Vipassana Meditation & Transformation Through Observation: A Guide To India’s Ancient Meditative Technique

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Vipassana means to see things as they really are, and is a method of introspective contemplation to transform one’s relationship with the mind, body, and the world. 

You may have heard of mindfulness of breathing, through visionaries such as Thich Nhat Hanh. While mindfulness of breathing has gained global popularity, it’s worth noting that Vipassana is not distinct from the Zen Buddhist practice. 

Rather, it can be understood as a Buddhist concept of insight that represents the culmination of the Noble Eightfold Path, and therefore an effect of mindfulness.

However, in modern times we have seen an emergence of ‘Vipassana meditation’, rooted in an application of Theravada interpretations of early Buddhist texts. 

This, on the other hand, is distinct from other meditation practices.

The most popular way to access this meditation is through 10-day silent retreats. These retreats are based in the U Ba Khin tradition (Burmese), as taught by S.N. Goenka.

In this article, we will look Vipassana in full:

  • What Does Vipassana Mean?
  • The Origins Of Vipassana
  • Vipassana In Application
  • The Stages Of Vipassana As Taught By S.N. Goenka
  • My Experience With Vipassana
vipassana meditation retreat centre

What Does Vipassana Mean?

Vipassana is a Pali word that literally translates to “clear (vi)”, “seeing (passana)”.

Pali was the spoken dialect at the time of the Buddha in the regions of India that he expounded the Dhamma. Like a lot of Sanskrit and Pali terms in relation to Eastern spiritual practices, Vipassana has layered meaning.

Clear-seeing, but also:

  • To see through
  • Free from preconception
  • Insight into how things are, not how we think they ought to be
  • True perception of the senses

Ultimately, Vipassana means insight as a result of direct experience, as opposed to knowledge derived from logic.

Vipassana in modern times has interchangeable meanings between a practice itself, and as a term for the conceptualization of insight as a result of practice. 

It’s also important to note that Vipassana often goes hand in hand with samatha – meaning tranquility of awareness. 

In early Buddhist texts, the monks that wrote them state that the Buddha told his disciples not to practice Vipassana, but to go practice jhana, which is translated as absorption. Much like Patanjali’s meditative absorption dhyana.

Based on these canonical texts, we can infer that the Buddha intended for Vipassana to mean an outcome of meditation, or of jhana, and that it can be developed from a state of samatha.

person meditating and floating above the sea

The Origins Of Vipassana Meditation

S. N. Goenka, one of the most prominent lay teachers of Vipassana of modern times, has asserted that the roots of Vipassana are to be found in the Rigveda – one of the four sacred canonical Hindu texts. 

He claims that Gautama the Buddha revived the technique, and expounded it as a tool of dhamma to attain liberation.

Vipassana meditation today is a product of Theravada Buddhism, through traditions found in Burma, Thailand, and Sri Lanka, to name a few.

So, what is the philosophical background of Vipassana meditation?

Theravada Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism draws its inspiration from the Pali Canon and supporting commentaries, which is agreed in scholarly communities as the earliest surviving record of the exposition of Gautama the Buddha. 

These texts include the below:

#1: Abhidhamma

The context of Vipassana is fundamentally rooted in the teachings of the Abhidamma, which sets out classifications of the mind, the body, and the world.

And ultimately the three attributes that mark the existence of these interrelated classifications of phenomena: anicca (impermanence), dukkha (suffering), and anatta (no-self).

line of buddha statues in a row

#2: Visuddhimagga

Vipassana as a concept can be found in the Visuddhimagga – a Buddhist commentary written by a Sri Lankan monk called Buddhaghosa in the 5th century (still Theravada). 

The monk assimilated the path to liberation into three main aspects, which are used as a treatise to practice the cultivation of samatha, to apply Vipassana. 

These aspects are Sīla (morality), Samadhi (concentration), and Pañña (wisdom). I will explain these aspects in the Vipassana In Application section below.

Furthermore, Buddhaghosa explains sixteen stages of insight as the emergence of Vipassana.

Please note that this is an interpretive commentary of the Abidhamma, and therefore not canon. 

#3: Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta

The satipaṭṭhāna sutta is one of many discourses of the Buddha, and is noted as a basis for Vipassana. 

“Sati-” is translated to bare awareness, or mindfulness, and “-paṭṭhāna” is translated to foundation.

So, this sutta is a prescription of establishing mindfulness through reflection. 

Vipassana can be understood as insight into the below elements of contemplation as outlined in the satipaṭṭhāna sutta:

  1. Body – mindfulness of breathing, mindfulness of posture, mindfulness of bodily repulsiveness, mindfulness of the bodily elements, mindfulness of death, and mindfulness of arising and passing away (anicca).
  2. Sensations – mindfulness of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings, as well as their inherent characteristic of arising and passing away (anicca).
  3. Mind – mindfulness of unwholesome states of mind (such as lust or hate), mindfulness of the presence or absence of wholesome states of mind (such as scattered or controlled), and their inherent characteristic of arising and passing away (anicca).
  4. Dhamma – mindfulness of the intellectual components of the path, such as the five hindrances, Dependent Origination, the Three Marks Of Existence, and the Four Noble Truths.

It’s important to note that these Buddhist sources do not stand independently, nor describe different things. Instead, they layer together and duplicate information to explain the framework of Vipassana.

group of people meditating on a mountain

Vipassana In Application

Making Effort In Morality, Concentration, And Wisdom

Across all traditions, Vipassana meditation takes place from a collaboration of Sīla, Samadhi, and Pañña:

#1: Sīla

Sīla is moral conduct for living. S. N. Goenka explains that sīla is the foundation in which you are able to meditate well. 

The most famous prescription of sīla are the Buddhist precepts: no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no lying, and no intoxication. 

Another aspect of sīla is to compassionately serve others.

#2: Samadhi

Unlike the yogic samadhi (which is synonymous with the end goal of enlightenment), samadhi in this context is concentration or awareness.

#3: Pañña

Pañña translates as wisdom. Wisdom of the true reality of nature as a means and an end to the advent of Vipassana.

Broadly speaking, this means wisdom of Dependent Origination, the Four Noble Truths, and the Three Marks Of Existence. These aspects directly correspond with the Noble Eightfold Path, as it is about developing right versions of each. 

For example, within sīla, you can apply aspects of the path Right View, Right Speech, Right Conduct, and Right Livelihood.

To achieve samadhi, it is crucial to apply Right Effort and Right Concentration. A good example is cultivating awareness of the body and breath as they are, and so without any form of regulation of the breath or meditation on an object.

monk meditating outside

This approach is in stark contrast to the yogic path, which recommends meditation on a spiritual object.

The reason for cultivating Right Effort and Right Concentration is that if you aim to develop Vipassana (insight) into the true nature of reality through the vessel of your body-mind phenomena, then concentration on what exists naturally is imperative. 

It should not be on something separate or imagined, like the yogic meditation objects.

In summary: observation. Not expression, or suppression.

A side note worth mentioning here is that the Buddha in his spiritual quest mastered many yogic practices, such as pranayama, which involves breath regulation.

He found that although they granted temporary detachment, they did not free him from the source of attachment and create lasting liberation.

Understanding Existence Through Vipassana Meditation

The Buddha proclaimed that one can attain enlightenment through understanding of one, or all marks of existence: anicca, dukkha, anatta. Respectively: impermanence, suffering, no-self.

Vipassana meditation is about developing insight into one, two or three of these marks.

  1. Anicca (impermanence)

The first of the three marks of existence is anicca – which translates as impermanence. This is in reference to the true nature of reality: that the only constant is change.

  1. Dukkha (suffering)

Dukkha is a Buddhist term for suffering, which is a permanent fixture of samsara, or cyclic birth and death, manifest through dependent origination. 

  1. Anatta (no-self)

Anatta is in reference to there being no essence of self in any earthly phenomena. 

person meditating in her house

The Stages As Taught By S.N. Goenka

It is a tremendously valuable and beautiful gift to be able to practice Vipassana. 

Therefore, if you are intrigued to learn how to practice Vipassana, you should apply to sit a 10-day retreat, and discover the technique for yourself. 

Short of that, you should take this description of the stages as a rough interpretation:

  1. Observe the breath only.
  2. Observe the breath at the subtlest level possible to sharpen your awareness. The feeling of the breath at the tip of the nose is suitable.
  3. With this awareness, probe the full body to observe the sensations that arise (and pass away) from the top of the head, to the tips of the toes.
  4. Remain equanimous to these sensations, do not react.
  5. Contemplate their impermanence.

The Goal Of Vipassana Meditation

The goal of Vipassana meditation is ultimately for liberation, or enlightenment. S.N. Goenka’s style explains this in more detail:

Remaining concentrated and equanimous with the gross and subtle sensations of the body, and the corresponding mental phenomenon, you are no longer contributing to the cycle of dependent origination. 

When doing this at scale, i.e. conducting Vipassana meditation continuously, you are destroying the old habit patterns of the mind to generate attachment or aversion by constantly reaction to sensations. 

Consistently contemplating anicca, dukkha, and anatta, in conjunction with purifying habitual thought patterns, offers a wealth of liberation in the present moment, day by day, rather than a sudden enlightenment in the far-off future.

group of monks walking in sri lanka
Buddhist monks”, by MahamevnawaMahaviharaya, licensed under CC BY 2.0

My Experience

I have spent 40 days in silence over the last two years practicing Vipassana meditation in a series of retreats and isolation across the West and Asia.

I have primarily conducted the Burmese method, and also spent time with forest monks practicing the tradition of Ajahn Chah. I believe I met an enlightened person in the form of my Vipassana assistant teacher during my last retreat in Rajasthan. 

I asked him about a confusion I had during deep meditation, where I noticed I was observing my thoughts and emotions, and physical and sensory pain while remaining detached from them. 

In the absence of attachment and aversion, the pain stopped. I experienced a sense of peace, however I still felt confused about the concept of no-self, anatta. 

I explained to my teacher that if I’m noticing my mind and body, then I’m observing from a place of knowing. This implies something fixed: a seat of consciousness in the space in which I meditated. 

And if I’m observing, then I must still exist, so the idea of no-self eluded me. I asked him to help me understand this. He slowly and quietly elicited to me that anatta is one of the more intricate marks of existence to experience .

He answered my question with a question, which grants me understanding only in moments, and then escapes me again:

If pain through observation changes, then observation too is changing. So, where are you?

Further Information

If you’d like to learn more about Vipassana, feel free to check out this website for retreats.

If you’d like to learn more about one of Vipassana’s modern teachers, check out our article on S.N. Goenka: 

Photo of author
Born and raised in London, Luke is a passionate writer with a focus on travel, yoga, philosophy, and meditation. As a certified yoga teacher having studied under a swami in Rishikesh, Luke now lives in India pretty much just practising yoga, meditating and writing articles! Luke's life arc has gone from somewhat turbulent to peaceful, and he considers yoga and meditation direct methods to sustain introspective insight to manifest peace and happiness, despite life's challenges. Luke's passion for meditation has led him to complete multiple meditation retreats, where he spent almost 40 days in silence in the last two years. He practices various meditation techniques such as Vipassana, Anapana, and Metta Bhavana, each adding to his knowledge and experience of the true self. Most recently he meditated in Jaipur, India, and before that lived for a short spell in a monastery with forest monks in Northern Thailand. To Luke, yoga is more than just a physical exercise; it's a way of life that helps him cultivate a stronger mind-body connection. As a young man with arthritis, Luke understands the importance of observing and controlling his body, and yoga has been a vital tool in his journey to better health and well-being. The practice of yoga has not only helped him manage his symptoms but has also given him a new perspective on life. Luke's love for yoga and meditation is not limited to a single tradition or practice. He's fascinated by the spiritual teachings of all types of religious philosophy, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity for their essence and wisdom. His passion for spirituality is what drives him to continue learning and growing, and share his knowledge with other people. Luke in his spare time is an avid chess player, cyclist and record collector. He also has experience with addiction, and so sponsors multiple people from different walks of life in their recovery programmes.

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