Monday, August 02, 2010

Vipassana Meditation – Is it a cult?... aka Buddhism for Dummies

Last year as I was traveling through India, where I had an immediate feeling of spiritual homecoming, I had the good fortune to meet a fellow traveler who told me about a program of silent meditation called Vipassana. Now, I am the most skeptical person you will ever meet (except, perhaps, for my other half), but something about it appealed to me for whatever reason, and I got it in my head that I must find a way to attend this program. In the meanwhile I endured snide comments about joining a cult (mostly from you know who) and about how it sounds like the kind of brainwashing torture they do to POWs, and I was not able to find many very clear and concise explanations online in order to defend myself. So now that I have been through the program I feel the need not only to share this amazing experience with you but to clear the air about the important question – is it, in fact, a cult?

In a word – no. Here’s what it is: 2500 years ago a man by the name of Siddhartha Gautama, who was an Indian prince, renounced all his royal riches and went off to live the humble life of a poor man in search of enlightenment. At the time, and still, there were many methods of meditation available, most of which promised to give you inner peace and liberation, etc. Gautama tried a bunch of them and settled on the technique of Vipassana. Vipassana is not a religion – let’s be clear – it is a philosophy of life and a technique of meditation that allows you to try to achieve a physical sense of that philosophy. And the philosophy is simple; it espouses three things, and three things only: sila (morality), samadhi (focusing the mind/observing one’s self), and panna (wisdom). So the idea is that through meditation you get to the root of what is going on in your mind, particularly your cravings and aversions, by really paying attention to your body’s physical sensations, and you learn to view them with equanimity, thereby tempering your reactions in life so that instead of reacting with hatred, anger, and greed, you face the world with love and compassion. This leads to a sense of inner peace and profound happiness. Basically it is a very primitive form of cognitive behavioral therapy.

So when Gautama became enlightened, he became a buddha, which just means an enlightened person – he was thus one of many buddhas, although he is the one we now refer to as The Buddha. He then spent 45 years teaching this philosophy – which is referred to as the dhamma – to as many people as he could. Over the following 5 centuries it spread to many of the neighboring countries. Over time there was opposition from various people who were making money off of people’s greed and other vices, and the dhamma slowly disappeared, only preserved in a monastery in Burma, where it was faithfully practiced and taught in the way of the Buddha to a select group of Burmese people until early in the last century, when the technique started to grow and be spread, first back to India, the land of its origin, and then around the world.

What I find to be great about it, though, is that it is open to anyone and it doesn’t ask you to change your beliefs, renounce your god(s), or even accept any part of it that you don’t like. It doesn’t make you a Buddhist (for instance, I don’t believe in the cycle of reincarnation, and I don’t have to), it is a philosophy that applies to anyone of any background or religion, and it’s one that generates an attitude of compassion, humility and servitude, and really, who can argue with that?

Vipassana courses like the one I attended are now run in many countries all over the world. You are required to start with a ten-day course (which is completely free and funded solely by the donations of past students, because of the virtues of charity and renunciation fundamental to the technique), during which you observe complete silence. I thought this would be difficult, but in fact I found it refreshing, and when the ten days were up, I didn’t want to start talking again. The reasons for the silence are manifold, but perhaps most importantly, if you can talk, you start comparing your experiences, and you start judging and feeling like you aren’t making as much progress as you should be, and then the whole idea of equanimity is blown to pieces.

The other thing that appealed to me about the course was the teacher, SN Goenka, who teaches via DVDs and recorded audio. At first I found this a bit weird, but the fact is that he is a great speaker and to be honest he is the first person that I have heard speak in a reasonable way on the subject of Buddhism. For instance, one of my big pet peeves is that people think of Buddhism as one of the world’s major religions. It is not a religion. It is a philosophy of life. Buddhism doesn’t have any gods. The Buddha is a figure who represents the philosophy, and as such people pay their respects to him, but they don’t ask him for favors, as he has no special powers. However, because it is a philosophy rather than a religion, and people seem to need religion, it gets overlaid with the local beliefs, and thus in India and Sri Lanka, for example, the gods that “Buddhists” worship are actually Hindu gods. The funny thing is that most people who call themselves Buddhists don’t even realize this, and many don’t follow the basic tenets of Buddhism.

Buddhism has a set of guidelines, and these include not killing, not lying, not stealing, etc. However, these are quite often not followed or even entirely understood by people who call themselves Buddhists. When I was in Sri Lanka, a primarily Buddhist country, I tried to get to the root of this, and started with the obvious question: why do most of them eat meat (violating the no killing rule)? I got answers that varied from “well, technically the Muslims kill the animals” to “it’s not realistic to be a vegetarian” (um, hello, have you heard of India? It’s this big country right next door where hundreds of millions of people are vegetarian…).

My hosts, sensing my interest in learning more about Buddhism, actually arranged a meeting for me with a preeminent Buddhist scholar at the university in Colombo. Ah ha! I thought, now I will finally get an answer on this subject. Here is how this part of our conversation went:

Me: So, I see that in Buddhism you aren’t supposed to kill or harm any living being. I was wondering, then, how Buddhists reconcile that with the practice of eating meat.

Professor: You know, my ten year old son asked me that the other day… and I said, “shut up!”

Ok, not very impressive for someone who is purportedly an expert. But when I got to the Vipassana course, I found that Goenka-ji was the first person I had seen who actually acknowledges the Buddhist philosophy and lives by it (and to be clear, he is a Hindu, but since it’s a philosophy, he can practice both). One of the first things he pointed out was the hypocrisy that I have been trying to get to the bottom of on this vegetarian issue. And he went on to explain the rest of the philosophy in a very clear way and one that finally agreed with all that I had read of what Buddhism is theoretically supposed to be.

I liked this anecdote of his very much, and I paraphrase:

Jesus Christ was a very great man – when you look at how he died, tortured to death, and see that he had only love and compassion for those that killed him in their ignorance, there is no doubt that he was a very great man. A student came to me once and said “oh, Goenka-ji, I am a devotee of Jesus Christ.” “Oh, wonderful,” I said. “Yes, I am a devotee because I believe he was the son of God,” said the student. “What? You think he needs your testimonial? You think if enough people say he’s the son of God then he will get all puffed up and he really will become the son of God?? No!! He doesn’t need your testimonials. If you are truly a devotee of Jesus, then you follow his morality – you are humble and compassionate. Otherwise it’s a blind devotion, and what is that worth?”

Now, this is how I’ve always felt, and this blind devotion is one of the big reasons that organized religion always really turned me off. So I was personally really impressed by this man’s insight and willingness to say it like it is. And I also really like the fact that here is a philosophy of life that espouses all the things that I believe in without resorting to eternal punishment to scare people into being good. Shouldn’t we just be good people because it’s the right thing to do and we and everyone around us will be better off for it? I’ve always thought so, and here it turns out Vipassana has been saying that for two and a half millennia!

So anyway, if you’ve reached the end of this, you should be quite proud of yourself, because I’ve gone on for a long time, but I imagine that many of you are like I was just a couple of years ago, with only a vague idea of what Buddhism is or what the Buddha actually taught, and it’s such a wonderful message that I hope I can let you in on it without you having to read some boring book. And as for Vipassana, I would encourage you to try it out. After all, it doesn’t cost anything, so if you don’t like it, all you’ve lost is 10 days (and maybe a few pounds if you play your cards right). And I can almost guarantee that if you go in with an open mind and really try to practice the technique seriously, you will come out feeling happier and more peaceful and wont regret having given that time.

One final disclaimer – I don’t consider myself a Buddhist, nor do I claim to follow any religion. I am simply someone who believes in being a good person, serving others, not harming living beings (except maybe cockroaches – ick), and being as compassionate as I can. I have no interest in converting anyone to anything, but I’d be happy to discuss this further with anyone, or point you to additional resources and information. One good place to start learning about Buddhism is, and you can find information on Goenka’s Vipassana courses at For the literary-minded, there is always Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha as well, along with a plethora of books such as What the Buddha Taught, which I haven’t read yet but have been told is a good introduction to the subject.

Be happy!

1 comment:

Sanith said...

Glad to hear you enjoyed Vipassana!

My own interests here have moved to looking at the neuroscience basis for meditative practice. The Mind And Life Institute ( organizes conferences on these themes if you are ever curious.

The question I have the most trouble with is that of re-incarnation, especially since there is no concept of soul in Buddhism...

Adventure map for 2009...