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is Vipassana a modern invention in Buddhism?

DhammaDhatuDhammaDhatu Veteran
edited July 2011 in Meditation
dear forum

below is a quote from a recent article for discussion about vipassana:
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:



  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator
    No sect-bashing this time, people. Please.
  • DhammaDhatuDhammaDhatu Veteran
    edited July 2011
    my opinion is those Theravadins, particularly Burmese (such as Mahasai Sayadaw and U Ba Kin/Goenka) who created new "vipassana" techniques did not comprehend the way of practise detailed in the scriptures

    the Pali scriptures are quite nebulous and it is easy to get lost in them

    "Vipassana" is not a technique. One cannot create a "vipassana" method. Vipassana is something that automatically arises when the mind has clarity

    One can practise to make the mind clear but one cannot practise to see the impermanence and selflessness of the five aggregates because the five aggregates are already impermanent and selfless

    for example, to see the impermanence of leaves falling from leaves does not require any specific technique. The impermanence of the leaves is already there. Seeing the impermanence just requires seeing clearly

    So "vipassana" is not a "method" nor is it a recent invention

    regards :)
  • JeffreyJeffrey Veteran
    yes my lama teaches that various methods can support insight.

    the type of meditation we do is shamatha-vipassana mixture.. shamatha means calm

    Here's some questions from a student

    A student asks:

    "I find the formless meditation practice makes me sleepy. This has become more of a problem as I have become better at resting in the spaciousness of my mind and am able to catch thoughts as they enter that space. What happens is that I get fewer thoughts and I'm less absorbed by them, which has the effect of making my mind dull.

    This is because it seems to be the feelings that are caused by thoughts that produce energy. Without the energy created by the content of thoughts I find that there is nothing for my mind to latch on to, and the brightness of it kind of shuts down. I was wondering what I could do about this."

    Shenpen replies:

    The problem here is that the shamata is strong but there is very little insight. You need to become interested in the nature of the thoughts instead of just letting them go. If you let them go too quickly it is almost as if you are cutting them off rather than simply letting them be. It is a very fine edge or distinction. It's a knife edge really. If you let them linger too long you get lost in them, if you cut them off too soon you kind of dull out.

    As you say, the thoughts have a kind of energy associated with them. The way to harness this energy in an insightful way, is to become interested in what is a thought exactly. That is to say what is any thought? This is quite different from thinking about the content of any particular thought. It's just a matter of noticing how strange it is that there is such a thing as thoughts at all.

    What are they? Where are they? What exactly do you experience when there is a thought and when there isn't? Are they in space or is space a thought in awareness? I don't mean that you need to find intellectual answers to such questions. I mean that you need to become really interested in your experience as is happens. This keeps you awake.
  • Does Lama Shenpen know you're posting her e-mail course at an internet group, Jeffrey?

  • JeffreyJeffrey Veteran
    edited July 2011
    Its not an email course. Buddhism Connect which is a free, bi-weekly, public course. Anyone can sign up for it right now if they want. Thus these are public domain and my posting them has more to do with them as good references as opposed to copywrite material.

    Here is the database of teachings if anyone is interested.
  • Is vipassana meditation the same as the "mindfulness" meditation described in the Satipatthana Sutta? Or, is there another Sutta describing it?
  • JeffreyJeffrey Veteran
    edited July 2011
    I don't think so. Mindfulness is noting correct? Insight is insight. At the same time yes because nothing is stopping insight to arise during mindfulness meditation.

    Insight isn't jhanas because it is unconditioned creative response. It also arises outside of meditation.
  • JeffreyJeffrey Veteran
    The insight is insight. It is clear open and sensitive.
  • I'm sticking with anapanasati and jhanas...
  • I do anapanasati and zazen, I am not nearly experienced enough to attain the Jhanas.
  • GuyCGuyC Veteran
    Hi Jeffrey,
    Mindfulness is noting correct?
    I would say no. Noting may be used as a technique to try and strengthen mindfulness, but it is not mindfulness itself.


  • JeffreyJeffrey Veteran
    @GuyC how would you describe mindfulness in your own words? My teacher doesn't teach mindfulness directly as a topic as such. She teaches a spiral learning course: heart, confidence, heartwish, openness, clarity, sensitivity, mandala, I haven't got to all of them.. but it keeps spiraling deeper and deeper and leads to the aryan 'noble' view at some point.
  • GuyCGuyC Veteran
    edited July 2011
    Hi Jeffrey,
    @GuyC how would you describe mindfulness in your own words?
    When I use the word Mindfulness I am referring to the Pali words "Sati" and "Sampajañña" (which are often used as a compound word in the Pali Suttas).

    The Pali word "Sati" basically means "awareness". More specifically, in the context or "Samma-Sati" (Right Mindfulness) it means awareness of a specific object. For example, in the "Anapanasati Sutta" it is talking about mindfulness (or awareness) of the "ana" (in-breath) and "pana" (out-breath).

    Also, in a more general sense, outside of what we call "formal meditation practice", we are encouraged (e.g. in the Maha-Satipatthana Sutta) to maintain a more generalized "mindfulness" or "awareness" of our so-called "daily activities". This more generalized mindfulness is, I believe, an indispensable way of keeping us grounded in the present moment so that when we do practice formal sitting meditation it is much easier to focus on a more subtle object (such as the breath). If we can't maintain our awareness of what we are doing while we are walking, for example, how can we expect to watch something like the breath or even more refined objects?

    Sampajañña is often translated as "clear comprehension". I understand this to mean knowing the reason why we are doing something and how to do it. This can apply both to so-called "daily activities" and also "formal meditation practice". For example, while we are driving our car, we should have the "clear comprehension" to know that it is dangerous to think about meditation while we are driving and instead we should focus on the road and the other vehicles around us.

    In summary: Sati is being aware. Sampajañña is knowing what to be aware of, when, why and how. Both are complimentary.


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