Insight Meditation Online

The Development of Insight: The Path to Freedom

One Principle

Seeing x as x

Here is how I heard it. Once the Blessed One was living among the Kurus, at the market town of Kammasadamma. The Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus: "Bhikkhus."

"Bhante", they replied."

The Blessed One said:"

"This way, the four foundations of awareness, has the one purpose of purifying beings, overcoming sorrow and lamentation, destroying pain and grief, attaining the right path, and realising nibbana."

"What are the four?"

"Here a bhikkhu, surrendering desire and grief regarding the world, lives contemplating body as body, ardent (atapi), clearly comprehending (sampajano) and aware (satima)."

"Surrendering desire and grief regarding the world, he lives contemplating sensations as sensations, ardent, clearly comprehending and aware."

"Surrendering desire and grief regarding the world, he lives contemplating mind as mind, ardent, clearly comprehending and aware."

"Surrendering desire and grief regarding the world, he lives contemplating dhammas as dhammas, ardent, clearly comprehending and aware."

Satipatthana vipassana is the penetrating vision which arises from the cultivation of awareness. Note the essential simplicity of the practice: knowing mind as mind and body as body; knowing this experience, now, as it is. Satipatthana practice involves the simplicity of direct experience, rather than the complexity of thinking about experience. All we do in the practice is watch our experience, and all our experience is the experience of the mind-body process.

The sati of satipatthana is awareness, or mindfulness. Awareness is that which knows what is happening, now. The first thing to notice about awareness is that awareness always refers to what is happening right now. I cannot be aware of what will happen; it’s impossible. I cannot be aware of what did happen; that also is impossible. I can only be aware of what is happening, right now. The field of meditative investigation is right now. The second characteristic of awareness is that awareness always has an object. Awareness is always awareness of some specific thing, some specific aspect of my experience, now. Hence the importance of investigation in the cultivation of awareness. In the process of satipatthana meditation I am always concerned with the question: what is the predominant aspect of my experience, now?

Vipassana means seeing separately, distinctly, penetratingly; seeing with discrimination. Wisdom involves learning to discriminate regarding our experience. The meditator learns to recognise a thought as just a thought; an emotion as just an emotion; pain as just pain, pleasure as just pleasure. Normally we are not satisfied with experiencing things as they simply are. An experience arises, and we project onto it. Anger arises, and we think of some situation which made us angry. We think of how we were victimised or abused, and this feeds the emotion of anger; the emotion of anger then feeds the drama in our heads, the story-line, in which we are the abused victims and what we did or should have done about this. Drama feeds emotion, and emotion feeds drama. The drama - the days of my life - is endlessly fascinating for me, because it stars the person I love most in the world: me!

It is important to realise here that we are not denying our story: we are not, for example, pretending we have never been victimised. What we are doing is denying are a victim. That is, we are not denying our experience, but we are refusing to identify with our experience. This is a subtle but fundamental point. When we investigate the body and mind we experience it as a process. When we experience ourselves and our world as pure process, we do not stop anywhere in this process, freeze this process, and call this frozen point: me; mine; you; yours.

Techniques of watching

Satipatthana practice is simplicity itself. We simply watch, now. This very simplicity make the practice very difficult to comprehend: what do I watch? How do I watch it? These two questions are answered by a wide variety of answers, each one of which develops into one of many competing "techniques", owned by different "schools" of meditation. What is common to all of them is simply this: I investigate my experience, now.

In the lineage of the late Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma, meditators begin by watching the air element (vayo-dhatu) in the abdomen (for sitting) and movement (for walking). When we investigate our experience, it begins to break up into its component parts. For example, as I investigate my breathing, I notice it breaks up into distinct, separate sensations of movement; pressure; vibration; etc. The action of walking also begins to separate into distinct sensations of movement; lightness; heaviness; hardness; etc. It is the individual sensations, called sabhava lakkhana in Pali, that are the field of investigation in satipatthana practice.

Three characteristics

Satipatthana practice involves just one thing: seeing this experience, now as just this experience, now, as just this experience, now. As I maintain this awareness over time, consciousness begins to change. The changes that take place to consciousness have been mapped out in more or less detail by Buddhist scholars and practitioners over the centuries. Buddhism has an abundance of path manuals - texts which map out the path of practice from its beginnings to its ultimate destination, freedom. The phrase "purifying beings, overcoming sorrow and lamentation, destroying pain and grief, attaining the right path, and realising nibbana", quoted above, is a path text. It outlines the stages of progress from the beginning of meditation to its final goal. All of these path texts act as maps which describe the process of transformation of the meditators consciousness as practice develops. Today we will be looking at one such map - the 16 nanas (or insight-knowledges) that are the textual basis of satipatthana practice in the tradition of the late Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma.

We began by analysing Satipatthana vipassana in terms of one thing only: watch this, now. Next we will consider the path in terms of the three universal characteristics. In our hand-fist experiment we saw how, when we carefully examine them, the normal objects of everyday life begin to break up into a series of distinct and separate experiences. Each experience is unique. This moment is unique. This aspect of the uniqueness, the singularity of each moment is revealed by its sabhava lakkhana, its individual characteristic. There are also universal aspects to experience, things that all experiences have in common. These are the samanna.lakkhana, the universal characteristics of annica (impermanence , changing), dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) and anatta (not-me, not-myself).


As I watch my experience it breaks up into a series of discrete sensations; it changes over time. At some point I must acknowledge that the content or object of my experience now is not what it was before. This means there is a moment, a border of change, when one experience becomes another. Normally we miss these moments of change; we think things stay the same over time. We acknowledge that things change over time, but we assume that there is some thing to which the changes occur, whose essence remains unchanged. We assume the solidity of things. In satipatthana practice, the meditator not only does not assume the solidity of things, he looks for the gaps between things, the cracks in the flow of experience. It is like seeing a path of paving stones, and focusing on the cracks between the stones.

We first notice the spaces between experiences when we are distracted. The meditator watches some phenomena -the rising movement of the abdomen, for example - then suddenly realises his mind has wandered and is now in a day-dream. His attention has moved from one experience to another. This movement is not a problem - it is natural. What is a problem is that he has failed to notice the moment of change, the moment when the physical experience of movement, pressure, tension became the mental experience of drifting, dreaming. There has been a failure of attention.

What can the meditator do? Remember our first point about awareness: awareness can only be awareness of what is happening now. If what Is happening now is a distraction - a day-dream - then only this distraction, this day-dream, can be the object of attention now. What is the nature of this experience, the experience of the day-dream? Note here a fundamental principle of satipatthana meditation: it does not matter what the object of attention is; what matters is the continuity of attention. The objects of attention - the flow of experiences that make up the mind-body - change, but the meditator’s attention is continuous. As the meditator cultivates continuous attention; he develops momentary concentration (khanika samadhi).

The meditator attends to the gaps in experience, and begins to see them more clearly. He sees how one moment of experience slips into another. He sees the beginning and the end of moments of experience; he sees change. At first he sees experiences and notices they are changing; then the mind focuses on the fact of change itself. The meditate discovers the universal characteristic of impermanence - anicca.


As the meditator becomes intimate with the fact of change, she begins to discern that everything.changes; nothing stands still. Normally when we see change, we assume that there is some solid thing which is subject to change. For example, we may comment on how the weather is changing. Today it is hot; tomorrow it will be cooler. Yesterday was wet; today is dry. Our use of language shows how we instinctively think in terms of unchanging substances and their changing attributes. The weather changes from day to day, but we unconsciously assume a lasting entity - "weather" -which underlies these changes, which is subject to these changes, and which therefore remains itself unchanged. In the same way, the meditator sees how her mind-body process is constantly changing, but assumes there is a someone whose mind-body process is constantly changing, a someone to whom this insight is happening, a someone to whom this insight is happening, a someone who herself remains stable throughout this process of change. At some point in the process of meditation, however, the mind begins to realise that even the meditator herself is changing.There’s s no-one to whom change is happening; there is only change. There is no solid foundation to experience, to life itself, and sensing this the meditator begins to realise the utter absence of security. This absence of security, and the sense of danger and oppressiveness that arises from it, is dukkha.


Anatta is the central teaching of Buddhism, and its most subtle and difficult aspect. Anatta means "not-self"; its opposite is atta, which is the reflexive pronoun in Pali and means "self" in the ordinary everyday sense of "I-myself"; "you-yourself", Atta refers to our normal sense of self-identity: the clear understanding that my world is divided into the two aspects of "me" in here and "you" out there. This sense of self-identity has three basic characteristics:

  • Permanence: I believe - I know - that "I" am the person who began this talk, and will be the same person who ends it. I know that I came to this place earlier today; and barring death, will leave it at the end of the talk. Note that permanence in Buddhism refers to the sense we have of stability over time. I know that I was born and will one day die, so clearly I am not "permanent" in the ordinary sense of the word; but I remain convinced that it is the same "I" who is born in the past and will die in the future. It is the sense of stability over time that is meant by "permanence", and which is denied by the teaching of impermanence.
  • Ownership: This is my body; this is my life. Along with the notion of permanence is that of ownership.
  • Control: I believe that "I" am in control of "my" life. It is this sense of control that enables me to make plans and act on them. Without control a normal life - even a sane one - is impossible.
  • When we examine our mind-body experience intimately, we discover constant change, change without exception. Our sense of permanence is subverted, and with it our sense of ownership and control. When these vanish, we experience the terror of the abyss. This terror is the essence of dukkha. If, however, we do not get stuck on our terror; if we continue our investigation, we take a further step forward into and through the abyss, to the freedom beyond.

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