes, morality is important, but…”. Seems the justification, given in some references to the Dhammapada and commentary, is that wholesome actions are indeed good, but the most wholesome action of all is to dedicate your energy to becoming an arahant, and so vastly outweighs any other action. Of course, this relies on the assumption that Mahasi’s teaching does indeed describe a path to becoming an arahant.

He gives some tips on how to avoid common pitfalls while noting: noting inattentiveness as it happens to combat mind wandering, noting more persistently and aggressively, a common suggestion in the ‘dry insight’ community.

“Whatever mental defilements may occur, one should be resolute and persistent in noting them without any interruption, as if one is threatening them: “You! Defilements! What are you up to? Wait, I will conquer you!”

Mahasi lists some pretty metal, almost biblical descriptions of hell realms as motivation to practise hard and be wholesome (fair warning, it’s pretty long and graphic):

“The wardens of hell push the victim down onto the flaming iron ground … drive nails as big as palm trees into the [hands, feet, and waist]. As long as his or her unwholesome kamma has not yet been exhausted, the victim cannot die … they wail despondently as they experience this great suffering without relief for even one second.”

“If the victim has not perished after the first round of torture, the wardens slice his or her body into various shapes with scythes as big as the roof of a house, until blood flows like a river. Huge flames leap up from the blood, burning the sliced parts of the body. Again, the victim suffers immeasurably and has no opportunity at all to practice insight.”

“It sometimes happens that after many years one of the doors of this hell will open. The inmates run desperately toward it in order to escape. Some grow exhausted on the way, some make it to the door, and some actually pass through to the outside. After many hundred thousands of years the door is closed again.”

“Those who manage to escape and step outside immediately fall into the hell of excrement. Immersed in excrement, they are bitten by maggots as big as the neck of an elephant or a small boat.”

“If they escape from the hell of excrement, they fall into a hell of hot ash, where red-hot coals as big as houses scorch them. Again they have to experience immense suffering.”

This goes on and on for a fair few pages… making a point, of course, that insight practice can only be practised as a human and to be diligent and urgent about it as if you would have to suffer millions of such painful experiences:

“O virtuous people, you who are practicing insight meditation! Don’t be forgetful! Don’t be lazy! If you are, you cannot escape the cycle of suffering. And being unable to escape, you will sometimes be reborn in hell and experience enormous suffering. In fact, you have undoubtedly suffered there in the past.”

“Insight Practice leads one to enlightenment through the path, fruition and nibbana, and brings liberation from both the suffering of the lower realms and the cycle of suffering. The benefits that it bestows are so great that there is no way that they will be realized with a half-hearted practice.”

“In this world, one has to work very hard to earn even a very small amount of money. If one had the opportunity to earn enough money to last for an entire year from a single day of work, one would naturally take that job and do it with great zeal. One would take and perform a job with even greater enthusiasm if it would earn one lifelong prosperity in only a month. Wouldn’t it be a good investment, then, to devote two weeks, a month, or even two to intensively practicing insight, and bear whatever hardships are involved, when the payoff is gaining freedom from the entire cycle of suffering?”

“One should take up insight practice even more zealously than a lucrative job, since just a few weeks or months of hard work in the practice can gain one freedom from the unsatisfactoriness of the endless cycle of samsara. O virtuous people! Intensively practice insight! It will surely bring you the great benefits of the path, fruition, and nibbana. Arouse enthusiasm for practice by considering these great benefits.”

However he also reels this in a bit with some advice on not over-exerting yourself:

“When one is overzealous, one may not be able to note the wandering thoughts that result from excessive striving. Objects being observed may then seem unclear, and one may experience difficulty with the practice. In such situations one should relax and think: ‘There is no soul or self that can arrange things as I would like. No matter how hard I try, insight knowledge may still not arise. Let me just allow things to follow their natural course. It doesn’t matter if I miss some objects here and there. I’ll just keep on noting the best I can.’”

Mahasi completes the chapter by explaining how insight practice brings one through the stages of insight to fruition:

“When the obstacles to concentration have been overcome … one’s mind no longer returns to the past or anticipates the future. It is no longer shrinking or overactive. Rather, it is only noting the mental and physical phenomena that arise in the moment. The mind is completely purified of the hindrances in insight. This is called one-pointedness.”

“When concentration is good, defilements cannot enter the noting mind, so the meditating mind does not mingle with any companions—that is to say the defilements. Therefore, this hind of concentration is called one-pointed: it is comprised of only the meditating mind devoid of any defilement.”

“From the stage when one attains insight knowledge of dissolution up to the stage of knowledge of adaptation, a meditator especially experiences only phenomena’s characteristic of disappearance every time one notes them. At this point, every noting mind is free from defilements and well established in one-pointedness based on insight knowledge of dissolution.”

“At the peak of insight practice, a meditator realizes path knowledge and fruition knowledge. At that moment, the meditator experiences nothing but nibbana. All other conditioned mental and physical phenomena cease. For this reason, we say that the mind that experiences path knowledge and fruition knowledge is well established in one-pointedness based on knowledge of cessation.”

Summary by u/xugan97

These are my notes from the chapter. Suggestions for correction and improvement are welcome. The learned Sayadaw refers ahead to chapter 3 on a few occasions, so a bit of overlap is inevitable.

Citta Visuddhi

Establishment of samadhi is citta visuddhi. There are two vehicles to enlightenment, each with a its own level of samadhi and method of attaining the insight knowledges.

(editor’s note: the following blocks are a matrix replacement)

  • Method: Samatha-yana
    Level of samadhi: upacāra or appanā-samādhi (access or full concentration)
    Type of jhana: samatha-jhana
    Object of vipassanathe samadhi itself and its mental factors

  • Method: vipassana-yana
    Level of samadhi: khanika-samādhi (momentary concentration)
    Type of jhana: vipassana-jhana
    Object of vipassana concrete phenomena

The two levels of samadhi

Samatha-jhana is developed based on any stable conceptual form (nimitta) as far as appanā-samādhi (access or full concentration). The nimitta itself develops in the sequence: parikamma-nimitta –> uggaha-nimitta –> patibhāga-nimitta, but this is not discussed in detail here.

Vipassana-jhana arises at a later stage due to greater penetration after arising of insight knowledge. At any point of time it remains khanika-samādhi (momentary concentration), but can be considered to be upacāra-samādhi (access concentration) when it is free of hindrances.

(Note - The term vipassana jhana is not a traditional term and is not used in this text. I believe it was first used by Mahasi Sayadaw’s successor Sayadaw U Pandita’s in his excellent text In this very life[1] where he also uses the term samatha jhana to refer to the traditional method of attaining jhanas known from the Visuddhimagga. He is also able to give a complete correspondence between the vipassana jhanas based on insight knowledges and the four jhanas of the suttas.)

How insight arises in the two vehicles

In the samatha-yana, it is possible to analyze mental factors directly, unlike in the vipassana-yana. Those following the samatha-yana can use either the mental factors associated with samadhi or standard concrete phenomena, because both are distinctly visible. This is explained in Chapter 3 ‘Lessons to Learn from Those Who Take the Vehicle of Tranquility to Enlightenment’.

The primary sources for arising of insight in the samatha-yana is the pairing method described in Anupada Sutta and its commentary - see Venerable Sāriputta’s method in Chapter 3. The Visuddhimagga is also relevant, thought it is not mentioned in this book - it follows the same Abhidhamma-style analysis of mental factors.

The samatha-yana meditator attains the same insight knowledges as described in Chapter 6 “Stages of Insight knowledge” and in the same sequence.

In the vipassana-yana, basic insight arises directly on the basis of any level of khanika-samādhi (momentary concentration). Later, purification of the five hindrances and knowledge of sabhāvalakkhaṇā (specific characteristics) of phenomena gives rise to a level of concentration that is equal to upacāra-samādhi.

Establishment of samadhi in the vipassana-yana

10 vipassana upalikesa - After the first arising (tender phase) of the knowledge of arising and passing away, the 10 vipassana upakilesa arise and need to subside before attaining the mature phase of the same knowledge and further vipassana knowledges.

Helpful contemplation to dispel hindrances - e.g. note inattentiveness, note more persistently.

6 Obstacles to concentration and the methods to overcome them - Thoughts of past and future, laziness, restlessness, over-zealousness, lust and aversion.

One-pointedness (ekattagata) - Besides direct tranquility meditation, the insight knowledge of dissolution also gives rise to one-pointedness. Pāḷi scriptures say that momentary concentration is fully mature at this stage of knowledge.

Chapter 3

Summary by u/filpt

An interesting chapter on the Buddhist view of reality, and what that means for getting enlightened.

There are two ways to experience or understand reality, “absolute” and “conventional”.

Absolute (aka “ultimate”) reality is direct experience of sensory phenomena, and is only available to those proficient in insight, starting with the first knowledge (knowledge of mind and body) and proceeding through the progress of insight.

Conventional (aka “conceptual”) reality is what is more commonly thought of as reality. It is composed of concepts automatically derived from sensations, but happens so fast that the untrained mind cannot distinguish between the sensation and the concept derived from it. Examples of concepts include “man” and “woman”, and a good example of conceptual reality is when a flaming torch is swung in a circle, the conventional mind conceptualizes the circle as reality, but the circle does not actually exist.

Much of the chapter is devoted to explaining over and over again in different ways that conceptual reality is not a basis for insight, including scripture, teaching, logic, considering, pondering or imagining, and that absolute reality cannot be transmitted, only experienced. And also that you cannot practice insight by remembering the past or imagining the future, that any meditation time spent not directly observing phenomena as they occur is wasted. He really really wants you to avoid contemplation of past and future, and the mistaken notion that reflection on or intellectual understanding of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and no-self is a basis for enlightenment. Most of this chapter is hammering home the core message that insight comes from practicing directly experiencing sensations/phenomena one by one as they occur, and only from that.

He makes the distinction that ultimate reality is transitory, changeable and is subject to arising and passing, while conceptual reality is permanent and unchanging, and remarks that novices suppose it would be the other way around. I found this notion really interesting, that concepts and ideas are essentially timeless and fixed, while things that actually happen are constantly in flux. Similarly, the distinction was made that absolute reality is conditioned i.e. it depends on what came before (apart from nirvana which is its own thing), while conceptual reality an entirely different thing, a timeless, endless, unchanging realm of ideas which consists of all possible concepts which never changes, never grows, that we spend most of our time lost in.

Mahasi gives some useful guidance on which objects are suitable for insight meditation, recommending “concrete” objects such as consciousness, matter, temperature, and avoiding things such as impermanence itself, “lightness” and more “malleable” things.

He also makes a distinction which I found a bit confusing between internal and external objects (aka direct and inferential experience). He strong recommends the former for all but advanced meditators, since the latter cause restlessness and confusion. My best understanding of inferential experience is when you note groups of sensations, or sensations that arise in the mind from other sensations, but I may have to re-read this to fully get it.

An interesting understanding of the mechanism of insight meditation is presented: carefully noting the present suppresses defilements, since there is nowhere for them to hide. Defilements come about when conceptual reality is mistaken for absolute reality, by failing to observe the present moment completely we allow the “solid form” of concepts to gain a hold in our mind, resulting in the delusions of permanence, happiness and personality. So by directly observing the present insight can be purified.

I was also pleased to see him emphasize that you don’t have to note everything, i.e. all aspects of phenomena, and indeed he explicitly says that that is not possible, and that you should note more dominant aspects of sensation since it will be easier. He gives the example of Moggallana, one of the Buddha’s chief disciplines who become an Arahant in only 7 days, who noted like putting his walking stick down in the ground (i.e. touching only one small part of the whole), and that this constrained noting helped him achieve enlightenment more quickly than Sariputta who took 14 days, by exhaustively and with great skill noting all of the characteristics of Jhana.

Also pleased to see that Mahasi says noting is synonymous with “observing” or “bearing in mind”, making clear that noting is not some special technical concept (as I mistakenly thought for a long time) but just plain and simple direct looking at the sensations in your own experience. It is interesting that despite the very grand philosophical name of the chapter, the core message is the very down to earth notion that enlightenment comes from nothing more than practicing observing sensations, and that the more mundane, clear and immediate sensations you observe the better.

Summary by u/TetrisMcKenna

In this chapter, we’re starting to get some teleological basis for doing this practice, and a sense of what the goal is, as Mahasi Sayadaw explains how his tradition (mainly via the Abhidamma) understands perception, some good examples of emptiness, and how insight can glimpse something beyond.

  • Ultimate reality (paramattha) consists only of the following elements: mind, mental factors, matter, and nibbana (“mind and matter, in brief”)

  • An ultimate, irreducible phenomena is called an ‘ultimate reality’

  • An ultimate, personally experienced phenomenon is called an ‘ultimate reality’ - Abhidhamma

  • The goal/fruit of practice is to be experienced fully, not believed or heard about

  • Mistakingly believing something perceived to be something else - like a mirage - is said to be not ‘personally experienced’ and not ‘genuinely existing’

  • “Concepts such as woman, man, hand, foot and so on have this kind of illusory nature”

  • Mind and matter can be experienced as they really are, so they are said to be ‘ultimate reality’, ‘personally experienced’, and ‘genuinely existing’

A thorough explanation of how perception interacts with conditioning near-instantly to obscure ultimate realities, and explains that insight practice disrupts this process. There is an even more thorough Abhidhamma-fuelled analysis later on (with the exact mind-moments laid out), but I don’t think it’s necessarily useful unless you’re extremely advanced.

  • Knowing a visible form just as a form with seeing is an ‘ultimate reality’ - the visual form is what really exists and is genuinely known

  • A mental process follows that “determines it to be of a certain shape: tall of short, spherical or flat, square or round, woman or man, face or arm, and so on” and the ‘ultimate reality’ becomes a ‘conditioned reality’ - this process happens so quickly it’s not usually noticed

  • “The function of eye-consciousness is only to see visible forms, not to ascertain physical gestures or movements. However, succeeding mental processes follow so quickly that ordinary people think that they see, as if with their real eyes, the movement known by the succeeding mental process of investigation.” (Abhidh-Mulatika)

  • “When we see a hand moving, our eye-consciousness sees only the visible form. It is not able to know it is a hand or that it is moving. The mind is very fast, however, so the movement that the succeeding mind of investigation knows is taken to have been seen with the eyes.”

  • “What really exists is referred to as ‘eye-sensitivity’ (cakkhupasada). Eye-consciousness occurs because eye-sensitivity sees visible forms … Therefore, in order for there to be seeing, there must be eye-sensitivity, and there must be visible forms that really exist” [If there were not] “we could not know what we see, let alone say what it is … The same is true of sound, ear-sensitivity, and ear consciousness in the case of hearing, and likewise for the other senses”

Thinking ultimate realities are eternal and unchanging while conventional realities are transitory and changing is a mistake. Ultimate realities are only eternal in terms of characteristics or with regard to consequences, ie their properties and effects. (Made me think of a comparison functional programming statelessness and not-self - there is no ever-present stateful instance containing and operating the program, just data running through the function layers each tick.)

Mahasi Sayadaw gives us a breakdown of misconceptions about impermanence in order to bolster the claim that ultimate realities have some eternal conceptual property:

  • “The notion that concepts are transitory is completely wrong. In fact, concepts do not appear, exist, or disappear at all. Since they do not have any real existence in an ultimate sense, it is impossible to say that they arise or pass away. It is impossible for conventional truths to arise, exist and pass away, because they are not what really exists but are merely imaginary constructs.”

  • Eg a person’s name cannot be said to exist anywhere, begin or disappear, since it is only imaginary, it is only known through the interpretation of hearing.

Some classical examples to illustrate this distinction between perception and concepts (impermanence):

  • From a distance, a line of moving termites looks like a continuous line. However, there is no line apart from the individual termites that comprise it. In the same way, there is no person or solid substance apart from the mental and physical phenomena that comprise him or her.

  • When a sand bag is punctured, a constant stream of sand flows out of it. When the bag is moved, the stream seems to move. But there is neither a stream nor its movement but only successive grains of falling sand.

  • There is no rope apart from the individual strings that comprise it. There is no length of a rope depends on the number and length of the strings. A long rope does not inherently exist.

  • A river seems to flow continuously because the water that flows downstream is constantly being replaced with new water. In the same way, a man or woman seems to be the same person all the time because passing phenomena are continuously replaced with new ones.

  • A tree is composed of its parts: the trunk, branches, twigs, leaves … Some kinds of evergreen trees never appear to shed their leaves, because the leave they shed are continuously replaced with new ones.

To extrapolate, “conceptual realities of woman, man, and so on are like a person’s name: they do not appear and disappear, they do not exist anywhere. They are only objects of our imaginations. We can conclude that conceptual realities do not change.” My thought is that definitions of particular words may change, but we are just switching to another eternal concept, and the old one may be forgotten and lost, but it doesn’t truly go anywhere.

Verbs such as those we use in noting, seeing, hearing, feeling, bending, stretching, etc, are just concepts. Since they indicate real actions and intentions, they are called “concepts that refer to what ultimately exists”. The actions indicated by these verbs are ultimately constituted of mind, mental factors, and matter. An “ordinary person” has their experienced intertwined with the concepts, and their experience is a concept of a person, or a concept of form and shape. Their experience is not an ultimate reality. Mahasi Sayadaw then describes the insight meditator’s experience, which serves as a useful guide in and of itself to insight meditation.

“An insight meditator whose insight knowledge matures by constantly observing mind and body … becomes aware of both the intention to move and the subsequent gradual process of movement. A meditator also perceives that as soon as preceding phenomena disappear, subsequent ones replace them. Thus he or she realises that there is no self that moves, as the sentence ‘I move’ would suggest.”

I like this saying given: “As ultimate reality emerges, concepts submerge. As concepts emerge, ultimate reality submerges”. It’s a good reflection of the wave-like experience often seen and felt through insight practice, the push and pull of the hindrances, and the way in which we build momentum to have penetrating insight.

Some clarification is given on what the two types of insights are: inferential, and empirical. Empirical insights arise by empirically meditating on mental and physical phenomena. One is discerning for themselves:

“the unique characteristics and impermanence of phenomena. Every empirical insight, when it matures, is followed by inferential insight that extrapolates to phenomena that are not directly experienced … mundane phenomena, internal and external, past, future, present.”

It’s impossible to form concepts about ultimate reality, since concepts obscure ultimate reality. Therefore, when have thoughts, observations, etc about insight experience, those inferred (relatively mundane) insights about the mindstate you subsequently find yourself in as a result of the empirical insight are not to be confused for the empirical insight itself.

Mahasi Sayadaw advises that we should note both internal and external objects for insight practice - but we shouldn’t ‘seek’ external objects for practicing since doing so often causes a restless mind. They should only be noted when they arise of their own accord at the six sense doors. “One should strive to continuously observe internal objects. Only by observing one’s own internal objects can one’s purpose be fulfilled.” Similarly, we should only observe present phenomena over past, and future (including trying to observe past lives).

I liked the clarifications on dry insight and noting technique - As /u/filpt noted, that ‘observing’ in the technique is just plain observing, not some elevated, special action. And that it’s not necessary to note all mental and physical phenomena in great detail. One should only observe one phenomena, the one that is most distinct.

The chapter finishes with a section about how jhana and insight can be used together. It gives the example of Ven. Sariputta going into each jhana and seeing its phenomena clearly using insight and thus gaining arahantship after 14 days. There’s probably a lot of good pointers here for navigating different jhanas in advanced practice but it’s very long so I’ll spare the details! It’s worth noting that stated previously: the only difference between insight meditators who have attained jhana and those who haven’t is that one can clearly observe phenomena related to jhana - the way of observing doesn’t change (ie still seeing, hearing, etc). It then goes onto the story of a monk just using the noting of the appearance and disappearance of physical phenomena and gaining arahantship in 7 days.

Summary by u/xugan97

My notes on the chapter:

Now onto purification of knowledge (paññā visuddhi) and the analytical knowledge of phenomena (nāma-rūpa-pariccheda-ñāṇa) - seeing things as they are. This is again taken up in the context of Stages of Insight Knowledge in chapter 6.

(editor’s note: the following blocks are a matrix replacement)

  • Method: Samatha-yana
    Level of samadhi: upacāra or appanā-samādhi (access or full concentration)
    Type of jhana: samatha-jhana
    Object of vipassanathe samadhi itself and its mental factors, or physical phenomena

  • Method: vipassana-yana
    Level of samadhi: khanika-samādhi (momentary concentration)
    Type of jhana: vipassana-jhana
    Object of vipassana physical phenomena along with distinctly visible mental phenomena

What really exists?

  • In the ultimate sense, reality arises and passes away, concepts do not exist, and nibbana exists and is stable.

  • Absolute reality is either the five aggregates[2] or the six sense-bases[3]. We can add the variations of these, including citta/cetasika/rupa[4] (which is the Abhidhamma-style analysis also used in the Visuddhimagga), and the five-fold division of the six sense-bases used in chapter 4.

  • We can see absolute reality in activity too, by seeing the individual movements in motion - to be used in walking meditation in chapter 5.

What can be a subject for meditation:

  • empirical vs inferential - use directly experienced reality only - the insight knowledges may be inferential but must not be anticipated by inferential thinking.

  • in matter, concretely produced matter - and in mind, distinctly visible mental phenomena

  • jhana and its mental factors - this is the samatha-yana method of the anupada sutta[5] - the commentary gives Sariputta’s extensive method and Mogallana’s intensive method

  • 38 mind moments[6] per observation

  • internal vs external - neither sati nor samadhi arise with external objects

  • present vs future/past - observe a single moment of the present only

  • physical vs mental - direct observation of physical phenomena only (unless following the anupada sutta method)

When are things seen as they really are?

Kimsuka sutta[7]: the origin and passing away of the six sense bases / five aggregates / four great elements / everything

Chapter 4

Summary by u/TetrisMcKenna

Though this chapter is largely still theoretical, there’s some very fine detail here on how to use the technique that may not be obvious to beginners, in many instructional texts the nuts and bolts aren’t always clear, so it’s good to get down to the mechanics.

Firstly, it’s clarified that when one notes ‘seeing’, it’s at the very moment of seeing, and what we are noting is one of five things related to the process of seeing, as laid out in the previous chapters:

  • eye-sensitivity (eg clarity of sight)
  • form base (eg a particular visual form that draws attention)
  • eye consciousness (eg the general mental state of seeing)
  • mental contact (eg the contact between eye and visual object)
  • feelings that are pleasant, neutral or unpleasant (eg feelings arising from contact)

It’s not important to note what exactly is happening in the above list as this would create too much work in the mind, it’s enough simply to know that some part of ‘seeing’ is in awareness. As such, always note ‘seeing’ when seeing is prominent, don’t distract from the present arisings by trying to analyse.

There’s a hint here that you shouldn’t get caught up on labelling the label. Eg, if you note ‘seeing’, you will ‘hear’ the word ‘seeing’ in your mind - but that ‘hearing’ doesn’t need to be noted - it’s excluded from this practice for the purpose of the development of mindfulness. Later, when the technique is ingrained, one goes beyond labels completely and experiences the things being noted as just what they are.

Another important hint is that one shouldn’t get too concerned about ‘noting everything’ - and it’s specifically said that during A&P especially things arise so rapidly that it’s not possible to label them individually - one is simply aware of their characteristics. So, simply note ‘seeing’ when seeing and try not to strive to push the mind to get every little detail labelled, or deciding what to note.

Mahasi Sayadaw explains that there are four aspects to phenomena:

  • characteristics
  • function
  • manifestation
  • proximate cause.

If we perceive an object any other way than those 4, we are perceiving concepts such as identity, image, etc. We experience phenomena as they really are if we observe it the moment it takes place.

An example of these 4 aspects is a lightning strike. If we perceive it the moment it strikes, we see:

  • brightness (characteristic)
  • its function to remove darkness
  • its manifestation as straight or branching
  • or its proximate cause, eg a stormcloud

It’s impossible to perceive the lightning bolt as it really is after it has disappeared - it’s theoretical at that point. It’s also added that one need not note the proximate cause of a phenomena being noted - as this is a different object than that intended to be noted. As the cause has already vanished, and we can’t observe it directly anymore.

In the case of seeing, these characteristics follow on from the bases above, eg: on seeing a visual object, it appears to the eye (characteristic), it is seen (its function), it’s known as an object of sight (manifestation) and is based on elemental/material causes (proximate cause).

Ordinarily this process is invisible to us, it’s too fast and bundled together to be seen clearly and understood. Learning and logical inference isn’t enough to understand this in the way the EBTs say they should be understood; a phenomena’s characteristic must be noted the moment it arises again and again on many different objects to clearly see how they are constructed, what they really are.

This process applies to all the senses, and when one understands that the moment of observing a characteristic, ‘seeing’, ‘hearing’, etc has arisen, and also notes the exact moment of disappearing, and begins to see this process clearly, one understands the characteristic of impermanence. Because no phenomena is exempt from this, they are seen to be unsatisfactory. Because they arise and disappear even though one doesn’t wish them to, there is no self in control of them. In each moment of perception, we have the potential to fully understand Buddha’s teaching with clear seeing. When one accomplishes this understanding fully, these phenomena no longer give rise to defilements.

Defilements arise at the moment of seeing based on a distinct object that is seen. If there is no distinct object or it isn’t known, the defilement doesn’t arise. Affection or hate for a person only arises because you have previously met or seen that person. If my friend “Bob” arises in my perception, actually the only “Bob” in my awareness is the one I’ve brought with me and overlaid on the raw perception of form. By seeing the form just as it is, without conceptual overlay, there is no distinction between the seen and the unseen, nothing to be grasped at, hated, lusted after, etc. By continuously noting phenomena in this way, gradually moral conduct, concentration and wisdom are developed.

While practicing insight meditation, the defilements are temporarily subdued, there is a cessation of the ordinary mind and release occurs. By completely abandoning the perception of permanence, path knowledge and fruition knowledge take nibbana as their only object. At that point, you will no longer “be within” any phenomena, no longer have attachment, pride, or wrong view. The cycle of unsatisfactoriness has ceased. If mindfulness and discernment is strong enough, one attains nibbana.

A meditator can’t know what defilements they are eradicating each day. Even as they arise, upon being noted, they are slowly but surely being cleaned out. Actually, a meditator never knows until the moment of path and fruition and insight matures; so one just allows the noting mind to flow continuously without getting disturbed by defilements.

Mahasi Sayadaw goes on to explain the above in terms of the rest of the sense bases; for most they are similar:

  • note hearing, note smelling, note tasting, note touching.
  • For tasting, one can note “sweet” or “sour” and so on, depending on the taste.
  • For touching, we can note hot, cold, tired, pain, numb, aching, itching, dizzy and so on using everyday language and precision - or just touching.
  • We can also note the breath as “in” or “out” depending on the perceived distension in the body or the nose or simply the intention to breathe.
  • We can note “rising” or “falling” depending upon the rising and falling of the abdomen.
  • However, any bodily movement can be noted for insight knowledge, the breath is not especially important for insight knowledge.

The four elements are given a rundown in relation to these bodily movements.

  • The earth element represents hardness, softness, smoothness of touch
  • The fire element represents heat and coolness
  • The air element represents firmness, stiffness, looseness (in relation to movement).
  • The water element represents flowing or melting (eg saliva, tears) or cohesion and holding together.

These are useful tools to see that the sensations being noted are nothing more than the arising and passing of simple parts.

Mental objects are slightly harder to discern - however the most important is volition, as it directs all the others. Volition is especially obvious when an urgent situation arises and one is compelled to act. By noting bodily movements as described above, one becomes sensitive to the intention to move - the intention to walk comes before the act of walking, and this can be seen clearly. As a result of this intention, a cascade of movements happen in sequence, arising and passing, and is called “walking”. This is what is meant in the Satipatthana Sutta by “when walking, a Bhikku understands, ‘I am walking’”. One understands how walking arises and how it passes away, by seeing clearly the chain from intention to action in discreet, clearly noted parts.

By noting this clearly, these discreet parts of the process of walking don’t mix up in the mind, they aren’t lazily thrown together as a self walking, they are seen as totally impermanent processes that lead, one after the other, to walking, without a self to do the walking. The intention is just the intention, and it arises with the four characteristics above; similarly the first movement of the body walking; and the next, and so on. Understanding “I am walking” is merely a convention; understanding how walking happens is the key. Likewise, one can apply this to all bodily activities, feelings, mental states, hindrances, sense perceptions, etc, and over time, clear up delusory thinking about self.

By noting clearly, continuously and immediately, the seven factors of enlightenment arise: mindfulness (seeing mental and physical objects arise and pass away without interference), investigation (understanding their characteristics), energy (applying just the right amount of effort to sustain continuous clear noting), delight (finding the right balance that causes effortless joy), calm (tranquility that comes when defilements cease), [momentary] concentration (uninterrupted noting), equanimity (balanced state of mind around the noted).

By continuously bringing ourselves to the arising of these factors, we see that all phenomena are marked by the first noble truth, the three characteristics, and by non-clinging, we relieve ourselves of the suffering of samsaric existence. By the fading away of craving, by letting go of what we now see to be clearly painful, we see the truth of cessation and the path for ourselves, in both the mundane and supramundane. We see the four noble truths. (suffering, craving, the cessation of craving, the path).

Phew, that was a long chapter, and we’re only just getting started, since chapter 5 is called ‘Practical instructions’!

Summary by u/xugan97

This chapter is the Theravada explanation of the Satipatthana sutta[8], which is the fundamental text for vipassana. The practical method described in chapter 5 is used for establishment of the four satipatthana, but any preferred method can be used within the same framework.

What is vipassana?

  • The establishment of the four Satipaṭṭhāna (foundations of mindfulness)

  • The observation of dhamma (the elements of ultimate reality)

  • Analysis of observed dhamma via four aspects of phenomena - characteristics, function, manifestation, proximate cause

  • The observation of mental defilements as they arise - Mahasi Sayadaw on the Malukyaputta sutta[9]

  • All these factors, including all four satipatthanas have to be established for vipassana to be established.

  • Any method which bypasses the observation of the four aspects of phenomena, such as analysis into pure sensations (cuṇṇamanasikāra) is not vipassana.

Choice of practical method

We have to choose a practical method fulfilling the four satipatthanas. In this book, mindfulness of the body is used, which along with the method of noting, becomes mindfulness of all six-sense bases and establishment of all four satipatthanas.

Recall from chapters 2 and 3, that this method is vipassana-yana, uses khanika-samadhi, and involves observation of only directly experienced ultimate reality - the six sense-bases. Insight knowledges arise as a direct consequence of establishment of vipassana in this manner - chapters 5 to 7.

Another option is anapanasati, which has traditionally been used as a single meditation object for all four satipatthanas. It is also possible to use multiple separate methods from the twenty-one sections of the Satipatthana sutta, according to what the meditator finds suitable.

Establishment of the four foundations of mindfulness

Kāyānupassanā (mindfulness of the body) - The primary method is via the six sense-bases with five-fold division. However, as mentioned in the previous chapter, we note internal objects only, otherwise neither samadhi not insight will arise. This means we are noting only two of the six sense-bases - physical sensations and thoughts. Of course we cannot close our eyes in walking meditation.

What is to be observed are the fundamental dhammas - in this case the six sense-bases - and the observed dhammas are to be further analysed by noting any one of the four aspects.

Noting of mental defilements as they arise, is an important and integral part of kaya-anupassana.

Other optional methods are mindfulness of breathing, 42 parts of the body, four elements of the body, mindfulness of general activities.

Vedanā­nu­passanā (mindfulness of feelings) - As explained in the section on kaya-anupassana, this is observed along with contact etc. in the method of the six sense-bases. Analysis via the four aspects is also similar.

Cittānupassanā (mindfulness of mind) - Parallel to the mindfulness of the body, the instantaneous state of mind is to be observed.

Dhammā­nu­passanā (mindfulness of mental objects) - It is not a coincidence that nearly all the contemplation topics in dhamma-anupassana are those of the magga-vagga of the Samyutta Nikaya. Probably the point of establishing the four satipatthana is the development of those 37 wings to awakening [10].

Any one topic of the dhamma-anupassana section can be chosen for contemplation.

Say we choose the seven factors of enlightenment. We note the arising and development of each factor, along with the wise attention (yoniso manasikāra) required for this. In some cases, we can note the characteristics etc. of the factor.

Remember that sati (mindfulness) and sampajañña (clear comprehension) are used in the vipassana-yana from the very start. Investigation (dhamma-vicaya) - of the characteristics etc. - is also a part of the method. Samadhi (concentration) and other factors of enlightenment have to be developed later using wise attention (yoniso manasikāra).

Miscellaneous considerations …

How does mindfulness of the six sense-bases constitute kaya-anupassana? Other authors define kaya-anupassana as mindfulness of the body alone, or mindfulness of the breath alone. Also the six sense-bases are mentioned in the section on dhamma-anupassana, in which case it cannot be considered kaya-anupassana.

However, Mahasi Sayadaw’s interpretation is reasonable because any meditator knows that the six sense-fields cannot be separated in vipassana, as it can in samatha. Modern scholarship also agrees in interpreting kaya-anupassana as the six sense-bases, e.g. Grzegorz Polak - Reexamining Jhana and Sujato - A history of mindfulness. The latter work uses a slimmed-down reconstructed version of the Satipatthana sutta to establish the literal meanings. There we also see that the satipatthana are meant to set up samadhi and not analysis. However, as we saw above, analysis has to be done sooner or later, so that is fine.

What about those who wish to use the five aggregates or six sense-bases in dhamma-anupasana? The method used from the beginning has been one based on the six sense-bases, so nothing further has to be done. Switching to the five aggregates, or even the Visuddhimagga method of citta-cetasika-rupa is straightforward.

Apologies for heavily inserting my interpretation in my notes on this difficult and important chapter.

Chapter 5

Summary by u/filpt

In this short chapter Mahasi takes a step back from theory established in the previous chapters, to give a fantastically succinct, simple and clear explanation of his famous method, and the effects on the meditator as they advance in their practice (the progress of insight).

After the very detailed and quite technical previous chapter, this chapter is a bit of relief, getting back to the basic business of practice that all intermediate vipassana meditators will be familiar with.

This is the material I wished I had when I accidentally stumbled into the dark night many years ago. I’d very strongly recommend it to any meditator who thinks they may be in the dark night, and doesn’t have a teacher. Even after going through a number of cycles myself, I find it very comforting to hear Mahasi echo my experience of dukka nanas and describe their correct understanding and method of working with them. I suspect I’ll continue using this as a reference whenever I feel lost.

I won’t go into too much detail on the first half, where Mahasi gives a summary of his method, other than this short overview:

  • note the breath rising and falling (“rising, falling”)

  • if a distraction appears, take that as an object and note it until it goes away (“hearing, hearing”)

  • note everything when you see it, including “laziness, laziness”, “doubt, doubt”, “sleepiness, sleepiness”

  • do all actions slowly, deliberately and note them, including such small actions as lifting one’s fork to eat “lifting, lifting”, the intention to lift, “intending to lift”, and so on and so forth for every little thing. (this is the thing Mahasi retreats are famous for)

  • It is also worth quoting a paragraph where Mahasi very clearly explains that verbal labeling is not strictly necessary, and when the concentration is sufficiently advanced the meditator may choose to drop the labels, or only label occasionally:

“You will be unable to keep up with objects by trying to label or name each when they arise so quickly. A meditator should simply be aware of them from moment to moment, without naming them, so that he or she can follow them. If a meditator wants to name them, he or she does not try to name them all. When one object is labeled, he or she may become aware of four, five or ten other objects. This is isn’t a problem. You may tire if you attempt to name all the objects that occur. What matters most is being precisely and accurately aware of each object.”

Mahasi then talks about the progress of insight, without naming each stage or going into great detail (that seems to be what will happen in the next chapter). This section is an excellent and very useful overview of the whole cycle, pointing out the key aspects of the progression without getting bogged down in the details. I’ll give a brief overview, and point out parts I found most interesting and useful:

At the beginning (in Mind & Body and Cause and Effect) stages, concentration is not strong enough to note arising and passing of objects, by the time you note one object arising, another has arisen.

As the meditator progresses, the mind eventually becomes strong enough to observe the entire arising and passing of an object, leading one to see the 3 characteristics clearly moment-to-moment. This eventually results in feelings of joy and rapture and sometimes the seeing of light. But it is a mistake to indulge in enjoying visions of light or other dream-images, instead they should be noted. It is also a mistake to relax since concentration seems to happen so easily now, instead one should work harder to maintain momentum.

Disappearance and Disillusion follow the joy and rapture. Now the mind is strong enough, the meditator loses the ability to see the whole arising-and-passing cycle of objects, instead only being able to see the passing. This is counter-intuitive, so leads to feeling upset that practice has stopped working - but actually it is because the mind has progressed, “beyond concepts of solid form, and so cannot feel comfortable when those concepts are absent”. The meditator should be encouraged that this is actually expected and represents real progress.

Mahasi then talks at length about the feelings brought about by the dukka nanas, “how frightening is this endless vanishing!”, the meditator feels, “helpless, dejected, languid”, with, “no joy”. He cautions that the meditator must note these feelings:

“Otherwise, being long caught up in these reflections while feeling displeasure, a meditator might become so afraid that he or she cannot stand it. This kind of fear based on displeasure is not insight knowledge. Therefore note all these reflections without fail so that fear based on displeasure cannot arise.”

Mahasi describes how difficult it can be for a meditator that their awareness is so strong that they see objects passing automatically, so that they cannot stop automatically seeing the passing of sensations throughout the day - resulting in profound feelings of misery and disgust:

“You will feel weary of phenomena. As a result, you will become lazy about noting. But you will not be able to help being aware. It is like being forced to travel on a filthy road, wherein every step arouses disgust and disillusionment.”

Mahasi then moves on to the natural result of this, “looking for relief”, where the meditator asks, “how can I escape”. He observes that some meditators will not naturally figure out what to do, and so need to be reminded that the solution is to note well, in order to observe 3 characteristics in each moment, which leads to noting with equanimity, which leads to nibbana. He also cautions that not practicing is not a solution, since it will not stop the new awareness of sensations passing, so the meditator should continue working hard to note each sensation - and further that there is no alternative method of escape other than good practice:

“some meditators will experience unbearable pain when their practice gains this sort of momentum. Do not despair. The true characteristics of unpleasant sensation are actually becoming obvious to you… note the pain until you can overcome it.”

He cautions that meditators commonly feel their practice is no good, but is it because they are now so eager to realize the truth, they cannot feel satisfied with anything less (I take a lot of comfort in this idea!). He concludes, “if you practice with patience and persistence, your mind will grow clearer and clearer, until all the agitation and dissatisfaction disappear”.

He then describes the stage of Equanimity, with its coolness and effortless skill. He cautions to “note any attachment that arises, in addition to noting the rapture, tranquility and light. If these experiences persist, ignore them and note other objects instead”. He also says to note the common sensations of this stage, “anticipation, anticipation”, “evaluating, evaluating”, “excitement, excitement”. Finally, he says that the way to nibbana from this stage is to keep the practice steady, neither increasing nor decreasing the energy used in practice, to expect fluctuations in practice, and to be patient and persistent.

There follows a description of nibbana. Cessation is described as, “as brief as a single moment of noting”, and quotes a number of common descriptions of cessation which mostly describe it as (paraphrasing), “seeing the objects and the noting mind cut off or stopped”. He explains that the mind then returns to insight knowledge of arising and passing away.

The experience after cessation is described as, “very clear… very peaceful… They may feel as if they have been reborn. Their faith becomes extremely strong… Sometimes the mental factors of faith, rapture, tranquility and happiness may be so strong that immediately after having attained path and fruition objects cannot be distinguished very well, even though meditators note them.” (I found his whole description of the immediate afterglow uncanny, more accurate than I’d seen elsewhere).

Interestingly, Mahasi then recommends that meditators who have achieved path then re-experience each insight knowledge by resolving to observe that stage for a given amount of time, e.g. 30 minutes. And this is a skill meditators should practice and learn, eventually being able to get to equanimity within 10 notings! And further that meditators can learn to re-attain fruition, until they can do it while walking or eating (I feel like I’ve really missed a trick here).

Finally he says once these skills have been developed, the meditator should resolve to attain higher paths, being careful to resolve to achieve the higher fruition, rather than accidentally re-attaining the first path fruition. He cautions that now the meditator is on the subsequent path, they may be upset that they can no-longer attain the previous fruition. He says that the insight cycles will now begin with the Arising and Passing stage, and cautions that awareness is much better than before, so, “understanding will be broader and clearer… the cycle of suffering will be more frightening, dangerous and wearying… the desire to escape will be stronger”, and that “you may remain in that condition for a long time, anywhere from… days to months to years”. He goes on to explain that the “only way” to attain the next 3 paths is to follow the same process for each path.

Interestingly, he says that second path can be achieved “easily”, “fairly soon after first”, but goes on to say, “it will probably take a long time to attain the third path”. This is because only morality training needs to be completely fulfilled to attain first and second, but for third, “you must also completely fulfill training in concentration” (I hope he expounds a lot more on this later).

He concludes by saying that his book should give any ordinary person the understanding needed to attain path, if they systematically practice with good faith and energy. However he strongly recommends finding a good teacher, otherwise, “he or she may have doubts and feel uncertain, like a person traveling alone in an unfamiliar place. So it is not easy for an ordinary person… without a teacher who can give careful guidance”.

My own conclusion is that this was a gem of chapter that should be read by all vipassana students, but very especially those struggling with the dark night. I was pleased (and even somewhat astonished) to see that Mahasi’s description of the cycle of insight from the very beginning up to second path describes my own experience very closely, and indeed also matches descriptions from MCTB and the many threads on DhO on the topic. I now find the alternate interpretation of Mahasi’s teaching that I occasionally encounter online to be very likely mistaken (these hold that the stages of the progress of insight can only be achieved by monastics working very hard for years, let alone first path). But I expect that will cleared up in the next chapter, “Stages of Insight Knowledge”.

Summary by u/TetrisMcKenna

“If a meditator aspires to attain path knowledge and fruition knowledge and nibbana in this very life, he or she should cut any impediments during the time of meditation practice … Purify moral conduct … Entrust yourself to the Buddha’s wisdom … Reflect on the merits of nibbana… path knowledge… insight practice, which will surely lead to the attainment of path knowledge and nibbana. You should find inspiration by remembering that the path of insight you are practicing is the same path that the Buddha, arahants, and all of the noble ones have followed.”

Strong, inspirational words to start this more practical chapter. It’s recommended one makes peace with any possibly enlightened beings they may have offended, bow to the Buddha, cultivate metta towards all living beings, and contemplate death and the impurity of the body (as in the Satipatthana sutta) before sitting down to meditate.

Mahasi Sayadaw, as many will know, recommends the rising and falling of the abdomen as the primary object of concentration - mentally noting ‘rising’ and ‘falling’ on the in and out breaths respectively. One shouldn’t try to alter the breath to make it more noticeable, neither should they be concerned at first about whether they are noting some conceptual aspect of the breath; simply place attention at the abdomen and note ‘rising’ and ‘falling’ as per the pressure and movement (air element).

When a distracting thought arises, note it ‘thinking’. When imagining, note it ‘imagining’. Considering, wandering, traveling, meeting, speaking, seeing - when imagining these things, note them accordingly until the activity disappears, then return to noting the rising and falling of the abdomen.

Similar noting should be done when bodily discomforts come up, such as ‘wanting to swallow’ - and if one actually swallows, ‘swallowing’. Similarly for ‘wanting to lower’ your head, and upon lowering it, ‘bending’, while focusing on every movement that occurs, then returning to the rising and falling.

Any discomfort can be noted in this way using regular, everyday language. Accurate and steady noting should allow one to persevere through most discomfort; if unbearable, simply ignore it and buckle down on noting the rising and falling of the abdomen.

All sorts of intense and strange experiences may occur during meditation practice. A meditator shouldn’t be afraid of encountering these things, such as pain, heat, rapture, visions, etc. They are not (usually) signs of anything serious; strong concentration is simply bringing ordinary sensations clearly into the foreground. Simply note it as it occurs.

Even complex actions such as getting and drinking a drink can be noted in stages this way: ‘holding’, ‘pouring’, ‘lifting’, ‘drinking’, ‘swallowing’ and so on. The idea is simple enough; any bodily action should be mindfully observed by the most prominent sensation at any given moment, and continuously noted.

After some time, one may begin to loosen the primary focus from the rising and falling to include other objects, such as sitting: ‘rising, falling, sitting; rising, falling, sitting’. Once comfortable with that, one can add some distinct feeling of touch in the body: ‘rising, falling, sitting, touching’. If the breath becomes very subtle, one can note the touch points where the body is prominently reporting touch.

If some sound or sight captures your attention, note is as ‘hearing’ and ‘seeing’. If one intentionally looks or listens to something, note it as ‘looking’ or ‘listening’. If thoughts are triggered, note ‘thinking’. If one realises they forgot to note some sensation - ‘forgetting’.

One can also note mental states such as ‘lazy’, ‘doubting’, ‘hoping’, ‘wondering’, ‘happy’.

By practicing this, one is training to become continuously aware of the contents of experience, as well as discerning the order of things occurring, and ideally isn’t getting caught up in content. In this way, one begins to notice the relationship between mind and body, and can clearly distinguish between the physical phenomena (rising, falling) and the mind that notes it.

As this understanding deepens, intentions start to become obvious before bodily actions occur. The noting mind begins to catch up to the speed of the body. One begins to realise the universal manner in which cause and effect relate, and how this chain of causation happens by itself, without an independent entity or creator.

At this stage, one can start to see the three characteristics (impermanence, unsatisfying, not-self) in all the phenomena as their beginnings, middles and ends are clearly discerned. One sees the arising and passing away of all experience. The noting mind becomes quicker than ever, but phenomena will also appear to speed up, and one will see that, for example, the rising and falling is made up of many segments of experience arising and passing away one after another. Vibrations may be felt all over the body and in external perception. Objects may arise faster than the meditator can label them - this isn’t a problem, one can simply be aware of them precisely and accurately as they come in through the sense doors. Once this matures, the objects should seem to fall into the noting mind, which powerfully and quickly knows each and every object that arises.

At this point, bright lights and raptures can commonly occur in ones experience. One can feel great faith in the teachings as a result. It can feel exceedingly enjoyable - but this is ultimately a fleeting perception like all the others, and should be noted as such: ‘brightness, comfort, knowing, delight’, etc. If the mind seems to incline towards unusual objects such as shapes and forms, one shouldn’t follow this inclination. If it happens anyway, note it as ‘seeing’. Do not delight in these things, as insight will weaken as these perceptions increase.

After some time, one will start to notice more prominently the disappearance of objects and the corresponding noting minds. The delight one found previously may dissolve into a sense of practice not being good or powerful, or that there are gaps in the noting as perceptions such as the sense of the body fall away. However, this is an indication of progress. One begins to see that two consecutive moments are not truly connected, but are separate units that fall away with a distinct gap between them.

At this point, one may mentally begin to feel disheartened as they see the truth of the three characteristics; that enjoyment in these things is illusory, that each disappearance is like death, that we are all subject to aging, sickness, distress, worry and so on. One should simply note these reflections without getting caught in them. Equanimity is key to avoiding the dark night; knowing that these things simply happen and will pass is enough to overcome them, and getting lazy and discouraged at this point will only prolong the dark night.

After sufficient effort is applied in noting these reactive phenomena, the meditator begins to look for relief and find an escape - and soon finds it in greatly increased equanimity. The mind naturally recognises that the three characteristics are the truth, and no amount of complaining will change that. Awareness will begin to seem to flow by itself. Noting will become almost effortless. Noting touch, they should note simply the sensation of touch and not the form or shape; the raw perception. Sometimes, the physical phenomena may fall away entirely leaving only the noting mind arising and passing. Cool, soothing rapture and clear light may occur. The extreme delight from A&P shouldn’t occur, but nonetheless, one should be wary of getting attached. One will clearly comprehend that these phenomena are not me or mine, and don’t belong to anyone; they are merely mental and physical phenomena.

Fluctuations in experience may occur here and it’s important that an even keel of effort is applied without too much adjustment. Priority should be given to noting objects as they arrive at the sense doors and widening awareness to include all parts of the body. If practice becomes too subtle, remove any limits to focus at all and simply note what arises and instantaneously disappears. Restless thoughts such as “How long have I been sitting” should not occur at this point, and alluring objects should not capture the mind.

If insight knowledge is mature enough, and it may require many fluctuations before it is; once the mind stops withdrawing and is strong enough to realise nibbana, for three or four moments one sees mental and physical phenomena arising and passing with increasing swiftness and clarity. Then, immediately after noting an obvious mental or physical object, one attains path and fruition while experiencing nibbana as cessation of all noted objects and minds that note them. This can be as brief as a single moment of noting. Then one has a recollection of the event: “Both objects and the mind submerge, and I escaped them”. Then, one goes back to noting, to find that their practice is somewhat coarser than before: they have returned to A&P, and often back to the bright lights and raptures of this stage - but somehow in a clearer, more peaceful way. After some time, they will return to a more subtle type of noting. One feels their mental attitude has changed; they feel they have been reborn. They experience powerful rapture and tranquility, and strong faith in the teachings. Happiness and relief arises. With repeated practice through these insight knowledges, one can begin to repeat these fruitions, abide in them, and also call up individual insight knowledges at will. In this way, one can begin to work on them and attain further paths and perfections.

Mahasi Sayadaw finishes the chapter by recommending that one who is attempting these feats should practice under the guidance of a teacher who knows and can clearly explain these stages, practice humbly, and apply great effort and a firm practice to attain nibbana.

Summary by u/xugan97

This is the famous chapter which has been circulating separately in various forms since 1954 - e.g. here[11] and here[12]

The primary object: The rising and falling of the abdomen (mindfulness of the body and of the wind element)

Mahasi Sayadaw’s labels:

  • Basic sequence - rising, falling, sitting touching

  • Thoughts - thinking, daydreaming, wandering, meeting, traveling, speaking, seeing

  • Discomfort - stiffness, wanting to shift, itching, wanting to disappear, wanting to itch

  • Getting up - thirsty, intending to stand up, reaching

  • Mental states - lazy, doubting, hoping, wondering, frustrated

  • Walking meditation - chapter 4 - How to note general activities and Clear comprehension

Various labelling suggestions by other teachers:

  • Sayadaw U Pandita[13]

  • Yuttadhammo Bhikkhu[14]

  • Shinzen Young - fewer labels[15]

  • The Hamilton project - vipassana noting technique[16] - Other variations including fast noting

As suggested in chapter 4, the establishment of the four satipatthanas in the way described automatically leads to insight knowledge. However, it is also possible to direct the noting in specific ways to attain the insight knowledges in sequence. Only the practical method is described here - we will see the insight knowledges in great detail in the next chapter.

(editor’s note: the following blocks are a matrix replacement)

  • Category: Mind and body
    Insight Knowledge: Knowledge that Discerns Mental and Physical Phenomena (nāma-rūpa-pariccheda-ñāṇa)
    Practical observation: The pair of sensation (rūpa) and the noting mind (nāma) are understood. Their characteristics are to be noted. More generally, the characteristics of the six sense-bases can be noted as described in chapter 4.

  • Category: Cause and effect
    Insight Knowledge: Knowledge that Discerns Conditionality (paccaya-pariggaha-ñāṇa)
    Practical observation: The pairs: intention-action, food-body, attention-thought/sensation, contact-consciousness are understood in general. More generally, dependent origination is to be understood as described in chapter 6.

  • Category: Seeing the three characteristics
    Insight Knowledge: Insight Knowledge by Comprehension (sammasanañāṇa)
    Practical observation: Noting the beginning, middle and end of each object results in the general understanding of impermancence etc.

  • Category: Distractions from the path
    Insight Knowledge: KInsight Knowledge of Arising and Passing Away (udayabbayañāṇa)
    Practical observation: Noting the beginning, middle and end of each object results in the general understanding of impermancence etc.

  • Category: Disappearance
    Insight Knowledge: Insight Knowledge of Dissolution (bhanga-ñāṇa)
    Practical observation: When insight knowledge progresses to the next stage, both sense objects and the noting mind no longer arise, but only pass away.

  • Category: Disillusionment
    Insight Knowledge: Insight Knowledge of Fear, Danger and Disenchantment (bhaya-ñāṇa, ādīnava-ñāṇa, nibbidā-ñāṇa)
    Practical observation: Reflection on the impermanence and instability of all past, present and future phenomena.

  • Category: Looking for relief
    Insight Knowledge: Insight Knowledge of Desire for Deliverance (muñcitukamyatā-ñāṇa)
    Practical observation: One looks for relief.

  • Category: Equanimity
    Insight Knowledge: the remaining insight knowledges upto path knowledge
    Practical observation: Eventually the noting mind becomes exceptionally clear and subtle and invulnerable to any kind of tempation and disturbance. Path knowledge is produced.

Chapter 6

Summary by u/filpt

Overview

Chapter 6 is a long but nonetheless very interesting and useful chapter, concerned with extensive explanation and elaboration of the stages of the progress of insight (touched upon in the previous chapter), and explanation of path, fruition and nibbana. I will try to compress this lengthy and detailed chapter into key points and highlights, without losing accuracy as best I can.

Mahasi starts by explaining that chapter 1 was about purification of morality, chapter 2 was about purification of mind, and that chapters 3, 4 & 5 were about the various types of purification of wisdom, and that this chapter is about correlating the stages of insight knowledge (aka progress of insight) with the 5 types of purification of wisdom.

Insight Knowledge that Discerns Mental and Physical Phenomena: Purification of View (aka “Mind and Body” in common parlance from MCTB)

When the meditators noting mind is sufficiently concentrated, they begin to be able to observe phenomena moment to moment. They start to see that mind and body are separate, that body feels & senses while mind grasps, intends and reacts. The meditator further sees that they are separate components which were previously combined to give the illusion of a whole self. Observing mind and body as composed of separate things, which are composed of individual phenomena, is the start of “seeing things as they really are”, and so works to purify view.

Insight Knowledge that Discerns Conditionality: Purification By Overcoming Doubt (aka Cause and Effect)

As the noting mind gains strength, it begins to observe that the phenomena of mind and body are defined entirely by causes.

Depending on the individual meditator, doubt about the lack of a self to be found is purified by observing in various ways that all volitional actions are caused by clinging and craving, that contact between a sense-object and the mind results in pleasure or displeasure, causing the mind to desire to increase pleasure and decrease displeasure (i.e. to cling or to crave), directly causing all actions of the body and of speech. This can be observed in several ways, from observing that physical phenomena are caused by causes and that mental phenomena are caused by causes, to seeing the truth of Dependent Origination (backwards or forwards), or the meditator may see more abstractly that volitional actions cause results, which cause more volitional actions, resulting in an ongoing cycle that does not require the positing of an individual self, but only in a “life continuum”.

This is the first direct introduction of the idea of a “life continuum” (also known as “mind continuum” or “consciousness continuum”), which I infer is sort of the underlying essence of everything which all phenomena arise from (or perhaps having a duality with the material world?). It is a bit frustrating that this concept is used to explain things repeatedly in this chapter without being defined, but perhaps that is because it cannot be easily explained or understood except in this way. Mahasi also explains that rebirth (or actually “relinking”) can be understood as just another instance of arising and passing of phenomena, that the consciousness of an individual continually relinks to the life-continuum in each arising and passing moment, and that this is no different to how consciousness relinks with the consciousness-continuum after death and at the point of birth. This is an interesting idea, which combined with the explanation of cause and effect suggests “rebirth” is kind of a misnomer since there is no permanent self which is reborn, but perhaps a wave-like pattern in the life-continuum which simply continues unbroken from the consciousness of one person to another (each individual being just instances of causes and effects without a separate, permanent self). However, this sort of seems to conflict with the idea elsewhere in the book that each individual has a specific rebirth as another individual. All in all I am still very confused by this part of Buddhism and it makes my head hurt to think about (and type this out), but at least feel like I now have some clue what they’re getting at.

Mahasi also interestingly notes that someone who has reached the mature part of this stage or gone beyond can be considered a “lesser stream enterer”, since they have temporarily purified the doubt in the non-existence of self, but that if they stop insight practice then wrong view and skeptical doubt will re-arise and need to be purified again.

Insight Knowledge by Comprehension (of the 3 characteristics)

When knowledge of conditionality peaks, the meditator can clearly see that sensations arise and pass, and so sees the necessary truth of the 3 characteristics of all phenomena - that they are impermanent, that they are unable to satisfy, and that they are not subject to the control of a self. When this insight knowledge matures, by repeatedly seeing this truth moment-to-moment, the meditator infers that the same is true of phenomena in the past, and will be true in the future, and gains knowledge by comprehension of phenomena in past, present and future.

Mahasi warns that meditators prone to contemplation may get stuck in this stage, endlessly thinking about the nature of phenomena and reality, instead of directly observing it.

Mahasi notes that the Buddha described this insight knowledge in great details in the Patisambhidamagga, explaining how it can be observed in each moment of many different kinds of phenomena. Mahasi confines himself to giving examples from physical phenomena, and how each of the 3 characteristics may be observed:

Impermanence - observing the rising and falling of the chest when breathing, the meditator observes it is composed of infinitesimal micro-movements, each of which is impermanent, immediately giving way to another moment of sensation. He goes on to say the same may be observed in seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, defecating, being ill, being healthy, bending, stretching, and all physical phenomena.

Suffering - until the meditator observes sensations “incessantly arise and pass”, it is difficult to recognize that they are “oppressive”. By observing that the incessant arising and disappearing, the meditator sees that sensations are dreadful, frightening, painful, unpleasant and unsatisfying.

Not-self - Mahasi refutes popular justifications for a self (that there must be a do-er to do, and a feel-er to feel) by saying that there need only be causality, that the doing does itself and the feeling feels itself. By observing that one cannot control sensations or prevent their arising and passing, the meditator learns that phenomena happen on their own accord due only to causes.

Mahasi notes that the above observations may also be similarly made of mental phenomena such as how the mind orients toward internal and external objects, near and far objects, how the mind has states which are subtle and course, or wholesome and unwholesome - and how all of these are all just more sensations which are subject to arising and passing.

This chapter continues on at length examining ways the meditator may observe the 3 characteristics in all phenomena, such as aging, in the arising and fulfilling of hunger, in happiness, sadness, neutral feelings, intentions, and so on - that all of these things when examined closely can be observed to consist of a series of discrete moments which arise and pass instantly and so share the 3 universal characteristics. Mahasi cautions that these various insights are just descriptions of how the meditator gains insight knowledge by good practice in this stage, and are not be used as instructions for practice.

I particularly enjoyed the description of the ways the mind may contemplate itself during meditation at this stage: by seeing itself as a whole, by observing an object and then the observing the observation itself, by observing a physical phenomena and it’s corresponding mental constituents (e.g. feeling, insight, mindfulness), by observing the mind noting that it is noting (sometimes with numerous iterations), by observing the object and subject of meditation as simultaneously devoid of a self thus removing wrong view (when you practice without the thought “I am practicing”), by observing the object and subject of meditation as simultaneously impermanent thus removing conceit (when you practice without the thought “I have learned to practice well”), and by observing the object and subject of meditation as subject to arising and passing thus removing attachment (when you practice without the thought “I am practicing well”).

Insight Knowledge of Arising and Passing Away

Having developed clear comprehension of the 3 characteristics, the meditator eliminates attachment. This allows the meditator to observe phenomena pass through the 3 stages of all momentary phenomena - arising, presence and passing.

The immature part of this stage is seeing phenomena as continuous (e.g. rising and falling of breath), as this insight matures, the meditator distinguishes further to see various continually changing phenomena as consisting of discrete, individual moments. The meditator is increasingly able to observe this in all phenomena not just physical but also mental formations (e.g. in volition, aversion, attachment, faith, tranquility, greed, and so on). Indeed, the meditator learns to observe all processes as arising and passing, first as continuous process, then later momentarily. Eventually the meditator comprehends that sensations come from nowhere and disappear nowhere - that they arise entirely based by conditions and vanish leaving no trace to be found. Someone with this level of insight can be considered “an insight beginner”.

Mahasi goes on to explain the 10 corruptions of insight - so called because they are frequently mistaken for signs one has attained path, and because they easily arouse delight and pride, which give rise to wrong view - so are considered obstacles to insight. The stage of knowledge of arising and passing away is understood as two stages - when the meditator is subject to defilement from the corruptions of insight, and once the meditator has progressed beyond that.

Briefly, they are: seeing light, being seduced by the use of knowledge of the 3 characteristics to contemplate reality, rapture (Mahasi warns you may inadvertently start flying or hovering off the ground if you get carried away with this), tranquility (feelings of lightness, ease, indefatigably), happiness (“thoughts lead to such happiness one can barely keep from sharing them”), faith (leading to veneration of teachers and desire to see oneself as a good practitioner), balanced energy, effortless mindfulness (may lead to vivid memories, which should be ignored) and equanimity (when the mind easily adverts to objects). The 10th corruption is delight, the taking of pleasure in any of the preceding 9. The first 9 may all happen simultaneously!

Delight causes conceit - the feeling that because I experience these things “I must be superior to others”, and is considered a defilement. He warns that feeling like one is generating or radiating light is wrong view. Each of the 10 corruptions can cause 3 obsessions - if delighted in the corruption one is obsessed by craving, if prideful in the corruption one is obsessed by conceit, if regarding the corruption as part of the self one is obsessed with wrong view. However, if the corruption does not lead to obsessive action, it is not considered a defilement (although delight is always a defilement). The way to become free of the corruptions is to understand that they are expected, predictable, and to resolve not to dwell on them when they arise, and to treat them as meditation objects like any other.

Eventually, the meditator’s mind gains full comprehension of knowledge of arising and passing away of sensations, having observed repeatedly in all facets of life that sensations are impermanent, and so cannot satisfy, and that because they cannot be controlled are lacking in a self. This leads to the next stage.

Insight Knowledge of Dissolution

Now the meditator sees only the passing away phase of sensations. In the A&P, the meditator’s mind saw continual streams of arising and passing, resulting in strong mental images of reality as composed of solid forms existing in time. Now the meditator’s mind has gone beyond that mistaken view, and learns to see through the illusion of solid form by attuning to just the passing away of sensations - not just in ordinary phenomena, but also in the observation of insight itself! This second knowledge is known as “counter-insight” - the meditator’s mind now has lost interest in arising and instead attunes to observing the ends of observations themselves. Mahasi is clear that this is an upgrade of the meditators power of insight, although notes that it often doesn’t feel like it.

Insight Knowledge of Disillusionment

Mahasi bundles together the stages of Fear, Danger and Disenchantment (aka Fear, Misery and Disgust in MCTB parlance), describing them as different levels of insight maturity of one stage, noting that they may pass all at once very quickly.

As the mind sees phenomena and observation itself constantly ending in the stage of Dissolution, this naturally produces a response of Fear. As Fear matures, in seeing acutely that phenomena are always ending and are all conditioned, worldly and incapable of satisfying, the meditator feels a strong sense of existential Danger (Misery). As this knowledge of Danger/Misery matures, it turns into Disenchantment/Disgust as the mind naturally becomes weary of all phenomena, seeing that they are all composed of suffering.

Insight Knowledge that Desires Deliverance

Seeing phenomena as conditioned and suffering, including the observing mind itself, the meditator dearly wishes to escape. Mahasi warns this may even cause the meditator to stop noting, hoping that will allow them to escape!

Insight Knowledge of Reobservation

At this stage the meditator observes again the 3 characteristics in conditioned phenomena, but in very great and acute detail from many different aspects. Mahasi lists a long series of ways the meditator may experience conditioned phenomena as impermanent (deteriorating, unstable, frail, lacking solidity, etc.), as unsatisfactory (as suffering, as disease, as abscesses, as oozing defilements, as thorns stuck in the flesh, as intoxicating, as unsuitable for shelter or refuge, as constant torment etc. etc. etc.), and as not-self (as devoid of self, as strangers, as devoid of enduring identity, as insubstantial and useless, as empty, as owner-less etc). It only takes one moment of piercing insight into a single one of these experiences to attain path.

This stage has two parts, the immature phase and the mature phase. At first, the meditator is only aware generally of the 3 characteristics, but later keenly observes them moment-to-moment in phenomena.

For some mediators it will take only a few moments for insight knowledge of re-observation to mature, for others it may take days. Mahasi warns that, “before maturity, the meditator will be dissatisfied, thinking their mediation is not going well, even though it is”. Eventually this stage matures as the meditator becomes equanimous toward these experiences of 3 characteristics, moment to moment, and the stage matures into the next stage, where the meditator begins to feel meditation is going very well.

Insight Knowledge of Equanimity Toward Phenomena

Now the meditator is able to see the 3 characteristics without much effort, as if phenomena are observing themselves. No more suffering or dissatisfaction with practice, lacking the delight of A&P, just smooth and steady practice. Observation becomes a natural, spontaneous process, as the meditator has dropped identifying “I” or “mine” from sensation.

In this stage the meditator again observes the 3 characteristics, gaining the same insights, only now without the delight and pride of A&P, and without the suffering of the middle stages. Mahasi actually describes Equanimity as the mature part of the three previous stages, and describes Reobservation as “the mind re-observing phenomena with the purpose of getting free from them” [I found this a very useful idea, that subconsciously the mind is deeply exploring suffering in order to be free of it]. Mahasi notes that the “insights are… different in expression only” compared to the preceding stages, i.e. that the mind is observing the same kinds of things, but has learned to respond differently.

A&P may lead quickly to Equanimity, and Equanimity may lead quickly to Path - or there “may be fluctuations” as the meditator moves between sharp and moderate understanding of Equanimity. In this stage the mind is like a bird on a ship used to find land (i.e. Nibbana), constantly searching, waiting to rush toward it as soon as it is close enough. It is also like a person refining rice, repeatedly sifting through until it is sufficiently refined. When EQ is sufficiently mature, the mind will have become extremely steady, sharp, clear, swift and powerful. As EQ “reaches its peak”, it “leads to emergence” as path knowledge emerges from profound insight into one of the 3 characteristics (as observed acutely in Knowledge of Reobservation).

The mind is now ready to produce Adaptation, which is immediately followed by Knowledge of Change of Lineage, which allows the mind to see Nibbana as it takes Nibbana as an object and rushes toward it.

Knowledge of that leads to Emergence

Mahasi now breaks down the minute process of moving from peak/emergence consciousness to path consciousness in a series of “mind moments”, involving the mysterious “life-continuum”, first with Adaptation, then Knowledge of Change of Lineage, “this mind-moment abandons conditioned objects and takes Nibbana as object”, then, “rushes into the unconditioned, non-arising, the cessation of conditioned phenomena”. There follows Path knowledge and Fruition knowledge, separated by a few “mind-moments”. Fruition may last for many mind moments, and is followed by a few mind-moments of “the life continuum”, then finally the mind proceeds to Reviewing Knowledge. Mahasi describes an analogy for this whole process as like someone jumping across a canal by hanging on to an overhanging branch to get to the other side, then letting go, landing, and regaining their balance on the other side - and insists that this analogy is very consistent with the real experience if you can observe it accurately enough.

As a side-note, Mahasi mentions that after Review Knowledge the Progress of Insight resumes at Arising and Passing stage, since “one is able to understand that any phenomena that come into existence are bound to vanish”.

Abandonment of Defilements

Here Mahasi gives a lengthy summary of the changes caused by the different path knowledges, going beyond the 10 Fetters to also describe defilements, wrongs, vicissitudes, stinginess, perversion, ways of behaving, taints, hindrances, clinging, latent defilements, unwholesome actions and mind states, and notes that there are many more changes.

Most interestingly to me, he describes many of the effects of 1st path as removing fetters/defilements to the degree that they cause rebirth in lower realms, then 2nd path removes the gross aspects of those fetters/defilements, then 3rd path finally removes the subtle aspect of those fetters/defilements. There are also another set of fetters/defilements which are untouched until they are removed at 4th path. It seems to me from Mahasi’s descriptions that each successive path is a massive exponential leap forward from the previous one, with the closest gap being between 1st and 2nd, and that perhaps the largest gap is between 2nd and 3rd.

Confirming Stream Entry - Mahasi says only the individual and the Buddha can tell, but that individuals are likely to be confused as to whether they are a Stream Enterer and exactly how it has changed them, unless they have a knowledgeable teacher to give them the necessary information.

Mahasi specifically notes that a Stream Enterer will have unshakable faith in the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, and that they will be incapable of stealing, sexual misconduct, telling lies that affect others’ welfare and abusing intoxicants.

Fruition

A practitioner can re-enter fruition of the most recent path attainment, unless they have weak concentration or other weak mental faculties. Mahasi exhorts the practitioner to learn to re-enter fruition, and notes that once one is sufficiently practiced they can re-attaining fruition for even weak Equanimity. The benefit of re-attaining Fruition is enjoying the peace of the cessation of conditioned phenomena, and assuring one’s fellows and teacher of their path realization.

To re-enter fruition, resolve to get fruition for a certain duration, then begin meditation at A&P, quickly rise through the knowledges to EQ, then get fruition. The length the fruition endures is dependent on how strong and penetrating the practitioner’s mind is. The procedure is the same to get the next path, except the meditator must resolve not to get fruition, and will not advance beyond Equanimity if the Equanimity is not sufficiently mature.

Nibbana

Nibbana is beyond description and comprehension, other than to say it is respite from suffering, from the arising of conditioned phenomena, and from entanglement. It is not non-existence. It exists as an element outside of time. Nibbana is “luminous”, not in the sense of brightness, but in the sense of being totally free of defilement.

Conclusion

Another great chapter, and I am again blown away by how closely Mahasi’s descriptions mirror my experience (and that of various people’s account online), and I also continue to be surprised how closely MCTB reflects Mahasi’s teaching, since a lot people claim Ingram has perverted Mahasi’s explanation of the Progress of Insight. After reading this chapter I still fail to see any evidence of this.

I feel that my understanding of the cycles of the progression of insight has deepened immensely, and I would strongly recommend this chapter to all experienced meditators (especially those who have attained SE) to gain a thorough understanding of what is actually going on as one progresses in insight - how and why it works the way it does.

Summary by u/TetrisMcKenna

The Stages of Insight Knowledge

So, here it is, the map of insight training that many in the pragmatic dharma community know and love, obsess over, analyse and get anxious about. I’m interested to see exactly what Mahasi Sayadaw says here and how it differs from the pragmatic interpretations. Personally, though I recognise the stages in my practice, I don’t really keep track of them very precisely, and the linearity of them doesn’t really match up to my experience. So let’s see what Mahasi Sayadaw teaches about this controversial map of insight knowledges.

Knowledge of mental and physical phenomena (view)

Here, we are purifying our view of mental and physical phenomena, to see them as they really are. Up front, we’re told that concentration should be strong enough, that wandering thoughts are rare, and the noting mind will flow continuously. Thoughts that do arise will be able to note them immediately. With this level of concentration and noting, the meditator realises that all the bodily elements, external forms, sounds, sensitivities, etc. are changing. They will also notice that physical phenomena aren’t able to know, they lack consciousness. In the noting practice, it will seem that the mind and senses are ‘running to and sticking with’ the objects that they sense and note.

The meditator in this stage notices that mental and physical phenomena are different. They can clearly discern what is mental and what is physical, seeing the difference, for example, between the moving of the abdomen and the mind that notes it in real time. In my own experience, a good sign of this is when emotional sensations appear primarily to be moving bodily sensations rather than mental ones.

Seeing phenomena like this gives one the understanding that the mind and body together must work to perform actions, and this is why they are mistaken for “I”. The mind intends, and the body moves, but to congeal these things into an “I” is a misconception. Viewing the phenomena of the five aggregates separately, the conceit “I am a person” goes away. There is no being, self or soul aside from the mind and body, and those are made up of many “not I” parts that we can clearly discern through insight practice.

Conditionality (doubt)

By seeing mind and matter as they really are, the meditator can begin to see the causes of past, present and future arising phenomena. Mahasi notes that this insight can take various forms depending on the person. Those that have understood that there is no “I” existing apart from mind and matter can no longer accept that things happen without causes, and also cannot accept that God created everything, since they too are constituted of mind and matter. In the same way a meditator’s mind can’t create other creatures, neither can God. They see that a creator would also have to be caused by another creator, and that one caused by another, and so on.

This knowledge ties closely in with seeing that wholesome actions lead to a good life, and unwholesome ones to a bad life, by inferring their insight into the past. They also see how sense pleasures are fleeting and unsatisfying as they begin to discern the cause of suffering. The meditator discerns that when noting “seeing”, there is an eye and visible form, and when the eye, form and seeing meet, there is contact between the object and the mind. Likewise with the other senses and the mental faculty (heart base, mental object, and knowing meet). The meditator sees the causes of the mind, and discerning whether these contacts with objects create pleasure or displeasure, sees that clinging to pleasure just produces desire for more pleasure.

While seeing the mind clearly in this way, one overcomes many kinds of skeptical doubt about the teachings, since they are now seeing clearly the mental process ticking along, just as it always did, and will continue to do.

I like this verse from the Vism:

Result proceeds from volitional action,
Result has volitional action for its source,
Future becoming springs from volitional action,
And this is how the world goes round.
There is no doer of a deed,
Or one who reaps the deed’s result;
Phenomena alone flow on-
No other view that this is right.
And so, while kamma and result
Thus causally maintain their round,
As seed and tree succeed in turn,
No first beginning can be shown.

By seeing this flow of mind and phenomena, the meditator may understand that death is just another one of these mind arisings ticking past, relinking another, and birth another. One who has attained this insight is considered a “lesser stream enterer”, and is guaranteed a rebirth somewhere they can receive a Buddha’s teaching - so long as they keep up their morality and practice.

Comprehension

By seeing this process of phenomena and mind constantly flowing past, one inferentially understands that all phenomena are impermanent, unsatisfactory as a result, and not self since no phenomena seems to have complete control over another. Mahasi notes that this stage arises by itself by inferring from one complete noting of the 3C’s, and contemplation and reflection impede progress at this stage.

By seeing clearly the impermanence of mind and phenomena, truly penetrating deeply, one infers and none of these arisings are truly in control of any other, and don’t last from one moment to the next, so any belief that there is a self in the body who walks, stands, sits, etc, is a misunderstanding, a convenient lie. At the moment of noting, one sees the mind and phenomena as separate and so see that they lack anything that could be called their owner, agent, feeler, and anything that could be perceived as that passes away the next moment.

There are nine factors of strengthening the mental faculties that help to comprehend this:

  1. Observing just the passing of each phenomena (interestingly Shinzen often teaches this as the quickest way to stream entry)

  2. Observing respectfully

  3. Make constant effort

  4. Make suitable living conditions and friendships

  5. Remember the conditions that led to strong concentration in the past

  6. Cultivate the factors of enlightenment

  7. Have no regard for life and limb; make courageous effort

  8. Overcome pain and distress (by noting it)

  9. Don’t get lazy until attaining path and fruition

Mahasi makes an important point here which should have been made at the start in my opinion; few of the ideas in this chapter are meant to be instructional and are instead used by teachers to evaluate insights. The meditator should not be striving to see the mind in a particular way to achieve a particular insight knowledge; they should be noting arising and passing and the process does itself. Getting too caught up on identifying these stages and inclining the mind towards a particular perception dulls mindfulness and defeats the point of the practice.

Arising and passing away

By seeing the beginning and end of all mental and physical phenomena as they occur, one develops an equanimity associated with this insight knowledge that clearly understands arising and passing away. Mahasi describes how this happens as if the beginning of each phenomena emerges by sticking its head in somewhere, and ends by disappearing like the flame of a candle when blown out. So this kind of perceiving should be very ‘physical’ in a sense, very clear and precise. They see change as a constant process, and so gain confidence in the 3C’s.

With this knowledge, one sees bodily activities as separate at their starts and ends; they see the rising of the abdomen as consisting of many discreet movements without blending into the next moment, “like the continuous disappearance of individual bubbles on the surface of a pond when it rains”. Likewise with the other sense faculties.

At the mature stage of this insight, one also sees impermanence in more subtle, momentary phenomena such as the background tension from one moment to the next. Seeing mental phenomena in this sharp manner, one may be unable to label each separate mental arising, and so should just be mindful of them as they are arising and disappearing “like a smoothly running machine”.

Meditators who have not accomplished path and fruition, who are practicing correctly and continuously, who begin this stage, may encounter the ‘ten corruptions of insight’. These take the form of:

  1. Light (similar to that which arises during samatha)

  2. Knowledge (that isn’t knowledge of path and fruition - this is the kind of thing that makes A&P meditators believe they are enlightened)

  3. Rapture (piti)

  4. Tranquility (the lack of worry gives the meditator much energy and lightness, fast thinking and physical pliancy)

  5. Happiness and comfort

  6. Faith and confidence (in the teachings)

  7. Balanced energy (neither too much or too little exertion)

  8. Effortless mindfulness

  9. Equanimity

  10. Delight (from enjoyment of the above - a form of craving)

These corruptions sound very pleasant, in fact to some they may even sound like the goal they were seeking with meditation - but they are all potent ways for the mind to create craving. They may arise in combination with each other to create the many-fold unusual mystical experiences commonly reported, and commonly advised not to be grasped after. However they can be so seductive that the meditator may get stuck for a long time in them. It’s important to note that these things are not corruptions in and of themselves, only when they become the objects of craving, conceit and wrong view. If the meditator can experience them without defilements, they are simply passing phenomena and one will continue on with insight knowledge. With insight sharp, and strong discernment of the 3Cs, the arisings of phenomena become increasingly swift until the meditator starts only the passing of phenomena, and begins the insight knowledge of dissolution.

Dissolution

In this stage, the ‘flowing’ quality of phenomena seems to break down, and one no longer observes the arisings or middle parts of phenomena. The coherency and constancy of phenomena is removed, and mental images of solid forms and shapes no longer arise. If one bends or stretches the limbs with closed eyes, for example, one no longer has mental images of the limb moving and only observes the felt sense of disappearance. One begins to observe that the moment a phenomena disappears, the mind that observes it also disappears.

At the mature level, one sees objects and mind continuously disappearing “like the continuous popping of sesame seeds in a skillet”. By inferring these constant disappearances into the past and future, conditioned phenomena begin to appear fearful.

Fear

The mind now becomes not as willing, joyful, and enthusiastic as in the previous stages. One may feel unhappy or dismayed. The fear that is felt isn’t the same kind of fear as a scary movie or person. It’s more of a general distress at how clearly the mind is seeing things as impermanent. Nonetheless, the meditator must continue on.

Danger

The meditator will no longer see any phenomena that one observes as pleasant, good, or substantial. The fearful aspect of arising phenomena in the previous stage is seen to be dangerous as they are unsatisfying, wordly, and conditioned, and thus drive one away from insight, happiness and peace. With this knowledge, one understands that non-arising is peaceful, pleasant, free from desire, nibbana.

Disenchantment

One begins to feel weary and fed up with and sees the flaws in phenomena. The meditator is unsatisfied with all conditioned phenomena, their impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and not-self qualities. Fear, danger and disenchantment are really the same understanding of the imperfection of conditioned phenomena to different degrees, and so with diligent mindfulness, these knowledges can pass very quickly according to Mahasi (in contrast to the long, drawn out ‘dark nights’ and many pragmatic practitioners describe.)

Desire for deliverance

The weariness, tiredness and fed-up-ness drives the meditator not to attach, stick or fasten his mind to any possible phenomena in any realm and wishes to escape from them all. Seeing clearly that enjoyment cannot be found in these things, in this place, one wants to leave altogether. Even the act of noting and observing may seem to be too much. However, noting must continue.

Reobservation

In a seemingly cruel (but effective in maturing insight) turnaround, this very wish to escape stirs something up in the mind and the meditator experiences the arising and passing away and onwards once again. With mature insight into the prior knowledges, the meditator can much more clearly discern the 3C’s in many aspects. For some, it may only take a few moments, and for others it may take “up to three days”. One may feel dissatisfied, thinking meditation isn’t going well, because they are experiencing the unpleasant aspects again but are not able to do so with equanimity.

Equanimity

When reobservation has matured, the mind sees the 3C’s of arising and passing without much effort at all. The practice seems to gain momentum and it may seem as though things are working by themselves, and phenomena are observing themselves. They will no longer feel weary or fearful, or preoccupied with wanting to escape. Practice will clearly be going well and won’t seem dissatisfying. The mind will be clear and peaceful beyond anything experienced so far, while also not getting overly delighted and manic as in A&P. With mature insight, one observes phenomena without taking them to be “I” or “mine” and so abandons fear and delight. The mind retreats and can no longer be directed but simply becomes spontaneously aware of objects, mindful of its own accord, and does so for long periods.

Desire for deliverance, reobservation and equanimity are seen to be expressions of the same insight knowledge - strategies the mind is trying to be free. One may find that these 3 stages succeed rapidly with diligent practice. Some may find that equanimity knowledge fluctuates over a long period, moving between a strong and moderate quality. Once the insight matures, the way to nibbana is clearly seen, and leads to emergence.

Emergence

With a clear, steady and confident mind, neither too strong or too weak, two or three mental process of insight occur that see conditioned phenomena in one of their three aspects (either impermanent, unsatisfactory, or not-self), in its individual aspects. This ‘peak-reaching equanimity’ and adaptation gives insight that leads to emergence. After several mind-moments of preparation, one begins to take the path.

Change of lineage

Immediately after the several mind-moments before, the mind abandons conditioned objects and takes nibbana, the unconditioned, as its object. One experiences this as ‘rushing into’ the unconditioned state, the opposite of how the mind ‘rushes out’ to meet objects previously.

Path knowledge and fruition knowledge

Immediately following, path knowledge, or “purification by knowledge and vision occurs”. Immediately after that, fruition consciousness occurs for 2 or 3 mind-moments. Later on, one may become absorbed in this fruition for countless mind-moments. in either case, this is “fruition knowledge”. Clearly seeing how the mind entered and exited the unconditioned, where nothing arises or ceases, the meditator feels as though they have woken from a deep sleep, or emerged from water. With practice, one can deepen this knowledge and experience and really achieve freedom, and they know this now.

Review

Knowing this, the meditator reviews what has been attained, and may further review which defilements have yet to be abandoned. Interestingly, Mahasi explicitly states that after repeatedly reflecting, a layperson may decide that stream entry has been accomplished, and mention this to another person of the same level, if necessary. There is no need for anyone else to confirm this, as only the Buddha could do that - nonetheless an experienced, qualified meditation teacher has a responsibility to guide people in this way and will be able to do so with greater skill than oneself.

Summary by u/xugan97

Progress of Insight

(editor’s note: the following blocks are a matrix replacement)

  • Visuddhi: sila visuddhi
    Stages of Purification: 1. Purification of Conduct
    Stages of Insight:
    Explanation: fivefold restraint etc.
    Practical observation:

  • Visuddhi: citta visuddhi
    Stages of Purification: 2. Purification of Mind
    Stages of Insight:
    Explanation: establishment of stability and penetration of attention via khanika/upacā/appanā samādhi
    Practical observation:

  • Visuddhi: paññā visuddhi
    Stages of Purification: 3. Purification of View
    Stages of Insight: 1. Mind and Body
    Explanation: The knowledge of the characteristics of phenomena constitutes purification of the wrong view of a self
    Practical observation: The observed object and the noting mind are to be understood as rupa and nama respectively

  • Visuddhi: 4. Purification by Overcoming Doubt
    Stages of Purification: 2. Cause and Effect
    Stages of Insight: The knowledge of conditions removes doubts about the arising of the self and phenomena
    Explanation: The three present causes of matter are to be noted via the pairs - intention-movement, hot/cold-sensation, food-body. The moment-to-moment cause of the mind - a physical object or a thought - are to be noted.
    Practical observation:

  • Visuddhi: Stages of Purification: 3. Three Characteristics
    Stages of Insight: One comprehends the three characteristics of phenomena by way of duration, continuity and moment
    Explanation: Noting the beginning, middle and end of each object results in the general understanding of impermanence, suffering and non-self
    Practical observation:

  • Visuddhi: 5. Purification by Knowledge and Vision of What Is Path and Not Path
    Stages of Purification: Arising and Passing Away - Tender phase accompanied by upakilesa
    Stages of Insight: Dispersing of the vipassana upakilesa such as bright light leads to the mature phase of the insight knowledge of arising and passing away, and to the understanding of what is the correct path in practice
    Explanation:
    Practical observation:

  • Visuddhi: 6. Purification by Knowledge and Vision of the Way
    Stages of Purification: The following nine maha-vipassana knowledges
    Stages of Insight:
    Explanation:
    Practical observation:

  • Visuddhi:
    Stages of Purification: 4. Arising and Passing Away
    Stages of Insight: Seeing how present phenomena change is knowledge of arising and passing away.
    Explanation: Noting the continuous arising and passing away of phenomena leads to a firm understanding of impermanence and consequently of the three characteristics.
    Practical observation:

  • Visuddhi:
    Stages of Purification: 5. Dissolution
    Stages of Insight: When insight knowledge progresses to the next stage, both sense objects and the noting mind no longer arise, but only pass away.
    Explanation:
    Practical observation:

  • Visuddhi:
    Stages of Purification: 6. Fear
    Stages of Insight: Reflection on the impermanence and instability of all past, present and future phenomena leads to the three characteristics of disillusionment - fear, misery and disgust
    Explanation:
    Practical observation:

  • Visuddhi:
    Stages of Purification: 7. Misery
    Stages of Insight:
    Explanation:
    Practical observation:

  • Visuddhi:
    Stages of Purification: 8. Disgust
    Stages of Insight:
    Explanation:
    Practical observation:

  • Visuddhi:
    Stages of Purification: 9. Desire for deliverance
    Stages of Insight: The desire to be delivered from the whole field of formations
    Explanation:
    Practical observation:

  • Visuddhi:
    Stages of Purification: 10. Re-observation
    Stages of Insight: Re-examining the three characteristics of phenomena
    Explanation:
    Practical observation:

  • Visuddhi:
    Stages of Purification: 11. Equanimity and Conformity
    Stages of Insight: Abandons both terror and delight - conformity knowledge is a transitional stage right before the arising of the change-of-lineage citta.
    Explanation:
    Practical observation:

  • Visuddhi:
    Stages of Purification: 12. Path knowledge
    Stages of Insight: Path knowledge of the four supramundane paths is produced
    Explanation:
    Practical observation:

References

  • The Abhidhammattha Sangaha [18]counts 10 insight knowledges, which, along with 2 preliminary knowledges and final 4 path knowledges make up the classical 16 insight knowledges

  • The numbering here is what Daniel Ingram uses.

  • The classical reference is Visuddhimagga chapter 18[19] to chapter 22.

  • These insight knowledges are the first set in the list of seventy-three insight knowledges[20] described in the Khuddaka Nikaya text Patisambhidhamagga[21]. The Manual of Insight is based on both the Visuddhimagga and the Patisambhidamagga.

Practical considerations

Mahasi Sayadaw suggests that one should use the practical method of chapter 5, and this chapter is only for correlating what is already understood through practice. Others have warned against studying the progressive stages of insight excessively, and say that establishment of satipatthana is the whole of the practice. There are also those who insist on careful study (of e.g. dependent origination) as a necessary preliminary to practice.

This chapter is based more directly on the Visuddhimagga and Patisambhidamagga, and therefore technically dense. The earlier insight knowledges also seem more technically complex than later ones.

Daniel Ingram has 11 graphs on these knowledges describing the pleasure, energy, clarity etc. -

Insight knowledge of phenomena

Visuddhi - Purification of view (diṭṭhivisuddhi) means to see mental and physical phenomena as they really are.

“Seeing mental phenomena as they really are” (nāmayāthāvadassana) means: to see their characteristic of inclining or being drawn toward sense objects. “Seeing physical phenomena as they really are” (rūpayāthāvadassana) means: to see their characteristic of being subject to alteration and their manifestation of being insensate (abyākata-paccupaṭṭhānā).

One understands that there is no “I” or being but only mental and physical phenomena. This understanding is called “purification of view.”

Mentality:

  • the six consciousness (See chapter 4 for the characteristics)

Materiality:

  • air element - movement
  • earth element - hardness, softness
  • fire element - heat, coldness
  • water element - tightness, looseness
  • derived materiality - forms and eye-sensitivity etc.

The Visuddhimagga gives 5 different ways of doing this - by way of four elements in brief/detail, by way of twelve/eighteen elements and five aggregates.

Praxis - The observed object and the noting mind are to be understood as rupa and nama respectively.

Insight knowledge of conditions (paccaya-pariggaha-ñāṇa)

Visuddhi - The insight that overcomes skeptical doubt about past, future, and present phenomena by realizing their causes is called purification by overcoming doubt (kaṅkhāvitaraṇavisuddhi).

Insight knowledge - This is insight knowledge that discerns conditionality ( paccayapariggahañāṇa) of dependently originated phenomena.

An insight meditator who has attained this insight is considered a lesser stream enterer (cūlasotāpanna).

The Visuddhimagga says that dependent origination in any one form needs to be understood for this knowledge to arise.

  1. Neither created by a creator nor causeless / Its occurrence is always due to conditions - The past causes of the material body: ignorance, craving, clinging are the pre-conditions, past kamma is the cause of birth, food is the sustaining cause. These are to be understood inferentially by comparison with present observation.

The present causes of the material body (of the effects such as sensation and disposition) are the four causes of matter (kamma, citta, utu, ahara).

The mental body arises moment-to-moment because of contact (between eye and form, mind and thought, etc.)

(Rupa (material phenomena is generated in four ways - kamma, citta, utu, ahara (volition, consciousness, weather/nature, and nutrition). In dependent origination, we are specifically interested in the generation of the body. Kamma is a past cause of the body and the other three are present continuing causes of the body. See e.g. A survey of paramattha dhamma[22] or “Seven ways to contemplate physical phenomena” in the next section.)

  1. General and particular conditions - kamma, citta, utu, ahara are the general causes of material phenomena and sense-contact is the general cause of mental phenomena. Further, paramis and wise attention are the cause of wholesome mental phenomena, (and conversely lack of them is the cause of unwholesome phenomena,) which in turn leads to a corresponding type of rebirth.

  2. Dependent origination in direct order

  3. Dependent origination in reverse order

  4. Kamma and kamma result - Past-life kamma-cycle (ignorance, kamma, craving, clinging, and becoming) leads to rebirth or present-life vipāka-cycle (consciousness, mentality-materiality, six sense-bases, contact, feeling). Present-life kamma-cycle leads to future-life vipāka-cycle, and so on ad infinitum.

(All kamma is not connected to rebirth - kamma can be experienced here and now, on rebirth, in future lives, or lapse without effect.

See diagram[23] where the two cycles are called kamma-bhava and upapatti-bhava.

The kamma-cycle can also be split into kilesa-cycle (ignorance, craving, clinging) which leads to the kamma-cycle (kamma, becoming), which leads to the vipaka-cycle and back to the kamma-cycle. Reference - Mahasi Sayadaw - dependent origination[24]

For a diagram combining both systems, see Mogok Sayadaw’s famous diagram[25].)

Pa Auk Sayadaw recommends the fifth method[26] in practice.

It is to be understood inferentially that there is no doer or enjoyer - phenomena alone flow on - and that this was so in the past and future.

Praxis - The three present causes of matter - citta, utu, ahara - are to be noted via the pairs - intention-movement, hot/cold-sensation, food-body. The moment-to-moment cause of the mind - a physical object or a thought - are to be noted. This corresponds to the first of the five methods here.

Insight knowledge of comprehension (sammasanañāṇa)

Insight - The understanding that comes from contemplating past, future, and present phenomena, as a whole, is called knowledge by comprehension.

When the insight knowledge that discerns conditionality reaches its peak, one clearly sees mental and physical phenomena arising and passing away.

This is insight that contemplates all past, future, and present phenomena as a whole, rather than perceiving the individual details and specific characteristics of each phenomenon in the present moment. That is why this insight knowledge is also called “knowledge that comprehends all phenomena as a whole” (kalāpasammasanañāṇa).

One contemplates the three characteristics of impermanence, suffering and non-self in physical and mental phenomena separately.

The Visuddhimagga and Patisambhidamagga give 40 ways of contemplating the three characteristics.

Seven ways to contemplate physical phenomena

  • Taking up and putting down (ādāna-nikkhepana)

  • The three universal characteristics

  • aging and decay in stages (vayo-vuḍḍha-atthaṅgama)

  • Materiality arising from temperature/kamma/consciousness (utumaya/kammaja/cittasamuṭṭhāna rūpa) *inanimate objects (dhammata-rūpa)

Seven ways to contemplate mind:

  • the mind as a whole (kalāpa)

  • contemplation of pairs of phenomena ( yamakasammasana)

  • contemplation of momentary nature (khaṇikasammasana)

  • successive noting ( paṭipāṭi).

  • removing wrong view (diṭṭhi-ugghāṭana)

  • removing conceit (māna-samugghātana)

  • removing attachment (nikantipariyādāna)

Praxis - At this level, one is be able to see one object disappear before noting a new one, and thus clearly see the beginning, middle, and end of an object. This leads to the comprehension of impermanence, and consequently of suffering and non-self.

Insight Knowledge of rise and fall (udayabbayañāṇa)

Insight - Seeing how present phenomena change is knowledge of arising and passing away.

Visuddhi - Purification by knowledge and vision of what is path and not path (maggāmaggañāṇadassanavisuddhi) means being able to distinguish between correct and incorrect paths in practice, by not holding on to the vipassana upakilesa.

Visuddhi - Purification by knowledge and vision of the way (mature phase of the knowledge of arising and passing away) - If one realizes arising and passing away, then impermanence is clear to one. Then, one will also realize: “Whatever is impermanent is unsatisfactory; whatever is unsatisfactory is not-self.”

In the immature stages of insight knowledge of arising and passing away,one observes the five aggregates as continuous (santati-paccuppanna-rūpa - continuous physical phenomena etc.) and in the mature stages as momentary (khaṇa-paccuppanna-rūpa etc).

The five characteristics of arising and passing away:

  • the ignorance involved in volitional actions performed in past lives (avijjā)

  • craving (taṇhā)

  • volitional actions that one has performed (kamma)

  • nutrition (āhāra)

  • the arising of present phenomena (nibbatti)

In the above five causes, the nutrition is different in the case of each of the aggregates:

  • physical self - food

  • feeling - contact

  • perception - contact mental formations - contact

  • consciousness -mental and physical phenomena

References:

  • The Pali canon on nutriment[27]

  • Puredhamma blog series on this insight knowledge[28] - as always, dubious but a very profound analysis of the technicalities

Praxis - One clearly sees each object arising and passing away on the spot and that successive occurrences are distinct from one another, break up bit by bit, and cease. This leads to a firm understanding of impermanence and the three characteristics.

Chapter 7

Summary by u/filpt

Despite it’s somewhat innocuous name, this final chapter was as fascinating as any other, as it nicely ties together a number of ideas from the rest of the book to explain how insight is developed, how insight leads to abandonment of defilements, how abandoning defilements results in enlightenment, and how this plays out through the stages of the Progress of Insight.

The key mechanism expounded on is that correct “contemplation” of various insight knowledges prevents incorrect perceptions occurring, and that preventing incorrect perception prevents a variety of defilements from arising, which enables progression in insight and ultimately enlightenment.

Mahasi explains how all objects, both mental and sensory, harbour “latent defilements” - the object’s potential for causing delusion (aversion, desire or ignorance) if the characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and not-self are not observed in the object.

Defilements are described as “latent” because they do not actually exist in objects in the past or future, and do not exist in objects in the present if objects are observed with sufficient insight. Defilements only arise if the conditions are right - i.e. that objects are not observed with sufficient insight. So to “abandon” a “latent defilement” is to develop insight that perceives objects accurately, thus preventing the defilement from being able to arise in the first place.

For example, by fully observing impermanence in phenomena (aka “contemplating” impermanence), the illusionary perception of permanence is abandoned. But if contemplation of insight knowledge of impermanence has not been fully developed, the illusion of permanence cannot be abandoned, and so various perversions of perception can arise, each of which lead to wrong views and perversion of consciousness, which allows defilements to arise, which lead to volitional action and the continued perpetuation of conditioned phenomena.

Contemplating the 3 Universal Characteristics - impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and not-self

Mahasi stresses that these cannot be understood or taught conceptually by anyone but the Buddha. They can only be understood by taking conditioned phenomena as the object of meditation, observing the unique characteristic of the object (e.g. warmth, heaviness), observing the object disappear, and thus observing the 3 universal characteristics in the object. He notes you can only observe one of the 3 universal characteristics at a time - however to observe any one of the three leads to understanding of the other two.

To truly observe impermanence, the meditator must see through the illusion of continuity, to see what appears continuous is actually composed of objects which arise, have presence and immediately pass, going into non-existence. By correctly contemplating impermanence, the false perception of permanence is abandoned.

Unsatisfactoriness is contemplated similarly to impermanence. By observing phenomena constantly passing they are seen as “fearful, dangerous, disenchanting, bad and detestable”, thus the characteristic of unsatisfactoriness is seen - that all phenomena are oppressive. Unsatisfactoriness has 3 aspects: mental & physical pain, impermanence of pleasure, and the condition or arising and passing, the third of which is universal to all objects. By observing these, the false perception of satisfactoriness is abandoned.

The characteristic of not-self is seeing that phenomena are “unamenable to the exercise of control.. that they happen of their own accord”. In order to observe not-self, “the concept of solidity” must be overcome - by developing strong concentration, mindfulness and insight knowledge the meditator can observe each phenomena the moment it occurs, and so see that concepts which appear to be solid can actually be broken down into individual phenomena, all of which lack an “I”. For example, with sufficient insight the act of seeing can be broken down into the intention to see, the mind which notes that intention, the mind which sees and the mind which notes the seeing. Mahasi explains at length that illusionary solidity of all objects, all functions, all perceptions of mass and continuity, can be thus be resolved as individual unique phenomena until they “disintegrate like froth”.

The contemplations of the three characteristics each begins to be developed at the Progress of Insight stage of Knowledge of Contemplation, and matures at Knowledge of Dissolution. It is only at this Dissolution that the contemplation is sufficiently developed to be capable of abandoning a defilement.

The other 4 Main Contemplations

Once the Progress of Insight stage of Knowledge of Dissolution matures, the mind sees only disappearance, and the remaining contemplations become possible. These make up the other 4 of the 7 contemplations - contemplation of disenchantment, dispassion, cessation and relinquishment. These 4 further contemplations arise from contemplating the 3 universal characteristics in subsequent Progress of Insight stages after Dissolution.

In Knowledge of Danger, the mind sees conditioned phenomena to be “fearful and full of flaws”, so “one becomes weary and fed up”, leading to the arising of contemplation of disenchantment. Once this is developed, the mind abandons the defilement of delight and attachment, as the mind is no longer able to delight in or fully attach to conditioned phenomena. Mahasi clarifies that “delight refers to attachment accompanied by joy”.

In the next stages of Knowledge of Disenchantment and Knowledge of Desire for Deliverance, contemplation of dispassion is developed. Complete dispassion is being totally detached and free from conditioned phenomena - i.e. nibbana. In watching objects continually disappear the mind wishes to become free from conditioned phenomena, so contemplation of dispassion and detachment naturally develops as the mind inclines toward nibbana. When Knowledge of Desire for Deliverance reaches it’s full strength it becomes contemplation of cessation as the mind understands that the conditioned phenomena it wants to free itself from are continually originated, and so contemplates cessation - the ceasing of the process of origination. When fully developed, contemplation of cessation abandons origination (although it is not clear what this means, I think it means desire for origination).

This leads to contemplation of relinquishment and the stages of Knowledge of Reobservation and Knowledge of Equanimity, as the mind seeks to abandon attachment to the defilements and incorrect perceptions associated with conditioned phenomena, and inclines toward giving up conditioned phenomena and entering into nibbana. When fully developed, contemplation of relinquishment abandons grasping.

I found it very interesting and useful to think of the nanas after A&P as insight into the 3 characteristics developing progressively into the other 4 contemplations, each of which naturally and automatically builds on top of the previous contemplations.

The other 11 great insight knowledges

Developing these 7 contemplations naturally includes the other 11 of the 18 great insight knowledges, which also occur following Dissolution. Mahasi explains them in detail, but I won’t go into them much here, other than to note that each contemplation (like the previous ones) serves to abandon a corresponding defilement or wrong perception, and naturally occurs as part of the stages after Dissolution.

Almost as a sidenote, Mahasi points out that if during the stage of Reobservation, the meditator, “assuming they will have to continuously face these dreadful states if they continue to note… may stop meditating and no longer think to be mindful. But then the latent defilement of delusion will creep in with regard to unobserved conditioned phenomena… this delusion… is called ‘nonreobservation’”. This seems relevant to the current discussions around the ‘dark night’ phenomena, and may be a useful concept to keep in mind for meditators struggling with dukka nanas.

Mahasi finally explains contemplation of turning away (from conditioned phenomena), the final culmination of the 18 great insight contemplations. Here the meditator no longer has “attachment nor liking” as in the early stages, and “no fear, disenchantment, weariness, or a desire to escape” as in the later stages. The meditator has an extremely clear and purified mind, uninterruptedly aware of but unattached to conditioned phenomena, regardless of if the phenomena is good or distressing. As the contemplation of turning away develops, all fetters are abandoned as the mind loses interest in worldly objects, until finally the mind turns entirely from conditioned phenomena and rushes into nibbana.

Mahasi concludes the chapter, and the book, with the following words,

“As an insight meditator, one should develop and experience these eighteen great insight knowledges. This topic may be difficult to understand. However, in order to increase the knowledge of insight meditators, I have tried to explain these contemplations in such a way that they may be easily understood.”

Conclusion

This chapter was an excellent conclusion to the book, explaining how the process of developing insight works to abandon defilements and thus lead to enlightenment, using the concepts introduced previously.

As a novice at reading Buddhist material, I have thoroughly enjoyed the book and feel like I have got a huge amount of value from it, and even though it was hard work at times my efforts have been rewarded many times over in knowledge. I’m equally sure that I’ve missed, misunderstood or fudged some significant portion of the book, and am resolved to return to it after my foundational knowledge has developed further.

However, I’ve no doubt that this book has immeasurably improved my understanding of dharma, of the changes I’ve gone through on the path, and of my ability to understand what is going on when I practice meditation and why.

I would strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in understanding or teaching insight. However those pre-stream-entry should approach with caution since it is not designed as a “do-it-yourself” book, and has significant potential to be misunderstood or to lead to “scripting”, perhaps best only as an adjunct to a teacher and/or if have already reached Knowledge of Dissolution.

My only dissatisfactions with the book are that it spends few words on higher paths, the details of how fetters are abandoned and what that means, and provides nothing that might settle the debate around if there are different “depths” of the progress of insight.

Mahasi set out to explain what insight is, how to develop insight, and what happens when one develops insight, and has done an outstanding job. The book as a whole is very readable despite the extremely broad, confusing, deep and mysterious ground it covers. Modern teachers could learn a lot from Mahasi’s example of how to write on this subject.

Summary by u/TetrisMcKenna

The Eighteen Great Insight Knowledges

The last chapter of the book - it’s been a great read and one that I would recommend for any meditation geek. Despite the (justified) warnings about reading this sort of material and the problems inherent in self-guiding with it it’s been enormously interesting and useful in gaining some confidence into more nuanced understanding than what’s found in MCTB and the like. In reading and posting these summaries I’ve tried to apply a ‘beginner’s mind’ and not inject too much interpretation and stick to what’s been written. I hope these summaries have been useful to someone, and if you’ve got use out of them I wholeheartedly recommend reading the book, it can be a bit heavy is really quite comfortable to read overall. Thanks to /u/filpt for organising this read-through, and our discussions on the UKPD Discord which have really helped, and /u/xugan97 for their insightful readings and breakdowns of the Pali terminology too. Writing up these posts has definitely aided me in reading more closely than I would have done otherwise. I’d certainly be interested in doing another one of these for another book. It’d be nice to get some others involved too, so if you’re reading along and have any suggestions for stuff you’d like to read please comment!

This chapter kind of surprised me in that I don’t see these ‘18 great insight knowledges’ discussed much elsewhere. I’m not sure from this reading how they fit in with the rest of the model, how they integrate into the cycles, etc. It seems that many of these naturally follow on from the relevant nanas, and each path digs away at them bit by bit. The first 3 seem to be especially important, and seem to be the basis of, eg, MCTB focusing so much on the “3Cs”.

Contemplation of impermanence (Perception of permanence)

Seeing conditioned phenomena (the five aggregates at the six sense doors) arise and pass away while observing their unique characteristics. This is not exclusive to the A&P nana, eg, one such characteristic ‘nonexistence after having arisen’ is more apparent in dissolution nana. Once noting practice is firmly established and one can clearly see the arising and passing of objects, the label “impermanence” can be used when is noted to develop this contemplation. There is emphasis added to note impermanence in a very momentary way; noticing that the ‘arising’, ‘changing’ and ‘passing’ moments all contain within them arising and passing moment(s), and what appears to be a single, solid object should be perceived and constantly appearing as a new object with each noting.

In detail that I won’t go into here, Mahasi Sayadaw talks about how the perception of permanence gives rise to certain defilements that the noting of impermanence allows one to abandon; these may be latent in objects, in the mental continuum, even after paths and knowledges have been completed if they are not yet rightly understood.

It’s mentioned that impermanence reveals unsatisfactoriness and not-self. Impermanence is the keystone of realising these 3 characteristics in this practice. If phenomena are truly understood to be impermanent, the other 2 characteristics naturally follow on, as what self can arise and sustain that can be satisfied by other impermanent things?

The true nature of impermanence on this fine-grained level must be understood rather than the mundane impermanence of, say, a cup breaking or the death of a person. This is because a pot or a cup or a person is a conventional idea that doesn’t really exist ultimately, and impermanence must be recognised at a much more fundamental level than that to be truly liberating and give rise to true understanding of unsatisfactoriness and not-self.

Contemplation of unsatisfactoriness (Perception of satisfaction)

Similarly to the above; the five aggregates at the six sense doors are contemplated via their characteristics of unsatisfactoriness. They should be seen as oppression via arising and passing, change and destruction, or even unbearable torture. By inferentially contemplating this at the sense doors, it can be generalised to all past and future phenomena of the whole world.

Contemplation of not-self (Perception of self)

Phenomena are examined to see that they are not under any control, and that they happen of their own accord, impermanent and unsatisfactory. It’s seen that self or “soul” as a master, eternal resident, doer, feeler, etc. is not to be found in any mental or physical phenomena, but merely is a concept held by people who are not free from wrong view. Seeing the phenomena via precise and powerful mindfulness, concentration and insight, they appear in terms of their momentariness, characteristics, or functions, rather than as a single and solid entity, as separate momentary consciousnesses, not-self.

… disenchantment (… delight)

This follows the nana of danger discussed in the previous chapter. With momentum from this stage, seeing only disappearance, becoming weary and fed up with them, disenchantment arises. Delight no longer arises in regards to conditioned phenomena.

Dispassion (passion)

Similarly, from disenchantment follows dispassion. This is detachment and inclination towards nibbana, cessation. Complete dispassion is being free from all conditioned phenomena, ie nibbana. It’s noted that while noting impermanence it’s suitable to label “impermanence, impermanence”, it’s not similarly suitable to note “disenchantment” or “dispassion”, as these insights follow on from the 3 main characteristics, rather than being objects or characteristics to be noted in themselves.

Cessation (origination)

This follows from the insight knowledge of desire for deliverance, as discussed in the previous chapter. It’s empirical knowledge of cessation, rather than inferred. Cessation is to be experienced.

Relinquishment (grasping)

This follows from insight knowledge of reobservation and equanimity - similar to the Buddha’s teaching that “material form is not yours - abandon it” (give up attachment to it). This is about relinquishing the volitional actions caused by the defilements of the perception of permanence, satisfactoriness, and self, and thus relinquishing the resultant phenomena.

The 3, 7 and 11 contemplations

An important note here, that if one fully masters these first seven contemplations above, the 11 below are included within them. So these seven are often recommended to be practiced, whereas the below are resultant from them. Furthermore, by establishing the first three, the latter four of the seven are included within them. So ultimately, the important step here is to master the insight into impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and not-self, ie the three characteristics, in the five aggregates at the six sense doors as they arise and pass. Thus, less detail is given for the following stages.

Destruction (solidity)

Seeing momentary dissolution of conditioned phenomena. Breaking the concept of things as solid forms and seeing them as merely dissolving processes. Seeing movements in the body, ie when bending the arm, as tiny parts that are immediately dissolving.

Fall (accumulation of kamma)

Inclining towards nibbana, cessation, the mind sees that accumulating kamma for the sake of things that are subject to fall is totally unnecessary.

Change (stability)

Seeing how the aspects of one’s life, over time, have changed and are not the same anymore; whenever one sees phenomena in a different state, the change is seen immediately. One sees this between successive mind-moments. When mental and physical phenomena occur, the middle phase of sustaining/changing is seen to be not the same as the initial arising.

Signless (sign)

In essence the same as contemplation of impermanence.

Desireless (desire)

In essence the same as contemplation of unsatisfactoriness.

Emptiness (adherence)

In essence the same as contemplation of not-self. Abandoning defilements based on adherence to/tendency towards the perception of self.

Higher wisdom phenomena (Grasping after substance)

Insight into emptiness by means of dissolution. There is nothing but the disintegration of conditioned phenomena. Abandoning adherence to grasping at a core. Being just aware of objects at the six sense doors, knowing their disappearance and the disappearance of the noting mind.

Knowledge and vision of things as they really are (Delusion)

Knowledge that there are only mental and physical phenomena related through cause and effect; concluding that the totality of them in this life arose due to ignorance, craving, clinging and kamma, in this life and in past and future lives. Being no longer confused about whether God or a divine being has created living beings.

Danger (Reliance)

Related to the insight knowledge of fear, seeing conditioned phenomena as dangerous, not as reliable; giving up the idea, for example, “if only I were a millionaire, things would be good. If only I were a king, that would be good. If only I were a deva, that would be good.” etc. Knowing there is nothing reliable to be found in conditioned things even in immaterial realm existence.

Reflection (Nonreflection)

Related to the insight knowledge of reobservation and desire for deliverance. Being simply aware of conditioned phenomena, relinquishing any notions related to the above perceptions, fully reflecting and knowing the 3 characteristics.

Turning away (Bondage)

Related to equanimity and adaptation. The mind withdraws from conditioned phenomena and abandons adherence due to bondage. With path and fruition, and the rush into nibbana, one is uninterruptedly aware of objects and their dissolution. This abandons all of the fetters, the mind simply shows no interest.

Summary by u/xugan97

The 18 mahā-vipassanā

There are two ways the term maha-vipassana is used. The first is the nine insight knowledges starting with Arising and Passing Away. This is in contrast to the earlier insight knowledges up to the immature phase of Arising and Passing Away, which are called taruna (young/immature) insight knowledges. However, in this context, it is preferable to use the term āraddha (energetic) as in this book, or balava (powerful).

The second context is the list of 18 insight knowledges mentioned in the Visuddhimagga 22.113[29] in an ad hoc manner, after the chapters 18 to 21 on the progress of insight. The two kinds of usage are not entirely exclusive, because the 18 maha-vipassana correspond quite well with the latter stages of the Progress of Insight.

The three characteristics

The most important of the maha-vipassana is the knowledge of the three characteristics, understood either as ti-lakkhana[30] (three characteristics) or as vimokkha[31] (three liberations). They account for 6 of the 18 maha-vipassana.

See the three liberations in the Patisambhidamagga[32] and the Abhidhammatta Sangaha[33] - also called three emancipations or three doors of emancipation.

It has been variously suggested that the three characteristics can be separately contemplated, even if they are eventually interrelated, or that knowledge of non-self is higher and more transformational that the others. Richard Gombrich, an expert on early Buddhism, says that it is simply a logical sequence of three terms, each implying the next, and is a response to a similar Upanishadic formula - see What the Buddha thought or this nice lecture[34] (9th to 12th minute.)

Impermanence is certainly the easiest to perceive and also ties in nicely with the classical Theravada (i.e. second-wave Abhidhamma) concepts of momentariness (khanikavada) and rupa kalapas (material atoms.) Modern vipassana depends heavily on both the perception of impermanence and the theoretical explanation via momentariness of phenomena. One might perhaps recall SN Goenka’s somniferous tone explaining impermanence by saying that sensations, subatomic particles etc. can be seen to be continuously “arising and passing away, arising and passing away.” This book also tends to explain impermanence via the momentariness of phenomena.

The 18 mahā-vipassanā vs. the Progress of Insight

The maha-vipassana correspond rather well with the insight knowledges, and often have the same names too, with just the suffix changed from ñāṇa (knowledge) to anupassanā (contemplation/seeing.) Sometimes the descriptions and explanations can vary (as others here have noted), but each maha-vipassana is attained at a particular stage in the Progress of Insight, and not before.

(editor’s note: the following blocks are a matrix replacement)

  • Progress of Insight: 1. Knowledge that Discerns Mental and Physical Phenomena (nāmarūpaparicchedañāṇa)
    Maha-vipassana:

  • Progress of Insight: 2. Knowledge that Discerns Conditionality (paccayapariggahañāṇa)
    Maha-vipassana: Knowledge and vision of things as they really are (yathābhūtañāṇadassana)

  • Progress of Insight: 3. Insight Knowledge by Comprehension (sammasanañāṇa)
    Maha-vipassana:

  • Progress of Insight: 4. Insight Knowledge of Arising and Passing Away (udayabbayañāṇa)
    Maha-vipassana: impermanence/unsatisfactoriness/not-self, signless/desireless/emptiness

  • Progress of Insight: 5. Insight Knowledge of Dissolution (bhaṅgañāṇa)
    Maha-vipassana: Contemplation of destruction (khayānupassanā), Contemplation of fall (vayānupassanā), Contemplation of change (vipariṇāmānupassanā), insight into phenomena that is higher wisdom (adhipaññādhammavipassanā)

  • Progress of Insight: 6. Insight Knowledge of Fear (bhayañāṇa)
    Maha-vipassana:

  • Progress of Insight: 7. Insight Knowledge of Danger (ādīnavañāṇa)
    Maha-vipassana: Contemplation of danger (ādīnavānupassanā)

  • Progress of Insight: 8. Insight Knowledge of Disenchantment (nibbidāñāṇa)
    Maha-vipassana: Contemplation of disenchantment (nibbidānupassanā), Contemplation of dispassion (virāgānupassanā)

  • Progress of Insight: 9. Insight Knowledge of Desire for Deliverance (muñcitukamyatāñāṇa)
    Maha-vipassana: Contemplation of cessation (nirodhānupassanā)

  • Progress of Insight: 10. Insight Knowledge Derived from Reobserving ( paṭisaṅkhāñāṇa)
    Maha-vipassana: Contemplation of relinquishment (paṭinissaggānupassanā), Contemplation of reflection (paṭisaṅkhānupassanā)

  • Progress of Insight: 11. Insight Knowledge of Equanimity toward Phenomena (saṅkhārupekkhāñāṇa)
    Maha-vipassana: Contemplation of turning away (vivattānupassanā)

The list of Insight Knowledges is from Appendix 1. Though I have put the 6 maha-vipassana based on the three characteristics along with the insight knowledge of Arising and Passing Away, they are more fundamental and are connected with all but the first two insight knowledges.

As my practice catches up, I will be encouraged to read this and the previous chapter again with the help of the excellent comments here. These are abstract things, and can’t be fully appreciated until one actually needs to know them.

Thanks to everyone who have been reading and interacting on what is one of the most difficult Buddhist texts.

Footnotes

1. http://www.aimwell.org/inthisverylife.html

2. http://www.palikanon.com/english/wtb/g_m/khandha.htm

3. http://www.palikanon.com/english/wtb/a/aayatana.htm

4. http://www.abhidhamma.com/frameset.html?http://www.abhidhamma.com/abhidhamma_charts.html

5. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.111.than.html

6. http://www.geocities.ws/ekchew.geo/dying2liveD1.jpg

7. https://suttacentral.net/en/sn35.245

8. https://suttacentral.net/en/mn10

9. http://www.aimwell.org/malukyaputta.html

10. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/wings/

11. https://archive.org/details/TheSatipatthanaVipassanaMeditation

12. http://aimwell.org/practical.html

13. http://www.panditarama.net/ebooks/thewaytopractise.pdf

14. https://www.sirimangalo.org/text/how-to-meditate/

15. https://www.shinzen.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/SeeHearFeelIntroduction_ver1.8.pdf

16. http://thehamiltonproject.blogspot.com/search/label/Vipassana%20%20Noting%20Technique

17. https://archive.org/stream/Visuddhimagga_201602#page/n68/mode/1up

18. https://archive.org/stream/AManualOfAbhidhamma/abhidhamma#page/n457/mode/2up

19. https://archive.org/stream/Visuddhimagga_201602/Visuddhimagga#page/n665/mode/2up

20. https://archive.org/stream/SeventryThreeKindsOfKnowledge/SeventyThreeKindsOfKnowledge#page/n0/mode/2up

21. https://archive.org/stream/9TheBuddhaPeerlessBenefactorOfHumanityUShweAung/Tipitaka/PatisambhidamaggaThePathOfDiscriminationtr_ByVen_NanamoliCompleteOcred#page/n113/mode/2up

22. https://archive.org/stream/ASurveyOfParamatthaDhammas/SurveyOfParamatthaDhammas2012#page/n481/mode/2up

23. http://www.palikanon.com/english/wtb/n_r/paticca_samuppaada.htm

24. http://aimwell.org/dependentorigination.html

25. http://www.dhammadownload.com/images/Mogok-paticyc.jpg

26. https://archive.org/stream/VenerablePaAukTawyaSayadaw-KnowingAndSeeing#page/n127/mode/1up

27. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/index-subject.html#nutriment

28. https://puredhamma.net/three-levels-of-practice/sotapanna-stage-of-nibbana/uadayavaya-nana-introduction/

29. https://archive.org/stream/Visuddhimagga_201602/Visuddhimagga#page/n781/mode/2up

30. http://www.palikanon.com/english/wtb/s_t/ti_lakkhana.htm

31. http://www.palikanon.com/english/wtb/u_v/vimokkha.htm

32. https://archive.org/stream/9TheBuddhaPeerlessBenefactorOfHumanityUShweAung/Tipitaka/PatisambhidamaggaThePathOfDiscriminationtr_ByVen_NanamoliCompleteOcred#page/n299/mode/2up

33. https://archive.org/stream/AManualOfAbhidhamma#page/n469/mode/2up

34. https://youtu.be/xKMXud3SMf8?t=675


Source:

r/streamentry subreddit:

Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.

All texts were written by u/filpt, u/TetrisMcKenna and u/xugan97.


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