MCTB The Progress of Insight

The progress of insight is a set of stages that diligent meditators pass through on the path of insight. Some of the “content based” or psychological insights into ourselves can be interesting and helpful, but when I say “insight,” these stages are what I am talking about. Just so that you have seen the whole list of the names of these stages, the formal names of stages of insight in order are:

The Pre-Vipassana Stages, 1st Vipassana Jhana

1. Mind and Body
2. Cause and Effect
3. The Three Characteristics

The 2nd Vipassana Jhana

4. The Arising and Passing Away

The 3rd Vipassana Jhana, The Dukkha Ñanas, The Dark Night

5. Dissolution
6. Fear
7. Misery
8. Disgust
9. Desire for Deliverance
10. Re-observation

The 4th Vipassana Jhana

11. Equanimity
12. Conformity
13. Change of Lineage
14. Path

Nirvana (first of two meanings)

15. Fruition


16. Review

I will give detailed descriptions of them shortly.

I will refer to these stages by their shortened titles, their numbers and occasionally short-hand slang. These are formally known as “Knowledge of” and then the stage, e.g. “Knowledge of Mind and Body,” but I will just use the part after the “of.” They are also called “ñanas,” which means “knowledges”, usually with a number, as in “the first ñana.” Notice that I use the word stage rather than state. These are stages of heightened perception into the truth of things, opportunities to see directly how things actually are, but they are not seemingly stable states as with concentration practice. The jhanaic groupings refer to vipassana jhanas, which will be covered in more depth later, but they borrow their perspectives and certain fundamental aspects from their samatha jhana equivalents. In other ways they may diverge widely from the experience of pure samatha jhanas.

One of the most profound things about these stages is that they are strangely predictable regardless of the practitioner or the insight tradition. Texts two thousand years old describe the stages just the way people go through them today, though there will be some individual variation on some of the particulars today as then. The Christian maps, the Sufi maps, the Buddhist maps of the Tibetans and the Theravada, and the maps of the Khabbalists and Hindus are all remarkably consistent in their fundamentals. I chanced into these classic experiences before I had any training in meditation, and I have met a large number of people who have done likewise. These maps, Buddhist or otherwise, are talking about something inherent in how our minds progress in fundamental wisdom that has little to do with any tradition and lots to do with the mysteries of the human mind and body. They are describing basic human development. These stages are not Buddhist but universal, and Buddhism is merely one of the traditions that describes them, albeit unusually well.

The progress of insight is discussed in a number of good books, such as Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart in the section called “Dissolving the Self”, which I highly recommend. A very extensive, thorough, accessible and highly recommended treatment of it is given in Mahasi Sayadaw’s works The Progress of Insight and Practical Insight Meditation (on BPS out of Sri Lanka), a partially castrated version of which appears in Jack Kornfield’s Living Dharma. It should be noted here that Practical Insight Meditation is my favorite dharma book of all time with no close competitors. If you can ever lay your hands on a copy, do so! Even the section of it that appears in Living Dharma is much better than having access to none of it at all.

Sayadaw U Pandita’s In This Very Life also covers this territory, and is a bit of a must-have for those who like lists and straight-up Theravada, but he leaves out a lot of juicy details. The Visuddhimagga, a Fifth Century text by Buddhaghosa, also does a nice treatment of these stages, and contains some interesting and hard-to-find information. It focuses largely on the emotional side effects and thus misses many useful points. Another good but brief map appears in Ven. Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche’s Dharma Paths. You could also check out Bhante Gunaratana’s The Path of Serenity and Insight if you would like to know the dogma well. It is a thorough and scholarly work.

Matthew Flickstein’s Swallowing the River Ganges is a light treatment of basic Buddhist concepts and contains a very superficial treatment of the stages of insight. It is kind of like what would happen if you condensed a medical school textbook down to a fifth grade science text. It focuses almost entirely on the emotional side effects and thus misses a huge amount that is worthy of discussion, but it comes from a good place and is harmless enough. It doesn’t add anything to the above sources but is easy to read.

There are many less accessible maps of insight as well. The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo requires some prior familiarity with this territory to sort out the wild symbolic imagery. A Twelfth Century Sufi map is given in Journey to the Lord of Power by Ibn 'Arabi, but again the medieval symbolism is somewhat hard to untangle unless you are already personally familiar with these stages. It also provides a very interesting if quite cryptic description of the higher stages of realization. St. John of the Cross’ The Dark Night of The Soul does a good job of dealing with the most difficult of the insight stages. His map is called “The Ladder of Love”. Unfortunately, the translation of the medieval Spanish and thickness of complex Catholic dogma make it fairly inaccessible.

I strongly recommend that you consult some of these other sources, particularly the first five mentioned. While I consider the treatment of the stages of insight that follows shortly to be by far the most comprehensive and practical explanation of the stages of insight ever written, and I mean that honestly, there are still lots of great points made in those books, and you should check them out. There is a huge amount of valuable information left out in all of these sources, perhaps due to the Mushroom Factor, but perhaps due also to some of the difficulties in describing all the little nuances of the subject in all its possible variations. Thus, working with a teacher who has personal mastery of these stages (regardless of what they call them) is an extremely good idea most of the time.

The model terminology I am using is from the ancient commentaries on the Pali Canon of the Theravada tradition. This model is used mostly in Burma but is also used to some degree in the other Theravada traditions. Zen is quite aware of these stages, as all Zen Masters had to go through them and continue to do so, but they tend not to name them or talk about them, as is their typical style. This can be helpful, as people can get all obsessed with these maps, turning them into a new form of useless content and a source of imprisoning identification and competition. This is the ugly shadow side of goal-oriented or map-based practice, but it often (though not always) may be overcome with honest awareness of this fact. That said, Zen's persistent lack of attention to them can cause other problems, and some balance between intentionally ignoring them and obsessing over them works better than either extreme.

Luckily, if the meditator really is into insight territory, continued correct practice has a way of making things happen given time. Also, when the proverbial stuff is hitting the fan, having a map around can really help the meditator not make too many of the common and tempting mistakes of that stage, as well as provide the meditator with faith that that they are on the right track when they hit the hard or weird stages. These stages can significantly color or skew a meditator’s view of their life until they master them, and it can be very helpful to remember this when trying to navigate this territory and keep one’s job and relationships functioning. Those who do not have the benefit of the maps in these situations or who choose to ignore them are much more easily blindsided by the psychological extremes and challenges which may sometimes accompany stages such as The Arising and Passing Away and those of The Dark Night.

While many people don’t want to know the maps for various reasons (such as their own unexamined insecurities), I suspect that many more people could get a lot farther in their practice if they did know them. At the very least, the maps clearly demonstrate that there is vastly more to all this than just philosophy or psychology. They also clearly and unambiguously point to how the game is played step by step and stage by stage, what one is looking for and more importantly why, and give guidelines for how to avoid screwing up along the way. Why people wouldn’t want to know these things is completely beyond me.

They fill in the juicy details of the seemingly vast gap from doing some seemingly boring and simple practice to getting enlightened. Further, providing all of this extremely precise information on exactly what to do puts the responsibility for progress or a lack thereof clearly on the meditator (e.g. you), which is exactly where it should be. If after reading this book you don’t put this extremely powerful information into practice, the fault is your own.

There is considerable evidence that the lack of this information in insight traditions that don’t use the maps has been one of the primary obstacles to progress. On the other hand, the maps can sometimes cause furious competition and arrogance in the traditions that do use them, as well as harmful fixation on purely future-oriented goals. Please, do your very best to avoid these sorts of problems.

The more intense, consistent and precise the practice, the easier it is to see how the maps apply. The more energy, focus and consistency is put into practice, the more dramatic and even outrageous these stages can be. If these stages unfold over long periods of time and gently, it can be more difficult to see the progression through them, though it does happen regardless. Certain emphases in practice, such as Mahasi Sayadaw style “noting” practice, particularly on intensive retreats, seem to produce a clearer appreciation of the maps, and some individuals will have an easier time seeing how these maps apply than others will.

Each stage is marked by very specific increases in our perceptual abilities. The basic areas we can improve in are clarity, precision, speed, consistency, inclusiveness and acceptance. It is these improvements in our perceptual abilities that are the hallmarks of each stage and the gold standard by which they are defined and known. Each stage also tends to bring up mental and physical raptures (unusual manifestations). These are fairly predictable at each stage and sometimes very unique to each stage. They are secondary to the increase in perceptual thresholds of ways by which we may judge whether or not we are in a particular stage.

Each stage also tends to bring up specific aspects of our emotional and psychological makeup. These are also strangely predictable, but these are not as reliable for determining which stage is occurring. They are suggestible, ordinary, and will show more variation from person to person. However, when used in conjunction with the changes in perceptual threshold and the raptures, they can help us get a clearer sense of which stage has been attained. Further, these stages occur in a very predictable order, and so looking for a pattern of stages leading one to the next can help us get a sense of what is going on. Thus, when reading my descriptions of these stages, pay attention to these separate aspects: the shift in perceptual threshold, the physical and mental raptures, the emotional and psychological tendencies, and the overall pattern of how that stage fits with the rest.

So, the meditator sits down (or lies down, stands, etc.) and begins to try to experience each and every sensation clearly as it is. When the meditator gains enough concentration to steady the mind on the object of meditation, something called “access concentration,” they may enter the first jhana, now called the “first vipassana jhana,” which is in some ways the same for both concentration practice and insight practice at the beginning. However, as they have been practicing insight meditation, they are not trying to solidify this state, but are trying to penetrate the three illusions by understanding the Three Characteristics.

They have been trying to sort out with mindfulness what is body and what is mind and when each is and isn’t there. They have been trying to be clear about the actual sensations that make up their world just as they are. They have been trying to directly understand the Three Characteristics moment to moment in whatever sensations arise, be it in a restricted area of space, such as the area of the sensations of breathing, a moving area of space (e.g. body-scanning practices), in the whole of their world as is done in choiceless awareness practices, using some other technique or object, or just by being alive and paying attention. Thus, this first stage has a different quality to it from that of concentration practice, and they attain to direct and clear perception of the first knowledge of...

MCTB 1. Mind and Body