Vipassanā is a Pali word from the Prakrit language native to the Indian subcontinent and is considered the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism. Vipassanā or vipaśyanā translates as “insight” or “clear-seeing,” or “seeing deeply. Meaning “to see things as they really are”; a progression of logical or rational observations of the mental and emotional process with the intention of seeing the futility of action.
Its intention is to purify the mind through a rational process of mental self-observation, thus freeing the self from suffering and the deep-seated causes of suffering. The practice is intended to lead the mind step-by-step to the highest spiritual goal of full liberation from all mental defilements.
In short Vipassana is a process that is assumed will eradicate suffering through self-observation. The technique works on the principle that all human beings share the same problems and a technique which can eradicate these problems has a universal application.
Vipassana is one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques. It was rediscovered 2500 years ago by Gotama the Buddha, and is the essence of what he practiced and taught during his forty-five year ministry. Over time, the technique spread to the neighboring countries of Myanmar (Burma), Sri Lanka, Thailand and others. In time Vipassana disappeared from India and dhyana became the dominant meditation practice.
In the country of Myanmar, however, it was preserved from generation to generation, and for over two thousand years, this lineage of Buddhism preserved the Vipassana technique. In the early 1900’s Vipassana was reintroduced to the Burmese Theravada Buddhism tradition by Ledi Sayadaw a Burmese monk and his disciples, Theik-cha-daung Sayadaw (1871-1931) and Mohnyin Sayadaw (1872-1964).
In 1950 Saya Gyi U Ba Khin founded the Vipassana Association and In 1952, the International Meditation Centre (I.M.C.) was opened in Rangoon. After his death, some of his students established meditation centers in his tradition in various countries. To date there are about thirteen International Meditation Centers organized by the Burmese Buddhist branch of students in the Ba Khin Tradition. Each of these centers in the West is a direct offshoot of the International Meditation Centre of Rangoon, Burma, which was founded by Ba Khin.
Another prominent student of Ba Khin is Satya Narayan Goenka a Burmese-Indian teacher of Vipassana meditation who established Vipassana Centers, first in India and which then spread across the world as well. Vipassana, which was long preserved in the small country of Myanmar, is now practiced in many places throughout the world.
Vipassana Meditation technique
The technique of Vipassana Meditation involves an agreed code of discipline, mindfulness of breathing, combined with the contemplation of impermanence to gain insight into the true nature of reality. Taught at ten-day residential courses during which participants learn the basics of the method, and practice sufficiently to experience its beneficial results. Normally there are no charges for these short retreats, as they rely on donations from people who, having completed a course and experienced the benefits of Vipassana, wish to express their gratitude and give others the opportunity to also benefit.
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 on a Vipassana 10 day retreat; first is the agreement to abide by the code of discipline and then second for the first, three-and-a-half days Anapana sati. These first two steps of right living and control of the mind are necessary and beneficial, but are incomplete unless the third step is taken: purifying the mind of underlying negativities.
- 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.
- Anapana sati or Mindfulness of breath is simply watching the breath. If the breath is long, notice that the breath is long, if the breath is short, notice that the breath is short. By observing the breath one becomes aware of the perpetual changes involved in breathing, and the arising and passing away of mindfulness. One can also be aware of and gain insight into impermanence through the observation of bodily sensations and their nature of arising and passing away.
- The third step, undertaken for the last six-and-a-half days, is the practice of Vipassana meaning the stage of purification. In this one penetrates the entire physical and mental structure with the clarity of insight. Students receive systematic meditation instructions several times a day, and each day’s progress is explained during a taped evening discourse. Complete silence is observed for the first nine days.
Anapana meditation is the first subject of meditation expounded by the Buddha in the Maha-satipatthana Sutta, the Great Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness. The Buddha laid special stress on this meditation saying that it was the gateway to enlightenment.
On the tenth day, students resume speaking, making the transition back to a more extroverted way of life and the course concludes on the morning of the eleventh day.
Stages of development in vipassana meditation
Vipassanā jhanas are a series of cultivated states of mind that describe the development of meditation practice through four stages, as the meditator attempts to explore the body/mind connection as one, nonduality; while steadily progressing in understanding of its three characteristics: See also: What is enlightenment and Dhyana the Seventh Yoga Path of Meditation
- Sotapanna is the first jhana (stage) which focuses on the development of vitakka (the mental capacity to direct the mind towards an object) and vicara (sustained concentration of the mind on an object). This first jhana shows the meditator how phenomena reveals itself as appearing and ceasing.
- Sakadagami (Pali for “returning once”) is the second jhana, and in this level ones meditation practice seems effortless. Vitaka and vicara both disappear.
- An Anagami or piti is the third jhana (Pali for “non-returning”) meaning that joy, disappears too: there is only happiness (sukha) and concentration. This is a partially-enlightened person who has cut off the first five chains that bind the ordinary mind. Anagamiship then is the third of the four jhanas of Buddhist enlightenment and is an intermediate stage between Sakadagamis and Arahants.
- Arahant or Arhat the fourth jhana, signifies a spiritual practitioner who has “laid down the burden of attachment,” and as such is characterized by purity of mindfulness due to equanimity. The meditator now knows that every phenomenon is unstable, transient, disenchanting and the desire for freedom become unbearable as awareness now ruthlessly pursues the meditator. Nirvana is now within reach of such a person, and having removed all causes for future becoming, they are not reborn after biological death into any saṃsara realm.
Sotapanna in Pali script means “stream-winner,” and refers to a person who has eradicated the first three sanyojanas (fetters) of the mind. Sotapannaship is the accomplishment of the first of the Buddhists’ four stages of enlightenment.
This is considered a partially-enlightened person who has cut off the first three chains with which the ordinary mind is bound and has significantly weakened the fourth and fifth. The achievement of this second skill in the four jhanas of Buddhist enlightenment is called Sakadagamiship.
Thus, the Sakadagami is an intermediate stage between the Sotapanna, who still has comparatively strong sensuous desire and ill-will, and the Anagami, who is completely free from both.
In Vipassanā-meditation this is all achieved through meditation and self-observation and thus insight into the impermanence of all phenomena, and thereby the meditation practitioner is led to permanent liberation. See also Atman Awareness
Part 2 Vipassana Code of Discipline
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