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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Vipassanā

A meditation technique, usually translated “insight,” used extensively in Theravada Buddhism. The Sanskrit equivalent of the Pāli term is vipasana (“unbinding,” “loosening,” “unfettering”). Its value to Westerners is not only its effectiveness in loosening the “knots” of tension, negativity, and unhappiness in our psyches, but also in the fact that it is, in the final analysis, neutral in its religious connotation; that is, it can be practiced effectively within a Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Zoroastrian, Hindu, Jain, or Sikh context just as well as within a Buddhist context. In fact, it has analogues with similar techniques found in many religious traditions.

Inherent in this practice is the assumption that intellectual activity is not only unnecessary, but can be a positive hindrance, in one’s spiritual life. It does not use mantras, visual imagery, or verbal guides, but rather involves merely observing the activity of one’s mind in a detached, non-judgmental way. One does not attempt to still the mind, usually a process either of intellection or forcing; one simply observes and eventually the mind calms itself. But this presupposes a preliminary practice of morality based on the Buddhist vows of abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, speaking falsehoods (including exaggeration), and imbibing mind-altering substances (such as alcohol, tobacco, and drugs). After that, an initial practice, prior to the actual vipassanā meditation, is called, in Pali, anapana, i.e., sitting quietly and observing one’s breathing without attempting to change its natural rhythm. This is also a practice found in Zen meditation.

There are several forms of vipassanā meditation, such as walking meditation in which one observes all the changes in one’s body as one takes slow, measured steps. But most people associate vipassanā with sitting in a comfortable position (usually with legs crossed and spine erect) with one’s eyes closed so that one can concentrate on observing the movements of one’s mind. Doing so, one begins to realize how we create the conditions for our own happiness. We realize how our suffering and insecurity (P. dukkha; Sk. duhkha) is the result of various attachments — to our belief in a permanent self, to our likes and dislikes, and to certain habits of thought, feeling, and action. We experience directly the fact of the transitory (P. anicca, Sk. anitya), ever-changing nature of life and see for ourselves that the desire for permanence is what causes our problems. Bonds created by years of clinging to such transitory things gradually loosen and we find ourselves both more peaceful and more capable of dealing with the problems of life creatively instead of reactively. One also experiences that fact we have no permanent, unchanging ego, called in Buddhism the non-self (P. anatta; Sk. anatman) doctrine. In other words, the three basic doctrines of Buddhism become for us not theoretical, but directly experienced facts.

There are now centers of vipassana meditation throughout the world, just as there are Zen Buddhist and Tibetan Buddhist centers found in almost every country — except those dominated by a military dictatorship or a fundamentalist clergy. At some of them, week-long or 10-day seminars are conducted; at others, daily meditation services — often accompanied by a sermon on basic Buddhist teachings — are held. But in the final analysis, one can undertake the practice of vipassan€ on one’s own, perhaps with the assistance of a local meditation center or with the help of some of the books now available, such as The Dynamic Way of Meditation by the Thai monk Dhiravamsa (Wellington, Northamptonshire, England: Turnstone Press, Ltd., 1982) or The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S. E. Goenka by William Hart (Igatpuri, India: Vipassana Research Institute, 1991). See Buddhism; Meditation; Zen Buddhism; Tibetan Buddhism.

R.W.B.

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