This issue of the Inquiring Mind begins a forum among many of the senior teachers of vipassana meditation in the West. Its purpose is to ask them to articulate and clarify their particular way of practice and the approach to Buddhist teachings which one would find at their retreats. As vipassana teaching has evolved over the past twelve years in the West, a variety of differences in approach, emphasis and beliefs about practice have emerged. Acknowledging this diversity of styles and methods is a healthy process. Clarifying will allow students to choose an approach that best fits their temperaments. It can also provide for some an opportunity to consciously learn from different and often complementary styles of practice expressed by teachers other than their own.
One might well ask why there are so many schools of Buddhism, such as Zen, Theravada, Tibetan, Pure Land, all the varieties of Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana practice. And in each school, such as Zen or our own Theravada tradition, why do we find so many techniques of meditation?
It all dates back to the time of the Buddha. One of the foremost qualities of the Buddha was called his Mastery of Skillful Means. Through his intuitive wisdom, the Buddha instructed his disciples in a wide variety of practices and meditations, each suited for the different temperaments of those who came to study the dharma. So even during his life, the Pali scriptures and commentaries describe hundreds of approaches to practice that he used. The essence of all these ways of practice was rooted in the development of mindful awareness, but. this was combined with dozens of techniques to concentrate the mind and many ways to foster surrender and letting go.
The Buddha also gave specific teachings to the householders and the great lay disciples in his sangha, while other teachings were given primarily for monks and nuns. Among the meditations he taught were a variety of strictly mindfulness or vipassana practices, but there were also devotional approaches which used reflections on the qualities of the Buddha, and for some there were ascetic practices. Other methods emphasized great effort and meticulous discipline, some emphasized light and calm, others focused on awareness of suffering and death, and still others used psychic and intuitive development as a part of the process of meditative development. The Buddha’s foremost disciples reflected this and as teachers to the sangha their emphasis varied. The Ven. Sariputta’s teachings focused primarily on wisdom and insight, the Ven. Maha Moggalana trained disciples using great psychic powers, the Ven. Upali was a master of the Vinaya—the monks’ discipline—and so forth.
Just after the Buddha’s death, some of these different approaches were turned into sects, led by masters who emphasized them, or based on whatever understanding of dharma each particular teacher had received. Within a short while, there were eighteen competing traditional schools and a series of Mahayana sects as well. Theravada, or the School of the Elders, from which vipassana is derived, was only one of these. As centuries passed and these schools flourished in the great universities of India, a number of these different forms were exported and introduced into the totally different cultures of China, Japan, Indonesia and Tibet, where their forms changed radically again, mixing with the indigenous culture, religion, and adapted by new masters discovering for that society an expression of dharma that fit its particular needs and circumstances.
Even within our school, modern Thai and Burmese Theravada teachings offer a great range of practices and beliefs. Some teachers, such as Achaan Maha Bua or Sunlun Sayadaw, stress the development of powerful concentration, or samadhi, to deepen understanding. Others, such as Achaan Naeb, emphasize awareness as a process of inquiry. Some stress study, reflection, and a strong emphasis on understanding karma in current, past and future lives. Others, such as Achaan Buddhadasa, consider strong concentration to be a hindrance to understanding, and emphasize a gentle way of practice which develops a natural mindfulness and wisdom as we move through our everyday life. Such an integrated approach is also similar to that of Achaan Chaa. The tradition of Mahasi Sayadaw, which has been quite prevalent in the West, focuses primarily on retreat practice and combines a slow and meticulous noting of experience, with moment-to-moment concentration to foster the arising of insight. Some teachers, such as U Ba Khin, focus on the body and sensations. Others stress watching the mind, its fears and attachments. Some start with awareness of the belly, others with the nose or the head or the arm or the sound at the ear. Some teachers stress endurance and effort, while others teach meditation as a relaxing and letting go. Some emphasize study, and others dismiss study as secondhand knowledge. The way of practice taught usually represents the means of the practice which worked best for that teacher.
This great variety of approaches, while beneficial in general, has also led to much conflict and misunderstanding between traditions in Asia. Both ancient and modern disciples and often the teachers themselves have criticized and denigrated the ways of practice which differ from their own. Yet most of this is based on misunderstanding—usually the critics have not actually been thoroughly trained in the practices they criticize and don’t understand how they lead to liberation.
We in the West now have an opportunity to learn from this variety of approaches and to see the different schools and sects of Buddhism which present themselves here in a wise way, without being caught by the traps of judgment or comparison. Of course, each technique and school will have certain strong points and certain weaknesses. Yet whether we look at the Zen and Tibetan and Theravadan schools or the teaching of a variety of vipassana practices, we can see how they are all expressions of the ancient seed of dharma planted by the Buddha 2,500 years ago. They are the richness of skillful means, a thousand “rafts to take us to the other shore,” and while each has strengths and limitations which need to be understood, most of them offer a true path to the understanding of impermanence and selflessness, a knowledge of suffering and inner freedom—a path to peace. What is then left for us is to pick a path and follow it with sincerity and a full heart and come to our own understanding of the happiness and peace of the Buddha.