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Vipassana, or “Insight” meditation is one of the more popular practices that may actually lead to awakening. Originating in the conservative Theravada Buddhist tradition, vipassana is way of paying attention to the phenomena appearing in one’s awareness in such a way as to notice aspects of the sensate world that are almost always overlooked. These universal aspects of phenomenal appearances are called the Three Characteristics. The Three Characteristics are impermanence (Pali: anicca), nonself (anatta), and suffering (dukkha). By noticing that phenomenal appearances are marked by these characteristics, one succeeds in eventually loosening their identification with them. Since the early Buddhist literature is all about achieving liberation, this dis-identification process is how it is supposed to be done.

The principle act of the vipassana meditator is noting (or noticing). One sits in meditation and notices how nothing lasts, how everything changes, how it all happens on its own, and how no phenomenal appearance is truly satisfying – vipassana in a nutshell. However, there was an innovation by the contemporary meditation teacher Shinzen Young, which I think makes this practice all the more valuable to anyone with awakening as their sole aim.

Looking back at the previous techniques in the Practice Profiles series, there’s an obvious common thread. The inevitable conclusion of both self-enquiry and tracing back the radiance is the same: the recognition of the source. These might be referred to as direct path teachings, whereas vipassana might be referred to as a gradual path due to its goal of eventual liberation via dis-identification. But vipassana practice may also be used as a means of recognizing the source. Here’s how…

When one first begins vipassana practice, their concentration probably isn’t all that high (unless they’ve spent considerable time working on concentration prior to starting vipassana practice). So their first aim is to begin recognizing the phenomena that they generally confuse to be their self. Shinzen Young breaks it down into three classifications of phenomena – feel, image, talk. By observing the transient nature of feel, image, and talk, one can come to recognize the “emptiness of self,” and thus experience a great measure of freedom.

As one’s concentration deepens, their perception gets more refined, and the phenomena that used to be easily classified into feel, image, and talk begin to be experienced as very subtle vibrations. One realizes not only the “emptiness of self,” but also that all phenomena is “empty of inherent existence.” There are no universal phenomenal appearances – no ultimate “dharmas” that come and go in-and-out of experience. In other words, the philosopher Heraclitus was right when he said that, “all is flux.” With nothing to grasp, we let go even deeper and experience even more freedom.

Now, here’s where the gradual and direct paths converge. If one pays attention to the subtle vibrations, they may notice exactly when and where the arise and vanish. If one is able to note the vanishings, they may be able to recognize the source – as the source is that from which things arise, and to which they return. It is the very same source which is left when the “I am” collapses due to self-enquiry practice. And, it is the very same source which may be recognized by tracing back the radiance. When recognition occurs, one may let go and rest effortlessly as the source. And that, my friends, is good practice.

Many hardcore vipassana types will notice that I left many details out of this post – very important details for the diehard types. I mentioned nothing about the progress of insight, or the Visuddhimagga, or the four paths of enlightenment, or bhanga (dissolution), etc. I’ve only outlined what I find important about vipassana in terms of awakening to the source. For me, nearly everything else is a distraction.

If you want to wake up, vipassana can get you there. Just don’t get caught in any dogmatic traps (like all of the fanatical SN Goenka followers), and try not to be too heady about it. If you’re an intellectual type, forget about the Three Characteristics and save yourself some time. Give your energy to noticing rather than thinking, and you’ll have a lot more success with the practice.


In my last post in the Practice Profiles series, I gave an brief overview of self-enquiry. Self-enquiry, in my view, is one of the most effective technologies of awakening available. Why is self-enquiry so effective? As Ramana Maharshi states, “By repeatedly practicing thus, the power of the mind to abide in its source increases.”

Now, if increasing the power of the mind to abide in its source is your aim, self-enquiry is not your only option. There is another practice that I find to be nearly, if not equally as effective as self-enquiry, and that is tracing back the radiance.

The phrase tracing back the radiance was used by the Korean Zen master, Chinul. In this practice, one learns to clarify the natural radiant quality of their awareness in the present moment, and than traces that radiance back to its source. This kind of practice is done especially well when this radiance is pointed out by a skilled teacher, in which the practice is referred to as being given pointing-out instructions. But it can be done on one’s own as well, so long as they know what to do.

In the quoted section below, from Tracing Back the Radiance, Chinul gives pointing-out instructions to a student:

Chinul: There are many points at which to enter the noumenon. I will indicate one approach which will allow you to return to the source.

Do you hear the sound of that crow cawing and that magpie calling?

Student: Yes.

Chinul: Trace them back and listen to your hearing-nature. Do you hear any sounds?

Student: At that place, sound and discrimination do not obtain.

Chinul: Marvelous! Marvelous! This is Avalokitesvara’s method for entering the noumenon. Let me ask you again. You said that sounds and discrimination do not obtain at that place. But since they do not obtain, isn’t the hearing-nature just empty space at such a time?

Student: Originally it is not empty. It is always bright and never obscured.

Chinul: What is this essence which is not empty?

Student: Words cannot describe it.

The use of sound to clarify the radiant nature of experience is one of the most effective, and it’s really quite simple. Sit quietly, preferably outdoors. Don’t make any special effort to listen to whatever sounds arise. Just sit there. Sounds will come. When they do, notice how hearing is effortless. You don’t have to try to hear. Even if you try not to hear, hearing occurs. Recognize that radiant knowing nature present in hearing and not-hearing. Stay with it when the sound vanishes. Recognize it, relax into it, and follow it home.

To re-cap… when practicing self-enquiry, one clarifies the sense of “I am” until it collapses into the source. When tracing back the radiance, one clarifies not the sense of “I am”, but rather the natural radiant quality – or intrinsic luminosity – of awareness, and traces it back to the source. In both cases, the separate-self sense may collapse. But since this site advocates freestyle awakening, which ever practice works better for you is the one you should do.