Mahavipassana: origin and meaning

Eudoxos , modified 5 Months ago at 12/11/21 6:45 AM
Created 5 Months ago at 12/11/21 6:36 AM

Mahavipassana: origin and meaning

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Bill Hamilton in Saints & Psychopaths uses the word mahavipassana as vipassana after A&P:
After samatha is adequately developed, a sudden shift occurs in the practice which is called deep insight. At this point the practice technically shifts into mahavipassana, and the primary impression of objects changes from solid reality to changing discontinuity of objects.
It is deep insight that is most commonly mistaken for enlightenment. Previously the mind had been focused into a one pointed place. When the mind shifts into the overdrive of mahavipassana, suddenly the mind takes on a perception of space, with objects arising and passing within space. The mind is flooded with profound insights into the true nature of reality, the laws of karma, and frequently, but not always, there are lights and visions which reflect and symbolize these insights. Suddenly, there is a deep experiential comprehension of what before had been just philosophical understandings of the dharma.
This word is not in wide use; James Iandoli in Remembering William(Bill) Hamilton with Shinzen Young asked Shinzen about the meaning / origin of the term and got no answer.

I think I was able to nail it down (to some extent, with very limited access to texts and Pali knowledge), so I am sharing here.

TL;DR: maha-vipassana is used in Patisambhidamagga (and later), in terms of Visudhimagga stages, it starts after A&P in ñ5 / banga-ñana / dissolution.

Ñanatiloka's Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines mentions mahavipassana under the vipassana heading:
Eighteen chief kinds of insight-knowledge (or principal insights, mahā-vipassanā) are listed and described in Vis.M. XXII, 113
The 18 principal insights originate in Patisambhidamagga (says Vism. XX §4, footnote 3 [as Pm. 780]; Pm index entry "contempations of impermanence" is Pm I, §39); they are listed in Vism XXII, §113 Vism XX, §89–90:
89. Having thus become familiar with the material and immaterial meditation subjects, and so having penetrated here already a part of those eighteen principal insightswhich are later on to be attained in all their aspects by means of full understanding as abandoning starting with contemplation of dissolution, he
consequently abandons things opposed [to what he has already penetrated].

90. Eighteen principal insights is a term for understanding that consists in the kinds of insight beginning with contemplation of impermanence. Now, as regards these:
  1. One who develops the contemplation of impermanence abandons the perception of permanence,
  2. one who develops the contemplation of pain [629] abandons the perception of pleasure,
  3. one who develops the contemplation of not-self abandons the perception of self,
  4. one who develops the contemplation of dispassion abandons delighting,
  5. one who develops the contemplation of fading away abandons greed,
  6. one who develops the contemplation of cessation abandons origination,
  7. one who develops the contemplation of relinquishment abandons grasping,
  8. one who develops the contemplation of destruction abandons the perception of compactness,
  9. one who develops the contemplation of fall [of formations] abandons accumulation [of kamma],
  10. one who develops the contemplation of change abandons the perception of lastingness,
  11. one who develops the contemplation of the signless abandons the sign,
  12. one who develops the contemplation of the desireless abandons desire,
  13. one who develops the contemplation of voidness abandons misinterpreting (insistence),
  14. one who develops the insight into states that is higher understanding abandons misinterpreting (insistence) due to grasping at a core,
  15. one who develops correct knowledge and vision abandons misinterpreting (insistence) due to confusion,
  16. one who develops the contemplation of danger abandons misinterpreting (insistence) due to reliance,
  17. one who develops the contemplation of reflection abandons non-reflection,
  18. one who develops the contemplation of turning away abandons misinterpreting (insistence) due to bondage (see Paṭis I 32f.).
Vism XX, §89 footnote says: "The first seven of the 18 Principal Insight are known as the 'Seven Contemplations'"  (they are listed in Pm. I, §16).

The context in Visuddhimagga is in XXII, §105–108:
Full-understanding is threefold, that is: ... (i) Full-understanding as the known ... is the direct-knowing of mentality-materiality with its  conditions [ñ1] ... (ii) Full-understanding as investigating (judging) ... starts with Comprehension by Groups [ñ3], and occurring as investigating impermanence, suffering, non-self, it extends as far as Conformity [ñ12]. ... (iii) Full-understanding as abandoning ... extends from the Contemplation of Dissolution [ñ5] up to Path Knowledge [ñ14].
Vism XX, §4 lines them up with 16 stages differently, without overlaps:
the plane of full-understanding as the known  extends from the Delimination of Formations [ñ1] to Discernment of Conditions [ñ2]; for in this interval the penetration of the specific characteristcs of states predominates. The plane of full-understanding as investigation extends from Comprehension by Groups [ñ3] up to Contemplation by Rise and Fall [ñ4]; for in this interval the penetration of the general characteristics predominates. The plane of full-understanding as abandoning extends from Contemplation of Dissolution [ñ5] onwards.
Vism XXII, §114–121 positions these 18  principal insights on the 16 stages:
(1)-(7) ...through the means of the Seven Contemplations beginning with that of impermanence has already been explained under the Contemplation of Dissolution (XXII, §15f)
Vism XXII, §11 writes that in Dissolution, the Seven Contemplations are seen:
 Having reflected on that object, he contemplates the dissolution of that consciousness.
“‘He contemplates’: how does he contemplate? He contemplates as impermanent, not as permanent; he contemplates as painful, not as pleasant; he contemplates as not self, not as self; he becomes dispassionate, he does not delight; he causes fading away of greed, he does not inflame it; he causes cessation, not origination; he relinquishes, he does not grasp. Contemplating as impermanent, he abandons the perception of permanence. Contemplating as painful, he abandons the perception of pleasure. Contemplating as not-self, he abandons the perception of self. Becoming dispassionate, he abandons delight. Causing fading away, he abandons greed. Causing cessation, he abandons originating. Relinquishing, he abandons grasping.”

Ch. Trungpa uses mahavipashyana as a word for the 3rd stage of vipassana (e.g. Trungpa: The Path of Individual Liberation, Shambhala 2015, pp 349–350): "The mahavipashyana experience creates a link between hinayana and mahayana practice, in that you begin to experience emptiness, or shunyata."  Or in Cutting Through the spiritual materialism, pp 125-126: "Out of this develops panoramic awareness, mahavipashyana (Pali mahavipassana) meditation: that is, awareness of the overall pattern rather than the focusing of attention upon details."

It actually seems to be ligned up: there is emptiness after A&P (dissolution); but I don't know much about Trungpa and Tibetan traditions.