Right understanding has to illuminate every single part of the practice of Vipassana.
The Buddha called it sammā-diṭṭhi. In Pāli, diṭṭhi literally meant a view, or a philosophy. Then as now, there were many different kinds of philosophies in currency. But sammā-diṭṭhi, right understanding, has nothing to do any philosophy or intellectual position. Even with great devotion, an absolute and total conviction in every single word of the Buddha, will not liberate anybody. It merely becomes a belief-system like any other, and so it becomes a trap. The Buddha carefully used the word sammā meaning “right”, and sammā-diṭṭhi only becomes sammā when it is practiced. This is the critical difference, and this is what purifies the individual: the practice.
Sammā-diṭṭhi is the mere observation and understanding of reality, the practical experience of reality within the physical structure and mental structure. It understands the reality of the Four Noble Truths: the suffering, the arising of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path to leading to the cessation of suffering. Right understanding is only when this is actually experienced.
Initially on a 10-Day meditation course, students may come with different philosophical views or religious backgrounds. They may be skeptical. They start with sīla, and proceed to samādhi, just observing natural breath, to which there can be no reasonable objection. Then as the mind becomes calmer, it becomes sharper, and capable of feeling the sensations on the body. At this point Vipassana is given and sammā-diṭṭhi is introduced, the practice of mere observation, without reacting, with the understanding of anicca: the understanding that every single thing within the physical and mental structure is constantly arising and passing. Through experience this becomes right understanding. Then, practicing Vipassana, there is no ignorance, no possibility of reacting, and the meditator is just aware from moment to moment. This is paññā, and this leads on to the understanding of dukkha and anattā.
Thus sammā-diṭṭhi is a proper starting point for a meditator. Once it arises, it starts purifying every single other part of the Eightfold Noble path.
Sammā-saṅkappo means right thought, without any thought of violence, of aversion, of hatred, lust or passion. Sammā-diṭṭhi immediately understands that any impurity, any such thought is dangerous. It just accepts and observes the impurity at the level of sensation, and layers after layers of it pass away. The whole attitude changes: thoughts of anger, passion and craving turn into thoughts of love, compassion, and giving. There is also determination: to walk the path, and to stay on it, without deviation.
It is the same with sīla. Sammā-vācā, right speech, abstains from false, harsh words which hurt others, or useless words. Sammā-kammanto, right action, refrains from performing unwholesome physical actions, such as killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, or taking intoxicants. Similarly, sammā-ājīvo, right livelihood, avoids dealing in weapons, in poisons, in meat, or from any trade or profession which pollutes society by encouraging others to break their sīla.
Of course, people understand that they may be punished by the law, or lose their reputation in society. But the law is capricious, and people can hide their misdemeanors. People may even fear punishment after death. But sammā-diṭṭhi is based on the present experience within. It understands that no wrong speech, action or livelihood can be undertaken without first generating great impurity in the mind, and how this is self-harming. So, it abstains, and then every aspect of sīla develops not out of fear or blind belief but with right understanding. As the Buddha said:
“Mind precedes everything else.
Mind is most important. Mind matters most.”
Any action, vocal or physical, that is performed with the base of an impure mind, brings nothing but suffering. Sammā-diṭṭhi understands this: it is the mental volition that counts, that gives the result. A pure mind inevitably brings happiness, and an impure mind, suffering. As Goenkaji taught, ‘Be selfish, but know where your real self-interest lies.’
Sammā-vāyāmo, right effort, is the effort not to generate new impurities, to eradicate old impurities, and to generate and develop good qualities. Sammā-diṭṭhi, working with sensations, understands how harmful these impurities are. It understands how to eradicate them: how the mind naturally becomes purer, and develops positive qualities.
Sammā-sati, right awareness, knows that every moment without the awareness of reality is a moment of ignorance. It is not just the awareness of a circus act. It understands that every that moment that occurs in ignorance, without knowing what is happening inside, some impurity is generated. So, it tries to be aware, within the framework of the body, every moment.
As sammā-sati develops, and as the meditator progresses, sammā-diṭṭhi also deepens. At the initial stages, gross, unpleasant sensations arise. With sammā-diṭṭhi the meditator develops the ability to be patient, to understand that they will pass. Equanimity begins. Then the stage of bhaṅga is encountered: a free flow of subtle sensations throughout the body, a very pleasant, thrilling experience. But it is also a potential pitfall, because of the old, life-long habit of attachment to pleasant sensations. Sammā-diṭṭhi must be there to understand that this experience also is anicca, that it is not permanent and that any attachment to it is dangerous. Only then the meditator progresses. A stage of deep tranquillity is reached. Again sammā-diṭṭhi must be there: this also is not permanent, it is still within the field of mind and matter. Even now a subtle oscillation can be felt: this is the signal, the message, that it is anicca. The meditator becomes alert, and now sammā-samādhi starts to develop. Again, even when the meditator becomes very deeply concentrated, absorbed in the object sammā-diṭṭhi, the understanding of anicca must still be there. Only then is it pure, it is sammā-samādhi. At this point a very deep equanimity must develop, with mere observation, without craving for the goal, without attachment to anything. This sammā-samàdhi becomes the samādhi of liberation.
In this way, sammā-diṭṭhi, right understanding, should be present from the beginning to the end, to illuminate every step of a meditator’s progress. As the meditator practices properly, it supports the meditator, and is itself deepened by the practice. This becomes a virtuous circle, ultimately leading to full enlightenment.