Theravada reinvents meditation

Vipassana meditation is the most Buddhist thing in “Consensus Buddhism.” This post starts to ask how Buddhist vipassana is, by tracing its history.

It appears that, in the early 1800s, vipassana had been completely, or almost completely, lost in the Theravada world. Either no one, or perhaps only a handful of people, knew how to do it.

Vipassana was reinvented by four people in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They started with descriptions of meditation in scripture. Those were vague and contradictory, so the inventors tried out different things that seemed like they might be what the texts were talking about, to see if they worked. They each came up with different methods.

Since then, extensive innovation in Theravada meditation has continued. Advocates of different methods disagree, often harshly, about which is correct. I am not a Theravadin, and don’t practice any of these methods, so I have no opinion about that.

I’m also not trying to prove that modern vipassana is “inauthentic.” Coming from Tibetan Buddhism, this rapid innovation, based on practical experiments, is slightly shocking for me. But as a scientist and engineer, it’s also inspiring. I am happy to regard all of it as terma—the Tibetan term for a valid new religious revelation.

What I want to explore is the context in which modern vipassana developed. Two things stand out:

  • Asian Theravada repeatedly reinvented meditation under the influence of Western ideas.

In my last post, I described how Thai Theravada was Westernized under the kings of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Similar Buddhist modernization occurred in Sri Lanka and Burma, the other two places meditation was reinvented. In the case of Thailand and Sri Lanka, there’s evidence that meditation was first reinvented because of Western influence. It’s known definitely that Asians, influenced by Western ideas, extensively revised vipassana methods during the 1900s.

Based on that, we can ask: how have Western ideas about meditation affected the new methods, and the ways they are explained?

  • Theravada meditation was reinvented by guys who were into extreme asceticism.

Knowing that, we can wonder whether it’s the best practice for people who aren’t ascetics.

How do you invent vipassana?

Perhaps many people were trying to figure out how to do vipassana in the late 1800s. Only four succeeded. They all started from descriptions in the Pali scriptures. The most detailed are in the Satipatthana Sutta, the Visuddhi Magga, and the Anapanasati Sutta.

In the mid-1800s, these texts were revered because supposedly they showed the way to nirvana. However, the way they were practiced was for groups of monks to ritually chant the text in unison. This is like a bunch of people who don’t know what a computer is reading the manual out loud, hoping the machine will spring to life, without realizing you need to plug it in.

The people who reinvented vipassana tried to actually do what the scriptures said. That wasn’t a possibility seriously considered before; no one was seriously attempting to reach nirvana. The idea that you could read scripture and try to figure out what it meant was one of the Western-influenced 1800s Protestant Buddhist innovations.

Reinventing vipassana was difficult. It took each of the reinventors many years of trial-and-error experimentation before they came up with methods they considered worked. Their biographers emphasize what a hard time they had.

The vipassana scriptures are vague, and they contradict each other. Proponents of different vipassana systems consider different suttas authoritative. They disagree strongly about which is most important, and how to interpret it.

If you read the Satipatthana Sutta, the most-used one, and if you know how to meditate, you can say “yeah, parts of that are a pretty good description of what we do.” (Other parts are nothing like what people do now. I think that’s important, as I’ll explain in a later post.) If you had no idea what meditation was, the Sutta would not seem like much of a guide.

The methods the various reinventors came up with were different from each other. Quite possibly they are all unlike the way vipassana was practiced before the method was lost—in ways that probably reflect Western influence. I return to that point in a later post, too.

Historical uncertainties

Records from 1800s Thailand, and especially Burma, are sketchy. I’ll try to be clear about what I do and don’t know, and what sources I’ve used.

Some of the questions I’d like answers to may not have answers. I’d especially like to know why people made innovations in meditation; and that’s probably mostly unknowable.

Anagarika Dharmapala in Sri Lanka

Anagarika Dharmapala was born in 1864, the son of a wealthy Sri Lankan businessman. Sri Lanka was a British colony them, and he was educated at British Christian mission schools.

As a teenager, he was interested in Western occultism. In 1884, at age 20, he met Helena Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, a mystical “philosophy” that borrowed heavily from German Romantic Idealism. He was much taken with her, and vice versa; he regarded her as his principal teacher for the rest of her life. He wanted to study Western occultism with her, but she told him to learn Pali instead, because in the Pali scriptures he would find everything he was looking for.

Dharmapala, at Blavatsky’s instruction, set up the Sri Lankan branch of the Theosophical Society. Both considered that its job was to reinforce Buddhism against Christian missionary influence.

This is highly ironic. With Buddhism in Sri Lanka mostly dead, Dharmapala looked to a Westerner for answers to his spiritual issues. But Blavatsky had come to Asia because she imagined the secret to solving the spiritual crisis of Western culture was there. Blavatsky had no idea what was in the Pali scriptures, but she “intuited” that they must have the answer. Particularly, she imagined that “meditation” was the practical key. But what was “meditation”?

In the 1880s, there is no evidence that anyone in Sri Lanka knew how to meditate. One biography of Dharmapala says flatly that “the practice had been neglected and then forgotten.” It’s possible that there were a few monks somewhere who still practiced vipassana, but there is no evidence for that. We do know that he travelled extensively in Sri Lanka, and “in spite of all his enquiries he never succeeded in finding even a single person, whether monk or layman, who could instruct him in… meditation practices.”

Eventually, he decided to start meditating anyway. He based his practice on texts he had found, mainly the Satipatthana Sutta and Visuddhi Magga. Presumably his ideas about meditation were influenced by Blavatsky’s, however, and by the methods of Christian prayer he had learned at school. Later, he received some brief instruction from a Burmese teacher in India.

“Dharmapala’s advocacy of meditation practice and the availability of modern translations of these three texts did much to foster Sri Lankan interest in meditation.” [Fronsdal, cited below]

However, his method is probably extinct, or insignificant. Since the late 1950s, the Mahasi method (discussed below) has been dominant in Sri Lanka. And, Sri Lankan Buddhism has not had much influence on the West.


Gil Fronsdal, “Theravada Spirituality in the West.”

Gombrich & Obeyeskere, Buddhism Transformed.

Bhikkhu Sangharakshita, Anagarika Dharmapala: A Biographical Sketch. (Presumably this is the same Sangharakshita who founded the Triratna Buddhist Community, but I haven’t checked that.)

The Maha Bodhi, Volumes 98-99 (available on Google Books).

Tricycle, “Anagarika Dharmapala.”

The Thai lineage

King Mongkut was the major reformer of Thai Buddhism (as explained in my last post). His reforms were based on Western ideas. He believed that meditation was important, but was unable to find anyone who could teach him a method he found plausible.

The only meditation methods available then were “called vichaa aakhom, or incantation knowledge; [they] involved initiations and invocations used for shamanistic purposes, such as protective charms and magical powers.” This seems to have been a mixture of tantra (Hindu and/or Buddhist) and Thai folk animism. “They rarely mentioned nirvana except as an entity to be invoked for shamanic rites.”

Mongkut rejected this “meditation.” The Pali scriptures—to which he insisted everyone should return—say that the goal of buddhism is nirvana, attained through the practice of vipassana. Vipassana was, as far as Mongkut could find out, lost in mid-1800s Thailand.

He and his students tried to reinvent vipassana based on scriptural explanations, but he considered that they had failed.

Mongkut founded a monastic movement called Dhammayuttika, which emphasized strict adherence to vinaya (the code of conduct for monks).

It was Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta, born in 1870, who developed the Thai vipassana method. Mun was a Dhammayuttika monk. I suspect it was Mongkut’s insistence on the importance of vipassana that led Mun to his discoveries, but I don’t have direct evidence of that.

His main teacher was Ajahn Sao Kantasilo. Sao taught a meditation method that consisted simply of repeating the word “Buddho.” I have not been able to discover who his teacher was, or where he got this method. I don’t know if it has any basis in Buddhist scripture; I haven’t found any. It is certainly found in Hinduism, however. It seems possible that Sao learned it from a Hindu teacher; there definitely were some in Thailand. That would be embarrassing, which could explain why no one talks about his lineage.

Ajahn Mun remained devoted to Ajahn Sao throughout his life, but Sao was unable to answer most of his questions about meditation, and Mun had doubts about the “Buddho” method. Sao, according to Mun’s foremost student, was “not a competent teacher.” Mun set off on his own, looking for someone who could actually teach him vipassana. He spent nearly two decades wandering around Thailand, Laos, and Burma, but never found anyone.

Ajahn Mun gradually developed his own vipassana method, starting in the 1890s, with the main breakthrough apparently between 1911 and 1914. He experimented with various techniques, developed what worked, and dropped what didn’t. According to his biographies, some key ideas came to him in visions (described in detail). Presumably his method was also based partly on his reading of scriptural explanations.

Ajahn Mun had two main students, Ajahn Maha Bua and Ajahn Chah. Both had Western students, but Chah was far more influential.

Ajahn Chah actually only spent one week with Ajahn Mun. He developed his own style of practice that is more Westerner-friendly.

Ajahn Chah was the primary teacher for Jack Kornfield, among many other well-known Western vipassana teachers.

Sao, Mun, Maha Bua, and Chah all practiced an extreme form of asceticism called dhutanga, which goes beyond even strict adherence to vinaya. They considered that dhutanga and vipassana were closely linked. The point of both was to violently destroy all desires through extreme effort and austerity.

Although the Thai method is still taught, the “easier” Burmese Mahasi method (described below) is more popular in the U.S., and even in Thailand.


Phra Ajaan Phut Thaniyo, “Ajaan Sao’s Teaching.”

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “The Customs of the Noble Ones.”

Ajahn Maha Bua, The Biography of the Venerable Phra Acharn Mun Bhuridatta Thera.

Ajahn Maha Bua, The Venerable Phra Acharn Mun Bhuridatta Thera: Meditation Master.

Brooke Schedneck, “Comparing Forest Masters’ Techniques and Implications for International Meditators.”

Brooke Schedneck, “Meditation Techniques of the Masters: Luangda Maha Bua.”

The Mahasi (“New Burmese”) method

The “Mahasi method” is the most-practiced vipassana nowadays. It is considered faster and easier than the Thai method, and than the other Burmese method I describe later. Proponents of those methods consider it bogus, however.

It was developed by Mahasi Sayadaw (1904-1982), but does have antecedents.

Mahasi’s teacher was Mingun Sayadaw (1868-1955), also known as U Narada. Many sources count Mingun as the originator of the lineage.

Mingun’s teacher was Ale-Tawya Sayadaw, whose teacher was The-lon Sayadaw. According to Strong Roots, cited below, “The-Lon Sayadaw… put this textual guidance [the Visuddhi Magga] into practice without a personal teacher to guide [him] in mindfulness practice” (p. 110). This is based oral history from a traditional Burmese monk in The-lon Sayadaw’s lineage. I can’t find dates for The-lon or Ale-Tawya.

It appears that The-lon Sayadaw developed some method based on the Visuddhi Magga, which was learned and then substantially modified by Mingun, which was learned and then substantially modified by Mahasi.

As background, in the late 1800s, Burma, under King Mindon, tried to follow the same path of modernization that successfully held off the British in Thailand. It failed, and the British seized it in 1885, and ran the place until 1948. So Western ideas were common in Burma throughout the period the Mahasi lineage developed.

Mahasi made several innovations. The most important was skipping samatha and the development of the jhanas (concentration states) and going directly to vipassana. He thought that samatha would take care of itself, if you practice vipassana correctly. The jhanas are not ends in themselves, so bypassing samatha is a practical shortcut.

Mahasi taught that one should aim directly for sotapatti, a first taste of nirvana. Experiencing sotapatti guarantees you cannot be reborn other than as a human or in heaven, and no more than seven more times. He said that sotapatti could reached by newcomers in a month.

Mahasi aimed his teaching particularly at lay people, rather than monks. He imported from the West the “meditation center” idea (not a traditional Asian institution). He eliminated ritual and minimized textual study.

Mahasi’s best-known Asian student was Anagarika Munindra (1915-2003). Munindra was also a student of S.N. Goenka, from the other Burmese lineage. Munindra therefore joined the two Burmese vipassana systems. Munindra was the teacher of Dipa Ma.

Many influential American teachers, including most of the main figures in what I call “Consensus Buddhism,” were students of Mahasi, Munindra, and/or Dipa Ma. They include:

  • Joseph Goldstein
  • Jack Kornfield (who first studied Ajahn Chah’s Thai method)
  • Lama Surya Das
  • Sharon Salzberg
  • Sylvia Boorstein

These Western teachers have, of course, further modified the combined vipassana systems.


Jake H. Davis, Strong Roots: Liberation Teachings of Mindfulness in North America. Much useful history here.

Robert H. Sharf, “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience.”

Mahasi Sayadaw, “Satipatthana Vipassana: Criticisms and Replies.”

Joseph Goldstein, One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism. Has some information on Mahasi by his best-known Western student.

Brooke Schedneck, “The Role of Samadhi in Meditation Centers and the Forest Tradition” and “Book Review: The Experience of Samadhi by Richard Shankman.” On samatha vs. vipassana, and differences between the various vipassana methods.

Gil Fronsdal, “Theravāda Spirituality in the West,” “Insight Meditation in the United States: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” and “The Treasures of the Theravada: Recovering the Riches of Our Tradition.” Insightful articles on the ways vipassana has been adapted in the West. Gil Fronsdal is a student of Jack Kornfield, but not afraid to point out problems with the Consensus approach.

The Ledi lineage (also Burmese)

This lineage begins with Ledi Sayadaw (1846-1923).

Little is known about how Ledi Sayadaw began to practice vipassana. The Wikipedia says that “he learned the technique of vipassana still being taught in the caves of the Sagaing Hills,” and this line has been copied all over the internet. As far as I can tell, it is wrong. I can’t find that information in any reliable source. It is contradicted by Strong Roots, cited above, which quotes a traditional monk from the Sagaing Hills as saying Ledi Sayadaw developed his method on his own, based only on texts.

Ledi Sayadaw’s biography on S.N. Goenka’s site says “although we do not have any definitive information, it seems likely that [1882-1885] was the period when he began practicing Vipassana in the traditional Burmese way: with attention to Anapana (respiration) and vedana (sensation).” S.N. Goenka is the main teacher in the Ledi linage now, and presumably if he knew of a source for Ledi Sayadaw’s method, he would say so. “The traditional Burmese way” was probably lost sometime long before 1882, and reinvented by Ledi Sayadaw.

The Ledi method was extensively revised by his grand-student U Ba Khin (1899-1971) in the 1950s. U Ba Khin was a lay man, and the head accountant for the Burmese government. According to Sharf (cited below), “U Ba Khin apparently experimented with different techniques throughout his career, all of which focused primarily on bodily sensations.” The resulting differences from Ledi’s method are large enough that many sources refer to “the U Ba Khin method.” Like Mahasi, he removed most traditional aspects of Buddhism in order to teach lay people, and aimed directly for transformational experience.

S.N. Goenka teaches U Ba Khin’s method.

Lama Surya Das, one of the main founders of “Consensus Buddhism,” was a student of Goenka (among many others).

[Update, November 2013:] I’ve found a recent journal article, “On saints and wizards,” by Patrick Pranke, that traces the Burmese revival of vipassana back to the mid-1700s. This paper confirms that vipassana had been entirely lost prior to then, but provides earlier history than I had previously known about. Ledi Sayadaw learned vipassana from “U Hpo Hlaing (1830–1883) who was notable for his avid interest in western science and efforts to reconcile this new perspective with abhidhamma.” Before that the exact lineage is unclear, but it appears that from-scripture reinvention began with Medawi (1728–1816) who published his first vipassana manual in 1756.

[Another update, February 2014:] Published late last year, Erik Braun’s The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw seems to contradict Pranke’s article. I haven’t read the book, but from the part available free on Amazon, we have: “he did not get his understanding of meditation from a particular teacher, nor did he find it in a book. He developed his presentation of meditation himself…” Apparently this is an area of current research, and these experts do not agree.]


Jake H. Davis, Strong Roots: Liberation Teachings of Mindfulness in North America.

Gil Fronsdal, “Theravāda Spirituality in the West.”

Patrick Pranke, “On saints and wizards: Ideals of human perfection and power in contemporary Burmese Buddhism.”

Robert H. Sharf, “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience.”

Later developments

The four lineages I’ve described above originated independently, and around the same time.

Later in the 1900s, several other meditation methods were invented within Asian Theravada.

One of these, due to Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (1906-1993), has had some influence in the West. He developed his meditation method based on the Anapanasati Sutta (rejecting the Satipatthana Suttas as vague and muddled) and extensive personal experimentation.

Buddhadasa was a classic Protestant Buddhist modernizer, emphasizing rationality, universalism, scriptural authority, and meditation, eliminating ritual and supernatural beliefs. He actually dissociated himself from Buddhism altogether, preaching “No Religion”: the idea that the mystical core of all religions is the same, and found in meditation. This idea is common in Consensus Buddhism now.

Two methods seem to have had no influence on the West as yet. They are the quasi-tantric methods of the Dhammakaya movement, and the idiosyncratic teaching of Sunlun Sayadaw. These are quite different from any of the others.

Theravada, apparently, remains open to major innovations in meditation technique.


Gil Fronsdal, “Theravada Spirituality in the West.”

Robert H. Sharf, “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience.”

Suchira Payulpitack, Buddhadasa’s movement : an analysis of its origins, development, and social impact.

Brooke Schedneck, “Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and Modern Buddhism” and “Meditation Techniques of the Masters: Ajahn Buddhadasa Bhikkhu.”

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100 Responses to Theravada reinvents meditation

  1. Noah says:

    Hi David.

    I’ve really been enjoying reading your posts. Especially the last few. History is ridiculous. Who the hell would have thought Buddhism came to the West this way? Also, the fact that you seem to be hyper-prolific is great. I get to read a new, mind-blowing (not that hard, though, with my mind :)) post almost every other day. I think you were even pumping out one per day for a bit there. Geesh!

    And “bogosity” – I looked it up. Maybe you’ve already seen this. Good stuff:

    One thing, though. I just started reading this latest post. Is the beginning supposed to be:
    “Vipassana meditation is most Buddhist thing in ‘Consensus Buddhism.’ This post starts to ask how Buddhist vipassana is, by tracing its history.” ?

    It kind of sounds like a joke. Like you might be intentionally using broken English to be funny, but maybe it’s just a typo.

    Either way, thanks so much for all the great posts. Amazing what you can learn on these internets! Go internets!


  2. Noah says:

    You caught it. :)

  3. Thanks for pointing out the typo! Fixed.

    Got most of the boring history stuff done. Probably next we get back to Controversial Spacey Stuff.

    Regarding the “bogosity” and “microLenat” definitions, originally from the “Jargon File” maintained at my alma mater, the MIT AI Lab, I’ve just dug out this old email:

    Date: Mon, 9 Sep 1991 15:35:55 -0700
    From: David Chapman
    To: Phil Agre
    CC: some other people
    Subject: ‘bogosity’

    That document [the Jargon File] is pretty badly out of date. For example, it predates the development of the bogotome, a very useful instrument in our field. You may not know that there have been rapid developments in bogotome technology at well-funded laboratories like Teleos Research. For example, we have recently replaced our old rotary-blade bogotome, and its attendant mechanical calibration headaches, with a Bogonix Beta 6000 bogotome, which utilizes a 4.5 kW pumped Argon/Cesium vapor laser cutting head and a distributed network of microfabricated semiconductor strain gauges using fuzzy control logic for self calibration. The Beta 6000 cuts at 5.75 milliLenats/sec with an accuracy of +- .03 x 10^6 training epochs. I’ve found it very satisfactory in reducing my input bandwidth.

    (Disclaimer: I do not work for or have any financial interest in Bogonix Inc.)

  4. Noah says:


    Replaced the rotary blade with an “Argon/Cesium vapor laser”.
    Yeah, that’s a good idea. You know, oxidation and whatnot. :D

    “Training epochs”!!! – I laughed my ass off at the training epochs. :)

    Man! Good stuff.

  5. Reading this post was one of those WTF?!?! -moments. So, meditation has been so neglected even in Buddhism? This really puts things in perspective.

    Funny thing is that you can see the same thing happening in western mysticism. People have again and again dug out some of those old grimmoires and tried to figure out, how the instructed practices are actually done.

    On the positive side, this also shows that real innovation is possible, that the so-called “tradition” is never a static entity in itself. For me, this is always important, because completely static tradition would be a dead one: that nobody is testing and developing methods through practice. Actual practice should always lead to change and refinement.

  6. Jayarava says:

    HI David,

    This is great stuff. Deconstructing history to get beyond literal readings. Showing that things have changed and developed, and often in surprising and major ways is a valuable service.

    The Sangharakshita who wrote the bio of Dharmapala is the same one who found the Triratna Buddhist Order. I think he was profoundly influenced by his contact with the Mahabodhi Society, who commissioned him to write the biography. However the influence was mostly negatively as the bhikkhus were often arrogant, greedy and even wealthy. The non-monastic nature of our movement can be traced to the fact that many of the monks he met did not meditate or do any kind of spiritual practice. In a related snippet Sangharakshita’s teacher Bhikkhu Jagdish Kasyap was advised against practising meditation by his monastic superiors, who thought that sort of thing incompatible with being a monk. This was early 20th century. Also the Mahabodhi Society allowed anyone with an interest to serve on it’s committees. This resulted in the committees being packed with ambitious and zealous Hindu’s with no sympathy for the aims of the Society.

    One thing you do not say much about is that if these guys rediscovered effective meditation techniques on their own – and I mean effective in the sense of liberating – then they are tantamount to being Buddha’s, are they not? It must be a tension for their students. Legitimacy clearly comes through lineage, and yet there is no higher achievement in Buddhism than finding the way on your own. Which aspect to play up?

  7. roni says:

    Great post, David, again! Thanks for all the links and the wonderful summary!

    Some side notes:
    1. The source texts:
    Maha-Satipatthana Sutta:
    Anapanasati Sutta:
    Visuddhimagga (Google Books sample):

    2. Bhante Sujato is a knowledgable researcher (and vigorous fighter :)) of the samatha-vipassana topic (debate):
    Video on YouTube:
    ‘A Brief History of Mindfulness’ bog post:
    ‘A Swift Pair of Messengers’ book:

    3. Pa Auk Sayadaw is also a curious figure in the history of vipassana (or rather his criticism towards contemporary interpretations of vipassana:
    Pa Auk Monastery US site (with further links):



    PS: How can you link with link text in comments?

  8. Sherab Dorje says:

    Will you talk about tibetan buddhism on this series? I hope you do

  9. Greg says:

    “It appears that, in the early 1800s, vipassana had been completely lost in the Theravada world. No one knew how to do it.”

    This conclusion is very much overstated.The academic work on this topic is instructive. One of the better sources is Gustaaf Houtman’s 1990 dissertation “Traditions of Buddhist Practice in Burma,” which is freely available on the web. An even better source is “Ledi Sayadaw, Abhidhamma, and the Development of the Modern Insight Meditation Movement in Burma,” a 2008 dissertation by Erik Christopher Braun.

    The fact of the matter is, we have only a hazy idea of what was going on throughout the 19th century in Burma, but there is no suggestion that meditation was ever “completely lost.” Certainly, before the 19th century interest seems to have been quite limited. But there seems to have always been some interest in meditation, and there seems to be a degree of clear continuity between Ledi and Mingun and what had come before them, although certainly there was a dynamic of change as well.

    Houtman writes writes “while WM [Wi'pat-tha-na, ie Vipassana] was probably practised, there remains little published record of it.” pg 38

    Braun writes “isolated instances suggest that meditation practice did generate interest among some monks and possibly among the laity as well before the nineteenth century. Much research remains to be done, however, which is beyond the scope of this thesis, before we can speak with confidence about meditation in this period.” pg 305

    Braun also suggests that your contention that the nature of the meditation Ledi and Mingun taught was a dramatic innovation is not at all correct. He writes

    “It seems that while the interest in vipassana was a groundswell among both monks and the laity that went beyond any individual teacher, Ledi’s work, and, slightly later, Mingun’s too, marked a watershed moment that moved the interest in meditation in specific directions. Ledi’s works appealed to the Burmese not because they were unprecedented in terms of topic, but because they tapped into a burgeoning interest already present.” pgs 316-317

    In some regards it seems your conclusion is predicated on assumptions that are only operative in a Vajrayana or a Zen context – that is, without an unbroken lineage of oral instructions a meditation tradition is “lost.” That attitude does not seem to be relevant to Burma. Monks in Burma could and did base their practices on their own traditional textual study. Certainly meditation became enormously more popular in the 19th century, but that doesn’t mean no one did it in the early 1800s. Ledi and Mingun taught it to the laity more widely, and perhaps set a lower barrier to entry for vipassana practice, but to say they reinvented it and that it was completely lost goes well beyond what the existing evidence supports.

  10. Samsara says:

    Hi David,

    In the same vein as what Greg says above, I would like to add that while I greatly enjoy your posts (I really do!), there does seem to be a tendency to draw very strong conclusions from limited evidence. I, for one, would enjoy them even more if you were slightly more cautious or suggestive rather than presenting a hypothesis as something closer to fact. That’s probably not your intention, but that’s often how it reads to me.

  11. 1) ‘Mahasi made several innovations. The most important was skipping samatha and the development of the jhanas (concentration states) and going directly to vipassana. He thought that samatha would take care of itself, if you practice vipassana correctly. The jhanas are not ends in themselves, so bypassing samatha is a practical shortcut.’
    It’s fascinating how wrong you can go in Buddhism and still have a grasp on something valid. My analogy is, if you go directly into Tantra, Sutra is spontaneously accomplished, by means of the Tantric ngöndrö. If Mahasi’s Vipassana had comprised its own ngöndrö Mahasi might have been justified. Such a ngöndrö could still be invented and inserted after the fact – but it would look a lot like samatha. It would be valuable, as it would save vipassana meditators from going crazy dealing with intense phantom meditation experiences (nyams) without emptiness as their base. I’ve met a number of them.

    2) Trungpa Rinpoche was extraordinary among Tibetan Lamas for – among many things – his interest in Buddhism beyond Vajrayana. I recall from one biography that he met with the senior Buddhist abbot from Burma. They compared their traditional meditation methods, and when Trungpa recounted what he taught the Burmese master exclaimed “Oh, when did you come to Burma?” It is difficult to judge anything from an anecdote which does not report the details of their conversation (e.g. the Burmese might have misunderstood what Trungpa was describing) but on the face of it this looks more complimentary to modern Burmese Buddhism than what one might deduce from reading about vipassana.

  12. Sabio says:

    @ David:
    Excellent research and summarizing — all crucial to useful exploration of the “big picture”. I have one question:
    You said, “I am happy to regard all of ['reinvented Vipassana'] as terma—the Tibetan term for a valid new religious revelation”

    Do you consider your own tradition as “invented” also, or were you being generous in allowing modern invented meditation techniques to be called “religious revelation”?

    It seems that your legitamacy criteria is not “lineage”, “revelation” or “authority”, but instead, effectiveness/pragmatism. If a tradition is effective, you don’t care if it is called “revelation”. But just as in the previous post where you did not want “True Self” to be an accepted term for “no Self”, perhaps we should be strict too with the word “revelation”. Or in this case do you feel laxity is of no risk?

  13. @ Jayarava – Yes, a tremendously impressive accomplishment. Several of those guys are regarded as Arhats. I don’t know enough about how the Arhat vs. Buddha distinction works in Theravada to comment on that. Thanks for the info on Sangharakshita; I didn’t know that.

    @ Roni – Thanks for the links, those should be useful for everyone! WordPress lets you use HTML to format text in comments, including creating linked text with the a tag. If you google a bit, you should be able to find an introduction.

    @ Sherab Dorje – Probably little or nothing about Tibetan Buddhism, because it hasn’t really fed into the Consensus. One thing I’m thinking about writing would be a page called something like “The surprising modernity of Dzogchen.” When I was reading McMahan’s book, he often said “nowhere in traditional Buddhism do we find X, so it must be a Western insert”, and I’d often think “hang on! We do have X in Dzogchen!” He’s probably right that X was a Western insert, since the influence of Dzogchen on Western Buddhism is quite limited. But still, it’s surprising how “modern” Dzogchen is in some ways. … Mind you, Lama Surya Das studied Dzogchen, and Jack Kornfield presumably studied Mahamudra with Kalu Rinpoche, so maybe there was a direct influence as well.

    @ Greg – Thank you very much indeed! I hoped that someone more knowledgeable than me would supply additional sources. To reflect the uncertainty about Ledi Sayadaw, I’ve amended the “completely lost” sentence, and added a hedging sentence in his section.

    I would say, though, that the quotes you gave don’t seem strongly inconsistent with my original conclusions, as you suggest. “Interest in meditation” does not equal “knowledge of vipassana”; in Thailand, we know people were “meditating,” but what they were doing was quasi-tantric.. Houtman says “probably”, but apparently has no evidence for that. On the other side, there is specific evidence that Ledi did invent his method from scratch: the testimony of the monk from Saigang Hills cited in Strong Roots.

    I agree strongly with the point of your last paragraph: “unbroken lineage” is a big deal for other meditation traditions, but not in Theravada, which is very much open to innovation.

    The point of this post was not to suggest that vipassana is no good because it lacks lineage. Rather, I wanted to show that the vipassana we have today developed during the early 1900s, under the influence of ideas that were popular in the West at the time. In later posts, I’ll ask “what was left out, when ‘meditation’ became defined as modern vipassana?” (Examples: corpse practice, tantra.) And: “what Western ideas got smooshed into this vipassana?” (Example: the point of meditation is to gain an experience of oneness with the universe.) And then: “Is this vipassana the best tool for the job, based on that?” Since Western culture has changed drastically from the time vipassana was created, I think the answer is “no.” And I think this is one of the problems Consensus Buddhism faces.

  14. @ Samsara – Thank you for your qualified words of praise! Please do continue to complain if you think I draw too-strong conclusions. However… I really don’t think I was going beyond the evidence here. There is some uncertainty in the case of Ledi Sayadaw, but the only available evidence says he did develop his method from textual sources only. It’s impossible to be sure that no one was practicing vipassana in 1880, but there is apparently no evidence that anyone was. And there is pretty good evidence that no one was: several highly-motivated, qualified, well-connected people (Mongkut, Dharmapala, Mun) looked hard and couldn’t find anyone.

    @ Rig’dzin Dorje – Interesting observations! From the very slight reading I’ve done, it appears that Mahasi considered that practicing vipassana developed jhana automatically as a side-effect, so a separate samatha practice was unnecessary. Rather like you suggest. Maybe someone more knowledgeable can expand on that.

    @ Sabio – Interesting questions! Yes, to describe the vipassana reinventions as “terma” may have been going too far. Like all words, it doesn’t have a precise definition, and the question of whether it can be applied outside Tibetan Buddhism has never been seriously debated, as far as I know. However, I found the descriptions of Ajahn Mun’s visions really startling for their similarity to the descriptions of visions in the biographies of Tibetan tertons. Terma does need to come out of visionary experience, rather than being something rationally and deliberately constructed. “Reinvention” is again an imprecise word, but it does suggest rationality and deliberateness. So, perhaps in Mun’s case at least, I should not have used it. And, I don’t consider the Aro gTér “invented” inasmuch as I don’t think Ngak’chang Rinpoche developed it rationally or deliberately.

  15. Greg says:

    @David – I would suggest you look over Braun, if you have not yet done so. Ledi may well have arrived at his *particular formulation* of Vipassana himself, based on his own textual study. Or at least, that was the claim that was later made on his behalf. But Braun demonstrates that what Ledi came up with was in the context of a general milieu where vipassana practices similar to his were not particularly unusual. There is no evidence that the general typology of the practice was ever entirely unknown in Burma. The various Vipassana traditions we have today seem to be of a general class of meditation which, in Burma at least, has been continually refined and tailored to individual preferences for as far back as anyone can determined. That is, back to a point in history (the early 19th century) when little was documented and about which we are not yet in any position to draw many conclusions.

  16. Duff says:

    Interesting article. I don’t know enough about the history of Buddhism to comment intelligently on the details as other commenters have, but I am struck by the similarity in the history of yoga asana. The modern form of yoga as physical asana practice continually claims to reach back thousands of years, but actually was formulated in the 1900’s by a small group of teachers and practitioners with very loose ties at best to ancient texts.

  17. Joyce says:

    Nice work!

    “Theravada meditation was reinvented by guys who were into extreme asceticism.”

    I’d be interested in reading what it is about the method of Vipassana as taught by Sayadaw U Pandita (Mahasi Sayadaw) and Buddhadasa Bhikkhu’s method could be called “extreme asceticism”. Perhaps an example or two?

    Also, perhaps it isn’t widely known in the West but the Burmese do have lineage.



  18. roni says:

    @ David: I tried last time, didn’t seem to work, but than it must have been another problem. Thx anyways. :)

  19. ~C4Chaos says:


    excellent post! great to see all this information in one page along with links to related resources. very geeky indeed.

    one thing i’d like to add is this division between Westerns/Eastern is very arbitrary when it comes to dharma.
    for example, according to Dr. Lewis Lancaster, a distinguished Buddhologist, Buddhist monks (via the Silk road) influenced the Western religion with their monasteries and such.

    see “Burke Lecture: Buddhism in a Global Age of Technology”

    so from a higher historical vantage point can we really say who influenced whom?

    that said, for the sake of conversation we can continue with the East/West designation.

    Mahasi Sayadaw and U Ba Khin rock! i’m very thankful for their radical reinterpretation of the dharma. in fact my teacher Shinzen Young has adapted their techniques (e.g. noting technique, and focus on bodily sensations) as his main teaching method.

    see: “Adapting Eastern Spiritual Teachings to our Western Culture: A discussion with Shinzen Young and Charles Tart”

    the bottom line is, it’s the unique nature of Buddhadharma that allows it to be radically re-interpreted by any culture that encounters it. it’s really like an open-source “religion.”

    imho, the next great leap in the evolution of Buddhadharma is its marriage with Western science. there are four people i know of who are actively and passionately pursuing this “marriage”:

    Ken Wilber: see “Marriage of Sense and Soul” (and practically all of his writings)

    Shinzen Young: see “Divide and Conquer: How the Essence of Mindfulness Parallels the Nuts and Bolts of Science”

    B. Alan Wallace: see: “Toward the First Revolution in the Mind Sciences ”

    Sam Harris: see: “Contemplative Science”

    incidentally, those four people have the greatest influence on me in theory and in practice :)

    keep up the great post!


  20. John Eden says:

    I suppose you are aware that within the tradition of Ledi and U Ba Khin, as taught by SN Goenka, we hold that the Burmese monks are the only ones who kept alive the techniques of Vipassana meditation as originally taught by the Buddha. There is a least a rudimentary lineage there, stretching back to the two monks who left India and came to Burma, and these monks are credited with passing the teachings along undiluted. That there may be no scholarly evidence of this certainly doesn’t make it untrue. They were not concerned with such things, so it’s not surprising that nothing was written of it. The real test of this, after all, is in the practicing of it.

  21. Glenn Wallis says:

    David, before it gets lost in the verbiage of my comment, I want to tell you how much I appreciate your blog. I just discovered it, via Jayarava (thanks Jayarava), and so have just begun to rub its salve on my Buddhist-weary head. (But it’s “meaning”-weary, too. More below.) Now:

    It is, in part, the kind of historical knowledge that you bring to light in this post that has brought me to the view that the designator “Buddhism” describes nothing in life. What it describes, rather, is a sprawling, ancient conceptual-institutional edifice that is in the process of collapsing under its own conceptual-institutional weight. Historical perspective contributes to the erosion of tradition’s precious foundations; the advances of knowledge, to structural rot. Why is that?

    On a personal level, I am curious about how you–or anybody, for that matter–continue to practice in a tradition such as the Nyingma Aro gTér,lineage, with its nagas, ter-ma, quasi-wizards, ahistoricism, absolutization of formlessness, romantization of emptiness, and so on. It is an abiding curiosity of mine how certain people can, with coruscating reason, see the exit to tradition’s walled vallation, only to turn back, stretch their legs, and re-light their warm pipe of curative dreams. As someone whose critical abilities, and historical and philological knowledge, automatically voids his subscription to all programs, I am genuinely curious about this matter. Does it involve a strategy to counter cognitive dissonance?

    Another matter. I am writing a book, tentatively called Meditation as Organon of Dissolution, wherein I present the nihilistic calculus of Gotama’s dispensation. So, I have some questions about your view of nilhilism. Are you really so sure that nihilism “simply inverts the core claim of eternalism: everything is really meaningless. Seeming meanings are illusory or arbitrary or subjective, and therefore unreal or unimportant.” Does, that is, the conclusion “unreal or unimportant” necessarily follow from the premises?

    “Attempting to live without significance, purpose, or value leads to rage, anguish, alienation, depression, and exhaustion.” I do attempt to live as you say here. And I find just the opposite to follow: exhilaration, passion, honesty, freedom. I have no illusions about “significance, purpose, or value,” yet live a life of action and engagement.

    Do an experiment. What happens when you cease to exert your energy shoring up the “threat” of nihilism with the heavy sandbags of “meaning”? What happens when you see the disenchantment of the world–indeed a “value” posited by both good Gotama and the western Enlightenment thinkers–not as a sort of life-denying catastrophe, but, rather, as a path to freedom–or at least to creative speculation about new human possibilities? I am really curious: what happens?

    Thanks again for all of your hard work and great care on this blog.


  22. Kate Gowen says:

    I, also, want to thank you for the energy you’re putting into your wide-ranging inquiry, David. It’s having a salutary effect on my own muddling attempts at ordering my own perceptions, motives, assumptions, capacities, and practice.

  23. Noah says:

    @ Glenn

    Nice comment.

    I found what you said interesting, for two reasons:

    1) “[W]ithout significance, purpose, or value” how or where do you experience “exhilaration” and “passion”?
    Do you not experience even transient purpose in your life?
    When you wake up every morning, do you not go to the bathroom for *purposes* of peeing (especially if you drank a bunch of Riverwest Stein Lagers* the night before – yum!), and do you not experience the *value* of doing so; the *value* of not having your bladder rupture? I value my intact bladders walls. But maybe I’m missing your point. :)

    @ David

    2) Glen wrote, “I am curious about how you–or anybody, for that matter–continue to practice in a tradition such as the Nyingma Aro gTér,lineage, with its nagas, ter-ma, quasi-wizards, ahistoricism, absolutization of formlessness, romantization of emptiness, and so on.”

    I guess I have wondered a little about this myself. Do you see yourself moving towards taking a Stance position in your life instead of remaining in a System?
    You seem to very much enjoy being an Apprentice in the Aro community (given your comments, and obvious HUGE amounts of work on Approaching Aro**, for example).

    I could hazard some guesses as to why you stay in the Aro lineage – you want to work with specific teachers, and those teachers are Aro teachers, and so, if you want to work with them, you have to do the Aro stuff. And, perhaps, the stuff you have to do isn’t sooo terrible?

    Why DO you stay with those crazy Aro gTér-ers?

    New slogan for the AgT???:
    “gTérin’ it up with the Aro gTér! OOOOOHHHHH yeah!!!”
    (“it” being dualism, obviously:))

    I wonder if Tony the Tiger is still around. He’d be the perfect voice.


    What do you have against the Quasi-Wisards?
    That’s the name of my new Lord of the Rings jazz-fusion trio!
    My band name is “Mortimer”. It means “stagnant water”***.:lol:

    Just kidding. :)


    * – HIGHLY recommended.

  24. @Noah. You said: “Why DO you stay with those crazy Aro gTér-ers?”

    I do not speak for David, but as another Aro apprentice with a high level of scientific education:

    Crazyness is one of my many modes. ^_^

    It is suprisingly worthwhile to practice “demon-worship and abominable rituals” among other things. Have you tried? :)

  25. Hi Glenn,

    Thank you for your exceptionally insightful observations and questions. I’ve just been over to read your blog and found much of interest there. Since you mention Jayarava, I thought I’d point to his post from yesterday, which touches on many of the same questions we are wrestling with.

    I share the perception that “Buddhism” is collapsing. (Although prediction is always uncertain.) If so, the question is: what, if anything, do we want to rescue from the rubble, and what to reassemble it into? I have some extremely tentative answers, which I’ll present near the end of this series.

    Your questions about nihilism point directly to the subject of one of the books I’m writing, namely Meaningness. Its central point is that eternalism and nihilism are not the only possibilities. I take it that both eternalism and nihilism are based on the idea that the only kind of meaning that matters is ultimate meaning. Eternalism insists that ultimate meaning exists, which is wrong. Nihilism denies that any meaning exists, which is also wrong. (See this page for more on that.)

    You might define “nihilism” differently—perhaps just as the denial of ultimate meaning. That would cover both what I call “nihilism” and my preferred third alternative (“the complete stance”).

    I’m skeptical that it’s possible to deny significance, purpose, and value altogether. If you are sufficiently hungry, the significance, purpose, and value of food is unmistakeable.

    I agree that freeing oneself from all ultimate meanings can lead to exhilaration, passion, honesty, and freedom. I hope to point in that direction.

    About Aro. Ngak’chang Rinpoche, its head lama, begins most public retreats by saying that he teaches methods, not Truth. (This is a Dzogchen perspective. It relativizes the Absolute Truths of the other yanas as pragmatic tools.)

    So that leaves you free to take whatever ontological stance you find useful. Some Aro students, including close friends of mine, take the nagas, sorcerers, and so forth as concretely-existing truths. I can’t imagine how, but it seems to work well for them. I take the magical stuff as inspiring entertainment.

    And I love that stuff. I like it so much that I’m writing a historical novel that’s packed full of it, as a serial on the web. In the most recent episode, the hero learns the hard way that he is a sorcerer. Nagas will make their first appearance about four episodes from now.

    I hope it is entertaining, and perhaps inspiring. And it has my somewhat subversive take on Buddhism woven all through it. That most recent episode contains a thinly-veiled attack on karmic justice.

    Anyway, as for why I practice Aro rather than another leading brand: mostly because I’m still learning things from my lamas that I couldn’t figure out myself. I might find other teachers who could do that for me, but I haven’t encountered any, and I’ve exposed myself to many versions of Buddhism.

    Best wishes,


  26. @ Joyce – Thanks for the question! What I wrote was that the inventors of vipassana were into extreme asceticism—which doesn’t necessarily mean that their vipassana methods are ascetic. As they increasingly taught lay people, the asceticism seems to have weakened. But in Asia, from what I have read, vipassana is still taught in a renunciative framework. For example, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu wrote that lay people should regard sex as disgusting, and should do it only when necessary for reproduction (if at all). Probably by most Westerners’ standards, that’s “extreme asceticism.”

    The whole aim of that path is to abandon desire. So then the follow-on questions: Does vipassana has renunciation built into it? Is it the best practice for Westerners who have no interest in abandoning desire? I’ll have a whole post about that later in this series.

    @ ~C4Chaos – Yes, the co-construction of “Buddhism” by East and West is fascinating. For an engrossing (but sometimes infuriating) history of the earliest phase of this, check out The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies.

    I’ve heard very good things about Shinzen Young from others. I’m greatly looking forward to hearing his talk at the Buddhist Geeks conference. I’m very interested in the neuroscience literature on meditation (but haven’t had time to read much of it yet).

    @ Noah – “Do you see yourself moving towards taking a Stance position in your life instead of remaining in a System?” I’ll talk about that near the end of this series. Basically, having been born when I was, I’m reasonably comfortable with “subcultural Buddhism.” On the other hand, for whatever reason, part of me seems to have travelled with the Zeitgeist, into the “post-systems” world. I do experience some cognitive dissonance around this; but it’s not a major problem. What I hope to do late in this series is to articulate my post-systems experience, in case that’s useful for people who are younger than me. Possibly I can see it clearer, in some ways, for being partly removed from it; for being an outsider to that way of being.

  27. Noah says:

    @ David

    “What I hope to do late in this series is to articulate my post-systems experience, in case that’s useful for people who are younger than me.”

    Cool. I look forward to it. :)

  28. Noah says:


    “Crazyness is one of my many modes.”
    :) Ha!

    “It is suprisingly worthwhile to practice ‘demon-worship and abominable rituals’ among other things. Have you tried?”

    I’m still just shi-nè-ing around these days. But shi-nè is pretty abominable sometimes.

    What about eating at McDonalds? Does that count?
    It’s pretty demonic and abominable. :) I only do that once in a while. #6 Crispy Chicken Extra Value Meal. So bad, but soo good. Kind of my punk version of corpse eating practice. Just kidding. :D Sorry, McDonalds.

    Was that a thing though? Eating corpses to become enlightened? I know it’s not in the Aro gTér. But in Tibet, was that considered a fast track to realization if you knew how to do it correctly?

    I’d do it.
    I’d eat a corpse to be come enlightened. There, I said it. :)
    Can it at least be a pretty corpse? Maybe the corpse of someone who liked the same music as me? Are salt and pepper allowed?

    Kündröl, are there specific “demons” you might suggest worshiping, or any particular “abominations” you’ve found particularly helpful? :)


  29. @Noah

    “But shi-nè is pretty abominable sometimes.”

    Oh yeah, it can be like grinding yourself to little pieces while waiting that wild dogs come to eat them away.

    “What about eating at McDonalds? Does that count?”

    Sure, if you eat most abominably. Have also some demonic laughter while doing it. :D

    “But in Tibet, was that considered a fast track to realization if you knew how to do it correctly?”

    At least in India as far a I have heard. I have to admit that I do not really understand the principle and function – maybe for the reason that I have never tried…

    “Can it at least be a pretty corpse? Maybe the corpse of someone who liked the same music as me? Are salt and pepper allowed?”

    Just go pick one from your local charnel ground. ^_^

    “Kündröl, are there specific “demons” you might suggest worshiping, or any particular “abominations” you’ve found particularly helpful?”

    The say that the “Lesser Key of the Solomon” ( is quite a classic if you are into some good old fashioned demon summoning ;) – but that is not very Buddhist. I have heard that protector practices are quite funky though… At the moment, most of my “demon” worshipping within Aro is about Yeshe Tsogyel mantra practice. It has had its peculiar side(?) effects as far as I’m concerned.

    When it comes to “abominations” I find the gChod practice very fascinating. Its concerns itself in certain matters that I find central to my life and path. You can also call upon some demons with that :D.

    I hava also practical experience with the good ol’ sorcery (outside Aro), and I think that many people really do not have any idea of its principle and funtion. But that path of discussion I will not take here… It would be too off-topic nad I do not have the time.

  30. Re: ” I take the magical stuff as inspiring entertainment. And I love that stuff.” I think this is vital. You’ve got to enjoy whatever you do or you’re going to struggle to stick at it. The more intellectual/scientific/rational deconstruction one engages in, the greater the risk that at a certain point you’re just surrounded by bits of lifeless junk that you’ve ripped apart. I had thought at one point to study English Literature at University, but after spending a couple of months ripping apart a single short collection of poems that I loved, looking at the mechanics of what made them tick, all I had was empty words on a page. The intellectual process had killed all the passion.

    This is a risk with regards the statement that “what, if anything, do we want to rescue from the rubble [of the collapse of Buddhism], and what to reassemble it into?” First up, implicit in that kind of statement is the notion that ‘My brain/rational scientific methodology/philological redactionist talents are bigger than Buddhism and I’m capable of deciding which bits to keep and which to ditch’. I’d guess that determining the future course of Buddhism is pretty hard unless one is Realised, but even setting that little detail to one side if one cannot approach the task with a sense of enjoyment and appreciation for the tradition(s) one is dealing with, all that will result is a lifeless souless husk. I reckon this is one of the problems that Consensus Buddhism faces – these guys just don’t seem to be enjoying themselves enough. They think that by leaving off the mayo & salad and adding extra couscous & museli their Buddha King Buddha Burger (You want it your way at BK? You gottit!) will become sufficiently paletable for them to chow down on. When that doesn’t work they’ll replace the sesame seed bun with a wholegrain bap, and the 14oz mega burger with a extra bland McTofu Speciale and by the end of the process it won’t look anything like Buddhism at all. And they’ll still be hungry. And miserable.

  31. Lawrence says:

    Hi David, being a student of SN Goenka I had in mind to post regarding the Burmese lineage to him and U Ba Khin, but I saw John Eden had very kindly posted it for me:-

    ‘I suppose you are aware that within the tradition of Ledi and U Ba Khin, as taught by SN Goenka, we hold that the Burmese monks are the only ones who kept alive the techniques of Vipassana meditation as originally taught by the Buddha. There is a least a rudimentary lineage there, stretching back to the two monks who left India and came to Burma, and these monks are credited with passing the teachings along undiluted. That there may be no scholarly evidence of this certainly doesn’t make it untrue. They were not concerned with such things, so it’s not surprising that nothing was written of it. The real test of this, after all, is in the practicing of it.’

    As John says there is no scholarly evidence of this, but it’s worth taking note that there maybe enough evidence in the phenomenal growth of Vipassana meditation centres (as taught by SN Goenka) throughout the world while there is a parallel decline in Buddhism as a whole (the general theme throughout this series). I feel the fact that there has never been a single cent or penny charged to sit a course (with an aim of not polluting the dhamma) speaks volumes.

    Thanks for changing the ‘completely lost’ to ‘almost completely lost’, it makes a big difference to the thread.

  32. John Eden says:

    @Lawrence – Thanks for the “second”! Seems David is not interested in responding to this line of thought… perhaps most of these mostly academic commentators are missing the “swim-ology” piece!

  33. @ John Eden, Lawrence — It sounds as if S.N. Goenka emphasizes the importance of an unbroken lineage? If so, I apologize if pointing out the lack of evidence for that is offensive to you. I did not intend that. As I said, I have no interest in suggesting that modern vipassana is “inauthentic” through lack of lineage. Rather, I wanted to trace the ways in which vipassana techniques have been revised under Western influence. Apparently it is uncontroversial that U Ba Khin did do that, and S.N. Goenka inherited his methods.

    For me, what matters is efficacy, not lineage. As Lawrence points out, the success of S.N. Goenka’s organization speaks well for his approach.

    What is swim-ology?

    @ Namgyal Dorje — In case it’s not clear, I don’t think it’s a good thing that Buddhism may collapse, and I do the little I can to help prevent that. I do think it’s a good idea to start thinking about Plan B in case it does. I am not Realized, so all I can offer are some tentative guesses. …Yes, if Buddhism isn’t fun, why bother? That points in the direction of my tentative guess…

  34. John Eden says:

    I don’t think Goenka emphasizes the lineage idea, it’s more the idea that the teachings themselves, the techniques and the emphasis on observing sensation, as described in both the Anapanasati and Sattipathana suttas, were passed down by Burmese monks. It’s not offensive to point out that there’s lack of evidence, just seems important that we realize that lack of scholarly evidence, written records, doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.

    And certainly U Ba Khin and Goenka may have revised the techniques, but they were not so influenced by Westerners; he was teaching pretty much totally Burmese, and Goenka began teaching Indians. Westerners began coming to his courses after they were well-established in India, and I don’t think the teachings changed much as a result. Even in the US, it’s still the same as it’s taught in India and elsewhere. My point is that this tradition seems to be different in some important ways than the other vipassana groups that you are discussing here, so I’m just pointing out some of those fine points of difference.

    I’m really enjoying the blog and the discussion! Thanks for your response!

  35. John Eden says:

    Oh, sorry, missed the question. “Swim-ology” refers to a story – on the virtue of practice – that Goenka tells in his discourses, about an academic and an ignorant ship worker… The academic tells the ignorant fellow that he’s wasted half his life because he knows nothing of Geology, Oceanography, Climatology and such, and then when the ship begins to sink, the worker comes to the academic and asks him if he has studied ‘swim-ology’ and when he says no, the worker says he is so sorry, he’s wasted his whole life because the ship is sinking and he won’t be able to swim to shore.

  36. John Eden says:

    … my comment to Lawrence on academics, however, was not directed at you… some of the other commentators seemed to me to be excessively into display of technical terms and big words and other “academic” paraphernalia! As I said, I find your blog to be very interesting and stimulating.

  37. Lawrence says:

    I also think that the differences in this tradition are important to recognise. Rather than it getting tied up with being instrumental to ‘Consensus Buddhism’ and ‘A New World Religion’, the teachings suggest an awareness around the time of re-invention by keeping well away from the whole ‘Buddhist’ and ‘Religion’ ideas altogether, thus keeping it very open and diverse for all to attend whatever one’s religion or lack of relgion may be. There are no robes, no statues, no mantras etc etc. The emphasis is entirely on the practise of meditation.

    I am not Buddhist, nor do I practise Buddhism.

    In regards to Buddhism being fun I can only talk about vipassana meditation itself, which for me is something to be taken seriously, and very hard work to! There are plenty of other things I can do for fun.

    The clock of Vipassana meditation has struck, it appears to be exactly what the world is in need of at this present time.

    @David, definitely no offence has been taken, quite the opposite! I have been really enjoying this whole series and thouroghly admire your knowledge, research and approach to what I consider to be a really important subject.

    @John, the swim-ology quote made me smile, thanks.

  38. Noah says:


    Thanks for the info. And thanks for the sense of humor. :D


    In regards to that whole “swim-ology” thing: I’m sorry people keep doing that whole “this guy must not practice very much” routine. It’s kinda weird.

  39. @ David re: “I am not Realized, so all I can offer are some tentative guesses.” Apologies if it seemed my comment was criticising your critique. Actually what I was trying (failing) to articulate is that the leaders of Consensus Buddhism seem to be saying ‘We aren’t Realized yet, so what do we change about Buddhism and incorporate from elsewhere to attend to that problem’. I don’t think that is a place from which to launch a major reform. I am very much looking forward to your tentative suggestions and am glad Fun is going to be part of that! I think the possibility of Realization is a Big Problem for some folk. As Ngak’chang Rinpoche has said in the past – ‘. . . in the Himalayas people practice because that is what they do. They do not do so with any great expectation of becoming Enlightened’. Yes some form of accomplishment is the goal, is wished and hoped for, and some people do get there. But, I figure it is a bit like running the London Marathon. Maybe 30 people run it each year because they honestly think they might win. The other 36,000 they do it for fun, or for the challenge, or self-improvement, or to raise money for good causes, or as purist runners ‘because this is what we do around here’. Ngak’chang Rinpoche primarily asks his students merely ‘To become just a little bit kinder’ as a result of their practice. One of the virtues of Fun, and also of being part of a Tradition, is that these are things are supportive of the notion that ‘I practice, because that is what we do around here’.

  40. Lawrence says:

    @Noah. I think it’s kinda weird that you feel the need to keep jumping to David’s defence… even after it’s been made perfectly clear that it wasn’t directed at him

  41. Joop Romeijn says:


    Starting to read your rich serie about protestant buddhism or whatever the name is …
    I have some small remarks on this one.
    You say “Since the late 1950s, the Mahasi method (…) has been dominant in Sri Lanka.
    And, Sri Lankan Buddhism has not had much influence on the West.”

    I agree with the first part: it is dominant and one of the man that made much propaganda for it, in Sri Lanka and in the West (perhaps only in Europe) was the monk Nyanaponika Thera, who as a young German Jew got to Sri Lanka in 1935 (?) and has written much, in English and German about the Dhamma and (Mahasi) meditation.
    His pupil is the well known American Jew (I mention the fact that they are jewish to make clear that they were no christians) Bhikkhu Bodhi who did enormous translation work – from Pali to English – and wrote many essays in which he in a way translated the Sri Lankan Theravada to the West: that is the influence. A small detail: he hardly meditates, is much more a scholar-monk.

    Another man of influence is the (Sri Lankan-born), Bhikkhu Gunaratana who for decades teached vipassana (a la Mahasi) BUT ALSO samatha-meditation, about entering the jhanas, in the USA



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  43. Pingback: Why You Don’t Want Vipassana « muflax' mindstream

  44. burt goldman says:

    This is really a good website for info in meditation. I wonder how Thai meditation differs from the original?

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  46. Malcolm says:

    Is vipassana Buddhist? Is the Pope Catholic? Is the Dalai Lama Buddhist? Chogyam Trungpa employed Joseph Goldstein to work at Naropa. The Dali Lama employed Theravadins to teach vipassana at Dharamsala. Ricard’s “The art of meditation” recommends Bhante Guanaratano’s book on meditation, and quotes him.

  47. Hi Malcolm,

    Yes, vipassana is universally accepted as Buddhist now. But, the vipassana we have now is only a century old, and was invented only with a lot of input from Western religion and philosophy.

    Many Buddhists want to say that something counts as Buddhist only if it is “original” and “authentic” and comes straight from Gautama Buddha. I reject that.

    With this analysis of the history of vipassana, if you were a Theravadin and took “authenticity” seriously, you’d have to give up on Buddhism. Scripture says that vipassana is required, but the method had been lost. (In fact, as I wrote in the previous post, in the 1800s, Theravada had given up.)

    I advocate further reinvention of Buddhism. One main obstacle to that is traditionalists who insist that change is impossible and the Buddhism we’ve inherited is complete and correct and sacred.

    In this post and the previous one, I pointed out that Theravada as we now understand it is only a century old, and that it was extensively modernized to meet political, social, and cultural conditions of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

    Similarly, Zen as we now understand it dates only from the late 1800s, and was similarly modernized to incorporate Western religious and philosophical ideas.

    My main interest is in Buddhist tantra. Like all Buddhisms, it claims to come straight from Gautama Buddha and not to have changed one iota since then. In reality, it has constantly changed. The version that is mostly taught in the West now is an attempt to freeze the Tibetan culture of 1959 to protect it against modernization.

    But, Tibetan Buddhism was constantly changing in Tibet, and much of the 1959 version was only invented during 1650-1750 (a period of rapid innovation due to changing political and economic conditions in Tibet).

    Does that make the question “is vipassana Buddhist” clearer?


  48. Greg says:

    The only thing unclear at this point was whether he was too lazy to read the post or whether he has serious problems with reading comprehension.

  49. Hi Greg,

    Yes, I think Malcolm missed the point; but maybe we can cut him some slack! He may not have much context for these ideas, which might require some thinking to digest if you are unfamiliar with all the background.

    And, it’s just a blog post… I’m glad when people do the work to take what I write seriously and work out the implications, but that’s a greater burden than is normally expected of blog readers.



  50. Jim says:

    It sounds like what we consider to be the venerable, hoary tradition of Theravada, delivered in a straight line from ancient India to the present, is in fact an invention of the late-19/early-20th centuries (at least as concerns its practice).

    If that’s so, what was Theravada doing between the time of the Visuddhimagga and the late-19th century?

  51. An excellent question!

    Part of the answer is that “practice”, for Buddhism, is not synonymous with “meditation”. Most Buddhist practice is vinaya, ritual, and fund-raising. My guess is that is mostly what Theravada was for most of those intervening centuries.

    I know almost nothing, however. Theravada isn’t my main Buddhist interest, so I haven’t read any of its history before King Mongkut.

    If anyone knows more, I’d be interested to hear…

  52. Jim says:

    Well, I’m interested to hear, too. I’ve been practicing in the Mahasi tradition for the last year, ardently noting sensations and traversing the Progress of Insight. (I study with one of Kenneth Folk’s students.) Many times it’s occurred to me that so much of the practice and theory is like German philosophy. I studied Kant and Heidegger at the graduate level, and I’ve been struck so many times by the similarities between these philosophical accounts of subjectivity and what the practice seems to be aiming for (a clear perception that whatever is for me cannot be identical with me, and that this subjective remainder is “empty” and not-a-thing/nothing). And then why is it that the /Nazis/ of all people are so interested in Buddhism, to the point where a contemporary neo-Nazi mystic like Miguel Serrano thinks Hitler was a Bodhisattva? This made no sense to me until now.

    And also, this explains so well the rejection of jhana in American Buddhism. I was told on my last retreat (at the Mecca of Consensus Buddhism) that jhana is anti-life, and that it is the mental equivalent of totalitarian communism (which oddly made it more appealing), and that we’ll learn vipassana meditation instead, which helps with life and leads to awakening. Wow. This is before I looked at the Pali canon and saw everyone doing jhana, bossing the hell out of jhanas left and right (which Buddhaghosa says is near impossible), and nowhere is anyone “doing insight meditation”. (I found this blog post while trying to figure out where the hell Mahasi-style meditation even came from.) I now have a good reason for this: it’s because Buddhist meditation isn’t Buddhist meditation. It’s ideas and practices from Buddhism that are heavily inflected through late-19th century mysticism, itself an heir of German philosophy, and one of the streams feeding early 20th-century reaction. Heavy!

  53. Buddhist meditation isn’t Buddhist meditation. It’s ideas and practices from Buddhism that are heavily inflected through late-19th century mysticism, itself an heir of German philosophy, and one of the streams feeding early 20th-century reaction.

    Yes, that’s my understanding of it. You’ve read Thanissaro Bikkhu’s Romancing The Buddha, right? He seems to have been the first person to make this point. David McMahan’s Making of Buddhist Modernism expanded on the analysis. The more I’ve read about both 20th century Buddhism and the intellectual lineage that descends from German Romantic Idealism, the more I think they were right.

    jhana is anti-life, and that it is the mental equivalent of totalitarian communism (which oddly made it more appealing)

    That’s really weird.

    As far as I can tell, in contemporary usage, mostly “jhana” means whatever you think is bogus and “vipassana” means whatever you think the real thing is. I hadn’t seen it get as extreme as “anti-life,” though.

  54. Jim says:

    I’ve read a few essays by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, but I’ve never read Romancing the Buddha. In general I’ve found what he has to say interesting and a helpful antidote to a lot of the fluff out there about “letting it be” and whatnot, so I’ll check this out.

    I’m exaggerating a bit about the anti-life thing. As I recall, the claim was that jhana makes you focus on one thing and takes you into altered states of consciousness, so it’s not useful for ordinary life; whereas vipassana somehow is useful for ordinary life [insert something here about how wonderful "mindfulness" is].

    The claim about totalitarian communism is an almost exact quote, though.

    Doesn’t it seem, though, like Mahasi just based his Progress of Insight on Buddhaghosa? Perhaps the basis wasn’t the Pali canon (I’ve found no “progress of insight” there), but is it fair to say that this all a purely modern invention? For instance, here’s an argument for the Mahasi noting technique being based in the suttas:

  55. I think big parts of the answer you want are in “Romancing the Buddha” and The Making of Buddhist Modernism.

    You might also find useful my pages on Theravada modernism before vipassana was invented, Western mysticism infecting Buddhism, Buddhist meditation forced through filters of Western acceptability, why Westerners reject authentic Theravada and invent substitutes, how they did that, and so on.

    You can find other pieces of the answer in Robert Sharf’s work on modernist Zen (cited at the end of my post on that). Most of what he says applies to modernist Theravada as well, I think.

    I haven’t read the Visuddhi Magga, so probably I shouldn’t say more. However, following Thanissaro, McMahan, and Sharf, my guess is this:

    Texts like the Magga (and also the scriptures on which it was based) were written by academics. They were theoretical, abstract, speculative, metaphysical intellectualizations. Their authors didn’t have any expectation that anyone would seriously try to get enlightened. That wasn’t part of their social milieu. No one interpreted the samatha section of the Magga as meditation practice instructions because no one practiced “meditation” before 1900.

    In the early 20th century, there was enormous political pressure to reinvent Buddhism to conform to liberal Western ideas about what a religion is supposed to be, which at the time meant monist mysticism. There wasn’t anything like that in Theravada.

    So what Mahasi (and the other modernists) did was to reinterpret theoretical, speculative texts as practical, descriptive texts: “this is what people used to do in the old days.” Then they re-reinterpreted them as prescriptive texts: “if you do that, you’ll get enlightened.” “Enlightenment” and “meditation” were both re-interpreted to fit Western Romantic-Idealist concepts.

    I know only a tiny bit about Kenneth Folk’s method. However, as an outsider, it seems to me that it involves an awful lot of forced interpretation of experience to make it fit the stage framework.

    My experience is that if you meditate regularly, different stuff happens. There are ups and downs, as in life generally. Broadly, there may be progress, but there’s a lot of random variation.

    I’m fairly skeptical that there is any set pattern. If there isn’t, forcing experience to fit concepts may not be useful. (Particularly since those concepts were probably developed for an entirely different purpose, in a milieu in which no one actually meditated.) However, for many people, having a structure (even a completely arbitrary one) may, in fact, be highly useful.

    People who do well with the Folk method seem to really like the sense of accomplishment of ticking off the stages. For some, that’s a strong motivation to keep at it and sit a lot. And that is probably a very good thing—even if the little badge you get after each “stage” is completely meaningless.

    Anyway, this is all pure speculation, and probably highly offensive to someone-or-other. Quite likely I’m both wrong and a bigot.

    Regarding the blog post you linked to: I don’t know Pali, so again I probably shouldn’t say anything. However, its interpretation seems forced, to me. The author is reading something in that probably isn’t there. Yes, “iti” is a quotation mark (in Sanskrit and religious Tibetan as well as Pali), but that doesn’t imply that the text is recommending “noting.”

  56. Jim says:

    David, thank you for the links to all the blog posts, they were very interesting – as was the Thannisaro Bhikkhu article. This is a topic I’m looking forward to probing in more depth.

    I’m not really convinced by what you say about the Vissudhimagga. I haven’t read much of it, but what I have looked at really does sound descriptive and prescriptive to me. It doesn’t come across to me like a purely theoretical work. It seems entirely plausible to me that yogis in the Mahasi lineage mined this document for their own practices and descriptions. And even if what we Mahasi folks are doing isn’t the exact same thing as what Buddhaghosa was doing or even what the Buddha was doing, well, it certainly does have interesting and often positive results, so it may not matter as much overall what the exact origin is. But as for the purely theoretical side of this – exactly what Buddhaghosa was doing versus what he was saying and where all this originated from – I find it very interesting and I’m looking forward to having my views about all this changed in due time.

    What’s impressed me the most so far in all this is the idea that the infinite, open, spacious, etc., self – the “true” self – is an invention of Romanticism and not of Buddhism. I’ve applied the Mahasi techniques pretty rigorously, and I have not found such a self. Rather, what I seem to have found is just the aggregates – which seems more in keeping with what I’ve encountered in the Pali canon. And after a period of discomfort and disorientation, there seems to be great relief in letting go of all that, to not taking all that so seriously, to seeing it all as not-self. And it’s this sense of relief which speaks most strongly to me (as opposed to the doctrines, where it all came from, the maps (even though I think they’re often useful), etc.).

    So, that’s just my own, limited perspective on the thing.

    Anyway, I’m glad I found your blog, and I look forward to reading more.

  57. I’m not really convinced by what you say about the Vissudhimagga.

    Well, I’m probably wrong!

    It seems entirely plausible to me that yogis in the Mahasi lineage mined this document for their own practices and descriptions.

    Oh, I’m sure that, at least, is true. My two questions would be “how does the modern interpretation relate to what was happening in Buddhaghosa’s time” and “how does modern practice relate to reality.” The first question seems only of intellectual interest (unless one has the belief that things in the past MUST have been better than the present). The second needs empirical investigation, I think. Fortunately, that is under way.

    Very interesting what you say about the relief that comes from abandoning the search for “true self”! I do think the “true self” idea is both factually wrong and emotionally harmful. It’s nice to have an empirical example :-) .

    In one of the videos I included in my “epistemology and enlightenment” page, Ajahn Sujato speculates that true-self (“Original Mind”) was imported from Yogacara, a branch of Mahayana philosophy. He suggests that it came over the border from the Mahayana countries north of Burma.

    I was glad to hear someone knowledgeable saying that, because I came to the same hypothesis independently. The area north-west of Burma is culturally Tibetan, and China borders it to the east. Yogacara and Tathagatagarbha were well-known in both. So were meditation methods similar to those developed in 20th century Theravada. I suspect that Mahayana teachers and/or texts influenced the early modern Burmese meditation lineages. If so, this history would have been suppressed, because it would have been embarrassing to admit that Theravada had lost vipassana and had to import it.

    If this is right, then it’s unfortunate that Yogacara Idealism (Cittamatra) and Tathagatagarbha quasi-Romantic true-self ideas came along with the meditation methods.

    Anyway, that’s all geeky speculation. The important thing, as you say, is that there’s no basis for “true self” in traditional Theravada, and if you are a Theravadin, you can safely ignore and/or mock it.

    Those of us who practice Mahayana and Vajrayana have a more complicated task, which is to figure out how to unravel our tradition, remove these wrong views, and weave something workable from the remaining threads.

  58. Greg says:

    Actually, he was talking about Thailand, and goes on to note that Mahayana teachings flourished in Thailand for centuries so it is not even just a matter of stuff trickling across the border.

  59. Oh, thank you very much for the correction!

    Relatedly, it would be interesting to trace the German Romantic Idealist connection into Burma and Thailand. We know for certain that there was a large, direct influence in the case of Zen; the 20th century re-inventors of Zen were completely explicit about that.

    I don’t know whether anyone has looked to see whether Mingun or Mahasi Sayadaw read the German stuff; or (more likely) whether they they were influenced by its descendents (British Romantic Idealism, Transcendentalism, Theosophy, New Thought); or if they were influenced by modernized Zen; or if they got these ideas strictly from Mahayana; or if they came up with then entirely independently.

    I do remember reading that some of the key Zen dudes went and spent several years in Thailand, and that some Thai monks went to Japan. That was in the 1920s, I think, but my memory is hazy.

  60. Jim says:

    My two questions would be “how does the modern interpretation relate to what was happening in Buddhaghosa’s time” and “how does modern practice relate to reality.”

    I have those questions as well, though there is the additional problem: How do we figure out what “reality” means here, since so much of this is subjective?

    The answer of the “pragmatic dharma” community, of which I am a member, often is to understand it in terms of results and to ignore the question of “reality”, because what does that matter, and who could possibly know that anyway, and isn’t it more important to you to just be happy?

    I have a lot of problems with this response:

    (1) Unless you’re completely devoid of anything resembling human curiosity, you’re going to wonder about stuffy concepts like “reality” and “truth”. Yes, there are some people who can, at least in their own minds, dispense with such concepts, but they’re rare, and more importantly, they’re boring. Also? A concern with truth didn’t arise over night. It is somehow, some way, a product of evolution, which leads me to believe such concerns are, at the end of the day, “pragmatic”, too.

    (2) Most spiritual traditions, no matter how nutty and stupid, say they’re interested in “results”, and that you have to “See For Yourself”. If they didn’t say that, they’d just be religions, and no one wants to be accused of being religious, because religion is bad. Obviously. So there’s a constant appeal to “experience” and “anecdotal evidence”, even when “experience” and “anecdotal evidence” can be used to confirm just about anything, from astrology to the most hard-core, delirious racism. So, yes, practical results are indispensable. If I thought I could get enlightened by saying the rosary, I’d give saying the rosary a shot. But there has to be some process of discernment.

    (3) What you consider to be “practice” or a “practical result” is highly conditioned and highly suggestible. It is my opinion that in my own practice I have encountered Real Spiritual Experiences that were just not ideas put in my head – but I’m also pretty sure some things come up in my practice just because I expect them to be there. This is not because I’m some highly suggestible nit-wit. Worse: I’m an ordinary human being, and ordinary human beings are great at making shit up, and they’re great at making shit up when a bunch of other people around them are constantly making the same shit up. “Wow. You got the same result, too. Amazing.” Except maybe it isn’t.

    (4) If you’re going to call it “Buddhist meditation” and “Buddhist enlightenment” and “dharma” and have other trappings of Buddhism around, don’t you owe it to yourself and others to be sure you know what you’re talking about? If you’re going to be completely free-form about it and say you’re doing something totally new, then that’s fine, just say that. But I feel like if you’re going to make a big deal about talking about the dhamma all the time, then you also have to be interested in the truth content of what you’re saying. (Which I think people are, anyway, at least until you raise hard questions about it, and then sometimes people fall back into the mysticism of “practice”.)

    Also, I think you said this somewhere in one of your blog posts, but doing different practices will bring you different results. “Enlightenment” is used to describe many, many things. This is true even in pragmatic dharma. Daniel Ingram and Kenneth Folk do not use the word “rigpa” to mean the same things. And that’s not really a problem as long as we’re rigorous about the terms.

    I guess the problem arises when you start to say that the awakening you’re achieving now, with these practices, is the same thing the Buddha was doing. There are Theravada people doing stuff which I’m almost certain is not the same stuff I’m doing. Or their interpretation of it is wildly different. This was a bit of a trip for me when I first discovered it and sewed the seeds of doubt in my head. This is why it’s cool there are people like Thannisaro who are such (down-to-earth) hard-asses about this stuff, because then at least you can look at the practice, look at the results, and decide whether what the Buddha was doing is something you want to do, or whether you want to look at something different. He’s bringing the kind of rigor to the scholarship and practice that I think is exemplary.

    And in the absence of something like a partial reverse-engineering of the brain, that’s the best we’ve got. Understanding all this on a pure information-processing level would solve an awful lot, even if it didn’t solve everything. “Okay, what you call ‘perceiving emptiness’ is this particular routing of information through here, and it’s different from how ‘normal’ people look at things, which is like this. But you over here, you only think you perceive emptiness, but in fact you’re doing this third thing, which has almost no relationship at all to what person 1 was doing.” That would fix a lot. But we don’t have that, so we have first-person report, maps, texts, and the like, and we make due. But we have to get a lot more precise with our language, and we have to drop the dogma of “practice” as a means to dispelling any skepticism about this stuff.

  61. Yup, thanks! Good points, well said.

  62. Josh says:

    Hi again David.

    A while ago you did a twitter poll for which projects your readers would like you to update first. Now, my vote would always be the next instalment of Buddhism for Vampires, because you’ve had me hooked for months despite the drip-feed of content. On the other hand, it’s still bugging me why (Buddhist) monism bugs you so much. Reading, your objection seemed to be that monists should stop saying “really, you’re not you, you’re the whole universe” and say instead “in some sense, you’re not just you, you’re also the whole universe”. But from the energy you’re expending on these multiple-site critiques, there must be something more? That monism makes people impractical? That glossing over differentiation leads to…? I’d love you to explain it more fully, because my intellectual inability to replace that ellipsis on my own is frustrating.

  63. Hi, Josh,

    Thank you very much for your appreciation and for your vote!

    I’ve been working on the “Reinventing Buddhist Tantra” project for 10 months, and so far I haven’t even finished its introductory overview—supposedly part 1 of 4 (or 6). So, yeah, I think it’s about time to ice that and get back to the vampire novel (which is more fun) and the Meaningness book (which is more important).

    Regarding monism:

    Chalk is in some sense cheese. They are both homogeneous white substances that result from partial decomposition of biological products. This is a useless sense, however. Treating chalk and cheese as “essentially the same” will almost always get you in trouble.

    Maybe “in some sense” you are the entire universe. Is there a useful sense? I don’t know of one. Treating the two as essentially the same will almost always get you in trouble.

    Monism was the next major topic I was going to address in the meaningness book, before I back-burnered it to work on “Consensus Buddhism”.

    Before getting into the “spiritual” issues around monism, I have to build up some basic concepts: boundaries, objects, and connections. I think the correct insight in “your true self is the entire universe” is that the boundary around the self is nebulous: inherently ambiguous. To explain that, I need to first get clear about boundaries in general. That is not actually difficult to understand, but it’s something not many people have thought about before, so it needs some careful explanation.

    Monism is popular because it seems to promise a way out of limitations. But it can’t deliver on that. When we get clear about why monism is factually wrong, we can look at why it doesn’t work emotionally/spiritually, and just makes you ineffective and miserable. And we can also look at what the better alternative is, which incorporates the accurate aspects of monism’s insight while avoiding the absurd metaphysics.

  64. Josh says:

    Thank you for your reply. I am still mulling it over, and re-reading stubs in the book. I feel like there is something I want to articulate in response, but I don’t quite know what it is yet. Very nebulous.

    Re-reading the book I was reminded of my initial experience of applying the idea of inherent ambiguity to a variety of my own situations. Releasing the guilty feeling that if only I tried harder then the perfect solution would appear is like a weight lifting.

    Having a meditation practice in which you stop neurotically trying to compartmentalise the messy reality that is chalk and cheese, and narrate your story in relation to them, is wonderful. But outside of that practice, having a conceptual reminder not to fixate on achieving certainty, or being beyond the reach of criticism, is also very powerful.

    Thank you for your efforts to articulate one.

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  66. Thank you very much for this article. The more I am exposed to it, the more convinced I become that Theravada Buddhism is a “put-up job,” and your article confirms my suspicion. Incidentally, do you know if Allan Bennett (Bhikkhu Ananda Metteyya) contributed at all to this process of meditation rediscovery and development? I know he and Aleister Crowley and he were practising Yoga under the patronage of the Solicitor General of Ceylon circa 1900. Interestingly, Gendun Choepal also met the Solicitor General of Ceylon.

  67. Hmm… about Bennett, I don’t know. According to his Wikipedia article, he studied and practiced Hinduism in Sri Lanka. It was only later that he became a Buddhist, in Burma. In 1911, he published this article about meditation; that might give some insight. I’d be interested to learn more if you follow up.

  68. Im actually a Crowley scholar and have written a book on him, entitled The Secret Wisdom of 666, although I am a Buddhist. I was hoping you might be able to add something new! :) By the time Bennett was studying in Sri Lanka, he was already a Buddhist en route to Burma, although it’s true he was an advanced practitioner of Patanjali’s Yoga. He is even reputed to have levitated! A very interesting, underestimated man. I am familiar with the article you cite. I don’t know too much about his sojourn in Burma, however. Id love to visit the ruins of his monastery. Thanks for your response. Incidentally, I just finished writing a book on the Pali Canon. Id be happy to send you a copy.

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  70. I’ve found a recent journal article that shows that I was wrong in the belief that Ledi Sayadaw reinvented vipassana using only scripture. His oral transmission lineage can be traced back to the mid-1700s. The article’s author gives evidence that vipassana was, in fact, lost in Burma before that—but records of that time are sufficiently scanty that it’s probably possible that a continuous lineage did survive on a very small scale.

    I’ve updated my post’s text, and you can read that for details.

  71. Greg says:

    What article is that? Thanks.

  72. Sorry, I put a citation in the body of the post, but here it is as well: Patrick Pranke, “On saints and wizards: Ideals of human perfection and power in contemporary Burmese Buddhism.”

  73. Greg says:

    Ah yes, thanks!

  74. John Eden says:

    Thanks for this, David. I had wondered about the whole process of how the Goenka/UBahKhin strain got started if what you had said earlier was the historical case… this helps to put the whole thing in perspective. I’m not so involved with Vipassana at this point, but have friends who are, so is good to know the whole thing’s not based on a misunderstanding!

  75. I’ve found another, highly relevant source for the origins of Ledi Sayadaw’s method. Published late last year, it’s Erik Braun’s The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw. Braun seems to contradict Pranke’s article that traced Ledi’s method back to the 1750s. I haven’t read the book, but from the part available for free on Amazon, we have:

    he did not get his understanding of meditation from a particular teacher, nor did he find it in a book. He developed his presentation of meditation himself…

    Apparently this is an area of current research, and these experts do not agree! It would be most interesting to hear or read a discussion between them.

  76. Greg says:

    Interesting, thanks for calling our attention to this. One can imagine how difficult it must be for scholars to try to sort out.

  77. Andrea Serafino says:

    Most of the information are not supported by scientific datas and not correct (those two guys who reinvented vipassana please …very funny). Other mistake: In satipattahana there are not vague or contraddictory info; please make a comparison with Mahayana sutta. Overmore he’s forgot that Pali cannon (the one of which is referred the Theravada approach) is the closest to Buddha thought. The Tibetan/Vajrayana are the farest and not storically due to the Buddha (Prajnaparamita sutra, Lotus) as you should have been know. Buddha never gave initiatinos with magical plumes, oils, rice to be launched and all those magical ritual superstitious staff as Tibetans do. All is just that the Buddha didn’t want. I would rememeber that since Anagami level you lose all those attachaments. It seems that similar wrong article would oly create divisions in the Sangha. That’s very unpleasant. I’m really sorry for this approach. Andrea Serafino

  78. Rory says:

    Are there any vipassana type meditations within the Tibetan lineage that we could say are ‘authentic’?

  79. Greg says:

    It depends on what you mean by “vipassana type meditation” and what you mean by “authentic.”

  80. Hi Rory,

    That would depend on what you mean as “authentic” and “vipassana-type”!

    There’s no agreement among Asian Buddhists about what is “authentic.” Generally it means “comes from the/a transcendent Buddha without alteration.” From the point of view of Western historical research, it’s likely that nothing in Buddhism is authentic in this sense. Everything was invented by someone at some point, and there were/are no transcendent Buddhas.

    In modern Asian Theravada, “vipassana” includes many quite different practices (including, for instance, corpse meditation). In America, it usually refers to awareness of breathing, or something similar. Breath meditation goes back many centuries, at least.

    The Zen and Tibetan breath meditation methods are definitely older than the present Theravada ones. How old, I don’t know.

    “Older” doesn’t mean “better,” of course. The modern Theravada methods were developed based on extensive experimentation, with some feedback from the experience of hundreds of thousands of people. A modern, quasi-scientific approach. That may make them better than any ancient method; I don’t know.

  81. Wow, Greg, you wrote the same first sentence I did, almost, while I was writing mine!

  82. Greg says:

    Ha, indeed you did!

    I would add that if we are talking about mindfulness of breathing (ānāpānasati / ānāpānasmṛti) in Tibet, we seem to be talking about one of two things.

    First, there is the Sūtrayāna tradition of ānāpānasmṛti that draws from the Abhidharma-kośa. In Tibet this was generally considered śamatha rather than vipaśyanā (although in Study and Practice of Meditation: Tibetan Interpretations of the Concentrations and Formless Absorptions, Leah Zahler demonstrates that for Vasubandhu ānāpānasmṛti was a means of accomplishing both śamatha and vipaśyanā, in a manner that seems to resemble modern Theravada Vipassanā. This seems to have been superseded by the later Indian Madhyamaka mania for more conceptual/analytic vipaśyanā practices involving the rehearsal of reasonings).

    Then there are the ānāpānasmṛti practices found in the Mahāmudrā and Dzogchen traditions, and one could argue that these would be considered vipaśyanā practices by those traditions, although sometimes they are presented more as close immediate preliminaries to the actual vipaśyanā practices.

  83. John Eden says:

    Very interesting! I am not an expert on these things, but in the U Ba Khin/Goenka version of Vipassana – which I was involved with for a few years – anapana is what they call the breath awareness part (the first 3 days of a 10 day period), and vipassana is the vedana, body sensations part. There is some blend there, because the anapana involves awareness of the sensation of the breath passing in and out of the nostrils and over the upper lip.

    I suppose anything aimed at ‘insight’ could be called properly vipassana, right?

  84. John Eden says:

    Also, as I understand it, tho haven’t read all of Ledi Sayadaw’s books, he only taught the breath awareness part, not the body scan sensations part, so that would leave U Ba Khin adding that to the technique. As he is the one who moved it from monastery to lay people, in fact teaching all his employees in a government office, he is a fairly likely candidate for the origination of that particular technique. Does that seem reasonably accurate to you folks?

  85. Hi John,

    Yes, my understanding is that everyone agrees that U Ba Khin developed the modern body-scan method.

    There’s a paper by the German scholar-monk Anālayo that finds parallels in an early Chinese text, and suggests that “it seems not farfetched to assume that the same way of explanation also reached Burma, where in some way or another it continued to be passed on by meditating monks until the present,” but this appears to be pure speculation.

  86. John Eden says:

    Thanks for your response David. I do enjoy reading your blog from time to time. I’m still kinda searching for a practice that works for me, so may be looking more into Vajrayana. I’ve done the lojong slogans and tonglen for a long time, thru various other meditation orientations, so am drawn to the Tibetan side – just some of the ‘magic’ aspects of it keep me shying away…!

  87. Yes, I wish there were a fully-naturalized version of Vajrayana available for people like you, who want to avoid the “magic”! Closest are teachers who teach some aspects of Vajrayana in a naturalistic framework (like Shinzen Young) and those who teach complete Vajrayana without specifically emphasizing the magical aspects (like my own teachers).

  88. John Eden says:

    I’ll check those out… I’m trying to avoid the ‘collection of things on my mantle’ that Trungpa spoke of… but just working thru some various perspectives. And trying to keep practicing. Thanks!

  89. I’m curious how you conclude that there are no transcendental Buddhas? How do you know this? As for “magic,” there are clear and explicit references to this in the much touted Pali Canon, some of which are actually suppressed by translators (I have found two examples of such suppression so far). The doctrine of karma is inherently magical. Is someone going to argue that karma is not a Buddhist doctrine?

  90. I’m curious how you conclude that there are no transcendental Buddhas?

    I didn’t… I said that was the point of view of Western historical research.

    As for “magic,” there are clear and explicit references to this in the much touted Pali Canon, some of which are actually suppressed by translators

    Yes indeed! A fact that ought to be more widely known.

    I wrote that “I wish there were a fully-naturalized version of Vajrayana available for people like [John], who want to avoid the magic.” I didn’t say that traditional Buddhism was non-magical… Magic has been a major part of every traditional Buddhism.

    In the 20th Century, some modernist Buddhisms removed that, which made those Buddhisms accessible to people who reject magic. That’s a good thing, I believe. Different sorts of people will find their way to different sorts of Buddhism.

    There is not, yet, an entirely non-magical Vajrayana. Several of my most recent posts begin to explain how it might be possible to create such a thing.

  91. Why is it good to remove something you agree is essential?

  92. I didn’t agree it was essential, either! My attitude is “let a thousand flowers bloom.” Different strokes for different folks…

    Traditionally, there have been many, quite different forms of Vajrayana, suitable for different sorts of people. They should be able to coexist peacefully; difference does not imply conflict.

    I hope in future there will be magical and non-magical Vajrayanas, and that students of both sorts will get along with each other excellently.

  93. I think Theravadin Tantra (Yogacara I think its called) is interesting in this regard.

  94. Yes, very much so! I wrote a post about Tantric Theravada and modern Vajrayana recently.

    (Yogacara is somewhat related, but it’s Mahayana, not Vajrayana.)

  95. Sorry, I was thinking of Yogavacara’s Manual of Indian Mysticism, translated by Rhys Davids (Pali Tex Society, 1896).

  96. Yes, that’s an important text! It was one of three Anagarika Dharmapala drew on when trying to figure out how to meditate.

  97. John Eden says:

    Yes, it is, but Buddha’s karma is not Hindu karma. Buddha said that nothing passed from life to life but the karma. Not as magical as the Hindu version.

  98. Pingback: Martial Law (Sept. 21) and Ninoy Aquino | Meditation Surprise

  99. Will Humbert says:

    “Munindra was also a student of S.N. Goenka, from the other Burmese lineage. Munindra therefore joined the two Burmese vipassana systems. Munindra was the teacher of Dipa Ma.”

    Munindra studied many different types of vipassana with the encouragement of Mahasi Sayadaw, he was familiar with ‘at least four dozen different techniques of insight mediation’ learned in Burma. Its important to note that Munindra did NOT teach a synthesis of Goenka and Mahasi ‘systems’ as you put it but taught strongly within Mahasi technique whilst knowing that the Dharma is not restricted to one approach alone.

    See Mirka Knaster’s excellent biography of Anagarika Munindra for more details.

    Re;Dhammakaya movement – not sure in what sense its ‘quasi tantric’ as I know nothing about tantra and my understanding is that dhammakaya is strong on samatha before embarking on vipassana albeit in a less common format (as with Pa Auk Sayadaw in Burma) Highly recommend ‘Life as a Siamese Monk’ as an excellent dharma read – details Kapilavaḍḍho Bhikkhu’s (Richard Randal’s) ordination and training under Phra Mongkhonthepmuni (Sodh Candasaro; 10 October 1884 – 3 February 1959) including knowledge of past lives. Anyhow, the Dhammakaya movement has had an influence in the UK if not in the USA… see following link

  100. Thank you very much for this information!

    Since I wrote this post, I’ve learned a bit more about Dhammakaya, and wrote about it in “Tantric Theravada and Modern Vajrayana.”

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