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I was brought up in the Theravada tradition and have little knowledge on Mahayana. Recently some of my friends participated in a Mahayana retreat and praised it highly. One of them even claimed that Mahayana is for practical Buddhists and Theravada is for rituals and ceremonies etc. So I got a bit curious about this and started searching on Mahayana. But I couldn't find the answer to my main question.

As Vipassana meditation is the core of Theravada which finally leads to the end of suffering, can someone tell me if there exists such a meditation technique in Mahayana as well?

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Mahayana is not a single tradition. It is a variety of forms the live teaching has taken as it was internalized by people belonging to different cultures and lifestyles over ~2600 years of the realization-transmission cycle.

The same direct experience (of Enlightenment) is introduced in different ways. Everyone agrees it is about seeing (aka insight) and cultivation (aka liberation), but how exactly the two are approached varies wildly.

The method of vipassana (insight meditation) is radical attention to present moment, with experiences interpreted in context of Buddhist teachings. We could say vipassana relies on three activities: the study undertaken before meditation, the active-watching during meditation, and the review in post-meditation. That's it, there is nothing magical about vipassana. It's all about what you study, and what you pay attention to, and how you connect the two.

Before you can do active watching, you have to tame your mind and make it into an instrument of insight. The same taming also serves as a pre-realization part of liberation-cultivation (remember, it's not just insight, there is also liberation). This preliminary meditation is known as samatha, but it really is not that different from vipassana. The only real difference is in the level of skill, familiarity, and insight. This is like with learning to play guitar: first you do scale exercises, then you play whole pieces, then you improvise. In all cases you are playing the instrument, the difference is in your sensitivity and control. Samatha is mostly about tranquility, vipassana is mostly about insight -- but there is no one without the other.

Not all schools of Mahayana differentiate between samatha and vipassana. Most Zen schools (I believe) teach one meditation, zazen (did you know "zen" is the same word as "jhana"?). This is like giving student a guitar and saying: here, learn to play this. No scale exercises, no sheet music. This is accompanied with plenty of very deep oral instructions on what a good music sounds like, but no specific mechanical exercises. I'm simplifying to make a point. Most teachers do provide some guidelines (e.g. basics of anapanasati; common mistakes etc.), but the emphasis is definitely on self-learning.

While in Theravada the pendulum seems to swing almost too far the other way: "Teacher, but when are we going to play music?" -- "Forget about music, dummy, and focus on your study and exercises, that's where music comes from!"

In Tibetan schools practice and study seems to be pretty balanced. They do differentiate between shamatha and vipashyana at beginner stages and speak about "unity of shamatha and vipashyana" at more advanced stages. As far as specific techniques, at least in some schools (Gelug) Tibetan vipashyana takes analysis of the four jhanas as its object of investigation. Four jhanas are also approached in context of Generation Stage meditation, while what you know as satipatthana in Theravada can probably be compared with Completion stage meditation in Vajrayana... And then there are Mahamudra and Dzogchen, which are like playing jazz improvisations...

Much of it depends on the student and on a particular teacher. An enormously talented student can learn playing just by watching a teacher, but most of us need gradual instruction. Some teachers believe in analytical understanding, others think technique can only come from drills, while yet others believe it's all about the feeling etc.

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Yes, it's called vipaśyanā and it's employed by several different schools.

  • Thanks for the link, it has very little information though. Is it safe to say that except Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayana, Mahāmudrā and Dzogchen) there's no such practice in Mahayana schools? Is it only the Samatha meditation that other Mahayana schools teach? – dmsp Aug 21 '14 at 17:44
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    Every monastery teaches differently; you can't really generalize like that. – yuttadhammo Aug 21 '14 at 18:32
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Google "Mahamudra". Enjoy. I happen to follow a Karma Kagyu Tibetan Buddhism tradition of mahamudra. There are lots of flavors for lots of individual tastes but it's all the same. Good stuff. (Heck, even Hinduism's Advaita is good stuff.) Enjoy!

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It seems to me the Mahayana is more about rituals and such:prayer wheels, manadala's, medicine bowls, prayer flags. Plus there are too many esoteric "secretive" teachings where one has to receive empowerment from a lama I guess. It's all good but I feel Theravada tradition contains the heart of Buddha's teachings

  • Well... I think you are talking about Tibetan Mahayana here. Rinzai Zen is Mahayana and is very austere. As is Ch'an. Perhaps Tibetan Mahayana is very parochial, but Zen/Ch'an is not. – T. B. Sep 29 '16 at 21:55
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In Mahayana the objects of vipashyana are not the three characteristics as they are in Theravada, however, they are shunyata, or emptiness. In Theravada vipassana one investigates impermanence, selflessness, and unsatisfactoriness of all phenomena. In Mahayana one investigates emptiness of all phenomena, which is a development of the three characteristics. There are different views of emptiness which disagree on details, but essentially are the same enough. Madhyamaka Prasangika view is generally considered the definitive view of emptiness. Also, the mind itself is also the object of investigation, and Mahayana has developed a very useful model of consciousness and the mind.

The Heart Sutra reveals a very useful vipashyana meditation: Investigate each skandha and discover its emptiness of identity. "Form is empty, emptiness is none other than form, Sensation is empty, emptiness is none other than sensation..." and so on.

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@dmsp - "Mahayana is for practical Buddhists and Theravada is for rituals and ceremonies etc" this statement was misunderstood by you. I was also in that retreat, nobody said something like that. There was a question about how you compare different schools of Buddhism. Though it was not explained w.r.t. meditation aspects, the main difference between schools is the traditions and ceremonies you do. But the core teaching (4 Noble Truths, 8-fold Path, etc.) remains the same. By the way, you also can't say that all teachers in Mahayana/Theravada follow the same way of teaching.

  • In Theravada you can say all teachers and students should practice Vipassana meditation if they want to attain nibbana. However, there can be different ways of doing it like sathipattana, anapanasathi etc. That's why I wanted to know what method is used by Mahayana tradition to achieve this. BTW that statement wasn't misunderstood by me. He actually said that. I have proof :) – dmsp Aug 25 '14 at 9:32
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The views of:

"I was brought up in the Theravada tradition and have little knowledge on Mahayana. Recently some of my friends participated in a Mahayana retreat and praised it highly. One of them even claimed that Mahayana is for practical Buddhists and Theravada is for rituals and ceremonies etc. So I got a bit curious about this and started searching on Mahayana. But I couldn't find the answer to my main question."

And:

"It seems to me the Mahayana is more about rituals and such:prayer wheels, manadala's, medicine bowls, prayer flags. Plus there are too many esoteric "secretive" teachings where one has to receive empowerment from a lama I guess. It's all good but I feel Theravada tradition contains the heart of Buddha's teachings"

These views are both understandable given the respective situations:

I live in a Theravada Buddhist country (Thailand), but is a practicing Mahayana Buddhist (Chinese of Chan lineage). The reason both perspectives - that the other side is more practical, can be observed is that, a Theravada Buddhist community is often very conservative, and as such can get completely out of touch with lay people. Monks for example often chant in Pali for a lay funeral service while doing very little to teach the lay people the Dharma. I have attended Thai funerals where people start zoning out while the monks chants in Pali, a language ordinary Thais do not understand. Some disrespectfully chatted away with their friends during service. Some even start browsing their phones! Your average Thai religious participation involve making some donations during special Buddhist festival dates. On the other hand, my personal practice involves weekly chanting service at the temple, as well as many social participation. Lay Buddhists chant along in Chinese Mahayana Buddhist texts, which are understandable to the Chinese audience.

One of the preoccupation of Mahayana Buddhism is the development of upāya - skillful means. That is, how to teach the difficult to understand Buddhadharma to the masses, as well as various students at different stage of the path. Employing various strategy such as rituals for participation, conceptual aids such as Pure Land Buddhist teachings, group chanting involving the lay people, the use of repetition of mantras. Many teachings are also simplified to be relevant to needs of the lay Buddhist. The Tibetans for example heavily use seemingly mystical rituals as well as magnificent art and architecture to inspire the interest and faith of the people. (Their art is one of the finest in the Buddhist world). Modern Buddhist organization even hold similar youth functions and camps similar to those done by Protestant Christianity to engage young people.

This is not to say that there aren't temples on both sides that do not reach out to people, nor that Theravada do not employ skillful means. The emphasis is just different, and in my personal opinion many Buddhists societies have grown way too lax and take the Dharma for granted. Some very successful modern oriented Thai temples such as the Dhammakaya even came under heavy criticism for being 'too big', 'unorthodox' or even downright accusatory 'cult-like'. From my understanding, their success boil down to: having large lay participation by holding big events, teaching meditation to lay people, and having monks who are highly disciplined and walking in a very mindful orderly manner. Unfortunately this practice is deemed 'strange and cult-like' by those who do not actually understand the Dharma and are used to un-orderly behavior from monks.

  • And what about Vipassana meditation? The question asks, "Is there a Vipassana meditation in the Mahayana tradition?" – ChrisW Sep 27 '16 at 9:41
  • I presume that question is already answered by other members.. – Yinxu Sep 27 '16 at 11:43
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The base of the pillar of the answer to this is probably what is called "Silent Illumination" or Yuganaddha.

Silent illumination comes from the integrated practice of shamatha (calming the mind) and vipashyana (insightful contemplation) called yuganaddha (union), and was the hallmark of the Chinese Caodong school of Ch'an. It therefore means one is practicing with both a calm mind and "questioning observation."

The Caodong school is very interesting, and is the predecessor of the Soto Zen school. It is a very esoteric school, which is probably why it almost vanished, as its ways were not popular.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caodong_school

So, since Zen is Mahayana, I believe this is where you should look.

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    You're welcome. :-) If you are curious about Soto Zen, the Tassajara group is quite popular, and has a large presence in California. A very good friend of mine is a practitioner there and is convinced they have more substance than many others. – T. B. Sep 29 '16 at 16:48

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