Vipassana movement

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The Vipassanā movement, also called the Insight Meditation Movement, refers to a number of branches of modern Theravāda Buddhism which stress insight into the three marks of existence as the main means to attain awakening and become a stream-enterer.

It finds its origins in modernist influences[1] on the traditions of Burma, Laos, Thailand and Sri Lanka, and the innovations and popularizations by Theravāda teachers as Mahasi Sayadaw ("New Burmese Method"), Ledi Sayadaw (the Ledi lineage), Anagarika Munindra and Pa Auk Sayadaw as well as nonsectarian derivatives from those traditions such as the movement led by the late S. N. Goenka (with his co-teacher wife Illaichi Devi) who studied with teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin.

The vipassanā movement includes contemporary American Buddhist teachers such as Joseph Goldstein, Tara Brach, Gil Fronsdal, Sharon Salzberg, Ruth Denison and Jack Kornfield.

Meditation techniques[edit]

File:Meditation Suan 01 .jpg
Insight Meditation Practice at Dhammadrops Foundation, Chiang Mai.

The vipassanā movement emphasizes the use of vipassanā to gain insight into the three marks of existence as the main means to attain wisdom and eventually awakening.[2] According to Lance Cousins the primary source of the Insight meditation movement's practice "is the commentarial writings of Buddhaghosa, particularly the Visuddhimagga." [3]

The various movements espouse similar meditation techniques. Teachers with the vipassanā movement teach forms of samatha and vipassanā meditation consistent with Buddhist meditation. The various vipassana teachers also make use of the scheme of the insight knowledges, stages of insight which every practitioner passes through in their progress of meditation.[note 1] The foundation for this progress is the meditation on the arising and passing away of all contemplated phenomena (anicca), which leads to an understanding of their unsatisfactory (dukkha) nature and insight into not-self (anatta).


Template:Mindfulness The earliest modern writer of vipassana manuals was a Burmese monk named Medawi (1728–1816) who was influential in reviving the Burmese interest in meditation practices. Before Medawi began teaching, the Burmese Sangha mostly held the view that enlightenment was not possible in the present era, but afterwards, vipassana meditation was being practiced widely, especially by monks in the Sagaing Region.

In the 19th and 20th century the Theravada traditions in Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka were rejuvenated in response to western colonialism. They were rallying points in the struggle against western hegemonism, giving voice to traditional values and culture.[4] But the Theravada-tradition was also reshaped, using the Pali scriptural materials to legitimize these reforms. Ironically, the Pali canon became widely accessible due to the western interest in those texts, and the publications of the Pali Text Society.[4] A major role was also being played by the Theosophical Society, which sought for ancient wisdom in south-East Asia, and stimulated local interest in its own traditions.[5] The Theosophical Society started a lay-Buddhist organisation in Sri Lanka, independent from power of conventional temples and monasteries.[5] Interest in meditation was awakened by these developments, whereas the main Buddhist practice in temples was the recitation of texts, not of meditation practice.[5] Most influential in this renewed interest was the "new Burmese method"[6] of Vipassana practice, as developed by U Naradah and popularized by Mahasi Sayadaw.[6] This method spread over South and Southeast Asia, Europe and America, and has become synonymous with Vipassana.[6]

Schools and traditions[edit]


Global Vipassana Pagoda, a Burmese style pagoda in Mumbai where Vipassana meditation is taught in the tradition of Ba Khin.

Contemporary Burmese Theravāda Buddhism is one of the main creators of modern vipassanā practice, which has gained popularity from the 1950s onward.

The Mahasi ("New Burmese") Method[edit]

The "New Burmese method"[6] was developed by U Nārada and popularized by his students Mahasi Sayadaw (1904-1982) and Nyanaponika Thera (1901–1994). Most senior western vipassana teachers (Goldstein, Kornfield, Salzberg) studied with Mahasi Sayadaw and his student Sayadaw U Pandita.[7] Another prominent teacher is Bhikkhu Bodhi, a student of Nyanaponika.

According to Gil Fronsdal:

An important feature of the “Mahasi approach” is its dispensing with the traditional preliminary practice of fixed concentration or tranquilization (appana samadhi, samatha). Instead, the meditator practices vipassana exclusively during intensive periods of silent retreat that can last several months with a daily schedule of meditation from 3:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Two key elements in Mahasi’s method for developing mindfulness are the careful labeling of one’s immediate experience together with the cultivation of a high level of sustained concentration known as “momentary concentration”(khanika samadhi).[7]

Robert H. Sharf notes that Buddhist practice is aimed at the attainment of "correct view", not just "bare attention":

Mahasi’s technique did not require familiarity with Buddhist doctrine (notably abhidhamma), did not require adherence to strict ethical norms (notably monasticism), and promised astonishingly quick results. This was made possible through interpreting sati as a state of "bare awareness" — the unmediated, non-judgmental perception of things "as they are," uninflected by prior psychological, social, or cultural conditioning. This notion of mindfulness is at variance with premodern Buddhist epistemologies in several respects. Traditional Buddhist practices are oriented more toward acquiring "correct view" and proper ethical discernment, rather than "no view" and a non-judgmental attitude.[8]

The Ledi lineage[edit]

The Ledi lineage begins with Ledi Sayadaw (1846 – 1923) and his student Saya Thet Gyi [archive] (1873 -1945).[9] S. N. Goenka (1924 - 2013) was a well-known teacher in the Ledi-lineage who was taught by Sayagyi U Ba Khin (1899-1971). According to S. N. Goenka, vipassanā techniques are essentially non-sectarian in character, and have universal application. One need not convert to Buddhism to practice these styles of meditation. Meditation centers teaching the vipassanā popularized by S. N. Goenka exist now in Nepal, India, other parts of Asia, North and South America, Europe, Australia, Middle East and Africa.

In the tradition of S.N.Goenka, vipassanā practice focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind.[10] The practice is usually taught in 10-day retreats, in which 3 days are given to the practice of anapanasati, intended to increase consistency and precision of attention, and the rest of the time is given to vipassanā in the form of "body sweep" practice in which the meditator moves through the body in sections, or as a whole, paying attention to the various sensations that arise without reacting to them. According to Bhikkhu Analayo, "this form of meditation has by now become what probably is the most widely taught form of insight meditation world-wide." [11]

Ruth Denison (1922 – 2015) was another senior teacher of the U Ba Khin method.

Pa Auk Sayadaw[edit]

The method of Pa Auk Sayadaw is closely based on the Visuddhimagga, a classic Theravada meditation manual. Pa Auk promotes the extensive development of the four jhanas, states of meditative absorption and focus. The insight element is based on surveying the body by observing the four elements (earth, water, fire and wind) by using the sensations of hardness, heaviness, warmth and motion.[11] Western teachers who work with this method include Shaila Catherine, Stephen Snyder and Tina Rasmussen.

Mogok Sayadaw[edit]

Mogok Sayadaw taught the importance of the awareness of noticing the 'arising' and 'Passing away' of all experience as the way to gain insight into impermanence. Mogok Sayadaw emphasized the importance of right understanding and that a meditator should learn the theory of Dependent Origination (Paticcasamuppada) when practicing vipassana. The Mogok vipassana Method focuses on meditation of Feeling (Vedanannupassana) and meditation on Mind states (Cittanupassana).

Anagarika Munindra[edit]

Anagarika Munindra studied with both S.N. Goenka and Mahasi Sayadaw, and combined both lineages. Dipa Ma was a student of his.[9]

Thai Forest Tradition[edit]

While not a lay movement, the Thai Forest Tradition has been influential in the development of the lay meditation movements. This is a tradition of Buddhist monasticism within Thai Theravāda Buddhism which was in part a reaction against this perceived dilution in Buddhism. Practitioners inhabit remote wilderness and forest dwellings as spiritual practice training grounds. It is widely known among Thai people for its orthodoxy, conservatism, and strict adherence to monastic rules (vinaya).

Perhaps its most widely known representative was Ajahn Chah. Jack Kornfield, one of the main western teachers of Insight meditation, trained as a monk under Ajahn Chah. Ajahn Sumedho is the senior Western representative of the Thai forest tradition, he was the abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery (1984-2010). A well-known American monk in this tradition is Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, abbot of Metta Forest Monastery in San Diego County. Western representatives of the Thai forest tradition are known to teach lay practitioners at the monasteries and to visit lay meditation centers to teach.

United States[edit]

Since the early 1980s, insight meditation has been one of the fastest growing Buddhist meditation practice in the United States.[7] Apart from the major centers of IMS and Spirit Rock, there are the various centers teaching SN Goenka's vipassana practice and various independent teachers. The movement began when Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein taught a series of classes at Naropa University in 1974 and began teaching a series of retreats together for the next two years. The retreats were modeled on 10- and 30-day Goenka retreats, and the technique taught was mainly based on Mahasi Sayadaw's practice (with the inclusion of Metta meditation).[7] In 1976 Kornfield and Goldstein, along with Sharon Salzberg and Jacqueline Schwartz founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.

Insight meditation practices have also influenced the discipline of psychotherapy. This is especially prominent in Jon Kabat Zinn's MBSR.[7]

The two major institutions in the USA are the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts and its sister center, Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, California.[7]

A major feature of the western Vipassana movement is that it is a lay movement, practiced by non monastics. The Vipassana movement also generally tends to de-emphasize the religious elements of Buddhism such as "rituals, chanting, devotional and merit-making activities, and doctrinal studies" and focus on meditative practice. According to Jack Kornfield,

We wanted to offer the powerful practices of insight meditation, as many of our teachers did, as simply as possible without the complications of rituals, robes, chanting and the whole religious tradition.[7]

Prominent women[edit]

Women have been quite prominent as teachers in the vipassanā movement. Though the formal Theravāda vipassanā tradition has been maintained by an almost exclusively male monastic tradition, nuns and non-monastic female adepts have played important roles, despite being completely absent or only noted in the background of the historical record. These teachers and practitioners expand the framework of vipassanā to incorporate the immanence of the female body and its innate opportunities for enlightenment through the cycles of its physiology and the emotions of marriage, childlessness, childbearing, child loss, and widowhood.[12]

Dipa Ma[edit]

The modern Bangladeshi teacher Dipa Ma, a student of Anagarika Munindra, was one of the first female Asian masters to be invited to teach in America. As a widowed, single mother, Dipa Ma was a householder (non-monastic) who exemplified liberation and taught vipassanā as not only a retreat practice but also a lifestyle. Her message to women and men was you don't have to leave your family to reach high states of spiritual understanding, and she taught a radical inclusiveness. She encouraged women who were mothers of young children to practice vipassanā through the daily activities of mothering. She once said to Joseph Goldstein that "Women have an advantage over men because they have more supple minds... It may be difficult for men to understand this, because they are men." When asked if there was any hope for men, she replied "The Buddha was a man, and Jesus was a man. So there is hope for you."[13]

Dipa Ma's mettā (loving-kindness) meditation instruction was a core component to be practiced after each vipassanā session. It involves five stages, the first of which was the mastery of self-compassion in mind and heart, then continuing to the other stages. The prayer of the first stage, given in English is as follows:

Let me be free of enemies

Let me be free of dangers
Let me be free of mental anxieties
Let me pass my time with good body and happy mind.[14]

Ilaichidevi Goenka[edit]

Indian teacher Ilaichidevi Goenka, was a wife of the Burmese-trained S. N. Goenka and mother of six children, began practicing adhittan vipassanā when her youngest child was four years old,[15] eventually joining her husband on the teaching platform as co-teacher to thousands of students at retreat centers and prisons all over India as well as internationally. Prisoners who do vipassanā meditation reportedly experience less behavior problems while incarcerated and have lower rates of recidivism.[16] "Mataji", as she is lovingly referred to by her students, also used to lead chants with her husband.

Shambhavi Chopra[edit]

Indian Shambhavi Chopra, a former textiles designer and divorced mother of two who is now co-director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies, writes of her 10-day vipassanā meditation training at a retreat center in Germany in her book Yogini: The Enlightened Woman,[17] and encourages students to explore vipassanā practice and mastery as a devotion to the Divine Mother of all.

Vipassanā in prisons[edit]

Vipassanā movement traditions have offered meditation programs in some prisons. One notable example was in 1993 when Kiran Bedi, a reformist Inspector General of India's prisons, learned of the success of vipassanā in a jail in Jaipur, Rajasthan. A ten-day retreat involved officials and inmates alike was then tried in India's largest prison Tihar Jail near New Delhi. Vipassana is being taught in Jail 4 of Tihar Prisons to inmates in two ten day courses every month around the year since 1994 onwards. This program was said to have dramatically changed the behavior of inmates and jailers alike. Inmates who completed the ten-day course were less violent and had a lower recidivism rate than other inmates. This project was documented in the documentary film, Doing Time, Doing Vipassana.[18]

Famous masters[edit]

Thai Forest Tradition


Notable living teachers[edit]


Burma/Burmese tradition

Western teachers

See also[edit]


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  1. The Dynamics of Theravāda Insight Meditation by Analyo, "The key position accorded to this scheme in each of these three meditation traditions is reflected in the detailed treatments of the insight knowledges in Mahāsi (1994, 13-32) and Pa Auk (2003, 255-277). Goenka covers the same ground in detail in his talks during long courses, which have not been published. Nevertheless, a brief survey of the insight knowledges by another student of U Ba Khin can be found in Chit Tin (1989, 121f)."[2]


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  1. McMahan 2008.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Analayo, The Dynamics of Theravāda Insight Meditation, Centre for Buddhist Studies, University of Hamburg Dharma Drum Buddhist College, Taiwan.
  3. Cousins, Lance. The Origins of Insight Meditation
  4. 4.0 4.1 Sharf 1995, p. 252.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Sharf 1995, p. 253.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Sharf 1995, p. 255.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 Fronsdal, Gil. "Insight Meditation in the United States: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" [archive]. Retrieved 8 January 2017.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Robert H. Sharf, Division of Social and Transcultural Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, McGill University [archive]
  9. 9.0 9.1 Chapman 2011.
  10. "''Vipassana Meditation: As taught by S. N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin''" [archive]. Retrieved 2014-01-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. 11.0 11.1 Analayo, The Dynamics of Theravāda Insight Meditation
  12. "Yogini: Sarah Powers, Shiva Rea & Lama Tsultrim Allione Speak About the Path of Women Teaching Yoga & Buddhism" [archive]. elephant journal. 2012-01-20. Retrieved 2014-01-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Schmidt, Amy. Dipa Ma: The Life & Legacy of a Buddhist Master Blue Bridge Books, 2005, p. 120.
  14. Schmidt, Amy. Dipa Ma: The Life & Legacy of a Buddhist Master Blue Bridge Books, 2005, p. 146.
  15. [archive]
  16. Doing Time, Doing Vipassana [archive]
  17. Chopra, Shambhavi. Yogini: The Enlightened Woman, Wisdom Tree Press, 2007.
  18. "Doing Time, Doing Vipassana review" [archive]. Retrieved 2014-01-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. "Saya Thet Gyi" [archive]. Retrieved 2014-01-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Fronsdal, Gil (1998) Insight Meditation in the United States: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness [archive] from Charles S. Prebish and Kenneth K. Tanaka, The Faces of Buddhism in America, p. 1.
  21. "Mohnyin Sayadaw" [archive]. Retrieved 2014-01-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. "Our Teacher -" [archive]. Retrieved 2008-05-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. "Dhamma Web, ''Ven. Sayadaw U Kundala (1921-)''" [archive]. 2004-01-01. Retrieved 2014-01-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. "Singapore Dharma, ''Sayadaw U Rajinda''" [archive]. Retrieved 2014-01-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


Further reading[edit]

  • Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation. Joseph Goldstein & Jack Kornfield (2001< Reissue) Shambhala. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css" />ISBN 1-57062-805-X
  • Beyond the Breath: Extraordinary Mindfulness Through Whole-Body Vipassana. (2002) Marshall Glickman. Tuttle Publishing. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css" />ISBN 1-58290-043-4.
  • Journey to the Center: A Meditation Workbook. Matthew Flickstein and Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. (1998) Wisdom Publications. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css" />ISBN 0-86171-141-6.
  • In this Very Life Sayadaw U Pandita, In this Very Life [archive]

External links[edit]