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From Traditional Roots to Modern Mindfulness: The Movement of Vipassana Meditation in the 20th Century

S. N. Goenka. From medium.com

Meditation is a core practice of Buddhism and since ancient times has involved two core components: samatha (tranquility) and vipassana (insight). Samatha meditation focuses on quieting the mind through single-pointed attention, while vipassana allows for insight into the true nature of things. While it is not always certain when this dual stream of meditation became the “inherited” meditative tradition of Theravada nikayas (monastic orders), by the 19th and 20th centuries Theravada Buddhist devotees and teachers had expanded the vipassana meditation movement from being practiced by secluded forest monks in South and Southeast Asia, to being a household name among the spiritually inclined in the West.

The movement was initially popularized in Myanmar by monks such as Ledi Sayadaw (1846–1923), a charismatic and erudite monastic who was one of the early meditation teachers in Myanmar. He is remembered for popularizing samatha meditation, notably among laypeople. Saya Thethyi (1873–1945) was one of Ledi Sayadaw’s many well-known lay disciples, and his student U Ba Khin (1899–1971) was perhaps the most important lay meditation instructor in contemporary Myanmar. The famous S. N. Goenka (1924–2013), an Indo-Burmese businessman turned meditator, was U Ba Khin’s student. He further contributed to the spread of vipassana through his retreats and seminars worldwide. His efforts led to the establishment of the Vipassana Research Institute in India in 1985, with its objective being to promote insight meditation practice and research.

Ledi Sayadaw. From buddho.org

Mahasi Sayadaw (1904–82) was another famous meditation-teacher monk in contemporary Myanmar. His influence on modern vipassana meditation across the world is enormous. Anagarika Shri Munindra (1915–2003) of Bangladesh, known to his disciples as Munindraji, was a student of Mahasi Sayadaw. He learnt vipassana meditation at the Sasana Yeiktha Meditation Centre in Yangon. He spent 10 years in Myanmar practicing satipattana meditation and studied the entire scripture of the Pali Tipitaka and its commentaries. In 1966, he left Myanmar for India and settled in Bodh Gaya for the promotion of meditation in India. Author Mirka Knaster highlights the motivation for the journey of Munindraji from Myanmar to the homeland:

When Munindra departed for India in 1966 . . .  he took with him twenty-six crates of Buddhist books as well as the blessings of the vipassanā community. He was, in fact, fulfilling a Burmese Buddhist prophecy that anticipated a resurgence of Buddhism and vipassanā meditation 2,500 years after the Buddha. This helps to explain not only why Munindra felt called to return to India and teach vipassanā where it had been unavailable for so many centuries.

(Knaster 2010, 7)
Anagarika Shri Munindra. From alchetron.com

As word of his knowledge and experience spread, Munindraji garnered the attention of Western vipassana practitioners and became a key figure in the growing popularity of vipassana in the West. In 1976, several of his students, including Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, which became one of the most important centres for vipassana meditation in North America. This led to a period of rapid growth in interest in vipassana in the West. In turn, these two household names in mindfulness had deep roots with an influential figure from South Asia and Myanmar. The journey of Dipa Ma (1911–89) remains one of the most powerful examples of how mindfulness can help an apparently normal person transform her emotional struggles into an extraordinary calling to promote her own well-being and that of others.

Dipa Ma is known as a vipassana meditation master from Bangladesh in the 20th century, but she started as an ordinary mother. Despite facing the tragic loss of her family members, she found solace and understanding through vipassana meditation practices at the Sasana Yeiktha Meditation Centre in Yangon. She later settled in Kolkata, India. Regarding the transformation she has expressed, she urged:

You have seen me. I was disheartened and broken down due to the loss of my husband and children and due to disease. I suffered so much. I could not walk properly. But now how are you finding me? All my disease is gone. I am refreshed, and there is nothing in my mind. There is no sorrow, no grief. I am quite happy. If you come to meditate, you will also be happy. There is no magic. Only follow the instructions.

(Schimidt 2005, 150)
Dipa Ma. From facebook.com

Joseph Goldstein and Jack Engler were both deeply motivated by Dipa Ma. To develop Buddhist spirituality in the West, they invited Dipa Ma to the US in 1980 and 1984. She became a teacher to not only Goldstein and Salzberg but also other familiar names such as Sylvia Boorstein and Jack Kornfield. She has also influenced the women’s movement within the Buddhist meditation community. Kornfield is an American writer and instructor in the vipassana movement, practicing American Theravada Buddhism. He initially studied under the guidance of Thai forest master Ajahn Chah and Mahasi Sayadaw, undergoing Buddhist monastic training in Thailand, Myanmar, and India. Since 1974, he has been teaching mindfulness meditation.

In advocating for the practice of meditation, Kornfield and other teachers within the tradition often downplay the religious aspects of Buddhism, such as rituals, chanting, devotional practices, accumulation of merit, and doctrinal studies. In Kornfield’s perspective, mindfulness meditation stands as a powerful practice on its own:

We wanted to offer the powerful practices of insight meditation, as many of our teachers did, as simply as possible without the complications of rituals, robes, chanting and the whole religious tradition.

(Insight Meditation Centre)
Sharon Salzberg. From sharonsalzberg.com

Traditional teachings of vipassana meditation focus on liberation from successive births, while contemporary American teachers such as Kornfield emphasize freedom within one’s current life. For example, Mahasi Sayadaw says that the goal is to break free from the cycle of existence (samsara):

Every effort should therefore be made to acquaint oneself with the miserable conditions of Samsara and then to work for an escape from this incessant cycle, and for the attainment of Nirvana. If an escape from Samsara as a whole is not possible for the present, an attempt should he made for an escape at least from the round of rebirth in the realm of hell, or animals, or petas. In this case it is necessary to work for the total removal from oneself of the erroneous view that there is a self, which is the root-cause of rebirth in the miserable states.

(Insight Meditation Centre)

In contrast, Kornfield’s emphasis is that mindfulness meditation can bring about profound change in one’s present life rather than bring about transcendental liberation:

For twenty-five hundred years the practices and teachings of Buddhism have offered a systematic way to see clearly and live wisely. They have offered a way to discover liberation within our own bodies and minds, in the midst of this very world.

(Insight Meditation Centre)
Joseph Goldstein. From shambhala.com

Regarding the therapeutic aspect of meditation, Kornfield believes that it can be a powerful tool for healing and personal growth:

I have observed that we would call psychological transformation, in which people become increasingly aware of different motivation patterns, different kinds of attachment, and different images for relationship, in most profound ways. Through practice and through a sitting meditation discipline that is most central in Buddhism I have observed many people going through the kind of growth that also happens in psychotherapy.

(Ken Jones 2005, 109)

While Buddhism is typically associated with monastic practices, there has been a shift toward offering meditation retreats for laypeople in modern society. These retreats often incorporate devotional practices, storytelling, and traditional rituals alongside meditation, aiming to cultivate spiritual well-being in everyday life.

Vipassana meditation practice has gained popularity in both religious and secular settings due to its various benefits for mental health and overall well-being. It helps to reduce stress, promote relaxation, and improve our overall quality of life. It is remarkable to see how it has developed and influenced different fields over the years.

References

Jones, Ken, 2003. The New Social Face of Buddhism: AN Alternative Sociopolitical Perspective. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.
Knaster, Mirka,  2010. Living This Life Fully: Stories and Teachings of Munindra. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications.
Schmidt, Amy, 2005. Dipa Ma: The Life and Legacy of a Buddhist Master. Cambridge: Windhorse Publications.

See more

S. N. Goenka (Vipassana Research Institute)
Insight Meditation in the United States: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness (Insight Meditation Centre)

Related features from BDG

Lessons Beyond the Meditation Hall
Vipassana Meditation and Mindfulness
Dipa Ma: The Daughters of the Buddha Are Fearless
Dipa Ma – An extraordinary female Buddhist master in the twentieth century
Commemorating the Centenary of the Birth of Vipassana Meditation Master Munindraji

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Damian
Damian
1 month ago

Actually Munindra ended up spending most of his time until he passed away at Dhamma Giri with Goenkagyi