The Importance of Koṇḍañña’s Insight

Ajahn Amaro • November 2008

In the Dhammacakkapavatana Sutta, the Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of Dhamma, the Buddha addressed the five samaṇas, including one named Koṇḍañña, who were his practice companions before he became a Buddha. At the end of this talk, the Buddha recognized that Koṇḍañña had, with deep insight, understood the Dhamma. He said, “Aññāsi vata bho Koṇḍañño, aññāsi vata bho Koṇḍañño ti—Koṇḍañña understands, Koṇḍañña understands.” Koṇḍañña had awakened to the nature of Dhamma: “Dhammacakkhuṃ udapādi—the eye of Dhamma arose.” Then the sutta describes exactly what it was that Koṇḍañña saw. It wasn’t a spectacular vision of the heavens opening up, a bewildering light display that he experienced, or streams of deities beaming down from the heavens. Rather, his vision of the Dhamma was stated simply in the phrase, “Yaṅkiñci samudayadhammaṃ sabbantaṃ nirodhadhamman ti—whatever is subject to arising is subject to ceasing.”

On a worldly level this seems completely unremarkable: That which begins, ends. Whatever goes up, must come down. If it’s born, it dies. No big deal, we might think. But it’s worth our reflection: This seemingly simple insight, which makes all the difference in the life of Koṇḍañña, which enables him to awaken to the Dhamma, enter into the stream of Dhamma, and make full enlightenment absolutely certain from that point on—why should that be the most profound insight?

It’s helpful to reflect on this and use it as a theme of meditation. Why would it change my life to see that all that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing? If that’s truly known and understood by me, why should that mean that full enlightenment is inevitable, that in a certain amount of time it will ripen in my complete and total liberation? How can that understanding be so important? We can practice picking up that theme, applying it, and seeing it clearly for ourselves. It’s not simply a collection of words that we hear, Oh yeah, “All that’s subject to arising is subject to ceasing.” Yeah, I know all that. We can practice exploring it and applying it, moment by moment, throughout the day. Why should that be so liberating? Why should that be so significant? Why should that be the change of vision that alters my whole way of life, my whole way of seeing who and what I am? This is for all of us to investigate.

When we apply this insight to everything—to what we think, to what we feel, to the pleasant experiences, the painful experiences, the beautiful, the ugly, the emotionally pleasing, the emotionally distressing—it awakens a sense of the nature of experience itself. We begin to see that when we aren’t judging life in worldly terms—good, bad, right, wrong, me, you, beautiful, ugly, in here, out there—then we’re seeing everything in terms of its nature, rather than its content or whether we like it or we don’t like it, whether we call it in here or out there. We awaken to that intuition within us that everything internal and external, mental and physical, is part of a natural order. It’s not self. It’s not who or what we are. It’s not personal. It’s not alien. It’s just Dhamma. It’s nature itself. This understanding undercuts the way we see ourselves as, “Me in here, the world out there.” We no longer believe that those perceptions reflect the way things truly are.

This insight seems like nothing, doesn’t it? Our ego-centered thinking reacts like it’s oxygen: Big deal. There’s a lot of oxygen about, so what? But when we are denied oxygen, then it quickly becomes apparent how crucial it is. In a similar way, when we apply this insight to how we experience our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, then it changes the whole way we hold things. We can notice that change within the heart. Oh right, this is a changing thing. I can call it good or bad. I can call it success or failure. But its primary quality is that it’s changing. It came into being and now it’s ending. That’s the most important thing about it. We notice that shift in the heart, that shift that happens within us when we apply Koṇḍañña’s insight. It changes everything because we’re no longer obsessing—fixating on the content of experience. We’re becoming aware of the process of experience itself.

That’s fundamentally what insight, vipassanā, is about. Vipassanā is insight into the nature of experience itself—that moment of clear seeing when there’s a direct awareness of how experience works, what experience is. And the result of that is liberation. At that moment the heart knows, This is merely a pattern of nature, a coming, a going—changing. That’s all it is. That’s all it can be. Nothing to get excited about. Nothing to get alarmed about. Right there is the moment of freedom in seeing clearly that the heart is unburdened. There is an unentangled knowing, at least to some small degree. That liberating quality is right here, in the midst of everyday activity, mundane thoughts, and feelings. Just like Koṇḍañña, it is possible for us to access this liberating insight right here and right now.