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Insight (Vipassana) Meditation in Sri Lanka

By Das Miriyagalla, The Island, April 6, 2008

Progress made during the last Fifty years
Colombo, Sri Lanka
-- The practice of meditation is considered by followers of several religions as a meritorious activity. Even among such religious activities it is generally considered that meditation is more virtuous than other practices such as donations, alms- givings, adherence to moral precepts and rituals.

However the practice of meditation in Sri Lanka until the mid-twentieth century was generally based on traditions followed mainly within the country and the practitioners did not consider it necessary to look for developments outside the country or internationally recognized practices.

It is noteworthy that religious practices in Sri Lanka had been affected by social upheavals during 16th-19th centuries particularly after changes in Kandy, Kotte and Seetawaka kingdoms. But a period of resurgence commenced in 1753 when Upasampada was established from Thailand or Siam Deshaya. Several periods of uncertain developments reached a point in mid 20th century when along with the dawn of Buddha Jayanthi, senior monks residing in forest hermitages considered it necessary to create an atmosphere for a revival of meditation.

In his book 'Vidhashana Parapura' the former Chief Kammatthanacharya of Mitirigala Nissarana Vanaya, Most Ven Matara Sri Nyanarama Thero states that along with the dawn of Buddha Jayanthi selfless services and sacrifices made by a group of monks from forest hermitages helped in creating an atmosphere for a revival of meditation.

Change After Buddha Jayanthi

In the year 1956, there was a universally acclaimed event which was the 2500th anniversary of the passing away of Buddha. Many different forms of celebrations were held in Sri Lanka as well as other countries. The state sponsored activities included large scale Ata-sil and Dasa-sil programs, ordaining of monks, meditation programs, publication of books and Dharma Sangayanas, meetings, seminars and so on. It was noteworthy that in Sri Lanka significant publicity was received for the systems of meditation in countries such as Myanmar (Burma). In most temples, Dhamma schools, and religious organizations different forms of meditation were given publicity. Interactions with countries such as Myanmar was becoming a regular feature. Gradually increasing numbers of Sri Lankan monks visited Myanmar for training in the Vipassana or Insight form of meditation while Burmese Masters visited Sri Lanka.

The senior meditation masters in countries such as Myanmar and Thailand conducted training sessions in their temples and were considered highly competent in different types of practices. In Sri Lanka the value of Insight form of meditation became a subject of interest and even the Buddhist laymen visited Myanmar to get familiarized with the Insight form of meditation.

A resurgence of religious practices particularly in meditation was visible. One could see that up to the period of Buddha Jayanthi, groups of meditators including monks who lived in temples in non –urban areas, forest hermitages referred to as Aranyas as well as laymen who developed the techniques of meditation, limited the practices mainly to 'Tranquility' meditation also referred to as 'Samatha' or 'one-pointed–ness'. Even though there were several hermitages located in the outer regions of the country, important practices of meditation, for a long period, generally did not progress beyond Tranquility meditation. However it is seen that the dawn of Buddha Jayanthi made the members of Sri Lankan society, both the clergy and laity, seriously open their eyes to see where progress was lacking and where developments could be achieved.

Influence of Myanmar and Siamese Traditions

The interactions with Myanmar and Siamese traditions, particularly from Ramanna Desa and Amarapura, became more pronounced and frequent. It was inevitable that meditation guide lines had to be linked to the practices of such regions particularly in Myanmar. After the interactions with Masters - Maha Theras or Sayadows of Myanmar a gradual spread of 'Vipassana' or 'insight meditation' became a reality. By this process a considerable number of monks and yogis received training in meditation of which the Vipassana form or Insight meditation was considered the more progressive by both the clergy and laity. Several important meditation centers in Sri Lanka such as Kanduboda Vipassana Meditation Center, International Vipassana Center at Wijerama Mawatha followed by Mithirigala Nissarana Vanaya and several others were gradually established.

Developments in the Rest of the World

During the last fifty years the subject of meditation has undergone significant developments in the rest of the world too. With global interactions, the interest shown by several other religious groups in the world including many lay practitioners has resulted in a positive influence on day to day activities.

In his book 'Tranquility and Insight', Armando Sole Leris says that during the 20th century the progress of meditation has taken place internationally in two aspects (1) Insight meditation has progressed on its own without combining with tranquility (2) there has been greater involvement of lay persons in Insight not only as yogis and students but also as meditation masters. There has been a need for adaptation to the conditions prevailing in the modern world. There has also been a growing demand for effective methods of mental culture. International acceptance of a mental culture in the form of Insight meditation has even crossed religious barriers in that many religious groups both in the East and West have seriously taken to Insight meditation as stated by Sole Leris.

The development of Insight meditation has special social significance and the subject has been discussed in several important international forums in the recent past. A number of international meditation masters such as Ven.Mahasi Sayadaw, Ven Sayadaw U Pandithabhiwansa, U Ba Khin, S N Goenka and Munindraji have made great contributions and the followers are benefiting from this positive phenomenon.

Spread of Vipassana among European Monks

The German monks Ven. Nyanathiloka and Ven Nyanaponika made significant contributions in Sri Lanka to the monastic practices by their devotion, very high degree of scholarship and attachment to the doctrine. They were followed by many other monks from the western countries who later took part in Insight meditation in Sri Lankan Forest Hermitages. The influx of monks and lay meditators to the Aranyas in Sri Lanka during the period after 1956 was due partly to the teaching of Vipassana system by meditation masters in both East and West. The neighboring countries like India , Myanmar, Thailand too had their meditation activities progress in the direction of Vipassana with several monasteries coming up with the name of the institution shown as a Vipassana center, indicating clearly the progress of Insight meditation. The improvement in communication systems during the last 50 years resulted in travel, particularly air travel as a main form movement making the foreign monks and lay yogis visiting Sri Lanka seeking guidance in meditation. It is not incorrect to state that Sri Lanka became an important center for meditators even though the subject of meditation was developed in Sri Lanka with assistance received from other Buddhist countries. The special position enjoyed by Sri Lanka among the Theravada countries may have helped in this regard.

New Meditation centers and Publications

The present data collected of all forest hermitages, Aranyas and meditation centers throughout Sri Lanka show that there has been a clear trend towards Vipassana and the number of meditation centers kept increasing throughout the country. Publication centres and distribution points for books on Meditation gradually increased in Colombo as well in towns like Kandy and Dehiwala. The authors and publishers too have made a major impact on publicity for important material on Vipassana as a new development.

Tranquility ( Samatha) Meditation and Insight ( Vipassana) Meditation

According to broad divisions the two forms of meditation are 'Insight' and 'Tranquility'. There are several possible ways of seeing the distinction between the two forms of meditation. English Dictionary gives the meaning of 'insight' as 'power of seeing into and understanding things' or 'imaginative penetration' whereas tranquility is 'calmness or peace'. The term Vipassana in Pali or Vidarshana in Sanskrit has the same meaning as 'Visesha Dharshana' in Sinhala. The special nature of the form of meditation is seen from the meaning conveyed above.

Every event related to human activity can be seen as composed of three factors

(1)Action of a Sense Organ - one out of six organs

eg. the eye ( Base element )

(2)An Object which is to interact with the organ

eg. a picture (Striker element)

(3)The resulting interaction eg. seeing. (Ignition element)

Whatever work we do and whatever situation we are faced with can be interpreted to be composed of a series of events of which each event consists of above three factors. The fixing of mind on the three factors referred to above can be made a common situation in daily life where one sense organ gets linked with an object resulting in an activity. If one is to meditate and concentrate only on an external object, as in the above case then that form of meditation after a certain amount of concentration becomes 'tranquility', whereas if the contemplation is spread equally over all three factors, then the form of meditation becomes 'insight'. As an example if a yogi practices meditation on breathing which is also called 'Anapana Sati' the yogi has the choice of either concentrating only on the breath (in and out air draft), which is tranquility meditation or on all three factors - the breath, the place near the tip of the nose which strikes the breath and the feeling that is observed.- which is insight meditation.

Hence it is seen that both forms are practiced in Sri Lanka whereas it is the Insight or Vipassana form that is considered more fruitful or beneficial for one's progress in the path to mental development, both mundane and supra mundane. It has also got to be appreciated that Insight is not the result of a mere intellectual or theoretical understanding but is won through direct meditative observation in very close proximity to one's own bodily and mental processes.

It is also possible to arrive at a similar distinction between Samatha and Vipassana from theoretical aspects in terms of eradication of Anusaya Keles or latent tendencies in Vipassana as against eradication of Parivutthana Keles or obsession type defilements in Samatha. The Vidarashana Parapura written by Most Ven. Matara Nyanarama Thero states on p.36 that the form of meditation which removes the five hindrances or 'nivarana' such as anger or desire which affect a yogi in his mental development is the Samatha meditation. It is also seen that both forms of meditation can be generally adopted in combination - to maintain tranquility and then to achieve development through insight i.e. control and development of the mind. It is also seen that Tranquility meditation could be used as a preparation for Insight meditation and vice versa.

Mindfulness as a Key to Insight

According to Buddhism, mindfulness which contributes to the effective and efficient performance of any activity is a prime 'factor of enlightenment' – 'Bojjanga' . It is also one of the eight factors in the 'Noble Eightfold Path'. Therefore it is not surprising that the yogis who are following the path to enlightenment have given great emphasis to mindfulness. In the Sutta Pitaka which is one of the three main cannons of Buddha's doctrine, the Maha Sati patthana Sutta enunciates the basis of right mindfulness. The Insight or Vipassana form of meditation is based on the four forms of mindfulness enunciated in this Sutta. It is through the development of mindfulness that a yogi is able to practise Insight meditation. The complete liberation of the yogi is to be achieved through development of mindfulness mentioned in Maha Sathipatthana Sutta by practicing Insight meditation.

The atmosphere needed for Tranquility meditation- a calm and collected setting- is generally not available to a yogi who is a layman living in an urban area. But such laymen who live an active life with regular distractions and facing complex situations live in an atmosphere which is better suited to Insight meditation. This is also one of the main reasons for a remarkable growth of pure Insight meditation internationally.

In his recent publication 'In This Life Itself' Ven. Uda Eriyagama Dhammajiva, the Kammatthanacharya of Mitirigala Nissarana Vanaya has clearly presented the methodology of performing Insight meditation under three possible situations, namely

(a) sitting meditation

(b) walking meditation

(c) establishing mindfulness in daily affairs.

It is stated that 'Mindfulness cultivated during sitting meditation can diminish off after you get up. But mindfulness established in day to day activities is durable' A meditator can hence develop a continuous application of Insight in day to day activities or walking meditation and achieve very significant results.

A Non- sectarian Image for Religious Practices

From the above it is seen that there has been a major progress in the wider interpretation and perception of 'Insight mediation' which can even be utilized for the well being of all members of a non-sectarian society. Promotion of physical and mental health has been one of the unique contributions in the field of medicine.

While it is noteworthy that Insight Meditation is essentially non-sectarian in character it has universal application. In fact it is stated that one need not get converted to Buddhism to start practising Insight meditation. It is also stated that Insight meditation can be referred to as a non-sectarian form of Buddhism. One may even venture into a spiritual path and find that a Buddhist can always remain a non-sectarian path finder who rises above sectarianism and be a member of a common brotherhood of mankind.

Has Buddha Jayanthi of 1956 contributed to the Well being of Society?

There were many fields in which progress for the well being of man was witnessed in 1956 in Sri Lanka. In addition to religion, several other fields such as agriculture, industry, drama, cinema, education and professionalism are some of the important sectors which showed major strides of development. But none of the strides can be compared with the most remarkable development in Insight Meditation which has brought a message of unity to a sectarian society with immense benefit to all its members.

Das Miriyagalla is a former Jt. Secy of the Royal Asiatic Society and Vice- President of the Mithirigala Nissarana Vanaya Sanrakshana Sabha. He has also served as the first President of the Buddhist Association of Zambia which pioneered the spread of Buddhism in Africa.

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