Dialogue Ireland Logo Resources Services Information about Dialogue Ireland
A to Z index

Vipassana - a buddhist form of meditation - Helle Meldgaard

Vipassana is a form of meditation which has witnessed a growing popularity in the past few years. Hundreds of Vipassana meditation centers have emerged in the East as well as in the West, and there is no sign that the spread of this particular type of meditation is on the decrease.

I will here describe Vipassana as a Buddhist form of meditation in spite of the fact that the Indian master, S. N. Goenka, who is the famous representative of the Burmese tradition, maintains that there is nothing Buddhist about it. Today there are "Goenka" centers in India, Nepal, Australia, and the United States, all of which are popular among Westerners in search of Eastern wisdom. Also, many Catholic priests and laypeople use Vipassana as an opportunity for retreat from worldly activities.

Vipassana belongs to Theravada Buddhism, also called Hinayana ("small vehicle"), which is Southern Buddhism. Vipassana has probably always been an integral part of the monastic life of Theravada Buddhism. During the past hundred years, however, the technique has been intro-duced among lay people, especially in Burma where many large centers have been established. But Vipassana centers can also be found in Thailand and in Sri Lanka, which are visited by many Westeners. Centers are also located in areas which traditionally have been dominated by Northern Buddhism, such as Nepal. So far there seems to be little conflict between the two traditions; many disciples will visit centers belonging to both traditions.

Goenka promotes Vipassana as a non-religious system, but it has several characeristics which define it as an expression of classical Buddhism. Disguising Vipassana's Buddhist characteristics may be an attempt to make it more palatable to Westerners. Language and content have, in fact, been modifed to adapt the system to Western thought-forms, but the roots are still Buddhist and firmly embedded in the classical Theravada tradition. Such ambiguity is also present in other oriental movements which have been introduced to the Western world, as in Yoga and Trascendental Meditation.

According to Goenka, the meaning of the term Vipassana is "introspection, insight, which purifies the non-lasting aspect of life, suffering, and selfishness". Vipassana, therefore, is a method whereby it is possible to attain the wisdom and insight which enables one to see reality as it is. In the classical tradition Vipassana is closely related to the idea of samatha, which means "to calm down, to become tranquil by meditation", a state of mind characterized by "onepointedness of thought". Today, however, Vipassana is normally presented without mentioning samatha, although the idea is still there as an undertone at Vipassana courses.

The teaching is offered as a series of steps, and each day there is a progression from to the day before. To benefit fully from the course it is important that no steps are left out. "Code of Discipline", a small pamphlet of practical information, is handed out to all the participants. It emphasizes that the guru is in charge. All communication is to take place between the guru and the disciple, not among the disciples themselves: "Do exactly what you are told." It is forbidden to take notes and to bring books to the courses. There is only one way to leam Vipassana: to join a course and come under the guidance of a guru. Participation is free but participants are asked to donate money.
Vipassana and classical Buddhism

As mentioned above Goenka points out that his system of meditation is a non-Buddhist one. In his book The Discourse Summaries (Bombay, 1987), he emphasizes that Vipassana is a non-religious system of meditation. The idea is not to convert a person from one religion to another. Instead, the conversion is from "un-happiness to happiness, from ignorance to knowledge, from slavery to freedom". In this text is also found the classical formula of refuge, i.e. the "Three Jewels", which have been the refuge of all genuine disciples of Buddhism. According to tradition the would-be Buddhist monk takes refuge in Buddha (the enlightened one), in Dharma (the Buddhist teaching), and in Sangha (the community of monks and nuns).

In Goenka's system the Three Jewels are evoked on the very first day in the ceremony of initiation. The formula of refuge is considered to be very central and as the ritual of transition. This is quite similar to Tibetan Buddhism which, when it obtained recognition as a religious community in Denmark, used the formula of refuge to make a distinction between professional Buddhists and others who merely support the community. One of the classical Theravada texts, Vinaya-Pitaka, indicates the importance of the formula. Having received all the necessary instructions, Yasa declares: I take my refuge in Buddha, Dharma. and Sangha, and ask the Sublime One to accept me as a lay brother converted from today and to the end of life."

The central idea in Vipassana is that all sentient beings suffer, but not in the sense that they have pain. The idea of suffering is much more comprehensive. Life is suffering, suffering is life; suffering is an integral part of birth, old age, illness, death, and so forth. Suffering is what you do not get when you need or want it; suffering is also what you get but cannot keep. Buddhas's classical text "Sermon of Fire" explains it this way: Suffering is inherent in the constant change of things, in the fact that nothing lasts, but changes from one moment to the next. Everything in the world in which we live has this quality of change about it, and this very fact, according Buddhism, is suffering. But things also have another quality, which constitutes their true and genuine nature, and which is found beyond the world of the senses. Vipassana, claims Goenka, helps one to know the true nature of things.

When Siddhartha Gautama was sitting under the Bo Tree in Bodhgaya twenty-five hundred years ago, Buddhist tradition claims he realized the true nature of suffering and thereby obtained enlightenment; he became a Buddha. The real meaning of this insight is contained in the "Four Noble Truths". Goenka presents these truths - as tradition has for centuries - in terms of a doctor who diagnoses an illness. The first noble truth is that suffering exists. Secondly the cause of suffering is considered. Then a cure is described to bring suffering to an end, and finally, the medicine is named, the means employed to make suffering disappear.

Suffering is part of everything in life as well as in death. To avoid suffering through death is not possible, and suicide will only increase unhappines by accumulating more bad karma. Past karma has determined this life, and one's actions will not determine the next life. Suffering is due to the reality of samsara (reincarnation) which is opposed to the final goal of nirvana, that is "blowing out," liberation from suffering. The ultimate goal is to become disentangled from the wheel of samsara. The demon Mara is the monster who keeps the wheel turning. In Buddhism he symbolizes everything evil. It was also Mara who tried to entice Siddharta away from enlightenment when he sat under the Bo Tree.
The weapon is insight

There is only one weapon which can defeat Mara and rescue humans from the never-ending wheel of reincarnation and that is enlightenment, insight. The teaching of Vipassana claims to reveal the path to this goal. The struggle has to take place in one's own mind, and everybody must fight for oneself. Goenka writes, "You have to do what must be done, nobody else can do it for you".

The traces of suffering from earlier lives are present in each individual as sankhara (Sanskrit: samskara). The presence of sankhara is the result of various painful events and experiences which have befallen one in this life and in previous lives. They manifest themselves as subconscious traces in the mind and are present as impurities. They will bring pain in the future. They must be eliminated completely lest they go on provoking reactions in the mind. These reactions are the reason why the wheel of samsara keeps turning.

The goal of Vipassana, therefore, is to learn how to act instead of react. Sankhara is the manifestation of karma, the energy of karma. Each individual is a victim of the karma created in earlier lives, but Goenka claims the manifestation of karma in the form of sankhara can be erased. Contrary to one's karma the things you do now will determine the type of life you will get next time. "The moment that all sankhara are eliminated a sensation of no-death will arise because no sankhara will emerge to pollute the mind, and this is the ultimate state of nirvana which no word can describe."

Sankhara, the root of suffering, is a key concept in Vipassana. It implies not only reactions but also the result of reactions. All reactions are seeds which develop fruit, a fact which is related directly to the law of cause and effect. The same law governs the mind. A seed is sown, a new sankhara results. If the soil is well prepared for such a seed of sankhara, a new sankhara will develop: "fruits from seeds, and seeds from fruit, a never-ending process of multiplication".

One is reminded of the parable in the New Testament of the seed which fell upon stony places and the seed which fell in rich soil. But Goenka turns this parable upside-down. Seeds or sankharas must be thrown on stony ground. Only thus will it be possible to put an end to the multiplication process. This is accomplished by merely accepting whatever sensation occurs. The only effort should be to observe without generating a new sankhara. If one does not give the input of a new reaction to the mind, an old reaction will automatically give its fruit, manifested as sensation. One observes it, and it passes away. Again one does not react: therefore another old sankhara must give its fruit. In this way, by remaning aware and maintaining equanimity, one allows all the old sankhara to arise and pass away, one after another: finally, one comes out of misery.

The moment the multiplication is brought to an end the process of erasing will start by itself. Not reacting means no more input. The presence of sankhara should be responded to with awareness and serenity, which constitute basic elements in the technique of Vipassana. The six sense organs (also a feature of Buddhism), are the basis for all reactions. Through the sense organs contact is established to the world of objects, which in turn creates reactions in the individual. This is the reason why the sense organs are the roots which should be cut, and the sense reactions are dust which should be removed.

During Vipassana meditation one should have no other relation to emotions than an awareness of a "coming-into-be-ing and a dying away". The participant should remain "cool"; free from pleasant as well as unpleasant emotions. The point is to demonstrate serenity and smile a "smile of indifference". Then and only then can one journey toward nirvana.

Despite Goenka's claims to the contrary, Vipassana teachings clearly reflect Buddhist roots. It is an old religion after all since it echoes one of humankind's efforts to understand the cause of suffering. And the cure that is prescribed is a technique of mind control which seeks to rid the self of all desirous attachment to the world of both the mind and the senses. In the last analysis this is a religion that denies the reality and the goodness of God's creation.