In circa 262 BC, Emperor Asoka, an addicted warmonger, murderer of his own brothers and conqueror of Kalinga, came repentant to Bairath. In Bairath, located about 85 km from modern Jaipur, he profoundly changed himself and then unleashed a chain of benevolent actions that changed his country and the world for all time to come. He was not the first victorious king to be remorseful after hearing grieving parents crying in a blood-soaked battlefield. But old habits die hard and greed is hard to control. Eradicating deep-rooted impurities need purification of the mind and that calls for vipassana.
Vipassana, or ‘insight meditation’, was being taught at Bairath, the capital of the Matsya kingdom (now in Rajasthan) in the third century BC. Vipassana is the non-sectarian practice of purifying the mind by objectively observing the truth of impermanence. Everything changes every moment. Nothing lasts forever. Directly experiencing this often painful truth reduces attachment to a big ego—a major cause of most of our suffering. Lost for eons, vipassana was rediscovered by a crown prince-turned-ascetic who practised it to become the enlightened one, the Buddha. Vipassana is the practical quintessence of his teaching. The late ‘Principal Teacher of Vipassana’, Acharya Satya Narayan Goenka, highlighted how the Buddha was not a founder of a religion, inventor of an ‘ism’ or the leader of a cult. Such misconceptions, confusions and distortions were born after the actual practice of vipassana died in India about 500 years after the Buddha.
Acharya Goenka often referred to ‘Gotama Buddha’ (Gautama is said to be a corruption of ‘Gotama’, the correct spelling and pronunciation of the name according to Pali texts and the Vipassana Research Institute) as a ‘super-scientist’, as he famously did while addressing the United Nations in New York, in May 2002. Acharya Goenka (who is also referred to as Goenkaji) further wrote in a landmark Vipassana Research Institute article on Emperor Asoka and vipassana, “The best place back then [third century BC] to learn vipassana was Bairath, where the monk Upagupta taught. So handing over power to his subordinates, Asoka set out for Bairath. After 300 days, he returned to his capital a changed man.”
Second century BC texts such as Ashokavadana and Divyavadana narrate the life of saint Upagupta and his student Emperor Asoka. Upagupta’s teacher Sanakavasi in turn was a student of Ananda, a cousin and personal attendant of the Buddha.
Like the Buddha, Myanmar-born Satya Narayan ‘Sayagyi’ Goenka (‘Sayagyi’ being the Burmese for ‘Respected Teacher’) taught vipassana for nearly 45 years. Born in Mandalay, his ancestors were from Churu in Rajasthan. On September 29, 2013, Sayagyi Goenka, aged 89, passed away peacefully in Mumbai, in the country of his ancestors. In his eulogy, one of the senior most monks of Myanmar, Ashin Nyanissara, called Sayagyi Goenka “The Modern Day Asoka”, for his efforts and unprecedented success in sharing vipassana worldwide.
At the time of Sayagyi Goenka’s death, India was nearing its next general election, and the only prime ministerial candidate who had come to pay respects to the deceased vipassana teacher was to become India’s next prime minister. After visiting Goenkaji’s residence in Mumbai on September 30, Narendra Modi wrote on Twitter, “Shri S N Goenka will be remembered for adding joy and meaning in human life through his teachings. Saddened by his demise. RIP.”
On October 2, 2014, Prime Minister Modi launched the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) movement in line with Gandhiji’s wishes. “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” was one of Gandhiji’s favourite sayings. He advocated a clean body, clean surroundings and a clean mind for a healthy life. Similarly, vipassana aims to clean the mind.
With benevolent foresight, Asoka had sent vipassana ambassadors to neighbouring countries such as Burma (now Myanmar). But within 200 years after Asoka, sectarian rituals polluted pure vipassana practice in India. Thereafter, a weakened India suffered centuries of invasions and colonial subjugation. In neighbouring Burma, however, a succession of teachers preserved vipassana—Asoka’s gift from Bairath.
Centuries later, to reinstate vipassana in the land of its origin, Burmese citizen and a leader of the Hindu community of Rangoon (former capital of Myanmar), Sayagyi Goenka, landed at Dum Dum airport in Kolkata on June 21, 1969. He arrived as the vipassana ambassador of his teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin, who also was independent Burma’s first accountant general. He began teaching vipassana to free individuals from negativities and the country from blind beliefs and sectarian and caste divisions. Thus, Mumbai hosted the first vipassana course in India in centuries on July 13, 1969.
In Myanmar, with the support of Prime Minister U Nu, Sayagyi U Ba Khin had effectively used vipassana meditation to remove corruption from four governmental departments. In India, this legacy of governmental reform has now reappeared at the Global Pagoda at Gorai Island, Mumbai, where The Dhamma Pattana Vipassana Centre hosts two vipassana courses a month for government officials, professionals and the business community. The courses usually get fully booked two months in advance. It is heartening to see that India, as in Asoka’s days, has once again taken to encouraging vipassana, especially among administrators, with governmental circulars even offering paid leave if officials attend these vipassana courses.
The Vipassana Pagoda in Mumbai, built with 2.5 million tonnes of red stones trucked from Jodhpur, Rajasthan, has a replica of the Asoka Pillar. Mumbai has six vipassana centres and has the largest number of vipassana students in the world.
Vipassana controls the wandering mind from rolling in the past or future, in memories and fantasies, assumptions and presumptions. It trains the mind to live in the present.
Vipassana has also been put to use in New Delhi’s Tihar Jail—one of the world’s largest prisons. In 1993, the then new inspector-general of prisons, Kiran Bedi, was searching for a method to make prisoners come out of anger and self-pity. A jail officer suggested vipassana. So happy was she with the results that in April 1994 she organised a vipassana course for over 1,000 Tihar prisoners, which was the largest vipassana course to be held in modern times. Bedi’s revolutionary reforms led to the establishment of Dhamma Tihar, a vipassana centre within Jail No 4 of Tihar.
In the two 10-day courses that have followed every month since 1994, convicts and undertrials have worked to gradually transform themselves with daily practice of vipassana. It takes courage to face ugly truths within. But thanks to vipassana, in Dhamma Tihar, the country lost criminals and gained citizens.
About 11 years later, one cold January day in Delhi, a journalist from Mumbai entered Tihar Jail to conduct a 10-day vipassana course as a voluntary assistant teacher. He lived inside the prison for the next 11 days. Before a vipassana course commences, students are required to submit an introductory form. At Dhamma Tihar, each form had an extra line indicating the Indian Penal Code (IPC) section under which the Tihar inmate in question had been charged. The assistant teacher kept this line covered with his hand while reading the forms. Seeing the prisoners meditate so peacefully, the assistant teacher reckoned most of them may have been arrested for minor crimes. He again read the students’ forms, and found one particular section of IPC appearing often. “For what crime is this particular section?” he asked the course manager, a cheerful young Frenchman serving a ten-year sentence for drug smuggling. “Murder,” he replied.
The power of equanimity
Vipassana enables change through the realisation of the most essential truth: that we hurt ourselves when we hurt others—even in thoughts. When angry, a vipassana meditator becomes aware of unpleasant sensations within, but the mind is trained to observe these sensations with equanimity—as opposed to the earlier habit pattern of blind reaction. Unable to fathom this change in inner reality, non-practitioners usually blame the apparent external cause for their problems. Therefore, whether a prison inmate or multi-billionaire, the real enemy is not external causes but the impurities within the mind.
Dhamma Tihar serves as a reminder that it’s not “good” or “bad” people who fill this world, but only people who commit foolish or ‘non-foolish’ actions. Through good and bad, the inescapable chain of cause and effect continues as it once did for Emperor Asoka. Subtle yet deep, like powerful unseen currents in vast oceans, vipassana has engineered individual change in over 90 countries through over 350 course locations. After all, change for the better, be it a country or the world, starts with the individual!
Effecting inner change
At the apparent level, we react to people and situations outwardly. Somebody, for example, abuses us, and we fume. But instead of fuming, the vipassana practitioner experiences an actual truth: that we react to an inner biochemical flow that arises on hearing the words. This unpleasant flow of sensations arise instantly from the sense organs upon coming in contact with the outside world. The vipassana meditator experiences how every unhappy or happy thought arises with a sensation. For instance, our eyes see something that our mind evaluates (from past conditioning) as ‘very beautiful’, and a pleasant flow of sensation arises. But, with words of abuse, burning sensations arise with thoughts of anger.
The deepest part of the mind remains active 24/7, but not with the outside world—it constantly reacts with craving or aversion to this biochemical flow of sensations. We remain ignorant of it, however. Just as the eyes give us the faculty to see, vipassana gives us insight that enables us to see the reality within. Vipassana (which means ‘see things in their true nature’ in Pali language) is the Buddha’s unique and most beneficial discovery that gives the world the power to change oneself for the better by understanding the changing world within.
Our sufferings or happiness depend not on external events but on how we choose to respond. Instead of blind reaction, the vipassana practitioner responds with equanimity towards the impermanent inner biochemical flow. Pure equanimity to sensations gradually eradicates past conditioning of negative reactions to any situation in life. With no new fuel added, the fire burns out the accumulated fuel of past unwholesome reactions. Negative thought patterns like anger, insecurity, fear, self-pity and passion fade away.
With our mind gradually cleaned of accumulated garbage, we find that our world has changed for the better, because our responses have changed for the better to the ups and downs of life. Vipassana enables us to starkly experience how much we suffer by generating impurities of the mind and come out of this self-inflicted suffering. And a deep heartfelt wish arises that others too be free from such suffering.