What is Vipassana?
Vipassana is a universal, scientific method towards purifying the mind. It is the practical essence of the teachings of the Buddha, who taught Dhamma – the Universal Law of Nature.
The technique of Vipassana is a simple, practical way to achieve real peace of mind and to lead a happy, useful life. Vipassana means “to see things as they really are”; it is a logical process of mental purification through self-observation.
From time to time, we all experience agitation, frustration and disharmony. When we suffer, we do not keep our misery limited to ourselves; instead, we keep distributing it to others. Certainly this is not a proper way to live. We all long to live at peace within ourselves, and with those around us. After all, human beings are social beings: we have to live and interact with others. How, then, can we live peacefully? How can we remain harmonious ourselves, and maintain peace and harmony around us?
Vipassana enables us to experience peace and harmony: it purifies the mind, freeing it from suffering and the deep-seated causes of suffering. The practice leads step-by-step to the highest spiritual goal of full liberation from all mental defilements.
Vipassana is one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques. It was rediscovered 2550 years ago by Gotama the Buddha, and is the essence of what he practiced and taught during his forty-five year ministry. During the Buddha’s time, large numbers of people in northern India were freed from the bonds of suffering by practising Vipassana, allowing them to attain high levels of achievement in all spheres of life. Over time, the technique spread to the neighbouring countries of Myanmar (Burma), Sri Lanka, Thailand and others, where it had the same ennobling effect.
Five centuries after the Buddha, the noble heritage of Vipassana had disappeared from India. The purity of the teaching was lost elsewhere as well. In the country of Myanmar, however, it was preserved by a chain of devoted teachers. From generation to generation, over two thousand years, this dedicated lineage transmitted the technique in its pristine purity.
In our time, Vipassana has been reintroduced to India, as well as to citizens from more than eighty other countries, by S.N. Goenka. He was authorized to teach Vipassana by the renowned Burmese Vipassana teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin. Before he died in 1971, Sayagyi was able to see one of his most cherished dreams realized. He had the strong wish that Vipassana should return to India, the land of its origin, to help it come out of its manifold problems. From India, he felt sure it would then spread throughout the world for the benefit of all mankind.
S.N. Goenka began conducting Vipassana courses in India in 1969; after ten years, he began to teach in foreign countries as well. In the thirty-five years since he started teaching, S.N. Goenka has conducted many ten-day Vipassana courses, and trained over 800 assistant teachers who have conducted many courses worldwide. In addition, many Centres have been established in India for the exclusive practice of Vipassana. Centres for exclusive practice have been established across the world as well. The invaluable gem of Vipassana, long preserved in the small country of Myanmar, can now be practiced in many places throughout the world. Today ever-increasing numbers of people have the opportunity to learn this art of living which brings lasting peace and happiness.
In the past, India had the distinction of being regarded as a World Teacher. In our time, the Ganges of Truth is once again flowing out from India to a thirsty world.
To learn Vipassana it is necessary to take a ten-day residential course under the guidance of a qualified teacher. The courses are conducted at established Vipassana Centres and other places. For the duration of the retreat, students remain within the course site, having no contact with the outside world. They refrain from reading and writing, and suspend any religious practices or other disciplines. They 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.
There are three steps to the training. First, the students practice abstinence from actions which cause harm. They undertake five moral precepts, practicing abstention from killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct and the use of intoxicants. The observation of these precepts allows the mind to calm down sufficiently to proceed with the task at hand. 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 beneficial, but are incomplete unless the third step is taken: purifying the mind of underlying negativities. The third step, undertaken for the last six-and-a-half days, is the practice of Vipassana: one penetrates one’s entire physical and mental structure with the clarity of insight.
No Breath, No Life. Know Breath, Know Life!
Students receive systematic meditation instructions several times a day, and each day’s progress is explained during a taped evening discourse by S.N. Goenka. 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 concludes on the morning of the eleventh day. The retreat closes with the practice of metta-bhavana (loving-kindness or good will towards all), a meditation technique in which the purity developed during the course is shared with all beings.
Vipassana courses are held regularly at permanent centres and rented sites in different countries. In addition to frequent ten-day courses, special courses and long courses of 20, 30 and 45 days are offered for advanced students at long course centres like Dhamma Thali established for this purpose.
Short courses in Anapana, the introductory part of the Vipassana technique, are courses offered for children in India and in other countries. The courses last for one to three days and serve children in two age groups: eight to eleven, and twelve to eighteen years.
A Non-Sectarian Technique
Although Vipassana is a part of Buddha’s teaching, it contains nothing of a sectarian nature, and can be accepted and applied by people of any background. The Buddha himself taught Dhamma (the way, the truth, the path). He did not call his followers “Buddhists”; he referred to them as “Dhammists” (those who follow the truth). The technique works on the basis that all human beings share the same problems, and a pragmatic method which can eradicate these problems can be universally practiced.
Vipassana 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. The malady is universal; therefore, the remedy has to be universal. For example, when we experience anger, this anger is not Hindu anger or Christian anger, Chinese anger or American anger. Similarly, love and compassion are not the strict province of any community or creed: they are universal human qualities resulting from purity of mind. People from all backgrounds who practice Vipassana find that they become better human beings.
The Present-day World Environment
Developments in the fields of science and technology, in transportation, communications, agriculture and medicine, have revolutionized human life at the material level. But, in actuality, this progress is only superficial: underneath, modern men and women are living in conditions of great mental and emotional stress, even in developed and affluent countries.
The problems and conflicts arising out of racial, ethnic, sectarian and caste prejudices affect the citizens of every country. Poverty, warfare, weapons of mass destruction, disease, drug addiction, the threat of terrorism, epidemic, environmental devastation and the general decline of moral values-all cast a dark shadow on the future of civilization. One need only glance at the front page of a daily newspaper to be reminded of the acute suffering and deep despair which afflict the inhabitants of our planet.
Is there a way out of these seemingly insolvable problems? The answer is unequivocally, yes. All over the world today, the winds of change are readily apparent. People everywhere are eager to find a method which can bring peace and harmony; restore confidence in the efficacy of wholesome human qualities; and create an environment of freedom and security from all types of exploitation-social, religious and economic. Vipassana can be such a method.
Vipassana and Social Change
The technique of Vipassana is a path leading to freedom from all suffering; it eradicates the craving, aversion and ignorance which are responsible for all our miseries. Those who practice it remove, little by little, the root causes of their suffering and steadily emerge from the darkness of former tensions to lead happy, healthy, productive lives. There are many examples bearing testimony to this fact.
Several experiments have been conducted at prisons in India. In 1975, S.N. Goenka conducted a historic course for 120 inmates at the Central Jail in Jaipur, the first such experiment in Indian penal history. This course was followed in 1976 by a course for senior police officers at the Government Police Academy in Jaipur. In 1977, a second course was held at the Jaipur Central Jail. These courses were the subject of several sociological studies conducted by the University of Rajasthan. In 1990 another course was organized in Jaipur Central Jail in which forty life-term convicts and ten jail officials participated with very positive results.
In 1991, a course for life-sentence prisoners was held at the Sabaramati Central Jail, Ahmedabad, and was the subject of a research project by the Dept. of Education, Gujarat Vidyapeeth.
The Rajasthan and Gujarat studies and indicated definite positive changes of attitude and behaviour in the participants, and demonstrate that Vipassana is a positive reform measure enabling criminals to become wholesome members of society.
In 1995, a massive course was organised for 1000 prisoners in Tihar jail with far-reaching effects. Vipassana was adopted as a prison reform technique in the largest jails of India. A detailed report of the scientific studies carried out to assess the impact of Vipassana meditation on the prisoner’s mental health proves that Vipassana is capable of transforming criminals into better human beings.
The civil service career of S.N. Goenka’s meditation teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, is an example of the transformative effect of Vipassana on government administration. Sayagyi was the head of several government departments. He succeeded in instilling a heightened sense of duty, discipline and morality in the officials working under him by teaching them Vipassana meditation. As a result, efficiency dramatically increased, and corruption was eliminated. Similarly, in the Home Department of the Government of Rajasthan, after several key officials attended Vipassana courses, decision-making and the disposal of cases were accelerated, and staff relations improved.
The Vipassana Research Institute has documented other examples of the positive impact of Vipassana in such fields as health, education, drug addiction, government, prisons and business management.
These experiments underscore the point that societal change must start with the individual. Social change cannot be brought about by mere sermons; discipline and virtuous conduct cannot be instilled in students simply through textbook lectures. Criminals will not become good citizens out of fear of punishment; neither can caste and sectarian discord be eliminated by punitive measures. History is replete with the failures of such attempts.
The individual is the key: he or she must be treated with love and compassion; he must be trained to improve himself-not by exhortations to follow moral precepts, but by being instilled with the authentic desire to change. He must be taught to explore himself, to initiate a process which can bring about transformation and lead to purification of mind. This is the only change which will be enduring.
Vipassana has the capacity to transform the human mind and character. It is an opportunity awaiting all who sincerely wish to make the effort.