Vipassana is a Pali word and the meaning loosely translates into “the right path”. It is also often described as “attaining the insight into the true nature of reality.” Vipassana then, by definition, is a state of attaining insight.
My intent with this article is to provide some clarity around “Vipassana” and the related “Vipassana meditation.” It is also my intent to elucidate how this Buddhist meditation can be synthesized into the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Whether you are a Buddhist or a yoga practitioner or both, meditation is a key path, or limb, on the journey towards Nirvana or Samadhi.
Before delving into the somewhat complicated history of Vipassana it is worth remembering that Vipassana is a Buddhist term – hence the word being Pali. The other important thing to remember is that Siddhartha Gautama, before attaining enlightenment, was a Hindu. When the Buddha attained enlightenment he described a process by which everyone could break-free from the cycle of samsara. He called these the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. After the death of the Buddha, in approximately 483 BC, Buddhism began to spread throughout Asia and eventually split into three main schools: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana (Tibetan).
Each of these schools has some differences in the way in which they interpret and actualize the teachings from the Pali Canon. Theravada Buddhists (38% of all Buddhists) believe that the Pali Canon are the only true Buddhist texts whereas Mahayana Buddhists (62% of all Buddhists) weave in additional texts into their teachings. There are several other differences between these two main schools but it is beyond the aim of this article. The other thing that all Buddhists have in common is the practice of meditation as a part of the Noble Eightfold Pathway to attaining nirvana. The two main types of Buddhist meditations are Samatha and Vipassana. It should be noted that a “Vipassana meditation” is not mentioned in the Pali Canon.
The Vipassana meditation has become known as a meditation for gaining insight into the nature of reality or the mind by noticing the breath on the upper lip. Theravada Buddhists focus exclusively on this type of meditation which, over time, gradually spreads awareness to the entire body. Mahayana Buddhists typically practice both Samatha and Vipassana. Samatha, loosely translates as “calming the mind.” To practice Samatha, the student may focus on an object or it may be a process such as the four-level, rupajhana meditation to set the mind at ease. Once the mind has settled, the student then begins the focus on breathing or Vipassana meditation. The goal with both meditations is to gain insight into the nature of reality which could be said to gain insight into consciousness – one of the pathways towards nirvana.
Patanjali who is often credited with developing the eight limbs of yoga, was clearly influenced by the teachings of the Pali Canon. The Buddha developed the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Pathway. Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga, known as Ashtanga yoga, gave rise to Raja Yoga (Royal Yoga). Hatha yoga and Vinyasa both have their underpinnings in Ashtanga or Raja Yoga. Both Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga and the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Pathway are very similar. See the comparison below in Table 1.
Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga for attaining Samadhi
Approximately 200 AD
Buddha’s Eightfold Pathway to Nirvana Approximately 400 BC
1. Yama : Universal morality Right understanding (Samma ditthi)
2. Niyama : Personal observances Right thought (Samma sankappa)
3.Asanas : Body postures or poses Right speech (Samma vaca)
4.Pranayama : Breathing exercises Right action (Samma kammanta)
5.Pratyahara : Control of the senses Right livelihood (Samma ajiva)
6.Dharana : Concentration Right effort (Samma vayama)
7.Dhyana : Meditation Right mindfulness (Samma sati)
8.Samadhi : Union with the Divine Right concentration (Samma samadhi)
Table 1. Comparison of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs and the Buddha’s Eightfold Pathway.
One of the main differences between Patanjali’s Eight Limbs and the Buddha’s Eightfold Pathway is Patanjali’s focus on Pranayamas and Asanas. If you were to delve deeper into each of these limbs or pathways, you would note some other subtle differences. Patanjali was less specific when it came to how to meditate whereas Buddhists have generally more emphasis on style and specifics of how to perform the meditation.
It is very popular now for yogis and yoginis to take part in Vipassana retreats. It makes sense that many yoga students are looking for more specific ways to practice meditation. Since it is an important part of both the Buddhist and Yoga student’s journey towards Nirvana or Samadhi, meditation cannot be ignored. Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga and the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Pathways are not à la carte menus. As a yoga student, a yoga teacher, and a yoga studio owner, I am continually surprised when a yoga student says to me, “I am not really into the meditation thing.” It is kind of like a Christian saying, “I am not really into the whole Resurrection part of the Bible.” To fully immerse yourself as a student of yoga or as a Buddhist, dedication to all parts are required.
I teach several meditation classes each week. I do not call myself a Buddhist, but my guided meditations almost always begin with Rupajhana. This four-level meditation is extremely powerful as a tool of Samatha (calming the mind). Once we have reached the fourth jhana, I often transition into a Vipassana meditation to work on gaining insight. These two meditations together are a Mahayana-style of Buddhist meditation and have encouraged the most significant spiritual evolution in myself along my journey towards Samadhi along Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga.
If you are looking for a specific meditation practice for your Dhyana, do consider Vipassana or Samatha or Rupajhana. You can learn these meditations by attending a retreat or a local Buddhist temple. I came to yoga from a long history in meditation, which I now see is not as common as people who come to meditation from exploring Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga.
Most people I have met in my yoga journey, come to yoga for the asana but those who stay in yoga, stay to follow the path along all Eight Limbs. If your journey through yoga does encourage you to learn more about Dhyana and all the limbs of yoga, it is my hope that this article provides some background into the weaving of Buddhism and the Raja School of Yoga.
In peace and love,