Faculty Publications

Publication Date







Buddhist Studies | Classical Literature and Philology | History of Religions of Eastern Origins | Religion


The distinction between “calm” (Pāli: samatha; Sanskrit: śamatha) and “insight” (P: vipassanā; Skt: vipaśyanā) is one of several ostensibly related dichotomies that have exerted a significant influence on classical and contemporary understandings of Buddhist practices, institutions, and history, as well as of the Buddhist path(s) to and conception(s) of awakening. However, scholars continue to debate whether Buddhists ever conceptualized two (or more) different paths or conceptions of this goal. Much of the debate has been based on the interpretation of doctrinal and theoretical materials. This essay takes as its starting point the concept of “liberation by wisdom” (P: paññāvimutti; Skt: prajñāvimukti) and the figure of the “dry-insight practitioner” (P: sukkhavipassaka), and asks how Buddhist narratives, in particular, characterize these key ideas, as well as the relationship between calm and insight. It focuses primarily on two narratives: the story of Cakkhupāla, the first story of the Pāli Dhammapada commentary, and the story of Sthavira in the Sanskrit Avadānaśataka. It argues that these stories do not support a clear opposition between calm and insight as competing forms of life, but rather point to their combination on the path to awakening, or to the possibility that insight meditation can sometimes stand for the notion of intense practice. Both stories reflect an overarching “ascetic” ethos or lifestyle, but as stories they also project narrative worlds and invite us, the audience, to consider what it would mean to take such worlds seriously as our real world of lived human experience. In this way, the essay tries to bridge a divide that has often been maintained between doctrine and narrative, and thereby offers a fresh look at an influential distinction (or set of distinctions) in the history and theory of Buddhist practice.

Document Type

Published Version


This article is the publisher-created version, also considered to be the final version or the version of record. It includes value-added elements provided by the publisher, such as copy editing, layout changes, and branding consistent with the rest of the publication.


Copyright © BJK Institute of Buddhist and Asian Studies. Re-posted with permission.
Terms of Use for work posted in DigitalCommons@Linfield

Original Citation

David V. Fiordalis
The blind arhat and the old baby: Liberation by wisdom, the dry-insight practitioner, and the pairing of calm and insight.
Indian International Journal of Buddhist Studies, 2019, volume 20, pages 21-60



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.