Popularly known as Insight Meditation, Vipassanā (literally “seeing intensely”) is found in the early Buddhist texts as part of a contemplative balance as “seeing intensely with tranquility” samatho ca vipassanā. This contemplative endeavor is given by the Buddha as a combined practice of correct ethical behavior, meditation technique, and a disciplined awareness of the interaction experienced with mental-physical phenomena. This practice leads to the cultivation of knowledge (vijjā) of the causes (samudaya) of problematic and dissatisfying mental reactions (dukkha), and the release (nirodha) of them through the arising of wisdom (pañña).
This effort is detailed in the Buddha’s instructions on the development and practice of mindfulness (sati) for the calming of the mind and body toward the examination of mental phenomena which lead to dissatisfying, unwholesome mental processes and their resulting behaviors. These instructions can be found in the Ānāpānasati Sutta (Discourse on Mindfulness of in and out breathing – MN. 118), Kāyagatāsati Sutta (Discourse on Mindfulness Established in the Body – MN. 119) and the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (Discourse on the Progression of Mindfulness – MN. 10), among many other sources where this theme is collected or detailed.
Commentarial research on this development of knowledge and wisdom was exhaustively detailed during a period of scholastic writing which began approximately 300 years after the demise of the Buddha. From this we are given an analysis of mental and physical phenomena detailed in the Abhidhamma Pitaka (Basket of Higher Doctrine), in the 5th century CE a compendium of contemplative instructions found in the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification), as well as other commentarial writings compiled under the editorial guidance of Venerable Buddhaghosa Ācariya.
Vipassanā Meditation as we find it today was taken up much later by scholarly and contemplative monastics in Burma.
Ledi Sayādaw (1846 – 1923) was possibly the first to revive Vipassanā from the early Suttas and later commentarial texts into a living contemplative practice in Burma. Sayādaw published extensively on Dhamma topics later compiled as The Manuals of Buddhism. Of these, The Manual of Insight (Vipassanā Dīpanī) was introduced as a guide for Vipassanā practitioners. His teaching lineage continued through his lay-student U Ba Khin and developed into worldwide centers through U Ba Khin’s student S. N. Goenka, who, with leave of his teacher, began teaching in India in 1969. Goenka later established the Dhamma Giri Meditation Center in Igatpuri India, a fulfillment of his teacher’s wish to bring Vipassanā back to Indian soil. Since then Goenka Centers have been established around the world. The Vipassanā Research Institute was establishment in India in 1985, an educational resource providing materials for Vipassanā practitioners and scholars of the early Pāli texts.
Mahasi Sayādaw (1904 – 1982) began teaching Vipassanā in 1938 in his home village, and then later in 1947 he became the guiding influence of the Mahāsi Sāsana Yeiktha meditation center in the old Burmese capitol of Rangoon. Sayādaw also published extensively on Dhamma topics and annotated translations of key discourses of the Buddha. Published in the West as The Progress of Insight is his Discourse on Purification and Knowledge (visuddhi ñāṇa kathā), a manual based on the seven purifications (satta visuddhi) found in Buddhaghosa Ācariya’s Visuddhimagga. This work has been a key instruction manual providing concise application of these principles to the daily practice of advanced Vipassanā students. In 1979 Sayādaw began offering retreats in the West and was a significant influence of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre Massachusetts. His teaching lineage has continued through his Dhamma heir Sayādaw U Pandita.
The Vipassanā Movement:
What has been called the Vipassanā Movement in the United States began with the founding of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre Massachusetts in 1975 by meditation teachers Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield. The guiding influences of IMS were based on the teachings of the Venerables Mahasi Sayādaw, Ajhan Chah and Sayādaw U Pandita. This endeavor has expanded to the Forest Refuge, also in Barre Massachusetts, and Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre California. At these centers, meditation retreats and courses are offered throughout the year, and IMS teachers lend their support to Vipassanā communities across the country.
Yellow Springs Dharma Center holds Vipassanā Retreats annually, led by Rebecca Bradshaw of Insight Meditation Society. Rebecca has been practicing Vipassana meditation since 1983 and teaching since 1993. Besides her work at IMS, Rebecca teaches at other locations in the United States and at Kyaswa Monastery in Sagaing, Myanmar. She is a psychotherapist, the guiding teacher of the Insight Meditation Center of Pioneer Valley, MA, and the Buddhist Advisor at Mt Holyoke College.