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«Philosophical Faculty Department for the Study of Religions Mgr. Nora Melnikova The modern school of Vipassana – a Buddhist tradition? Dissertation ...»

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Masaryk University

Philosophical Faculty

Department for the Study of Religions

Mgr. Nora Melnikova

The modern school of Vipassana – a Buddhist tradition?


Supervisor: Mgr. Daniel Berounský, Ph.D.

Declaration of Authorship

Last name: Melnikova First name: Nora

I declare that the work presented here is, to the best of my knowledge and belief, original and the

result of my own investigations, except as acknowledged, and has not been submitted, either in part or whole, for a degree at this or any other University.

Formulations and ideas taken from other sources are cited as such. This work has not been published.

Location, Date Signature Prague, 11.9.2014 i Acknowledgements In the first place, I would like to express my gratitude to my guide, Mgr. Daniel Berounský, Ph.D.

for all his help. Furthermore, I would like to thank PhDr. Jaroslav Strnad, PhD. and Mgr. Milan Fujda, Ph.D. for their helpful critique. I am grateful to my family, colleagues and friends for their precious and unwavering support. Special thanks go to Keerthi.

This work is dedicated to S. N. Goenka.

ii Abstract The aim of this study is to provide an insight into the way in which the South Asian Theravada traditions have been modernised on the example of the Vipassana meditation school of S. N.

Goenka. For this purpose, the organisational structure of the school and the content of its teachings have been analysed. Modern features of the school have been shown. Special emphasis was laid on its focal point, the meditation practice, which has been compared to the meditation practices as they have been described in the texts of Tipitaka. Apart from that, the question of the classification of the school has been raised. In relation to this question, the concepts of religions, secularism, Buddhism and Hinduism have been examined. It has been concluded that the Vipassana school of S. N.

Goenka defies classification in these categories, the reason for which was found in the problematic nature of the above-mentioned concepts themselves.

Key words Vipassana, S. N. Goenka, meditation, religion, Buddhism, Modern Buddhism, Neo-Hinduism, modernity, intercultural mimesis, sants, secularism iii Table of contents Introduction

1. Theoretical framework, existing research and methodology

2. Modern Buddhism

2.1. Characteristic features of Modern Buddhism

2.2. The role of meditation in Modern Buddhism

3. Meditation practices according to Tipitaka and the commentaries

3.1. Meditation instructions in Suttapitaka and Vinayapitaka

3.2. Meditation instructions according to Visuddhimagga and Vimuttimagga

4. Goenka's school of Vipassana

4.1. The history of the Vipassana school and its characteristics

4.2. Meditation instructions and teachings

5. Modernisation of the form

6. Modernisation of the content

6.1. Classification of Goenka's Vipassana

6.2. Modern features of Vipassana

7. Indigenous roots and the Hindu fold

7.1. The sants

7.2. Hindu fold and secularism in India




iv Illustration Index Figure 1: Vipassana Research Institute

Figure 2: Timetable of the 10-day course

Figure 3: Meditation hall (Igatpuri)

Figure 4: Dining hall (Igatpuri)

Figure 5: Pagoda with meditation cells (Igatpuri)

Figure 6: Accommodation (Igatpuri)

Figure 7: Global Vipassana Pagoda

Figure 8: Course Application Form, page 1

Figure 9: Course Application Form, page 2

Figure 10: Code of Discipline (1)

Figure 11: Code of Discipline (2)

Figure 12: Holi restrictions in DU campus

–  –  –

References to Tipitaka Regarding references to discourses, in case of the Dīgha Nikāya and Majjhima Nikāya, the sutta number and the group in Roman numbers have been given, along with the volume and page number in the PTS edition of Tipitaka (according to the webpage www.accesstoinsight.org). For the Aṅguttara Nikāya, the book, chapter and the paragraph number have been mentioned, along with the volume and page number in the PTS edition of Tipitaka. For the Samyutta Nikāya, the chapter and the paragraph number of the sutta have been given, along with the volume and page number in the PTS edition of Tipitaka.

viNotes on transcription and translation

In case of Hindi audio materials, orthographic transcription according to ISO 15919 standard has been used, with the exception of the phonetic transcription of the silent a vowel, that means its omission, and the phonetic transcription of the original jñ (as in Sanskrit jñāna) as “gy” (as in Hindi gyān). The reason is that the transcription according to ISO 15919 standard is very accurate from the phonetic point of view, except for these two cases.

The “true” anusvāra before a sibilant, h, or r is transcribed as ṃ, as in saṃsāra. The “substitute” anusvāra before a stop or before the three semivowels y, l and v is transcribed as m before a labial stop and before a semivowel (sampradāy, samyojana) and as ñ/ṅ/ṇ/n before other corresponding stops (sant, saṅkīrtan). Transliterated words are in italics (the meditation method vipassanā) except for names (Siddhārtha Gautama). In case of contemporary names used generally in their anglicised form, and indigenised terms of Indian origin, the usual English transcription has been used instead of transliteration (the Vipassana school, Sanskrit).

While translating Hindi quotations, the intention was to stick to the vocabulary used by S. N.

Goenka in his English discourses. For philosophical terms, Goenka uses Pali in the English discourses (saṅkhāra) and sanskritised Hindi in the Hindi discourses (saṃskār); regarding this, his example has been followed, unless the context demands otherwise (as in the case of dharma versus dhamma). Because of the unavailability of better solution, the English plural in regular style has been used for words in Indian languages when it was necessary for better understanding of the text (saṅkhāras).


The aim of this study is to provide an insight into the way in which the South Asian Theravada traditions have been modernised, on the example of the Vipassana meditation school of S. N.

Goenka. For this purpose, the organisational structure of the school and the content of its teachings will be analysed. It will be shown how the organisational structure has been rationalised and how this rationalisation affected its meditation instructions. Furthermore, it will be illustrated how different modern influences reflect in the intellectual content of the school, especially regarding the emphases it lays on different subjects and practices.

For a Western observer, Goenka's school of Vipassana at first glance seems to be an entirely modern enterprise – a perfectly organised secular school promoting a very efficient meditation technique, that attracts participant from all over the world, adorned with a certain amount of Buddhist coating, which can be more or less easily brushed aside. It spreads all over the world relatively successfully, though its courses are not as massively attained as, e.g., the courses of the Diamond Way of Ole Nydahl, which promise more gains with less effort and therefore attract many more sympathisers, at least in the West. It functions as one of the leisure time activities one can choose from in the modern world, the benefits of which are supposed to be higher productivity and a more harmonious personal life.

This study intends to show other ways of looking at the Vipassana school, or at modernised Theravada traditions in general. It will introduce Vipassana as a part of the so-called Modern Buddhism on one hand and as a tradition that belongs to the fold of Hindu traditions on the other, touching on the heated debate concerning the concepts of religion, Buddhism and Hinduism. Apart from that, it will show that features of modernised traditions that at first sight seem to be a manifestation of intercultual mimesis, might have their long indigenous history.

Concerning the outline of the work, in the first chapter, the theories that form the basis of the arguments used in this study will be introduced. Speaking about modernisation, it will be necessary to indicate the theory of modernity that will be applied, along with its particular aspects that will be of importance for this study. Another topic that is significant for this work and needs theoretical grounding is the concept of religion in general and Buddhism in particular. Therefore, the theories of these concepts that are relevant for this study will be given. Thereafter, the existing research on the subject of the so-called Modern Buddhism which was taken into consideration in this study will be mentioned.

The second part of the first chapter is devoted to the description of methods that were used to collect data for analysis of the case study. The second chapter will discuss the main features of Modern Buddhism and introduce the so-called Vipassana movement. It will pay special attention to the prominent role of meditation in Modern Buddhism. The third chapter will follow up with a discussion of the recent change in the role of meditation practices in modernised Theravada traditions and an analysis of meditation practices in the texts of Tipitaka and Visuddhimagga. The fourth chapter will introduce the case study. It will describe the history, organisational structure, meditation instructions and teachings of Goenka's school of Vipassana.

The fifth chapter will be devoted to an analysis of the modernised outer form of the Vipassana school. The sixth chapter will deal with the role of modern concepts, such as Buddhism and religion, in the teaching of the school, and with modern emphases, such as the stress on rational in contrast to “irrational”, accentuation of texts and rejection of “icons” and rituals, many of which have their roots in Protestant thinking. The seventh chapter will shed light on indigenous concepts that might have been at the root of some of the above-mentioned concepts. Its second part about secularism will elaborate on one of the examples of modern concepts of foreign origin that have not succeeded to function well in India. The conclusion will try to sum up the way in which the Vipassana school has been modernised and make a conclusion about the functionality of modern Western concepts in India in general.

1. Theoretical framework, existing research and methodology

While writing about “Modern Buddhism”, the “influence of modernity”, etc., it is inevitable to deal with the term modernity itself. Among the great amount of theories of modernity, the ideas of one of the classical theorists of modernity, Max Weber, have been found to be the most suitable for the purpose of this study. The chapter about the organisational structure of the Vipassana school is based on Weber's theory of rationalisation and bureaucratisation, 1 slighty adjusted to the specific conditions of modern chain enterprises by George Ritzer. 2 Weber's theory of bureaucratisation, defined as abandoning of all traditional and “irrational” aspects of person and place and the triumph of scientific method in social life, 3 perfectly fits the description of the organisational structure of Max Weber, Bureaucracy, in Essays In Sociology, London, Routledge, 1922.

George Ritzer, Mcdonaldizace společnosti, Praha, Academia, translation 1996, 1st edition 1993.

Krishan Kumar in Malcolm Waters (ed.), Modernity: Critical Concepts, London and New York, Routledge, 1999, Goenka's meditation school.

The chapter on Modern Buddhism has drawn major inspiration from McMahan's work on this topic.4 Many aspects that McMahan considers characteristic for Modern Buddhism can be interpreted with Weber's theory of the “disentchantment” of the world in the modern era, which is the heir of Enlightenment. In particular, it can be applied to McMahan's description of the features of Modern Buddhism which reflect the shift towards rational and departure from all “irrational”, e.g., the demythologisation, accepting only laws discovered by scientific methods as valid explanations of phenomena5 and denial of non-human agents, such as devatās. The connection Weber makes between modernity and Protestant thinking6 elucidates the stress that modernised Buddhist traditions lay on individual's own effort and diligency, in particular regarding one's meditation practice.

There is yet another theory that makes it possible to explain other features of Modern Buddhism which are out scope of Weber's analyses, e.g., the changed emphases of modernised Buddhist traditions – Charles Hallisay's theory of intercultural mimesis. 7 Nevertheless, understanding these changes as one-way influences and modernity as inseparably connected to European industrialisation and Protestant thinking is certainly limiting and inadequate.

Not without a reason, Gerard Delanty states that “modernity 8 is not Westernisation, and its key processes and dynamics can be found in all societies.” 9 As will be shown, intercultural mimesis has probably in some cases only reinforced certain processes that were already in motion and strengthened emphases on already present ideas. On other occasions, two differing concepts or processes have been combined together or erroneously identified as one.

Another problem this study tries to deal with is the existence of terms that are widely used in social sciences and firmly embedded in English and other languages of European origin, but do not have their equivalents in other languages, as the respective cultures lack the corresponding concepts. One of these essentially contested concepts is the concept of religion. A lot has been written on this topic and by many scholars it is considered an outdated hype or a triviality.

Vol. I, p. 91.

David L. McMahan, The Making of Buddhist Modernism, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008.

See Krishan Kumar in Malcolm Waters (ed.), Modernity: Critical Concepts, Vol. I, p. 90.

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, New York, Dover Publications, 2003, 1st edition 1958.

Charles Hallisay in Donald S. Lopez, Curators of the Buddha, The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 1995.

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