Steps of Vipassana Practice


This dhamma talk is aimed at helping the meditators to have a better understanding about the vipassana practice. I will outline these steps from the beginning, so that beginners can use them. The experienced meditators can skip to the more advanced steps.

The First step is by using the conventional condition(pannatti) for contemplation.

The word for the practice in pali is “kamma thana“. Kamma means the action, thana means the base. Mindfulness( sati) is the actor, which focuses on the base where the object or condition for contemplation is located. During the practice, the mind and the mental factor ( cetasika – the mindfulness that arises at the same time with the mind) will work together on contemplation. Mindfulness cannot arise by itself without the mind.

The beginner may have difficulty with concentration and so his mind may be very busy. It will be difficult to focus on the ultimate condition( paramattha), which is more difficult to locate. They
will need to contemplate on the conventional conditions first to gain concentration. The mind will then be less distracted, and therefore peaceful and stable.

The conventional condition that the Buddha taught was the focusing on the in and out breath. “In” and “out” is us thinking about the meanings.This is an inbreath, or an outbreath. This is a long
inbreath, or a long outbreath. This is the beginning of the inbreath, during the inbreath, the end of inbreath, or the beginning of outbreath, during the outbreath and the end of outbreath. These are
the conventional conditions because there are meanings of “in” and “out”. There may be an imagination, or the shape as a stream of air is coming in, then going out. The meditator may also use
the words “in” and “out” as a mantra along with the breath. Some may use the word “buddho” – “bud” with the breathing in, “dho” with the breathing out. Some meditation masters may instruct using
counting along with the breath by counting in pairs. While breathing in count one, breathing out count one; breathing in count two, breathing out count two, until reaching five. Then start from one to six, one to seven, until reaching ten. If you miscount you have to start from one to five again. The mind has to be focused in order to avoid making mistakes. Thoughts will subside, the mind will stay with the breath and become stable, and concentration will develop.

After counting in pairs, you can count in sequence. Upon breathing in count one, breathing out count two, until reaching five. Then, count to six and so on, until reaching ten. The thoughts will stop, the mind will concentrate, and samadhi will develop. The Buddho mantra is one tool that was taught by the meditation masters in the old time (Luang Poo Sao or Luang Poo Mun). The Buddha’s teaching was mainly to develop a clear awareness of the breath going in and out, notice whether it is short or long, and follow the whole breath cycle. Samadhi will develop after sticking to the breath. Some people cannot catch the breath at the nose, but they can observe the abdomen that rises and falls.  Some will use the words “rising” and “falling” along with the breath, which gives them meaning as language. Walking meditation can also be used with the conventional condition by saying or thinking of “bud” with the right foot, “dho” with the left foot, or naming “right” with the right foot, “left” with the left foot. This will anchor the mind to the walking. Other minor movements can also use pannatti along with them and naming the action: touching, lifting, turning, bending, stretching  etc. This is like using the mantra. The things that we use which have language or meaning will anchor the mind to the body – mindfulness will be working at every moment, samadhi will develop, and the mind will be stable. After this, you can continue to step two.

The Second step. Contemplate on the ultimate( paramattha) condition in one local area..

Paramattha is the real nature, it is the condition of the body( rupa) and the mind( nama). 

Contemplation on the body will clearly show us this nature. See what sensation is happening in the body. These can be cold/ hot, soft/ hard, tense/relaxed, pleasant/unpleasant. Start with one area. Focus on the foot and leg while walking. When taking a step the muscles will be tense or relaxed,  when putting the foot down there will be a hard or soft, cold or hot, pleasant or unpleasant sensation. It is easier to observe only a small area at first.

When watching the minor movements such as touching, use the same sensation of cold/ hot, soft/hard. If you use pannatti, you will know only that you are touching which is the action, and not the sensation. When bending down, you will feel the tension on the neck. When extending the leg, there will be relaxation, tension, vibration, etc.

When sitting down and observing the breath, we can also watch the sensations and how the breath is cool when breathing in, warm when breathing out. The chest will expand and become tensed when breathing in, relaxed when breathing out. Some times there may be pannatti  mixed in, such as naming breathing  in and breathing out along with the sensation. This method is a combination of pannatti and paramattha. After you gain experience in watching the paramattha locally, then you can move to step 3.

The Third step. Contemplate on the ultimate(paramattha)conditions to cover the whole body, not only at any particular location. This is the way to train the mind to perceive any sensation and not to stay at one spot. First we focus on the foot and leg while walking, and then start observing some other movements that take place during walking as well. It can be the movement in the upper torso or the whole body. While sitting, also observe the sensation on the face, the mouth, the neck, inside the head, inside the abdomen, and along the muscle. Feel the cold breeze that touches the skin, etc. In general, learn to know the whole body.
After gaining more experience from observing the body, the next thing is to start observing the mind. What you can observe is the thought, the feeling, or the mind action, and the knowing ability or the knower. When thinking, know it. When feelings arise, such as a pleasant or unpleasant one, know it. Learn the character of the pleasurable or unpleasurable mind. Know the distracted mind, the moody one, the one with faith, the loving friendliness, the compassionate one, the one with sympathetic joy, mindfulness, concentration, etc. These are the actions of the mind that we need to recognize when they appear – know it as it is.

If you have difficulty finding the mind, you can follow the Buddha’ s instruction on how to contemplate the mind according to the Four Foundations of Mindfulness ( mindfulness of the mind- cittanupassana). He taught us to observe if the mind is with greed or without greed, with anger or without anger, with delusion or without delusion, distracted or calm, etc. Use this practice first to learn how your mind is feeling.

Know that the knowing mind is the mind that is knowing, is watching, or is mindful and comprehending. This concludes the general contemplating of the paramattha to cover the whole body and mind.

With this way of contemplating, the concentration will be weaker because you are not focusing on one particular object. The samadhi may be gone. You may want to return to step one to build up samadhi first or go to step two to use paramattha contemplation in one area until your concentration improves.

Eventually, you will have to let go of pannatti – leave out the mantra, name, recitation, meaning, and shape. You need to use only the paramattha conditions. Be mindful of the paramattha without using any wording. 

Why do we need to leave the name and other pannatti conditions? When you have gained more experience with the generalized contemplation of paramattha, there will be so many body and mind conditions that you can observe. They will be in a constant motion. You will feel a cold sensation here, a tension there, etc. It appears and changes so rapidly that you are unable to name them. When you spend time labeling them with names, it will limit your ability to observe and the mindfulness cannot get sharper. When there is a pause, you will miss a lot of conditions that are arising  and vanishing very quickly.

We need to drop the name and language in order to allow the mindfulness to work freely
, so that it can catch up with the rapidly arising conditions. You will witness the ability of the well trained mindfulness, and you will be amazed by it’s power – that it can be very fast in catching the body and mind conditions.

When the mindfulness increases you may be exhausted from observing these conditions. It is like receiving many guests continuously. Initially, it was ok when only a few showed up. You have to change your strategy after greeting too many of them. So you can stay inside and wait for the guests to come to you, without going outside to greet them, but at the same time keeping the doors open.

How many living doors do we have?

We have six doors – these are the eye doors, the ear doors, the nose door, the tongue door, the body door, and the mind door. Our “guests” are the colors that come through the eyes, sound that comes through the ears, odor that comes through the nose, flavor that comes through the tongue, touch that comes through the body, thought and mental factors (cetasika) that come through the mind. Some times the guest is already in the house so you have to know him and know yourself. If you greet the guests but are not aware of yourself, you may run after the guest. So you need to keep yourself still. If you are not mindful,  you may like the guest and follow him all the way to his house.

For example: you like a sound – it is sweet and you think about it. This may be a sound of a bird that can sing well, so what kind of bird is it? This is how you follow the guest! When you see a beautiful picture, your thought will follow that picture. You smell a nice odor, you will follow it. This is why it is important to be aware of yourself. So besides knowing the objects that come into contact with your sense  doors, you will have to know yourself also. Stay put, hold still. You can greet the guests and let them go. Know when they come or go. Be happy to be still.

Vipassana practice is the same way, hold the mind still. Do not run after the objects. Beginners will tend to run after all the objects that come through the door and study them. But after you learn about them, you don’t have to follow them. You can stay in your place and the guests will come to you. Keep the mind still, pretend as if you are not looking for anything or not greeting any guest. But the guests will still come to you. Keep the knower inside and let go of the objects, there will be many inputs that you can see , hear, touch etc.

The Fourth step.

After more practice, you will reach the level of knowing and letting go. Practice letting go with detachment. When mindfulness is more powerful, it will work by itself. There will be no need to control or force it, since it will become automatic. The meditator has to learn to observe until this happens. You practice until you feel that you can receive a lot of input, even when you pretend not to watch anything. Stay put and it will be neutral. If you follow the object, it will be more than neutral because there is an intention. You will manage it or be overly focused on it. If you stay still the overly focusing  will reduce, and the mind will be lighter. This is the neutral state, the right balance that we need. But if you let go too much and become sleepy, then you have to focus and follow more input. Practice until the mindfulness is stronger and sharper. Then try to be still before knowing and letting go again.

If you have a tendency to be tense, try to let go from the beginning. You may feel the tension in the brain, on the forehead, or in the chest. The more you focus the more tension will develop. When you are aware of it, try to release the tension. If you notice it carefully, you will feel some change in the degree of the tension. So, do not resist it – let the change take place, then the tension will release. The one who is used to being in control will have more tension, so learn to let go more from the start. Take care of your headache first. After it is relieved, then progress will follow.

When you reach this stage, you will see that mindfulness is able to catch up with the condition that is arising. This is the present moment. Adjust and let the mind be neutral, then you will see the arising and vanishing of the body and mind conditions. When you are mindful on the paramattha ( ultimate truth), it will show the arising and vanishing characters. It will happen whether or not you watch it. It did not show because you were not mindful on it. This is the natural phenomenon, which depends on the cause and the factor. Whenever there is an arising, the vanishing will follow in an instant. Since this happens very rapidly, it would appear as if it
was permanent and stable.

When the mindfulness is well trained, it will be stronger and can pick up the body and mind conditions faster. The interval in between will be clearer. The arising and vanishing will be clearer. The impermanence is more apparent. Any impermanent condition will not be able to sustain the old status. Whenever it appears, it will disappear, wherever it appears, it will disappear. You will get the sense of it being out of control. It will appear and disappear by itself. There is nothing above the nature which is impermanent, and is out of control. You can not control the body and mind to make it not to appear or not to disappear. This is the condition of anatta(nonself). These conditions are not self, there is nothing that is us or belongs to us. The insight into the truth of life will become thus clear to the meditator. The feeling that we used to have – that the body and mind are us – is not there anymore. They do not belong to us. They are merely elements, or natural phenomena that normally appear and disappear, and are not under our control. This is vipassana insight (nana) that clearly understands the truth of nature. After seeing more arising and vanishing of the body and mind ( rupa and nama), you will gain more understanding of the three characteristic of anicca, dukkha and anatta. 

When the vipassana insight(nana) gradually becomes stronger, the insight will step up into the unworldly level (lokuttara). Eventually when all the eight noble paths reach the perfect level, there will be a unification which makes them strong enough to eradicate the defilements. This is when one reaches the vimutti or being liberated, or reaching the magga, phala and nibbana. The first level of enlightenment is Sotapattimagga , follow by Sotapattiphala . Nibbana will be the object of contemplation. These are the steps that you need to practice, so that you can clearly see the path.

The one who has been meditating for a while can skip the first and second steps and start to observe the generalized paramattha and let go of the conditions. Some new meditators who lack experience but have some understanding can go ahead and observe the paramattha from the beginning. They can observe the feelings without naming or using language. The samadhi will be weak this way, so hindrances may appear. These are lust, hatred, distraction, irritation, doubt, etc. If you use the generalized paramattha, you can use the hindrance as an
object of meditation. When lust arises know it, when hatred arises know it, when distraction arises know it, when doubt arises know it, etc….Know without being involved. It is a way to practice mindfulness, even though concentration may not develop. Know it moment by moment. When the mindfulness is stronger, peace will arise without using any pannatti !

Some people cannot start doing anything without using pannatti . So they can start by using pannatti, such as buddho, counting, breathing in and out first, before observing the paramattha.

Some people may start  from observing  paramattha in a small area first, or watching the sensation on the foot when doing walking meditation.

So we have to understand clearly what is pannatti, or paramattha, which is the ultimate truth or the condition of this body and mind. It is the reality of nature that can be observed through the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind, depending on what you are doing. The majority will be through the body, mind, ears and eyes( if you keep them open). The lesser will be through the nose and tongue. The sound through the ears will be constant. For some who are not stable yet, receiving too much sound will be too distracting and will cause confusion. They should let the sound go and pay attention to developing samadhi first.  They can ignore the sound and focus the attention on the body. Be aware only in the body, pretending not to pay attention to anything else. The mind will calm down. This can be compared to when you receive too many guests and become tired – you will have to go inside and settle in a room. In the practice, you may focus only on the breath without observing anything, until concentration develops. You can also watch only the mind and let go of the other conditions.

So there are many methods of practice to help you to face a variety of conditions. You need to do it with understanding and then let go of them. If you are not stable yet, go back to samadhi, let go of the other objects and stay with only one at first. Later on you can start observing the other conditions. This is the guideline for the practice that will lead you along the steps.

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