The Vipassana Retreat

3. The Framework for the Practice

In the first teaching, known as the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta), the Buddha presented his core teaching: The Four Noble Truths*, which includes the Eight-Fold Practice Path that highlights the key meditation skill of sati or mindfulness. Later the Buddha expands on the practice of being mindful, in a teaching that consists of a set of instructions with clear directions called the Satipatthana Sutta, or the discourse on ‘The Four Establishments of Mindfulness’.

This text is a path map with detailed instructions on four frames of reference, which can be viewed as a framework for the practice of mindfulness. The Buddha very clearly states the aims and outcome of this practice, allowing for no doubt or misinterpretation. In the preamble to the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha is reported to have said:

“Monks, this is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the surmounting of sorrow and lamentation, for the ending of suffering (dukkha), for acquiring the true method, for the realisation of Nirvana – by means of the four satipatthanas”.

Before we go any further, the term ‘satipatthana’ needs to be understood, as it is the essential practice in Vipassana meditation. As a compound word ‘satipatthana’ consist of two words: sati, which means ‘presence’ (of mind) or ‘to remember’ in the sense of remembering to stay present in the here and now, while upatthana is literally ‘placing near’. It should be enough to leave the explanation at that but we have to accept the commonly used translation of ‘sati’ as ‘mindfulness’. That being the case, ‘satipatthana’ can be understood as: attending with mindfulness or being actively attentive.

(It would be more accurate to call this practice Satipatthana rather than Vipassana as the actual practice is satipatthana while Vipassana is its outcome, i.e. insight. But it seems we have go along now with the established usage).

At its most basic the framework for the practice consists of four areas of attention:

(1) bodily phenomena
(2) feelings and sensations
(3) mind states and/or consciousness, and
(4) mind qualities or mental phenomena.

To stay on track, the Vipassana meditator needs to be at least familiar with the text. A way to understand it is to see it as a framework for the practice. It is not expected that the beginner can work with the complete set of instructions as given in the text, although it is useful to have an overview of the instructions and directions given. The entry level is usually some aspect of the Contemplation of the Body, while mature practitioners may have an affinity for a particular satipatthana or some combination of them.

Here is an outline of the text but I would encourage you to study it in depth in the recommended books below. *

• Mindfulness of Breathing
• Four Postures of the Body
• Clear Knowing of Activities
• Anatomical Parts
• The Four Material Elements
• The Corpse in Decay

Pleasant Feeling
Unpleasant Feeling
Neutral Feeling

• Four “Ordinary States” of Mind
• Four “Higher” States” of Mind

• The Five Hindrances
• The Five Aggregates
• Six Sense-Spheres
• Seven Awakening Factors
• The Four Noble Truths

There can be many ways to the same destination. The particular approach in this retreat follows the lineage of the late Mahasi Sayadaw of Myanmar. The method is that of ‘bare insight’, where, by direct observation, one’s own bodily and mental processes are seen with increasing clarity, in the insight knowledges as inconstancy, distress and not-self.

The ‘bare insight’ meditator begins by tuning into the air element (vayo-dhatu) manifesting as vibration or movement in the abdomen in sitting and as movement in the steps taken in walking. This practice is taken from the Four Material Elements meditation in the body contemplation section. It focuses primarily on the air element and is combined with clear knowing of daily activities. The other main sections of the Satipatthana Sutta, feelings, mind states and mental phenomena are worked with as secondary objects as they occur.

The Two Types of Meditation

For clarity’s sake, one needs to be familiar with the two types of meditation techniques: Serenity Meditation (samatha), which is concentration based on fixing on a single object in order to attain one-pointedness, inducing a calm state; and the Insight Meditation (vipassana), which is an awareness practice where one experientially investigates one’s own mind/body processes. These two types of meditation can be combined, or Vipassana, as ‘pure’ or ‘bare’ insight, can be done by itself

Three Types of Concentration

As it is necessary for the meditator to be familiar with the two types of meditation and their outcomes, it is also useful to understand the three types of concentration in meditation. They are: one-pointedness (appana), which is a meditative absorption or Jhana; access or threshold concentration (upacara); and momentary concentration (khanika). As one-pointedness or the Jhana type is largely confined to serenity meditation (samatha), it is enough here to explain the other two types of concentration found in the ‘bare’ Vipassana meditation approach.

Momentary Concentration

The bare Vipassana meditator uses momentary concentration, which comes about through the noting of vipassana objects, that is, noting the various mental and physical phenomena that occur in the mind and body, as they arise. It is called momentary (khanika) because it occurs only at the moment of noting – not on a fixed object as in samatha meditation – as one is present with changing objects or phenomena that occur in the mind and body from moment-to-moment.

Threshold Concentration

In Vipassana, some degree of threshold concentration – also known as access concentration (upacara samadhi) – naturally arises with fluency in the practice, but it is not specifically induced in any way. Threshold and momentary concentration are more than sufficient for Vipassana practice, as most of the subjects in the Satipatthana Sutta lead only to threshold or momentary concentration. The exceptions are mindfulness of breathing (anapanasati) and contemplation of the anatomical parts of the body (asubha). The other sections develop threshold concentration and momentary concentration. Generally it can be said that a person reaches threshold concentration when The Five Hindrances* are inhibited.

Unfortunately, the conditions that exist in the modern world are not conducive to developing the Jhanas. Yet in the latter stages of attainment most commentators agree that Jhana is necessary. However, with the pressures and stressful pace of life, most people find little time for intensive meditation; the same can be said for the ordained Sangha as well, as they too can be caught up in administrative work and study.

So we are following here the path of the dry or bare Vipassana practitioner, without Jhanas, whose knowledge is not from learning, reading or listening to talks, but from one’s own direct experience. By experientially knowing the characteristics of the mind and body with insight into their impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and insubstantiality, the meditator is freed by insight alone.

The Process of Purifying the Mind

The Five or Eight Precepts, as well as the 227 training rules of the monk, are undertaken by the meditator to restrain the mind and develop morality. But precepts and rules by themselves do not purify the mind, especially as there is a tendency to ritualise them rather than to actualize them. While they can be helpful in restraining one’s behaviour, being conceptual they are not experientially transforming of themselves.

Concentration (samadhi) by itself merely suppresses the mental impurities temporarily as it works only on the manifest level of the mind. It does not clear the dormant, or latent material of the mind, that is, the inherent tendencies of the mind.

Vipassana meditation is the direct way to purify the mind of its latent tendencies. Deep vipassana practice leads to the insight knowledges (vipassana nanas) and ultimately to Path and Fruition Attainment (magga-phala) through experientially knowing the Three Universal Characteristics of Existence. This then, as the Buddha states, is the practice for the purification of the mind and for the liberation of beings.

Psychotherapy before Meditation?

In the Western meditation culture, there is an ongoing debate on whether one needs to do psychotherapy before meditation. This is because often meditators, especially Vipassana meditators, experience mental problems and difficulties as they meditate. Well, leaving aside whether a person comes to the practice with a pre-existing mental problem or not, from a Buddhist perspective it is the mental impurities of greed, hatred and delusion (kilesas) that meditators are essentially experiencing. These mental impurities are not to be confused with clinical conditions such as psychosis, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorders. For most people, the negative emotions as well as the latent tendencies hidden in the mind – however strong and entrenched they may be – are workable in the long run through Vipassana meditation.

Again for most people, at least initially, it is an essential part of the Vipassana experience that one goes through the purification process that the Buddha refers to in the Satipatthana Sutta. One has to allow for a ventilation of the deep mental accumulation as one meditates so that the dormant impurities of anger, lust, and delusion are released – that is, cleansed.

The attitude of the meditator, or the way he or she relates to the meditation experience, is critical in the practice. It is vital that one allows any negative material to surface, and doesn’t react or play back into it. In this way, a non-reactive awareness develops that allows for a natural purging and cleansing of the mind.

Referring back to the text we have been following, the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha gave a specific time frame for attainment in this practice: from 7 years to 7 days. For a beginner, a 10-day retreat is hardly enough time to complete the practice, but by working sincerely during this retreat you can establish the basis for an ongoing practice, which potentially can lead to the ultimate liberation and the absolute peace of Nirvana.

Recommended source material:

* The Satipatthana Sutta can be found in Venerable Nyanaponika’s first-rate book on Vipassana meditation, “The Heart of Buddhist Meditation”; or for a deeper analysis of the text, “Satipatthana, the Direct Path to Realisation”, by Ven. Analayo, published by Windhorse Publications 2003.
* Footnote:

The Five Hindrances or obstacles to the practice path:
• Sensuality
• Ill will
• Mental inertia
• Restlessness and worry
• Skeptical doubt

5 Aggregates of Grasping:
• Body
• Feelings
• Perception
• Mental formations
• Consciousness

7 Factors of Awakening:
• Mindfulness
• Investigation of the dhamma (phenomena)
• Effort
• Non-sensuous Joy
• Tranquility
• Concentration
• Equanimity

6 Internal and 6 External Sense-Spheres:
• Eye and sights
• Ear and sounds
• Nose and smells
• Tongue and tastes
• Body and tangibles
• Mind and thoughts, memories or reflections

* 4 Noble Truths:
• The fact of suffering
• Cause of suffering
• Ending of suffering
• Way to the ending of suffering, i.e. the Noble 8-Fold Path