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I have been on three 10-day Goenka Vipassana retreats in the past four years. I continue to meditate every day, although I question my technique, my progress, and eventually if this is the right tradition for me. Hence, I am naturally caught up in doubt as a primary hindrance.

Goenka Vipassana being my only real exposure to any type of Buddhist meditation, I am trying to learn more about tradition because, for one, I feel like I still haven't gotten a handle on my samadhi. By that, I mean I still haven't achieved a quiet mind or a fully absorbed mind.

  • I am wondering if I should pursue a tradition that doesn't dismiss the dhyanas the way that Goenka Vipassana does? I like that there ares stages. I do better with structure in general, and could be more intent and directed in my practice if I have had more defined path with clear markers along the way. However, I do keenly sense my bodily sensations and can achieve a free flow of energy. Still, even as I experience awareness of subtle sensations and a free flow, my mind is not clear of thought.

  • Which brings me to another question -- am I supposed to observe thoughts as they arise, or keep my focus on my breathe (if pracaticing anapana) or sensations when doing Vipassana?

  • A final question: is bhanganana a type of dhyana? I have not reached bhanga, and I am not even sure that I have reached the first dhyana, but the definitions of each that I have read seem to correspond. How does one skip the dhyanas but then achieve bhanga?

Forgive my relative ignorance of these matters. I live in a urban area that has a lot of different meditation centers in the vicinity, including a Shambhala (Tibetan) Center. I am curious to explore, although I am a bit hesitant about the more ritual-based Mahayana traditions as they seem too much like organized religion to me. Essentially, my goal, if I admit that I have one, is to make progress, is to deepen my practice, to achieve profound states of peace and clarity, to experience impermanence directly, to gain this ultimate wisdom. I am not attached Goenka Vipassana, and open to different approaches that will help me to improve my concentration (samadhi) that will, in tern, allow for panna (wisdom). Thank you.

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I still haven't achieved a quiet mind or a fully absorbed mind. I am wondering if I should pursue a tradition that doesn't dismiss the dhyanas the way that Goenka Vipassana does.... different approaches that will help me to improve my concentration (samadhi) that will, in turn, allow for panna (wisdom).

The above has the path backwards; which is a common misunderstanding in Theravada Buddhism, due to the common preaching about 'sila, samadhi, panna'.

The Noble Eightfold Path starts with wisdom (called Right Understanding or Right View). It is wisdom that achieves a quiet mind (rather than samadhi). If the mind is not quiet it cannot achieve jhana therefore it is incorrect to believe jhana is required to make the mind quiet. Jhana itself is the quiet mind and what is required to reach jhana is wisdom. How the Buddha-To-Be used wisdom to make his mind quiet and reach jhana is described in MN 19 (the Dvedhāvitakka Sutta).

am I supposed to observe thoughts as they arise, or keep my focus on my breathe (if pracaticing anapana) or sensations when doing Vipassana?

Per MN 19, the practise is using wisdom or wise reflection to remove thoughts.

A final question: is bhanganana a type of dhyana?

Based on its name, "bhanganana" appears to be a "nana" or "knowledge" ("wisdom"); therefore it is not a type of "jhana" ("concentration"). Regardless, what various "nana" are is unimportant. What is important is to establish a quiet & calm mind.

"Vipassana" means "clear seeing" or "insight". "Vipassana" automatically arises when the mind is clear & quiet therefore it is not necessary to "practise" vipassana. What must be practised is making the mind quiet; which requires using wisdom to prevent & abandon unwholesome thoughts.

And what is right effort? It’s when a mendicant generates enthusiasm, tries, makes an effort, exerts the mind and strives so that bad, unskillful qualities don’t arise. They generate enthusiasm, try, make an effort, exert the mind and strive so that bad, unskillful qualities that have arisen are given up. They generate enthusiasm, try, make an effort, exert the mind and strive so that skillful qualities that have not arisen do arise. They generate enthusiasm, try, make an effort, exert the mind and strive so that skillful qualities that have arisen remain, are not lost, but increase, mature, and are fulfilled by development. This is called right effort.

SN 45.8


One makes an effort for the abandoning of wrong view & for entering into right view: This is one's right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong view & to enter & remain in right view: This is one's right mindfulness. Thus these three qualities — right view, right effort & right mindfulness — run & circle around right view.

One makes an effort for the abandoning of wrong resolve & for entering right resolve: This is one's right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong resolve & to enter & remain in right resolve: This is one's right mindfulness. Thus these three qualities — right view, right effort & right mindfulness — run & circle around right resolve.

MN 117

MN 117 also describes how jhana (right concentration) leads to right knowledge (nana):

Of those, right view is the forerunner. And how is right view the forerunner? In one of right view, right resolve comes into being. In one of right resolve, right speech comes into being. In one of right speech, right action... In one of right action, right livelihood... In one of right livelihood, right effort... In one of right effort, right mindfulness... In one of right mindfulness, right concentration... In one of right concentration, right knowledge... In one of right knowledge, right release comes into being

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Sometimes a healthy dose of doubt is ok, as it prods us to check and verify if we're doing something correctly or following blindly.

Insight Meditation (Vipassana) is taught in several traditions, each with slightly different approaches or permutations. They all point towards the same end result, like different hiking trails leading to the same mountain peak. So don't worry too much ;)

"[ I like that there are stages. I do better with structure in general ]"

This is good to be mindful of. It can be useful to have a roadmap, but it can become an obstacle as well if we cling to progress and "spiritual materialism", collecting attainments like trophies or merit badges. I too do better with some structure. Insight taught in the Mahasi lineages use the Progression of Insight. It is contained in his Manual of Insight or as a stand-alone book. It is to be used with great caution, typically only given to meditators who have made great progress and deemed by a teacher to be ready for it. If one is likely to become attached to attainments or begin to strive too much or build up expectations, then they aren't yet ready. Better yet is to find a good teacher, one who can guide you down the Path so that you can focus on your mindfulness.

"[ am I supposed to observe thoughts as they arise, or keep my focus on my breathe]"

In Vipassana, the goal is to observe whatever arises as it arises with wise attention. The breath serves as our home base, a tool to develop initial concentration, and a tool to help us learn how to observe. Observe with bare awareness the sensations that happen while breathing. When a thought arises, note it, let it go, relaxing..., and return to the sensations of the breath. Sometimes it is also useful to investigate the arisen thought. What conditioned it's arising? Usually it's a moment where your mindfulness wasn't sharp enough, which tells you to then increase your mindfulness. The quicker you catch the thought the quicker the trace will be.

"[How does one skip the dhyanas but then achieve bhanga?"]

The stages of progress within Insight can't be skipped. They might go by in rapid succession, but they are simply natural stages of realization everyone goes through on the Path. Sometimes they pass by unnoticed, especially if we're not familiar with technical names and theory, etc. and are just practicing well. Don't worry too much about them, they will occur on their own as long as you practice the basics correctly. Maintain your sila. Observe each moment with bare awareness, maintaining continuous unbroken mindfulness, abiding independent, not clinging to anything in the world.

Explore and find what tradition or teacher is most suitable to you. For Insight I recommend the Mahasi Sayadaw, Sayadaw U Pandita, Yuttadhammo Bhikku, or Ajah Chah lineages. In the end however, they can only point out the Path. You're the one who must walk it.

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OP: I am wondering if I should pursue a tradition that doesn't dismiss the dhyanas the way that Goenka Vipassana does?

Buddhist training has 3 elements:

  • morality
  • mastery over the mind
  • wisdom

Right Concentration aspect of the path involves Jhana.

"And what is right concentration? There is the case where a monk — quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful (mental) qualities — enters & remains in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. With the stilling of directed thoughts & evaluations, he enters & remains in the second jhana: rapture & pleasure born of composure, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation — internal assurance. With the fading of rapture, he remains equanimous, mindful, & alert, and senses pleasure with the body. He enters & remains in the third jhana, of which the Noble Ones declare, 'Equanimous & mindful, he has a pleasant abiding.' With the abandoning of pleasure & pain — as with the earlier disappearance of elation & distress — he enters & remains in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity & mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain. This is called right concentration."

SN 45.8

Right Concentration

Also, to realise the path you need at least the 1st Jhana momentarily.

In Goenka's retreats, you spend 1/3 of the time developing Samadhi. Not everyone gets into Jhana but this is the time you can spend trying to deepen your concentration.

OP: Still, even as I experience awareness of subtle sensations and a free flow, my mind is not clear of thought.

Know where your attention is and what object your attention is at. If it is not the chosen object gently know the sensation the distraction created and try to see its impermanence and bring back the mind to the object of focus.

If the thoughts are overwhelming Vitakka-Santhana Sutta gives strategies to overcome them.

OP: am I supposed to observe thoughts as they arise, or keep my focus on my breathe (if pracaticing anapana) or sensations when doing Vipassana

Observe where your attention is. Incase of thoughts your attention is at the mind sense door. If the thoughts were pleasant, unpleasant or neutral have stirred up any sensations which are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral observe them knowing they are impermanent and not worth clinking to. Then move back to the breath.

OP: is bhanganana a type of dhyana?

This is an insight-knowledge.

Bhanga ñana - Knowledge of the dissolution of formations, only the "vanishing," or "passing away" is discernible.

Vipassanā-ñāṇa

OP: but the definitions of each that I have read seem to correspond.

Bhangra is when you see the arising and passing away of materiality in your body in each part of your body. Passing away becomes prominent.

This does share rapture, happiness, tranquillity with that if Jhana but Jhana is not needed for this to arise this is a very preliminary insight-knowledge.

Jhana is born by developing the Jhana factors:

  1. Initial application (vitakka)
  2. Sustained application (vicara)
  3. Joy (píti)
  4. Happiness (sukha)
  5. One-pointedness (ekaggata)

One has to develop the Jhana's as follows:

  1. To enter the 1st Jhana practice initial application and sustained application (Vitarka-vicara). [Paṭhama Jhāna Pañha Sutta]
  2. To enter the 2nd Jhana when one is established in the 1st Jhana drop initial application and sustained application (Vitarka-vicara). [Dutiya Jhāna Pañha Sutta]
  3. To enter into the 3rd Jhana drop zest (Pīti) by being steadying the mind. [Tatiya Jhāna Pañha Sutta]
  4. To enter into the 4th Jhana by dropping happiness (Sukha) with only equanimity (Ekaggata) remaining. [Catuttha Jhāna Pañha Sutta]
  5. To enter into the 5th Jhana one transcends the perceptions of form, with the disappearance the perceptions of sense-reaction, with non-attention to perceptions of diversity, aware that “Space is infinite,”. [Ākāsânañc’āyatana Pañha Sutta]
  6. To enter into the 6th Jhana one transcends the sphere of infinite space, aware that “Consciousness is infinite,”. [Viññāṇañc’āyatana Pañha Sutta]
  7. To enter into the 7th Jhana one transcends the sphere of infinite consciousness, aware that ‘There is nothing,’. [Ākiñcaññ’āyatana Pañha Sutta]
  8. To enter into the 8th Jhana one transcends the sphere of nothingness, one enters and dwells in the sphere of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. [N’eva,saññā,nâsaññ’āyatana Pañha Sutta]
  9. To enter into the cessation one does not attend to any signs of residual perception in the 8th Jhana. [Animitta Ceto,samādhi Pañha Sutta]

OP: How does one skip the dhyanas but then achieve bhanga?

Jhana is not needed to achieve Bhanga. But Jhana is needed to achieve Sotāpanna, Sakadāgāmi, Anāgāmi, and Arahant as the path-consciousness occurs with Jhana. Bhanga is insight-knowledge occurring before becoming Sotāpanna so Jhana is not needed to for Bhanga.

  1. The First Jhàna Sotàpatti Path-consciousness together with initial application, sustained application, joy, happiness, and one-pointedness,
  2. The second Jhàna Sotàpatti Path-consciousness together with sustained application, joy, happiness, and one-pointedness,
  3. The Third Jhàna Sotàpatti Path-consciousness together with joy, happiness, and one-pointedness,
  4. The Fourth Jhàna Sotàpatti Path-consciousness together with happiness and one-pointedness,
  5. The Fifth Jhàna Sotàpatti Path—consciousness together with equanimity and one-pointedness.

These are the five types of Sotàpatti Path-consciousness.

So are the Sakadàgàmi Path-consciousness, Anàgàmi Path-consciousness, and Arahatta Path-consciousness, making exactly twenty classes of consciousness. Similarly, there are twenty classes of Fruit-consciousness. Thus there are forty types of supramundane consciousness.

A Manual of Abhidhamma By Nàrada Mahà Thera

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