From Traditional Roots to Modern Mindfulness: The Vipassana Meditation Movement in the 20th Century

- through Francois Leclercq

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SN Goenka. From medium.com

Meditation is a fundamental practice of Buddhism and, since ancient times, has involved two essential elements: Samatha (tranquility) and vipassana (preview). Samatha meditation focuses on quieting the mind through focused attention, while vipassana allows us to understand the true nature of things. Although it is not always certain when this dual stream of meditation became the "inherited" Theravada meditative tradition nikayas (monastic orders), in the 19th and 20th centuries, Theravada Buddhist followers and teachers had broadened the field vipassana This meditation movement, once practiced by isolated forest monks in South and Southeast Asia, has become a household name among spiritually inclined people in the West.

The movement was initially popularized in Myanmar by monks such as Ledi Sayadaw (1846-1923), a charismatic and scholarly monk who was one of the first meditation teachers in Myanmar. He is remembered for popularizing Samatha meditation, especially among lay people. Saya Thethyi (1873-1945) was one of Ledi Sayadaw's many well-known lay disciples, and his student U Ba Khin (1899-1971) was perhaps the most important lay meditation instructor in contemporary Myanmar. The famous SN Goenka (1924-2013), an Indo-Burmese businessman who became a meditator, was a student of U Ba Khin. It further contributed to the spread of vipassana through his retreats and seminars around the world. His efforts led to the establishment of the Vipassana Research Institute in India in 1985, which aims to promote the practice and research of insight meditation.

Ledi Sayadaw. From buddho.org

Mahasi Sayadaw (1904-1982) was another famous meditation teacher monk from contemporary Myanmar. His influence on modern vipassana meditation across the world is huge. Anagarika Shri Munindra (1915-2003), from Bangladesh, known to his disciples as Munindraji, was a student of Mahasi Sayadaw. He learned vipassana meditation at the Sasana Yeiktha meditation center in Yangon. He spent 10 years in Myanmar practicing satipattana meditation and studied the entire Pali scriptures Tipitaka and his comments. In 1966, he left Myanmar for India and settled in Bodh Gaya to promote meditation in India. Author Mirka Knaster highlights the motivation for Munindraji's journey from Myanmar to his home country:

When Munindra left for India in 1966. . . he took with him twenty-six boxes of Buddhist books as well as the blessings of the vipassanā community. He was actually fulfilling a Burmese Buddhist prophecy that predicted a resurgence of Buddhism and vipassanā meditation 2 years after the Buddha. This helps to explain not only why Munindra felt called to return to India and teach vipassanā where it had not been available for so many centuries.

(Knaster 2010, 7)

Anagarika Shri Munindra. From alchetron.com

As word of his knowledge and experience spread, Munindraji attracted the attention of Western media. vipassana practitioners and became a key figure in the growing popularity of vipassana in the West. In 1976, several of his students, including Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, which became one of the most important meditation centers. vipassana meditation in North America. This led to a period of rapid growth in interest in vipassana in the West. In turn, these two well-known names in the mindfulness world had deep roots with an influential figure from South Asia and Myanmar. The journey of Dipa Ma (1911-1989) remains one of the most powerful examples of how mindfulness can help a seemingly normal person transform their emotional struggles into an extraordinary calling to promote their own well-being and that of others. others.

Dipa Ma is known as a vipassana meditation master from Bangladesh in the 20th century, but she started out as an ordinary mother. Despite the tragic loss of her family members, she found comfort and understanding through vipassana meditation practices at Sasana Yeiktha Meditation Center in Yangon. She then settled in Calcutta, India. Regarding the transformation she expressed, she urged:

You saw me. I was discouraged and broken because of the loss of my husband and children and because of illness. I suffered so much. I couldn't walk properly. But now, how do you find me? All my illness is gone. I am refreshed and there is nothing on my mind. There is no sorrow, no sorrow. I'm pretty happy. If you come to meditate, you will do it too Be happy. There is no magic. Only follow the instructions.

(Schimidt 2005: 150)

Dipa Mom. From Facebook.com

Both Joseph Goldstein and Jack Engler were deeply motivated by Dipa Ma. To develop Buddhist spirituality in the West, they invited Dipa Ma to the United States in 1980 and 1984. She became a teacher not only of Goldstein and Salzberg, but also other familiar names such as Sylvia Boorstein and Jack Kornfield. She also influenced the women's movement within the Buddhist meditation community. Kornfield is an American writer and professor in the field vipassana movement, practicing American Theravada Buddhism. He first studied under Thai forest master Ajahn Chah and Mahasi Sayadaw, receiving Buddhist monastic training in Thailand, Myanmar and India. Since 1974, he has taught mindfulness meditation.

In advocating the practice of meditation, Kornfield and other teachers of the tradition often downplay the religious aspects of Buddhism, such as rituals, chanting, devotional practices, merit accumulation, and doctrinal studies. From Kornfield's perspective, mindfulness meditation is a powerful practice in itself:

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, chants and all religious tradition.

(Insight Meditation Center)

Sharon Salzberg. At sharonsalzberg.com

Traditional teachings of vipassana meditation focuses on liberation from successive births, while contemporary American teachers such as Kornfield emphasize freedom in the current life. For example, Mahasi Sayadaw says that the goal is to free oneself from the cycle of existence (samsara:

Every effort should therefore be made to familiarize oneself with the miserable conditions of Samsara and then work to escape this incessant cycle and attain Nirvana. If an escape from Samsara as a whole is not possible at the moment, an attempt should be made to escape at least the cycle of rebirths in the realm of hell, animals or petas. In this case, it is necessary to work towards the total elimination of oneself from the erroneous view that there is a self, which is the root cause of rebirth in miserable states.

(Insight Meditation Center)

In contrast, Kornfield emphasizes that mindfulness meditation can bring about profound change in current life rather than transcendental liberation:

For two and a half thousand years, the practices and teachings of Buddhism have provided a systematic way to see clearly and live wisely. They offered a way to discover liberation within our own bodies and minds, in the midst of this very world.

(Insight Meditation Center)

Joseph Goldstein. At shambhala.com

Regarding the therapeutic aspect of meditation, Kornfield believes it can be a powerful tool for healing and personal growth:

I observed what we would call psychological transformation, in which people become increasingly aware of different motivational patterns, different types of attachment, and different images of relationship, in the most profound ways. Through the practice and a discipline of sitting meditation that is most central to Buddhism, I have observed many people experience the kind of growth that also occurs in psychotherapy.

(Ken Jones 2005, 109)

While Buddhism is generally associated with monastic practices, modern society tends to offer meditation retreats to lay people. These retreats often incorporate devotional practices, storytelling and traditional rituals alongside meditation, aiming to cultivate spiritual well-being in daily life.

Vipassana The practice of meditation has gained popularity in religious and secular circles due to its various benefits for mental health and general well-being. This helps reduce stress, promote relaxation and improve our overall quality of life. It is remarkable how much it has grown and influenced different fields over the years.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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