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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Vipassana: An Overview

Where I went: Geochang Farm School, situated in a nice valley about 80 km West of Daegu. Tons of apple trees, walnut trees, rice paddies, and greenhouses all around. The compound, for lack of a better word, was an elementary school for about 40 years, then became a drama school, then became the farm school.

What I went to do: A Vipassana 10-day meditation retreat in which the students practice "noble silence." (This is all I knew when I signed up).

What "Vipassna" means: There are many varieties and methods of medidation and Vipassana is just one. However, according to those who teach it, Vipassana is unique among meditation techniques in that it's the method the Buddha used to reach enlightenment, the one he taught to his followers, and the only one that gives us access to the deepest truths and can take us all the way down to the source of misery. The word, in Pali (the language Buddha delivered his sermons in, or at least the one the old scriptures are written in), means something along the lines of "right seeing" or "true insight" (into the impermanent nature of mind and body).

What Vipassana is supposed to help you achieve (I heard all of this once I got there): Happiness. Liberation from misery. To be more specific, it's supposed to help you understand the sources of suffering and unhappiness, how they're related to your mind and body, and how you can deal with them. The central premise is that if, through medidation, you develop the ability to monitor your sense perceptions closely and respond to them with equanimity, then you will be able to free yourself from craving and aversion, which more or less dominate and motivate us in dialy life.

Why I went: I met lots of people in Sadhana and around India who said they had done it and that it was a neat/interesting/eye-opening/mind-blowing. I thought I'd give it a shot. Throw myself into a new situation, figure out what medidation is supposed to be a bout, give it an honest try, spend ten days letting other people cook awesome Korean vegan food for me, and also, of course, see what it's like to go for an extended period of time without speaking. Also, I guess, I'm kind of a masochist? I wanted to see if I could handle it.

Not why I went: I didn't have any particular philosophical or life dilemma I wanted to solve with hours and hours of thinking (actually, you're not supposed to be conemplating anything when you medidate, at least as far as Vipassan is concerned). I wasn't searching for the way out of the wheel of misery or cycle of Karma. I wasn't trying to connect with God or experience the true nature of reality. I wasn't trying to cure myself of any physical or psychosomatic ill.

History: The Vipassana technique, though orignally taught by the Buddha 2500 years ago, was over time discarded in favor of or watered down by combination with other techniques. I don't remember exactly, but I think that after about 500 years after the Buddha's death, the technique had mostly been lost in India. It was preserved only by a series of monks in Burma until S.N. Goenka learned it sometime in the mid-20th century.

Goenka?: A man of Indian descent, born in Burma, who eventually became a wealthy industrialist. Suffered serious migraines that led him to doctors on various continents, none of whom could help him. He eventually took a Vipassana course from Ba Khin, having heard that Vipassana sometimes cured people of psychosomatic illnesses. The experience changed his life, both by eliminating his headaches and in other ways. He continued to practice it independently, until his mother got sick. He asked his teacher for permission to lead a Vipassana course for his family, after which he began giving courses to others as well.

The course: Is identitcal no matter where you go in terms of schedule and content. All teachers have been personally approved by Goenka. It consists of alternating medidation sessions, rest periods, meals, and listening to recordings of Goenka's lectures (history, theory, practice, and parables relationg to the technique) and Pali chanting (of scriptures).

Rules: No contact with the outside world. No talking. (Exceptions: theory and method questions can be addressed to the teacher at certain times, and practical problems can be brought to the manager). No phones or computers or diaries. No reading. No writing. No non-verbal communication. No outside food. No other religious rites or rituals. No other meditation techniques. No yoga. Follow the five precepts of Sila (morality): no killing, no taking anything not offered to you, no sexual misconduct, no lying, no drugs or intoxicants. Males and females were separated, with a curtain hung in the dining hall, a dividing line in the meditation hall, and a string dividing the men's part of the complex from the women's.

4:00AM: Wake up.
4:30-6:00: Meditation.
6:00-6:30: Meditation while listening to Goenka's chanting.
6:30-7:00: Breakfast.
7:00-8:00: Rest.
8:00-9:00: Medidation. From Day 4, Adithana meditation. (will explain later)
9:00-11:00: Meditation.
11:00-11:30: Lunch.
11:30-1:00: Rest. Consultation with teacher if needed.
1:00-2:30: Meditation.
2:30-3:30: Medidation. From Day 4, Adithana meditation.
3:30-5:00: Meditation.
5:00-6:00: Snack and tea time. Rest.
6:00-7:00: Medidation. From Day 4, Adithana meditation.
7:00-8:30: Listen to Goenka's recorded lecture.
8:30-9:00: Final meditation sitting. First practice of the following day's technique.
9:00-9:30: Individual Q&A with the teacher if necessary. Otherwise, go to bed.

I think that's all the objective stuff. I'll try to do another post in a few hours about the actual experience.

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