We wholeheartedly take pride in the words that some might consider cliché, “Buddha was born in Nepal”, not realizing often, what it actually means to adore this exceptional philosophical leader and what exactly the profoundness of his teachings reflect about us being humans.
The story of the Buddha’s life and his cumulative teachings is a story of confronting suffering. Born around the sixth century B.C. as a son of a wealthy king in the rich pilgrimage site of Kapilvastu, an archeological spot in the Rupendehi district of Nepal, the young Buddha (Siddhartha Gautam) was prophesied to either become the emperor of the Indian subcontinent or a very holy man. Since Siddhartha’s father, Suddhodhana, desperately wanted him to be the former, he secluded the child in a palace with every imaginable luxury: jewelry, servants, lotus ponds, and dancing women. For 29 years, Siddhartha lived in bliss and extravagance, shielded from external worldly matters, including even the most picayune misfortunes: a white sunshade was held over him day and night to protect him from cold, heat, dust, and dew. Then, at the age of 30, having left the palace for a short walk, his eyes met – for the first time in his life – something that amazed him: sick, aging, and dying men, all distraught by conditions that strikingly contrasted the life he had been living. He was astounded to discover that these unfortunate people represented normal, yet inevitable parts of life’s vicissitudes that was one day, bound to touch him too. Horridly piqued, Siddhartha Gautam made a fourth trip outside the palace walls that led him to encounter a holy man who had learned to seek spiritual truth amidst this vastness of human suffering. Endeavoring to seek the same enlightenment, Siddhartha Gautam left his sleeping wife, Yasodhara and son, Rāhula and walked away from the palace forever and for good.
With this quest to find answers to the unfathomable reasons behind human misery, Siddhartha Gautam ate and started meditating under a Bodhi tree (fig tree) observing simply his own mind and body and discovering the path to mental purification, after which he finally reached the highest state of enlightenment: “Nirvana,” that simply means “awakening”. He became the Buddha, “the awakened one”.
The Buddha awoke, by recognizing that all of creation, from the tiniest of insects to the wisest of saints is unified by suffering. Recognizing this, the Buddha discovered how to best approach suffering- a path called the four noble truths (cātvari ārya). The noble truths are the realization of suffering and constant dissatisfaction in the world, that these sufferings are caused by attachment towards the pleasant and aversion towards the unpleasant, and that we can transcend suffering by removing or managing these desires and revulsions. The Buddha thus made the remarkable claim that we must try to change our attitude towards certain circumstances, and not the actual circumstance. We are unhappy not because we don’t have enough money, love, or status, but because we are greedy, vain, and insecure, always lingering desperately with cravings for certain things, and hatred towards others. Both of these create tensions and impurities in the mind such as anger, hatred, passion, and fear, making one miserable.
Hence, according to the Buddha, the only way to liberate oneself from these bondages of life is by understanding that whatever in the material world, for which we have feelings of aversion or attachment is ephemeral in nature and hence, accepting that there is no point in clinging on to something that is in a constant state of flux. Maintaining perfect equanimity of mind in this way, devoid of any kind of attachment or aversion strengthens the understanding of reality, and leads to the ultimate purification of the mind, or nirvana.
What is Vipassana?
Based on these philosophical teachings of Buddha, which was vastly spread across Southeast and Northeast Asia by monks, nuns, and many other Buddha’s followers, the practice of vipassana originated, spread, and was handed down – to the present day, by an unbroken chain of teachers as the “Buddha’s path to liberation”.
Vipassana comprises of two terms; derived from ancient Pāli canon (a collection of scriptures in the Buddhist language; the older prefix “vi” meaning “special”, and the verbal root “passanā” meaning “seeing”) is a philosophy of “clear seeing” or “insight” characterized by the practice to see things as they really are, instead of how we want them to be. Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations of the body in order to dissolve mental impurity and attain a balanced mind full of love and compassion.
Vipassana Meditation Retreat
Vipassana meditation courses are often run as a ten-day residential mediation retreat, wherein the participants follow a strict code of conduct and learn the teachings of Buddha as they practice the vipassana technique of meditation. The participants aren’t allowed to leave the course site’s boundaries, no matter what difficulties they may face, and are thus, challenged to observe all the disciplines and rules with a strong determination. The most important one is the rule of Noble silence, which means silence of the body, speech and mind. Participants are neither allowed to use any form of verbal or written communication, nor use body language or gestures, eye or physical contact, but they are permitted to ask questions to the teacher whenever necessary and to approach the management with any problems related to food, accommodation, health, etc., albeit keeping them to the bare minimum. This inward-looking approach is to help them cultivate a feeling of complete isolation. The males and females are strictly segregated at the center and one isn’t allowed to contact even their partners, friends, relatives, or family members at all.
The centers provide complete facilities of food and lodging in the clean and well-maintained meditation halls, where students spend more than ten hours meditating every day. According to the tradition of pure vipassana, the entire courses are offered freely and are run solely on donations. Donations are accepted only from those who have completed at least one ten-day course with Mr. S.N. Goenka, the current teacher of vipassana meditation, or his assistant teachers, who, after having followed the path of Dhamma (actions and teachings of Buddha) are appointed to become imparters of the Vipassana technique.
Therefore the courses are supported by those who have realized for themselves and are intent on sharing the benefits of the practice with others. They make donations according to their means and volition. Since there isn’t any particular institution, foundation, or individual sponsoring the courses and neither teachers nor organizers receive any kind of material remuneration for their services. Personal donations are the only source for funding courses. Thus, the spread of Vipassana is carried out with a sole purity of purpose and commercial-free.
Vipassana Meditation Retreat in Nepal
Nepal is a country with heavenly landscapes and serenely breathtaking hills and mountains that soothe one’s heart and soul. Amidst its mystical atmosphere provided by the resounding sound of temple bells and palliating smells of Himalayan incense sticks, Nepal proves to be an ideal location for such meditation retreats. The strong ties Nepal has to Buddhist traditions, wherein meditation holds an irreplaceable place infuses the nation with profound spirituality, peace, and quiet. Although there are numerous meditation retreats all over Nepal, it is only Vipassana retreats that run meditation courses for free and these have been able to cater to people of almost every district in Nepal. Dhamma Shringa located in Budhanilkantha, Kathmandu is the oldest vipassana center of Nepal, there are these centers in other major districts of Nepal:
- Dhamma Shringa, Budhanilkantha
- Dhamma Kitti, Kirtipur
- Dhamma Birata, Itahari
- Dhamma Chitawan, Chitwan
- Dhamma Pokhara, Pokhara
- Dhamma Tarai, Birgunj
- Dhamma Janani, Lumbini
- Dhamma Surakhetta, Surkhet
- Dhamma Suriyo, Fikkal, Ilam
- Dhamma Sagar, Lukla
- Dhammāgāra, Kotdanda, Godawari, Lalitpur
- Dhamma Nandana, Madhuvan, Banganga, Kapilvastu, Lumbini
- Dhammayāna, Bhimdatta Municipality – 4, Kanchanpur, Nepal
- Dhamma Sisa, Tansen, Palpa, Nepal
- Dhamma Paraga, Dang Vipassana Center, Dang, Gorahi, Nepal
The Path of Dhamma
Throughout the course, the participants are required to observe the path of Dhamma (the Noble Eightfold Path taught by Buddha) which includes three sections—Sīla (moral conduct), Samādhi (concentration), and Paññā (wisdom). These form the three foundations of Vipassana’s practice:
Sīla is a code of conduct that embraces a commitment to harmony and self-restraint with the principle motivation being innocuous and non-violent. Within the division of sīla are three parts of the Noble Path-
- Sammā vācā– right speech; purity of vocal action and avoidance of speaking lies to deceive others, speaking harsh words that hurt others, backbiting and chattering slanderously or purposelessly.
- Sammā kammanta– right action; purity of physical action, or abstaining from killing, stealing, committing sexual misconduct and becoming intoxicated, that hinders one’s awareness of what one is doing.
- Sammā ajiva– right livelihood or not being involved in unwholesome actions that would harm others in the process of supporting one’s own livelihood.
Hence, students take the precepts not to kill, not to steal, not to commit sexual misconduct, not to speak lies, and to refrain from intoxicants. This simple code of moral conduct serves to discipline the mind, which otherwise would be too agitated to meditate with self-awareness and self-observation.
Next, students practice samādhi, which means developing mastery over one’s own mind. Within the division of samādhi are also another three parts of the Noble Path-
- Sammā vāyāma– right effort to exercise and strengthen the mind to remove any unwholesome qualities of the mind while preserving the wholesome ones.
- Sammā sati– right mindfulness; training the mind to remain aware of whatever reality that manifests at the present moment.
- Sammā samādhi– right concentration; sustaining an awareness continuously from moment to moment.
When the sīla is strengthened by diligently taking the five precepts and the mind is sharpened to remain focused on the present moment, one is finally prepared to penetrate to the depths of the subconscious mind and eradicate all the impure feelings hidden there. Thus, sīla and samādhi form the prerequisites for paññā, the knowledge to help oneself deal with slowly emerging difficulties and miseries. Within this falls two more divisions of the noble eightfold path:
- Sammā-saṅkkapa— right thoughts; the pattern of thinking changes as the defilements of the surface level of the mind start to pass away with right awareness.
- Sammā ditthi- right understanding; understanding reality as it is, not what ‘appears’ to be.
The three further stages in the development of this wisdom:
- Sutta maya paññā – received wisdom achieved by hearing or reading the words of others, which may provide direction and guidance.
- Cintā mayā paññā – intellectual understanding; rationally, one examines what one has heard or read and decides whether or not to accept it by seeing whether or not it is logical and practical.
- Bhāvanā mayā paññā – wisdom developed within oneself, at an experiential level.
Understanding these three constituents of Buddha’s teaching, the mind is thus trained, disciplined, and developed through right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. With the final stages of purification of the mind, achieved through the development of paññā, it is said that one reaches the final stage of liberation.
This wisdom of insight is not just some divine spiritual ideology based on some ecclesiastic mantra. Vipasanna consists of practical ready-to-take steps that do bring tangible benefits in everyday life. Since it stresses highly on the wisdom attained by experience, the insights provided in vipasanna are experienced and realized, through meditation, during the ten-day course.
Process/ Technique of Vipassana Meditation
First, the mediators are taught to simply observe their respiration. This technique is called ānāpānasati, (“ānāpāna ” is respiration and “sati” is mindfulness) means mindful observation of natural, normal respiration, as it enters and leaves the nostrils. Unlike techniques that are based on the artificial regulation of breath, ānāpāna simply brings one’s awareness to the truth of nature which isn’t contorted or imagined in any way— but happens naturally. By it, one becomes connected to the underlying subtler realities of his mental state. As soon as any defilement arises in one’s mind, the breath becomes abnormal and heavy. When the defilement passes away, the breath again becomes normal. Thus, respiration acts as a bridge between the known functions of the body, respiration, and the unknowns hidden on a subconscious level. During the initial stages of meditation, one finds it difficult to meditate as the fickle and fleeting mind keeps dwelling on either memory from the past or wishes of the future. Thus, the breath, which is present in the now, becomes an embodiment of the present moment and by observing it, one slowly trains the mind to be in present.
Therefore, the meditators practice this technique for the first few days to strengthen their concentration of the mind and prepare it for the upcoming challenging sittings.
Although it would have been faster and easier to concentrate the mind without the discomfort of sitting all day long in a meditative posture, along with awareness of respiration, one had started chanting mantra, or a god’s name, or if one had started imagining or visualizing the shape or form of a deity. But because a word or form will be identified with one culture, one religion, or one sect, and those of a different background might find it unacceptable, vipassana focuses on universal truth and the nature of reality. Breath is universal, it has no color, religion, or gender. Hence, vipassana is non-sectarian; it involves no rites or rituals and can be practiced by anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs, heritage, community, etc.
On the fourth day, the students start to practice the actual technique of vipassana meditation, which involves moving one’s attention from the top of the head to the bottom of the toes and focusing on nothing but any bodily sensation that may arise on any body parts. These might be sensations of cold, warmth, tingle, itch, pressure, or even pain due to sitting in meditative postures for long hours. One gradually scans the body from top to bottom and simply observes these sensations, and is taught to avoid any reaction to it.
The goal of vipassana meditation, however, is not just to feel these sensations. The key aspect of it lies in the ability to remain equanimous to whatever feeling or sensation of the present moment, by not reacting to the itch on the skin or not changing meditation posture due to body pain. The usual habit of the mind is to react to sensations; roll in pleasure or reel in pain. Thus vipassana teaches how to observe without reacting, to examine the sensations objectively, maintaining equanimity and collectedness.
Annicca: The Law of Impermanence
This state of psychological stability and composure, which is undisturbed by experience of, or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena is gradually developed with the understanding of the law of impermanence. Penetrating into the subtle sensations of the mind and body one realizes how a physical sensation like an itch arises, but eventually passes away too. One understands that the entire physical structure, the entire material world is composed of subatomic particles, the basic four elements- earth, water, fire, and air, that are constantly arising and passing away too. In reality, there is no solidity in the material world; like any pain or itch in the body, it is nothing but vibrations and combustion. With this understanding of annicca, one learns to be aware of different sensations, without reacting to them, accepting their constantly changing nature.
Gradually, having experienced sensations everywhere on the surface, the meditator starts penetrating into the interior. The mind slowly develops the ability to feel the subtlest of sensations, both, inside and out, in every part of the physical structure, and simultaneously also realizes that these sensations are bound to pass away, and starts developing a balance of the mind by resisting to react.
During later days of the course, the meditators challenge themselves to choose a comfortable meditating posture and make a strong determination, or addithāna to stay in the same position for the next one or two meditation hours, observing it objectively and gradually realizing that like any other sensation in the body, the pain and discomfort from sitting in the same position also eventually dissolves and passes away. Often considered the most challenging aspect of vipassana, meditating with this strong determination drives the student to bear any pain that may arise in the joints or muscles, even for a few moments. These few moments of addithāna and self-observation act as a shock observer of even the most extreme pain and they multiply into longer periods of time where one is able to remain calm and composed.
Mettā bhāvanā Meditation
On the last day, participants learn the meditation of expressing loving-kindness and goodwill towards all, in which the purity developed during the course is shared with all beings. They practice generating vibrations – via a prayer— of goodwill and compassion for all living beings and the course culminates in the identification of oneself with the collective universe, a recognition of the fellowship of all life with a base of a pure mind.
Relevance of Vipassana in Everyday Life
One may find it unorthodox to live as a monk or a nun at a monastery, deprived of all the luxuries and pleasures of life in a society that has become more modern than ever. However, to practice vipassana, one doesn’t need to do or be these things. Yes, surely does one enjoy the seclusion from the external world and start appreciating the beauty in modest living. But vipassana is an art of living that encompasses all human experience. Dhamma teaches us to accept the bitter truth of suffering, but it also shows the way out of suffering. Therefore, it is a path of optimism, combined with realism and also ‘workism’ – each person has to work to experience the benefits of the practice. Because vipassana associates itself with neither some kind of religious sect nor some political schism, one understands the universal law of nature, something applicable to every living being. Through direct experience, we train ourselves mentally and the scientific laws that operate one’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations become clear. Understanding how everything inside of us as well as outside keeps changing, the law of impermanence enables us to maintain equanimity to success and failure, happiness and difficulty. One understands the futility in generating rage towards undesirable things and penchant for the desirable ones, breaking the habit pattern to react to craving and aversion. Our emotional reactions are mellowed down and handled appropriately. Life becomes characterized by increased awareness, rationalism, self-control, and peace and instead of reacting blindly, we start to act kindly.
Bhavatu Sabba Mangalam! — may all beings be happy!
- N. Goenka: The Discourse Summaries; talks from a ten-day course in Vipassana Meditation
- Kishore Chandiramani : VIPASSANA MEDITATION- A TOOL FOR MENTAL HEALTH