Insight Meditation 101 – Vipassana from the Buddha

Insight Meditation 101

Vipassana from the Buddha


What is Insight Meditation?

Vipassana is what the Buddha called Insight Meditation.

Remember, the Buddha said that there were 2 dimensions to meditation:

  • Samatha – calm
  • Vipassana – insight

What is insight meditation?


  • With samatha, we are anchoring the mind down by focussing on 1 object and becoming one with it – so that it calms down to a peaceful state.  This is sort of like handling the reins of a horse – so that you can control where you want the horse to go.  Otherwise, the horse can just run wild.  Our minds are similar, so we’ve got to rein it in, anchor them down and focus it.
  • With vipassana, we are using – anicca, dukkha, anatta – to understand the nature of our mind and the nature of the objects within our mind.  Once our minds are peaceful enough with samatha, we can then open our minds up again to investigate the things that come into our mind – this gives us insights into the nature of the mind and mind objects.

The Tools of Insight Meditation

There are 3 tools of Insight Meditation:

  1. Anicca means impermanent, subject to change.  It also means uncertain – not sure.
  2. Dukkha means suffering.  It also means unsatisfactory, stress, pain.
  3. Anatta means not-self.  These things are not me, these things are not mine, these things are not my self.

What are these 3 and why do we use them?

This is the basic threefold reflection in vipassana meditation.  They are 3 qualities that you can observe in all created things – they are subject to change, decay and die – therefore they are not satisfactory and not really you.  They do NOT however apply to things that are not created (this is discussed elsewhere in this blog) – they ONLY apply to created, compounded, aggregated phenomena, i.e., things with a birth.

There is one more tool that we use during insight meditation that is the most important tool – wisdom.  We’ve got to observe these things in our minds with wisdom when using these 3 tools.

Why learn Insight Meditation?

With samatha, we are calming the mind down to a state of peace.  But as Ajahn Chah notes – this is only a temporary peace.  This is similar to putting a brick down over some weeds so that the weeds can no longer grow anymore.  The brick only stops these weeds temporarily – once you remove the brick, the weeds come back.  The same thing happens with the weeds in our minds – the afflictions in our minds.

We can only temporarily help our minds achieve peace with samatha.  If we really want to get rid of the weeds altogether so that they never come back again – then we’ve got to use the wisdom of vipassana.

This way, we understand what feeds those weeds and makes them grow – so we stop feeding them.  Even better, we pull them out by the roots once and for all.  This way, they never come back.

So we understand those emotions that afflict us – and we stop feeding them.  Then we pull those afflictions out once and for all – by truly understanding their nature and no longer being deluded by them.  That is insight.  That is wisdom.

The Principles Involved

Understanding the Nature of Impermanent things

What’s the nature of impermanent things?  It is this:

  • All that arises, ceases.
  • All that is born will eventually die
  • All that is created will be destroyed
  • All that produced will be extinguished
  • All that starts will have an end

Impermanent things are called sankharas – conditioned things or conditioned phenomena.  They are also called compounded things, formed things/formations or aggregated things.

What’s the problem with Impermanent things?

They are subject to change – and so they decay and die.  Therefore they are dukkha – they are unsatisfactory, stressful, painful, suffering.

Understanding the Nature of what is fit to be Self and what is Not-self

In the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, the Buddha gives us a reference standard:

  • A Self has full, total, absolute control over itself – to the point where wishing it and it shall be.  So you wish your self should this way – it would be so.  And you wish of your self – may it be that way – it would be so.
  • Whatever it can’t control – is therefore not self – and will lead to affliction/suffering.  If you can’t have something under your total and absolute control – then whatever you don’t have control of will afflict you.  You will get frustrated because you can’t get what you want.  You will therefore know that this thing is not really you – because you can’t really control it.

How to do it

If you look at the Anatta lakkhana Sutta – the Buddha teaches this:
Take each of the 5 skandhas as a subject to reflect upon. e.g., form/rupa – so we’re taking the body to reflect upon.
1. Anicca:  Is form permanent or impermanent?
Impermanent – the body grows up, then gets old and dies.
2. Dukkha:  Is something that is impermanent happiness or suffering?  Is it satisfactory or not satisfactory?
Suffering by its nature.  If something dies, of course it is unsatisfactory – because it doesn’t last.  It can only satisfy us temporarily.  And when the body starts to get old and sick and dies – that’s when it afflicts us – that’s when it causes us pain and suffering.  Impermanent things are dukkha.
3. Anatta:  Is something that something that is impermanent and unsatisfactory fitting to be regarded as me or myself?  Is something which is impermanent and painful fit to be regarded as your self?
No.  Why?  Because when you observe the impermanent things decaying – because you can sit back and observe it – you are separate from that decaying thing.  That which is aware of the decay is not the decay.  The decay is not you.

This is Buddhism 101.  This is just the basic stuff, but it can really help people let go of things.

What I have just taught you is the Buddha directly teaching his monks how to let go by reflecting on the 3 – anicca, dukkha, anatta.

Worked Example
So a sad thought comes into your mind:
Anicca:  It comes and goes – so you don’t need to try to get rid of it – it is impermanent.
Dukkha: Because it’s impermanent, it’s not satisfactory anyway.
Anatta: Because you can sit back and observe the pain as it arises and passes away – when it passes away, that which is aware of it passing away does not pass away. Therefore that sad thought is not you – not self. It’s just a thought that comes and goes.  You just realize that it’s just a feeling. Feelings are just feelings and are not self.  So you can let it go.  It’s not you. It’s not part of you.  No need to worry about it – just leave it be and it will die out by itself.

This is the fundamentals of vipassana 101.  It will form a great foundation for you to let go of negative emotions that afflict you – because you can see that emotions are just emotions and are not really you.  They are just feelings that arise and cease.  So you see through them and are no longer as caught up in them as you use to be – and you can allow them to cease.

Now even though I’ve just taught you guys the fundamental threefold reflection using anicca, dukkha and anatta.  It is very, very useful.

There is one important point that you absolutely MUST understand when you apply this threefold reflection – the context within which you apply it.  This is extremely important as it will give you an understanding of “why” anicca, dukkha and anatta is used in the overall scheme of the Buddha’s teachings.

The Buddha made this clear in the Mahayana Parinirvana Sutra.  That will be the subject of another blog post!

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