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Vipassana meditation is the most Buddhist thing in “Consensus Buddhism.” This post starts to ask how Buddhist vipassana is, by tracing its history.
It appears that, in the early 1800s, vipassana had been completely, or almost completely, lost in the Theravada world. Either no one, or only a handful of people, knew how to do it.
Vipassana was reinvented by four people in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They started with descriptions of meditation in scripture. Those were vague and contradictory, so the inventors tried out different things that seemed like they might be what the texts were talking about, to see if they worked. They each came up with different methods.
Since then, extensive innovation in Theravada meditation has continued. Advocates of different methods disagree, often vitriolically, about which is correct. I am not a Theravadin, and don’t practice any of these methods, so I have no opinion about that.
I’m also not trying to prove that modern vipassana is “inauthentic.” Coming from Tibetan Buddhism, this rapid innovation, based on practical experiments, is slightly shocking for me. But as a scientist and engineer, it’s also inspiring. I am happy to regard all of it as terma—the Tibetan term for a valid new religious revelation.
What I want to explore is the context in which modern vipassana developed. Two things stand out: