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A Brief History of Insight Meditation

What we now call Insight Meditation began as a response to colonialism in Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand in 19/20th centuries with a re-assertion of indigenous cultural traditions in the face of colonial influences. At this time much of Buddhist practice had become reduced to temple ritual, devotional practices and the study of texts. An emphasis on meditation was re-awakened as the heart of the practice particularly in the form of insight into impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) and not-self (anatta).

Two strands can be identified in the development of the Insight Meditation tradition-the Burmese and Thai.

Burmese

The Burmese strand began in 18th century with Medawi – who wrote vipassana manuals based on the Satipatthana sutta (The Foundations of Mindfulness) and its commentaries.

It was Ledi Sayadaw (1846 – 1923) an influential Theravada Buddhist monk  who coined the phrase “vipassana meditation”. This phrase is not used in the Pali Canon, (the canon of earliest discourses attributed to the Buddha). In the Canon vipassana (clear seeing, insight) is the fruit of practice, not a specific meditation practice. Also samatha meditation (the cultivation of calm and concentration) was seen as unnecessary or of a lesser value than vipassana practices. He wrote many meditation manuals in Burmese and these were accessible to lay people, hence he was responsible for spreading meditation to all levels of society making it more available for monastics and lay people alike.

This approach was popularised in the 20th century by Mahasi Sayadaw (1904 -1982) who introduced what became known as the New Burmese Satipatthana Method or the Mahasi Approach.

The New Burmese Satipatthana Method or the Mahasi Approach

This approach became popular in the West by westerners who had Mahasi Sayadaw and S N Goenka as their teachers. It was characterised by a focus on insight practice rather than samatha; by the practice of “bare labeling” of meditational experience and by intensive retreats of 10 days to several months. These retreats were open to lay practitioners – something new.

The Thai Forest Tradition

In Thailand the Venerable Mun Bhuridatta  (1870–1949) established, along with his mentor, Ajahn Sao Kantasīlo, the Thai Forest Tradition that subsequently spread throughout Thailand and to several countries abroad. Mun Bhuridatta  taught vipassana in tandem with samatha meditation.

Monastics practised in remote forest areas and were known for their orthodoxy, conservatism and strict adherence to the vinaya – the monastic code of conduct. The forest tradition was also notable for its direct approach to awakening through intense meditational practice and insight into the three characteristics of impermanence, not-self and unsatisfactoriness.

The most notable teacher was Ajahn Chah (1918 – 1992).  Jack Kornfield and other western Insight Meditation teachers studied under him. Ajahn Sumedho, an American monk ordained in the Thai Forest Tradition returned from Thailand to set up the Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in UK near Hemel Hemstead in 1984.

United States and the West

In the 1960’s and 70’s there was a resurgence of interest in Buddhism amongst westerners and many travelled to India, Burma and Thailand to experience Buddhist practice firsthand.  The growth in 1970/80’s of Insight Meditation in the USA was due to the return of Westerners from their experiences in the East. A synthesis of Thai and Burmese practices developed. Instrumental teachers were Jack Kornfield, Joe Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg who led retreats for lay practitioners often based on Goenka retreats but adapted and modified.

Kornfield, Goldstein and Salzberg founded the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts and later the Spirit Rock Centre in California. Insight meditation centres now exist throughout the US.

Sharon Salszberg and Joeseph Goldstein

The movement de- emphasized the overtly religious elements of Buddhism such as chanting devotion, merit making and doctrinal study to focus on meditation.

An integrative approach developed teaching samatha and vipassana in tandem and without the heavy weight of eastern cultural and religious practices.

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” Kornfield

Other influential American teachers today are Tara Brach, Shaila Catherine, Christina Feldman, Ruth Denison, Gill Fronsdal and many others.

United Kingdom

In the UK Gaia House, a retreat centre in Devon, was set up in 1983 by Christopher Titmus and Christina Feldman. Gaia House offers silent Insight Meditation retreats in the Buddhist tradition.

Gaia House now has many offshoots such as London Insight, Bristol Insight, Bath Insight, Oxford Insight, Sheffield Insight and Frome Insight. These centres exist to support the practice of Insight Meditation and develop a sense of community (sangha).

Qualities and characteristics of the Insight Meditation Tradition today

  1. It aspires to be non-dogmatic and non-sectarian. It therefore has a loose definition and is open to many other influences e.g. Zen, Secular Mindfulness, and psychotherapy. It can be characterized as “Buddhish” rather than “card carrying” Buddhist.
  2. Non-imitative of eastern Buddhist cultures and therefore more culturally appropriate to westerners. Imitating eastern traditions is seen to easily lead to becoming encultured, rather than enlightened.
  3. Non-hierarchical. It does not put any teachers on a pedestal or give them a special status and thus avoids possible abuses of power, personality cults and the like. Most of the teachers are lay practitioners, although monastics are frequently invited to lead retreats. It is not a top down organization, but an informal network of centres that seems to grow organically from their roots, which is of course the best place from which to grow.
  4. It endeavors to be egalitarian, inclusive, peer-led, participatory and experiential in its approach and practices.
  5. It engages with modern urban life and with social and environmental activism.

Mike Baker 2/2/21