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The lack of evidence in support of a 'Dry' Insight Practice

February 28, 2005

By the contemplative recluse monk Sotapanna Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)

(copyright 2005 all rights reserved)

First I believe we must accept that the Buddha was born into a culture and a period in which the Vedas, Puranas and Upanishads were the dominant liturgy. Therefore, Sidharta Gotama was a yogi who practiced within the context of the yogas. And, he articulated his teaching within that theoretical construct. Even though the historic Buddha chose not to embrace many of the concepts of Hinduism, still his philosophy and practice were well within the constraints of that liturgy. One need only read these three bodies of literature to find evidence for that fact.

In the yoga sutras the basic theme is one practices meditation to give rise to absorption states (samadhis), which are numbered in 2 intervals, savikalpa and nirvikalpa samadhi. Savikalpa samadhi roughly parallels the Buddha's designation of material absorption (rupa jhana), which he broke down into four sub categories called jhanas one through four. He also broke down nirvikalpa samadhi into four sub categories that are often called the four non-material absorption (arupa jhanas). The term "Nirvikalpa" is a concept that is both philosophically and linguistically tied to the Buddhist concept of nirvana/nibbana.

The Pali literature of the Discourses of the Buddha is saturated and suffused with ecstatic references such as ecstasy (jhana), bliss (piti) and joy (sukha). In fact the Noble Eight Fold Path specifies Right Meditation (sama-samadhi). And, right meditation is defined in terms of ecstasy (jhana) in the Maha-satipatthana Sutta (DN 22.21).

Maha-satipatthana Sutta DN 22.21
"And what is right meditation (sama-samadhi)? There is the case where an aspirant -- quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful (mental) qualities -- enters & remains in the first ecstasy (jhana)..." through the fourth jhana.

Often the Ariyapariyesana Sutta (MN 26) is invoked by "dry insight" practitioners [those who are so unfortunate to have not given rise to absorption (jhana)] as a means of proving the Buddha rejected jhana as a path to nibbana. In this sutta his rejection of the two teachers who taught him absorption (arupa jhana) is often interpreted as Sidharta Gotama rejecting absorptions (jhana) outright. However, If one reads further in that sutta one will find that the Buddha did not reject the absorption states (jhanas) that he learned under the instruction of Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta, he simply found the absorption states he learned from them were not the final liberation through cessation (nibbana). However, he clearly validated the importance of all of the jhanas at the end of that sutta. Please read the following:

Ariyapariyesana Sutta, MN 26.28

"Listen, Bhikkhus, the Deathless has been attained. I shall instruct you. I shall teach you the Dhamma. Practicing as you are instructed, by realizing for yourselves here and now through direct knowledge you will soon enter upon and abide in that supreme goal of the holy life for the sake of which clansmen rightly go forth from the home life into homelessness."

There are a few pages of discourse on dependent origination then he concludes with this:

MN 26.34

"...quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the first jhana..."

The Buddha continued to instruct his students to enter and abide in all of the 8 ecstatic absorption states (jhanas/dhyanas). And, he concluded by saying, for a bhikkhu who has learned to abide in the 8 jhanas...

MN 26.42

"...his taints are destroyed by his seeing with wisdom (panna). This bhikkhu is said to have blindfolded Mara, to have become invisible to the Evil One by depriving Mara's eye of opportunity, and to have crossed beyond attachment to the world.
(Majjhima Nikaya trans. Bhikkhus Nanamoli & Bodhi, Wisdom, 1995)

Often those who adhere to a 'dry' contemplative practice refer to one of Three Suttas in the Tipitaka that are believed to support their 'dry' practice.

Three Suttas out of 34 suttas in the Digha Nikaya, and 152 in the Majjhima Nikaya, is only 1.6% of these two key volumes, which seems rather insignificant support for a rather flimsy claim.

Just because there are three tiny references that appear to support a 'dry' practice in the whole of the Pali canon, does not mean that Sidharta Gotama ever taught such a practice. These tiny and insignificant references could even be considered anomalies that could indicate errors in the Pali canon, such that the suttas or portions of those suttas in question might even be apocryphal.

However, if we examine these suttas that are resorted to in support of a dry practice we find they are speaking of something entirely different than multiple practice strategies within the Buddha's discourse.

I have found no evidence in the discourses of the Buddha (sutta pitaka) to support a belief that the Buddha taught two "paths" or "techniques" which are commonly understood as the 'moist' absorption (jhana) path and the 'dry' insight (vipassana) path. It is clear to me that the Buddha taught neither absorption nor insight as distinct practice paths. They are simply the attainments that one arrives at through the single practice regimen of right mindfulness (sama-sati), which leads to right absorption (sama-samadhi), which are the 7th and 8th folds of the Noble Eight Fold Path.

Through experience it has become clear that insight and absorption are simply two sides of the same coin. One who has absorption has insight, and one who has insight has absorption. I have found there is no insight without absorption, and there is no absorption without insight. Insight (vipassana) is simply the other side of the coin from absorption (jhana). These are simply different aspects of the same thing.

There is a common Hindu metaphor for these two aspects of absorption. This common Hindu metaphor is the fire metaphor. Fire has two properties, one is to produce heat, and the other is to produce light. One cannot, however, separate a fire's capacity to produce heat from its capacity to produce light.  The same is true of absorption (samadhi). Absorption produces both ecstasy (jhana), and insight (vipassana). One does not come without the other.

This confusion in a belief in different "paths" I believe lies in an assumption that the Buddha was teaching 2 or four distinct practice regimen, however there is no clear evidence to support this belief in the discourses of the Buddha (Sutta Pitaka).

The Samadhi Sutta (AN IV.41), is often sited as evidence in support of four distinct practice paths, because it speaks of the four products or fruits of the path. However this sutta certainly does not clearly state that there are four "paths" nor is there any other place in the discourses of the Buddha that clearly state there are two or four practice paths.

We can actually gain insight into the meaning ogf this suta through its name.  The name of the Sutta is the Samadhi Sutta, not the "Four Paths Sutta." Therefore I believe it is reasonable to say this sutta is simply speaking of the four fruits that are a product of the single practice of mindfulness (sati), which produces absorption (samadhi).

If you recall, mindfulness or the practice of meditation is the seventh fold of the Noble Eightfold Path and the Pali term for that fold is "samma-sati."  The eighth fold of the Nobel Eightfold Path is right absorption and its Pali term is "samma-samadhi."

I believe the Samadhi sutta is simply trying to express the four results, or fruits, or products of the attainment of right absorption (sama-samadhi). And, I believe the confusion lies in a belief that the Buddha was speaking of different practice paths, however it is clear to me that he was not. These 4 descriptions must be the four results of the single attainment of right absorption (sama-samadhi) as a consequence of the skillful practice of meditation (samma-sati).

How can we know that he was speaking of four results of the same practice path? Because first of all the Sati suttas only speak of a single practice path, which is based upon the Four Corner Stones of Meditation. That is mindfulness of the Body, Senses Mental content and Mind states. The result of right meditation (samma-sati) is absorption (sama-samadhi). Absorption simply has four characteristics: mindfulness (sati); bliss (piiti) and joy (sukha), or what the Buddha called "a pleasant abiding in the here and now " (Di.t.thadhammasukhavihaaraa), insight into seeing things as they are (vipassana); and knowledge & vision, which are the supramundane, or psychic abilities (lokuttara balani).

How one can know there are four fruits from the single practice regimen of Satipatthana is through the attainment of right absorption (sama-samadhi). It is through attainment that we can find out for certain if there are four fruits or four paths. All one need do is practice Satipatthana to its fruition in right absorption (sama-samadhi), and one will find out whether there are four fruits to the practice or not. I practiced Satipatthana to its fruition in right absorption (sama-samadhi), and I found that without seeking these separate fruits or attainments they have come to me purely as a consequence of the dedicated practice of mindfulness (sati).

In conclusion I believe it is reasonable to say the practice of concentration (Satipatthana) leads to mindfulness (Sati), which leads to absorption (samadhi) which leads to the fruits of the practice of Satipatthana, mindfulness (sati), ecstasy (jhana), insight (vipassana), and knowledge & vision, which are the supramundane abilities (lokuttara balani). Thus there is poor evidence to support a belief that the Buddha taught a 'dry' insight practice. If one were to read any volume of the Pali canon I am confident that one will find absorption (jhana) mentioned in almost every sutta. Therefore I believe it is reasonable to assume that the ecstatic absorption states (jhanas/dhyanas) were of central importance to the historic Buddha's teaching method, and the very means of arrival at cessation (nibbana).

For further reference please do read the following suttas.  Nowhere in them will one find support for multiple practice strategies as taught by the Buddha.  Instead one will find a single practice strategy that results in various "fruit" of successful execution of that practice:

Anapanasati Sutta (MN 118) "Mindfulness of the breath"

Kayagata-sati Sutta (MN 119) “Mindfulness of the Body"

Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10) "the Four Cornerstones of Mindfulness"

Maha-satipatthana Sutta (DN 22), the Great Discourse on the Four Cornerstones of Mindfulness, updated 10-27-04

Samadhi Sutta, AN IV.41, discourse on absorption

Samana-Mundika Sutta, MN 78, Mundika the Contemplative

Samaññaphala Sutta (DN 2) "The Fruits of the Contemplative Life"


May you become enlightened in this very lifetime,

Jhanananda  (Jeffrey S. Brooks)

First posted:  Sun Feb 29, 2004  4:14 pm


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