by S. N. Goenka (a summary by Pat Evert)
Vipassanā means “insight.” Vipassana is a technique extraordinary in its simplicity and above all in the results it offers. The experience is likely to contain a number of surprises for the meditator. The first is that meditation is hard work! The instructions are to work with full effort yet without any tension. Certain aspects of it are bound to be hard to accept, however the difficulties pass away. Certainly the technique agrees with the instructions of the Buddha on meditation.
– Story: Swimology
You may study all the “ologies” of the world, but if you do not learn practical life, all your studies are useless. You may read and write books on swimming, you may debate on its subtle theoretical aspects, but how will that help you if you refuse to enter the water yourself? You must learn how to swim.
– The Search
The basic problem of life is its unsatisfactory nature. Things happen that we do not want, things that we want do not happen. The Buddha said, “I teach about suffering and the eradication of suffering.” The highest authority is one’s own experience of truth. Nothing should be accepted on faith alone. If we are to benefit from the truth, we have to experience it directly. Only then can we know that it is really true. Buddha’s purpose was to show others how to liberate themselves, not to turn them into blind devotees. Devotion toward another person, no matter how saintly, is not sufficient to liberate anyone; there can be no liberation or salvation without direct experience of reality. It is noble in the sense that anyone who walks on the path is bound to become a noble-hearted, saintly person, freed from suffering. The only way to experience truth directly is to look within, to observe oneself. All our lives we have been accustomed to look outward. By observing ourselves we become aware for the first time of the conditioned reactions, the prejudices that cloud our mental vision, that hide reality from us and produce suffering. We recognize the accumulated inner tensions that keep us agitated, miserable, and we realize they can be removed. Gradually we learn how to allow them to dissolve, and our minds become pure, peaceful, and happy. The path must be followed, the teaching must be implemented; otherwise it is a meaningless exercise. When the mind is free of conditioning, it is always full of love—pure love.
– Story: To Walk on the Path
Many come to me and ask, ‘What is the path to nirvana, to liberation?’ And what is there to hide? I explain it to them clearly: ‘This is the path.’ If somebody just nods his head and says, ‘Well said, well said, a very good path, but I won’t take a step on it; a wonderful path, but I won’t take the trouble to walk over it,’ then how can such a person reach the final goal?” He who has taken one step on the path is one step nearer the goal. He who has taken a hundred steps is a hundred steps nearer the goal. He who has taken all the steps on the path has reached the final goal. You have to walk on the path yourself.”
– The Starting Point
The body – superficially one can control the body, but internal organs function beyond our control, without our knowledge and incessant biochemical reactions occurring within each cell of the body. Subatomic particles and empty space whose existence span is much less than a trillionth of a second.
Along with the physical process there is the psychic process, the mind. Our control of the conscious mind is tenuous enough, but the unconscious seems totally beyond our power or understanding, filled with forces of which we may not approve or be aware. Consciousness simply registers the occurrence of any phenomenon, without assigning labels or making value judgments. The second mental process is perception. It distinguishes, labels, and categorizes the incoming raw data and makes evaluations, positive or negative. The next part of the mind is sensation. Once a value is attached to the incoming data, the sensation becomes pleasant or unpleasant. If the sensation is pleasant, a wish forms to prolong and intensify the experience. If it is an unpleasant sensation, the wish is to stop it, to push it away. The four mental processes occur with lightning-like rapidity. There is an “I” somewhere within us, a continuing identity. We each live our lives with the deep-rooted conviction, “I was, I am, I shall be.” Each human being is in fact a series of separate but related events, the appearance of continuity, of identity. Every moment something new arises as a product of the past, to be replaced by something new in the following moment. A person is not an unchanging entity but a process flowing from moment to moment, a constant state of becoming—of arising and passing away.
The whole body contains the mind! Nobody causes suffering for you, you cause the suffering for yourself by generating tensions in the mind. Change is the essence of life. The secret to happiness is accepting change. It is to let go of all the past and welcome all the unpleasant new, whether pleasant or not. If you know how to do that, it becomes easy to remain peaceful and happy in every situation. Someone who remains satisfied with the superficial pleasures of life is ignorant of the agitation deep within the mind. The tensions generated in the unconscious keep increasing, to appear sooner or later.
– Story: The Buddha and the Scientist
The physical reality is changing constantly every moment. Like the Buddha, one should also be a scientist of the world within, in order to experience truth directly. Personal realization of truth will automatically change the habit pattern of the mind so that one starts to live according to the truth.
– The Immediate Cause
We cannot avoid the truth that life is imperfect, incomplete, unsatisfactory—the truth of the existence of suffering. Karma, literally means “action.” Everything that we encounter in life is the result of our own actions. Consequently, we can each become master of our fate by becoming master of our actions. The Buddha said, You are your own master, you make your own future. The real karma, the real cause of suffering is the reaction of the mind. One fleeting reaction of liking or disliking may not be very strong and may not give much result, but it can have a cumulative effect. The reaction is repeated moment after moment, intensifying with each repetition, and developing into craving or aversion. Throughout each day of our lives the mind keeps generating reactions, but if at the end of the day we try to remember them, we shall be able to recall only one or two. Such deep reactions as these are very dangerous and lead to immense suffering. The first step toward emerging from such suffering is to accept the reality of it, not as a philosophical concept or an article of faith, but as a fact of existence which affects each one of us in our lives. Yes. In fact, this technique deliberately uses suffering as a tool to make one a noble person. But it will work only if you learn how to observe suffering objectively. If you are attached to your suffering, the experience will not ennoble you; you will remain miserable. Nature has given us the ability to become masters of our present actions. You cannot control the actions, the karma of others, but you can become master of yourself in order to have a positive influence on those around you. Vipassana mediators do not become inactive, like vegetables. They learn how to act positively. If you can change your life pattern from reaction to action, then you have attained something very valuable.
– Story: Seed and Fruit
The seed of the sugar cane has the quality of sweetness; therefore the plant will have nothing but sweetness. The seed of the neem tree has the quality of bitterness; the plant will have nothing but bitterness. As the seed is, so the fruit will be. If someone wants sweet mangoes, he ought to plant a seed of a mango tree. Then he need not cry and beg for help from anyone.
– The Root of the Problem
At a very deep level, suffering is the inordinate attachment that each one of us has developed toward this body and mind. This clinging to an unreal idea of oneself, to something that in fact is constantly changing, is suffering.
The attachment to the habit of seeking sensual gratification. Craving produces in us a pleasurable sensation that we wish to prolong. Craving becomes a habit that we cannot break, an addiction. So long as we crave, we can never be happy. Another great attachment is to the “I,” the ego, the image we have of ourselves. We arrange the world according to our liking, seeking to attract the pleasant and to repel the unpleasant. The result can only be unhappiness, suffering. We each develop great attachment to what we possess, because it is associated with us, it supports the image of “I.” The parting time is bound to come. When it arrives, the greater the clinging to “mine,” the greater the suffering will be. And attachment extends still further—to our views and our beliefs. If we are attached to them they will certainly make us unhappy. Finally, there is attachment to religious forms and ceremonies. All our sufferings, whatever they may be, are connected to one or another of these attachments.
What causes attachment? It develops because of the momentary mental reactions of liking and disliking. The brief, unconscious reactions of the mind are repeated and intensified moment after moment, growing into powerful attractions and repulsions, into all our attachments. The essential aspects of the flow of mind and matter are: Consciousness begins with ignorance. Then through sensations of the six sensory bases—the five physical senses and the mind, it develops attachments that leads to suffering. Ignorance, craving and aversion are the three roots from which grow all our sufferings in life.
How can suffering be brought to an end? We are each responsible for the reactions that cause our suffering. By accepting our responsibility we can learn how to eliminate suffering. In even the most exalted existence suffering can be found. Our aim should rather be liberation from all suffering. We experience an unalloyed happiness greater than any worldly pleasure. The Buddha taught a way to experience such happiness in this very life. Every moment that we are ignorant of our own blind reactions, we create suffering which we experience here and now. If we remove the ignorance and cease reacting blindly, we shall experience the resulting peace here and now. Heaven and hell exist here and now; they can be experienced within this life, within this body. Most important for us is to solve these problems now, to take steps toward ending our suffering by ending the habit of reaction, and to experience now the happiness of liberation. Enjoy what you get, but without attachment, without clinging.
– Story: The Pebbles and the Ghee
“Young man, you know so much about the law of nature, but you have not understood this natural law: if all his life your father performed deeds that were heavy like pebbles, he is bound to go down; who can bring him up? And if all his actions were light like this butter, he is bound to go up; who can pull him down?” The earlier we understand the law of nature and start living in accordance with the law, the earlier we come out of our misery.
– The Training of Moral Conduct
To eradicate suffering Buddha taught a practical way. He called this way the Noble Eightfold Path, divided into three stages of training: the moral way (sīla), the way of concentration (bhāvanā) and controlling one’s mental processes (paññā). When one abstains from all unwholesome actions of body or speech, only then does the mind have the opportunity to become peaceful enough so introspection may proceed. Certainly without sīla one can never liberate the mind from suffering and experience ultimate truth. If you can smile in the face of failure, you are not attached.
– Story: The Doctor’s Prescription
If he takes the medicine, only then will the man be relieved of his misery, his disease. Only then will the medicine help him. Blind faith in the doctor is of no benefit.
– The Training of Concentration
We must undertake the practice of bhāvanā—literally, “mental development,” or in common language, meditation. This is a precise technique for focusing and purifying the mind. Bhāvanā includes the two trainings of concentration (samādhi, tranquility) and wisdom (paññā, insight). We must learn to focus the mind, to fix and maintain it on a single object of attention. Turning from the outer world to the world within, to find that the most prominent activity is our own breathing. This is not a breathing exercise; it is an exercise in awareness. The effort is not to control the breath but instead to remain conscious of it as it naturally is. The habit of a lifetime is not changed in a few minutes. The task requires repeated, continuous practice as well as patience and calmness. Remain focused on a single object and to resist distractions—two essential qualities of concentration. Dharma is the path of here-and-now. Therefore we must develop our ability to be aware of the present moment. We require a method to focus our attention. Focusing on breathing can help us explore whatever is unknown about ourselves, to bring into consciousness whatever has been unconscious. Whenever negativity arises in the mind, whether anger, hatred, fear, or passion, then respiration becomes more rough, heavy, and rapid. In this way, our respiration alerts us to our mental state and enables us to start to deal with it. It takes time to change the ingrained mental habits of years. It can be done only by working repeatedly, continuously, patiently, and persistently. Our job is simply to return attention to our breathing as soon as we notice that it has strayed. If we can do that, we have taken an important step toward changing the wandering ways of the mind. And by repeated practice, it becomes possible to bring the attention back more and more quickly. Gradually, the periods of forgetfulness become shorter and the periods of sustained awareness—samādhi—become longer. To remove the impurities (egoic programming) from the depths of the mind, one must practise Vipassana. Why get agitated because of the craving? Just accept the fact: “Look, there is craving”—that’s all. And you will come out of it. When you find that the mind has wandered you accept: “Look, the mind has wandered,” and automatically it will return to respiration.
– Story: The Crooked Milk Pudding
If you do not have the faculty to experience reality as it is, it will always be
crooked for you.
– The Training of Wisdom
In Dharma, however, the wisdom that comes of experience is essential, since only this enables us to become free from conditioning. Each one of us must live truth by direct experience, by the practice of bhāvanā, only this living experience will liberate the mind. Ultimately we each must do the work ourselves. This observation unfolds the entire reality of mind and body. We must develop awareness of sensations. Every thought, every emotion is accompanied by a corresponding sensation within the body. Therefore by observing the physical sensations, we also observe the mind. we do not search for a particular type of sensation, nor try to avoid sensations of another type. The effort is only to observe objectively, to be aware of whatever sensations manifest themselves throughout the body. Nor is any effort made to discover the cause of a sensation. We gradually reach the point where we can experience sensations in every part of the body. The practice of awareness of respiration in order once again to calm and sharpen the mind. With repeated, continuous practice, the intense sensations tend to dissolve into more uniform, subtler ones and finally into mere vibrations, arising and falling with great rapidity. The task is simply to observe objectively, merely to observe ourselves with the same detachment as a scientist observing in a laboratory. The direct experience of the transitory sensations proves to us our ephemeral nature. Thus the meditator comes to understand another basic reality: anattā—there is no real “I,” no permanent self or ego. The ego to which one is so devoted is an illusion created by the combination of mental and physical processes, processes in constant flux. We understand all this not because someone tells us it is so, but because we experience it within, by observing sensations within the body.
How is one to live without suffering? By simply observing without reacting: Instead of trying to keep one experience and to avoid another, to pull this close, to push that away, one simply examines every phenomenon objectively, with equanimity, with a balanced mind. We do not suffer from the pain any more because we can observe it with detachment. We develop awareness of every sensation, and we develop equanimity. We do not react, every sensation now gives rise to nothing but wisdom, paññā, insight: “This is impermanent, bound to change, arising to pass away.” When the mind is aware of sensation but maintains equanimity, there is no such reaction, no cause that will produce suffering. One gives up the habit of craving and aversion – this is the path of liberation. We observe the sensation without reacting, neither liking nor disliking it. It has no chance to develop into craving or aversion, into powerful emotion that can overwhelm us; it simply arises and passes away. This ability not to react is very valuable. When we are aware of the sensations within the body, and at the same time maintain equanimity, in those moments the mind is free. With repeated practice those few brief moments will become seconds, will become minutes, until finally the old habit of reaction is broken, and the mind remains continuously at peace. You must develop the ability to feel what is happening in every part of the body; no part should remain blank. Therefore it is essential always to move the attention in order. The pain is nothing but vibrations arising and passing away every moment. The pain cannot master you, you are the master of yourself, you are free of the pain. If you maintain equanimity, you are certainly progressing on the path. You are breaking the old mental habit of reaction.
– Story: The Two Rings
He examined the ring closely and found some words engraved on it: “This will also change.” Of all the ups and downs, all the vicissitudes of life, he knew that nothing is eternal, that everything comes just to pass away.
– Awareness and Equanimity
Awareness and equanimity—this is Vipassana meditation. We seek to be conscious of everything that happens within and at the same time not to react to it, understanding that it will change. Our perception of the world outside and of the world within is distorted and blurred by our past conditioning, our preferences and prejudices. Every time that we develop craving or aversion, we strengthen the tendency of the mind to continue generating them. Once the mental pattern is established, we are caught in it. We assume that we are dealing with external reality when actually we are reacting to our sensations, which are conditioned by our perceptions and reactions. Still we have to reckon with the accumulated past ones. It is sufficient to understand that every sensation is an indication of an internal change. However, if an unpleasant sensation occurs and one does not react, then no new saṅkhāras are created. In the next moment, another past saṅkhāra arises as sensation. Again, if one does not react, it passes away. Gradually, by maintaining awareness and equanimity toward sensation, we eradicate the past conditioning. By observing every sensation with equanimity, we gradually weaken and destroy the tendencies of craving and aversion. When the conditioned responses of a certain type are eradicated, one is free of that type of suffering. And when all conditioned responses have been eradicated one after another, the mind is totally liberated. If we develop wisdom and start observing objectively, the repetition stops and eradication begins. Layer after layer, the old saṅkhāras will arise and be eradicated, provided we do not react. With patient, repeated, continuous practice, those few moments of equanimity will increase, and the moments of reaction will decrease. Gradually the mental habit of reacting will be broken and the old conditioning eradicated, until the time comes when the mind is freed of all reactions, past and present, liberated from all suffering. Whatever comes, gross or subtle, your job is to observe impartially. You must be careful not to take a pleasant sensory experience as the final goal. When a big storm comes, you have to put down your anchor and wait until it passes away. The breath is your anchor. Work with it and the storm will pass. This meditation is really about developing equanimity. In this way in a relatively short time you can eliminate entire complexes of saṅkhāras provided your awareness and equanimity are strong.
– Story: Nothing But Seeing
In order to free the mind from all conditioning, one must learn to stop evaluating on the basis of past reactions and to be aware, without evaluating and without reacting.
– The Goal
Our suffering arises when we develop attachment to the processes, to what is in fact ephemeral and insubstantial. If we can realize directly the impermanent nature of these processes, our attachment to them passes away. Delighting in the pleasant situation, we may think that it is the final goal. But it is only a way-station. From this point we proceed further to experience the ultimate truth beyond mind and matter, to attain total freedom from suffering. We begin to enjoy the flow of vibrations throughout the body. By observing unpleasant sensations without reacting, we eradicate aversion. By observing pleasant sensations without reacting, we eradicate craving. One can attain freedom from all conditioning, all suffering. Nirvana is beyond any description, the important thing is to experience it. “This noble truth of the cessation of suffering must be realized for oneself,” the Buddha said. When one has experienced nirbāna, only then is it real for him; then all arguments about it become irrelevant. No matter what arises, one is able to face it with a smile that comes from the depths of the mind. One feels totally secure, secure in the understanding of impermanence. This is the greatest blessing, knowing that you are your own master. Along with equanimity will arise the other qualities of a pure mind: good will, love that seeks the benefit of others. We have full and undistracted awareness of the present moment, but when the experience passes, we do not become distressed. We continue to smile, understanding that it was bound to change. Observe any sensation that occurs, “Let me see how long it lasts.” You will find that you have cut the roots of the emotion and it passes away. Every emotion, anything that arises in the mind, must arise along with a sensation in the body.
– Story: Filling the Bottle of Oil
This is Vipassana. No pessimism; instead, optimism, realism, and “workism”!
– The Art of Living
Each of us must experience the reality of anicca within ourselves. The direct understanding of impermanence and, along with it, of the illusory nature of the ego and of suffering, constitutes true insight which leads to liberation. The practice of Vipassana will bring the realization that no one but ourselves is responsible for our happiness or unhappiness. We work for the good of all by working to develop awareness and equanimity. If we do nothing else but refrain from adding to the sum total of tensions in the world, we have performed a wholesome deed.
– Story: The Striking of the Clock
Only a human being has the ability to observe himself in order to come out of suffering. No lower creature has this faculty. Observing the reality within oneself is the dharma of human beings. As the impurities were gradually eradicated, I began to enjoy real peace. Twenty five centuries after the time of the Buddha, the Dharma would return to the country of its origin, from there to spread around the world.
The teaching of the Buddha is a system for developing self-knowledge as a means to self-transformation. By attaining an experiential understanding of the reality of our own nature, we can eliminate the misapprehensions that cause us to act wrongly and unhappy. A stage is reached in which the solidity dissolves spontaneously, and mind and body are experienced in their true nature as a mass of vibrations, arising and passing away every moment.
Feel the sensations, understand their impermanence, and by developing equanimity, you become detached even liberated.