Is vipassana the same as insight meditation
Is there a Vipassana meditation in the Mahayana tradition?
Mahayana is not a single tradition. It is a variety of forms that live teaching has taken as it has been internalized by people of different cultures and lifestyles over ~ 2600 years of the cycle of realization and transmission.
The same direct experience (of enlightenment) is introduced in different ways. Everyone agrees that it is about See (also known as insight) and cultivation (aka Liberation), but how exactly the two are addressed is very different.
The method of vipassana (insight meditation) is a radical attention to the present moment, with experiences interpreted in the context of Buddhist teachings. We could say Vipassana relies on three activities: pre-meditation study, active observation during meditation, and post-meditation review. That's it, there is nothing magical about Vipassana. It's about what you learn, what to look for, and how you connect the two.
Before you can actively watch, you must tame your mind and turn it into an instrument of insight. The same taming also serves as part of pre-realization liberation cultivation (remember, it is not just insight, there is liberation). This preliminary meditation is known as samatha, but it's really not that different from vipassana. The only real difference is in ability, familiarity, and insight. It's like learning to play the guitar: first you do scale exercises, then you play whole pieces, then you improvise. In all cases where you play the instrument, the difference is in your sensitivity and control. Samatha is mostly about calm, Vipassana is mostly about insight - but there is no one without the other.
Not all Mahayana schools differentiate between Samatha and Vipassana. Most Zen schools (I think) teach a meditation, zazen (did you know that "zen" is the same word as "jhana"?). It's like handing the student a guitar and saying, this is where you'll learn to play this. No scale exercises, no grades. This is accompanied by a lot of very deep verbal instructions, such as good music sounds but no specific mechanical exercises. I am simplifying to make a point. Most teachers give some Guidelines provided (e.g. Anapanasati Basics; Common Mistakes, etc) but the focus is definitely on self-learning.
In Theravada the pendulum seems to swing almost too far in the other direction: " Teacher, but when do we play music? " - "Forget about music, dummy and concentrate on your studies and your exercises, that's where music comes from!"
In Tibetan schools, there seems to be a fairly balanced practice and study. They differentiate between in the beginner stages Shamatha and Vipashyana and in advanced stages speak of "unity of Shamatha and Vipashyana". With regard to certain techniques, at least in some schools (Gelug), the Tibetan Vipashyana takes the analysis of the four jhanas as an object of study. Four jhanas are also addressed in relation to the Generation Stage meditation, while what you know in Theravada as Satipatthana can probably be compared to the meditation on the Completion Stage in Vajrayana ... And then there is Mahamudra and Dzogchen, that play like jazz improvisations ...
Much of this depends on the student and on a particular teacher. A tremendously talented student can learn to play just by watching a teacher, but most of us need step-by-step instructions. Some teachers believe in analytical understanding, others believe that technique can only come from practice, while others believe that it is all about feeling, etc.
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