Vipassana Meditation Part I: The Practice

I recently went on a Vipassana meditation retreat organized by the Michigan Vipassana Association. The chief person that started the revival and popularization of this technique on the global stage is S. N. Goenka, a Burma-born Indian from a Hindu business community. He was successful in business and participated in what he would later call a “rat race.” After suffering from an intolerable migraine, he became interested in Vipassana meditation and the meditation surprisingly cured the migraine and inspired him spiritually. He became a long-time student of the Burmese Vipassana practitioner and monk Sayagyi U Ba Khin (1899-1971). U Ba Khin passed on to him the technique that he learned from previous Burmese teachers. U Ba Khin told Goenka one day in the 1970s to spread the practice of Vipassana in India. This technique later became further popularized in the west since the 1980s, and a sizable community formed in the Michigan area in the 21st century. 

Part of our walking areas, near a lake
In the 10 days, we did not have access to cell phones, electronics, or books. We maintained noble silence and did not speak to each other. The new students had to abide by the five precepts while the old students had to abide by eight precepts. We took refuge in the three jewels and meditated during the day. At night, we listened to Goenka’s English dharma talks made for a predominantly Western group like ours in 1991. He emphasized that this dharma is universal for finding the “Kingdom of heaven within” or the “brahmanic / nirvanic peace” within, and never used the word "Theravada," which is the name of the Burmese Buddhist tradition. The "universal" practice would needs sila (qualities of morals), samadhi (meditative concentration), and paññā in Pāli (or prajñā in Sanskrit, meaning wisdom). According to Wikipedia, paññā “is insight in the true nature of reality, namely primarily anicca (impermanence), dukkha (dissatisfaction or suffering), anattā (non-self) and śūnyatā (emptiness).” There is the first type of paññā attained from listening to wise people and the second type of paññā attained from intellectual reasoning. Goenka emphasized that without experience one cannot attain the third kind of bhavana-maya paññā. Impermanence (anicca) can directly manifest itself through our meditation experiences. After the first three days of observing our respiration, as a way of sharpening the mind and concentration, we were told to observe our sensations. One sensation would arise and we instructed not to react. Whether it is an itching one, hurting one, or a temperature related sensation. While I did not follow this strictly and shifted here and there, I tried my best not to react most of the time and the sensations that usually would only go away with some kind of willful intervention went away by themselves. In this way we can understand how things are impermanent and we should not get ourselves too attached to the current situation and try to change it by reacting.

S.N. Goenka
Goenka says that these three qualities are like a a tripod and cannot work without the other. Some Indian traditions have tried to dispense the quality of sila and just work on samadhi, thereby achieving fantastical results in what Goenka would call “mind games.” That was exactly my issue with purely achieving samadhi: I had some clue of what samadhi felt like and what moral actions were, but very little idea of the next step of practice.

How did I gain this understanding prior to this retreat? My initial contact with meditation was also somewhat connected to Vipassana. My college friend Rachit’s grandparents had started practicing during their self-exploration years (presumably after retirement) and told him a lot about it. He found out that there were weekly meditation sittings in the interfaith center at our American college. So we started going regularly at first and then sporadically later. I stopped after finding the instructions a bit too superficial. The person conducting the meditation sittings, a learned professor, seemed to have a chip on his shoulder against his previous profession. He would often compare the superiority of Zen Buddhism against his previous knowledge field. I found this comparison unhelpful and thought I could just meditate at home and stopped attending the sittings circa 2013. For the most part, I didn't meditate, until this past week.

Even though Goenka was speaking to a western audience in the Vipassana dharma talks, he still has the Hindu traditions in mind. His deductions the obviously were results of engaging in debate with other Indians. So at times it also seemed that he had a chip on his shoulder. But since Vipassana was already very successfully influencing people of all faiths in India (see documentary Doing Vipassana, Doing Time), Goenka obviously attracted many assents from his polemics. He also used the Indian rhetorical form of 
story-telling commonly found in many Hindu religious discourses to his advantageI also found it beneficial for me to compare the different traditions. He was answering the questions I had about the contrasting traditions, such as Vedanta: If both Vedanta and Vipassana advocated for disillusionment, rational analysis, detachment and samadhi, then what is the difference? Goenka would say that sila (moral rectitude) is the difference. I think another understated difference was that the dharma could be practiced by a householder (male or female) who was busy with mundane tasks as well. In contrast, it was probably after the encounters with colonial missionaries did the Hindu reformers start to think about what to do in this life to attain a higher spiritual path other than asceticism and devotion. 

Goenka did not shy away from controversial stances: he would ridicule the promissory offerings done by the bhakti devotees or the people who would recite “Hare Ram” every day: “Why do the Gods need you to say their names? If I set up something and asked people to say ‘Hare Goenka’ everyday, what madness!” I had just watched two documentaries about Kabir to gain spiritual motivation, so I really appreciated some aspects of bhakti devotion. Still, I knew where his critiques lied: if the people just want to achieve some kind of benefit through recitation instead of emulation, it is not dharma. The bhakti singer Prahlad ji, a major character in the documentaries, wrestled with the same dilemma.
Prahlad: "Your place has more sagun (gods of form) worship. Yet you believe in nirgun (formless divinity)."

Interlocutor: "Yes."

Prahlad: "Why do you believe in nirgun?"

Interlocutor: "Nirgun is the truth."

Prahlad: "And sagun?" 

Interlocutor: "I don't believe in it."

Prahlad: "Sagun is not the truth? Why is sagun untrue?"

Interlocutor: "It's the trickery of the pundits! Of Brahmins.

Prahlad: "But set aside Brahmins for a moment. Sagun doesn't mean Brahmin. Sagun means that which is visible, has forms and features. Our body is too sagun. So is the body a lie?"

Interlocutor: ...

That was what one of my co-meditators pointed out as well: we observe a lot of our physical reactions and sensations, while at the same time we want to overtake the impermanent physical aspects. So which point do we know that we have attained realization? To answer that, the next post will discuss the experiential aspects and how different people had different meditation results. 

Further Reading: