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founded by S. N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin






Vipassana: the Unique Contribution of the Buddha

- By Dr. Ravindra Panth

Sila(1), samadhi(2) and panna(3) form the basic constituents of the teaching of the Buddha. They are the fundamental elements of his forty-five year teaching mission, during the course of his carika. Do these three aspects constitute his unique contribution to human civilization? Are these elements of his dispensation of Dhamma the keynotes for which he should be remembered? A close perusal of the Tipitaka suggests not.

If we delve into the venerable past of India, we find that at the time of the Buddha and earlier, there were other thinkers who believed in and propagated the concepts of sila, samadhi and panna, although not systematically. For the harmonious wayfarer, these teachers usually recommended the practice of various rites and rituals along with sila, samadhi and panna. Hence, these three were not something identified and preached by Gotama the Buddha alone. We find references in Brahmajala-sutta, Samannaphala-sutta(4), etc., that highlight the fact that there were sects which heavily emphasized the practice of sila for the purification of physical and vocal actions.

There are other references which show that the concept and practice of samadhi was also not something new, that it was known at the time as a method for quieting and controlling the mind. The best illustration of this is the example of the bodhisatta Siddhattha Gotama who, before his enlightenment, learned the deepest samadhis known at the time-the seventh and eighth jhanas-from the teachers Alara Kalama and Uddhaka Ramaputta. This proves that the sphere of samadhi certainly existed prior to the Buddha. It was not something new, discovered by him.

Neither was the concept of panna something totally new. Even at that time panna, in its precise definition, meant seeing things as impermanent (anicca), as a source of suffering (dukkha), and substanceless (anatta). There are accounts which document the fact that, among at least some of the Buddha's contemporaries, the concepts of anicca, dukkha and anatta were accepted. One such sutta that illustrates this is the Bahiya-sutta of Samyutta-nikaya. It records an encounter between Buddha and Bahiya, a wanderer in search of a spiritual path. Although he was not one of Buddha's disciples, Bahiya asked him for guidance in his search.

The Buddha responded by questioning him, as follows:

Tam kim mannasi, Bahiya, cakkhu niccam va aniccam va ti?

Aniccam, bhante.

Yam pananiccam dukkham va tam sukham va ti?

Dukkham, bhante.

Yam pananiccam dukkham viparinama-dhammam kallam nu tam samanupassitum etam mama, eso'hamasmi, eso me atta ti?

No h'etam bhante.

What do you believe, Bahiya: is the eye permanent or impermanent?

Impermanent, sir.

That which is impermanent, is it a cause of suffering or of happiness?

Of suffering, sir.

Now is it fitting to regard what is impermanent, a cause of suffering, by nature changeable as being "mine", being "I", being one's self?

Surely not, sir.

The Buddha further questioned Bahiya about visual objects, eye consciousness and eye contact, etc. In each case, this person agreed that these were impermanent, a cause of suffering and substanceless. He did not claim to be a follower of the teaching of the Buddha, yet he accepted the concepts of anicca, dukkha and anatta. The sutta thus documents that these ideas, which we might now regard as having been unknown outside the Buddha's teachings, were indeed contemporaneous.

Then what was the Buddha's unique contribution in this regard? The explanation, of course, is that for Bahiya and others like him, the concepts of impermanence, suffering and substancelessness were simply beliefs. They were merely opinions, adopted only in theory-what in Pāli is called manna (mere acceptance). The Buddha showed a way to go beyond mere beliefs or philosophies, a way to directly experience one's own nature as impermanent, suffering and substanceless. That is why in the sutta, the Buddha continued:

Evam passam, Bahiya, sutava ariya-savako cakkhusmim pi nibbindati, rupesu pi nibbindati, cakkhuvinnane pi nibbindati, cakkhusamphasse pi nibbindati... nibbindam virajjati, viraga vimucati, vimuttasmim vimuttamiti nanam hoti.(6)

Seeing this, Bahiya, the well-instructed noble disciple becomes satiated with eye, visual object, eye consciousness, eye contact... Being satiated, he does not have passion for them. Being passionless, he is set free. In this freedom arises the realization that he is liberated.

From this passage it becomes clear that the Buddha made a sharp distinction between knowing by hearsay and knowing from personal insight. One may be a sutava possessing sutamaya-panna-that is, the wisdom that arises from listening to others, from being instructed by others or by reading, etc. Having heard the truth, one accepts it out of faith and devotion. Or one may accept the truth at the intellectual level (cintamaya-panna). However, to accept the truth at either of these levels is insufficient to liberate one from the cycle of suffering. To attain final liberation, one must witness the truth for oneself, must experience it directly within oneself, by the development of bhavanamaya-panna.

Bhavanamaya-panna is the wisdom obtained by meditation, the direct experience that develops in anyone who practises it. This development of insight is also called vipassana-bhavana (Vipassana meditation). The practice of Vipassana develops an inner realization of the truth. The meditator makes right effort and thereby realizes for himself that everything in the world is transitory, a source of suffering, and essenceless. This insight is not the mere acceptance of what someone else has said, nor the product of deductive reasoning. It is, rather, the direct comprehension of the realities of anicca, dukkha, and anatta.

To develop this comprehensive bhavanamaya-panna, the technique of Vipassana is essential. It is through the observation of vedana (bodily sensations) that the totality of our nature manifests itself as pancakkhandha (the five aggregates). It is through vedana that we actually experience all phenomena. As the Atthasalini states:

Ya vedeti ti vedana, sa vediyati lakkhana, anubhavanarasa...(7)

That which feels the objects is vedana; its characteristic is to experience, its function is to realize the object...

It is only through vedana that we can directly experience our true nature and realize its actual reality of arising and passing away. Moreover, vedana is present with every phenomenon. As the Buddha said:

Vedana samosarana sabbe dhamma.(8)

All the phenomena one experiences are accompanied by sensation.

Therefore, the specific tool that a Vipassana meditator uses to develop experiential wisdom is bodily sensation. By observing sensations objectively throughout the body, the practitioner realizes that they all have the basic nature of arising and passing away (uppadavaya dhammino)-that is, they are all anicca. Having experienced this fact, one realizes that not only unpleasant sensations but also pleasant and neutral sensations are a source of suffering. By observing the ephemeral nature of all sensations, the meditator realizes how insubstantial they are: they are changing every moment. That which is changing cannot be a source of happiness because a pleasant sensation which has arisen will always pass away, resulting in dukkha due to our attachment to it. Moreover, these sensations are beyond our control and arise regardless of our wishes; they cannot be said to be "I" or "mine." They are anatta.

As one experiences vedana through the proper practice of Vipassana meditation, one comes out of the delusion of nicca-sanna (perception of permanence) by the development of anicca-bodha or anicca-vijja (the wisdom of impermanence). This is practised by observing the arising and passing away of vedana. With anicca-bodha, the habit pattern of the mind changes as one develops upekkha (equanimity) towards all the sensations.

In order to assess the unique contribution of the Buddha, we should note that many of his contemporaries held the view that craving causes suffering, and that to remove suffering one must abstain from the objects of craving. The Buddha tackled the problem in a different way. Having learned to examine and investigate the deepest levels of his own mind, he made a profound discovery: that between the external object and the mental reflex of craving, there is a missing link-vedana (sensation).

Whenever we encounter an object through the five physical senses or the sixth sense (the mind), a sensation arises, and based on the sensation, tanha (craving and aversion) arises. If the sensation is pleasant, we crave to prolong it; if it is unpleasant, we crave to be rid of it. It is in the chain of Dependent Origination that the Buddha expressed his profound realization:

Salayatana-paccaya phassa

Phassa-paccaya vedana

Vedana-paccaya tanha.(9)

Dependent on the six sense doors,

contact arises.

Dependent on contact, sensation arises.

Dependent on sensation, craving arises.

If we want to advance on the path of liberation we have to work at the level of vedana because it is here that the rotation of the wheel of misery can be arrested. The turning of the bhava-cakka (wheel of becoming) begins with vedana. Because of avijja (ignorance), we react to sensations, resulting in the arising of craving and aversion: vedana paccaya tanha. This is the path which ignorant persons (puthujjana) follow.

From the same juncture of vedana, the dhammacakka (wheel of Dhamma) can start to rotate. The dukkha-nirodha-gamini-patipada (path of cessation of suffering) begins, characterized by vedana-nirodha, tanha-nirodho: the end of sensation and (therefore) the end of craving and aversion. This is the path of anicca-vijja or panna, leading to the cessation of suffering. This is the Way which wise persons (sapanna) follow. Having developed anicca-bodha by the practice of Vipassana, they cease to react to vedana.

To emphasize the true implication and importance of vedana on the path of liberation, the Buddha expressed the following as a regular refrain in the Brahmajala sutta of the Dighanikaya:

Vedananam samudayam ca atthangamam ca assadam ca adinavam ca nissaranam ca yathabhutam viditva anupadavimutto, bhikkhave, Tathagato.(10)

Fully understanding, as they really are, the arising and passing away of sensations, the relishing of them, their danger, their fading away,-the Tathagata is completely liberated.

The immediate cause for the arising of craving, and of suffering, is therefore not something outside of us. It is, rather, the sensations that occur within us. To free ourselves from craving and suffering, we must deal with this inner reality of sensations. This is the practical way to emerge from suffering. By developing anicca-vijja (the wisdom of impermanence), we learn to cut the knots of our misery and witness the true nature of Dhamma.

Vedana, then, is the cause of our bondage when it is ignored. When properly observed-by understanding the Dhamma, the law of paticcasamuppada-it is the means to our liberation.

We may conclude by declaring that the entire teaching of the Buddha is ambrosial. The Dhamma he taught illumines the Path by delineating the way to emerge from suffering into the liberation of cessation of suffering. The Enlightened One outlined the practice of sila, samadhi and panna. But it is the practice of Vipassana-the objective, experiential observation of the body sensations-which remains as his unsurpassed contribution to human civilization. In reality this is the quintessence of his teaching. ¦


(All references from Devanagari edition of Tipitaka published by Vipassana Research Institute Publications, Igatpuri, India.)

1. Purification of bodily and vocal action.

2. Kusala cittassa ekaggata samadhi: one-pointedness of the moral consciousness.

3. Wisdom or insight.

4. Dighanikaya, vol I, sutta 1, para. 1, etc.; sutta 2, para. 150, etc.

5. Samyuttanikaya,vol II, vagga 4, para. 90.

6. Ibid.

7. Dhammasangani Atthakatha (Atthasalini) 1, Dhammuddesavaro

8. Anguttaranikaya, vol IV, Dasakanipata, para. 58.

9. Mahavagga, (Vinaya Pitaka) para. 1.

10. Dighanikaya, vol. I, sutta 1, para. 51, 59, 66, 70, 72, etc.