The Sanskrit Buddhist term vipashyana (Pali, vipassana; Tib, lhagthong; Jap, kan), is composed of two parts: pashyana indicates “seeing” while the prefix vi- adds the meaning of “extraordinary.” Vipashyana means “to see things in an extraordinary way”—not as we think they are or want them to be but “as they truly are in and of themselves.” Vipashyana is thus the liberative insight that marks awakening and the sine qua non of enlightenment. In this sense, it is equivalent to prajna, the penetrating and immaculate experience of seeing things as they truly are (yathabhutam).
As described in traditional texts, the experience of vipashyana contains several primary features. First, it arrives suddenly and unexpectedly, cutting through whatever discursive thinking, emotion or other relative state of mind we may be going through. It comes as a surprise or even a complete shock. Second, it is an experience of something, in this case of the geography of things as they are. So the experience contains nothing of ego or its perspective. It is reality seen not from ego’s standpoint, but from the standpoint of reality itself. In this sense, the experience of vipashyana is compared to a sudden bolt of lightening that lights up the entire landscape of reality beyond our conditioned reference point. Third, the experience of vipashyana abruptly drops one into a world in which the subject-object dualism of “seer” and “seen” does not apply. As the Japanese Yogacara scholar Yoshifumi Ueda evocatively puts it, what we run into here is “reality ‘seen’ by reality.”