By Johnathon Lee
Anti-Insight: A Critique of Vipassana
Imagine that you’re trying to get to the Nirvana Club, but you’re hopelessly lost in Samsaraville.
You’ve asked dozens of people for directions, but they keep leading to the wrong clubs. Eventually, you set out on your own, and then there it is. You hangout there for a few weeks, enjoying the peace, and then you hit the streets to help other people find it.
You give them directions based on where they are in Samsaraville, and if they follow your directions, they’ll get there just fine. This is a metaphor for Buddha’s journey the Bodhi Tree, and his teaching career after he got back up.
Now, let’s say that instead of giving people directions to the Nirvana Club, you just point the way and say, “You’ve gotta find it yourself, just like I did.” That’s kind of a dick move, isn’t it? That’s Vipassana, aka, insight meditation, aka mindfulness.
Vipassana meditation has been around for thousands of years. Just kidding, it’s only been around for a few decades.
Vipassana adherents will tell you that it’s what the Buddha practiced, and that it leads directly to enlightenment via transcendent insights into suffering, impermanence and the self. Buddhism is more like psychology than religion, and Vipassana is an ancient therapy method.
Nope. Nope, nope, nopers. You’ve been bamboozled by monks who didn’t start meditating again until a bunch of white dudes started asking to get high on spiritual freedom, but the real problem started long before then.
At some point, Buddhadharna shifted from being about freedom from suffering to experiencing profound wisdom. It went from taking Buddha’s advice, to trying to basically be Buddha.
Riddle me this, Batman: Buddha went through hell to find the liberating insights he shared with us, why do we have to go through that too? It’s like we have the directions to the Nirvana Club, but instead of using them, we’re told to wander around until we find it ourselves.
Whatever comes, goes. That’s a core insight in Buddhism. Vipassana students are given meditation methods in order to see the truth of that for themselves. Why? You don’t need need to that, that’s dumb.
Just look around right now. It’s obvious, you don’t need to remake the wheel here. The point wasn’t to waste decades discovering things that Buddha already discovered, it’s to be mindful of those facts while you practice jhana.
Yes, jhana—the meditation that Vipassana fans say that you don’t need. The method that, according to some Suttas, the Buddha practiced under the Bodhi Tree. Thanks to Buddha, we already have transcendent insight. Now we just have to let go. That’s all.
Jhana comes from the Suttas. Vipassana is derived from material in the Theravada Abhidhamma, a vast encyclopedia of lists that people cobbled together centuries after the Suttas and Vinaya were.
They’re the result of smart people needing something to keep themselves busy. Vipassana also draws heavily from Buddhaghosa’s commentaries. Buddhaghosa is almost on part with Siddhartha in Theravada Buddhism, even though his commentaries were less like commenting on texts, and more like making things up.
It’s a bit knit-picky to crave info that’s closer to the source, but if you want to get to the Nirvana Club, why settle for directions that experienced more of the “telephone effect”?
Vipassana is barely even mentioned in the Suttas, and when it is, it refers to a mental quality, not a meditation method. The same goes for samatha. People just got bored and confused over the centuries, and instead of trying to find new ways to explain Buddhadharma, they started making up new stuff that wasn’t time tested.
I don’t like criticizing things or attacking Buddhist institutions, but I’ve been sitting on these gripes for years and I don’t want people to waste their time.
Vipassana turns practice into a struggle. It develops mindfulness and concentration, yes, but so does gardening. You don’t have to do what Buddha did, ya don’t have to bang your head against the wall until you see things the way they are. You already have everything you need in the Suttas.
Practicing jhana is challenging but fun. It’s rewarding in itself and makes meditation one of the best parts of the day. Rather than being an unnecessary practice, it’s the very thing that leads to freedom from suffering and barely anyone is doing it.
Jhana has also been needlessly complicated by commentaries and Abhidhamma. Go to the source. Try it yourself. It takes a bit, so be patient, but it’s life-changing.
Stop messing around with your mind! Stop analyzing all your thoughts and feelings! Just stop, focus up, and relax. Be at peace.
Editor: Dana Gornall