From everywhere I've read and heard in the suttas they talk about the jhanas being needed for insight, but as I understand it the Visuddhimagga gives the option of dry insight not requiring the jhanas. Does anyone know what canonical source Buddhagosa was basing this on?
This notion has arisen by the commentarial re interpretation of the (Yuga,naddha) Paṭipadā Sutta. More details are given in the following easy: Samatha and Vipassanā by Piya Tan. Also the modern Vipassana Movement has some effects in spreading this nortion. Some discussion about the Vipassana Movement can be found in How Buddhist traditions are transforming – and being transformed – through their relation with Western psychology by Ven. Sujato
Also see: The Experience of Samadhi: An In-depth Exploration of Buddhist Meditation by Richard Shankman
Please limit yourself to reading only canonical texts (Sutta Pitaka) until you are fully established in the Path. Do not go into the Visuddhimagga – it is only a thesis that Buddhagosha Thera wrote to show his qualifications. When there are nearly 18,000 suttas that are found in the canonical texts why would one want to check the commentaries and others first? Even Abhidhamma came only after the 3rd Buddhist Council. If one starts with Abhi-dhamma first, it will confuse things further.
At the time of Ven. Mahinda arrived in Sri Lanka the native language of the island was not called Sinhala, but known as “dipa bhasa”, the language of the island, and this was closely related to the Brahmi language of Asokan inscriptions. Ven. Mahinda used the Pali language to preach to the people, but used the native language for the purpose of commenting on suttas and it is these that became known as Sinhala-atthakatha. Only a learned individual can identify errors found in these atthakatha. So it is advisable to limit yourself to reading only canonical texts (Sutta Pitaka) until you are fully established in the Path.
Venerable Buddhagosa came to Sri Lanka in the 5th century AC and translated these Sinhala-atthakatha or Sinhala commentaries on the texts into Pali. He was not translating the canonical texts. So as I mentioned earlier, his Visuddhimagga is a text written to show his proficiency to convince the Mahavihara monks that he was capable of undertaking such a daunting task of translating the Sinhala-commentaries into Pali.
Jhana is only required for arahantship. The noble eighthold path is the path to Nibbana or arahantship but not necessarily a path that must be fully completed for insight (vipassana).
At this link, Bhikkhu Bodhi gives an excellent account of how, in the suttas, stream-entry does not require jhana.
Yet to be a stream-enterer there must be some clear insight of anatta (not-self) since a stream-enterer is defined by breaking the fetter of 'self-view' ('sakkaya ditthi').
In the Nakhasikha Sutta, it is stated the stream-enterer has "not a hundredth, a thousandth, a one hundred-thousandth" of their former suffering. To extinguish so much suffering cannot occur without insight (vipassana). Yet such a stream-enterer has not yet reached the 'world' of jhana.
Ajahn Brahm wrote an excellent book called Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond. His central thesis is that without Jhana there is no enlightenment, and that it was jhana that led to the Buddha's awakening. I have to agree with him. I would add that Jhana, Zazen and absolute samadhi meditation are the same thing based on focused concentration/absorption. Seventeen years ago I started Vipassana (mindfulness) meditation and although it's a good foundation, it never led me to deeper stages of awakening. When I started studying and practicing Zen especially absolute samadhi meditation as taught by Katsuki Sekida this is when I began to truly understand the Buddha's teachings.
Katsuki Sekida wrote a book called Zen training (methods and philosophy) I would get it, along with Ajahn Brahm book it definately will help you. I guarantee it will deepen your understanding of meditation and Buddhism. I know in my own practice learning to let go of all conceptual understanding, thinking, and just let things happen, is when the magic appears in meditation, or I should say drops off. Waste of time talking about Buddhism. Buddhism is a very personal practice...absolutely no one can help you. All that really matters is the meditation.
All the best M
You can reach Stream Entry just with Vipassana Directly (Mahasi Tradition). But from our experience in Myanmar , with AungThuKha method , which is Hybrid of Samatha and Vipassana. There we are practiced till samahta meditation and reaches 1st Jhana within 3 -5 days. After it is is fulfilled , we are moved to vipassana , the retreat last 15 days and it is fastest way to reach Stream Entry.