Vipassana Tribune
Vol 4 No 2

Vipassana & Jhana: What The Masters Say

Ven. Visuddhacara

In the last issue of the Vipassana Tribune, Ven Visuddhacara gave scriptural and commentarial citations on the dispensability of samatha jhana in Vipassana meditation. In this two series continuation, he gives the views of contemporary Meditation Masters on the subject. This compilation by Ven Visuddhacara was first made in 1991. Since then several masters such as Achaan Chah, Achaan Buddhadasa and Ven Ņanarama Mahathera had died, while some had passed away even earlier. It behooves us to heed the words of these Masters, to contemplate on impermanence, and to strive even more ardently in our quest for liberation from samsara.

Renowned and experienced masters of Buddhist medi-tation are generally agreed on the point that jhana is not necessary or a prerequisite for vipassana meditation. For example, in the book Living Buddhist Masters (Formerly published under BPS, this book has since been retitled Living Dharma by Shambala) by Jack Kornfield, all the 12 masters written about, clearly stated or indicated that one can do vipassana without cultivating any jhana. Some teach vipassana relying only on momentary (khanika) or access (upacara) concentration. Others teach both samatha jhana and vipassana but emphasised that one need not attain jhana to do vipassana. Yogis can switch to vipassana after attaining a moderate level of concentration which is sufficient to overcome the five mental hindrances. Furthermore, most cautioned against attachment or stagnation in jhana and emphasised the need to do vipassana. Some of these Masters too have been monks from their early youth and are adept not only in meditation but also scholarship. They have studied the Tipitaka, Commentaries and Sub-commentaries in the original Pali and thus speak with the authority of both the scriptures and personal practice and experience. Some have practised in forests for many years and are well-versed with both samatha and vipassana.


Achaan Chah

The renowned meditation master, Achaan Chah, was asked during a Questions and Answers Session: "Is it necessary to be able to enter absorption in our practice?"

The Master replied: "No, absorption is not necessary. You must establish a modicum of tranquillity and one pointedness of mind. Then use this to examine yourself. Nothing special is needed. If absorption comes in your practice this is OK too. Just don't hold onto it. Some people get hung up with absorption. It can be great fun to play with. You must know proper limits. If you are wise then you will know the uses and limitations of absorption1, just as you know the limitations of children versus grown men."

Achaan Chah who is well-known to vipassana meditators both in the East and West, speaks especially from the authority of experience, having been a monk from early youth and spending many years in meditation in the Thai forest. There are now more than 100 monasteries which are branches of Achaan Chah's main monastery, Wat Nong Pah Pong, in Thailand. In addition, his Western disciples have also set up centres in various parts of the world.


Achaan Dhammadaro

One Thai master, who had practised several meditation techniques, but prefers direct vipassana based on momentary (khanika) concentration is Achaan Dhammadaro.

Once he was asked: "The Buddha talked about the need to develop mindfulness and concentration. Could you say more about concentration?"

His reply: "There are three kinds of concentration developed in meditation. Two of them are developed on the path to absorption (jhana) and these are access and full absorption concentration. Each of these is developed by fixing the mind one-pointedly on a single meditation object. Such meditations include visualization of fixed forms or colours, or concentrating the mind on one particular feeling like loving-kindness. When access and absorption concentration are developed, bliss and tranquillity arise, the meditator is fully absorbed in the object, and no hindrances can disturb him. This provisional eradication of defilementsa state free from desire, aversion and confusionlasts only so long as the meditator keeps the mind on the meditation object. As soon as the mind leaves its absorption in the object, bliss disappears and the mind is again beset by the flow of defilements. There is additionally a danger of this fixed concentration. Since it does not generate wisdom it can lead to clinging to bliss or even misuse of the powers of concentration, thereby actually increasing defilements.

"The third kind of concentration is what is referred to in the eightfold path as right concentration or perfect concentration. This is concentration developed on a moment-to-moment basis in insight meditation. Only moment-to-moment concentration following the path of mindfulness leads to the destruction of defilements. This concentration is not developed by fixing the mind motionless to one object, but by being mindful of the changing bodily sensations, feelings, consciousness, and mind objects. When properly established in the inner body and mind, moment-to-moment concentration leads to the destruction of the rounds of rebirth. Through this concentration, we develop the ability to see clearly the five aggregatesform, feeling, volition and consciousness which make up what we conventionally call men and women."

To another question: "Would you elaborate on developing moment-to-moment concentration?" Achaan Dhammadaro replied: "There are two important points to make. First is that it is through the feelings arising from contact at each of the sense doors that we must develop insight. The aggregate of form is the basis for the development of moment-to-moment concentration and the resulting wisdom. Therefore we must be mindful of the sensation or feelings arising from contact at the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mental sense bases.

"The second important point is that continuity is the secret of the success in meditation. The meditator must strive to be mindful night and day, every moment, and thus quickly develop proper concentration and wisdom. The Buddha himself stated that if a meditator is truly mindful moment to moment for seven days and nights he will reach full enlightenment. Therefore, the essence of insight meditation is continuous moment-to-moment mindfulness of the sensation arising from contact at all six bases."

Achaan Dhammadaro's emphasis and method share a similarity with Mahasi Sayadaw in that both emphasise continuous moment-to-moment mindfulness day and night during intensive retreats for best results. In fact all masters generally emphasise maintenance of continuous mindfulness, except that some do not have an intensive meditating schedule but ask meditators to carry out their normal daily chores and activities with mindfulness, such as sweeping, hauling water and chopping wood. They may also allow reading, studying and some conversation.


Achaan Jumnien

Another Thai master, Achaan Jumnien, whose view that one should not cling to any one method but should acknowledge the validity of all methods, be it samatha or direct vipassana, is most refreshing and a good reminder to us to be broad in our outlook. Achaan Jumnien should know as he himself has practised both samatha and vipassana techniques. He said: "I was fortunate. I mastered the practices of many teachers before starting to teach. There are many good practices. What is important is that you devote yourself to your own practice with faith and energy. Then you will know the results for yourself."

When asked what type of meditation he taught at his Centre in southern Thailand, Achaan Jumnien replied: "Here you will find people practising many meditation techniques. The Buddha outlined more than forty kinds to his disciples. Not everyone has the same background, not everyone has the same abilities. I do not teach just one type of meditation but many, selecting the appropriate one for each disciple. Here, there are some who practise meditation on the breath. Others do meditation based on watching sensations in the body. Some work on loving-kindness. For some who come I give instruction in beginning insight practices, while for others I teach concentration methods that will eventually lead them into higher insight practices and wisdom."

Achaan Jumnien, however, apparently prefers the direct vipassana method, i.e., starting straight with vipassana without cultivating any samatha jhanas. He too is a disciple of Achaan Dhammadaro who favours moment-to-moment (khanika) concentration, which is the concentration all direct vipassana yogis have to depend upon. When asked "Do you usually start your students directly with insight meditation or with a concentration practice?" Achaan Jumnien replied: "Most often they start with an insight practice. Sometimes, though, I will teach a concentration (jhana) practice first, especially if they have had past meditation experience or if their mind tends toward concentration easily. Eventually it is most important that everyone returns to insight practice."


Achaan Buddhadasa

The renowned Achaan Buddhadasa of Suan Mokh in southern Thailand also allows that one can skip the jhanas and practise vipassana after attaining a sufficient degree of concentration to overcome the five mental hindrances. Achaan Buddhadasa teaches anapanasati and outlines the 16 steps required for the cultivation of jhanas and vipassana. But he also allows that one can skip the jhanas and develop vipassana by practising only two of the 16 steps. In his book, Anapanasati -- Mindfulness with Breathing (pg116), Achaan Buddhadasa said: "If some people feel that sixteen steps are too much, that is alright. It is possible to condense the sixteen steps down to two steps. One - train the citta (mind) to be adequately and properly concentrated. Two - with that samadhi skip over to contemplate aniccam, dukkham and anatta right way. Just these two steps, if they are performed with every inhalation and exhalation, can be considered Anapanasati, also. If you do not like to complete 16 Steps Practice, or think that it is too theoretical, or too much to study, or too detailed, then take just these two steps. Concentrate the citta by contemplating the breath. When you feel that there is sufficient samadhi, go examine everything which you know and experience so that you realize how they are impermanent, how they are unsatisfactory, and how they are not-soul, just this much is enough to get the desired results, namely, letting go! release! not attaching! Finally, note the ending of kilesa (defilement) and the ceasing of attachment when aniccam-dukkham-anatta is seen fully. Thus, you can take this short approach if you wish."

In another section of his book (pg 124) where he again gave meditators the option of skipping cultivation of jhanas, he said: "We will begin by speaking for those who do not like `a lot'. By the words `a lot' they seem to mean too much or surplus. Well, the surplus is not necessary. We will take just what is sufficient for ordinary people, which we call `the short cut method.' The essence of this method is to concentrate the mind adequately, just enough, which any ordinary person can do. And then take that concentrated citta to observe aniccam-dukkham-anattathe three characteristics of beinguntil realizing sunnata and tathata. With this practice they will realize the benefits of samadhi just the same. They will get the full-scale result of extinguishing dukkha, but there will not be any special qualities in addition to that. Such special abilities are not necessary anyway. So make the mind sufficiently concentrated, then go examine aniccam-dukkham-anatta. Just practise the first tetrad of Anapanasati sufficiently, then practise the fourth tetrad sufficiently. That is all! Sufficient is not a lot, nor is it complete, but it is good enough. This is the short cut for ordinary people."

Achaan Buddhadasa himself has thus stated it very clearly. Just a sufficient degree of concentration will do and jhanas are not at all necessary.


Achaan Naeb

The woman Thai master, Achaan Naeb, also taught the direct vipassana method, emphasising on mindfulness in all four postures of sitting, standing, walking, lying down and all daily activities day and night. Keen observation of all mental and physical processes is necessary. No special samatha meditation is necessary as concentration is being developed to reach a strong and sufficient level even as one practises direct vipassana by observing all mental and physical processes uninterruptedly without a break all day and night.


(Momentary Concentration)

Here it is pertinent for us to discuss the kind of concentration developed by a pure vipassana yogi. The vipassana yogi uses khanika (momentary) concentration which comes about through the noting of vipassana objects, i.e., noting the various mental and physical phenomena that occur in the mind and body. It is called khanika (momentary) because it occurs only at the moment of noting and, in the case of vipassana, not on a fixed object as samatha-jhana meditation but on changing objects or phenomena that occur in the mind and body. But when the vipassana meditator develops strength and skill in noting, his khanika concentration occurs uninterruptedly in a series without a break. This concentration, when it occurs from moment to moment without a break, becomes so powerful that it can overcome the five mental hindrances, thus bringing about purification of mind (citta visuddhi) which can enable a meditator to attain all the insight knowledges up to the level of arahatship. Pure vipassana yogis can appreciate and understand the power of khanika concentration. For when their noting gains momentum, they can see for themselves how the noting goes on by itself uninterruptedly without a break. The noting seems to run on its own steam without any need for the yogi to make any concerted or deliberate effort. Thus, it is not unusual for a yogi to be able to sit for an hour, and even several hours, absorbed in noting. During good noting, especially at the insight knowledge of equanimity (sankhara-upekkhaņana), the mind just stays put on its objects and refuses to wander. Even if one wants to send the mind out, it refuses to go and it recoils back to whatever vipassana object it is noting. There have been cases of yogis being able to sit for six or seven hours in a stretch, or even longer. From this, one can deduce that there must be strength in khanika concentration; otherwise how would yogis be able to sit in rapt concentration for such lengths of time.

Thus, yogis and would-be-yogis should not mistake khanika concentration as being weak and ineffective. True, it may be weak when it is undeveloped, but once momentum picks up it becomes so strong as to be able to overcome the hindrances. In fact, in emphasising the potential strength of khanika concentration, the Paramatthamanjusa, Commentary to the Visuddhi Magga, stated that momentary concentration when it occurs uninterruptedly on it object, `fixes the mind immovably as if in absorption.'2 Overcoming the five hindrances is all that is necessary for the cultivation of vipassana meditation. When the five hindrances are overcome, purification of mind (citta-visuddhi) takes place. With this purification of mind, one can practise and gain all the insight knowledges up to arahatship as had been shown in Rathavinita Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya. As a matter of choice, one can do vipassana through three kinds of concentration: 1.khanika (momentary), 2.upacara (access) and 3.appana or jhana (absorption) concentration. The jhana-attainer uses jhana by first attaining jhana and then withdrawing from the jhana to do vipassana by contemplating the jhana mental factors or any other mental states or physical processes that occur in the mind and body.

Upacara concentration is access or neighbourhood concentration. It is the concentration gained while one is noting a fixed samatha object to attain jhana. Thus, it is the concentration that precedes the attainment of jhana. However, the yogi who uses access concentration to do vipassana, need not wait to attain or develop jhana. Without reaching jhana he starts to contemplate on vipassana objects once he reaches the level of access concentration.

The khanika (momentary) concentration, used by the pure vipassana yogi, is when developed, equivalent in strength to upacara (access) concentration. But it is technically not called proper access concentration because access concentration takes a fixed samatha object which serves as a basis for the attainment of jhana. On the other hand, the khanika concentration of the pure vipassana yogi takes vipassana objects which do not serve as a basis for jhana. This is why there is a difference in terminology. However in the Commentaries, the khanika concentration of the vipassana yogi is sometimes also referred to as access concentration. In such cases, it is an "applied" term; i.e., it is nominal access concentration and not proper access concentration as, technically, access concentration takes a fixed samatha object.3 We have explained the subject of momentary concentration in detail here for the sake of those yogis who may be more scholarly inclined. Generally, most meditators are not concerned with such detailed elaboration.


Venerable Matara Sri Ņanarama Mahathera

The explanation which we have given above is in line with that of meditation masters such as Mahasi Sayadaw of Myanmar and Venerable Matara Sri Ņanarama Mahathera of Sri Lanka. Such monks are endowed with both a sound knowledge of practice and scholarship. The Venerable Ņanarama, for example, is the head of the Mitirigala Nissara Vanaya, an austere meditation monastery, in Sri Lanka. He is proficient in both Pali and Sanksrit. Since 1951, he has also been the chief preceptor and teacher of the Sri Kalyani Yogashramiya Samstha, an organisation of meditation teachers founded by the Venerable K. Sri Jinavamsa Mahathera. This organisation has more than fifty branch centres in Sri Lanka.

Ven. Ņanarama Mahathera teaches not only pure vipassana but also samatha meditation. In his book, The Seven Stages of Purification and the Insight Knowledges published by the Buddhist Publication Society of Sri Lanka, Ven. Ņanarama explained both the samatha and pure vipassana methods in accordance with his own practical experience and in line with Pali text and Commentaries. In explaining the three kinds of concentration, he stated:

"There are three kinds of concentration qualifying as Purification of Mind: access concentration (upacara samadhi), absorption concentration (appana samadhi), and momentary concentration (khanika samadhi). The first two are achieved through the vehicle of serenity (samatha), the last through the vehicle of insight (vipassana). Momentary concentration possesses the same strength of mental unification as access concentration. Since it ... holds the five hindrances at bay, it aids the attainment of insight-knowledge. However, because it does not serve directly as a basis for jhana, it is not called access-concentration."

(In Sri Lanka, some 30 years ago, three monks criticised the pure vipassana method taught by Mahasi Sayadaw. Subsequently, one of them, in an article to the World Buddhism magazine in 1966, again criticized the method and put forward that jhana was necessary for vipassana. Sayadaw U Nyanuttara of Myanmar in a series of replies explained the position of khanika (momentary) concentration and explained why jhana was not necessary in accordance with scriptural and commentarial evidence. Eventually, the Mahasi Organisation published both the Criticisms and Replies in a book for the benefit of posterity.)



1 Absorption here refers to jhana.
2 See footnote of Nanamoli's Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), pg 311.
3 This 'delicate' difference in terminology has been explained by Sayadaw U Nyannutara in his book, Satipatthana Vipassana Meditation: Criticisms and Replies.


NB. Second part of this article will be published in the coming issue (Jan `97, Vol.5 No.1).


Ven Visuddhacara is a Malaysian Buddhist monk. He presently resides in Penang. His earlier books include Curbing Anger Spreading Love, Drinking Tea Living Life, and Loving and Dying.

Vipassana Tribune, Vol 4 No 2, July 1996 is published by Buddhist Wisdom Centre.

Last updated on 31 July 1996 by webmaster.
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