Here is a detailed account of my Vipassana meditation course experience in India and an interpretation of the teaching. It may answer your questions if you are curious or considering doing it...
The Vipassana meditation course (dhamma) is the same course (and duration) that Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha devised and taught to countless thousands across Northern India and the Himalayas almost 26 centuries ago.
This course can be undertaken at Buddhist monasteries in Asia, however few will accept or can facilitate non monks or foreigners.
The alternative is to enrol at one of the many Dhamma centres around the world.
This was my second Vipassana course, and first as an old student. I did my first Vipassana course at the Dhamma centre in far west England, near Wales.
I hope this entry gives you an insight into the rationale and practice of Vipassana, and perhaps even an insight into Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha... his face you see nearly everywhere in Asia!
Dhamma / Vipassana courses are essentially free. Anyone can do it. Buddha never charged for his teaching or turned anyone away.
SN Goenka (the head teacher and head of the dhamma organisation) was born in Burma and, following his studies at a monastery there "resurrected" Vipassana by teaching small groups in his ancestral India, where it was discovered and devised by Gautama the Buddha so long ago but distorted and lost over time - Burma was the only Buddhist nation to retain Vipassana in its original and pure form.
Goenka's courses grew in popularity across India and subsequently centres were opened throughout Asia plus Europe, the Americas and Australasia.
The world centre for Vipassana is an enormous, wondrous place in Igatpuri near Mumbai.
I chose to do Vipassana again here in Bodhgya, as it was here that Siddhartha Gautama arrived arrived at the answers that motivated his dhamma teachings. The place where he became Buddha (Indian sanskrit for enlightened one)
There remains a special energy here, with every Buddhist nation represented by a temple and monastery.
Prince Siddhartha Gautama The Buddha
Approximately 26 centuries ago, (born Hindu) Prince Siddhartha Gautama saw suffering and ignorance everywhere, despite wealth and affluence around him. At age 35 he embarked on an extended meditation under an enormous Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya to contemplate the mechanics of emotion, happiness, and suffering. His inner search uncovered a path to self liberation from misery.
Enlightenment and Buddha's Teachings
Part of Buddha's revelation was that the source of all suffering lies in either craving or aversion. He also noted that all things, including suffering, the mind and matter are subject to the same law of nature. Everything arises and passes away. Nothing can pass away until it arises. Atomic structures are continually in change - the chair you sit on, your bodily mass, sensations in the body, light etc. All impermanent - comprised of particles that arise and pass away..... arise and pass away.
Further, everything we experience or come into contact with generates sankaras in the body. Sankaras generate sensations of craving or aversion - the mind and body are inextricably linked - the state of the mind reflects the state of the body - there is nothing else - no magical forces, nothing external at play.
Sankaras generate sensations of either craving or aversion in the body. They are all through the body. Even at the subtlest level! We are rarely conscious of them, but nearly always react to them.
These points are essential forethoughts when learning his dhamma... and ultimately Vipassana.
It is a long but amazing journey!
Buddha taught dhamma across northern India and the Himalayas, and worked tirelessly until he passed away at 80 years old; liberating hundreds of thousands of people in the process.
The teaching of dhamma continued to spread through what is now Burma, Thailand and Cambodia.
Some 1500 years after Buddha's passing, Atiśa Dipankara Shrijnan journeyed to Tibet and introduced Buddha's teaching of dhamma there.
As you know it had a very resounding impact!
Buddha had no disciples. He spoke of no God or soul, no baseless rites or rituals. He taught only dhamma and a pragmatic approach to enlightenment and liberation.
• Each student gets their own residence with bedroom and bathroom
• Old students (who have completed at least 1 10 day course already) in separate area
• Meditation pagoda where each student has own pod to work in
• Men and women are completely separated - living quarters, dining area, meditation hall areas
• It was hot - 48 degrees each day, and though the meditation hall had air conditioning, the residences didn't. A ceiling fan didn't quite cut it for the first few days - eventually you just get used to it and the constant sweat eventually slows.
• There were plenty of water filters around and clay jugs around (I drank about 7 litres per day)
• The open grounds are spacious, though very dry due to the weather. It was too hot to go on walks during the breaks - but so lovely at sunset!
- 80% older Indians (very dedicated meditators)
- 4 monks from the Mahabodhi Society
- 4 Westerners (myself, travel bud Roberto and Stu and Drew from Brisbane)
- 2 meals per day
- Indian food - balanced, ultra nutritious and tasty!
- Occasional treats like mango lassi
- Fruit and tea were provided for new students in the afternoon (old students can only have lemon juice)
- Food is taken in the mess hall
- Participants sit on the floor at small tables in the traditional Indian manner (proper table and chairs were available for older participants)
- 4am - Wake up bell rings
- 4:30 - Group meditation in the hall
- 6:30 - Breakfast
- 7:00 - Rest and wash break
- 8:00 - Group meditation
- 9:00 - Guided meditation to progress the practice (sit of determination*)
- 10:00 - Practice on own
- 11:00 - Lunch
- 13:00 - Group meditation
- 14:30 - Guided meditation to progress the practice (sit of determination*)
- 15:30 - Solo practice
- 17:00 - Afternoon tea
- 18:00 - Group practice
- 19:00 - Discourse
- 20:00 - Group mediation
- 21:00 - Sleep
- 10 days, meditating (sitting upright without support) for 10 hours of each day.
- To live as a monk, dissolving the the ego completely. Relying of the servitude and charity of others (i.e. the centres are funded by past donations and volunteers who serve and assist participants). No money is accepted in advance of the course.
- To observe the precepts required for Vipassana
- No Intoxicants to distort the body and mind. Absolute clarity is required for the practice
- No medication (unless approved)
- No killing or eating meat
- No speaking. There are many reasons for this. The main being so that you don't compare your experience with other meditators. The focus of Vipassana is to observe sensations on the body - if you discuss with others you will crave and look for particular sensations, as opposed to allowing a natural process of arising to occur. The other reason is to keep the mind focused internally.
- No sexual activity
- No reading, music or any other distractions
- Strong commitment and resolve is required….
Phases of Meditation & Learning Dhamma
There are two distinct phases of the Vipassana course......
For the first 4 days, the focus is completely on the breath, nothing else. When we meditate Anapana we focus only on the small area around the entrance to the nostril. Observing respiration, observing the air passing in and out of the nose. This process sharpens the mind, develops the deep concentration required for Vipassana. This is essential preparation for Vipassana.
In the initial stages the mind screams for distraction, jumping from one topic to the next as you try to concentrate on the breath and sit still in position.
Without distraction (TV, music, talking, eating, reading, intoxicants, etc), the subconscious becomes free - it comes to the fore. Your memory becomes sharp and active. This can be initially painful for some, but so ultimately liberating as the law of nature is allowed run its course without suppression.
If you have seen the film Inception - you will remember Leo's character keeps layers of his subconscious locked in basement levels of the mind. The defilements occasionally free themselves causing havoc.
Vipassana unlocks those doors so the defilements can arise. Mother nature takes care of the rest. Nothing can pass away unless it can arise.
If fear emerges (past, present or future), the sensations in the body arise and eventually pass.
If craving emerges - let it, but don't react... arising and passing away.
Buddha taught his students to remain equanimous. Use meditation to allow sankaras to arise in order to pass away.
Buddha also discovered… through meditation, over time you begin to experience of the impermanence of everything - your subatomic self, your thoughts, your emotions - once you let things truly arise without suppression, they pass and fade away to nothingness… the law of nature is the law of nature.....
Through this process you understand the true link of body and mind - at the experiential level
This is merely the beginning… the beginning to the long path of dhamma, the long path to enlightenment - true happiness, fearlessness, anxious-less, to become the observer is to become the ultimate participant. To be truly alive.
Buddha said that an enlightened person remains equanimous in the face of sensations of craving or aversion in the body.
Sitting cross legged and upright for extended periods can be tough. The first 4 days were excruciating on my back and legs. Though as my back slowly strengthened and legs became more flexible and relaxed it became easier to sit and focus…
...... always on the breath, to observe what is happening in the mind and body without reacting - like watching a fiim…
Vipassana is an Indian sanskrit word meaning to see this as they truly are.
This is the second stage of the course and a difficult, yet liberating one.
When you understand Vipassana, you understand why Anapana is such an important precursor.
After completing 4 days of Anapana mediation the mind becomes very sharp, focused and concentrated. 4 days of Anapana is essential preparation for Vipassana.
Vipassana penetrates the deepest level of your physical and mental self to allowing observation of all sankaras in the body.... in order to allow nature to take it's course.
Very difficult at first. Second nature given time.
Now, rather than focus only on respiration and air passing through the nostrils, you very slowly scan your attention throughout the entire body, leaving no part unchecked. You go through this process repeatedly for each 1 hour sitting. It requires optimum focus and concentration.
When you scan the body in deep concentration of Vipassana all of your sankaras become apparent through sensations. You feel both pleasant and unpleasant sensations throughout the body - some gross unpleasant sensations, some very pleasant subtle sensations.
Vipassana is to remain equanimous to the sensations within this deep awareness - understanding the impermanence of all things - the law of nature. Experience the impermanence of the unpleasant sensations. Let them arise and pass away without reacting. Simply observe them as sensations. Do not generate aversion to the unpleasantness or else new sankaras will generate.
As you observe yourself in this manner for 10 hours per day, in deep meditation. the law of nature begins to take effect. The body and mind develops strength. There is an awakening. Sankaras of craving and aversion boil to the surface, and like bubbles they pass away to nothingness.
You also start to see a change in everyone around you. There is no talking, but you can see strength and resolve in their faces.
A Vipassana meditator becomes aware of sensations, not only during meditation but always. This is a conditioning exercise to become always aware of sensations.... and see them as they truly are.
Eventually craving becomes a mere observation, it does not distract you. Fear becomes a mere observation. Anger becomes a mere observation. These things of course never go away, you always experience them. Vipassana practice does not quell or suppress these sensations, you do not become a robot, but you become aware - completely aware, and freedom is in awareness.
Awareness of impermanence, and equanimity in the face of sensations in the body was Buddha's great discovery and the path to enlightenment.
The mind and body are linked as one. To remove the defilements of the mind, to be completely free one must let the sankaras of the body arise and pass away. As the bodily sankaras pass away, the thoughts remain, however they have no power in the body.... This is also what Buddha came to know.
Later in the course (for me it was around day 8) you begin to experience your own sub-atomic impermanence. I had tingling sensations throughout the entire body, as my mind caught glimpses of my own subatomic structure arising, passing away, arising passing away.
At this deep level of inner concentration I felt blood passing through my vessels. Activity under the skull became apparent, and I could feel my organs at work. You have complete understanding of the self - the physical and mental self. You feel everything within and have complete control and understanding.
Sit of Determination and Endurance
It is a general rule that participants sit upright, with their legs crossed for the duration of the hourly sittings. It is also a rule, that for 3 of the sittings, participants must not uncross their arms or legs for the entire time.
The reason is that, no matter how much pain arises, you must remain equanimous.
Equanimity is the key to enlightenment throughout the course. If you react to sensations in the body you get no benefit.
If you move, you are reacting to aversion. This is indeed a harsh sensation on the body, as the legs scream to move. You cannot injure yourself in this position - the body likes distractions though - so it wants to move.
An enlightened person can sit still. They sit can happily without moving, eating, shifting, fidgeting, talking, distracting themselves in some way - they are at peace. Sankaras have been allowed to pass. They need no distraction. They are at ease in their body and mind.
This is why you see Buddha sitting happily. This is why Buddhists meditate. They continually cleanse their sankaras. They do not require distraction in a permanent state of awareness.
Sitting cross legged. unmoving and upright for 1 hour straight is hard. I only managed to do this on a number of occasions during the entire course. Strangely enough these were the occasions when I found the deepest level of concentration. neutrality and equanimity. Mostly, I had to recross my legs once or twice each sitting.
Every evening there were 1 hour discourses lead by S.N Goenka (now in his mid 80s) - via DVD.
As most of the participants were Indian, the Hindi version was conducted in the main hall and Goenka's English discourse was in a smaller hall for foreigners.
As the course is the same everywhere, there is no need for students to break their silence. Just to listen, learn and understand, and be coached.
Everything I have written here is an interpretation of these discourses.
As Goenka explains Buddha's teaching and rationale in detail, along with many stories of Buddha's time as a teacher, he also acknowledges the challenges that many people face on particular days. This helps! There are universal nods and occasional laughs amongst participants…despite the silence, there is camaraderie.
Goenka stresses that this practice in non sectarian. People in the west make the mistake of thinking of Buddhism as a religion like Christianity. It is not. Buddha's explained that praying to a God, chanting, rites and rituals did nothing for liberating oneself. The individual must look inwardly for this. Buddha made dhamma available to anyone who wanted to learn.
It is a physical and mental practice - not religious or spiritual.
Decline of Buddhism in India
Though Buddha made an enormous impact in his home of India (he was born a Hindu Prince), and whilst Hindus acknowledge his contribution and teaching in Asia, his dhamma folded back into the enormous, ancient Hindu pantheon, and subsequently it was largely distorted and lost.
Hinduism is possibly the oldest strongest standing religious culture on Earth.
And so, true Buddhists of India are now a very small minority, but so very delightful and insightful people.
It was amazing to study with them.
Vipassana meditation practice is one of the greatest lessons I have experienced.
It is perhaps a simple ideal - observing sensations in the body with the understanding of nature's law as a path to enlightenment.
Though when you do a course like this, the rationale behind the (minimum) 10 day stay becomes clear. It took at least 8 days to clear my sankaras, enabling a free flow through the body, and to reach the level of concentration required to practice Vipassana at the deepest level of my body and mind.
We learn that if one distracts themselves from craving and aversion, then the sankaras are suppressed… and they grow. Movies, music, intoxicants, "taking your mind away' does not dissolve your sankaras. These past-times are not discouraged in the life of a Vipassana meditator. There are no rules like that.
However distractions cannot be used to remedy unpleasant sensations in the body. Suppression only compounds misery in both the body and mind.
You are never sad, you experience the sensation of sadness in the body. Nobody says you have to suppress the emotion. nor does anyone magically generate that emotion and place it within you.
Magic happens when you make the distinction of being and merely experiencing the sensation and allowing it to arise and pass away as an observation.
The path to enlightenment is to journey out of all forms of craving and aversion by observing them as they are. Observe sensations, let them arise and pass, equanimously - the law of nature takes care of the rest for you!
Following the course I felt an enormous change in my body and mind. The stored sankaras of craving and aversions did arise. There were many - especially in the first few days. I was also able to recount my entire existence as a by product of isolation. As the cleansing process ensued I felt lighter, more alert, stronger and fearless.
Gautama The Buddha was a great man.
Whenever I see his face I remember to scan for sensations, and think of his great discovery....the art of living.... I can't help but smile.
Take care. keep smiling :-)