by Nina van Gorkom | 1999 | 122,172 words

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Chapter 35 - The Stages Of Insight

The realities which appear in our daily life are impermanent, dukkha and anatta. We may have theoretical understanding of these three characteristics of realities, but does understanding directly know the truth? Were may not be understanding which directly knows the arising and falling away of seeing which appears now or of visible object which appears now. We learn about "arising and falling away of realities", but instead of directly knowing the truth we call only think of the truth. The realization of the impermanence of realities is not thinking, "It does not last".

The impermanence of realities cannot be realized in the beginning of the development of understanding. First understanding should clearly know the nama which appears as nama and the rupa which appears as rupa. Nama and rupa, are different realities and they can only be object of mindfulness one at a time, but we are still likely to confuse their characteristic.

In theory we know that nama experiences an object and that rupa does not experience anything, but theoretical understanding is only superficial. In order to develop direct understanding of realities we should first know the difference between the moments that there is thinking about concepts such as a person, body or house, and the moments that there is mindfulness of only one reality at a time, such as visible object, hardness or seeing. These are ultimate realities, each with their own characteristic, which does not change, no matter how we name it. One reality at a time impinges on one of the six doors and when mindfulness arises it can be directly aware of that object, and at that moment understanding can investigate its nature. In this way understanding of realities can develop.

The realization of the truth of impermanence, dukkha and anatta does not occur all of a sudden, it is the result of the development of direct understanding in different stages. All through the different stages of development of understanding the object is the same: nama and rupa which appear at the present moment, in daily life. The object is the same but understanding develops and sees realities more clearly. Thus doubt about realities and the wrong view of them are eliminated.

The first stage of insight, which is only a beginning stage, is the understanding of the difference between the characteristic of nama and the characteristic of rupa, not merely in theory but through direct understanding of them when they appear. The first stage of insight is called Defining of nama and rupa, or "Delimitation of Formations" (in Pali : nama-rupa-pariccheda-nana). The following stages of insight, which are higher stages, cannot be realized before the first stage of insight. Thus, the impermanence of, for example, seeing cannot be realized if there is no dear understanding first of the characteristic of seeing as nama, different from rupa. We know in theory that seeing does not stay, that it must have fallen away when there is thinking of a concept, but this does not mean that the arising and falling away of seeing at this moment is directly known. Seeing and visible object may still seem to appear together, and then there is no mindfulness of one reality at a time but only thinking about seeing and visible object.

The understanding of seeing and all the other realities is bound to be vague in the beginning and it is useful to know what one does not understand yet. Seeing arises and then it falls away immediately to be succeeded by other cittas of the eye-door process which experience visible object. when the eye-door process has been completed there is a process of cittas which experience visible object through the mind-door they do not experience a concept but visible object which has only just fallen away. Later on other mind-door processes of cittas which experience a concept may arise. when one pays attention to the shape and form of something and to the details, the object is a concept. Thus, rupas which impinge on the five senses are experienced through the corresponding sense-door as well as through the mind-door. We are confused with regard to the truth because it seems that seeing continues for some time and that there is no mind-door process of cittas which also experience the visible object which was experienced by the cittas of the eye-door process.

We do not notice the mind-door processes which arise in between the sense-door processes, it seems that the mind-door processes are covered up by the sense-door processes.

When the first stage of insight is reached, panna which arises in a mind-door process clearly distinguishes the characteristic of nama from the characteristic of rupa, there is no confusion about their different characteristics. Neither is there confusion about what the mind-door process is; the mind-door process which follows upon a sense-door process is no longer covered up, as was the case before the first stage of insight occurred. At the moments of insight nama and rupa appear one at a tine in mind-door processes and at these moments one does not take realities as a "whole" there is no idea of "the world", no idea of a self.

There is no self who can direct which nama and rupa are the objects of insight, there is no particular order of their appearing. Any nama and any rupa can be the object of insight and their different characteristics can be distinguished from each other.

When the moments of insight knowledge, vipassana nama, have fallen away it seems again that realities appear as a "whole", as the world. Understanding is still weak. It depends on the accumulated wisdom of the individual which kinds of nama and rupa have been penetrated by insight, it may have been only a few kinds. The understanding which was gained at the moments of vipassana nama has to be applied again and again and one has to continue to be mindful of all kinds of nama and rupa which appear. The concept of self is so deeply rooted that it cannot be eradicated at the first stage of insight. Understanding has to develop further in order to eradicate it.

When the characteristic of nama and the characteristic of rupa can be distinguished from each other, nama and rupa can be seen more clearly as conditioned realities. Seeing arises, no matter we like it or not, because there are conditions for its arising. Visible object conditions seeing by being its object. If there were no object, seeing could not arise. Seeing is also conditioned by eyesense which is its physical base, a kind of rupa produced by kamma. If kamma does not produce eyesense there cannot be seeing. Seeing is vipakacitta, the result of kamma. There is seeing of pleasant objects and of unpleasant objects and nobody can cause the experience of objects to be pleasant. Contact, phassa, is another condition for seeing. Contact is a cetasika which arises with each citta and it "contacts" the object so that citta can experience it. If there were no contact there could not be seeing.

There is no self who sees and can control the seeing; it is only a conditioned nama which arises for a moment and then falls away.

Each reality which arises is conditioned by different factors. The seventh book of the "Abhidhamma", the "Book of Conditional Relations" (Patthana)[1] deals with twenty four different types of conditions (paccayas). when we study these we should keep in mind that they occur in daily life. When panna has been developed more by being mindful of all kinds of realities appearing in daily life, the second stage of insight can be realized. This is Discerning the Conditions of Nama and Rupa (in Pali: paccaya-pariggaha-nana). This is not theoretical understanding of conditions, it is not thinking of all the different conditioning factors for the arising of nama and rupa, but it h the direct understanding of nama and rupa as conditioned realities.

Through direct understanding of the nama or the rupa which appears now we will come to understand what our life is and how it is conditioned.

Just as nama and rupa which arise at the present moment are conditioned, so they were in the past and so they will be in the future. We have to continue to be born and to receive results of kamma because there is still ignorance and craving and these condition rebirth. There is clinging to the objects which can be experienced through the senses, there is clinging to life. The clinging which arises today is conditioned by dinging which arose in the past and which has been accumulated and carried on from one life to the next life.

We may still doubt whether there is rebirth after the dying-consciousness. If the citta at this moment is clearly understood as a conditioned reality there will also be more understanding about death and rebirth. Each citta which arises now is succeeded by the next one. This also happens at the last moment of out fife: the dying-consciousness has to be succeeded by the rebirth-consciousness which is the first citta of the next life. So long as there are conditions for it there will be the arising of nama and rupa again and again. Doubts about past life, present life and future life cannot be overcome by theoretical understanding of the conditions for the arising of nama and rupa, it can only be overcome by the direct understanding of realities and their

Life exists only one moment of experiencing an object. This moment falls away and is gone completely, and then another moment arises. when there is seeing, our life is seeing, when there is heating, our life is heating. Each moment of life is impermanent and thus it is dukkha, we cannot take out refuge in it. The cause of dukkha is clinging. Very often after seeing, hearing or the other sense-cognitions there is clinging, but it may be so subtle that we do not notice it. We cling to seeing, we also cling to thinking of concepts after the seeing, we want to pay attention to shape and form. When we read there is usually clinging, we have desire to know the meaning of what we read. when we are thinking there are often akusala cittas with clinging, but we do not notice it. when right understanding is being developed clinging can be known as only a conditioned nama, not self.

We read in the Kindred Sayings (II, Nidana-vagga, Part XII, Chapter V, 43, Ill) that the Buddha, while he was at Savatthi, spoke about the arising of Ill, dukkha, and its cause, and about the ceasing of dukkha and the conditions for its ceasing:

... What, monks, is the arising of dukkha?

Because of sight and visual objects visual consciousness arises, contact is the clash of the three; feeling is conditioned by contact, craving by the feeling. This, monks, is the arising of dukkha.

(We then read the same with regard to the other doorways.)

And what, monks, is the passing away of dukkha?

Because of sight and visible objects visual consciousness arises; contact is the clash of the three; feeling is conditioned by the contact, craving by the feeling. By the utter fading away and ceasing of the craving, grasping ceases, by the ceasing at the grasping, becoming ceases, by the ceasing of becoming, birth ceases, by the ceasing of birth. decay-and-death, grief lamentation, suffering, despair cease. Such is the ceasing of this entire mass of dukkha.

(The same is said with regard to the other doorways.)

This, monks, is the passing away of dukkha.

We may read this sutta with theoretical understanding of realities, but only through insight, through direct understanding of the truth, can we grasp the deep meaning of this sutta. There are many degrees of knowing the three characteristics of conditioned realities, of impermanence, dukkha and anatta. After the second stage of insight has been reached, understanding investigates more and more these three characteristics. The third stage of insight is. Investigation Knowledge or Comprehension by Groups (in Pali: samasana nana, Vis. XX, 6).

It may seem that investigation knowledge is merely intellectual understanding, but it is a stage of direct understanding, of insight. At this stage panna clearly realizes the succession of the namas and of the rupas as they arise and fall away very rapidly.

Even after the third stage of insight has been reached, insight is still "tender insight" (taruna vipassana). When insight is merely "tender" a person can still deviate from the eightfold Path. The Visuddhimagga (XX, 105) mentions "imperfections" which can arise: someone may cling to his understanding, to tranquillity or to the assurance he has due to this beginning insight. He may forget that also understanding is only a conditioned reality which is not self. Or he may erroneously think that he has attained enlightenment already and thus he may get stuck in his development.

The imperfections of insight can only be overcome by conditioning to be mindful of all kinds of realities which appear. If one realizes that also it insight knowledge is only a conditioned nama there will be less clinging to it. There is no self who can induce the arising of the stages of insight nor exert control over them. Those who are no longer deluded because of the imperfections of insight, know what is the right path and what is not the right path (Vis. XX, 129). If one does not deviate from the right path anymore insight can develop and then a following stage of insight can be reached. This is the first stage of "principal insight" (maha-vipassana), namely, the Knowledge of the Arising and Falling away of Nama and Rupa (udayabbhaya nama).

As we have seen, at the third stage of "tender insight" panna realizes the succession of namas and rupas which arise and fall away very rapidly. However, at this stage panna is not keen enough yet to see the danger and disadvantage of the arising and falling away of realities. At the first stage of principal insight panna realizes more clearly and more precisely the arising and the falling away of a nama and a rupa as it appears one at a time, and there can be more detachment from them.

Although realities are more clearly understood at each subsequent stage of insight, the knowledge which was gained has to be applied and one has to continue to be mindful of nama and rupa. Only thus the three characteristics of impermanence, dukkha and anatta will be penetrated more deeply. There are nine stages of principal insight, mahfi-vipassana, in all according to the Visuddhimagga (XXI, 1).[2]

In the course of the development of insight there will be more detachment from realities. Wrong views are more and more abandoned and there comes to be a clearer understanding of the fact that conditioned dhammas cannot be true happiness since they are liable to destruction and fall. The following stage of insight, the second stage of "principal insight" is Knowledge of Dissolution (in Pali: bhanga nana). In order to be able to reach this stage panna has to investigate thoroughly all the different kinds of realities appearing through the six doors. There must be mindfulness of whatever reality appears in whatever situation one may be. At this stage panna pays more close attention to the falling away of realities and sees more dearly that they are no refuge.

There is a beginning of detachment from the concept of self. The following stage of insight is Knowledge of Terror (in Pali: bhaya nana). This is not fear which is akusala, it is insight which sees more clearly the danger of all conditioned dhammas which are bound to cease.

Each following stage of insight marks a growing understanding of the disadvantages of nama and rupa, of conditioned realities, since their true characteristic are seen more dearly. At the moment a stage of insight knowledge arises there is no clinging to nama and rupa, but such moments fall away and then there tends to be clinging again. One has to continue being mindful of realities and develop understanding of them until arahatship has been attained. As panna becomes keener it becomes detached from conditioned realities and it wants to be delivered from them. It sees that conditioned realities are meaningless, void, and that they have no Owner, that there is no self who can control them. Understanding brings about more dispassion and equanimity towards conditioned dhammas, although clinging has not been eradicated.

When understanding clearly sees the disadvantages of conditioned dhammas, and it has been developed to the degree that enlightenment can be attained, then the stage of insight which is Adaptation Knowledge (in Pali: anuloma nana) can be reached, and ifs arises during the process in which enlightenment occurs.

This process is as follows[3]:

mind-door adverting-consciousness (mano-dvaravajjana-citta)
preparatory consciousness (parikamma)
proximity consciousness or access (upacara)
adaptation or conformity (anuloma)
change of lineage (gotrabhu)
path-consciousness (magga-citta)
fruition-consciousness (phala-citta, two or three moments, depending on the individual)

The mind-door adverting-consciousness of this process adverts to one of the three characteristics of the reality which presents itself. The preparatory consciousness, the proximity consciousness and the adaptation which are maha-kusala cittas accompanied by understanding experience the same object as the mind-door adverting-consciousness. "Adaptation" (anuloma) is the last citta in that process which has as object a conditioned reality and penetrates its true nature.

The succeeding citta which is called "change of lineage" (gotrabhu) does not experience the same object anymore as the preceding cittas in that process; it is the first citta experiencing nibbana (Vis. XXIl, 1). It experiences nibbana but it is not lokuttara citta, it is maha-kusala citta. Change of lineage is intermediate between cittas of the sense-sphere and the lokuttara cittas which succeed it.

Only one of the three characteristics of reality is penetrated by panna accompanying the maha-kusala cittas before the "change of lineage" arises; thus, the reality which appears is either seen as impermanent, or as dukkha or as anatta. In the development of insight understanding investigates the three characteristics, but it depends on the individual's accumulations which of these three is realized more often. There can be thinking of the three characteristics, but when insight develops and different stages of insight have arisen, the three characteristics are seen more dearly by direct understanding.

At the moment of enlightenment the enlightenment factors accompany the lokuttara citta. As we have seen, these are: mindfuIness, investigation of dhamma (which is panna), energy, enthusiasm, tranquillity, concentration and equanimity. The magga-citta eradicates defilements and experiences nibbana. The phala-citta which is the result of the magga-citta also experiences nibbana; it does not eradicate defilements.[3]

It is useful to learn about the different stages of insight. It reminds us that we have only a limited understanding of realities, but this should not discourage us. The only way to develop insight is to begin at this moment to be mindful of whatever reality appears. We cannot expect the arising of insight-knowledge soon, not even during this life. We have to continue to be mindful of nama and rupa and develop understanding of theta. Only when understanding has been developed it can distinguish the characteristic of nama from the characteristics of rupa. Throughout the development of insight the objects of understanding are nama and rupa and one has to continue being mindful of them. Even when the stage of the sotapanna has been realized one has to continue developing insight.

The sotapanna has realized the four noble Truths, but there are many degrees of realized them. Only when panna has been developed to the degree that arahatship is attained, it has reached completion and then all defilements are eradicated.

As we have seen, there are many kinds and degrees of understanding: intellectual understanding of realities, direct understanding of them, developed in different stages of insight, understanding of the plane of rupavacara citta (fine.material jhana) and of the plane of arupavacara citta (immaterial jhana), and understanding which is lokuttara panna.

As regards kamavacara cittas, cittas of the sense-sphere, which are accompanied by understanding, there are four of the eight types of maha-kusala cittas, four of the eight types of maha-vipakacittas and four of the eight types of maha-kiriyacittas which are accompanied by understanding.[4]

If someone is born with maha-vipakacitta accompanied by understanding he may, if he intends to develop higher degrees of calm, be able to attain jhana in that life. If someone develops insight he may attain enlightenment in that life. If someone is not born with maha-vipakacitta accompanied by understanding he can sail develop calm or insight, but he cannot attain jhana or enlightenment in that life. As regards the maha-kiriyacittas of the arahat, four of the eight types are, as we have seen, accompanied by understanding. The arahat can have maha-kiriyacittas which are not accompanied by understanding, for example at the moments when he does not preach Dhamma.

All rupavacara cittas and all arupavacara cittas have to be accompanied by understanding. Without panna jhana cannot be attained.

As regards lokuttara citta, the magga-cittas and the phala-cittas of the four stages of enlightenment are accompanied by understanding which is lokuttara panna. When lokuttara cittas accompanied by jhana-factors of the different stages of jhana are not taken into account, there are right lokuttara cittas accompanied by lokuttara panna.

When lokuttara cittas accompanied by jhana-factors of the five stages of jhana are taken into account, there are forty lokuttara cittas (five times eight) instead of eight[5] which are accompanied by lokuttara panna. The fact that lokuttara cittas can be counted as eight or forty shows us that accumulations of different ariyans are not the same. They all have eradicated the same kinds of defilements at the subsequent stages of enlightenment, but they have accumulated different inclinations and skills. Some had the ability to develop insight as well as calm to the degree of jhana and could attain different stages of jhana, others did not have such skill.

Some types of sobhana cittas are accompanied by understanding, others are not. Understanding is a cetasika, not self, and it arises only when there are the right conditions for its arising. We may find it difficult to grasp how the understanding of the reality appearing at the present moment can develop to the degree that it leads to the eradication of defilements. When someone merely begins to develop understanding he may sometimes have doubts about the benefit of mindfulness of visible object, seeing, sound or hearing which appears now. We should remember that when there is less ignorance of realities there will be less defilements.

Ignorance is the root of all that is unwholesome. When there is ignorance we do not know the benefit of kusala and the danger of akusala, we do not know realities as they are. Ignorance conditions wrong view. It is wrong view to take realities for self or to believe that they last. When understanding begins to develop we cannot expect a radical change in our behaviour. We are still selfish, we still cling to the objects we experience, we are still angry, jealous and stingy. We have to be sincere with ourselves when we develop undemanding, we should not pretend to be without defilements. Defilements are bound to arise, but we can begin to understand that whatever reality presents itself has arisen because of its appropriate conditions and is not self.

We cannot eradicate defilements merely by doing good deeds without developing undemanding of realities. Seeing realities as they are is the only way that eventually defilements can be eradicated. We read in the Gradual Saying (Book of the Tens, Chapter III, (3, With Body [6]) that wrong bodily action can be abandoned by right bodily action and wrong speech by right speech. However, the three unwholesome roots of lobha, dosa and moha can only be eradicated by understanding. The text states:

Which are the things. O monks, that can neither be abandoned by bodily acts nor by speech, but can be abandoned by wise seeing them? Greed can neither be abandoned by bodily acts nor by speech; but it can be abandoned by wisely seeing it. Hatred can neither be abandoned by bodily acts nor by speech; but it can be abandoned by wisely seeing it. Delusion can neither be abandoned by bodily acts nor by speech; but it can be abandoned by wisely seeing it.

Attachment, aversion and ignorance are realities, they arise. They can be object of mindfulness so that understanding can investigate them and see them as they are, as not self. If we avoid being mindful of akusala, it cannot be seen as it is and then it cannot be eradicated. At this moment enlightenment seems far off, but we should not forget that understanding begins by listening, memorizing and considering what one has heard. Considering the nama and rupa which appear can condition mindfulness so that there can gradually be direct understanding of realities. Understanding which arises now is conditioned by many moments of studying and considering in the past. It arises and then falls away, but it is never lost since the conditions are accumulated for the arising again of understanding and thus it can grow.

Understanding which is lokuttara is completely different from past moments of "mundane" understanding, yet it is conditioned by past moments of insight and also by other good qualities, such as generosity, patience and perseverance, which have been developed together with understanding. Such good qualifies should not be neglected, they can be helpful conditions leading to detachment. Understanding develops gradually in the course of many lives and therefore we should persevere in considering the Dhamma in daily life and in being mindful of realities.


  1. Why can the arising and falling away of nama and rupa not be realized before the difference between nama and rupa has been clearly seen?
  2. Through which doorway can insight knowledge realize seeing as it is?
  3. Can there be clinging when we perceive a teacup?
  4. When is there thinking with akusala citta?
  5. What is the object of understanding all through the development of the different stages of insight?
  6. Can aversion be the object of insight in the process of cittas during which enlightenment is attained?

July 1, 2001

Footnotes and references:


Translated by Ven. U. Narada, P-T-S- 1969. See also his Guide to Conditional Relation, P-T-S- 1979.


For details see Appendix 9. the way of counting of the stages of insight may vary depending on whether the counting start at the tint stage of principal insight or at the third stage of tender insight, and whether panna arising in the process during which enlightenment occurs, panna accompanying the lokuttara cittas and panna which "Reviews" after that process is over, is included or not.


See Abhidhammain Daily Life, Chapter 24.


See the summary in Appendix 8.


see Abhidhammain daily Life, Chapter 23.


I am using the translation by Ven. Nyanaponika, in the roots of Good and Evil, p. 55, Wheel 251/ 253, B.P.S. Kandy, 1978.

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