अत्तदीपा विहरथ अत्तसरणा अनञ्ञसरणा।
धम्मदीपा विहरथ धम्मसरणा अनञ्ञसरणा।।
-Make an island of yourself, make yourself your refuge; there is no other refuge.
-Make truth your island, make truth your refuge; there is no other refuge.
— Mahā-Parinibbāna Sutta, Dīgha Nikāya, 16.
Vipassana is one of India's most ancient meditation techniques. Word Vipassana means "to see things as they really are". It is a logical process of mental purification through self-observation. One begins by observing the natural breath to concentrate the mind. With a sharpened awareness one proceeds to observe the changing nature of body and mind and experiences the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness. This truth-realization by direct experience is the process of purification. The entire path (Dhamma) is a universal remedy for universal problems and has nothing to do with any organized religion or sectarianism. For this reason, it can be freely practiced by everyone, at any time, in any place, without conflict due to race, community or religion, and will prove equally beneficial to one and all.
Principal teacher Mr. S. N. Goenka explains what is Vipassana meditation and its various aspects.
The practice of Vipassana meditation involves following the principles of Dhamma/ Dharma, the universal law of nature. It involves walking on the noble eight fold path, which is broadly categorised into Sila (Morality), Samadhi (concentration) and Pañña (wisdom, insight).
To learn Vipassana, it is necessary to take a ten-day residential course under the guidance of a qualified teacher. The courses are conducted at established Vipassana Centers and other non-center locations. During the entire duration of the retreat, students remain within the course site having no contact with the outer world. They refrain from reading and writing, and suspend all religious practices or other disciplines. During the course, participants follow a prescribed Code of Discipline. They also observe noble silence by 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:
First, students practice sila (Morality) - abstaining from actions which cause harm. They undertake five moral precepts, practising abstention from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and the use of intoxicants. The observation of these precepts allows the mind to calm down sufficiently to proceed further with the task at hand.
Second, for the first three and a half days, students practise Anapana meditation, focusing attention on the breath. This practice helps to develop samadhi (concentration) and gain control over the unruly mind. These first two steps of living a wholesome life and developing control of the mind are necessary and very beneficial, but they are incomplete unless the third step is taken: purifying the mind of underlying mental impurities.
The third step undertaken for the last six and a half days, is the practice of Vipassana: one penetrates one's entire physical and mental structure with the clarity of panna (wisdom, insight).
Students receive systematic meditation instructions several times a day, and each day’s progress is explained during a taped evening discourse by Mr. S. N. Goenka. Complete silence is observed for the first nine days. On the tenth day, students resume speaking, making the transition back to a more extroverted way of life. The course concludes on the morning of the eleventh day. The retreat closes with the practice of metta-bhavana (loving-kindness or good will towards all), a meditation technique in which the purity developed during the course is shared with all beings.
Vipassana 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. During the Buddha's time, large number of people in northern India were freed from the bonds of suffering by practicing Vipassana, allowing them to attain high levels of achievement in all spheres of life. Over time, the technique spread to the neighbouring countries of Myanmar (Burma), Sri Lanka, Thailand and others, where it had the same ennobling effect.
Five centuries after the Buddha, the noble heritage of Vipassana disappeared from India. The purity of the teaching was lost elsewhere as well. In the country of Myanmar, however, it was preserved by a chain of devoted teachers. From generation to generation, over two thousand years, this dedicated lineage transmitted the technique in its pristine purity. Venerable Ledi Sayadaw reintroduced the technique of Vipassana meditation to the lay people, which was accessible only to the monks before. He taught Saya Thetgyi, a layman, who in turn taught Sayagyi U Ba Khin.
In our time, Vipassana has been reintroduced to India, as well as to citizens from more than eighty other countries, by Mr. S. N. Goenka. He was authorized to teach Vipassana by the renowned Burmese Vipassana teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin. Before he died in 1971, Sayagyi was able to see one of his most cherished dreams realized. He had the strong wish that Vipassana should return to India, the land of its origin, to help it come out of its manifold problems. He felt that it would spread throughout the world from India, for the benefit of all mankind.
Impact on Course Participants
While many students often find the ten-day vipassana course a life-changing experience, the real changes are understood over time. The balanced view of “know yourself, by yourself, for yourself”, as some students call it, helps one live peacefully and harmoniously with oneself and with others. The transformation in one's attitude at the end of the course reduces stress while increasing mental equanimity.
Other common benefits are growth in concentration and work efficiency, positive behaviour changes, effective decision-making, gentle speech and harmonious feelings towards others. Since the wisdom is gained through personal experience, one finds prejudice being replaced by compassion; jealousy at the success of others changing to joy; greed and arrogance getting transformed to generosity and humility.
After experiencing the immeasurable benefits of the technique themselves, students naturally feel the desire to spread this wonderful technique for the benefit of people. The dedicated support of such students has led to establishment of the Vipassana Research Institute, a dramatic growth in the number of Vipassana centers, Mitra Upakram, courses in prisons, schools and other institutions. To read experiences of course participants, please click here.
Varied and detailed research has been undertaken to study the impact of Vipassana on different sections of the society. To read research reports, please click here.
In this video, recorded at Dhamma Dipa meditation center, UK, course participants share their experiences after 10-day Vipassana course.