-By Ian Hetherington
Suppose we accept that Dharma or Dhamma, a universal law of nature, exists. Simply by observing the world around us— night and day, the seasons, the cycle of birth, life and death affecting all living beings—we are aware of this law. Scientists probe to discover still more abstract patterns in the universe. We might also concede that karma or kamma, the law of cause and effect, fuelled by our actions of body, speech and mind, is equally timeless and real when applied to human behaviour. We may accept these propositions at the emotional, devotional or intellectual level because they accord with our pre-existing view of the world. This is of limited practical use, however, because it cannot free us from the hatred, fear, anger, passion and other impurities stored in the depths of the mind, which continually overpower us in everyday life. Some way of obtaining direct access to Dharma, the law working within and without us, is required. For liberation, for lasting happiness, we need to develop wisdom based on personal experience of our own internal reality. Vipassana is a technique for this purpose.
What Vipassana is?
Vipassana meditation is a method of self- observation. In the ancient language of India, passana meant to look, to see with open eyes, in the ordinary way. But vipassana is to observe things as they really are, not merely as they seem to be. Apparent truth has to be penetrated until one reaches the ultimate truth of the entire mental and physical structure. It is a logical process of mental purification leading gradually towards full enlightenment. Vipassana meditation is the essence of what the Buddha practiced and taught. It is a straightforward, practical way to achieve peace of mind and to live a happy, useful life. The meditation does not encourage people to withdraw from society, rather it strengthens them to face all the ups and downs of life in a calm and balanced way. The approach can be summarized in a few short lines:
- To abstain from evil,
- To do good,
- To purify the mind.
Simple objectives but so difficult to practice.
Learning the Technique
To learn Vipassana it is necessary to take a ten-day residential course under the guidance of a qualified teacher. During the retreat students remain within the course site, having no contact with the outside world. Reading, writing and all religious practices are suspended.
Students follow a demanding daily schedule, which includes about ten hours of sitting meditation. They also observe silence, not communicating with fellow students; however, they are free to discuss meditation questions with the teacher and material problems with the management.
The day begins at 4:30 AM with students meditating in their rooms or in the hall, where a chanting tape is played. Breakfast is served at 6:30, followed by group meditation in the hall and instructions from the teacher. Individual meditation then continues and the teacher checks students on their progress. Old students (meditators who have completed at least one Vipassana course in this tradition, are allocated individual cells to enable them to work more independently and seriously. Lunch is taken at 11:00; simple, nutritious, vegetarian food is served. A two-hour break in the middle of the day gives meditators an opportunity to rest, do their washing or exercise outside. The teacher is available for individual student interviews at this time. Meditation and checking continue in the afternoon. Tea and fruit for new students and lemon water for old students are served at 5:00. After the final session of group meditation, a taped evening discourse by S.N. Goenka clarifies each day’s practice. The teacher is again available after the discourse to answer questions and students retire to bed by 9:30.
There is no charge whatsoever for the teaching. Costs are met by the donations of grateful students of past courses who have experienced the benefits of Vipassana, and who wish to give others the same unique opportunity. Neither the teacher nor the assistant teachers (over 250 appointed to date) receive remuneration; they and those who serve the courses volunteer their time.
Training the Mind
To learn Vipassana, there are three steps to the training.
First, students practice abstaining from actions which cause harm. They undertake five moral precepts: practicing abstention from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, wrong speech and the use of intoxicants. Following these precepts allows the mind to calm down sufficiently to proceed further.
Second, for the first three-and-a-half-days, students practice Anapana meditation, focusing attention on the breath. This practice helps to develop control over the unruly mind.
These first two steps—of living a wholesome life and developing control of the mind—are necessary and very beneficial. But they are incomplete unless the third step is taken: purifying the mind of underlying negativities. This step occupies the last six and a half days of the course. It is undertaken by the practice of Vipassana: one penetrates one's entire physical and mental structure with the clarity of insight.
Complete silence is observed for the first nine days. On the tenth day, students resume speaking, making the transition back to a more extroverted way of life.
The course finishes on the morning of the eleventh day. The retreat closes with the practice of metta-bhavana (loving-kindness or goodwill to all), in which the purity developed during the course is shared with all beings.
Although Vipassana is a part of the Buddha's Teaching, it contains nothing of a sectarian nature, and can be accepted and applied by people of any background. Courses are open to anyone sincerely wishing to learn the technique, irrespective of race, caste, faith or nationality. Hindus, Jains, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, Jews as well as members of other religions have all successfully practiced Vipassana.
Many leading members of religious groups have learned the technique and courses have been organized in traditional places of worship.
Vipassana in Everyday Life
Having taken a ten-day course the meditator is his or her own master. There is no gurudom in Vipassana. Equipped with an outline of the technique, the lay meditator faces the challenge of maintaining a daily practice and applying Dharma in everyday life, alongside routine work and family responsibilities. With strong determination initial difficulties will be overcome. Weekly sittings with other local meditators, giving service at a centre, or taking a weekend short course are just some of the very practical ways in which one can support and strengthen one’s practice. With continuity of practice the meditator will assuredly taste the fruits of success, enabling him or her to become firmly established in Dharma.
Students are encouraged to evaluate their own progress on the path using various criteria, such as:
- Instead of hurting others, have I started helping them?
- How am I behaving in unwanted situations—am I reacting as before, with the same intensity of agitation and for the same length of time, or am I remaining more balanced?
- Am I becoming less self-centred, giving generously without expectation of anything in return, showing compassion to the needy, developing gratitude towards those who help me?
- Am I establishing my meditation on a sound foundation by keeping the five moral precepts in daily life?
From the beginning meditators are encouraged to become self-dependent in their practice. It is emphasized that whilst enlightened devotion to gods or saintly persons is helpful on the path if one tries to develop these same good qualities in oneself, liberation from mental impurity is the individual’s responsibility. One has to work out one's own salvation and not look to external agencies to act on one’s behalf.
A Technique for All
The Buddha’s address to the people of the devoted Kalama clan in northern India twenty-five centuries back is justly famous:
Do not simply believe any teaching you have heard. When you know for yourselves these things are unwholesome ... then reject them. But whenever you know for yourselves that something is conducive to welfare and happiness ... then accept it and live up to it.
His purpose was clear—to invite all who sincerely wish to learn to make their own free, objective inquiry into the nature of truth.
Any average person can learn, practice and benefit from Vipassana. But one has to work intelligently, ensuring that awareness and equanimity develop in equal measure. Most people have some appreciation of their own strengths and weaknesses. But this knowledge alone can lead to frustration, apathy or even despair. How can I change? How can I be free of the tendency to act wrongly, despite the best of intentions? Vipassana provides hope, strength and a practical tool for the realization of every individual. With practice, this process of observation of breath and body sensations produces wonderful results in everyday life.
To take a contemporary parallel: many nations, concerned about security, have invested in some kind of early warning system in case of attack by a foreign power. The Vipassana meditator soon learns that it is the enemy within oneself that requires maximum vigilance. And this same technique helps us to develop our own internal early warning system, to counter the old habit of blind reaction. Through the practice, we are taking proper preventive measures which are in our own and others’ interest, rather than casting about for some remedy when the damage has already been done.
The Spread of Dharma
No-one should have any doubt about the non-sectarian nature of the technique. In teaching Vipassana the Buddha had no intention of establishing a sect or starting a personality cult. Those who practice are tasting the essence of pure Dharma; they are not getting converted into another religion. The objects of meditation in Vipassana, the natural breath and actual bodily sensations, are deliberately neutral. Similarly the complementary training in morality, mastery of mind and the development of insight should be acceptable to all genuine seekers after truth. The malady is universal, therefore the remedy likewise has to be universal. People from all backgrounds who practice Vipassana find that they become better human beings. If leading figures in the fields of religion, politics, economics, the professions, the arts, industry and business realise the potential for change which this technique offers, and use their influence wisely, much can be done to improve the level of harmony and well-being in Indian society and elsewhere.
Vipassana is one of India's most ancient meditation techniques, but over the centuries it became lost to the country. Fortunately the theory and practice were preserved in their purity by a chain of devoted teachers in neighbouring Myanmar(Burma). Through uninterrupted transmission, from generation to generation. This is how, by good fortune, we come to receive a technique as fresh and effective today as it was in the Buddha’s time. Vipassana was re-introduced to the land of its origin in 1969 by Mr S.N. Goenka, a disciple of the respected Burmese lay meditation master, Sayagyi U Ba Khin. Since then people from all walks of life and many nationalities have benefited in growing numbers from participating in courses. Some thirty centres now exist worldwide for the exclusive teaching of this technique.
May pure Dharma continue to spread for the good and benefit of all beings.