Listening to the Dhamma

There is no Self

by Nina van Gorkom | 1998 | 18,252 words

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Chapter 4 - The Stages Of Insight

Vipassana or insight is panna which sees the characteristics of realities as they are. Vipassana nana is panna which has become accomplished in the development of the understanding of realities. There are several stages of vipassana nana, beginning with

clearly distinguishing the difference between the characteristics of nama and rupa, and continuing on with higher stages until the attainment of enlightenment.

We should know what the realities are which panna should penetrate. They are not different from visible object, sound and the other objects as they appear at this moment through the six doors. They have been classified as the four "Applications of Mindfulness": Mindfulness of the body, including rupas, of feelings, of cittas and of dhammas which includes all objects not classified under the first three Applications of Mindfulness. There is no rule of which object sati is aware, it depends on conditions. Sati is not self, nobody can direct sati. At one moment sati may be aware of rupa, at another moment of feeling, of citta or of dhamma. Panna which arises together with samma-sati, right mindfulness, gradually begins to notice and to investigate the characteristics of nama and rupa which appear. Panna has to consider these very often, over and over again, until it clearly distinguishes between the characteristics of nama and rupa, and that is the first stage of vipassana nana, which is only a beginning stage.

When we were in the Dong Devi Temple we discussed the stages of insight in general. The Abbot warned us not to wait for the arising of the stages of insight. That is attachment, lobha, and if we do not realize this panna cannot develop. We should not be impatient because the development of panna takes a long time, even many lives. When we consider the amount of ignorance we have accumulated during countless lives we understand that panna cannot develop rapidly. We have to scrutinize ourselves in order to find out whether there is an idea of self who develops understanding. Acharn Sujin said that even when we think that we do not have expectations there may still be an idea of "self who does not expect anything". We were very grateful for all the reminders concerning impatience or clinging to the self, because these are helpful for the continuation of the development of understanding. When we listen and consider the Dhamma, when we read and study, there are conditions for awareness, but we cannot predict when it will arise. When we think in the right way of nama and rupa, there is sati of the level of thinking, and when there is direct awareness of one reality at a time right understanding of the eightfold Path can begin to develop. It is difficult to know the difference between nama and rupa. Knowing this in theory is not enough. Visible object which is rupa appears through the eyes. Seeing does not appear through the eyes. Sound which is rupa appears through the ears. Hearing does not appear through the ears. Nama appears only through the mind-door, but we are ignorant of the mind-door. Visible object which is rupa appears through the eyes. Seeing does not appear through the eyes. Sound which is rupa appears through the ears. Hearing does not appear through the ears. Nama appears only through the mind-door, but we are ignorant of the mind-door. At the first stage of insight panna realizes the difference between the characteristics of nama and rupa through the mind-door and then there is no doubt about what the mind-door is. When that stage has not yet been reached there are moments of doubt about realities, but in spite of this, the development of understanding can continue little by little. When sati can be aware of rupa but not of nama, we should not worry about this. Later on there can be conditions for awareness of more kinds of objects, also of nama. We should not expect clear understanding in the beginning.

The first stage of insight is nama-rupa-pariccheda-nana, "defining" [complete separation] of nama and rupa. It is the direct realization of the different characteristics of nama and rupa through the mind-door. The objects which usually appear as the world, appear as devoid of self, as anatta. The insight knowledge, vipassana nana, arising at that moment is not taken for self either. In this way the wrong view of self can eventually be eradicated. When someone believes that he knows the difference between nama and rupa he may know this with an idea of self who understands and that means that he has not attained any stage of insight. Or someone may believe that when the first stage of insight arises, the difference between seeing and visible object, hearing and sound should be known. However, there cannot be any selection of objects of sati, it entirely depends on the sati of which object there is awareness and understanding. The objects may be hardness and feeling for example, but there is no rule. There is no rule that realities must be known in pairs, such as seeing and visible object, hearing and sound. Vipassana nana distinguishes the characteristics of the different objects from each other and it realizes one object at a time as devoid of self. The moments of vipassana nana occur in mind-door processes of cittas, and when they have fallen away the world appears as it used to appear, as a whole, as different persons and things. Panna has to continue developing understanding of all realities which appear so that there can be conditions for the following stage of insight, the second stage.

The second stage of insight is paccaya-parigghaha-nana, discerning the conditions of nama and rupa [the realization of the arising of the specific reality at the moment of its occurrence according to its paccaya]. This is panna which realizes the dependency on conditions of nama and rupa when they are arising. This stage of insight cannot arise before the first stage of insight. If nama is not known as nama and rupa as rupa, how could there be clear understanding of their different conditions? Seeing is dependent on the eye and on visible object, without the rupas which are eyesense and visible object there could not be seeing. The conditionality of nama and rupa pertains to our daily life. When we speak the citta produces speech sound, so that words can be uttered. In reality there is no self who thinks of words, there are only nama and rupa depending on conditions which arise and fall away within split seconds. When we study the ayatanas we can ponder over the conditions for nama and rupa, but at such moments there is still the deeply rooted idea of "I" who thinks about conditions. This is different from the panna which directly realizes through the mind-door the conditionality of nama and rupa. At the moments of vipassana nana there is no idea of self who understands.

The third stage of vipassana nana is sammasana nana, comprehension by groups [the realization of the rapidity with which the sequence of realities arise and fall away]. This is panna which clearly realizes the succession of nama and rupa as they arise and fall away very rapidly. Someone who has not reached even the first stage of insight may erroneously think that he can experience the arising and falling away of cittas. However, this is impossible. First the
difference between nama and rupa must be realized, otherwise one does not clearly know what is nama, entirely different from rupa. The order of the stages of insight cannot be altered, each stage is a condition for the following stage, provided panna has been developed to the degree that a following stage can be reached. The first three stages of insight are still beginning stages, "tender insight", "taruna vipassana" [beginner level]. The following stages are maha-vipassana.

The first stage of maha-vipassana is udayabbhaya nana, [extremely clear realization and] knowledge of the arising and falling away of nama and rupa. This stage is different from the third stage, because panna considers more clearly the arising and falling away of each kind of nama and of rupa separately, as they appear. It sees more clearly the danger and disadvantage of the arising and falling away of nama and rupa, and this leads to more detachment from them. This stage of insight and the eight following stages are balava vipassana, insight as power. Insight has become a power, it can arise in any circumstance.

Summarizing the stages of maha-vipassana, they are :

  • udayabbhaya nana, knowledge of arising and falling away
  • bhanga nana, knowledge of dissolution [realization of meaninglessness or disillusionment with the arisings and fallings away].
  • bhaya nana, knowledge of terror [realization of the danger of the reality at the moment there is realization of its arising and falling away].
  • adinava nana, knowledge of danger [realization of the harm of the reality at the moment there is realization of its arising and falling away].
  • nibbida nana, knowledge of dispassion [realization of boredom with or disillusionment with the reality appearing]
  • muccitukamyata nana, knowledge of desire for deliverance [from the reality appearing].
  • patisankha nana, knowledge of reflection [realization of the anicca-, dukkha-, and anatta-lakkhana of the reality appearing].
  • sankharupekkha nana, knowledge of equanimity [indifference] about sankhara dhammas, conditioned realities [the realization of which leads to the transcension of the status of the ordinary person when the magga-vithi arises].
  • anuloma nana, adaptation knowledge [nana in the magga-vithi that is favourable to the abandonment of aramanas that are sankhara-dhamma].

If insight is not developed this list of terms seems to be theoretical, but these terms indicate stages of panna which becomes keener and keener and which leads to detachment. The knowledge of dissolution turns more towards the falling away of nama and rupa and sees that these cannot be any refuge. At the subsequent stages panna sees more and more the danger and disadvantages of nama and rupa. The knowledge of reflection penetrates more the three general characteristics of impermanence, dukkha and anatta, and the adaptation knowledge arises during the process when enlightenment is attained. This nana is followed by the gotrabhu nana, change of lineage knowledge, maha-kusala citta which has nibbana as object, and by magga nana, path knowledge which is lokuttara panna experiencing nibbana. The path knowledge is followed by phala nana, fruition knowledge arising with the phala-cittas, lokuttara vipakacittas, and this is followed by paccavekkhana nana, reviewing knowledge. The reviewing knowledge arises with the cittas which consider what has just been attained, the magga-cittas, the phala-cittas, the defilements which have been eradicated, and in the case of non-arahats, the defilements which are still remaining and nibbana. Vipassana nanas are classified in different ways, and sometimes the four last nanas I just mentioned are added after anuloma nana, adaptation knowledge.

The summing up of all these stages of vipassana nana can remind us that the development of panna is very, very gradual. When the first stage of "tender insight" is reached there is at those moments no self, no world; panna realizes the difference between the characteristics of nama and rupa as they appear one at a time. When those moments have fallen away the usual world appears again. This means that the knowledge gained at that stage of insight has to be applied to all kinds of realities which appear so that there will be conditions for the next stage of insight. Thus, in between the stages of insight panna must continue to investigate nama and rupa. This kind of panna is called parinna, or full understanding .

There are three degrees of parinna :

  1. nata parinna or full understanding of the known [as non-self].
  2. tirana parinna or full understanding as investigation [universal, impartial study of realities].
  3. pahana parinna or full understanding as abandoning [the abandonment of pleasure in and attachment to realities, having realized their harmfulness].

The full understanding as the known considers the characteristics of nama and rupa, applying the knowledge gained at the first stage of insight, which is then a foundation for the further development of panna. Panna should penetrate the characteristics of other realities, besides those which were realized at the moments of vipassana nana. The full understanding as investigating, tirana parinna, considers the characteristics of all namas and rupas which appear without selecting any specific ones. It sees them as equal, that means: it sees them as only realities which are conditioned. Then panna becomes more accomplished so that it can realize the arising and falling away of nama and rupa at the first stage of maha-vipassana, udayabbhaya-nana. As panna develops it penetrates more and more the three general characteristics of the dhammas which appear, of their nature of impermanence, dukkha and anatta. The third parinna, full understanding as abandoning, extends from the knowledge of dissolution onwards, until enlightenment is attained, because from then on there can be more detachment from nama and rupa. Panna sees more and more the danger and disadvantage of conditioned realities.

In the development of satipatthana we should not make any selection of realities, we should not have expectations with regard to the arising of specific realities. Panna should also know akusala which arises as it is, as only a conditioned reality. Acharn Somphon reminded us that people dislike dosa, aversion or hate, but that they forget that all akusala is conditioned by ignorance; and thus, ignorance should be eliminated by panna. The goal of the development of panna is to have less ignorance of realities. Do we see dhammas already as "equal", as just dhammas? We do not like to have unwholesome thoughts, but they arise because of conditions, akusala has been accumulated also in countless former lives. We dislike akusala and think that there should be only kusala, but nobody is the owner of the realities which arise. Acharn Sujin reminded us that akusala citta falls away in split seconds, "It is gone", she said. But we forget that it is gone and keep on thinking about our akusala which has fallen away already. We are clinging to the self and have aversion about "our akusala". Lobha is very deceitful and lures us all the time. We may try to select objects of awareness, but that is wrong practice. Only the sotapanna (streamwinner), the person who has attained the first stage of enlightenment, has eradicated wrong practice. Panna must become very keen, very refined, so that it understands any reality which appears. In this way panna can realize that what arises because of conditions is non-self.

We may know in theory what kusala is and its benefit, what akusala is and its disadvantage. However, if the difference between nama and rupa has not been penetrated by panna at the first stage of vipassana, the characteristics of kusala and of akusala cannot be clearly understood, and therefore the knowledge of the benefit of kusala and of the disadvantage of akusala can only be superficial. We do not clearly know yet the nature of nama. This should not discourage us, because even when panna is not accomplished to the degree of vipassana nana, there can be a beginning of investigation of kusala citta and of akusala citta when they appear. The teaching of the parinnas shows us that the development of panna is very intricate and that panna has to become keener and keener so that it can penetrate more and more the true nature of nama and rupa and realize the four noble Truths at the attainment of enlightenment.

Acharn Sujin explained that it takes courage to face the truth. In theory we know that there is in the ultimate sense no self, no dear persons, no husband, wife or children, but theoretical understanding is different from panna which directly realizes the truth of non-self. In the ultimate sense there are no people around us, we are alone with nama and rupa. The self we love above all is only nama and rupa. Without panna one has aversion about being alone with nama and rupa. Acharn Sujin exhorted us to have courage and gladness about the truth. In the suttas, for example in the "Ratthapala Sutta" (Middle Length Sayings II, no. 82) we read that when brahmans and householders came to see the Buddha, "the Lord gladdened, roused, incited and delighted them with a talk on dhamma."

Even at the stage of the first vipassana nana one must be brave, because at those moments there is no self, no world, there are no persons, there are only nama and rupa appearing one at a time. In order to attain the first stage of enlightenment, the stage of the sotapanna, we should have courage and perseverance to develop panna so that all stages of vipassana nana can be reached. But all those who attained enlightenment had to begin with listening to the Dhamma, in order to have right understanding of satipatthana. We read in the following sutta about three characteristics of a "believer", someone who has great confidence in the teachings, and these are actually the characteristics of a sotapanna who has eradicated stinginess and who has the "power" of confidence, saddha, that is, unshakeable confidence in the teachings. We read in the "Gradual Sayings" (Book of the Threes, Ch V, 42, Characteristics) that the Buddha said:

Monks, a believer is to be recognized by three characteristics. What three?

He desires to see the virtuous; he desires to hear Saddhamma; with heart free from the taint of stinginess he dwells at home, a generous giver, clean handed, delighting in giving up, one to ask a favour of, one who delights to share gifts with others. By these three characteristics a believer is to be recognized as such....

The Commentary to this sutta, the "Manorathapurani" relates a story of a woman with strong confidence who wanted to listen to the Dhamma. She put her small child under a tree and stood listening to the preaching of the Dhamma during the night. She saw that a snake bit her child, but she thought that if she would speak about this it would disturb the listening to the Dhamma. She thought about the fact that her child was going around in the cycle of birth and death and that in former lives he was many times her child. She wanted to practise the Dhamma, and she stood listening the whole night, developing understanding so that she became a sotapanna. At daybreak the poison was withdrawn from the child's body because of her realization of the truth and her strong confidence in the truth. She took up her child and went away. The commentary adds that people who are like that are persons who have the wish to listen to the Dhamma.

Some people may misunderstand this story and believe that the mother neglected her child. However, we should grasp the point brought forward by this story. When vipassana has been developed panna clearly sees the conditions for all that happens, it directly understands that vipaka is produced by kamma. When it is the right time for akusala vipaka nobody can prevent it. She saw the disadvantages of being in the cycle of birth and death, of being born again and again. In the course of the development of vipassana, panna sees more and more the disadvantages of the arising of nama and rupa. What arises has to fall away, it is dukkha. She had clearly understood that in the ultimate sense there is no mother, no child, only conditioned nama and rupa. She had the courage to face the truth and because of her confidence in the truth the poison in her child's body was removed.

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