By Suma Varughese
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 police woman, Kiran Bedi; Subhash Chandra, owner of one of the largest Indian TV channel, Zee TV; famous Odissi dancer Protima Bedi; judges, police commissioners—the list of diehard advocates of the technique is endless.
The country’s Ministry of Home Affairs is planning to introduce the course in all Indian prisons. The government of the state of Maharashtra will sanction its officers 14 days leave to enable them to attend it. Drug addiction centers, including the Cyranean House in Australia, are using it to wean off their patients. Management institutes, like the Symbiosis Center for Management and Human Resource Development in Pune, India have adopted it in their curriculum.
Indian companies such as Anand Engineering, Mumbai, Mahindra Jeeps and ONGC regularly nominate their employees for participation. Over 10 schools in India have introduced it in their curriculum. The practice has also gained favor among doctors of India’s leading cancer hospital, the Tata Memorial in Mumbai, capital of the state of Maharashtra, and in special care homes such as those looking after the blind and the mentally handicapped.
So what is this wonder technique? What makes it so popular?
Vipassana is described by its promotional literature as ‘the ability to see things as they really are, through a process of self-observation’. Satya Narayan Goenka, the man responsible for bringing this 2,500-year-old technique back to its land of origin, refines the definition: ‘It is the development of insight (vipassanameans insight in Pali, an ancient Indian language) into one’s own nature by which one may recognize and eliminate the causes of suffering.’
Rediscovered and taught by Gautama the Buddha, vipassana was lost to India 500 years after his death, but preserved in its pristine form by succeeding generations of masters in Burma. Goenka, a wealthy businessman whose family was long settled in Burma, stumbled upon it in the course of hunting for a cure for his blinding migraines. But his teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, Burma’s accountant general and a dedicated meditation teacher, allowed him to participate in the 10-day program only when he changed his agenda from curing his headache to looking for self-purification (this explains why the health benefits of the course, though considerable, are rarely emphasized).
The program is rigorous to say the least. No participant is allowed to leave until the end of the course. All stimuli in the form of reading, writing and talking are forbidden. After a delicious vegetarian lunch at 11.30 a.m., there is nothing but tea and fruits at 5 p.m. And that’s the easy part. It’s the meditation that is grueling. Continuing virtually nonstop, save for a few breaks for food and rest, it calls for formidable levels of self-control and concentration.
The first three days are spent in anapana-sati, watching one’s natural patterns of breathing by concentrating on the triangular space between the upper lip and the nostrils. The free-ranging mind, with the universe as its oyster, has to restrict itself to that tiny wedge of space. The tethered mind is now harnessed upon the task of studying the subtle sensations within the body-heat, cold, pain, itching, throbbing. On the 10th day, participants are finally allowed to talk.
Oddly enough, the course’s monastic severity is largely responsible for its popularity; since the results, judging by the responses, are commensurably high. Mohan Nathani, 63, a retired income tax officer who has repeated the course five times, reveals: ‘It was during my first course that I really experienced bliss.’
Christians, including priests and nuns, come regularly for vipassana. Sister Regina Rosario of the order of the Sisters of Mary of the Cross, says: ‘Being used to meditation, I didn’t find it too difficult. It has made me more aware of my actions and reactions.’ She feels that vipassana has brought her closer to a spiritual goal. ‘Compassionate love for crucified Christ, and thus for my neighbors.’
N. Vaghul, a financial wizard who meditates for three to four hours daily, feels that vipassana has changed his relationship with people and his views. ‘Best of all, I no longer look for professional recognition or rewards. I work in order to contribute.’
Moushomi Chatterjee, who took a course in early March, is raring to go again. ‘It makes you realize who you are, that you can also be a Buddha.’
The well-known Indian media-person, Dolly Thakore, greeted and hugged course participants at the foundation stone laying function of the giant pagoda at Mumbai’s Essel World, one of Goenka’s latest projects. The normally frenetic Thakore looked relaxed and happy. ‘I was inspired by my friend Protima Bedi’s tremendous strength when her son committed suicide recently. So I signed on for vipassana. Now I feel more tolerant, less judgmental.’
Several thousands of old participants who bustled around were a good representation of the cross-section of society the course attracts. Rich matrons in their rich Indian Chanderi saris and diamonds mingled with office-goers, farmers and village women. There was a considerable contingent of foreigners too.
Many come to vipassana via other spiritual systems. Shibani Framrose is a passionate advocate of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s sudarshan kriya, and yoga. She meditated regularly with another group also. They all had a role, she feels, in preparing her for Vipassana. ‘I discovered the ‘soul’ within myself. On the fourth day, when we asked for Vipassana from Lord Buddha, I found every cell of my body screaming out the plea. Immediately, my body became hot. My bones felt as if somebody was breaking them with 10 hammers. I was in immense pain, shaking violently. But over time I realized that if I remained equanimous, I could feel the pain arise and subside. That’s when I understood that the mind was bringing up the pains. On my return, I have found myself to be far stronger, with more individuality and clarity.’
THE JOURNEY WITHIN
At a time when most people are rejecting the trappings of organized religion in search of an individual equation with divinity, Vipassana comes across as a technique that is free of rites, rituals, dogmas and creeds. The relationship you are asked to build is with yourself. The journey you are asked to embark upon is within. You are asked to derive your insight and your understanding of life on the basis of the experiences you undergo in the process of observing your breath and body sensations. In short, you are both the observer and the observed.
Indeed, the various don’ts reduce external props to the minimum and bring you face-to-face with the reality of who you are.
Writes William Hart, author of The Art of Living, virtually a handbook of the philosophy and technique of vipassana based on Goenka’s teaching: ‘Unless we investigate the world within, we can never know reality—we will know our beliefs about it, or our intellectual conceptions of it.’
Elaborates Goenka: ‘There is no sectarianism in the technique from beginning to end…. We can’t say that respiration (or sensation) is Hindu or Muslim, Christian or Buddhist…. The whole path of dhamma is a path to make us good human beings… It is a way of life, an art of living.’
Vipassana’s experiential nature makes it scientific. Confirms chartered accountant Krishan Taneja, based in Delhi, India: ‘I had been searching for a science that had a certain logic to it, that could satisfy the intellectual instincts. I found it in vipassana.’
THE EIGHT-FOLD PATH
The technique of vipassana divides the Buddha’s eight-fold path into three processes: sila, samadhi and panna.
Sila refers to the moral precepts, which cover three parts of the eight-fold path: right speech, right action and right livelihood.
Meditators are required to follow eight precepts of right action and right speech. Five are to be practiced at all times—no killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech or intoxicants. And three during the course of the program: celibacy, abstinence from untimely eating (no food after noon) and abstinence from sensual entertainment, bodily decoration and the use of luxurious beds.
Because the meditators are engaged in introspection for their own as well as the world’s good, they also practice right livelihood—work that does not injure other beings.
The second process, samadhi, focuses on developing concentration. It encompasses: right effort, right awareness and right concentration through anapana-sati, a technique which paves the way for awareness and concentration.
Finally comes panna—insight. ‘The unique contribution of the Buddha to the world was a way to realize truth personally and thus to develop experiential wisdom, bhavana-maya panna,’ writes Hart.
The technique for this is vipassana, the observation of the reality within yourself. After three days of anapana-sati, in which the mind is progressively concentrated and purified until it is reasonably stable, you begin to trail the body for sensations. ‘Sensations are the link through which we experience the world with all its phenomena, physical and mental. It is the crossroad where mind and matter meet,’ says Goenka.
This is the heart of the meditation. Meditators are asked to move their attention systematically through every part of the body without unduly dwelling upon any sensation, pleasant or otherwise. ‘The entire effort is to learn how not to react,’ says Hart.
Gradually, as you learn to become conscious of sensations without reacting to them, you begin to go beyond the most obvious and noticeable ones—anger, pain, bliss—to the more subtle regions. Finally, you stand at the edge of a breakthrough, the region where the body and mind are seen as vibration arising and disappearing ceaselessly.
Says Hart: ‘Every particle of the body, every process of the mind is in a state of constant flux. There is nothing that remains beyond a single moment, no hard core to which you may cling, nothing that you can call I or mine. This knowledge of the impermanent self is annata.
Thus, you experience the impermanent nature of matter, leading to the understanding of the futility of attachment to what is innately impermanent.
The intensive experience generates powerful responses. Reiki master Ela Ghosh says: ‘When I started Vipassana on the fourth day, I felt as if a horse had run away from my hand. My left hand became totally paralyzed, my jaw became very stiff, and then slowly started to open. Earlier, the full length of the shoulder used to itch, which is now gone. I suppose some past life samskaras had come up. Many people have intense headaches, vomiting, body pain—all part of the process of self-cleansing.’
But being so intensive, is it really suitable for all? Does one require a minimum level of mental and physical health to practice it?
The answers are varied. Indu Kohli, a personal growth trainer, found the course ‘hard and rigorous’ and feels that participants who are not ready might damage themselves.
One important and last part of vipassana is Metta meditation.
When I reach Dhammagiri, headquarters of the Vipassana International Academy at Igatpuri, a tiny village three hours from Mumbai, India, I am just in time to participate in the Metta bhavana, outpouring of goodwill, love and compassion for the world. The huge meditation hall is dotted with large comfortable cushions upon which some 300 women are sitting still, eyes closed. Goenka’s taped resonant voice speaks first in Hindi, then in English, exhorting the participants to spread out their peace and love to the world. Sitting there, focusing on sending positive vibes to the world, I feel my mind sinking, and relaxation settling over me. I can imagine what the effect would have been on the others, fresh from what Goenka calls ‘an operation on the mind’, filled with the wonder of experiencing a dimension of reality hitherto untapped.
At the canteen soon after, the floodgates of conversation open. People laugh and talk excitedly. A large gathering of what appears to be college girls sit around long after lunch has been cleared, exchanging confidences and experiences in an atmosphere of such intimacy that I’m convinced they must have been old friends. ‘No, we’ve never met before,’ says Rashmi Chandran, 23, who works at Sprint RPJ, India. ‘But we felt like talking to each other.’
‘I’ve just got married, and after a 10-day absence, I would have been terribly excited about meeting my husband,’ says Raksha Chaddwar, 22. ‘But now I feel more equanimous.’
But the most moving cameo is of Raghunath Kele, a retired mathematics lecturer. Suffering from a terminal case of liver cancer, the doctors have given Kele just three months to live. Here with his wife and son, Kele appears to be the picture of good health. His son tells me he has improved much during the 10-day course, from being bed-ridden and subsisting on liquids to walking about, and quaffing down the food served at the course.
Most courses get rapturous responses when they are over. But in the case of vipassana, about 35 per cent repeat the course, testifying its lasting impact.
Ashok Talwar, owner of Logic Controls Pvt Ltd, India, and a vipassana teacher, was so impressed by the system that he made over his farmhouse in Delhi to the center and is now leading the effort to raise a bigger academy. Ajit Parekh, a Mumbai-based industrialist, found that the course not only gave him an answer to the ultimate goal of life, but helped him control his temper too.
ABODE OF DHAMMA
Set in 60 acres against the stark background of a mountain, Dhammagiri, India, with its flowers, trees and neat buildings, is a charming place. It is also massive with five meditation halls (men and women are segregated throughout the course). The place is dotted with various forms of accommodation for the meditators, ranging from quaint huts and dormitories to small self-contained rooms accommodating two or three participants. Dominating the center is a beautiful golden pagoda, a scaled-down version of the famous Burmese Shweddagon pagoda.
Around the pagoda, forming its circumference are some 400 meditation cells. At the center is a set of teachers’ cells and in the very center of the pagoda is Goenka and his wife Ilyachi Devi’s cell.
The center has been constantly growing. Today, there are over 700 participants for a 10-day course, up from 130 as recently as in the early 1990s. Courses are inevitably booked, with each attracting about 2,000 applications.
Dhammagiri is also the seat of the Vipassana Research Institute, which is reviving the study of Pali, the language the Buddha taught in.
Apart from Igatpuri, the principal centers are in Jaipur and Hyderabad. Altogether, India has 22 centers. The Vipassana International Academy (VIA) has some 30-odd centers worldwide, including several in the USA, one each in the UK, Nepal, Thailand and Taiwan.
Three-day children’s courses teaching anapana-sati are also held regularly. ‘The children’s course is easier. You can talk and eat as much as you want,’ says Anuja Parekh, 17, who had taken three children’s courses before signing up for her first vipassana experience last year.
FREEDOM BEHIND BARS
VIA’s best known and laudable initiatives have been in making Vipassana available to special sections of the society such as prisoners. The first jail course was held in Jaipur in 1975 through the initiative of the then Rajasthan home secretary Ram Singh, an advocate of vipassana.
Later, in 1993, the redoubtable Indian police woman, Kiran Bedi, introduced it in Tihar, India’s largest jail. Next year in the largest ever vipassana course, conducted by Goenka, 1,000 prisoners participated.
Doing Time, Doing Vipassana is a one-hour documentary made by two Israeli film-makers Ayelet Manahemi and Eilona Ariel, based on the Tihar experience. The mission of reforming and redeeming prisoners, rather than pushing them further into the mire, is itself moving. The feeling is even more palpable when you hear the prisoners talk about the change within them.
One man, accused of triple murder, reveals on camera that soon after the course, he begged forgiveness from a victim’s family. That year, on the day of rakhi, the Indian festival day when sisters tie a rakhi or band on their brothers’ wrists as a token of love and all that the sibling relationship entails, two members of the victim’s family tied rakhis on his wrist. ‘Today, I look after them as if they are my own family,’ he says emotionally. A tale of redemption as moving as the one wrought by the Buddha on the ferocious murderer Angulimala.
Tihar now has a permanent vipassana center that conducts two courses a month.
Ram Singh recalls that four hardened criminals were brought in chains to the first prison course in Jaipur. Goenka refused to allow the chains, saying: ‘I have come to free people from their chains, not to put them on.’
BUT IS IT THE BEST?
Goenka, usually referred to as Guruji, is obviously a much-loved teacher. He came to India in 1969 to fulfill his guru Sayagyi U BA Khin’s wish that vipassana should return to the land of its origin. Dhammagiri came up in 1976. By now the seed of offers a chance to keep on hold all the distractions of everyday life and keep an appointment with ourselves. Personally, I can’t wait to do it.
vipassana has grown into a mighty tree. And deservedly so since the technique is proven to be effective.
But is it the best? Judging by Goenka’s discourses and the meditators’ reaction, they believe it is.
Goenka’s insistence, for instance, that spiritual wisdom before the arrival of the Buddha was restricted to samadhi without the development of insight or an intuitive understanding of the truth, is quite easy to disprove. Doubtless, Goenka is basing his statement on the Buddhist belief that the Buddha exploded the validity of the Vedas and went beyond them by insisting that there is neither God nor Self. However, while the Buddha was clearly reacting against the rites and rituals of Vedic Hinduism, his discoveries are uncannily similar to the Upanishads, in which sages unambiguously declare that the ground of all being is consciousness into which individuals merge upon liberation. In short, they too maintain that there is no individual Self.
Compare, for instance, this excerpt from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:
We are what our deep, driving desire is, so is our will. As our will is, so is our deed. As our deed is, so is our destiny
with the Dhammapada verse:
Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.
The belief in the specialness of the Buddha creates a sense of exclusivity among the meditators of vipassana. Here is what Goenka says about samadhi versus vipassana: ‘Samadhi makes the upper levels of the mind crystal clear, but a deposit of impurities remains in the unconscious. These latent impurities must be removed in order to reach liberation. And to remove the impurities from the depths of the mind, one must practice Vipassana.’
These points are echoed down the line. Says Shanti Shah, 64, a senior meditator: ‘The difference between vipassana and other paths is at the experiential level. All others embody some belief.’
Where does that leave japa, mind control and other forms of meditation, which also work on the subconscious mind? Today, there are dozens of meditation practices that are experiential.
Such narrow-mindedness may lead to the formation of an ism, one thing Goenka has solemnly stood against. Fortunately, the technique of vipassana is a thing apart. Its effectiveness is indisputable. The space it offers for concentrated meditation is unsurpassed save in monasteries.
For householders like you and me, vipassana.
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