by Gil Fronsdal
Reprinted from Tricycle Fall 2001
The last thirty years has seen an exponential growth of the Western Vipassana community. As every indication is that this will continue, what developments can we expect over the next ten years?
The term vipassana means “clear insight” and traditionally refers to meditative insight into the impermanent, not-self, and stressful characteristics of our experience. Vipassana has a central role in the rich and developed system of liberation found in Theravada Buddhism, the Buddhism of Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Historically, many methods have been taught for developing vipassana. The method that has become most prevalent in the West equates vipassana with mindfulness practice, that is, the development of our capacity to see clearly and non-reactively into the present. This method is the one that most Westerners think of when they hear the word vipassana, and is the one that I will here identify as vipassana.
When equated with mindfulness, vipassana does not depend on doctrines, rituals, and religious institutions. It is like pure and transparent water that can take the shape of any container it flows into or the color of any dye mixed with it. As the practice has come to the West, it has easily been separated from its Theravada container. In the West, not only the Theravada container, but even the Buddhist container for vipassana is often seen as optional.
Because of vipassana’s fluidity, one of the most important and controversial developments over the next decade may be the appearance of a new form of Buddhism called “Vipassana Buddhism.” When Westerners list the three Buddhist meditation traditions most popular among Westerner convert Buddhists, Theravada is seldom mentioned; rather Vipassana is mentioned alongside Zen and Vajrayana. Certainly to the uninformed Vipassana might already seem to be a Buddhist tradition equal in status to the other two, rather than a meditation practice. With time it may well grow into such stature.
What I am calling Vipassana Buddhism has its roots in the generously non-sectarian way in which vipassana practice has often been taught in America over the last thirty years. Many people who otherwise might have been turned off from Buddhist practice were willing to try it out, and so find its benefits. But without all the elements of Theravada Buddhism, the ecumenical spirit of many vipassana students and teachers has led them to fill the Vipassana Buddhism container with elements from many traditions, including Vajrayana, Zen, Hinduism, Western psychotherapy, and even from the Theravada tradition itself. I see this as an experiment that has the potential of turning Vipassana Buddhism into a full-fledged tradition. It would be foolish to predict which of these elements will endure over the next ten years. It will be interesting to watch the process.
This is not the first time that a word for meditation has been transformed into the name of a Buddhist tradition. Zen is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese Ch’an, which is the Chinese pronunciation of a Sanskrit word for meditation, i.e., Dhyana. No one intentionally created a Zen tradition of Buddhism. The tradition was recognized once it became distinct enough to stand on its own. In the same way, no one is trying to make a Vipassana Buddhism, but I sense a strong momentum for its emergence.
Just as Zen is composed of independent lineages and schools, an emerging Vipassana Buddhism will surely not be monolithic. Each of the many vipassana groups will negotiate its own balance among the tensions inherent in evolving spiritual groups, such as tradition versus innovation, insularity versus openness, cooperation versus independence, egalitarianism versus hierarchy. Some groups will be more closely associated with Theravada Buddhism than others; some will tend toward a strongly ecumenical, “Unitarian-like” Buddhist flavor.
Beyond the possible emergence of Vipassana Buddhism, an important development over the next ten years will be the continued adaptation of the basic vipassana practices of mindfulness and insight into a variety of settings quite distinct from any Buddhist association. Already the practice is taught within Christian, Jewish, and Hindu religious contexts by teachers from these respective faiths; it is also offered in prisons, schools, and corporations; it is prescribed medically as a means of pain and stress management and therapeutically as a means for psychological transformation.
I am convinced of the effectiveness of vipassana practice in all these settings and I imagine that in ten years we will see new ways the practice is creatively adapted for each of them ñ so much so that many people will have no idea of its Buddhist origins.
Some people may be distressed to see all the ways that vipassana is becoming popularized in America. They fear that the Buddhist tradition is being watered down, with its radical message of liberation lost. I don’t see it that way. Rather I am delighted that the benefits of Buddhist practice are spilling into our wider society ñ I appreciate any genuine alleviation of suffering. And I believe the benefits will go both directions: as appreciation for mindfulness practice grows in the wider culture, that appreciation will in turn provide greater support for those places and individuals interested in going deeply into the practice. Traditionally, in Asia, people have a variety of relationships to Buddhism, with only a minority following the path of liberation, their practice supported by the larger community. I believe there will always be people who will adapt their lives to the path of practice rather than adapting the practice to their lives.
I am not concerned about the “secular” application of Buddhist practice, because I am confident that the fountainhead from which vipassana flows into Western culture will continue to be its Buddhist source. To a great extent this is because the Buddhist teachings on liberation will be the factor motivating people to engage in the full depth and range of promise that vipassana offers. Also, the places where people will be given the greatest guidance and support for intensive vipassana practice will be in Buddhist retreat centers and monasteries.
Many Theravada monasteries, Vipassana retreat centers, urban community meditation centers, and even Vipassana retirement centers are currently being planned. In ten years many of these will have been built. Some will be places for long, deep, silent retreats; others will be places for the integration of Buddhist values and principles into daily life; still others will be centers for engaged Buddhist involvement with the social needs of our wider society. I see this diversity as working together to show how rich Buddhist expression can be.
Another reason I believe vipassana will continue to flow from its Buddhist sources is that, during the next ten years, the Vipassana movement will be greatly influenced by the ancient discourses of the Buddha. Only in the last ten to fifteen years have good translations of these teachings become available. As we delve into them, we will find a wealth of teachings and inspiration that have so far mostly gone unnoticed in the West. Over the next ten years these will provide a reference to help us distinguish between what have historically been the teachings of Buddhism and what are Western interpretations and adaptations. In the process, I hope we will have much lively discussion and debate.
I expect we will also see a greater range of traditional Buddhist practices introduced to the Vipassana community. Already this is occurring with the practice of lovingkindness (metta), the meditative cultivation of goodwill toward oneself and others. Twenty years ago this practice was virtually absent in American Vipassana circles; it occurred primarily during the closing ritual of retreats. Now it is so common that it has become a cornerstone of the vipassana movement. As more people have relied on lovingkindness meditation to access deep states of meditative absorption (jhana), there has also been a steady growth in appreciation of the power of concentration practice, not least of which is its classic role for developing the vipassana insights.
The connection of vipassana to its Buddhist sources will also be strengthened by the growing number of native English-speaking Theravadin monastics. Some were trained in Asia, but an increasing number are being trained in the West. They will combine a deep understanding of the traditional teachings and familiarity with Western society. Their presence will hopefully add to the mainly lay-based vipassana movement a monastic dimension common in Asia but still largely lacking in the West.
Finally, among lay practitioners, in ten years I believe we will see a much larger pool of very mature vipassana practitioners. The current body of practitioners, many of whom have been practicing for over twenty, even thirty years, will have had ten more years to further deepen their practice and realization. People who begin vipassana practice over the next ten years will benefit from the collective experience and wisdom of these earlier practitioners. Already we are seeing a synergistic effect among people engaged in vipassana: as more people mature in the practice, it becomes easier for those who follow to do the same. I imagine that not only will this synergy continue, it will also grow stronger.
Considering the great diversity of ways that vipassana practice and vipassana groups may develop, I see points of contention that could arise. Already there are discussions over the relative merits of monastic versus lay teachers, donations versus fee based teachings, and fidelity to Asian traditions versus adaptation to Western needs. My hope is that these issues will not grow divisive. To this day, I remain inspired by one of the first Thai Buddhist monks I met. He had a peace about him that greatly moved me, so I asked him what he had attained in his years as a monk. His answer was, “non-contentiousness.” For the Vipassana movement to remain a source of inspiration for the West, it will have to maintain the same non-contentious spirit.