Significance of the Pali Term 'Dhuna' in the Practice of Vipassana Meditation

by the Vipassana Research Institute


In the Pali language, there are several words, which appear to be quite insignificant, yet have very deep meaning and relevance in the practice of Vipassana. One such word, occurring in the Tipitaka, is the word ‘dhuna’1 which means combing out, shaking off, doing away with. This word is derived from the root 'dhu', which means to ‘comb out'. Regarding patipatti (the actual practice), the question arises-what to comb out, and how? The Buddha replied to these queries in the following Udana (exclamation of joy);

Sabbakammajahassa bhikkhuno,
Dhunamānassa pure kataṃ rajaṃ. 
Amamassa ṭhitassa tādino.
Attho natthi janaṃ lapetave.2

The monk who does not make new kamma
And combs out old defilements as they arise 
Has reached that meditative state where there remains no 'I' or 'mine'. 
For him mere babbling makes no sense. 
Engrossed in silent practice, he is bent.

The occasion for the utterance of this passage was the sight of a monk sitting near the Compassionate One, cross-legged, erect and determined. Undergoing the fruition of his past actions, he was wracked by intense, piercing, gross sensations but due to his constant distinct awareness of impermanence, he did not lose his calm or balance of mind. Indeed these few brief lines of Udana set out the complete technique of Vipassana meditation, the actual way to reach liberation.

Let us try to understand what the Buddha actually meant, in more detail. The word Vipassana means to see things as they really are-not just as they appear to be. This is a state of pure observation without the cloud of imagination, pre-conception and illusion. That is why the Buddha described the state of Vipassana as yatha-bhuta-nana-dassanam3 (as it is, so is it observed and understood). To put this into practice is to realize reality by direct experience and proper understanding.

Ego-centricity is the greatest and most dangerous of all the illusions. We can accept the doctrine of ‘Non-Self’ or anatta on an emotional or intellectual basis simply because of blind faith or intellectualisation. But what is the use of this acceptance alone if in our daily life, at the practical level, we keep on living an ego-centered life? This illusory ego keeps its hold over us simply because at the actual level we are continually submerged in it. Even to be totally convinced intellectually about the dangers of this illusion is simply not enough. In reality we are rolling in suffering because there is no direct realisation of these dangers, or the means to come out of it.

It is because the intellect is not capable of totally dispelling this illusion that the Buddha perfected this wonderful technique of Vipassana-the Fourfold Establishing of Awareness (satipatthana)4 which he called ekayano maggo, the one and only way for liberation. How could anyone become liberated while rolling in complete illusion about his own reality? The removal of illusion by truth-realisation, by self-realisation, is liberation.

The direct experience of our own reality prevents new mental conditioning, while at the same time eradicating the bondage of the old accumulated kamma --

Khīṇaṃ purāṇaṃ, navaṃ natthi sambhavaṃ.5
The past has been destroyed, there is no new becoming.

How does Vipassana help us to stop tying new knots and to open up the old ones, eradicating all the accumulations of the past? The text says that first, a meditator should sit correctly nisinno hoti pallankam abhujitva ujum kayam panidhaya6 -- cross-legged and erect. Then he sits with adhitthana (determination), no movement of the body of any kind. Now at the grossest physical level, all the bodily and vocal actions are suspended so there can be no new physical kamma (kayika-kamma) or vocal kamma (vacika-kamma).

Now one is in a position to try to stop mental kamma formations (mano-kamma). For this, one has to become very alert, very attentive, fully awake and aware, all the time maintaining true understanding, true wisdom. Aware of what? Anicca vata sankhara, uppadavaya-dhammino- the truth of impermanence; the arising and passing of every compounded phenomenon7 within the framework of one's physical structure.

A Vipassana meditator soon realizes the difference between apparent and actual truth. By simply observing objectively and equanimously feeling the sensations in one's own body in a proper way, one can easily reach a stage where even the most solid parts of the body are experienced as they really are-nothing but oscillations and vibrations of subatomic particles (kalapa). What appears solid, hard and impenetrable at the gross level is actually nothing but wavelets at the subtlest, ultimate level.

With this awareness, one can observe and realize that the entire pancakkhandha, the five aggregates, are nothing but vibrations, arising and passing away. The entire phenomenon of mind and matter has this continuously ephemeral nature. This is the ultimate truth (paramattha sacca) of mind and matter-permanently impermanent; nothing but a mass of tiny bubbles or ripples, disintegrating as soon as they arise (sabbo loko pakampito).8 This realisation of the basic characteristic of all phenomena as anicca (impermanent) leads one to the realisation of the characteristic of anatta (not 'I', not 'me', not 'mine', not 'my soul'). The various sensations keep arising in the body whether one likes it or not. There is no control over them, no possession of them. They do not obey our wishes. This in turn makes one realize the nature of dukkha (suffering). Through experience, one understands that identifying oneself with these changing impersonal phenomena is nothing but suffering. 

The more one is established at this level of ultimate truth, the more strongly and more steadfastly one will be established in real wisdom. In contrast to this, anyone who is entangled in ignorance will crave for the continuation of pleasant sensations and crave for the cessation of unpleasant sensations. This reaction of the mind-volition, based on craving and aversion, is the strongest bondage.

Initially the meditator will find himself in a tug-of-war between his new knowledge of phenomena as impermanent and transitory, and the old attachment to the flow of sankhara (reactions), which is based on ignorance. With repeated practice, he can learn the art of differentiating between what is real and what is illusory. For longer and longer periods, truth will predominate. Each sensation felt is recognised as impermanent; hence the perception that accompanies each cognition is free from the self-consciousness of 'I' and 'mine'.

The truth that the sensation immediately passes away begins to predominate, instead of the tanha (craving) for it to continue, or the tanha for it to pass away. It is meaningless to like or dislike sensations that pass away as soon as they arise. It is this liking and disliking which turns into the very strong attachments that condition the mind and produce the bhava-sankhara, the bhava-kamma (actions which are responsible to give a new birth) driving individuals along the endless rounds of becoming.

A non-reacting mind produces no new conditioning. The law of nature is such that the old accumulation of conditioning in the flow of the consciousness (bhavanga-santati) will automatically rise to the surface to be eradicated when no new sankhara are given as input. This comes about by remaining equanimous with the direct understanding of the wisdom of anicca-vijja-nana. Here again, it is the practice of Vipassana which enables the meditator silently and attentively to observe these old bondages of the past, as they arise, in their true impermanent nature. With heightened equanimity, based on the constant thorough understanding of impermanence (sampajanna), craving and aversion lose their grip. In a non-reacting mind, the latent conditions cannot multiply-rather they are progressively eradicated.

At times, however, the fruition of the old kamma is so intense, that an ordinary meditator loses all balance of mind. Wisdom fades away and the true perspective becomes blurred. The impersonal attitude towards the pain is lost, and one begins to identify with the sensations. One may try intellectually to come out of reactions, but actually one begins treating the pain as if it will never end, and the reaction continues.

To realize the impermanent nature of all phenomena and to break the apparent solidity of perceptions, a meditator must experience the stage of uppada-vaya-dhammino, the instantaneous arising and vanishing of the vibrations or wavelets of nama-rupa (mind and matter). This stage can be reached only by the proper practice of Vipassana meditation, the sure way to break these bondages. In fact, Vipassana meditation is for the purpose of dhunamanassa pure katam rajam-a process of combing out all the old defilements from the fabric of consciousness. With the process of carding and combing, knots automatically open up, and every fibre gets separated from the dirt of defilements. This vibrating string of the pure mind beats out all the impurities of the past. A Vipassana meditator working on physical sensations quite distinctly experiences this process.

This combing process is not complete while even the smallest knot remains unopened. In the same way, the practice of Vipassana must continue until all impressions of solidity anywhere in the framework of the physical and mental structure have been removed.

 How can this stage be achieved? As the text says-

Purāṇakammavipākajaṃ dukkhaṃ tibbaṃ kharaṃ kaṭukaṃ vedanaṃ adhivāsento.9

The meditator dwells enduring equanimously the fruition of his or her past actions, no matter how painful, severe, sharp and terrible they are.

How is this possible? Not enduring (that is, becoming agitated or crying because of the past habit) would be the complete opposite of the process of purification. One can only endure such intense sensations by developing awareness and the thorough understanding of impermanence (sampajanna), resulting in equanimity (upekkha). It is by knowing perfectly the true nature (anicca) of the present phenomenon, that one is able to bear these fruits of the past without any reaction. The meditator becomes an impartial observer of the suffering rather than the sufferer. This detachment allows the old bondages to get eradicated, and soon, there will be no observer but mere observation and no sufferer but mere suffering. 

From time to time, slight agitation or identification with the sensation may reappear and trigger fresh craving and aversion. But with continuous practice, a vigilant meditator reaches the stage of amamassa thitassa or the stage where the illusion of 'I' and 'mine' is eradicated. He or she can bear anything, even the most severe sensations, in the state of avihannamano, free from agitation. As a result comes sabba kammajahassa-the cessation of all kinds of new kamma formations. Now the meditator is fully engrossed in dhunamanassa pure katam rajam, or continual purification, because he or she has stopped making new sankhara, that is, new cetana (volition) or new kamma. In this way, the old sankhara naturally get eradicated little by little (thokam thokam) so that the state of visankhara gatam cittam,10 or total purification of mind, is reached. A meditator engaged in such a task needs to spend all his or her time in actual practice-attho natthi janam lapetave. Where is the time for useless talk? Every moment is precious, not to be wasted. The only ones who waste time in talking are those who do not realize the seriousness of the task, who do not work properly. The noble practice of truth-realisation is degraded to mere intellectual chatter. Liberation can only be gained by practice, never by discussion.

That is why the Buddha burst forth in praise of the monk who was so resolutely practicing the sure path of liberation. 'Cross-legged, erect and determined, undergoing the fruition of his past actions, wracked by intense, piercing, gross bodily sensations, with sharpened awareness and the constant thorough understanding of impermanence (sati-sampajanna), making no new kammas, combing out old defilements as they arise, with nothing remaining of "I" and "mine".'


Notes: (All references VRI edition)

1. In the entire Tipitaka, the word occurs nineteen times
2. Udana 21
3. Patisambhidamagga 1.18
4. Digha Nikaya 2.373
5. Khuddaka-Patha 6.15; Suttanipata 238
6. Udana 21
7. Digha Nikaya 2.221
8. Samyutta Nikaya 1.1.168
9. Udana 21
10. Dhammapada 154