Has Vipassana reached the end of the road?

by Christopher Titmuss, Dharma Inquiry, Sept 2, 2014

A Personal Reflection after 30 years

San Francisco, CA (USA) -- I have had the privilege of teaching Vipassana (Insight) Meditation for 30 years in the West, as well as for 32 years in Bodh Gaya and eight years in Sarnath, India. My first retreat in the West was in northern New South Wales, Australia, organised in the summer of 1976 by a 21 year-old woman named Sue from Northern Rivers who is now Subhana, a fellow Dharma teacher, much loved and respected in the Dharma world.

I’ve long since lost count of the number of Vipassana retreats that I’ve offered, probably somewhere between 500 – 750 ranging from one month to one day. However it is many years since I have described myself as a Vipassana teacher, preferring the much broader term, Dharma teacher. The word Vipassana has become too closely identified with certain methods and techniques, and is thus far removed from its original meaning, namely insight – bearing no connection whatsoever for the Buddha with a meditation technique. That doesn’t disqualify Vipassana as a healthy and challenging practice. There is no telling how many individuals have entered a course or retreat, residential or non-residential, East or West, but the number certainly runs at least into hundreds of thousands or a million or two in the last three decades or so.

A Vipassana retreat continues to be a powerful catalyst in people’s lives, a major stepping stone into the depths of meditation and a transformative experience. People have arrived for a weekend retreat on a Friday evening and left on Sunday afternoon with a different sense of themselves, of the here and now, of life, and of what matters. Vipassana changes lives significantly and sometimes dramatically, and is a powerful resource to dissolve so-called personal problems, open the heart and find clarity of mind. A growing number with regular guidance from a teacher, have also entered into the discipline of a personal retreat with its emphasis on silence and solitude lasting from weeks to a year or more. This is another powerful resource for depths of insight.

But has Vipassana reached the end of the road? Are the teachings and practices on an Insight Meditation retreat exploring the fulfilment of all profound aspirations?

The background to all Vipassana practices relies heavily and appropriately on a discourse of the Buddha called the Satipatthana Sutta, the Discourse on the Applications of Mindfulness, namely body, feelings, states of mind and the Dharma. It is the tenth discourse of the 152 in the Middle Length Discourses. Different Vipassana methods are based on various interpretations of this discourse. Despite the claims to purity of technique, reliance on Theravada commentarial interpretation, or strict following of the breadth and depth of the discourse, every Vipassana teacher has his or her own distinctive flavour even if that teacher has had the same teacher(s).

Teachers use the form of a retreat (or course) to enable dharma students to learn to use the powerful resource of Vipassana to cultivate an authentic depth of calm (samatha) and insight (vipassana) into impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and the impersonal characteristics of existence. The practice is powerful because it emphasises moment to moment attention, that is direct observation of immediate experience.

There is a general principle in the Buddhist tradition of Vipassana that such a Dharma training involves three primary areas of life –

  1. Observing and upholding five precepts.
  2. The practice of mindfulness and formal meditation, especially sitting and walking. Some teachers also include standing and reclining meditation.
  3. Wisdom. In this context, it generally means seeing things clearly, free from projection and obsessive attitudes, with calm and insight into heart, mind and body.

Vipassana meditation includes developing the capacity to sit still, stay steady with the breath, observe the arising and passing of pleasure and pain in the body with equanimity, let go of troublesome meditation states, dissolve the arising of any ego, develop the power of meditative concentration to go to subtle levels of the inner life and abide with a choiceless awareness with all phenomena.

While Vipassana and mindfulness meditations are valuable practices in themselves, it is the task of teachers to show new practitioners outside of retreats as well as within them – without fear of being misunderstood – the breadth and depth of Dharma teachings, ethics and practices. Without this wider context, meditation may be applied with aims that are seriously in contradiction with the Dharma; for example some years ago a senior officer in the US army approached a Vipassana teacher about teaching soldiers to handle pain when unable to move in a battle, and businesses want to use the practices so staff can develop single pointed concentration to improve efficiency and productivity, and Vipassana practice was offered – without the breadth and depth of the Path - as the culmination of dynamic or movement meditations, such as the late Osho directed in Poona, India.
I remember Jon Kabat-Zinn, a seasoned meditator with various Vipassana teachers and founder of the internationally respected MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programme) coming to my room for a one to one interview in 1979 during a retreat with me at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, USA. He reported his sudden flash of insight and vision on the retreat to bring mindfulness and insight meditation practices to the lives of people in pain. It was inspiring to listen to him and I could only offer Jon full encouragement. He returned home from that retreat determined to actualise the Dharma for the deep welfare of others without diluting the teachings. He still remains committed to that vision.

The teaching of mindfulness meditation, such as MBSR programmes, to alleviate stress, ill-health and pain is an important application of the Dharma; however it would be a great pity if such mindfulness practice had the same fate as yoga which in the West has often been reduced to a system of healthy physical exercises, extricated from its context as a profound spiritual discipline addressing the whole person.

It would be equally a great pity if Vipassana meditation became another kind of psychotherapy. I remember several years ago writing to Spirit Rock Meditation Centre in Marin County near San Francisco, where perhaps 30% or more are therapists on a retreat, to ask the centre to add a brief footnote to the description of my retreat. I wrote for the footnote: “Please do not bring your inner child. There is no adult supervision on this retreat.” To its credit, Spirit Rock published the footnote.

Calm and insight (samatha and vipassana) are offered in the Buddha’s teachings as a feature of the Way to liberation, not as THE way. Some secular teachers treat mindfulness and daily meditation as an aid to living a well-adjusted life but a well-adjusted life is far from the end of the road. Again, such an attitude effectively takes Vipassana meditation out of its wider vision of total liberation.

Certainly the Truth of things, the Dharma of life, is hard enough to comprehend as it is, as the Buddha said on frequent occasions. Teachers show no service to the Dharma by clinging to a narrow view about the supremacy of Vipassana, nor by inflating the importance of mindfulness and meditation over the immensity of the challenge of the Way, as can be seen by reading and reflecting on all the subtle and deep communications from the Buddha on each link of the Noble Eightfold Path or 12 links of Dependent Arising.

These are teachings to ensure that we bring our life on this earth to complete fulfilment. Sitting on top of a cushion and walking slowly up and down to contemplate our existence is a fine and profound exploration into ‘self’ and ‘non-self’ but what is going on with the rest of our lives?

Diet, exercise, use of resources, moderation in living, livelihood, money, relationships, contact with nature, intentions, place of effort, solitude, Dharma reading, writing, contact with the sangha, contact with realised teachers, insights into truth, dependent arising, non-duality, emptiness and living an awakened life deserve our total attention and interest.

No teacher, no one tradition, no school, no satsang, no therapy can possibly address all these issues and many others. We live in times when it is important that the Dharma investigates daily realities, rather than putting so much effort into the preservation of the religious past or feeding identification with the doer or the non-doer.

I recall being grateful in 1982 that our trustees in South Devon, UK agreed to my suggestion to call our new centre Gaia House (it means Living Earth, a metaphor for our inter-dependent existence) and is pronounced the same as (Bodh) Gaya, the area of the Buddha’s enlightenment. We also worked carefully on our vision statement as part of the process to become a charitable trust – a vision statement that excluded the promotion of Buddhism, in order to keep our Dharma centre free from identification with the religion of Buddhism.

Vipassana teachers need to take stock and beware of any watering down of teachings and the use of such meaningless terms as ‘Western Buddhism’. For example, I’ve heard it said by certain Vipassana teachers that there is nothing wrong with desire, nothing wrong with being open to desire, as long as we are not attached to results. Such statements reject the Buddha’s teachings that:

  • dependent on contact arises feelings,
  • dependent on feelings arises desire,
  • dependent on desire arises attachment
  • dependent on attachment arises what becomes in the present and future, with all the ‘mass of suffering’ associated with this process.

There are many hard truths in the Buddha’s teachings that are uncomfortable for consumers who do not really want the Dharma to disturb their lifestyle. More and more Western Dharma centres have become middle class spiritual hotels with accompanying pressure to market Dharma centres as centres for Buddhism.

It would be lovely to report that the challenges in the Vipassana world end here.
I would suggest that the Vipassana world has other problems that need attention but get neglected. These include:

  • a growing belief that Vipassana is another kind of therapy
  • a narrow view that morality is confined to the five precepts
  • a view on ethics akin to institutional religion where blame, self-righteousness and moralizing ignore understanding of the human condition,
  • belief in meditation, meditation, meditation
  • belief in striving
  • belief that the path of Vipassana meditation leads to enlightenment without attention to the whole of life
  • getting stuck in the same method and technique and going over the same old ground in the mind
  • inability to cope with the wide variety of emotions
  • need to explore openly the energies and place of sexuality in the Sangha
  • rigidity of view and an inability to lighten up
  • rigidness and dryness of the practice,
  • students of one major Vipassana tradition (U Ba Khin tradition) are not permitted to meditate with other Vipassana teacher, other Vipassana students or practices to preserve the ‘purity of the technique’.

Despite the above concerns, the Insight Meditation tradition continues to provide a depth of practice second to none. Vipassana teacher meetings are not exactly a thrill a minute, with a collective hesitancy to say anything remotely politically incorrect. Believe me, this poor wallah is speaking from years of first hand experience at such meetings.

After 30 years as a small servant of the Dharma, I find it a pity to write some aspects of this personal report to Dharma students. Please don’t imagine for a single moment that this response to the state of Vipassana shows disillusionment with the practice. Far from it. Vipassana is a tradition of seeing clearly. It is powerful. It is effective. It is transformative. There is no fluffing around for the dedicated Vipassana meditator. While making allowances for generalised statements, we surely have the capacity to offer an honest reflection of the Dharma and the world of Vipassana. Criticism is nothing to do with getting on the high throne and preaching; on the contrary, a sincere critique of that which is close to our hearts contributes to upholding what is of value and discerning questionable areas.

All of the above pales into insignificance when the question is asked: Has Vipassana reached the end of the road? Yes, it is a double edged question.

  • Can Vipassana practice with its dependency on form and technique reveal the Emptiness of form and technique?
  • Can the construction of the method reveal the Unconstructed?
  • Can the perception that more sitting is the answer be an expression of the Buddha’s warning about grabbing the poisonous snake by the tail?
  • Is there a sense, either conscious or unconscious, among dedicated Vipassana students that there is something limited about their practice?
  • Does Vipassana meditation feed the notion of identification with the doer in the form of continual effort and striving?
  • Does Vipassana meditation feed the notion of the non-doer in the form of a suppressed state of mind masked as equanimity?
  • Does Vipassana meditation reinforce the notion there is a doer, something to be done and something to be gained for the doer?
  • Does the Vipassana meditator settle for a radiant awareness as the end of the road?
  • Where is the resolution of the duality that faces all serious meditators, namely the experience of being in a silent retreat and going back into the so-called ‘real world’? A 30 minute talk on the closing morning of a retreat is clearly not resolving this duality.

Are these concerns being addressed? Some senior Vipassana (Insight Meditation) teachers enter into other teachings and practices such as various forms of psychotherapy, Advaita, Dzogchen, Ridhwan or Zen for varying lengths of time. It would appear that these teachers also find that Vipassana is not completely fulfilling – something they share with a number of senior students. It is not that these other approaches are ultimately any more fulfilling. Yet something is amiss. All these teachers and students share the same dualistic plight:

  • those who feed the notion of the doer and those who feed the notion of the non-doer,
  • those who feed the notion of the self (with a capital S or small self) and those who feed the notion of no-self,
  • those who work on aspects of the personality and those who don’t
  • those who attach to form and those who attach to the formless

If Vipassana has not reached the end of the road, that unshakeable and fulfilling liberation, then where is the end of the path? It is vital that Vipassana teachers speak much more about the end of the Way, as well as the Way. Such teachers need to draw on their experiences, their understanding and insights into freedom of being, liberation from “I” and “my” and the awakening that is close at hand. Students feel inspired to explore deeply when they know that their teachers have the confidence to talk about the Supreme Goal of practice.

Authentic glimpses, as much as profound realisations, are important to share. The Buddha said that the raindrop, the pond and the great lake all share the same taste – the taste of water. Although ordained Buddhist teachers must show great restraint about speaking from personal experience about the ultimate truth, non-ordained teachers can share their ‘personal’ realisations at the deepest level. At one Vipassana teachers meeting, the great majority of teachers reported they had tasted ‘Nirvana.’

The end of the road reveals the dissolution of the construction of the duality of the doer and non-doer, the story around the retreat and going back into daily life. The resolution is not about being in the now and not about not being in the now, nothing to do with the doer or the non-doer, the self or no-self. It’s that simple. The constructions of emotions, mind and personality are small waves in the Ocean.


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