A Non-Sectarian Technique
Vipassana meditation is for the purification of the mind. It is the highest form of awareness—the total perception of the mind-matter phenomena in its true nature. It is the choiceless observation of things as they are. Vipassana is the meditation the Buddha practiced after trying all other forms of bodily mortification and mind control, and finding them inadequate to free him from the seemingly endless round of birth and death, pain and sorrow. It is a technique so valuable that in Burma it was preserved in its pristine purity for more than 2,200 years.
Vipassana meditation has nothing to do with the development of supernormal, mystical, or special powers, even though they may be awakened. Nothing magical happens. The process of purification that occurs is simply an elimination of negativities, complexes, knots, and habits that have clouded pure consciousness and blocked the flow of mankind’s highest qualities—pure love (mettā), compassion (karuṇā), sympathetic joy (muditā), and equanimity (upekkhā).
There is no mysticism in Vipassana. It is a science of the mind that goes beyond psychology by not only understanding, but also purifying, the mental process. The practice is an art of living which manifests its profound practical value in our lives—lessening and then eliminating the greed, anger, and ignorance that corrupt all relationships, from the family level to international politics. Vipassana spells an end to daydreaming, illusion, fantasy—the mirage of the apparent truth. Like the sizzling explosion of cold water being thrown on a red-hot stove, the reactions after bringing the mind out of its hedonistic tendencies into the here and now are often dramatic and painful. Yet there is an equally profound feeling of release from tensions and complexes that have for so long, held sway in the depths of the unconscious mind. Through Vipassana anyone, irrespective of race, caste, or creed, can finally eliminate those tendencies that have woven so much anger, passion, and fear into our lives. During the training a student concentrates on only one task—the battle with his own ignorance. There is no guru worship or competition among students. The teacher is simply a well-wisher pointing the way he has charted through his own long practical experience. With continuity of practice, the meditation will quiet the mind, increase concentration, arouse acute mindfulness, and open the mind to the supramundane consciousness the “peace of nibbāna (freedom from all suffering) within.”
As in the Buddha’s enlightenment, a student simply goes deep inside himself, disintegrating the apparent reality until in the depths he can penetrate even beyond subatomic particles into the absolute. There is no dependence on books, theories, or intellectual games in Vipassana.
The truth of impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha), and egolessness (anattā) are grasped directly with all the enormous power of the mind rather than the crutch of the intellect. The illusion of a “self,” binding the mental and physical functions together, is gradually broken. The madness of cravings and aversions, the futile grasping of “I, me, mine,” the endless chatter and conditioned thinking, the reaction of blind impulse—these gradually lose their strength. By his own efforts, the student develops wisdom and purifies his mind.
The foundation of Vipassana meditation is sila—moral conduct. The practice is strengthened through samadhi—concentration of the mind. And the purification of the mental processes is achieved through panna—the wisdom of insight. We learn how to observe the interplay of the four physical elements within ourselves with perfect equanimity, and find how valuable this ability is in our daily lives. We smile in good times, and are equally unperturbed when difficulties arise all around us, in the certain knowledge that we, like our troubles, are nothing but a flux, waves of becoming arising with incredible speed, only to pass away with equal rapidity.
Although Vipassana meditation was developed by the Buddha, its practice is not limited to Buddhists. There is no question of conversion—the technique works on the simple basis that all human beings share the same problems, and a technique that can eradicate these problems will have a universal application. Hindus, Jains, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, Roman Catholics, and other sects have all practised Vipassana meditation, and have reported a dramatic lessening of those tensions and complexes that affect all mankind. There is a feeling of gratefulness to Gotama, the historical Buddha, who showed the way to the cessation of suffering, but there is absolutely no blind devotion. The Buddha repeatedly discouraged any excessive veneration paid to him personally. He said, “What will it profit you to see this impure body? Who sees the teaching—the Dhamma—sees me.”
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. 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).
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 the 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, epidemics, 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 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, Mr. 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 Sabarmati Central Jail, Ahmedabad, and was the subject of a research project by the Department of Education, Gujarat Vidyapeeth.
The Rajasthan and Gujarat studies indicated definite positive changes of attitude and behaviour in the participants, and demonstrated 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.