The Development of Insight
The Insight Knowledges

We have looked at Satipatthana vipassana in terms of one central principle, three universal characteristics and seven purifications (or seven stages of purification). Now we will subdivide these seven stages of purification into 16 nanas, or (insight) “knowledges”. Notice how we are looking at the meditation practice from the point of view of what we see when we do this practice. This complex construction of 16 nanas (or 17 nanas if we subdivide maggaphala-nana into magga-nana and phala-nana) is not found in the Tipitaka, the early Buddhist texts. They seem to be an invention of the medieval Theravada tradition, and you can find a complete analysis of them in Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga. Now we will confine our attention to the first three of the nanas.

The 16 nanas constitute another way to categorise our experience. There are any number of ways we can analyse our experience; there are a potentially infinite number of categories we can invent into which we can classify our experiences. What is important is that we remember the difference between category and experience, and avoid becoming lost in the category. Our tendency is to get lost in the categories, and in doing so, lose touch with experience. When we create a system of categories we freeze the process of living experience and create a solid something in which our experience must now conform. We now divide our experience into two basic divisions: those experiences which we can fit into our system of categories, and which is therefore valid, real and useful; and those experiences which we cannot fit into our system of categories. Of course, in the act of meditating, we put more attention to our valid, real and useful experiences than we do to the other type. In brief, we become stuck in attachment and aversion, and instead of investigating our experience, we revert to manipulating it. We take the practice of freedom and turn it into a prison. This is inevitably the case when we project reality into the categories of analysis – whatever system we use – and not into the actual, living, stream of experience. Hence we must treat this system with great caution. We must learn to use it, and not be used by it.

Note that purification of ethics (sila-visuddhi) is prior to meditation practice. Buddhism assumes an ethical foundation to any form of meditation. Note also that while meditation begins with the second stage, purification of mind (citta-visuddhi), this is prior to the manifestation of insight. Purification of mind in this system is simply the development of a certain amount of concentration. The meditator becomes so focused on the mind-body process that thinking is significantly lessened, or even ceases, and when thinking does manifest the meditator can notice it immediately, and then it usually subsides. This is the samadhi which is foundational to the arising of insight. The samadhi in this technique, of course, is khanika samadhi: a continuous flow of attention directed to the ever changing succession of discrete mental and physical experiences.

The lower nanas

1) Knowledge of the distinction between mind and body – nama-rupa paricheda-nana

When khanika samadhi is established, the meditator notices that experience break up: Breathing and walking break up into distinct, separate events of rising/falling; lifting/moving/placing;etc. The distinction between physical experience (rupa) and the quality of the knowing of the physical experience (nama) becomes apparent.

Further divisions may become apparent – e.g., “seeing” consists of the interrelation between the eye, a visual object, the act of seeing, and the knowing of the act of seeing.`The attention may fall on any or all of these aspects. For example, sound in the form of “hearing a bird” may become sound as just sound; or sound as the knowing of sound.

In brief, the meditator sees there is just experience and the knowing of experience.

2) Knowledge of conditionality – paccaya-pariggaha-nana

The meditator first sees the apparent solidity of himself and his world break up into a series of discrete experiences, either mental or physical. He then begins to see the relationships between these discrete experiences. He sees how one experience conditions another. For example:

  • Mind conditions body: Without consciousness, there can be no physical experience. Without an intention to move, there can be no movement. Without consciousness of seeing, there can be no visible object.
  • Body conditions mind. Without visible objects, there can be no consciousness of them. An initial glance at a visual object conditions a series of thoughts about it.
  • Mind conditions mind: An initial distracting thought conditions a storyline. If the initial distracting thought is noted, the storyline does not manifest.
  • Body conditions body: What appears to be one movement of the arm, for example, is seen to be a whole series of discrete movements; each movement conditions the next.

The examples may seem mundane when they are stated baldly like this, but they represent a new, much more subtle way of seeing oneself and one’s world. Solid things have broken down into flows of experience. The way our experience of the world is created and maintained becomes much clearer. The meditator does not take things for granted quite so much as before. He becomes much more responsible for his own experience, because he sees how he is continually constructing his own experience.

At this stage the meditator sees the arising of experiences but not their cessation. Notice the development in the practice. Normally we do not see either the beginning or end of any given experience. We tune into the movie after it has already begun, and then switch to another movie after its beginning, and so on. For example, I know my moods change. I may be talking to someone about satipatthana and feeling calm. He tells me I don’t know anything about meditation, and I get angry about being contradicted. Later I calm down. What I know of this process is that I am calm; then later I notice I am already angry. Then later I realise I have already calmed down to some extent. What I do not do under normal circumstances is notice the actual moment of the arising of emotion; and the actual moment of the cessation of emotion. This is noting the middle, but not the beginning or end of experiences.

During the knowledge of conditionality, the meditator’s attention is becoming sharp and he is seeing the actual moment of the beginning of experience, and its middle; but he is not yet seeing its end. The attention is drawn to experience a; as he examines this, his attention is then drawn to experience b; as he examines this, his attention is then drawn to experience c; and so on. He is moving from one experience to another before the first has disappeared.

Also at this stage, meditators who are inclined to visual images will tend to see a lot of images. Often they will report a lot of physical pain

3) Knowledge of mastery – sammasana-nana

As the meditator continues to practice, mental images and physical pains fade. His attention is becoming sharper and more subtle, and he now sees clearly the beginning, middle and end of the experience he is examining. This stage is called knowledge of mastery because the meditator acquires mastery in his understanding of impermanence. For the first time he can see this complete process of arising, manifesting, and cessation of experience. In seeing the complete process of impermanence, he also has more insight into unsatisfactoriness and not-self. The extent to which these latter two of the universal characteristics will become apparent depends on the individual. For some people, they become obvious at this stage; for others they don’t.

4) Knowledge of arising and passing away – udayabbaya-nana

This stage is central to the practice. As you can see on your chart, knowledge of arising and passing away includes three purifications: purification of overcoming doubt in its early stage; and both purification of knowing and seeing the way in its mature stage. In practical terms, for most meditators it is a hard slog to get this far; it can feel like climbing up a steep and rocky hill. In certain respects it gets easier from here on, because now that the meditator can clearly see the arising and cessation of experiences he knows he is on the right path. Whatever he has done to get this far is all he has to do is continue. Often meditators feel a surge of confidence in themselves and the practice.

For many meditators, this is the nice one. They may see light. They experience faith (saddha), rapture (piti), tranquillity (passadhi) and bliss (sukkha). The arising and passing away of experience is very clear. They can notice anything easily, and it seems that the meditation is going on by itself. All the meditator has to do is sit back and enjoy the show.

This ease, enjoyment and sense of fulfilment, however, carry a danger. As I said before, the practice is about process, once we begin to hang on to anything, process stops, and the practice bogs down. This stage of the practice is both enjoyable and dangerous. It is easy to give up and settle for pleasant, even spectacular meditation experiences, rather than pushing on. It is this early, immature stage of knowledge of arising and passing away which is the mature stage of purification of overcoming doubt, characterised as it is by the clarity of meditative experience and by the arising of faith.

If the meditator merely watches these blissful phenomena, they pass. The sense of clinging and attachment to blissful experience passes, and the meditator enters into the purification of knowing and seeing what is and what is not the path. He understands more clearly the importance of just seeing experience as experience; not getting stuck by projecting any ego or judgements on to it. As he continues to practice, the process of arising and passing away becomes faster and faster, until it becomes almost instantaneous. The attention is moving very rapidly, but always with clarity and penetration. As soon as something arises, it is seen; as soon as it is seen, it ceases. At this point, which is the high point of a meditator’s sensitivity to impermanence, the sixth purification, purification of knowing and seeing the way, begins. And again things change.

5) Knowledge of dissolution – bhanga-nana

Now we enter an interesting stage of the practice characterised by a series of nanas known as the dukkha-nanas. Remember that the meditator has already attained the purification of overcoming doubt and the purification of knowing and seeing what is and what is not the path. The essentials of the practice have already been revealed, and in the process the meditator has experienced faith, rapture and bliss. What is essential to this practice is seeing the arising and passing away of experience. In attaining to knowledge of arising and passing away, the meditator has already done this.

What happens next? The meditator’s awareness and concentration continues to develop. As a result, he now sees only the passing away of phenomena. It is as if his awareness is so fast, it is faster than the experiences he is examining, As soon as he places his attention on some aspect of his experience, it disappears. This is the knowledge of dissolution (bhanga-nana). In a weak aspect, this can take the form of the meditator apparently losing his concentration. It seems like he can no longer focus on anything; his attention keeps sliding off whatever he tries to look at. It can be lie trying to grasp something that slips out of your hand the moment you touch it. In a stronger aspect, it can be like falling into the black hole of Calcutta. Wherever you look, there is nothing – only blackness. The meditator is shocked, because he used to be able to focus on anything. Now, it seems, he can focus on nothing at all. All his good work has dissolved into nothing.

Another thing that meditators report at this stage is the disappearance of the form of the body. Before, the meditator saw experience break up into specific and discrete experiences, but he always knew that they were experiences of something. For example, the experience of the rising movement of the abdomen when breathing in breaks up into movement, pressure, tension. But there was always the sense, while examining these sensations, that they belonged together, as different aspect of the same thing. But now movement is just movement; pressure is just pressure; tension is just tension. There is no sense of what part of the body these sensations belong to. The sense of the body disappears; all that is left is a series of apparently disconnected individual sensations. There is no “body” as such.

6) Knowledge of fear – bhaya-nana

This gives way to the knowledge of fear, (bhaya-nana). In the disappearance of everything examined, the mind at some level begins to realise: there is nothing beneath this parade of changes. There is no foundation. At a fundamental level, there is nothing at all. The result is existential anxiety. In its strong form this can manifest as panic. In its weak form, it can be merely a sense of existential unease, a sense of nothing going right, a sense of helplessness, a sense of loss of control. At this stage of the practice, the meditator’s insight into anatta, not self, usually takes the form of a sense of loss of control. The realisation that “I am not in control of ‘my’ life”.

7) Knowledge of danger – adinava-nana

Next comes the knowledge of danger, (adinava-nana). The meditator realises there is no rest, no security, in anything. Notice that the emphasis here is on anything. The meditator by this time is fantasising about escape from, the meditation centre. He is wondering why he is not in some comfortable job making a comfortable, secure living. But the power of the insight-knowledge is such that he knows there is no escape. He knows that this danger, this disadvantage, remains. Because he knows this is the nature of experience as such.

8) Knowledge of disenchantment – nibbida-nana

Hence the knowledge of disenchantment, (nibbida-nana). Nibbida, or disenchantment, is simply the opposite of enchantment. Normally we are enchanted by experience. A man sees a beautiful woman and instinctively is drawn into her circle of charm. He is “charmed”, enchanted. He feels there is real satisfaction to be gained by possessing her, and so pursues her to gain that satisfaction. This whole movement is based on the notion: if only I possess that, then all my problems will be solved. The essence of the knowledge of disenchantment is that, even in the very fantasy itself, the meditator knows that the object of his desire will not solve his problem. He knows that even if he leaves the meditation centre and attains his most heart-felt desire, this too is unsatisfactory. There is no situation that he can imagine which is satisfactory. All his desires and fantasies are like ashes in his mouth.

9) Knowledge of the desire for liberation – muncitu-kamyata-nana

Closely allied to this knowledge is the knowledge of the desire for liberation (muncitu-kamyata-nana), known by some meditators as the “get-me-outa-here-nana”. And of course, this knowledge includes the understanding that, whatever situation the meditator escapes to, that too will be unsatisfactory, and the urge to escape will still be there in that new situation. Symptoms of this stage of the practice can include a great deal of physical pain and restlessness. The meditator may be unable to hold any posture of the body for any period of time – any posture is painful. Sometimes meditators retreat to bed to sleep for long periods of time, just to escape the pain involved in being conscious.

10) Knowledge of re-consideration – patisankhanupassana-nana

These dukkha-nanas culminate in the knowledge of re-consideration (patisankhanupassana-nana). This is characterised by two things. Firstly, the meditator may be assailed by all the kinds of suffering he has gone through before, as well as some new experiences. He may feel as if he has lost all insight he may have had before. He may feel he has lost the ability to concentrate. He may even go through periods when he “forgets” how to do the practice itself!

11) Knowledge of equanimity regarding formations – sankharupekkha-nana

Progress through the knowledge of re-consideration is marked by the development of equanimity. At some point, a subtle but fundamental shift takes place, and the meditator enters a stage of the practice called the knowledge of equanimity regarding the formations (sankharuppekha-nana). This is the reward for all the work he has done and the suffering he has endured up to this point.

Now the dominant factors in the meditator’s mind are awareness and equanimity – as in the fourth jhana. All forms of pain either disappear or are minimised. There is little or no sense of mental disturbance. The meditation carries on by itself, with little or no conscious effort on the meditator’s part. He finds he can sit and walk for long periods of time, and needs little sleep. The attention rests naturally on a few experiences, staying on the same experience for long periods of time.

At this point the meditator feels he understands the practice as if for the first time. It is so simple and so obvious! This attitude of clarity and simplicity carries over into everything else. Life itself is so simple and so obvious! How could he ever have got himself tangled up in big problems! Everything is fundamentally OK. A meditator at this stage of the practice is very difficult to upset.

The knowledge of equanimity regarding formations may continue for a long time, gradually becoming more subtle and refined, or it may end fairly quickly. If the meditator relaxes his effort and just cruises along, enjoying and clinging to the pleasant aspects of the nana, then unknown to him his awareness declines, his equanimity turns into indifference, and he may, with a sense of great shock, find himself back in the dukkha nanas. It can be difficult to convince some meditators to maintain the momentum of the practice. If they do maintain the practice, then at some point they fall through the trap-door.

Stages 12 to 15

The knowledge of insight leading to the emergence (vitthanagamini-vipassana-nana) is the slide into the trap-door. It lasts only a few moments, during which time one of the three universal characteristics becomes dominant in the meditator’s mind. This characteristic is the “door” through which he enters nibbana. The universal characteristic which predominates during knowledge of insight leading to emergence will condition the meditator’s understanding of the dominant characteristic of nibbana.

The next two stages, knowledge of adaptation (anuloma-nana) and knowledge of connection (gotrabhu-nana) are momentary in the extreme. They may just be theoretical constructs to explain the sudden manifestation of the next stage, knowledge of path and result (maggaphala-nana). In practice, what happens is that the meditator is practicing, every aspect of his meditation is subtle, clear and bright, and then suddenly there is a sense of falling-into (knowledge of insight leading to emergence) and then the lights go out. There is a momentary sense of nothingness, and then the lights come on. If the meditator checks the watch, he realises some time has passed – depending on the strength of his concentration, this could be anything from a few minutes to a few days and he has “awoken” suddenly into a situation in which the practice is continuing, but the experience is much less subtle than before. The meditator is now in the knowledge of arising and passing away (udayabbaya-nana).

16) Knowledge of review – paccavekkhana-nana

What happened? Has he fallen asleep? No, because of the suddenness and clarity of the beginning and end of the experience of unconsciousness, and because there has been absolutely no physical movement. What the meditator has experienced is the total cessation of the mind-body process. He did not “know” this while it was happening., because there was no sense of a mind to know it. All he “knows” about the experience is his reflection on what has just happened. This reflection is the final nana, the knowledge of review (paccavekkhana-nana).

The journey of Insight: from normal experience, to increasing subtlety of experience, to the most subtle experience of all – the cessation of experience.