By Suma Varughese May 1998 Promoted by S.N. Goenka, vipassana meditation is getting increasingly popular among people from all strata of society. Based on the Buddha’s teaching but eschewing any hint of religion, it is a simple technique for self-purification WHAT IS VIPASSANA?An insight into one’s own nature by which one may eliminate the causes of sufferingAccording to S.N. Goenka, vipassana’s tireless propounder, it is the technique by which Buddha himself attained enlightenment. By observing the sensations within the body, it is possible to arrive ex- experientially at the Buddha’s central truth of the impermanent and impersonal nature of existence (anicca). ‘Ultimately, the seemingly solid body is composed of subatomic particles and empty space. What is more, even these particles have no real solidity… They continuously arise and vanish, passing in and out of existence, like a flow of vibrations. This is the ultimate reality of the body, of all matter,’ says William Hart in The Art of Living, a manual on vipassana. Starting with the central and universal fact of suffering, the Buddha blazed a clear path through its causes and thence to its solution. Conveyed with admirable clarity by Goenka, one can only wonder at the Buddha’s dazzling intuitive and logical prowess that leaves Freud panting pretty close to the starting line. The mind, says the Buddha, consists of four processes: consciousness (vinnana), perception (sanna), sensation (vedana) and reaction (sankhara). Consciousness is nonjudgmental awareness, until perception interprets the stimuli either negatively or positively. This interpretation produces a sensation within us, which is either pleasant or unpleasant, depending upon our perception. And finally comes reaction, which is the action the sensation provokes. For instance, in conversation with someone, our consciousness first registers a noise, which our perception translates as a compliment upon our appearance. This triggers a feeling of warmth and happiness (sensation) which manifests in a broad smile (reaction). Over time, our momentary reactions of likes and dislikes cement into craving and aversion. It is this pendulum swing between negative and positive reactions, which Buddha calls attachment which enslaves us to suffering. The way out, then, is to break the link between action and reaction. It is reaction that triggers off the cycle of birth and death by promoting the flow of consciousness. Overcome reaction, says the Buddha, and you transcend the cycle of birth and death. Since reaction is caused by our ignorance of the fact that we do react, and of the impermanent state of existence, the solution is to become aware of these aspects. Which is what vipassana purports to do, through the observation of the breath and sensations. Buddha put it thus: If ignorance is eradicated and completely ceases, reaction ceases;if reaction ceases, consciousness ceases;if consciousness ceases, mind-and-matter cease;if mind-and-matter cease, the six senses cease;if the six senses cease, contact ceases;if contact ceases, sensation ceases;if sensation ceases, craving and aversion cease;if craving and aversion cease, attachment ceases;if attachment ceases, the process of becoming ceases;if the process of becoming ceases, birth ceases;if the process of becoming ceases, birth ceases;if birth ceases, decay and mental suffering and tribulation cease. Thus this entire mass of suffering ceases. EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW WITH S.N. GOENKA Are you satisfied with the way vipassana has been spreading? I’m satisfied that the work began well. But it can’t be complete till it embraces the whole world, till there is no differentiation of caste, creed or religion. The simpler a person’s chitta (mind) is, the greater he is as a person and vice versa. But every person has the resources to attain simplicity. Today, India is getting divided on the basis of religion and caste. The Hindus claim their identity, the Muslims their own. But each religion teaches these fundamentals of simplicity, of not doing anything with your mind, body or spirit that would demean you. If all of us were to follow these teachings, most of the problems will be solved. What is the connection between vipassana and Buddhism? Buddha never preached Buddhism. We have compiled 140 volumes of Buddha’s existing talks into a CD-ROM and found that the word Baudhya or Buddhism is not mentioned even once. Buddha talks of dhamma (Pali for dharma), not Baudhya dhamma. Buddha was against organized religion. It was his followers who later created a religion out of his talks. A person who identifies with a religious community can never attain dhamma. How is the Buddhist community reacting to vipassana? They have accepted it. We impart Buddha’s teachings as he himself taught in its pure form. He taught simplicity and morality, which can be practiced by people of all religions. What about other vipassana groups?Are their techniques similar to yours? You should ask them why they didn’t use the word vipassana before 1969. I don’t want to speak badly of anybody but many people do seem to have started a kind of department store of therapies. This science of vipassana had disappeared from India, in fact the whole world. It was only a handful of people who had preserved this system in Burma. Why are you making these pagodas at Igatpuri and Mumbai? Originally, a pagoda was supposed to be hollow, without any idol inside. It was meant to be a place where people go to clear their chitta or mind. But Buddhists turned it into a religious place. Now we are creating pagodas the way they were supposed to be. The Mumbai pagoda will have an exhibition on Buddha but no idol in the main meditation hall. Its shape will also create positive vibrations for meditation. The pagoda is inspired by the stupas or Buddhist domes, which are originally Indian. So, we are not creating a Buddhist association. We are just bringing back what is originally from India. Our main intention is to present what Buddha actually said. Swami Ram Das, who has been into science himself, said when he attended one of our camps that Buddha begins where modern psychology has now reached and goes beyond. Nobody has studied the mind in as much depth as Buddha. We have lost most of our Pali civilization. None of the pages from the Pali literature are in India now. But Buddha’s words have been preserved in Burma. It is our duty to restore them. Is there any connection between vipassana and Thich Nhat Hanh‘s mindful meditation? See I don’t want to speak against anybody. But in our tradition, we are taught that we should practice Buddha’s teachings as they are, without distorting or changing them. But many people are developing their own techniques. Buddha has never said that you watch your thoughts while meditating. He has only asked you to accept the thoughts as they come and let them be. Are you grooming a successor? I always tell people that I’m no miracle maker, I’m not a god. I’ve just learnt a technique that I’m teaching to others. After me, my students will go on teaching. How will you ensure the purity of the teaching after you? There will be no centralization of the institute. Each center will continue to work as a separate unit. That way, even if rot sets in one center, the others will continue the tradition. People say that your 10-day vipassana course is very strict. Most people who attend the courses manage to take 10 days off their busy schedule to come here. So I must give them the maximum that is possible within those days. If I’m not strict, then these days will be of no use. Sometimes, Muslims insist on saying the namaz during the course. But they are told that for these 10 days, they can keep their religion and caste aside, and go inward instead. When a person has done five of our courses, we see if he can live by these values and then register him for the 20-day course and so forth. What do you think is the ultimate goal of vipassana? The ultimate aim is to clean the mind. Nirvana is beyond mind and matter. It can come to you anytime depending on how pure you are. In that state, all your senses stop functioning. It could be for a second, a minute, or longer, but for that brief period, you are beyond all sensation, all thought. What is the role of morality? Does the code change with time? The essence of morality cannot change. On the surface it seems that morality is for governing the society and maintaining law and order. But Buddha goes much deeper. The nature of any negative emotion is that it disturbs the mind and it will always be so. A person who goes beyond these negative desires alone can attain happiness. That is the law of nature. The manifestation of feelings might change, but the essence of morality is consistent. Is lust the strongest of emotions that disturb the mind? Yes, it is. Since our origin is from sex, it is consistently on our mind. But it is possible for a person to ge A 10-day confinement in a place that forbids you to talk read or write. You can’t pray, chant or count your beads. And don’t even mention sex, drinks or cigarettes. Worst of all, you’ll have to spend 10 hours a day, often without moving for an hour at a stretch, watching the breath or experiencing body sensations. Refined torture? You could say so. But how do you explain nearly a million people embracing this seemingly masochistic exercise with gusto, a number that is steadily growing? Or that its list of participants reads like a Who’s Who, spanning the front ranks of film stars, industrialists, achievers and bureaucrats? Top Indian actresses like Shabana Azmi, Moushomi Chatterjee, Deepti Naval; former Indian CBI chief D.R. Karthikeyan; N. Vaghul, chairman of ICICI, India; Magsaysay award winning
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