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Critical thinking/vipassana

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  • Critical thinking/vipassana

    Hi Bhante,

    To what extent does critical self reflective thinking play on the path?
    The way I see it vipassana is a direct understanding that comes via observation of phenomena when the mind is still? (is that correct?)
    Critical self reflection being intentional probing questions into one's mind/life. For example into one's thought patterns in order to adjust wrong or unskillful perceptions/modes of thinking.

    In the Satipatthana sutta and other suttas the word 'contemplate' is used a lot. Is critical thinking or vipassana meant by this?

    I spend a fair amount of time critically reflecting on my thinking, mind states ect. Yet I am not sure it is even suggested by the Buddha? I've come across nothing that suggests it is other than to contemplate ones body, mind ect. But not sure what is meant by that?

    I'm quite confused, please help!

  • #2
    Hi Dylan,

    The Buddha did surely recommend contemplating things. But, and this is where many people seem to go wrong, you have to know when to contemplate. The suttas say that when we are overcome by the hindrances in the mind, it is not a good time to contemplate phenomena. It is like trying to work with gold that is not yet cleaned of all the dirt and grit. The gold is brittle and whatever you try to do with it won't work out.

    So if you want to contemplate--and I mean properly contemplate--this has to happen when the five hindrances are gone. This happens when experiencing jhana, samadhi. After coming out of a jhana, that is the time to contemplate. When the mind is still like that, then it can see the truth of things. It needs that clarity. At other times, perceptions are distorted and what we think we see is not actually what is there. It is like looking through colored glasses. So be careful when contemplating, because you may actually see things totally wrong, and then be contemplating something that isn't even there!

    That aside, on a little more technical note: The modern popular interpretations of vipassana and satipatthana have drifted from what they did in the time of the Buddha. This is only natural. The meaning of words tends to drift. Compare an English work of 200 years ago with something written today and words will have changed meaning. Let alone a work that's 2500 years old! It's a bit confusing, though, when people think that when vipassana is mentioned today, it is exactly what the Buddha meant as well. Vipassana has become a thing on it's own. It's both a practice, a result and an entire movement. In the suttas it simply one factor that helps developing insight, and it doesn't even occur often. It means something like 'looking on clearly'. (vi = clear, passana = seeing) The word that is translated 'contemplating', anupassa, means something similar. It also has this idea of looking on. I understand it as 'focussing on', not as contemplating at all. You can see this clearly when it talks about breath meditation (anapanasati). Because who contemplates the breath? You don't. Instead, you focus on it.

    However, the way I replied just now, is not really nuanced at all. Contemplation has different aspects to it, different depths. Some forms of contemplation are alright to do when the hindrances are still there. Others, like trying to understand the deepest levels of the four noble truths, are better left for later. So there is a place for contemplation, but it is to be practiced at the right point in the path. When still establishing mindfulness (that is what satipatthana means) it is not the right time to contemplate too much. You can contemplate the repulsive aspects of the body and such, of course, but don't get carried away. Don't think you can properly contemplate all your thoughts and mind states. These thoughts will at that point still be colored. Leave those type of contemplation till after a the hindrances are removed, after you come out of a deep, deep meditation.

    I typed this while being a bit short on time, so I hope it is all still structured enough to be understandable.

    With kindness,



    • #3
      Thank you so much for your reply Venerable, very helpful!

      When you say 'contemplating phenomena' are you referring to extremely deep things such as the nature of reality?

      I direct most of my critical thinking not to this but instead to things like solutions to issues(both within and apart from my practice), the results of my actions/thoughts/speech and how they could be more skillful and to clarify and deepen my understanding and perspective on things.
      I believe this is very helpful but have become confused by some teachings from Buddhism and am no longer convinced of the value of this kind of thinking. I think it's silly I am confused though because time and time again it seems to benefit me. I just hear so much from Buddhism like what you said in the last post about the mind not being still enough to contemplate accurately and would have expected there to be a sutta about critical thinking and it's uses before jahna. I've found nothing, the closest being the kalama sutta..

      So my gut feeling is that I'm just experiencing some major confusion and doubt about something that appears to be obviously beneficial.
      My question is: according to Buddhism is this kind of critical thinking(not related to the nature of reality) worthwhile before Jahna? And if so why is there no sutta about it?

      Maybe it's because it's so obvious to everyone that thinking of solutions, refining understanding and reflecting on actions is beneficial(at the right times of course) thus there was no need to add it to the suttas! :/

      With metta


      • #4
        Hi Dylan!

        Please also keep in mind the last part of my post , the part where I say that it deserved some nuance. Because some types of reflection are beneficial indeed. The Buddha actually taught types of reflections, like the reflections on old age and death, and reflections on the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, and many more. And we can extend this to any type of reflection that is beneficial. If whatever you do is beneficial, please keep doing it!

        What I was trying to say is to not over do it, because a lot of people think too much and they believe that through thinking they can arrive at the truth. However, thoughts can be a major hindrance to deeper meditation, so you'll have to learn how to let go of them.

        I guess find a way to balance things.

        With metta!!


        • #5
          Just what I needed to hear! Thank you for your help Bhante



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