Insight Meditation- A Process of Processes

Edited by Steven K. Christopher

What is Dharma? Dharma is a way of life! Dharma is so broad, deep, and profound that it goes beyond words. To quote a comment from my meditation teacher, the single word ‘Dharma’ would take more than 30 days to describe its meaning in depth.

To put it in a nut shell, there are 3 essential meanings to the word Dharma. They are:

1.Dharma Teaching from Buddha Gautama—Buddha teaches one thing only about Nature. Use the power of nature to strive for genuine happiness and liberation from suffering in this very life. Buddha’s teaching about nature is universal and independent of religion. The Dharma, or Buddha of Buddhism, the Way in Taoism, God as a revelation of nature in Christianity, and oneness as a whole in science, all mean the same thing. The concept is just worded differently.

2.Natural Phenomena—the natural occurrence of phenomena occurs on its own, according to the universal law of nature. No master or creator behind the scene controls the occurrence of natural phenomena. It just happens naturally—no self—to be there forever. Mental and physical activity, or mind/body processes in our body are all a part of nature.

3.Truth or Reality—the nature of reality, or Parramatta Dharma, reveals that all things are not a thing, but a mere process of change. All events, activities, and natural phenomena happen in a course of movement as a process of what they are. Reality is always imbedded in all things, everywhere, and in this very present moment. One can find reality within the body, instead of looking for it outside of the body.

Conventional Truth is the conventional world of perceptive appearance that most people live in. Ultimate truth denotes the inner fundamental mechanism underlying the appearances, events, and activities. For example, when watching television or a movie, the picture showing on the screen appears as continuous motion of movement and color. In reality, we have learned from science that the pictures are made up of electronic particles shooting out at an incredible speed. The fast speed of these particles reflects the inner mechanism underlying the appearance of pictures. Since the naked eye is too slow to catch the fast speed of particles, what we see is the picture of appearances, according to conventional truth. Sensory perception conceals the true reality. The reality of impermanence and its fleeting 、momentary change is concealed by the continuity of the observer’s perception. In other words, the superficial appearance or the experience of the observer is attributed to the change of the inner mechanism in ultimate reality

Conceptual appearance and the truth of reality are like two levels or channels. These two can not be separated, for they reveal the same event/activity. This is where meditation comes into the picture—to narrow the gap between appearance and reality. In practicing insight meditation to observe physical and mental events, the outcome of the observation from sensory perception or experience depends upon the mental state of the observer. As the practice deepens, the observed event manifests in a spectrum, starting from illusionary appearances of ignorance, to specific characteristics in a changing manner, to common characteristics in fleeting flow, and in the end, to the true reality of nature in enlightenment. From quantum physics, the Uncertainty Principle demonstrates that the outcome of events/activities depends upon the mental state of the practitioner! In that sense, meditation is a skill of mental training, a mental exercise used to condition the mind. Mental training cultivates and enhances the skillful states of mind by subduing the unwholesome hindrances, and keeps the mind from being polluted by the three toxins of craving, aversion, and delusion.

Daily Life

Throughout the course of daily life, many kinds of thoughts, emotions and desires arise, and when our attention is focused outward on the world around us, our sensory experiences often obscures our inner life, just as the sun outshines the stars during the daytime. These mental activities continue subconsciously, and they exert a powerful influence on our lives. As the Buddha put it, “Look outward to the worldly; look inside toward the Dharma.” Insight meditation, in a sense, observes mind/body activities within our body as the object of awareness to see its nature, and how it arises and passes away. The object is not important. The observing mind that is working in the background—working to be aware—is more important. If the act of observing is done with the right attitude, the object will be the right object. As the awareness deepens, the mind will observe itself as the object of awareness, to see how the mind reacts in a chain reaction to the outside world around us.

It takes, on average, half a second for the unconscious mind to process incoming sensory stimuli into the conscious perception/experience. Different types of neuronal activity in the brain are associated with the emergence of conscious awareness. For example, seeing a beautiful baby produces one pattern of brain activity, while seeing a grandmother produces another. To the same object and observer, the outcome of sensory perception—conscious awareness—depends upon the conscious state of the observer’s mind. The inner mind is capable of generating a wide range of conscious experience, including some states that alter our perceptions and emotions to such an extent that the entire world seems dramatically different. It is more accurate to look at these conscious states as a spectrum, with highly unified experiences at one end, and fractured consciousness at the other. In other words, the mind can be trained for a journey of new discovery into the land of a true spiritual awakening.

On the path of meditative practice, external conditions will not always be conducive. Internal conditions likewise fluctuate with the strength of faith and will. Many conditions and factors play their parts. At first, we try to keep ourselves afloat with strong, continuous mindfulness. After that, the practice of meditation becomes a journey of discoveries. Every experience we come across undergoes minute scrutiny. Our mind is like a microscope with an ever increasing power of magnification. We discover the secrets of existence which we have misunderstood for so long. With each realization, we move closer and closer to where the waves break and cease altogether. This is absolute reality, the holy happiness from the ending of all suffering.

Process of Processes

What does it mean to practice mindfulness based (insight) meditation? It means to abide totally in this very present moment. That is to observe the nature of objects in a right attitude and see how they arise and disappear. A moment is defined as the duration of a cycle from arising, to decay, to passing away in subtle, incredible speed. The nature of any phenomena, event, or activity reveals constant momentary change. It all comes down to cycles within cycles, big tidal waves with infinite tiny waves, all changing and flowing from one moment to the next. The moment to moment, fleeting nature of things manifests the reality of impermanence, like a flow of turbulent water. This process denotes the dynamic, moving aspect of natural phenomena. In observing the object (event or activity) and how it works, the entire full course of momentary change from the beginning to the end is called the Dynamic Process of Phenomena. Observing all events 、activities with great scrutiny and detail, reveal the full course of dynamic motion/movement in a process of constant flow. The fleeting nature of process to process reveals how all things work, along with their causes and effects, according to momentary dependent-origination in the transforming nature of the mind/body processes.

In the sense of ultimate truth, insight meditation in itself is actually a process of processes. All things going up must come down; whatever arises is bound to disappear. There will be good times and bad times. This cyclical nature occurs here and now, in this very precious moment, everywhere and all of the time. In the same token, the mind/body processes or physical and mental events are fleeting cycles within cycles. They are all in a process of arising and disappearing, like the flux and flow of tiny waves within big waves. The mind/body events are 2 different things, but happen together and simultaneously. The mental events occur in a process of flow, and the physical events occur in another process of flow. Flowing in the flow and with the flow establishes one’s direct experience by observing the mind/body processes with insight knowledge. When watching pain, one discovers that pain is actually composed of two activities. The physical sensation of pain appears as a flow of particles and energy. The unpleasant mental feeling associated with pain is revealed as another fleeting flow. These 2 physical and mental events appear as a pair, hand in hand, shadowing their association with the object.

In addition to the flowing nature of observed objects and the observing mind, the practice of meditation itself is a process, in a repeated cycle of searching/inquiry, finding revelation and abandonment. This cyclical pattern in practice starts with:

1.Search/Inquiry—listening and communicating, and opening with acceptance to explore the greater unknown within.

2.Finding—with spiritual awakening, there is always something more subtle in the manifestation of natural phenomena. On this journey of new discovery, the experience of perceiving the object of awareness progresses closer to the true nature of reality.

3.Abandonment—Abandon the tools used to acquire the skill of mental training in order to progress to the next level of practice. The universal law of nature operates in this way—whatever arises is bound to pass away. Upon abandoning gross phenomena, more subtle phenomena emerge.

When increasing the magnification of a microscope, the former perception disappears and is abandoned; and a new, detailed, finer perception pops up. The outcome of the observation of any natural phenomena depends on the mental state of the observer. What had been changed are not the natural phenomena of the observed object! The change actually comes from the observing mind and the mental state of the observer from the conditioning process of practice. This process of direct experience and perception in a cycle from gross to subtle is thus consequential, developmental, and penetrative.

Guarding the Six Senses —Rooting Out Defilements

In daily life, the external world bombards all six body senses constantly, especially from our sight, hearing and thoughts. For example, sound impacts the ear drum and initiates the hearing process. An untrained mind follows and reacts to the sound in a chain reaction. To any particular object of sound, some will find it pleasant and dance to it; while others will find it noisy, unpleasant and react negatively. The inner mind looks outward, reacts to the sound and makes a judgment. The inner mind is then carried away by the object of sound and triggers defilement and suffering! On the contrary, with a trained mind, one looks inward as a Dharma of hearing process. Wherever the defilement originates, that is exactly the area to be worked on by practicing insight meditation. By guarding the six senses, hearing is simply hearing as it is, and the trained mind goes beyond the concept to be free of suffering.

Let’s microscopic examine the hearing event as it manifests from moment to moment, process to process. In the natural science of physics, hearing takes an average of half a second for the unconscious mind to process incoming sensory stimuli into conscious perception/experience. The hearing phenomena break down into a series of processes. Sound waves in the air travel in waves of cycles within cycles; the ear drum vibrates in the manner of flowing water; neurons in the nervous system connected from the inner ear to the brain flashes incessantly, like the firing of dynamite in a series of explosions.

According to the empirical science of mind, based on direct experience of meditation as stated in Abhidharma commentary, the hearing event takes place in flux, as a fleeting process of processes. There are four processes to this event. First, you hear the object. This is the first step of the hearing process, occurring at the ear-door when the sound impacts the hearing sensor. Second, the hearing transfers to the mind-door process. This second step is called the reviewing process at the mind-door. In the third step of the hearing process, you put the forms of hearing together and assimilate the shape of the hearing process from past experiences and memories. Last of all is the naming/imputation process—the fourth step. All four processes manifest as one haring consciousness. This is how the hearing process takes place.

If you meditate on the rising phenomena or activity from the six senses whenever you see, hear, smell, taste, touch or think; all of the objects and observing mind manifest in moment to moment, process to process. That means applying total mindfulness to the present, without missing anything, from the act of the observation to contemplation. If you keep practicing meditation and learn to let go of attachments as well as change mental habits, what you see passes away; what you hear passes away. They pass away and disappear in no time at all. Conceptualization ceases when the third and fourth phases of the hearing process stop from happening. What is left behind for the first and second processes is the reality of the hearing event for what they are— “hearing is hearing.” Once you hear them as they really are, there is nothing to craving, nothing to hate, nothing to cling to. If there is nothing to cling to, there can be no clinging or grasping. That is the way of practicing Vipassana, to fundamentally de-root the defilements by guarding the senses, and overcoming the three mind toxins of craving, aversion, and delusion.

Consciousness – The Root of All Things

Meditation is about the skill of mental training; to use the mind as a powerful instrument to explore deeper levels of the mind, down to the very root of consciousness itself. Consciousness is not yours or mine; it is energy that comes from nature. It is a succession of events that come to be and then pass away one after another. Its fleeting nature fluxes like a cascading waterfall. Go back to the above mentioned hearing event. The hearing consciousness originates on its own accord when the object contacts the hearing sensor. The awareness of sound, from the knowing function of the observing mind involves 3 layers of consciousness working in the background at three different levels. These levels are distinguished, respectively, from the deepest substrate level of the life continuum, to resulting consciousness, and then to waking consciousness. Let’s cite a water analogy to further illustrate the flow of mind stream.

Water is an element that we are all quite familiar with. This element has strong similarity to the universal process in Nature in that it ‘flows’. Nature flows from the future to the present, and into the past. Each event is like a big wave consisting of many tiny waves, in flow and in flux. The mind stream is similar to water. A peaceful or agitated state of mind is similar to the state of water, for these mind states arise from the changes of consciousness, just as the states of water currents change from level to level. The water currents at various deepening levels resemble the deeper levels of consciousness. The turbulent flow of water current on the surface is like the flow of consciousness at the waking, conscious state of mind. The surface water current is derived from the changes of the undercurrent flow of water. The undercurrent flow of water resembles the subconscious mind, in which is revealed a three dimensional passing show in color, similar to watching a movie in mute mode. The passing show reveals karmic potential, which in turn determines the conscious state of mind to be either wholesome or unwholesome. At the moment of death, the passing show will determine the destination of the next existence. This is similar to the concept of Final Judgment in Christianity. Again, observe the flow of water more mindfully. The clear light of pure awareness reveals that the undercurrent flow of the water stream is dictated by the activity, or ‘bubbling up’ of underground water currents. The underground current represents the deepest ground level of consciousness in the flow of life continuum. In this depth at ground substrate of consciousness, birth and death are linked—the mind beyond death—similar to the flow of consciousness in a state of deep sleep without dreaming.

Let’s put all the pieces together by using the hearing process as an example once again. As mentioned above, it takes just a fraction of a second between the time a sound is first perceived by the physical ear, and then conceptualized by the mind. Our identification or conceptualization of the sound is determined by the quality of the levels of consciousness that the sound vibrations passed through. This quality of consciousness is shaped by the Karmic potential that exists at the deepest level of consciousness. The profound teachings of Dharma about existence, life, nature and Karma, are all reflected simply by the hearing process, or any of the other cognitive senses that we use in daily life. This is what is meant when it is said that Dharma is a way of life!

Awareness – Spiritual Awakening

The purpose of Vipassana is to develop awareness from the practice center on mindfulness. Awareness is a process of knowing. Awaken to KNOW what is happening as it happens in each and every present moment. The only way that mental activity can be detected is by observing the mind with mental awareness. In reality, the knowing process of Awareness comes from the function of consciousness. In the conditioning process of mental training, mindfulness is the cause and awareness is the result. Put in another way, work hard on mindfulness in the practice, awareness will naturally come along.

Essentially, there are three distinct modes of knowing process in awareness. The first mode is the conceptual, conscious awareness via the thinking brain, which requires the use of our physical body-sensors. In this mode, the awareness associates with thought and concept from sensory perception. Every state of conscious awareness has a specific pattern of brain activity associated with it. Seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, etc.,—these are physical and mental processes that we use as sensors to collect data from the world around us, and they fall into this category of awareness.

The next mode, called Bare Awareness, manifests through the development of the intuitive ‘sixth sense’. This is a level of awareness that operates beyond concepts, and we establish a sense of knowing at the mind-door by ‘feel’ (not the pleasant/unpleasant feeling), from the mind touch the object. At this level, the perception or experience from 6th sense detaches from the body sensors of the thinking brain. It goes beyond, and begins to experience a more subtle, intuitive sense of knowing.

The third mode, which is the most subtle, is Pure Awareness from realization of enlightenment, or the clear light of comprehension. At this level of awareness, the knowing process direct comes from the power of nature, without using the base of 6 body sensors. Not only do we come to know the object of our attention as the reality of what it is; we also understand the true nature of its process, and how it works. In fact, we become the process itself, without the body base, and realize that, ‘…all things are not a thing, but a mere process of change…” At this level of awareness we are witnesses to the very subtle, unlimited true nature in multi-dimensional phenomena that form the foundation for all that exists.

There are two fundamental flaws that occur when depending solely on the evidence of experience from sensory perception through our body sensors. First flaw sets in the limitation from missing something to what it is of pure experience. Our physical senses are limited in their ability to observe the full spectrum of an event. Second flaw presents in imputation by adding something to what it is. The concepts from imputation that we add into the reality of pure experience based on this limited information are built on an incomplete picture of reality. When we depend only on our physical senses, 99 percent of an event that we observe is filtered out. The remaining one percent we tend to accept as the reality of the observed event; when in fact, it is only a small fraction of it. For example, a blind man may place his hands on the trunk of an elephant. With this ‘evidence’ based solely on his tactile sense of touch, will formulate an erroneous concept of what an elephant really is.

Awareness is a process of knowing, enabling us to know and be aware of the full experience of our existence. As our level of awareness deepens with practice, so too does our perception of true reality. And the more skillful we become in exercising wisdom in our daily lives. By developing and training our minds to the level of clear awareness, we circumvent the flaws that occur from depending only on our physical sensors, Thereby; clear awareness allows us to gain a better understanding of ourselves and the world around us.


The practice of insight meditation emphasizes the changing nature of an object so as to see the three marks of Dharma in every experience. With practice, we observe the dynamic process of all things, to see how they work and to witness the Buddha’s teaching of dependent origination. In the beginning, we may focus on the breath or body sensation as the chosen object. As our practice deepens, our awareness expands to observe all experience without a specific object. Practice eventually becomes all inclusive. Whatever activity we participate in becomes meditation practice. This is the skill of clear comprehension, and gives deeper meaning to the expression, “Dharma is a way of life.”

Specifically, clear comprehension is the state of awareness that exists when the mind is sharp enough to detect intentions and thoughts in daily life before they become processed into action, speech, and all forms of emotional and mental activities. The greater the ability to be aware of how the mind is working in the background, the better one will be able to reach out and exercise proper action, right speech, and wisdom in daily life.

True happiness and enlightenment can be achieved from right view by seeing the Dharma; and by learning how to witness the ceaseless, ever changing, influx of natural phenomena in each and every present moment that we live. The greatest problem with living in delusion is not being able to see clearly what is happening in the present moment. In our daily lives, we have very little awareness of our thoughts, words and deeds. This delusion acts as a foundation for craving, attachment, hostility and hatred. The three toxins of the mind—craving, aversion, and delusion—lie at the root of all suffering. Meditation helps us to develop a clear awareness; to know how to take the proper steps to meet our real needs, and to avoid danger without falling into unhealthy attachments that will only cause us more suffering.

Sila (morality), tranquility and wisdom are three aspects of learning from the Buddha’s teaching. Buddha just points the WAY! It is completely up to us to transform the teaching into action by learning to meditate. In the end, the ultimate goal of practicing Insight Meditation is learning how to use the power of nature to become an enlightened, noble person. Wisdom, morality, and supernatural power are unified together as oneness from seeing the Dharma. Tread the path of mind purification to cross other shore and to fulfill and accomplish the cessation of suffering.

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