In This Very Life
Sayādaw U Pandita

© Saddhamma Foundation 1993
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5. The Vipassanā Jhānas


The Buddha said, “Indeed with meditation, one can develop knowledge and wisdom as grounded and as vast as the earth.” The quality of such wisdom permeates the mind, making it expansive and vast. In the absence of meditation, however, the mind becomes narrow and rigid under the constant assault of kilesas. Each moment we are unmindful, kilesas penetrate into the mind, making it tight, tense and agitated.

The objects that bombard us at the six sense doors are sometimes good and sometimes bad, sometimes pleasant, sometimes unpleasant. A pleasant visual object presents itself: the unguarded mind will naturally fill with craving and clinging, closing tightly around that object. Seized by this tension and agitation, the mind begins to scheme of ways to get that very pleasant object. From this plan to grasp the object, speech and physical movements may develop.

If the mind is unguarded and an unpleasant object appears, aversion will naturally arise. Again, the mind will become agitated. Some manifestation might be seen: a bright face twisted into a scowl, harsh and dreadful words, or even acts of violence.

In the face of objects neither pleasant nor unpleasant, if the mind is unguarded, delusion will cloud the mind, stopping it from seeing what is true. At this moment, too, there is tension and hardness of mind.

It would be foolish to think that we can eliminate pleasant, unpleasant and neutral objects from our lives. What is important is to maintain a wholesome relationship with them. Perhaps one could stuff one’s ears with cotton wool, blindfold oneself and grope about while maintaining a meditative state of mind. But obviously one could not block one’s nostrils or anesthetize one’s tongue, nor cut off the sensitivity of the body to heat, cold and other sensations. Sitting in meditation, we try to concentrate on the primary object. But we will still hear sounds, and strong sensations may arise in other parts of the body. Despite our best effort, our practice could slip for a few moments, and our thinking mind could run completely wild.

The Power of Restraint

The practice of restraint is an effective way of preventing this assault by kilesas. Restraint does not mean becoming dead and numb. It means guarding each sense door so that the mind does not run out through it into fantasies and thoughts, plans and schemes. Mindfulness is actually the cause for restraint to arise. When we are mindful in each moment, the mind is held back from falling into a state where greed, hatred and delusion may erupt. If we are vigilant, eventually the mind will become somewhat tamed and content not to escape into danger of ambush by kilesas.

We have to be on our toes. As soon as we come into contact with an object, we note it immediately for what it is. We want to be sure that in seeing is only the seeing, in hearing only the hearing, in touch only the touch, in taste only the taste, and in thinking, just the thought. Each of these processes should be clear and simple, not burdened with a lot of extra rumination, not clotted with kilesas. If I we are able to be really mindful, objects will arise and pass without further thoughts or reactions, just the process in itself. No matter what kind of objects we are forced to encounter, we will be safe from desire or aversion.

There was a great king in the Buddha’s time who was once very curious as to how monks could keep their precepts. Young monks, he observed, remained chaste even in the vigor of their prime, when lust easily arises. He asked a senior monk about this. The monk said, “When young monks come across a girl younger than they are, they consider her as their younger sister. When they come across a woman of the same age or slightly older, they consider her their elder sister. When they come across a woman older than that, they consider her their mother. If she is advanced in age, they consider her their grandmother.”

The king was not satisfied. He said, “But the mind is very quick, and even if you make yourself think in those ways, lust may already have arisen.”

The elder tried again. “If a monk comes across a woman, if he is unmindful and begins to admire her features, her body, then naturally lust will arise. But if he should look at a woman by dissecting her into pieces, in terms of the thirty-two parts of the body — hair, teeth, nails and so forth — and if he reflects on the repulsiveness of these parts, he will be filled with disgust and not desire her at all.” This meditation on the body was given by the Lord Buddha.

The king then asked, “What if a monk has more imagination than concentration?” On the subject of imagination, I would like to interpolate another story here.

Somewhere on the premises of a certain meditation center there is a little closet in which a skeleton is hung. The skeleton is for people to come and look at, reflecting upon the imminence of death, and perhaps also on bones as a repulsive body part. Under its bony feet is a small sign that says, “Sixteen-year-old girl.”

Possessed of wise attention, one visitor might say, “Oh, that poor girl, only sixteen but she had to die. I too will die one day.” Spiritual urgency might arise, and this person might try to do more good deeds, or practice meditation with greater ardor. Another visitor might reflect on the repulsiveness of the bones, and see that there is nothing to the body, just bones, this frame.

Along comes a young and imaginative man. Standing in front of the skeleton, his eyes fall on the placard that says what it once was. He says to himself, “What a pity! How beautiful she must have been before she died.” He looks at the skull and starts to flesh it out with a beautiful face, adding nice hair and a very nice neck. His eyes travel slowly downward, filling out each part of the body. He is filled with craving by the image he has called up, an image perhaps not so different from the creations of a taxidermist.

Let us return now to the story of the king. The older monk replied, “All the young monks practice mindfulness. They activate restraint of their senses, so that they are guarded at each sense door. Their minds are not wild. They don’t fantasize about the things they see.”

The king was impressed. He said, “Yes, that must be very true. I can testify from my own experience that when I go to my harem without mindfulness, I get into a lot of trouble. But if I am mindful I have no problems.”

I hope these tales illustrate the importance of sense restraint.

Intensive Restraint for Retreats

During an intensive meditation retreat, the value of restraint cannot be overestimated.

The scriptures give four practical guidelines for restraint during intensive practice.

First, a yogi must act like a blind person even though he or she may possess complete sight. The yogi should go about with lowered eyelids, incuriously, to keep the mind from scattering.

Second, the yogi must act like a deaf person, not reflecting, commenting upon, nor judging the sounds he or she may hear. A yogi should pretend not quite to understand sounds and should not listen for them.

Third, though a yogi may have a great deal of learning, may have read a tremendous amount about meditation and tried fifteen techniques, during actual practice he or she should put away all this knowledge. Keep it under lock and key, maybe even under the bed! A yogi should act like an ignorant person who does not know much and does not talk about the few things he or she does know.

Fourth, a yogi should act like a hospital patient, frail and sick, by slowing down and moving very mindfully.

There ought also to be a fifth principle. Even though a yogi is very much alive, he or she should behave like a dead person with respect to painful sensations. As you know, a corpse can be chopped to pieces like a log without feeling anything at all. If pain arises during meditation, a yogi should summon all of his or her courage and energy simply to look it in the face. He or she should make a heroic effort to penetrate and understand the pain, without shifting posture or letting aversion take over the mind.

In each moment we try to be mindful and present with whatever is arising. We try to note “seeing, seeing” at the moment of seeing; “hearing, hearing” at the moment of hearing, and so forth. Real effort is being made to note. There is also accuracy of mind, a precise aim that enables the mind to hit its target of observation. Mindfulness also is present, penetrating deeply into the object. And with mindfulness comes right concentration, which keeps the mind collected, not strained or dissipated.

How Wisdom Softens the Mind

Right effort, right aim, right mindfulness, right concentration: all these are factors of the Noble Eightfold Path. When they are present in the mind, the kilesas have no chance to arise. The kilesas, which make the mind so hard and rigid and agitated, are dispelled when one is with the moment, and so the mind has a chance to soften.

With continuous noting the mind gradually becomes more able to penetrate into the true nature of things. There comes the insight that everything is made up of just mind and matter, and the mind experiences a huge sense of relief. No one is there, just mind and matter, with no one creating them. If we can further see how these phenomena are conditioned, the mind will be free of doubts.

A yogi full of doubt is difficult to work with, rigid and tough and tense. No matter how much the teacher might try to convince him or her of what is beneficial in the practice, the effort will be in vain. If such a yogi can be persuaded to practice at least enough to gain insight into cause and effect, however, there will be no more problem. This insight clears the mind of doubt and makes it soft. The yogi will no longer wonder whether these phenomena of mind and matter might be created by some external force, another being invisible or supreme.

As we go deeper and deeper into the moment, the mind becomes softer and more relaxed as the tensions of the kilesas loosen. Observing the fleeting nature of mental and physical phenomena, one gains insight into their impermanence. As a side effect of this process, one is freed from pride and conceit. If one sees clearly the tremendous oppression brought about by phenomena, one gains insight into their suffering nature and thereby is freed from craving. If one sees the absence of self in all phenomena, realizing that the process of mind and matter is empty and not at all related to one’s wishes, one can be freed from the wrong view that there is some permanent entity called the self.

This is only the beginning. The deeper we penetrate into the true nature of reality, the more our mind becomes flexible, pliable, workable, dexterous. If one attains the first path consciousness, the first experience of nibbāna, certain kilesas will never make the mind tense and rigid again.

I hope that you may be continuous and active in mindfulness, so that you can develop that vast and expansive wisdom, as grounded as Mother Earth, the basis for all that exists on this planet.


Neither Wandering nor Stopping: A Riddle from the Buddha

As a teacher I observe that many yogis’ minds seem prone to wander, unaware of what is present here and now. Because I would like to help you understand the nature of the wandering mind, I will give you the following riddle. The Buddha said, “One should not allow the mind to wander without. Neither should one allow the mind to stop within. A bhikkhu who is able to be mindful in that way will eventually be able to extinguish all suffering.”

First of all I would like to say that all of you who sincerely practice may consider yourselves bhikkhus. Those of you who want to be free from suffering may be eager to apply this advice. However, it may be hard to know in which direction to make one’s leap. What is meant by wandering without, and how can we ensure that the mind will not do it? Perhaps we believe that the task is not so difficult. We have all experienced wandering mind, and we could just use force to prevent it. But if we do not let the mind wander outside, then it must have to stay inside, and the Buddha just told us not to do that!

You have probably noticed that the mind occurs within you. If you focus your attention on the present moment, where is your mind? If it is not outside, then it must be inside. What can you do now? Should you take a tranquilizer and forget this whole problem? Would even this be against the Buddha’s advice not to let the mind stop within?

Ah, but the Buddha promised that if we follow these instructions, we can escape from rebirth and its consequences — old age, diseases and death — all the things that happen against our wishes! He made this very pithy statement and then retired to his Gandhakuṭi, or fragrant chamber, leaving most of his listeners bewildered.

Looking around for help, people finally selected the Venerable Kaccāyana to explain the discourse. He was an arahant and was famous for explicating the very short discourses which the Buddha sometimes gave.

Solving the Buddha’s Riddle

Unraveling this discourse is a challenging and rewarding intellectual exercise. I suggest you begin by asking yourself what would happen to your mind if you did not keep it under control. How would it respond to objects?

If the mind comes into contact with a pleasant, desirable, tempting object, it naturally fills with greed. This is the moment we say it has wandered off. When it touches a disgusting, painful object, it fills with aversion. Again it becomes a wandering mind. The mind veiled in delusion, unable to see what is happening, is also a mind that has run away. So the Buddha was actually instructing his disciples not to allow the mental factors of greed, aversion and delusion to arise.

The experiences of seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling: are these to be considered part of the wandering mind as well?

The Sensing Process with and without Mindfulness

All the sensing processes occur through a series of consciousnesses which are neither wholesome nor unwholesome. Immediately after this series, however, if mindfulness does not intervene, there will occur a second, and perhaps a third or fourth and further series of consciousnesses accompanied by greed, hatred and delusion. The point of Vipassana practice is to sharpen mindfulness until it can catch the bare sensing process at the end of the amoral series of consciousnesses, and forestall the arising of further series accompanied by greed, hatred and delusion. If a mind can make this interception, we say that it is not wandering. The wandering mind is the mind that has been polluted by kilesas as it reflects on what has happened or what is happening.

Practically speaking, if we begin to reflect upon the characteristics of the object — “Oh, what a gorgeous color” — we know the mind has wandered off. If, on the other hand, we activate precise and penetrative mindfulness and diligent effort at the moment of seeing that colored object, we have the chance to understand the seeing process for what it really is. This is the chance to develop wisdom. We can see the relationship of mind to matter, the conditionally that relates them, and the characteristics of impermanence, suffering and absence of self they share.

You might like to try an experiment right now. Direct your attention to the rise and fall of the abdomen. If the mind makes an effort to be precisely aware of these movements, actually to feel them from beginning to end, it will be freed of greed, hatred and delusion. There are no thoughts of pleasurable objects, nor aversion to unpleasant objects, nor deluded confusion about what is going on.


Sound suddenly becomes predominant. At this moment, we leave behind the rising and falling movements. Even so, we do not consider that the mind has wandered if we are able to recognize immediately that this is a sound, and note it as “hearing, hearing,” without getting carried away by reflections about what caused the sound and so forth. There is no greed, no hatred or delusion in the mind.

It is another matter if the mind is drawn away by a familiar tune, and we begin to remember the last time we heard it and what the singer’s name is. Even during a sitting some yogis wriggle and tap their fingers when they remember songs from the past. They certainly suffer from wandering mind.

Once there was a yogi who was having a very interesting and powerful sitting. She was sitting nice and quiet when suddenly a neighboring yogi noisily got up from the cushion. She heard bones creak and clothing rustle. Immediately our yogi began to think, “Inconsiderate! How can he get up like that in the middle of the hour, when I’m trying to meditate!” She worked herself into quite a rage. That might be called “The Great Mind Wandering.” Most yogis, of course, work very conscientiously to avoid this state by being mindful of objects at the moment of occurrence, so as not to be caught by the wandering mind. This is exactly what the Venerable Kaccāyana said to do.


There are yet deeper aspects to this business of not wandering. The mind that is not wandering is the mind that is penetratively mindful of what is happening. The word “penetrative” is not used casually. It refers to a jhānic factor that must arise in the mind. Jhāna is usually translated as “absorption.” Actually, it refers to the quality of mind that is able to stick to an object and observe it.

Imagine you find something in the mud and you want to pick it up. If you take a sharp instrument and stick it into that thing, it will penetrate the object so that you can lift it out of the mud. If you were uncertain what the object was, you can look at it closely now. The same goes for the food on your plate. The way your fork pierces a morsel illustrates this jhānic factor.

Samatha Jhāna

There are two types of jhāna: samatha jhāna and vipassanā jhāna. Some of you may have read about the samatha jhānas and wonder why I am talking about them in the context of vipassanā. Samatha jhāna is pure concentration, fixed awareness of a single object — a mental image, for example, such as a colored disk or a light. The mind is fixed on this object without wavering or moving elsewhere. Eventually the mind develops a very peaceful, tranquil, concentrated state and becomes absorbed in the object. Different levels of absorption are described in the texts, each level having specific qualities.

Vipassanā Jhāna

On the other hand, vipassanā jhāna allows the mind to move freely from object to object, staying focused on the characteristics of impermanence, suffering and absence of self that are common to all objects. Vipassanā jhāna also includes the mind which can be focused and fixed upon the bliss of nibbāna. Rather than the tranquility and absorption which are the goal of samatha jhāna practitioners, the most important results of vipassanā jhāna are insight and wisdom.

Vipassanā jhāna is the focusing of the mind on paramattha dhammas. Usually these are spoken of as “ultimate realities,” but actually they are just the things we can experience directly through the six sense doors without conceptualization. Most of them are saṅkhāra paramattha dhamma, or conditioned ultimate realities; mental and physical phenomena which are changing all the time. Nibbāna is also a paramattha dhamma, but of course it is not conditioned.

Breathing is a good example of a conditioned process. The sensations you feel at the abdomen are conditioned ultimate realities, saṅkhāra paramattha dhamma, caused by your intention to breath. The whole purpose of concentrating one’s attention on the abdomen is to penetrate the actual quality and nature of what is happening there. When you are aware of movement, tension, tautness, heat or cold, you have begun to develop vipassanā jhāna.

Mindfulness at the respective sense doors follows the same principle. If there is diligent effort and penetrative awareness, focusing on what is happening in any particular sense process, the mind will understand the true nature of what is happening. The sensing processes will be understood in individual characteristics as well as common ones.

According to the fourfold way of reckoning, which admits of four levels of jhāna, the first jhāna possesses five factors which we will describe below. All of them are important in vipassanā practice.

The Five Jhānic Factors

The first of them is called vitakka. It is the factor of aiming, accurately directing the mind toward an object. It also has the aspect of establishing the mind on the object, so that the mind stays there.

The second factor is vicāra (pronounced “vichara”), generally translated as “investigation” or “reflection.” After vitakka has brought the mind to the object and placed it firmly there, vicāra continues to rub the mind onto the object. You can experience this yourself when observing rising and falling. First you make the effort to be precise in aiming the mind at the rising process. Then your mind reaches the object and it does not slip off. It impinges on the object, rubs against it.

As you are mindful in an intuitive and accurate way from moment to moment, the mind gets more and more pure. The hindrances of desire, aversion, sloth, restlessness and doubt, weaken and disappear. The mind becomes crystal clear and calm. This state of clarity results from the presence of the two jhānic factors we just discussed. It is called viveka, which means seclusion. The consciousness is secluded, far away from the hindrances. This viveka is not a jhānic factor. It is merely a descriptive term for this secluded state of consciousness.

The third jhānic factor is pīti, rapture, a delighted interest in what is occurring. This factor may manifest physically as gooseflesh, as feelings of being dropped suddenly as if in an elevator, or as feelings of rising off the ground .The fourth jhānic factor, sukha, happiness or comfort, comes on the heels of the third. One feels very satisfied with the practice. Because both the third and the fourth jhānic factors come about as a result of seclusion from the hindrances, they are called vivekaja pīti sukha, meaning the rapture, joy and happiness born out of seclusion.

Think of this sequence as a causal chain. Seclusion of mind comes about because of the presence of the first two jhānic factors. If the mind is accurately aimed at the object, if it hits it and rubs it, after some time the mind will become secluded. Because the mind is secluded from the hindrances, one becomes happy, joyous and comfortable.

When these first four jhānic factors are present, the mind automatically becomes calm and peaceful, able to concentrate on what is happening without getting scattered or dispersed. This one-pointedness of mind is the fifth jhānic factor, samādhi, or concentration.

Access to the First Vipassanā Jhāna Requires Insight into Mind and Matter

It is not sufficient to have all five factors present for one to say one has attained the first vipassanā jhāna. The mind must also come to penetrate into the Dhamma a little bit, enough to see the interrelationship of mind and matter. At this time we say that access to the first vipassanā jhāna has occurred.

A yogi whose mind is composed of these five jhānic factors will experience a new accuracy of mindfulness, a new level of success in sticking with the object. Intense rapture, happiness and comfort in the body may also arise. This could be the occasion for him or her to gloat over the wondrousness of the meditation practice. “Oh wow, I’m getting really precise and accurate. I even feel like I’m floating in the air!” You might recognize this reflection as a moment of attachment.

Stopping Within

Anyone can get caught up in rapture, happiness and comfort. This attachment to what is happening within us is a manifestation of a special kind of craving, a craving not connected with ordinary, worldly sensual pleasures. Rather, such craving comes directly out of one’s meditation practice. When one is unable to be aware of this craving when it arises, it will interfere with one’s practice. Rather than directly noting, one wallows in the pleasant phenomena unmindfully, or thinks about the further delights that might ensure from one’s practice. Now we can understand the Buddha’s mystifying admonition, for this attachment to the pleasant results of meditation is what he meant by stopping within.

It seems we have explicated this very short sutta instructing us to avoid wandering without as well as stopping within. There is a still a bit more to discuss, however, to deepen our understanding.

Threefold Seclusion

The sutta implies that one should avoid certain things when one practices meditation. One avoids contact with kāma or sensual pleasures and with unwholesome dhammas. One avoids these two things precisely by practicing threefold seclusion: kāya viveka, seclusion of the body; citta viveka, seclusion of mind; and upadhi viveka, which comes as a result of the first two and is a state where defilements and hindrances are very far away and weak.

Kāya viveka actually refers to seclusion not from a physical body, but from the “body” of objects related to sensual pleasures. This means simply the objects of the senses considered as a group: sounds, visual objects, smells, tastes, and tactile objects.

Seclusion from unwholesome dhammas comes under the category of citta viveka: seclusion of the mind from the various hindrances which obstruct the growth of concentration and insight. In a practical way, this citta viveka simply means activating mindfulness moment to moment. A yogi who can maintain continuity of mindfulness moment to moment has activated citta viveka.

These two types of viveka do not come without an effort. For kāya viveka, we must remove ourselves from an environment of sensual pleasures, taking the opportunity to practice in a place conducive to peace of mind. This removal is not in itself sufficient, of course. To acquire citta viveka, we become mindful of all the objects that arise at the six sense doors.

To be mindful, one must direct the mind toward an object. The effort to be mindful is instrumental in bringing a sense of accuracy in the mind. This aim, this effort toward accuracy in placing the mind squarely on the meditation object, is the first jhānic factor, vitakka.

So, you must have aiming. You try to observe the rising and falling of the abdomen. Eventually the mind hits the bull’s-eye, clearly noticing sensations of hardness, tension, movement. It begins to impinge and rub against the object. This is vicāra, as we said before. After the mind has been rubbing against its object for some time, it wil become engrossed and absorbed into it. When you stay with the rise and fall of the abdomen, fewer thoughts arise. You may even go for some time without having a single thought. Clearly, the mind is free from objects of sense pleasure and also from kilesas which are caused by these objects, Kāya viveka and citta viveka are therefore present. With continued practice, effort and continuity, the kilesas will fade into extreme remoteness. At last you have the third type of seclusion, upadhi viveka.

A Special Kind of Happiness

With upadhi viveka, the mind becomes soft and subtle, light and buoyant, dexterous and flexible. A special kind of happiness, nekkhamma sukha, arises, the happiness and comfort that come from being free from sensual objects as well as from the unwholesome kilesas which react to those objects. So, in place of ordinary apparent happiness, this liberating comfort appears. Does it seem strange that in relinquishing the comfort of the senses, one gains a very comfortable state of being liberated from the very senses we have relinquished? This is the true renunciation of sense pleasures.

Seclusion of the mind from unwholesome dhammas actually means seclusion of the mind from all kilesas. There is no opportunity for kilesas to arise because the immediate cause of kilesas, namely sense objects, have been given up. Now the word jhāna, the state of being absorbed, takes on a whole new meaning. As a result of the jhānic factors of vitakka, aim, and vicāra, rubbing, sensual pleasures have been given up and the kilesas put away. Not only does jhāna allow absorption, but it also removes kilesas. It burns them away as if it were fire.

The Relationship of Vitakka and Vicāra

In the development of jhānic states, these two factors of vitakka and vicāra, accurate aim and impingement, are absolutely important. The two of them have a close relationship which is much discussed in the scriptures. Below are two examples.

Imagine that you have a brass cup that is covered with dirt and stains. You take brass polish and put it on a rag. Holding the cup in one hand, you use the other hand to rub the rag against its surface. Working diligently and carefully, soon you will have a shiny cup.

In the same way, a yogi must hold his or her mind in the particular place where the primary object is occurring, the abdomen. He or she keeps applying mindfulness at that place, rubbing it until the stains and pollution of the kilesas disappear. Then he or she will be able to penetrate into the true nature of what is happening at that spot. He or she will comprehend the process of rising and falling. Of course, if other objects become more prominent than the primary object, a yogi must note them applying vitakka and vicāra toward the new phenomena.

Holding the mug with one hand is analogous to vitakka, while the polishing action is analogous to vicāra. Imagine what would happen if this yogi only held on to the mug and did not polish it. It would remain as dirty as before.

If he or she tried to polish it without holding it steady, it would again be impossible to do a good job. This illustrates the interdependency of the two factors.

The second example is that of a compass, the kind used in geometry. As you know, a compass has two arms, a pointed one and another which holds the pencil. You must firmly place your mind on the object of meditation, as if your mind were the pointed end of the compass; and then you must rotate the mind, so to speak, until it can see the object as a while and very clearly. A perfect circle will result. Again, the placing of the pointed end is analogous to vitakka, and the rotation to vicāra.

Direct, Intuitive Knowledge

Sometimes vicāra is translated into English as “investigation” or “sustained thought.” This is very misleading. People in the West have been educated since kindergarten to use their intellects, always to seek the whys and wherefores. Unfortunately, this kind of investigation is inappropriate for meditation. Intellectual learning and knowledge is only one of two kinds. The other kind of knowledge and learning is direct and intuitive. In meditation one examines the ultimate realities, or paramattha dhammas, directly. One must actually experience them, without thinking about them. This is the only way to attain insight and wisdom relating to things as they really are, the natural state of affairs. One may understand a lot intellectually about ultimate reality. One may have read a great deal, but without experiencing reality directly, there can be no insight.

The reason why the samatha jhānas can grant tranquility, but do not lead directly to wisdom is that they have concepts as their objects, rather than objects which can be directly experienced without thinking. The vipassanā jhānas lead to wisdom, because they consists of direct, sustained contact with the ultimate realities.
Say you have an apple in front of you and you have heard someone say that it is a very juicy, sweet and delicious apple. Perhaps instead you come across this same apple and you think, “Boy, that looks like a really juicy apple. I bet it will be very sweet.” You can think, you can bet, but until you take a bite you will not experience the taste of that fruit. So too with meditation. You may vividly imagine what a certain experience is like, but you have not experienced the real thing until you have actually made the effort to practice in the right way. Then you will have your own insight. There is no arguing with the taste of an apple.


Just as darkness engulfs a room in the middle of the night when there is no candle, so the darkness of delusion and ignorance arises in the human mind when it is not properly attuned to the object of meditation. This darkness is not empty and uneventful, though. On the contrary, in each moment of ignorance the mind is continually seeking and grasping after desirable sights, sounds, thoughts, smells, tastes and sensations. Beings in this condition spend all their waking hours seeking, grasping and clinging. They are so enmeshed that it is difficult for them to appreciate the possibility of another sort of happiness beyond those sensual pleasures which are so familiar. Talk of meditation, the practical method of achieving a higher happiness, will be unintelligible to them.

Vipassanā practice is a full and continuous attention to the object. This involves two aspects of concentration, vitakka and vicāra: aiming and rubbing discussed above. These two jhānic factors keep the mind absorbed in the object of noting. If they are absent, the mind will stray. Bombarded by sense objects and kilesas, especially the kilesas of longing for sensual objects, the mind will be engulfed by delusion and ignorance. There will be no light, no chance for the remaining three jhānic factors to assemble with the first two to create the environment of peace, clarity and joy where insight blossoms.

The Five Hindrances

The five specific ways in which the mind strays from its object are called the five hindrances. Of the seemingly endless variety of kilesas, the hindrances represent the five major types. They are labeled “hindrances” because each of them has a particular power to obstruct and impede our practice.

As long as the mind is seduced by temptations of the senses, it cannot remain steadily observing a meditation object. Drawn away time and again, it will never travel that path of practice which leads beyond ordinary happiness. Thus, kāmacchanda, or sensual desire, is the first and greatest hindrance to our practice.

For an object to be distracting in an unpleasant way is another frequent occurrence. Upon contact with an unpleasant object, the mind fills with vyāpāda, aversion or anger. This too leads the mind away from the object, and so also away from the direction of true happiness.

At other times alertness and vigilance vanish. The mind becomes drowsy, unworkable and sluggish. Once again, it cannot stay with the object. This called thina middha, sloth and torpor. It is third on the list of hindrances.

Sometimes the mind becomes very frivolous and dissipated, flirting with one object and then another. This is called uddhacca kukkucca, restlessness and worry. The mind cannot stay one-pointed on its object but is scattered and dissipated, full of memories of past deeds, remorse and regret, worry and agitation.

The fifth and last major hindrance is vicikicchā, skeptical doubt and criticism. Surely you have experienced times when you have doubted yourself, the method of practice or your teachers. You may compare this practice to others you have done or heard about, and you become completely paralyzed, like a traveler at a crossroads who, unsure of the right way cannot decide which path to take.

The presence of hindrances means that rapture, comfort, one-pointedness of mind, right aim and continuity are lacking. These five wholesome factors are the factors of the first jhāna; they are integral parts of successful vipassanā practice. Each jhānic factors is the antidote for a specific hindrance, and each hindrance is the enemy of a jhānic factor.

Concentration: The Antidote for Sense Desire

In this sensual world the hindrance of sense desire is chiefly responsible for keeping us in darkness. Concentration, one-pointedness, is its antidote. When your mind is concentrated on the object of meditation, it does not attach itself to other thoughts, nor does it desire pleasant sights and sounds. Pleasurable objects lose their power over the mind. Dispersion and dissipation cannot occur.

Rapture: The Antidote for Aversion

As concentration takes the mind to more subtle levels, deep interest arises. Rapture and joy fills one’s being. This development frees the mind from the second hindrance, for anger cannot coexist with joy. Thus, the scriptures say that joy and rapture are the antidotes to anger.

Happiness or Comfort: The Antidote for Restlessness

Now, with meditation well developed, a great sense of comfort can begin to arise. The mind watches unpleasant sensations peacefully, without aversion. There is ease in the mind, even if the objects are difficult. Sometimes pain even disappears under the influence of mindfulness, leaving behind a sense of physical release. With this physical and mental comfort, the mind is content to remain with the object. It does not fly about. Comfort is the antidote for restlessness and anxiety.

Aim: The Antidote for Sloth and Torpor

The jhānic factor of vitakka or aim has the specific power to open and refresh the mind. It makes the mind alive and open. Thus, when the mind is continually and diligently trying to be accurate in aiming at the object, sloth and torpor do not arise. A mind attacked by drowsiness is a mind that has been constricted and withered. Vitakka is the antidote to thina middha.

Continuous Attention or Rubbing: The Antidote for Doubt

If aim is good, it follows that the mind will hit its target of observation. This impinging or rubbing against the object is the jhānic factor of vicāra, which has the function of continuity, keeping the mind stuck to its object of observation. Continuous attention is the opposite of doubt, for doubt is indecision. The doubting mind cannot fix itself on any particular object; instead it runs here and there considering possibilities. Obviously, when vicāra is present the mind cannot slip from the object and behave in this manner.

Immature wisdom also contributes to the spreading of doubt. Without a certain depth and maturity of practice, it is obvious that very profound Dhamma will be obscure to us. Beginning yogis may wonder about things they have heard about but never experienced. But the more they try to think such things through, the less they will understand. Frustration and continued thinking eventually lead to criticism. For this vicious cycle continuous attention is again the antidote. A mind firmly stuck to its object uses all its power to observe; it does not generate critical thoughts.


When you can keep your attention on the rising and falling from the very beginning of its occurrence to the very end, developing that penetrative, accurate mindfulness from moment to moment in an unbroken and continuous manner, then you may come to notice that you can see clearly with your mind’s eye the entire rising process. From its beginning, through the middle, to the end, there is not a single gap. The experience is utterly clear to you.

You now begin to move through the progression of insights that is only available through vipassanā meditation, direct observation of mind and body. First you make the subtle distinction between the mental and physical elements constituting the rising and falling processes. Sensations are material objects, distinct from the consciousness that perceives them. As you observe more carefully, you begin to see how mind and matter are mutually connected, causally linked. An intention in the mind causes the appearance of a series of physical objects constituting a movement. Your mind starts to appreciate how mind and matter come into being and disappear. The fact of arising and vanishing comes into crystal focus. It becomes obvious that all objects in your field of consciousness have the nature to come and go. Sounds begin and then they end. Sensations in the body arise and then dissolve. Nothing lasts.

At this point in the practice, there begins to be a strong presence of all five factors of the first jhāna, discussed above. Aiming and impinging, vitakka and vicāra, have strengthened. Concentration, rapture and comfort join them. The first vipassanā jhāna is said to be complete, and vipassanā ñāṇa or vipassanā insight knowledge can begin to arise.

Vipassanā insight knowledge is concerned specifically with the three general characteristics of conditioned phenomena: anicca (pronounced “anicha”), or impermanence; dukkha (pronounced duke-ka) unsatisfactoriness or suffering; and anatta or absence of an abiding self.

Anicca: Impermanence

As you watch objects come and go, you will begin to appreciate their momentary nature, their impermanence. This knowledge of anicca is direct, firsthand; you feel its truth anywhere you place your attention. During the moment your mind is in contact with the object, you see clearly how the object dissolves. A great sense of satisfaction arises. You feel a deep interest in your meditation, and rejoice at fact and truth about the universe.

Even simple and general observation tells us that the while body is anicca, or impermanent. Therefore the term anicca refers to the whole body. Looking closer, we see that all phenomena which occur at the six sense doors are anicca; they are impermanent things. We can also understand anicca to mean all the impermanent things comprising mind and matter, mental and physical phenomena. there is no object we can find in this conditioned world that is not anicca.

The fact of arising and falling away is anicca lakkhaṇa, the characteristic or sign of impermanence. It is precisely in the arising and passing that anicca can be recognized. Aniccānupassanā-ñāṇa is the intuitive comprehension which realizes the fact of impermanence; it occurs in the very moment of noting a particular object and watching it dissolve. it is important to make this point, that aniccānupassana-ñāṇa only can occur in the precise moment when one sees the passing away of a phenomenon. In the absence of such immediate seeing, then, it is impossible to understand impermanence.

Would one be justified in saying that one has had an insight into impermanence through reading about the impermanent state of things? Can one say an insight has occurred at the moment when one’s teacher says that all things pass away? Or can one deeply understand impermanence through deductive or inductive reasoning? The answer to these questions is a firm “No.” True insight only occurs in the presence of a nonthinking, bare awareness of the passing away of phenomena in the present moment.

Say you are watching the rising and falling of the abdomen. In the moment of rising, you may be aware of tautness, tenseness, expansion and movement. If you can follow the rising process from beginning to end, and the ending of these sensations is clear to you, it is possible for aniccānupassanā-ñāṇa to occur. All sensations that can be felt at the abdomen or anywhere else are anicca, impermanent things. Their characteristics, of having appeared at the beginning of the rising process and having disappeared at the end, constitute anicca lakkhaṇa. The realization that they are impermanent can only occur in a moment when one is observing their disappearance.

Impermanence is not confined to one’s abdomen. Everything that occurs in seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, thinking, touching — all the sensations of the body, heat and cold, and hardness and pain — and all of one’s miscellaneous activities — bending, turning, reaching out, walking — all these things are impermanent. If you can see the vanishing of any of these objects, you will be involved in aniccānupassanā-ñāṇa. You will lose the illusion of permanence. Māna or conceit also will be absent. In fact, during times when you are mindfully aware of impermanence, your general level of conceit will progressively diminish.

Dukkha: Suffering or Unsatisfactoriness

The second characteristic of conditioned reality is dukkha, suffering or unsatisfactoriness. It can be discussed under the same three categories: dukkha, dukkha lakkhaṇa and dukkhānupassanā-ñāṇa.

During your observation of anicca, very naturally the factor of suffering will also become apparent. As phenomena arise and pass, you will realize that nothing is dependable and there is nothing fixed to cling to. Everything is in flux, and this is unsatisfactory. Phenomena provide no refuge. Dukkha itself is actually a kind of synonym for impermanence, referring to all impermanent things. Whatever is impermanent also is suffering.

At this point of development in meditation practice, painful sensations can become very interesting. One can observe them for some time without reacting. One sees that they are not solid at all; they do not actually last more than the briefest instant. The illusion of continuity begins to crumble. A pain in the back: one sees fiery heat transform itself into pressure, and then into throbbing. The throbbing changes its texture, its shape and intensity, moment by moment. Finally, a climax occurs. The mind is able to see the breakup and disintegration of that pain. Pain vanishes from the field of consciousness.

Conquering the pain, one is filled with joy and exhilaration. The body feels cool, calm, comfortable, yet one is not deluded into thinking that suffering has been abolished. The unsatisfying nature of sensations becomes ever more clear. One begins to see this body as a mass of painful and unsatisfactory phenomena, dancing without respite to impermanence’s tune.

The characteristic of dukkha, or dukkha lakkhaṇa, is oppression by impermanence. Precisely because all objects arise and pass away from moment to moment we live in a highly oppressive situation. Once arising had occurred, there is no way to prevent passing away.

Dukkhānupassanā-ñāṇa, the insight that comprehends suffering, also occurs at the moment when one is contemplating the passing away of phenomena, but it has a different flavor from aniccānupassanā-ñāṇa. One is suddenly seized by a great realization that none of these objects is dependable. There is no refuge in them; they are fearsome things.

Again it is important to understand that the appreciation of suffering we gain through reading books, or through our own reasoning and reflection, does not constitute the real thing. Dukkhānupassanā-ñāṇa only occurs when the mind is present with bare awareness, watching the arising and passing away of phenomena, and understanding that their impermanence is fearful, fearsome, undesirable and bad.

The true realization that suffering is inherent in all phenomena can be very powerful. It eliminates the deluded view that these things are pleasurable. When such an illusion vanishes, craving cannot arise.

Anatta: The Absence of Self

Automatically now, one appreciates anatta, that no one is behind these processes. Moment to moment, phenomena occur; this is a natural process with which one is not identified. This wisdom relating to the absence of self in things, anattānupassanā-ñāṇa, also is based on two preceding aspects, anatta itself and anatta lakkhaṇa.

Anatta refers to all impermanent phenomena which possess no self-essence — in other words, every single element of mind and matter. The only difference from anicca and dukkha is that a different aspect is being highlighted.

The characteristic of anatta, anatta lakkhaṇa, is seeing that an object does not arise or pass away according to one’s wishes. All the mental and physical phenomena that occur in us come and go of their own accord, responding to their own natural laws. Their occurrence is beyond our control.

We can see this in a general way by observing the weather. At times it is extremely hot, at other time freezing cold. At times it is wet, at other times dry. Some climates are fickle, such that one does not know what will happen next. In no climate can one adjust the temperature to suit one’s comfort. Weather is subject to its own natural laws, just like the elements that constitute our minds and bodies. When we fall ill, suffer, and eventually die, are these processes not contrary to our wishes?

While conscientiously watching all the mental and physical phenomena arising and passing away within, one may be struck by the fact that no one is in control of the process. Such an insight comes quite naturally. It is not affected or manipulated in any way. Nor does it come from reflection. It simply occurs when one is present, observing the passing away of phenomena. This is called anattānupassanā-ñāṇa.

When one is unable to see the momentary arising and passing away of phenomena, one is easily misled to think that there is a self, an individual unchanging entity behind the process of body and mind. With clear awareness, this false view is momentarily eliminated.

Verified Knowledge by Comprehension: The Fulfillment of the First Vipassanā Jhāna.

When awareness is clear, especially when the passing away of things is noticeable, one can appreciate intuitively the characteristics of impermanence, of suffering, or of absence of self that are inherent in all phenomena. The intuitive understanding of all three of these characteristics is included in a particular stage of insight, sammasana-ñāṇa, meaning the insight that arises out of verification. Often this term is translated as “verified knowledge by comprehension.” One comprehends or verifies the three characteristics through a personal experience of seeing the disappearance of phenomena.

Though it is very commonly used, the word “insight” may not be an appropriate translation of the Pāli word vipassanā. The word vipassanā has two parts, vi and passanā. Vi refers to various modes, and passanā is seeing. Thus, one meaning of vipassanā is “seeing through various modes.”

These various modes, of course, are those of impermanence, suffering and absence of self. A more complete translation of vipassanā now becomes “Seeing through the modes of impermanence, suffering, and absence of self.”

Another synonym for vipassanāñāṇa is paccakkha-ñāṇa. Paccakkha here refers to direct experiential perception. Because true vipassanāñāṇa only arises when one is mindful, because it occurs intuitively rather than from reasoning, it is called a direct experiential insight, paccakkha-ñāṇa.

As vipassanāñāṇa recurs in one’s practice, the mind is led into a natural and spontaneous reflection that impermanence, suffering and nonselfness are not only manifest in the present situation. One realizes by deduction that these three qualities have also manifested throughout the past and will continue to prevail in the future. Other beings and objects are constituted of the same elements as oneself, all impermanent, unsatisfactory and empty of self-nature. This reflection is called deductive knowledge, and it is a further aspect of the jhānic factors of vitakka and vicāra, manifesting in this case on the thinking level.

At this stage the first vipassanā jhāna is considered to be fully developed, and the stage of practice called “verified knowledge by comprehension,” sammasanañāṇa, is fulfilled. One has a deep and clear appreciation of the three characteristics of conditioned phenomena: anicca, dukkha and anatta. One has reached the deductive conclusion that in this world there never has been, nor will there ever be, a situation that is not pervaded by these three aspects.

Deduction and reflection tend to be present in the first vipassanā jhāna. They are harmless unless they begin to take over one’s mind. Especially in the case of a person who is highly intellectual, who has a vivid imagination or is philosophically bent, too much reflection can get in the way of personal and direct experience. it can actually put a stop to insight.

If one is this kind of person and finds one’s practice somewhat undermined, one can console oneself with the knowledge that this is not wrong thinking. In this instance, reflection is connected with the Dhamma rather than with greed or aversion. Despite this fact, of course, one should make the effort to return to bare observation, simply experiencing phenomena.

Wholesome and Unwholesome Vitakka

The word vitakka, used for the jhānic factor of accurate aim, includes this reflection on a thinking level, directing one’s attention toward a thought. There are wholesome and unwholesome kinds of vitakka.

Directing one’s attention toward sense pleasures is said to be unwholesome vitakka. Its wholesome counterpart is vitakka connected with renunciation. Vitakka connected with aversion and aggression is unwholesome. Vitakka connected with nonaversion and with nonviolence is wholesome.

When deductive knowledge of anicca, dukkha and anatta arises as explained above, the vitakka connected with sensual pleasures is absent. In the series of thoughts that come out of direct personal insight, some desire may be present, but it probably will not be concerned with the pleasures of this world — fame, sex, wealth, property. More likely, one will feel a very wholesome desire to renounce the world or to be generous or to spread the Dhamma. Thought these thoughts constitute vitakka or reflections, they are connected with nongreed or renunciation.

Vitakka connected with anger is an aggressive state of mind, in which one desires that another person suffer harm and misfortune. Rooted in anger, it has a destructive quality behind it. Nonaversion or nonhatred refers to the lovely quality of mettā, loving kindness. In contrast to the aggressive, destructive quality of hatred, mettā wishes the welfare and happiness of others. When one has tasted the Dhamma through personal experiences as mentioned above it is not unusual to want to share it with loved ones. You want others to have the same experience. This kind of thought is connected with mettā, for it wishes the well-being of others.

The last path of vitakka is connected with causing harm. It has two branches: cruel thought and noncruel thought. A cruel thought contains the desire to harm, oppress, torture, or kill other beings. It is another very destructive quality of the mind rooted in hatred. Non-cruelty, on the other hand, is the quality of compassion of karuṇā, wanting to help others and to relieve them of any suffering or distress they may feel. One who has strong compassion will not only feel it emotionally, but will also seek ways and means to relieve the suffering of others.

Vicāra as Reflective Knowledge

If such reflective thoughts recur again and again, this process takes the name of vicāra. This is the same word used for the more sustained, rubbing aspect of focused attention. Here it means repeated reflection on the thinking level. First one experiences a direct intuitive insight; and afterwards, deductive knowledge arises concerning the insight. Deductive knowledge is spicy and enjoyable, but in excess it develops into long trains of thought which interrupt the process of direct observation. These may be very noble thoughts — of renunciation, mettā and compassion — but nonetheless one is caught by them and carried away. At this time, insight cannot occur.

May you strongly generate those two very important mental factors, vitakka and vicāra, in your practice. May you aim the mind carefully and rub the object thoroughly until you see it clearly and penetrate its true nature. May you not be sidetracked even by wonderful thoughts. Thus you will go through the various stages of insight and eventually realize nibbāna.


The first vipassanā jhāna operates up to the point where a yogi attains the insight into the rapid arising and passing away of phenomena. Experiencing this insight and going beyond it, a yogi grows up, as it were.

The Second Vipassanā Jhāna

He or she leaves behind the childhood of reflective thinking and enters the maturity of simple, bare attention.

Now the meditator’s mind becomes lucid and sharp. He or she is able to follow the very fast rate at which phenomena appear and disappear from moment to moment. Because of the continuity and sharpness of mindfulness, there is little discursive thinking. Nor is there doubt about the impermanent, momentary nature of mind and matter. At this time, the practice seems effortless. In the absence of effortful application and reflective thought, there is space for joy and rapture. This nonthinking bare attention is called the second vipassanā jhāna.

In the first vipassanā jhāna, then, the mind is congested with effort and discursive thinking. It is only when the second vipassanā jhāna arises at the beginning of insight into the arising and passing away of phenomena that clarity, rapture, faith and great comfort begin to predominate.

The Danger of Faith, Calm, Rapture and Happiness

The mind is able to become more precise, and concentration deepens. This deepened concentration leas to the clear verified faith that arises from personal experience. It also brings believing faith, faith that if one continues the practice one will gain the benefits promised by the Buddha and by one’s teachers. Rapture, mental and physical comfort also become strong at this stage. When yogis attain the second vipassanā jhāna there is a strong likelihood that they will become attached to these extraordinarily pleasant states of mind. They experience the deepest happiness of their lives. Some may even believe they have become enlightened. In such a case, the prospect of further progress grows dim. Yogis will have done what the Buddha called “stopping within,” which I discussed earlier.

If you have extraordinary experiences, please make it a point to note and label them. Be clearly aware that rapture, faith, tranquility and so forth are no more than mental states. If, while noting them, you realize that you are attached to them, cut the attachment immediately and return your attention to the primary object at the abdomen. Only then will your progress continue, and it will bring you even sweeter fruit.

Meditation teachers have to be tactful in dealing with students who are in this stage of practice. The students are so excited by their experiences that they tend to rebel if the teacher is too deflating. Instead, one might gently say, “Your practice is not bad. These are natural things which arise in practice, but there are many other experiences which are much better than what you have now. So why don’t you note all these things so you can experience the better ones?”

Paying heed to these instructions, the yogi returns to sitting and carefully notes the lights, faith, rapture, happiness, tranquility and comfort. It dawns on him or her that this simple noting actually is the correct path of practice. Thus oriented, he or she can proceed with great confidence.

The Arising of the Third Vipassanā Jhāna

Rapture will gradually fade, but mindfulness and concentration will continue to deepen. Then insight into the true nature of what is happening will become very strong. At this point, the enlightenment factor of upekkhā, equanimity, becomes predominant. The mind remains unshaken by pleasant objects as well as unpleasant ones, and a deep sense of comfort arises in the body and mind. Yogis can sit for long hours without pain, and their bodies become pure, light and robust. This is the third vipassanā jhāna, whose two jhānic factors are comfort and one-pointedness of mind. The third jhāna arises at a more mature stage of the insight into arising and passing away.

The transition from the second jhāna to the third is a critical turning point in practice. Human beings have a natural attachment to thrills and excitement which agitate the mind. Rapture is one of these agitating pleasures; it creates ripples in the mind. It is rather adolescent, though. So when you experience it, be certain to increase your vigilance and note as meticulously as you can. As long as a yogi remains attached to rapture, he or she will not move forward into the more mature, subtle happiness that comes with peace and comfort.

The Climax of Happiness

The scriptures illustrate the transition with the story of a mother cow who is suckling her calf. It is important to wean the calf early, so that the cow’s milk can be used by human beings. If the calf is not weaned, it will constantly drink up all the cow’s milk. This calf is like the second jhāna which feeds and thrives on pīti or rapture. The mother cow might be the third jhāna, and the person who is able to drink the sweet, fresh milk is like a yogi who has successfully gone beyond his or her attachment to rapture.

The happiness or comfort that can be tasted in this third vipassanā jhāna is said in the scriptures to be the peak or climax of happiness that can be experienced in vipassanā practice. It is the sweetest. Nevertheless, the yogi can dwell in it with equanimity and without attachment.

To continue noting precisely remains crucial, lest the comforts of mind and body, the sharpness and clarity of insight, give rise to subtle attachment. If you feel that your insight is fantastic, sharp and and clear, you should note this. However, attachment is less likely to arise, since a comprehensive, panoramic mindfulness is present which notes each object easily and without slipping.

Dissolution of Phenomena: The Comfort Disappears

The third jhāna is called the climax of happiness because there is no more happiness in the next jhāna. As you note phenomena, you will gradually pass beyond the stage of insight into arising and passing away, into the stage of dissolution of phenomena. At this point the beginnings and the middles of objects are no longer clear. Instead the mind perceives continuous dissolution of phenomena, which disappear as soon as they are noted. Often it seems as if there is no body at all, only bare phenomena dissolving away continuously.

Yogis tend to get distraught and upset, not only because they feel a lack of comfort, but also because the rapid disappearance of phenomena can be quite disconcerting. Before you can note an object, it has gone. leaving empty space. The next phenomenon behaves in the same way.

Concepts become indistinct. Up to now, the yogi may have seen phenomena clearly, but the mental factor of perception, or recognition, was still mixed in. Thus he or she was able to see both the ultimate, nonconceptual reality of objects and also the concept of form: body, arm, leg, head, abdomen, and so forth. At the dissolution stage of insight, concepts fall away. You may be unable to tell where the phenomena are located; there is only disappearance.

“What happened?” you may cry. “I was doing so well, and now my practice is falling apart. It’s out of control I can’t note a single thing.” Self-judgement, dissatisfaction, fill your mind. Obviously there is no comfort.

Eventually it is possible to gain ease in this new space. You can just cooly settle back and watch the continual flow of phenomena. This stage of insight is called “insight into dissolution of phenomena.” It has an interesting quality. There is no more physical or mental happiness or ease, nor are there outright discomforts or pains in the body at this time. The feeling in the mind is rather neutral, too.

The Appearance of the Fourth Vipassanā Jhāna

During the maturation of insight into the arising and passing away of phenomena, the rapture of the second jhāna gave way to the third jhāna factor of comfort. The outrageous pleasure of rapture was replaced by milder and subtler feelings of comfort and peace. As comfort disappears in the dissolution stage of insight, it still does not incur mental displeasure. Now the third jhāna gives way to the fourth, whose characteristic jhāna factors are equanimity and one-pointedness of mind.

Insight into Equanimity Regarding All Formations

With a mind that is neither pleased nor displeased, comfortable nor uncomfortable, upekkhā or equanimity arises. Upekkhā has a tremendous power to balance the mind. In this particular aspect, it is known as tatramajjhattatā. In this environment of balance, mindfulness can become perfectly pure, keen and sharp. Subtle aspects of phenomena can be seen with incredible and uninterrupted clarity as particles and tiny vibrations. In fact, tatramajjhattatā is present in each of the jhānas from the beginning. Yet in the first, second and third jhānas, it is hidden by more assertive qualities, like the moon in daylight which cannot compete with the sun.

Summary of the Four Vipassanā Jhānas

In the first jhāna, balance is quite undeveloped. Predominant instead are vitakka and vicāra, aiming and rubbing or initial application and sustained application. As discussed above, the vitakka and vicāra of the first jhāna often include large amounts of discursive thinking.

In the second jhāna, the thrills and chills of rapture overshadow equanimity. Come the third jhāna, there is the sweetest happiness and comfort, so that balance has no chance to show itself. When comfort evaporates, however, bringing about that feeling which is neither pleasant nor unpleasant, then balance has a chance to shine. In just this way, when dusk sets in and darkness begins to thicken, the moon reigns splendidly over all the sky.

After the insight into dissolution come successive insights into fear, disgust, and wanting to be liberated. Equanimity is not strongly shown until the stage of insight known as “equanimity regarding all formations.”

This is a deep level of practice where things begin to move very smoothly. Mindfulness is so agile now that it picks up the objects before the mind can begin to be perturbed by pleasantness or unpleasantness. There is no chance for attachment or aversion to arise. Objects which normally are very unpleasant, lose their influence completely, as do thrilling and exciting objects. Because this is true at all six sense doors, the kind of equanimity now present is known as “six-limbed equanimity.”

A great subtlety of awareness is another feature of this time in practice. The rising and falling process becomes a vibration. It breaks into particles and may eventually disappear. If this happens, you should try to look at the sitting posture as a whole and perhaps some touch points such as buttocks and knees. These, too, may disappear, leaving behind no perceptions of the body whatsoever. Sickness and pains disappear, for no physical phenomena remain to be perceived, no itches left to scratch. What remains is only the consciousness which knows absence of physical phenomena. At such a time, this consciousness itself should be taken as the object of knowing. As you note, “knowing, knowing,” even that consciousness can begin to flicker and reappear. yet, at the same time, there will be clarity of mind and extreme sharpness.

This state of extreme mental balance is said to be like the mind of an arahant, which remains unshakable in the face of any object capable of arising in the field of consciousness. However, even if you have attained this stage of practice, you still are not an arahant. You are only experiencing a mind similar to an arahant’s during this particular moment of mindfulness.

Each of the four vipassanā jhānas is characterized by a distinct type of happiness. In the first vipassanā jhāna, one can experience the happiness of seclusion. The hindrances are kept away, and so the mind is remote and secluded from them.

In the second jhāna, one experiences the happiness of concentration. Good concentration brings happiness in the form of rapture and comfort. As rapture is abandoned, the happiness in the third jhāna is simply known as the happiness of equanimity.

Finally in the fourth jhāna, we experience the purity of mindfulness due to equanimity.

The fourth type is the best happiness, of course. Like the first three, however, it still occurs in the realm of conditioned phenomena. Only if the yogi transcends this realm can he or she experience the ultimate happiness, the happiness of real peace. This called santisukha in Pāli. It occurs when the objects of meditation and all other mental and physical phenomena, as well as the noting mind itself, come to a complete stop.

I hope that you will be able to taste all four kinds of happiness that arise through the vipassanā jhānas, and also that you will go on to taste the highest happiness, the happiness of nibbāna.


Confusion About Nibbāna

There has been a lot of discussion about the nibbānic experience. Whole books have been written about it. Some people think that nibbānic happiness refers to a special sort of physical or mental state. Some believe it exists in one’s body. Others say that when mind and matter are extinguished, what remains behind is the essence of eternal bliss.

Some may be filled with doubt. They say, “If nibbāna is the extinguishing of mind and matter, how can there be anything left to experience?” It is hard to think of happiness that is not experienced through the senses. This entire discussion, moreover, will be Greek to people who have no experience of meditation.

In fact, only a person who has experienced nibbāna for herself or himself will be able to speak of it with conviction. Nonetheless, there are also inferential ways to speak of it, which will seem quite familiar to anyone whose practice has deepened to the extent of having had the nibbānic experience.

Some people think that nibbāna is some special kind of mind or matter, but this is not so. There are four kinds of what are called in Pāli the paramattha dhammas, which we mentioned above, the realities that can be experienced directly without any conceptualization or thinking. These four are material phenomena, two kinds of mental phenomena — consciousness itself, plus the other mental factors that occur with each moment of consciousness — and nibbāna. Thus nibbāna is defined as being different from matter and also from mind.

A second mistaken notion is that nibbāna is what is left behind when mind and matter are extinguished. Nibbāna is the source of ultimate reality, and it is classified as an external phenomenon rather than an internal one. As such, it has nothing to do with anything that might remain in one’s body after the mind and body process has been extinguished.

Nibbāna cannot be experienced in the same way that, say, visual objects or sounds can be experienced, through the senses. It is not a sensual object. Therefore it cannot be included in any category of sensate (or sense-based) pleasures, not matter how extraordinary. it is nonsensate happiness, not based on the senses.

Arguments about the nature of nibbāna have been going on since the Buddha’s time. it seems there was an abbot of a monastery who was discussing nibbānic bliss before an audience of bhikkhus. One of the bhikkhus said, “If there is no sensation in nibbāna, how can there be bliss?”

The elder answered, “My friend, it is precisely because there is no sensation in nibbāna that it is so blissful” This answer is almost like a riddle. I wonder what you think the answer is. If you cannot find an answer, I will be happy to give one to you.

Disadvantages of the Senses

First, we must talk about sensate pleasure. It is fleeting. Happiness is here one moment and gone the next. Is it really so enjoyable to go around hunting for something so ephemeral, which is changing all the time?

Look at the amount of trouble you have to go through to get all those novel experiences you think will bring happiness. Some people have such strong desire for pleasure that they will even break the law, commit atrocious crimes and cause others to suffer just so they can experience these fleeting sense-based pleasures. They may not understand how much suffering they themselves will have to endure in the future as a consequence of the unwholesome acts they have committed. Even ordinary people who are not criminals may become aware that a disproportionate amount of suffering is necessary to bring together a few moments of happiness, so much that it really is not worth it.

Once one has begun to practice meditation, sources of happiness become available that are more refined, more enjoyable, than mere sense pleasures. As we have seen, each of the vipassanā jhānas brings its own kind of joy. The first jhāna brings the happiness of seclusion; the second, the happiness of concentration, which consists of intense rapture and joy. The third jhāna brings a refined contentment, which educated the mind to understand that the happiness of rapture and joy actually is rather coarse. Last and deepest, the happiness of equanimity that is discovered in the fourth vipassanā jhāna has the nature of stillness and peace. All these four are known as nekkhamma sukha, the happiness of renunciation.

However, the peace and happiness to be found in nibbāna is superior to both the happiness of renunciation as well as that of sense pleasures. It also is quite distinct from all of them in nature. The happiness of nibbāna occurs upon the cessation of mind and matter. It is the peace of the extinction of suffering. It is independent of contact with the six kinds of sense objects. In fact, it arises because there is no contact at all with sense objects.

People whose idea of happiness is to take a vacations, go on a picnic and swim in a lake, people who use their free time just to attend parties or barbecues, these people may not understand how happiness could arise when there is no experience at all. As far as they are concerned, there can be beauty only when they have eyes to see it, a lovely object to look at, and the consciousness to be aware of sight, and similarly with the other senses. They might say, “If there is fragrance but no nose and no consciousness of smell, where can I find delight?” They may find it impossible to imagine how anyone could contrive of such a horrid thing as nibbāna. They might reason that nibbāna is a kind of secret death, something really horrendous. Human beings become intensely frightened at the prospect of annihilation.

Other people doubt that nibbāna can exist. They say, “This is a poet’s dream.” Or they say, “If nibbāna is nothing, how can it be better than a beautiful experience?”

Indescribable Bliss: A Sleeping Millionaire

Let us imagine that there is a multimillionaire or millionairesse who has available to him or her all the imaginable sense pleasures. One day this person is having a nice, sound sleep. While he or she is sleeping, the chef has been at work, cooking an array of delicious food and arranging it on the table. Everything is quite in order in the full splendor of the millionaire’s mansion.

Now the chef becomes impatient. The food is getting cold and the chef wants the owner of the house to come down and eat. Let us say that the chef sends the butler to wake up the millionaire. What do you think? Will the millionaire leap joyfully from bed and come down to eat, or does the butler run the risk of being clobbered?

When this millionaire is in a deep, sound sleep, he or she is blissfully oblivious to the surroundings. No matter how beautiful the bedroom, he or she does not see it. No matter how beautiful the music that is piped throughout the house, he or she is deaf to it. Fine fragrance may waft through the air, but he or she is oblivious to it. He or she is not eating, that is clear. And no matter how comfortable and luxurious the bed may be, he or she is completely unaware of the sensation of lying upon it.

You can see that there is a certain happiness in sound sleep which is not connected with sensate objects. Anyone, rich or poor, may wake up from sound sleep and feel wonderful. One may gather, then, that some sort of happiness exists in that sleep. Though it is difficult to describe, it cannot be denied. In the same way, the noble ones who have touched fulfillment of Dhamma know of a kind of happiness that can neither be denied nor fully described, but which we know by deductive reasoning actually exists.

Supposing it were possible to have deep, sound sleep forever. Would you want it? If one does not like the kind of happiness that comes with sound sleep, it may be difficult to have a preference for nibbāna. If one does not want the happiness of nonexperience, one is still attached to the pleasure of the senses. This attachment is due to craving. It is said that craving actually is the root cause of sense objects.

The Root of All Trouble

Suffering will always follow craving. If we care to look closely at the situation on this planet, it will not be difficult to see that all the problems in this world are rooted in the desire for sense-based pleasures. It is on account of the continual need to experience these pleasures that families are formed. Members of the family have to go out and toil through the day and night to get money to support themselves. It is on account of the need for pleasure that quarrels occur within the family, that neighbors do not get along well, that towns and cities are at loggerheads, that states have conflict, that nations go to war. It is on account of sense-based pleasures that all these hosts of problems plague our world, that people have gone beyond their humanness into great cruelty and inhumanity.

Singing the Praises of Nonexperience

People may say, “We are born as human beings. Our heritage is the whole field of sense pleasures. What is the point of practicing for nibbāna which is the annihilation of all these pleasures?”

To such people one might ask a simple question. Would you be prepared to sit down and watch the same movie again and again and again throughout the day? How long can you listen to the sweet voice of your loved one without interruption? What happened to the joy that you got from listening to that sweet voice? Sense pleasures are not so special that we do not need a rest from them sometimes.

The happiness of nonexperience or nonsensate experience far exceeds the happiness that comes through sense pleasures. It is much more refined, much more subtle, much more desirable.

In fact, deep sleep is not exactly the same as nibbāna! In sleep, what is occurring is the life continuum, a very subtle state of consciousness with a very subtle object. It is because of the subtlety of the object that sleep seems to be nonexperience. In fact, the nonsensate happiness of nibbāna is a thousand times greater than what is experienced in the deepest sleep.

Due to their great appreciation for nonexperience, non-returners and arahants continually resort to nirodha samāpatti, the great cessation attainment, whereby neither matter, mind, mental factors, nor even that most subtle form of matter, mind-borne matter, occur. When the non-returners and arahants emerge from this state, they sing the praises of nonexperience.

Here is part of their song: “How wonderful it is to have this suffering of mind and matter extinguished in nibbāna. When all sorts of suffering connected with mind and matter are extinguished, one can deduce that the opposite will occur, that there is happiness. So in the absence of suffering we noble ones rejoice, so blissful is nibbāna. Happy is nibbāna as it is free from suffering.”

The Nibbāna of the Buddhas

Who was it that showed us the path to this great happiness? The Lord Buddha. This is a nibbāna which has been proclaimed by all enlightened Buddhas. In Pāli, the Buddha is called sammā sambuddha. Sammā means perfectly, correctly, rightly, and the Buddha is unique in that he understood the true nature of things as they really are. The truth is true, yet what is known of it may be incorrect and wrong. The Buddha made no such mistakes. The prefix sam- means personal, by oneself; and Buddha means enlightened. The Buddha was enlightened by his own efforts. He did not receive his attainment from superbeings, nor did he depend on any other person. So, the nibbāna we are talking about is the one proclaimed by the sammā sambuddha, the perfectly self-enlightened one.

Freedom from Sorrow

Another characteristic of nibbāna is that it is free from sorrow. Most of you are familiar with sorrow. Imagine how wonderful it would be to be free from it. Nibbāna is called virāga in Pāli. This means free from dust and pollution. Dust as we normally know it makes things dirty and unpleasant. It may damage clothing and health. Far more lethal is the pollution of the kilesas! How often our minds are bombarded by this constant stream of greed, hatred, delusion, pride, conceit, jealousy, miserliness. In such a state, how can one expect the mind to be clean, pure and clear? In contrast nibbāna is completely free of all the kilesas.

Perfect Security

Khema or security is another characteristic of nibbāna. In this world we are constantly confronted by dangers. Dangers of accident, danger of enemies harming us, danger of poison. In this age of advanced science, we live in constant fear of the weapons of war that have been invented. We would be completely helpless if a war occurred in which nuclear weapons are used. There is no escape from any of this except in nibbāna, which is totally free from all dangers, totally secure.

In the scriptures the nonsensate happiness of nibbāna is called that sort of happiness which is not mixed with kilesas. For people who experience sensate happiness, there is always some degree of greed involved. It is like food which you cook: if you add no spices, it tastes flat and not at all delicious. With spices, though, you can enjoy your food. It is the same with sensate happiness: unless there is greed, lust and desire, you will not enjoy an object. Precisely because nibbāna is not mixed with other things, it is called pārisuddhi sukha, meaning pristine and pure.

In order for us to experience this pristine happiness, we must first of all cultivate sīla, samādhi and paññā. Continuous effort to purify action, speech and mind will bring your mind to the point where it can enjoy nibbāna. I hope you will be able to work in this direction and attain pristine happiness in due course.

Paṇḍitārāma Meditation Centre, Yangon, Myanmar