From Pannatti to Paramattha (Conventional to Ultimate Truth)
Objective: To know the difference between pannatti and paramattha, how to differentiate between them, why we need to observe paramattha when doing vipassana, and how to do it.
The process of meditation
First, you can be mindful of the pannatti, or conventional object. This is not yet a vipassana practice, so you will not gain insight. Vipassana is the true insight into this body and mind.
We start with the pannatti in order to develop concentration, so that the mind will be stable and not jump from one thought to another. The mind will be calmer after the hindrances are suppressed. After that, we will go deeper by connecting to the paramattha( ultimate) dhamma. If you already have an understanding of the paramattha, you can go directly to being mindful of it.
If you are not used to or do not understand paramattha, then start with pannatti first. Both are the bases of mental cultivation upon which the mind can focus, but the end results are different.
Pannatti (conventional truth) will result in a stable, concentrated mind.
Paramattha (ultimate truth) will result in gaining insight, which leads to liberation.
So the first step of the practice can start with focusing on the pannatti, and then getting into paramattha. The difference in the practice can be very subtle. Some people may be able to focus on the paramattha, but still fixate on one location and are not able to generalize. They may be aware of only one area, or a couple of areas. This is okay because the awareness can spread to the whole body and also to the mind’s activities. At this level, mindfulness can be stronger and they also can develop some insight. They may see varieties of forms and mental activities, but the mind is not yet neutral. They may try to pick up sensory inputs, get drawn into them, focus on them, or hold on to them. When one has reached a deeper level of practice, the knowing will be more spontaneous and natural, without any control. This is the way to reduce the pannatti (conventional dhamma), until it disappears and the knowing of paramattha becomes clearer and more pure. Insight into the ultimate truth will increase and eventually, the mind will be liberated.
We are used to conventional things, so using pannatti is easier to practice. We are also attached to them, so it is harder to understand the paramattha. This allows people to start doing meditation by focusing on the objects they are familiar with, which leads them into concentration (samadhi). The mind will be peaceful, and they will experience joy and happiness. This will allow them to see the value of the dhamma and be more confident. It will encourage them to put more effort into meditation. I knew a person who used to be an alcoholic and had problems with gambling. He attended one meditation course and gained some samadhi – it brought joy and happiness that he had not experienced before. He was transformed into a completely different person. He stopped drinking and gambling, had more money left, and was able to pay off his debts. His family was also happier. He did this on his own, as a result of his experience after meditation! Even though he gained concentration but not yet insight, meditation still had a significant impact on his life.
What is the pannatti?
Pannatti has two characteristics.
- It has a shape and form.
- It has a name (language) and meaning.
Any condition that has a meaning or name is the pannatti. The Buddha stated that there were 40 items that could be objects of samatha meditation. Some examples are colors, water, fire, metta, the Buddha’s qualities, etc. Besides these, there were a few more listed in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness Sutta. Some portions of the sutta – with the mindfulness of the body – have pannatti conditions, which can be the basis of concentration. We can decide this for ourselves. If it creates concentration, that would be pannatti. Or, if you use pannatti you will develop concentration.
Four foundations of mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutta)
Mindfulness of the body (Kayanupassana) means mindfully contemplating the “body in the body” repeatedly. What is included in this body contemplation?
Breath: in-breath and out-breath
Posture: standing, walking, sitting, lying down
Elements: the four elements of which we are composed: earth, water, wind, fire
Minor movement: raising arm, bending down, turning, dressing, etc.
32 parts of the body
You can select one of these to contemplate. For example, you will use the breath by being mindful on the breath. Every living being has a breath. It passes through the nose all the way down to the chest. The feeling of the breath will end in the abdomen, which can be felt. Be attentive and mindful of the breath. The air that passes through is paramattha, it is composed of the elements of earth, water, fire and wind. There is more wind than the other elements. When you are starting out and cannot yet see these elements, you can use pannatti first. When breathing in, know that there is a breath going in. When breathing out, know that there is a breath going out. Or if the in-breath or out-breath is short, know that it is short. If the in-breath or out-breath is long, know that it is long. This is the way to use the breath as an anchor, so that the mind does not wander around. The mind will become settled, peaceful and happy. You can decide whether you will use pannatti or paramattha on your own by using the things you have learned.
Pannatti (conventional) dhamma has name or meaning.
Knowing of the in-breath and out-breath has meaning, so this means that the mind is using pannatti.
The same goes with knowing whether the in-breath or out-breath is long – it has the details of meaning.
So at this point, we are using pannatti. The result of the practice will be concentration, and samadhi will develop.
Some people have very busy minds and cannot focus on the breath alone. Experienced meditation teachers have wanted to help them, so they suggested adding some wording to the breath. Some examples are buddho, dhammo, sangho, etc. “Bud” while breathing in, “dho” while breathing out. This works well with the breath.
“Bud-dho” also is pannatti since it has a name and meaning. It helps the mind to stick with the breath better. Some may go further and see some shape or form – you will see the breath as a flow of air going in and out, or see it as a rainbow. It may feel like something is soft or misty. These signs, which are also pannatti, have a shape or structure that the mind creates. If you do not see these signs, you may see an image of the nose, throat, or chest. After this, samadhi can follow. Some find that watching the movement of the abdomen is easier, so another method involves using rising and falling. All of these methods are watching things that have names, mental images and shapes, and the end result will be samadhi or concentration.
So where is the paramattha?
Using the same breath, you can feel the sensation of the breath that touches the nose. There is a sense of hot or cold, which is the fire element. The hardness when the air contacts the nose is the earth element. When you observe these sensations, they are paramattha (ultimate) dhamma. This is the true vipassana practice – you erase all names, meanings, and shapes away. What is left is purely sensation.
Initially, it may be too hard to observe the sensations alone. You can start by adding the pannatti or by alternating them. If you use the watching of the abdomen, you can drop the words “rising” and “falling.” Instead, you observe the tension, relaxation, or vibration of the abdomen. Sometimes, the mind cannot focus on finer sensations, so the mind becomes empty. That too is pannatti, since “empty” is a concept and you have not reached the ultimate truth yet.
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness also have instruction on other contemplations of the body, such as using body postures. When sitting, know that you are sitting; when standing or walking, know that you are standing or walking, etc. This practice is also pannatti, since it refers to the meaning of sitting, standing, etc. We also use, ”I am sitting”. The action of sitting, standing, etc., comes from the shape of the body. For example, sitting means flexing at the hip, the back is straight and perpendicular to the lower part of the body. But standing means that the body is straight, but is perpendicular to the floor. If the body is straight on the floor, it is lying down. If there is movement of the legs, that is walking. All of these have meanings, shapes and forms, so they are all conventional, or pannatti. If you are mindful of the sitting posture, the result will be samadhi.
“Ultimate truth”, or paramattha, are ones without shape, form, or meaning. You have to be able to feel it. Even though it can be called something different in every language, everyone will feel the same thing.
After you contemplate any pannatti for a period of time, the mind will become more stable. The second step is changing to the paramattha by contemplating the sensation, not the shape or form. You will start to notice sensations on the body from the contact. The fire element will be hot/cold (less heat). The earth element is soft/hard. The wind element is tension/relaxtion, or vibration. This can be observed on the skin, or in the internal organs. Mindfulness that is more refined and persistent will detect more subtle sensations. If the sensation is balanced, then pleasant feeling (sukkha vedana) will arise. If the sensation is too strong or painful, then unpleasant feeling (dukkha vedana) will arise. This is paramattha, which is going deeper into the mind and vedana.
Feelings in the body (cold/hot, soft/hard, tension/vibration) will be only noticed at one little spot at each moment. Usually the mind will gather these single points of data and form them into a shape, and then attach a name and meaning to it. That sensation changes into a leg or an arm. This, is when pannatti is formed. It turns into the “pain in my leg” or “my arm is numb” that we are accustomed to.
If the paramattha practice is pure and does not have any pannatti, there will be no “leg”, no “arm”, no standing or sitting. The mind will only perceive sensations. It is very hard, not adding pannatti to that sensation and feeling only the sensation. You can experiment with this for yourself. Start by making a fist, and then opening it. Try to focus only on the sensation – not seeing it as a hand or fingers. It is usually difficult to get only the sensation. We usually feel it as the “fingers” or the “hand”, etc., which is pannatti. The reason we cannot experience pure sensation is because we are overly focused on one specific location.
So, the key to deeper practice is to not focus or look only at one spot, but observe everything and let go of it.
The same can be applied when observing the senses from the other sensory inputs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue and mind). If you overly focus on any one sense, you will progress into pannatti. So try to observe the mind as well. When focusing on the hand and feeling the sensation, also know the mind. If you do not focus solely on one object, the shape and form will be erased. What is left proves to be the ultimate truth, or paramattha.
In this sutta, there are also other choices. Contemplation of the 32 body parts is also pannatti. For example, hair has a shape and name. We contemplate the dirtiness of the hair, which has meaning. When we see this, the mind will let go of the attachment to the beauty of the hair, and concentration and peacefulness will develop. After that you can observe the paramattha, which is the state of the mind.
So your practice can start by observing the body sensation in one spot, then spreading the awareness to a more general area, but keeping the feeling of cold/hot, soft/hard, and tension/vibration. After that we observe the mind, know the reaction and character of the mind. It will be harder to observe the mind, but vipassana practice requires you to know the mind. There will be no progress if you do not reach the mind. If you only focus on the body, it will always extend to pannatti. The mind can even perceive any story without having contact from the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, or body. Thoughts will proliferate and form into meaning, shape, structure, etc. For example, you may think of a loved one, and then his or her face will appear in the mind, along with his/her name, story, etc.
To catch the mind, awareness has to be pointed at those thoughts which appear and disappear very quickly. You will only realize this after the thought has passed. If you are mindful at that one moment, you will realize that there was a thought. If you overly focus on the thought, it will expand and turn into pannatti again. So, mindfulness has to be perfect – not too loose, nor too tense. It may be hard to know the character of the mind at the beginning. You can start by observing feelings or mental activity that occur in the mind (cetasik), such as liking, disliking, peacefulness, clearness or confusion, etc. When you observe them more and more, you will develop the automatic awareness that covers both the body and the mind. The mind will be neutral, stable, and natural. It will not be drawn into the conventional way (pannatti). The true nature of this body and mind will be revealed, which is the process of appearing and disappearing. Insight into the three characteristics of impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha) and non-self (anatta) will be made apparent. This is the vipassana yana!