Early Buddhist Jhana & Modern Buddhist Vipassana

Although Theravada claims to be the most orthodox Buddhist tradition, modernists within that tradition have promoted vipassana or insight meditation as the Buddha’s unique meditation practice.  In the Pali Canon, however, insight generally comes after mastery of the jhanas. Modern understandings of the word “vipassana” appear to differ from the understanding of the Early Buddhists who transmitted the Sutta Pitaka.






The earliest recorded Buddhist teachings, The Sutta Pitaka, are believed to have been transmitted orally after the Buddha’s death (c. 600 BCE) before they were eventually written down (c.100 BCE). During that 500 year period different Buddhist schools and doctrines developed as Buddhism gained popularity and spread beyond ancient Nepal. It seems the growing numbers of followers needed a more accessible Buddha, a more attainable spiritual goal, and a less austere lifestyle than the Sutta Pitaka was offering.

Clerics and scholars within the different Buddhist traditions have continued to respond with new teachings in order to secure patronage and keep the religion fresh and relevant. For example, although Theravada claims to be the most orthodox Buddhist tradition, modernists within that tradition have promoted vipassana or insight meditation as the Buddha’s unique mediative practice. Yet in the Sutta Pitaka we find the Buddha frequently praising jhana or concentrated/refined mind states as the route to nibbana or enlightenment whilst hardly mentioning vipassana.

Early Buddhist jhana & modern Buddhist vipassana

In the Pali suttas, insight generally comes after mastery of the jhanas. Early Buddhist practice also includes activities that the modern vipassana movement tends to regard as inferior and unnecessary –

“In general English usage of the word ‘meditation’ seems to refer to methods or techniques of repetitive exercise for developing some kind of mental state or understanding. This is very far from covering the full range of meaning of Buddhist bhavana. Indeed this term refers very precisely to the bringing into being of the bodhipakkhiyadhammas in general or the eightfold path in particular. In other words, such monastic activities as studying or teaching the dhamma as well as chanting suttas or repetition of gatha may equally be forms of bhavana. This is certainly the position of the atthakatha [Pali Commentaries] and was probably that of traditional Theravāda Buddhism. Many samatha meditators today would still have some such understanding. In this view of the matter, bhavana is very widely practised indeed, both by virtually all monks and by most of the more committed laity.

“While such a view of ‘meditation’ is indeed still widely held, it is precisely not the position which is frequent in some schools of insight meditation. For them, such activities as chanting and repetition of traditional formulæ are either not meditation at all or only an inferior form of meditation and that only when they are in a very orthodox form. Note then that for such monks or lay followers there is relatively little meditation in present-day Buddhism—by definition.” [1]

Modern understandings of the word “vipassana” appear to differ from the understanding of the Early Buddhists who transmitted the Sutta Pitaka. Vipassana isn’t a method, it’s a quality of mind (knowing or awareness) to be cultivated and balanced with the mind quality of samatha (settled and focused) –

“Vipassana is not a meditation technique. It’s a quality of mind – the ability to see events clearly in the present moment. Although mindfulness is helpful in fostering vipassana, it’s not enough for developing vipassana to the point of total release. Other techniques and approaches are needed as well. In particular, vipassana needs to be teamed with samatha – the ability to settle the mind comfortably in the present – so as to master the attainment of strong states of absorption, or jhana.” [2]

“Reification of Samatha and Vipassana as meditation “methods” [is] probably a manifestation of Buddhist modernism, where we try to sell Buddhism as being modern, scientific, intellectual, non-superstitious, and so on. Proponents and sympathizers of Vipassana also tend to be suspicious of any “pleasant states” in meditation, and as a rule advise others to simply disregard or get rid of them.” [3]

The lineage of the present day insight meditation tradition cannot be traced beyond the nineteenth century. The immediate textual source is the Visuddhimagga, written in the fifth century by Buddhaghosa –

“Leaving aside forms of Buddhist meditation which have their roots in Northern or Eastern Buddhism, almost all commercially published accounts of meditation by Buddhist (and non-Buddhist) practitioners are derived from some branch of Burmese insight meditation, and usually from one of two branches of that. Most other writing is either based on that or on the fifth-century Visuddhimagga of Buddhaghosa or on a mixture of the two.” [4]

“On the whole it seems that it is not possible, at present, to trace the lineage of the present-day insight meditation tradition beyond the nineteenth century.” [5]

“If we take the two main features of the insight tradition as, firstly, the acceptance of routes to enlightenment which bypass the development of jhāna and, secondly, the mapping of the sequence of insight knowledges, then the immediate source is no doubt the Visuddhimagga.” [6]

The earliest modern writer of vipassana manuals appears to have been a Burmese monk named Medawi (1728–1816). Medawi was apparently responding to a widely held belief among his peers that enlightenment in the modern era was impossible due to the decline of the Buddha’s teachings. [7] Modern vipassana practice was developed by U Nārada (1868–1955), popularized by his students Mahasi Sayadaw (1904-1982) and Nyanaponika Thera (1901–1994), and gained popularity from the 1950s onward. [8] The list of famous insight meditators includes Ajahn Chah, S N Goenka, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Joseph Goldstein, Gil Fronsdal, Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield, Sam Harris…

Buddhism is much more than meditation

When I read modern meditation manuals (“traditional” and “secular”) I can’t help thinking that I’m being offered much less than Gotama Buddha was offering. The Sutta Pitaka is clear that the Buddha’s practice included supranormal powers like telepathy, teleportation, and recollection of past lives [9] – culminating in experiential knowledge of the origin and cessation of dukkha and experiential knowledge of nibanna (“peace… exquisite… suffering and stress… totally ended and extinguished.”) [10]

“Now, O bhikkhus, I say to you that these teachings of which I have direct knowledge and which I have made known to you — these you should thoroughly learn, cultivate, develop, and frequently practice, that the life of purity may be established and may long endure, for the welfare and happiness of the multitude, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, well being, and happiness of gods and men.

“And what, bhikkhus, are these teachings? They are the four foundations of mindfulness, the four right efforts, the four constituents of psychic power, the five faculties, the five powers, the seven factors of enlightenment, and the Noble Eightfold Path. [11]

I doubt very much that the Buddhist religion would ever have got started if the word of the Buddha (Buddhavacana) had been merely a rational doctrine of meditation. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that much of the “wisdom” or “fruits” that have been touted by vipassana teachers can be achieved without doing any Buddhist-style meditation. Daily observation of the immediate environment, for example, can develop a deep appreciation of impermanence. Reading social science and humanities text books can develop non-attachment to shifting views and identities. Performing an intricate skill such as painting, or wood carving, or mountain climbing, can develop intense feelings of calm and rapture similar to those experienced during prolonged breath meditation. Stress reduction can be achieved by unplugging media devices, living simply, and observing the ethical “golden rule” [12] that Buddhism has in common with other major world religions.

Don’t get me wrong – I include myself among the many who find mindfulness a useful life skill. I remain deeply grateful to Bhikkhu Bodhi, to Ajahn Chah, to other commentators who inspire my own mindfulness practice. However, I disagree with the disdainful attitude some “vipassanavadins” have demonstrated towards Buddhist mythology and other canonical forms of bhavana or practice.

The canonical Buddha certainly strikes me as legendary, his attainments more profound than anything I might hope to learn solely from mastery of breathing, slow walking, passive sitting, and mental labelling, as commonly taught nowadays in vipassana centers.  It’s the mythology and ritualism that’s kept the Buddha alive in the hearts of many generations of followers and has made Buddhism one of the world’s greatest religions. The trick is to know how/when to use it and when to put it aside.

For example, when a loved one dies I’d say Buddhists are much more likely to appreciate the poignant symbolism of Kisa Gotami and the mustard seeds [13], or even the dark comic symbolism of King Yama and the Hell Guardians [14], but are much less likely to appreciate abstract philosophies and exhortations to meditate. Rites intended to honour and pacify ancestral spirits [15], for example, are likely to be wholesome and meaningful for participants as are meditations aimed at projecting metta or “loving-kindness” to all.

Ironically, meditation seems less like a wisdom activity when you take it away from religiosity that embodies the Noble Eighfold Path and many other important Buddhist teachings.


All of the various Buddhist schools have revised and developed their doctrines in response to changing  conditions. Clearly they haven’t all drawn the same philosophical conclusions or pointed to the same practical goal. Nevertheless, they remain “Buddhist” in so far as they accept the doctrine of anicca, dukkha, anatta that Gotama Buddha first expounded in the Four Noble Truths Sutta.

Vipassana or Insight Meditation is an example of “Brand New ‘Ancient’ Buddhism”. The practice of insight meditation appears to be based primarily on the commentaries of Buddhaghosa – particularly the Visuddhimagga – and can only be traced back to 19th century Burma.

Buddhist-style meditation seems anachronistic, eccentric, and trivial when separated from the mythology and ritualism that has made Buddhism one of the world’s great religions.


[1] The Origin of Insight Meditation” by L.S. Cousins, The Buddhist Forum,  (Tadeusz Skorupski – Editor) Vol. IV, 1994-96. (p. 41.)

[2] “One Tool Among Many: The Place of Vipassana in Buddhist Practice” by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 8 March 2011.

[3] “Samatha and Vipassanā: An introductory essay” by Piya Tan, The Dharmafarers, 2013.

[4] The Origin of Insight Meditation” by L.S. Cousins p. 36.

[5] Ibid p. 41.

[6] Ibid p. 48.

[7] “Vipassana Movement” in Wikipedia, last edited on 13 October 2017.

[8] Ibid.

[9] See for example – “Lohicca Sutta: To Lohicca” (DN 12), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013.

[10] “Nibbana: nibbana, edited by Access to Insight. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013.

[11] “Maha-parinibbana Sutta: Last Days of the Buddha” (DN 16), translated from the Pali by Sister Vajira & Francis Story. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013.  (v. 61 & 62.)

[12] “Golden Rule” in New World Encyclopedia, last edited on 26 June 2017.

[13]  “Skinny Gotami & the Mustard Seed” (ThigA 10.1), by Andrew Olendzki. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013 .

[14] “Devaduta Sutta: The Deva Messengers” (MN 130), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013.

[15] “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, by A.G.S. Kariyawasam. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 1 December 2013. (5:2 “Funerals”.)




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