Vipassana meditation is a technique of Buddhist meditation that can induce and facilitate transformative experiences for an individual.
It carries with it a rich history of enlightening many people and being lost and found several times over. It is most famously known as the method of meditation that Gautama Buddha used when he became enlightened under the tree.
The aim of the technique is to liberate oneself from the suffering that Buddhists claim to be intrinsic in life, to be able to remain objective in the face of physical and mental pain and to generate compassion for all living beings through loving-kindness meditation.
Perhaps, you’ve heard about Vipassana before but are not really sure what exactly it entails. Keep reading, we are going to go into detail about the history, the philosophy, and the technique itself.
We are also going to tell the story of S.N. Goenka, the man who made it possible for people everywhere to learn this technique for free at Vipassana meditation retreat centres around the world.
The History of Vipassana Meditation
The word ‘vipassana’ literally means ‘bare sight’ or ‘to see things as they really are’. It is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It is said to have existed long before Gautama the Buddha or Siddhartha Gautama himself, who live from the fifth to the fourth century BCE.
Gautama Buddha was revered as an enlightened being (Buddha) that rediscovered the technique and ancient path of training the mind to transcend craving and aversion. This path is also known as ‘Dhamma’ or ‘Dharma’.
As the story goes, Siddhartha Gautama renounced his life as the son of aristocratic parents and dedicated himself to the path of enlightenment. Being utterly motivated to achieve enlightenment and understand the realm of pain, he sat beneath a tree and made a strong determination that he would not move until he became fully enlightened.
This tree, ‘the Bodhi Tree’ still stands today in Bihar, India, though its age is visible, and it is decaying at a steady pace, dying little by little each day.
So, at the age of 35 he became enlightened, and having experienced the wonderful fruits of Dhamma first-hand, he decided to dedicate his life to teaching the Vipassana technique to anyone who cared to learn. He spent the next 45 years of his life teaching the technique, and when he took his last breath at the age of 80, he was still teaching it to an eager individual at the side of his death bed.
Though Gautama Buddha is famously known as the founder of the Buddhist religion, he did not consider the technique of Vipassana a sectarian technique, which only devotees of Buddhism could learn. He considered it a universal technique of following the breath and observing oneself, that anyone, from any religion, group. or sect, could learn and benefit from.
Among his devotees were members of many religious groups, but suffering is a universal experience, and liberation a universal possibility.
S.N Goenka – The Rediscovery of Vipassana Meditation
S.N Goenka, also known to Vipassana old students as ‘Goenka Ji’ was a Burmese businessman. While religion was (and still is) a big part of Burmese life, he himself was not especially religious. Having grown up in a conservative Hindu household, he associated religion with the practice of rites, rituals, and devotion. After finding the Vipassana meditation technique, he renounced them, deeming them as unpractical and unhelpful.
S.N Goenka met Vipassana meditation in an unlikely way. As previously mentioned, he was a businessman, concerned primarily with material existence and success. At some point in his business career, he began having agonizing migraines.
He visited many doctors, even travelling the globe in search of one who could resolve his problem but found no answers. Many doctors suggested that his problems were of a psychosomatic nature, as none were able to find an alternative root cause for the pain he was enduring.
In desperation, and developing a dependence on morphine, which he used to combat the pain, he turned to a friend who advised him to try this technique of meditation.
At that time, Vipassana meditation had largely died out, but a small group of teachers in Myanmar were still teaching the tradition. This friend probed Goenka to try it, seeing as there were no other options, he decided to give it a go.
Like now, at the time, learning the Vipassana meditation technique involved going to a meditation retreat centre for 10-days to learn the technique from start to finish. Goenka, after two days of meditation, became frustrated and agitated.
He was convinced that this technique was not for him, discouraged by how difficult he found it to sit and meditate, he started to leave. As he was leaving a friend stopped him, appealing to his better nature, begging him to stay and finish what he has started.
In the end, he stayed and finished the retreat. Not only did his migraines, which were so terribly painful and persistent finally disappear, but he felt as though he has gained true insight into the nature of life. He felt cured, not only from his physical ills but from the psychological disturbances that caused them.
After that, he used the money he made in his career as a businessman to set up more centres like this one. He made it so that anyone who wanted to learn the technique could come to do so for free, as the centres worked purely on a donation-based system.
Vipassana Meditation Today – The Silent Meditation Retreat
Today, thanks to the initial efforts of S.N Goenka, there are many of these Vipassana meditation centres around the world.
A Vipassana meditation retreat consists of spending ten days in noble silence, foregoing all contact with the outside world, all forms of entertainment, speech, and anything else you can think of.
The meditation schedule begins at four-thirty in the morning, with ten hours of meditation each day, for ten days.