Visuddhimagga (the pah of purification)

by Ñāṇamoli Bhikkhu | 1956 | 388,207 words | ISBN-10: 9552400236 | ISBN-13: 9789552400236

The English translation of the Visuddhimagga written by Buddhaghosa in the 5th Century. It contains the essence of the the teachings found in the Pali Tripitaka and represents, as a whole, an exhaustive meditation manual. The work consists of the three parts—1) Virtue (Sila), 2) Concentration (Samadhi) and 3) Understanding (Panna) covering twenty-t...

Some Main Threads in the Visuddhimagga

The Visuddhimagga is probably best regarded as a detailed manual for meditation masters, and as a work of reference. As to its rather intricate construction, the List of Contents is given rather fully in order to serve as a guide to the often complicated form of the chapters and to the work as a whole. In addition, the following considerations may be noted.

Chapters I and II, which deal with virtue as the practice of restraint, or withdrawal, need present no difficulties. It can be remarked here, though, that when the Buddhist ascetic goes into seclusion (restrains the sense doors), it would be incorrect to say of him that he “leaves the world”; for where a man is, there is his world (loka), as appears in the discourse quoted in VII.36 (cf. also S IV 116 as well as many other suttas on the same subject). So when he retreats from the clamour of society to the woods and rocks, he takes his world with him, as though withdrawing to his laboratory, in order to better analyze it.

Chapters III to XI describe the process of concentration and give directions for attaining it by means of a choice of forty meditation subjects for developing concentration. The account of each single meditation subject as given here is incomplete unless taken in conjunction with the whole of Part III (Understanding), which applies to all. Concentration is training in intensity and depth of focus and in single-mindedness. While Buddhism makes no exclusive claim to teach jhāna concentration (samatha = samādhi), it does claim that the development of insight (vipassanā) culminating in penetration of the Four Noble Truths is peculiar to it. The two have to be coupled together in order to attain the Truths[1] and the end of suffering. Insight is initially training to see experience as it occurs, without misperception, invalid assumptions, or wrong inferences.

Chapters XII and XIII describe the rewards of concentration fully developed without insight.

Chapters XIV to XVII on understanding are entirely theoretical. Experience in general is dissected, and the separated components are described and grouped in several alternative patterns in Chapters XIV to XVI.1–12. The rest of Chapter XVI expounds the Four Noble Truths, the centre of the Buddha’s teaching. After that, dependent origination, or the structure of conditionality, is dealt with in its aspect of arising, or the process of being (Ch. XVII; as cessation, or Nibbāna, it is dealt with separately in Chapters XVI and XIX). The formula of dependent origination in its varying modes describes the working economics of the first two truths (suffering as outcome of craving, and craving itself—see also Ch. XVII, n.48). Without an understanding of conditionality the Buddha’s teaching cannot be grasped: “He who sees dependent origination sees the Dhamma” (M I 191), though not all details in this work are always necessary. Since the detailed part of this chapter is very elaborate (§58–272), a first reading confined to §1–6, §20–57, and §273–314, might help to avoid losing the thread. These four chapters are “theoretical” because they contain in detailed form what needs to be learnt, if only in outline, as “book-learning” (sotāvadhāna-ñāṇa). They furnish techniques for describing the total experience and the experienceable rather as the branches of arithmetic and double-entry bookkeeping are to be learned as techniques for keeping accurate business accounts.

Chapters XVIII to XXI, on the contrary, are practical and give instructions for applying the book-knowledge learnt from Chapters XIV to XVII by analyzing in its terms the meditator’s individual experience, dealing also with what may be expected to happen in the course of development. Chapter XVIII as “defining of mentality-materiality” (first application of Chapters XIV to XVI) and Chapter XIX as “discerning conditions” (first application of Chapter XVII) are preparatory to insight proper, which begins in Chapter XX with contemplation of rise and fall. After this, progress continues through the “eight knowledges” with successive clarification—clarification of view of the object and consequent alterations of subjective attitude towards it—till a point, called “conformity knowledge,” is reached which, through one of the “three gateways to liberation,” heralds the attainment of the first supramundane path.

In Chapter XXII, the attainment of the four successive supramundane paths (or successive stages in realization) is described, with the first of which Nibbāna (extinction of the craving which originates suffering) is ‘seen’ for the first time, having till then been only intellectually conceived. At that moment suffering as a noble truth is fully understood, craving, its origin, is abandoned, suffering’s cessation is realized, and the way to its cessation is developed.[2] The three remaining paths develop further and complete that vision.

Finally, Chapter XXIII, as the counterpart of Chapters XII and XIII, describes the benefits of understanding. The description of Nibbāna is given at Chapter VIII, §245ff., and a discussion of it at Chapter XVI, §66ff.

Footnotes and references:


See A II 56; Paṭis II 92f.


In the present work the development of serenity (concentration) is carried to its limit before insight (understanding) is dealt with. This is for clarity. But in the commentary to the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (DN 22, MN 10) either the two are developed contemporaneously or insight is allowed to precede jhāna concentration. According to the Suttas, concentration of jhāna strength is necessary for the manifestation of the path (see e.g. XIV.127; XV, n.7; D II 313 = M III 252; A II 156, quoted at Paṭis II 92f.).

Help me keep this site Ad-Free

For over a decade, this site has never bothered you with ads. I want to keep it that way. But I humbly request your help to keep doing what I do best: provide the world with unbiased truth, wisdom and knowledge.

Let's make the world a better place together!

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: