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What is Vipassana?

What is Vipassana?

The word vipassanā is composed of two parts: vi, which means ‘clear’, and passanā, which means ‘to see’.

Vipassanā therefore means ‘to see clearly’ or rather ‘to see things as they are’.

Most often, however, vipassanā meditation is translated as ‘insight meditation’, referring to the final result of this clear seeing: insight into the true nature of things.

The History of Vipassana

Vipassanā has its origins in the Pali-Canon, the collection of Buddhist scriptures in which the teachings of the Buddha are written.

Although vipassanā meditation is not described as a separate technique, the scriptures do state how to develop an understanding of the true nature of reality, which is essentially the basis for vipassanā meditation.

From the 10th century onwards, however, the common thought in many Theravāda Buddhist countries was that gaining insight would be too difficult because of the gradual decline of the Buddha’s teachings.

Monks increasingly focused on the development of morality and the study of the ancient texts.

Meditation moved more and more to the background of the Buddhist practice.

The revival of vipassanā meditation took place in Burma (now Myanmar) at the end of the 19th century.

A key role in this revival is reserved for the Burmese monk Ledi Sayadaw, who, based on in-depth textual study and his own meditative experience, emphasized that liberation was still possible.

Ledi Sayadaw taught that vipassanā meditation as a path to spiritual liberation is accessible to everyone, regardless of background or religious beliefs.

Important disciples in the line of Ledi Sayadaw were U Ba Khin and his successor S.N. Goenka, whose methods are still taught today.

Other important figures in the history of vipassanā meditation include the Burmese monk U Narada (also known as Mingun Sayadaw), who developed the “New Burmese Method” of vipassanā meditation in the early 20th  century.

U Narada’s most important disciple was the Burmese monk Mahasi Sayadaw, who, with the help of the Burmese government, opened several meditation centers for lay people to teach this vipassanā meditation method to the general public.

In recent decades, vipassanā meditation has gained popularity around the world, thanks in part to Western students who have attended retreats in the meditation centers of Mahasi Sayadaw or U Ba Khin.

Vipassana According To U Ba Khin and Mahasi Sayadaw

The two most prominent teachers of vipassanā meditation in the Burmese tradition are U Ba Khin and Mahasi Sayadaw.

Although both teachers emphasize the importance of vipassanā, there are some differences in their approach.

U Ba Khin was a Buddhist lay teacher. He emphasized the importance of morality (sīla) in the practice of vipassanā meditation, and encouraged his students to live virtuous lives to create the right conditions for successful meditation.

He also taught that it was important to first develop concentration (samādhi) through the use of breathing meditation (ānāpānasati).

Then this concentration is then used to examine the nature of the mind and the body, in other words, for vipassanā.

Mahasi Sayadaw’s approach to vipassanā meditation is more technique-oriented than U Ba Khin’s.

He developed a method of vipassanā meditation in which mental and physical phenomena are noticed and labeled when they occur in the present moment.

This technique is designed to cultivate mindfulness and understanding of the impermanent and self-less nature of reality.

Thus, an important difference between U Ba Khin and Mahasi Sayadaw’s approach to vipassanā meditation is the role of concentration.

U Ba Khin emphasizes the development of concentration as a prerequisite for insight, while Mahasi Sayadaw’s lableing technique is designed to develop both concentration and insight simultaneously.

It was Mahasi Sayadaw’s hope that the followers of his method would later deepen their concentration through samatha meditation.

Another difference is the emphasis on morality.

While both teachers recognize the importance of a virtuous life, U Ba Khin places more emphasis on morality as the basis for successful meditation practice.

Vipassana According to Us

As mentioned, the practice of vipassanā meditation is in principle not tied to a religious or cultural background.

Whoever you are, wherever you come from and whatever you believe, vipassanā can help you get a deeper understanding of the essence of life.

It is not withour reasons that vipassanā forms the basis for the modern secular mindfulness movement, in which parts of the method are completely disconnected from the original framework.

At its core, however, vipassanā is part of the Buddhist path of morality, concentration and wisdom.

And it is through this path as a whole that real understanding becomes possible.

To develop morality (sīla), practitioners are instructed to refrain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, wrong speach, and the use of intoxicants.

With this moral code of conduct, you cultivate an ethical life and create the conditions for strong concentration.

Concentration (samādhi) is developed through the practice of samatha meditation (concentration meditation), in which you focus your mind on a single meditation object.

The goal of developing concentration is to achieve ever deeper stillness and calmness.

In our opinion, this calmness is a prerequisite for practicing vipassanā meditation to the deepest level.

With morality and concentration as a foundation, insight can be gained by investigating the nature of reality.

Vipassanā meditation is this investigation.

With the awuired stillness and calm and with full attention you can observe, with ever increasing power, the continuous, lightning-fast process of the arising and decay of physical and mental phenomena, completely in the present moment.

The result of this investigation is wisdom, seeing from one’s own experience the impermanence (anicca) of phenomena and the self-less character (anattā) of this process.

The Need for Concentration

As you can see, like U Ba Khin and Ledi Sayadaw, we emphasize for him the importance of morality and especially concentration as a condition for vipassanā.

We actually go further then these two great teachers.

The practice of vipassanā meditation requires a sustained and focused effort to be able to continuously observe the current moment-experience.

By nature, however, the mind is easily distracted and inclined to wander, trapped in the flow of thoughts and emotions.

Concentration allows the meditator to keep the attention on the moment-experience and examine it in complete silence and objectivity.

There are several techniques that can be used to develop concentration, such as focusing on the breath, a mantra, or visualizing a particular object.

We use the mantra buddho, a reference to the qualities of the Buddha (buddhānussati).

The most important underlying aspect of concentration is the ability to keep the mind one-pointedly focussed on your meditation object, for as long as you want, consistently and completely equanimous.

This is not a matter of taking a few minutes of deep breaths or spending a few days of a retreat on developing concentrating. For most people, this requires years of directed effort.

As much as you want to get started with vipassanā right away, first you will have to develop the ability of your mind to concentrate.

It is concentration that ensures that your consciousness is powerful, still and refined enough to see things as they are.

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Buddha, Dhp 276