Instruction for Vipassanā (Insight) Meditation Practice

A vow before beginning insight meditation practice

“Venerable Sir, I offer the five aggregates of mine, mind and matter, to the Buddha which is noblest, to the Dhamma which is noblest, to the Sangha which is noblest, to the teachers who are the benefactor, with faith and devotion, by setting my heart to attain nibbāna. Intentionally or unintentionally, if I have ever done something wrong with my body, speech or mind, towards the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha, parents or teachers, with a heart of compassion and sympathy, please forgive me. If others have done something wrong to me, I also forgive them willingly.

From the present time, I will sit for an hour with determination. I will undertake the meditation practice striving forward even if my bones are broken and blood has gone dry, without backing out. By balancing faith in practice and discernment, and paying a close, mindful attention to mind and matter of this body vigorously and repetitively, may we see the true nature of existence. May we realize the constant arising and dissolution of mind and matter. May we gain insight into the constant process of how mind and matter condition things and are being conditioned”.

Instruction for the meditation practice

After making a vow with the determination [to undertake the meditation practice successfully], you can sit in a comfortable position [that will sustain you for the session]. If you want to sit with legs crossed, you can do so. If, however, you are not used to sitting in a cross-legged position, you might find it more comfortable if the legs are not inter-locked but evenly placed on the floor side-by-side, without pressing one against the other. Contemplation can be done in a comfortable posture.

Spiritual Development: generosity, morality and meditation

To begin the meditation session, you pay homage to triple gem, that is, Buddha, Dhamma and Saṅgha. When striving for spiritual development, three aspects must be combined, namely, generosity, dāna, morality, sīla, and meditation, bhāvanā. These aspects cannot be separated. You therefore offer one’s body and mind, which is made up of five aggregates [i.e. form, rūpa, sensation, vedanā, perception, saññā, volitional formation, saṅkhāra, and consciousness, viññāṇa] to the Buddha. The donative act of offering one’s five aggregates is the highest level of generosity because it is the giving of one’s physical and mental body. Thus, you are perfecting the practice of generosity by giving away one’s five aggregates. Regarding moral practice, you observe the rules of discipline prescribed for the laity, i.e. the eight precepts. In this way, you fulfill the purification of conduct, the essential preliminary step towards the development of insight.

Request for forgiveness and forgiving others’ faults: the role of loving-kindness and compassion in spiritual development

In the vow mentioned above, after offering one’s five aggregates to the triple gem, one asks for forgiveness for any faults that might have been committed towards the triple gem, parents, teachers and other noble persons through bodily, verbal and mental actions. In this way, you let go of pride and conceit. When undertaking the meditation practice, pride and conceit can be a hindrance. It is a noble act to let go of pride and ask for forgiveness. Like a venomous snake giving up its venom, letting go of one’s pride and conceit is a way to realize liberation. The spiritual goal cannot be attained if pride is preventing you from seeking forgiveness for your faults. Therefore, you apologize to the triple gem, parents, teachers, and noble persons not only through verbal action but also with sincere intention from the heart.

Having established patience, you also wholeheartedly forgive others for any wrongs committed against you in this way. Through patience and forgiveness, we develop loving-kindness and compassion. Lack of loving-kindness and compassion in our meditation practice can create a barrier for spiritual development. Therefore, with loving-kindness and compassion, we should apologize to others and forgive each other, regardless of who is in the wrong. Pride and conceit can be reduced through an apology, while loving-kindness can be developed by forgiving others. The mind should be immersed in skillful states such as loving-kindness and compassion, rather than in unskillful phenomena such as greed, hatred, delusion and conceit. Purifying the mind in this way is the path of noble persons.

Determination to perform the practice successfully: determination is a defense against defilements

The determination to complete the practice successfully is needed when we meditate. Therefore, in the vow that we took earlier, we said, “From the present time, I will sit for an hour”. ‘Determination’, adhiṭṭhāna in Pāli, is like a fence which provides protection against harm and danger. Just like a property without a fence can be destroyed easily, without making the determination, defilements can easily enter the mind and destroy the practice. If we come to a retreat thinking “I will stay only as long as I like”, without the determination to complete it successfully, we may then leave within a day or two into the retreat. This is because unskillful thoughts have overtaken our intention to do a meditation retreat. Defilements destroy our meditation retreat. Similarly, when we sit for a meditation session thinking “I will sit only as long as I can sit comfortably, then I will stop”, without determination to complete it, we may finish the session within ten or fifteen minutes. Here, defilements are replacing our positive intention to meditate. Therefore, we have to make a strong determination willingly and sincerely, otherwise we may not achieve our goal. In Pāli, it is stated as “catāri vīriyankā ca tassa tassa nayāruno”. We thus make the determination as follows.

“From the present time, I will sit for an hour with the determination. I will undertake the meditation practice striving forward even if my bones are broken and my blood has gone dry, without backing out”.

In reality, there is no reason for the bones to be broken and blood to dry up in an hour of meditation. Rather, having such strong determination and high aim gives strength and inspiration. In order to progress along the spiritual path and make the practice more worthwhile, it is crucial to have a sincere determination.

Distinguishing mind and matter in order to practice insight meditation
We recited,

“By balancing faith in practice and discernment, and paying a close, mindful attention to mind and matter of this body vigorously and repetitively, may we see the true nature of existence. May we realize the constant arising and dissolution of mind and matter. May we gain insight into the constant process of how mind and matter condition things and are being conditioned”.

When we practise insight meditation, we first need to know mind and matter which constitute this seeming solid, compact body at the intellectual level. Having the theoretical knowledge of the separate mental state and the separate matter in all things is a preliminary stage to the practice of insight meditation. We cannot progress along the path to liberation, Nibbāna, with the illusion of ‘I’ , ‘you’, ‘men’, ‘women’ etc. Although these appear to be substantial and compact, they are, in fact, just concepts (paññatti). They can be considered as the separate mental states and the separate matterial states. However, when developing insight knowledge, we need to let go of the concepts. That is, we must let go of the illusion of ‘I’ or the ‘self’. In order to let go these illusionary concepts, we must know the ultimate reality, i.e. the mentality and materiality in all things. Through the practice, we will then see the mind and matter in all things, and realize the ‘mind-and-matter-determination-knowledge’, ‘nāmarūpa pariccheda ñāṇa’.

Concepts and Realities

There are four types of realities: consciousness (citta), mental factors (cetasika), matter (rūpa) and nirvana (nibbāna). When we meditate, we let go of the concepts (‘I’, ‘you’, ‘men’ and ‘women’ etc). to the point that we realize things as they are, i.e. realities of existence. Putting aside nibbāna for now, we will explore the other three ultimate realities. Consciousness is the knowing faculty, that which knows the object. Mental factors are the qualities of mind which determine how consciousness relates to the object. Different combinations of mental factors arise with each moment of consciousness and pass away with it. Consciousness and mental factors are elements of what we call mind, nāma. The third of ultimate realities, matter, is a collection of physical phenomena. Rūpa is so called because it undergoes and imposes alteration due to adverse physical conditions such as cold, heat, etc. Thus, rūpa is defined as ruppatī ti rūpaṃ.

From the point of view of Dhamma, (i.e. true nature of phenomena), ‘beings’ and ‘souls’ do not ultimately exist. Dhamma consists of the natural processes occurring in flux. In the relation to the ultimate realities, Dhamma can be classified into mind, nāma and matter, rūpa.

Rūpa is ever changing and undergoes constant alteration. How does the constant alteration occur? When we pay close attention to our seeming substantial body such as one’s feet or palms or the centre of one’s head or a part of one’s skin, we will experience ever changing sensation and gain the understanding of the moment-to-moment impermanence of body. This is the constant changing processes of rūpa, which occurs naturally. In terms of nāma(mind), there are four kinds of aggregates, namely, vedanā, feeling, saññā, perception, sankhārā, volitional formations, and veññāṇa, consciousness. The aggregate of feeling comprises pleasant feeling, unpleasant feeling and neutral feeling. We also experience pleasant bodily feeling and unpleasant bodily feeling such as pain, and pins-and-needles. Aggregate of perception remembers and marks the object so that it can be recognized. The nature of the mind not only experiences feelings but also remembers things. For instance, the mind remembers and marks experiences of feelings as follows. “This is pain”. “This is itching”. “This is pins-and-needles”. Another aspect of the mind is volitional formations. This aggregate is understood as a constant drive that encourages us to perform actions. For example, it prompts us to change posture when we experience painful feelings during meditation. The volitions are part of the mind and we can see such volitions clearly when we turn our attention towards the mind and body. The final aspects of the mind is consciousness. It means knowing visual objects, sounds, smells, tastes, or things which touch us, and knowing mental objects just as that moment when these things come into contact with the eyes, ear, nose, tongue, body, or heart respectively. It can also know and discern moral qualities of actions such as good or bad, right or wrong, and the three characteristics of all phenomena – i.e. impermanence, suffering and not-self.

How to distinguish mind from matter: their nature and characteristics

As mentioned above, we need to know and distinguish mind from matter when we embark upon the meditation practice. From the perspective of Abhidhamma, Theravada Philosophy, mind and matter cannot be distinguished (avinibbhoga). This is because mind and matter arise and pass away together simultaneously. Thus, they are co-dependent. When we meditate on matter, mind is also there. Similarly, when we meditate on mind, matter is included in the meditation. Therefore, we need to understand this co-dependent, associated nature of mind and matter.

The question then is: how can we relate to mind and matter when we meditate? We need to change our way of paying attention. For instance, when we focus our attention on the feet, we need to see them as just parts of a body, as opposed to ‘my feet’. This is to remove the concepts of ‘I’, ‘self’ and ‘mine’. We may experience changing sensations such as numbness, pain, etc., but ‘numbness’ and ‘pain’ are just concepts. As we have seen above, rūpa is a constant alteration of states, ruppati. Such ever changing states reflect the characteristic of impermanence. Therefore, when we meditate on matter or the body, it is important that we do not see the body as ‘my body’. Moreover, it is crucial that we do not reflect on the sensations as ‘pain’ and ‘numbness’. We need to contemplate these sensations as impermanent.

Importance of balancing five powers (balas) in meditation practice

For insight meditation, five powers (balas), namely, faith or confidence, saddhā, effort, vīriya, mindfulness, sati, concentration, samādhi, and wisdom, paññā, need to be balanced. Along with faith and effort, mindfulness must be present to watch sensations such as pain, numbness, pins-and-needles etc. during a sitting. Moreover, concentration must be there in order to calm the mind. We can establish concentration through mindfulness of breath or sensations or rising and falling of abdomen. In order to establish concentration, any meditation technique can be used. It is crucial to establish right concentration rather than wrong concentration. The latter is when the mind become still and concentrated on unskillful thoughts. Wrong concentration is not suitable for insight meditation. Therefore, right concentration, which is skillful and faultless, is essential to develop insight. Moreover, wisdom or discernment is important for meditation.

If any of the five powers becomes a dominate factor, then we cannot progress with meditation. How can we balance the five powers? Using mindfulness as a tool, these five powers must be balanced. For example, sometimes concentration may be very strong while effort may be sluggish. As a result, we may feel sleepy. In such case we have to acknowledge the sleepiness and know that there is excessive level of concentration. Sometimes our effort may become excessive and consequently restlessness and worry arise. Therefore, concentration should be increased in order to balance with the excessive effort. Faith in the Dhamma and practice can also become excessive. For instance, there may be repetitive thoughts about how we want to share the Dhamma with our family, friends and others and how we might encourage them to practise meditation. Here, it is important to notice and being mindful of the fact that we are being carried away with thoughts which stem from excessive faith. When we develop excessive wisdom, we tend to think about future. For instance, we may think about how our practice may or may not progress as follows. “I am now experiencing pleasant feelings. Will I experience the same thing again during the next sitting?” If there are such expectations, we will not progress at all. When we meditate it is crucial that we do not develop any expectation. This is because expectations can be mental manifestations of greed and desires, which will block one’s spiritual path. The job of a meditator is to be aware of the present moment. The nature of all phenomena is not-self, sabbe dhammā anattā. That is, things do not occur as we wish or desire. A meditator’s duty is to be mindful of the present moment as it arises, whatever phenomena arise or occur. We have to be content with the present moment and things arising in the present moment.

Repetitive cultivation of the mind and momentary change and death

In undertaking insight meditation practice, one must focus on a certain object repeatedly, over and over again, be it on feelings or in-breath and out-breath, without lacking effort. In doing so, one will be able to see what and how phenomena are happening in one’s mind and body by wisdom or discernment.

All phenomena are occurring and ceasing all the time. There are just arising and ceasing or appearing and disappearing. In other words, it is changing all the time. It is happening by itself. When one gets his or her finger cut, it bleeds or even leaves a scar on it. The momentary arising and passing away of mental and physical phenomena (khanikamarana), however, does not bleed or leave any scar. But it causes new feelings; pains, numbness and pins-and-needles and those of by-products of this changing process. This is the nature of how things are.

How do we analyses the aggregates here? Feeling, vedanā, lets one feels pains and numbness or other feelings; perception, saññā, percepts and notes the way one feels; formation, saṇkhāra, pushes us to know it; and consciousness, viññāna, knows exactly how one feels it. Feeling is arising and passing away after another during one is still feeling. Perception and other aggregates are also happening and dissolving during the process of their own. Sometimes ones may feel they are in the mood of focusing on pains and numbness, but sometimes not; this is what formation, saṇkhārakkhandhā fabricates it. As to feeling, vedanākkhandhā, sometimes one may feel excessive pain or excessive happiness. The feelings may go ups and down. These are the changing processes of the mental aggregates.

Some people believe that it is only physical form, rupakkhandhā, that is changing all the time; other mental aggregates are not. Such view is a wrong view – sassataditthi which means belief of eternity or permanence. Physical aggregate is impermanent, but mental aggregates are also impermanent. Now you do not hear the sound “Venerable Sir” that I have said at the beginning of this talk anymore. This sense of hearing that word had disappeared a long while ago. Viññāna-kkhandhā, the consciousness which knows every word I am speaking now, is also passing away consecutively along with the disappearance of the sound. To know the mental aggregates are impermanent is also important.

Conditioned things

All conditioned things are subject to change, and impermanent. All mind and matter are conditioned. They are so called because they are formed and conditioned by volitional action, mind, climate and food. This body is conditioned thing. It is formed and conditioned by volitional action, mind, climate and nourishment. As a result of volitional actions, the body is formed. Its healthy or unhealthy condition is again a result of volitional actions. It is also sometimes manipulated by mind. It looks light when one is happy; it looks heavy when one feels dejected. It is controlled by climate too. It is trembling when it is cold, sweating when it is hot, etc. These are the way climate controlls it. Moreover it is obvious that body is also supported and sustained by food. Its condition and appearance is always changing through foods it consumes. That is why it is said all conditioned things are always changing.

In a blink of an eye, momentary arising and passing away of matter (Khanikamarana), happens trillions of times. This is the perpetual changing nature of physical phenomena. Mental phenomena happen even faster than this. Without high level one-pointedness or concentration, one is not able to see such phenomena. Yogi can make such phenomena understandable by aware and focusing on the feelings of pins-and-needles felt in foot area. They are uncountable. To understand this khanikamarana, the yogi must focus on his palms or soles that feel like silky or even on goosebumps. Understanding this well means that the yogi has gained udayabbañāna, an insight that perceives the beginning and end of meditative object.

Seeing the 3 characteristics: based on bodily discomfort (kāyika-dukkha-vedanā)

It is said of the characteristic of the aggregates that, “It makes you suffer, but you cannot possess it. Regardless of if one is pleased or displeased, it tortures one by putting one in pain, numbness, agony, heat, itching or aching. It discomforts one by making one tighten, loosen, lighten or stiffen. It tires one out by making one feel cold and shivering or hot and sweating.”[1] These depict the characteristics of the aggregates, impermanence and non-self.

Yogis suffer when discomfort appears. Pain, numbness and aches etc. are characteristic of suffering. Yogis may encounter any kind of feeling during meditation. Sometimes yogis may feel they are jabbed or poked and feel pain here and there. This is also characteristic of suffering. Sometimes it happens unexpectedly. This shows that it is non-self.

Sometimes yogis may feel itching on their face, on their back or even on the whole body. This is the way feeling is. It shows us impermanence; it shows us suffering; and it shows us non-self. One cannot say, “Don’t itch!” to what is itching. This is non-self. Itching can make one feels really uneasy. This is suffering. It is itching but it changes in a short while. This is impermanence. The Buddha said, “Natthi khandhā samā dukkhā” which means there is no suffering as the aggregates. With this body it is as if we have got much of sufferings. Impermanence, suffering and non-self is not separated. It is undividable. It is oneness in three aspects.

Yogis strive in meditation to penetrate these three characteristics — impermanence, suffering and non-self. We observe arising and passing away which encompasses all the three characteristics. So it is crucial for the yogis to realise the way of arising and passing away. Sometimes the picture of arising and passing away in meditative objects become very obvious. But if yogis cannot manage to focus on the picture clearly, it disappears before long. To know what is arising and passing away is of importance. We cannot say anything which has appeared is arising and passing away just by saying it in our mind. Yogis must see it clearly right away through focusing on the right spot. So when we are endeavouring in sitting meditation, sometimes uncomfortable feelings may arise, sometimes comfortable, sometimes neither comfortable nor uncomfortable. In any situation, yogis must try to perceive the way arising and passing away. We feel neither good nor bad when start sitting meditation. It is not pain nor painless. It starts, however, itching or discomfort on our skins, poles, scalp, etc. Yogis must concentrate on this. Ledi Sayadaw said it is touch element (photthabbadhātu) which is changing in its own nature. The elements can also be contemplated as impermanent: Earth element (pathavīdhātu)—the element of extension solidity, water element, (āpodhātu)—the element of fluidity, cohesion, fire element (tejodhātu)—the element of heat, cold air element (vāyodhātu)—the element of motion support. Looking at our scalps, sometimes it feels like getting cold, hot, itching or having dandruffs. Yogis must understand that it is changing constantly. If we just label it as “itching, itching” we cannot develop in our meditation. Knowing it is itching, yogis must aware of it and watch it carefully what is itching, how it is itching. With sharp and collected wisdom, yogis must penetrate the way itching which is changing continuously and the way impermanence. This is the way we focus on meditative object which is neither pleasant nor unpleasant. After seeing the arising and passing away of a meditative object well, yogis can now step into focusing on mental qualities as meditative objects (dhammānupassanā).

Sometimes uneasy feelings arise. We must focus on them patiently again and again. We cannot see their impermanence in a short time. There is only pain at the start, but by focusing on it over and over with effort and determination, we commence to see its impermanent nature. It is just like we are boiling water. It cannot be done immediately. After a while, however, the bubbles form, appearing one by one until it boils over. Just like this simile, we feel only pain at the beginning. But setting our attention on it for some time, we start seeing that the pain is changing within the pain itself there is another pain and another pain—impermanence. In the end, we see only what is constantly changing.

For some practitioners whose minds are highly placid and controlled, after focusing on unpleasant feelings for some time, the feelings disappear right away. Then their bodies become light and with happy feelings in their minds. Some say this is the overcoming unpleasant feelings. It means one has conquered set of disagreeable feelings and arrived at pleasant and enjoyable feelings. Some people, however, are so happy and just allow themselves to indulge in it. We should not act like this. Even if the disagreeable feelings have fallen off, they have not completely disappeared yet. There are still traces of it which are minor unpleasant feelings. These are what we have to track down. Through keeping focusing, we will see our body is perpetually changing as a whole. We must, therefore, have effort, patient and appropriate attention.

Wisdom: its passive aspect – insight into the nature of all existence

“With eyes of wisdom, penetrating physical and mental aggregates” in the insight meditation liturgy means that by targeting our attention to physical and mental aggregates with wisdom, we see the nature of impermanence—arising and passing away. The way of true wisdom is penetrating the three characteristics of all phenomena, impermanence, suffering and non-self. When we realize the nature of mind and matter or seeing its sequence of arising and passing away, this means we are improving in insight meditation practice. This can lead to becoming stream-winner. The most important thing is to be on the right path.

What should we do after seeing the sequence of arising and passing away of mind and matter, udayabbaya? Develop it. We should, with peaceful mind, point our attention to the place where we can see the nature of changings. Doing this over and over for some period of time, we will see the changing nature covers the whole of our body, from the tip of our toe to the top or our head. Yogis must follow this path.

Some yogis might experience that all their body is changing, just like they are being showered with sand grains or just like popcorn are bursting in its heating pan. In this situation, yogis’ concentration should be rigorously controlled, because by keeping focus on this changing, the concentration soon gains its momentum and we perceive that both the knowing mind and the sense-objects are constantly passing away. At its higher point, some yogis might feel panic and stop their practice right there. It concerns them that something bad might occur. It makes their heart beats faster and stronger. Some also feel that they might get heart disease. What a pity that those who feel frightened in meditational practice may stop it. In such a situation, yogis should not stick to the aggregates as me or mine, he or she should let go. Do not care what is happening, just follow the path. Do not follow your desire; if the feeling of panic becomes stronger, just switch your attention to the in-breath and out-breath. Yogis should warn themselves, “As our teacher has said, don’t panic in this kind of situation” and keep setting attention on the nature of the changing. This is directing oneself to the right path.

To reach another shore is not yogis’ business. When required wisdoms are fulfilled, yogis will arrive at another shore anyway. What yogis should do is be calm and controlled, watching on changing phenomena, be fully aware of the feeling panic on seeing only the passing away of mind and matter, walking on the path without fear. Doing so yogis can make great benefit for themselves.

“With eyes of wisdom, penetrating physical and mental aggregates, seeing the sequence of arising and passing away of mind and matter, realizing the nature of all phenomena, insight meditation develops step by step, reaching stream-winner, sotāpattimagga, sotāpattiphala, once-returner, sakadāgāmimagga, sakadāgāmiphala, non-returner, anāgāmimagga, anāgāmiphala and arahatship, arahattamagga, arahattaphala, absolutely certain of reaching nibbāna” says the liturgy for insight meditation. To reach nibbāna we, therefore, must walk on the path of focusing on the arising and passing away of mind and matter. Walking on this will reach the end of the path, nibbāna, where there is no any suffering, as said in the liturgy. The liturgy was written by U Hla Shwe. It shows the path leading to the end of suffering, where all the defilements have been eradicated, from the beginning step by step. This is not for merely reciting; we have to deeply contemplate it and realize it. It is teaching you how to walk on the path and taking you to the liberation.

I now have been preaching it for an hour. Now is the time for you to practise it.

Warning regarding physical manifestation of concentration (samādhi)

I also want to talk about another one important thing. For some yogis who have been practising meditation for quite some time, their body or knees might become trembling. In such case, do not quiver yourself along with it. With great awareness, make it as controlled as possible. Practising meditation also means keeping your modesty. If you quiver along with trembling, you will start swaying. Yogis, therefore, must be controlled. If your leg is trembling too much, you can change your posture. Yogis who are sitting nearby can also help each other. It is the right thing to warn each other with good heart by saying, “Yogi, be careful” and tapping his or her knees gently. When a yogi’s shoulders are trembling, somebody can grab and hold his or her shoulders until they become still.

Another thing to remember is do not follow your manifested sense objects. In the course of meditation, one can encounter manifested sense objects such as lights, the Buddha or an arahat flying in the skies. Yogis should learn to avoid them. NEVER follow those senses. Sticking to lights which have been seen, you are falling into the 10 corruptions, vipassanūpakilesa[2] which cloud your path. So yogis must not attach to appeared lights and must focus on the impermanent nature of mind and matter. If the lights cannot disappear easily, just open your eyes for a while and get back to meditation. Lastly, do not tighten your body, just meditate in a natural way. These two things are crucial.


The Tai-yai Meditation Master
Sao Sukham, Hsayadaw Ashin Sukhaminda
(MA, Myanmar and Sri Lanka)

Translated by:
Pyi Phyo Kyaw (PhD candidate, Univ of London),
Ven. Nandasami (OBV) and Ven. Dr. Sila-samiddho (OBV).
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