I don't teach Vipassana, but I know a man who does...?

Robert McLune, modified 8 Years ago at 7/13/13 5:21 PM
Created 8 Years ago at 7/13/13 5:21 PM

I don't teach Vipassana, but I know a man who does...?

Posts: 255 Join Date: 9/8/12 Recent Posts
I got confused while visiting a Theravada monastery recently, as part of trying to find a meditation teacher. I was talking to a senior monk and when he realized I was interested in Vipassana he surprised me by saying:

"Oh, if you want Vipassana then I'm not your best guy; I'm not very knowledgeable about it. But our Abbot is a superb Vipassana teacher, so if you want I can introduce you to him."

What did he mean? I had assumed Vipassana -- insight -- was kind of a big deal; as in, The Point. But this was a senior guy, formerly Zen for several decades and now Theravada (but at least a decade for that too). So I guess I assumed wrong. I think I'd seen things something like in this analogy:
  • Samsaric Existence= a swimming pool in which we thrash around about in circles, constantly almost drowning in the water
  • Samatha Meditation = a swimming aid, like a float, or arm bands
  • Vipassana Meditation = learning to swim
  • Vipassana = Actually swimming
  • Enlightenment = Reaching the edge of the pool, climbing up and out and onto a sun lounger, with a pina colada complete with sparkler, paper umbrella, and wee parrot

And in that context we'd have stuff like:
  • Mahasi-noting = front crawl
  • Anapanasati = back stroke
  • Koan practice = butterfly (very hard, and not too many can do it :-) )
  • And so on, with all the various aspects of the Eight-Fold Path being different swimming strokes, styles, methods -- maybe even a jet ski or a boat thrown in for good measure

A key point in the above analogy is, Vipassana isn't optional. Mahasi-noting is optional, as is mindfulness of breathing, and so on. But the point of all those "strokes" is to get Vipassana (which in turn gets you to the sun lounger and party).

But clearly, judging by that monk, I've got it wrong. So what's the deal?
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Daniel M Ingram, modified 8 Years ago at 7/13/13 11:17 PM
Created 8 Years ago at 7/13/13 11:17 PM

RE: I don't teach Vipassana, but I know a man who does...?

Posts: 3230 Join Date: 4/20/09 Recent Posts
most monks don't practice much

some don't ever practice

a few practice a moderate amount

fewer still practice a lot

of those, some are good at it

this is a broad set of generalizations

it can vary widely by the monastery and tradition
Derek, modified 8 Years ago at 7/14/13 6:58 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 7/14/13 6:58 AM

RE: I don't teach Vipassana, but I know a man who does...?

Posts: 326 Join Date: 7/21/10 Recent Posts
In Theravada there are town monks, forest monks, and scholar monks. The forest monks are the ones with the situation and inclination for extended meditation practice, but even here is a huge diversity of practices. Only some of them will be doing the kind of vipassana that's become well-known in the West. In some ways, "the point" of monastic life is to keep the 227 precepts, something that scarcely figures in Western introductions to Buddhism for laypeople.
Robert McLune, modified 8 Years ago at 7/14/13 9:47 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 7/14/13 9:47 AM

RE: I don't teach Vipassana, but I know a man who does...?

Posts: 255 Join Date: 9/8/12 Recent Posts
Daniel M. Ingram:
most monks don't practice much...

OK, but then are you're saying that in the context I described...

I had assumed Vipassana -- insight -- was kind of a big deal; as in, The Point. But this was a senior guy... So I guess I assumed wrong.

...my conclusion -- that I was wrong -- was wrong, and my original assumption was in fact fine? Are you saying that Vipassana *is* a big deal (if one wants to move towards the Big E, that is)?

But I mean, this guy had been dong the monk think for decades. Shaved head, robes, sitting on his ass, and so on. Either he's getting something out of it ("it" not being vipassana), or he represents a tragedy of monumental proportions. Hundreds of thousands of people in colored robes, all over the world, sitting on cushions, and many if not most almost completely missing the point? That said, I suppose something similar could be said about millions of Roman Catholics or probably any of the main Christian denoms, with respect to the difference between The Point of Jesus, and The Point of their organized religions. Ah well.

But at least this guy had the clarity and ... integrity? ... to acknowledge the difference between his thing (whatever it is) and vipassana. That said, if he sees the difference, and understands the centrality of vipassana, why wouldn't he point his practice in that direction, urgently, as if his hair was on fire. (Maybe because he has no hair. Ahhhh -- Monks. No Hair. So *that's* why they shave!! emoticon )
Adam , modified 8 Years ago at 7/14/13 11:58 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 7/14/13 11:44 AM

RE: I don't teach Vipassana, but I know a man who does...?

Posts: 613 Join Date: 3/20/12 Recent Posts
hey Robert

if you look at a lot of Theravada people from the Thai forest tradition for example you will notice that they don't talk about vipassana meditation though they are major meditators. also they talk about things like 3 characteristics and letting go and bare awareness. but they often don't think of it as a vipassana technique as something separate from living their lives.

If you asked someone who was well aware of this dynamic like Thanissaro bhikku he would probably say that he doesn't teach "vipassana meditation" he teaches breath meditation and a set of precepts that can lead to vipassana arising. If someone isn't aware of the dynamic they would probably just say "no i don't do vipassana I do breath meditation but my friend does vipassana."
Robert McLune, modified 8 Years ago at 7/14/13 2:52 PM
Created 8 Years ago at 7/14/13 2:52 PM

RE: I don't teach Vipassana, but I know a man who does...?

Posts: 255 Join Date: 9/8/12 Recent Posts
Hey Adam,
Adam . .:
If someone isn't aware of the dynamic they would probably just say "no i don't do vipassana I do breath meditation but my friend does vipassana."

Yep, it's certainly possible that's what was going on. Or rather, it may have been that he himself understood the dynamic (i.e. the difference between "vipassana" and "vipassana meditation") but he couldn't be sure that I did, and so he assumed the common case -- i.e. that I was conflating the two, using the former to mean only the latter (specifically, anapanasati or noting or such).

I kinda think that *is* what happened. But I'll probably meet him again, and I may as well ask him when I do.
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Andrew K, modified 8 Years ago at 7/15/13 7:12 AM
Created 8 Years ago at 7/15/13 7:12 AM

RE: I don't teach Vipassana, but I know a man who does...?

Posts: 52 Join Date: 2/27/12 Recent Posts
yep, i think you've got it right. your metaphors are all correct (and quite useful imho)

lots of monks don't do this stuff because they believe enlightenment isn't possible in their lifetime (and ironically there's a lot of those beliefs institutionalised in some traditions/monasteries)

in the case of this guy who knows, maybe he does vipassana but just isn't all that good at teaching it.
Robert McLune, modified 8 Years ago at 7/17/13 8:41 PM
Created 8 Years ago at 7/17/13 8:41 PM

RE: I don't teach Vipassana, but I know a man who does...?

Posts: 255 Join Date: 9/8/12 Recent Posts
Daniel M. Ingram:
most monks don't practice much
some don't ever practice
a few practice a moderate amount
fewer still practice a lot
of those, some are good at it
this is a broad set of generalizations
it can vary widely by the monastery and tradition


Actually, this raises the more general, and to me more generally important question:

What's the best way for a relative beginner to choose a teacher? If "being a monk" doesn't qualify (and I don't find it too surprising that that's the case -- although it would be nice if even they couldn't teach it, at least they could *do* it), then what *is*?

It's like a non-medic layperson choosing a physician or surgeon, in the absence of government certification (not that that's 100% reliable), or reliable public opinion, or even much of a clue on the part of the non-medic as to how the difference between medical competence and incompetence would even manifest itself.

Short of conjuring up the ghost of Mahasi Sayadaw, what's a newbie to do? And even there, I only pick his name because I've triangulated in on it from various sources I deem reasonably reliable because I've triangulated in on those in turn. But lots of people triangulated in on Joshu Saski and look where that (allegedly) led. Worse (perhaps) is the fact that many people may be working under teachers who are teaching "let's be nice to each other and the dolphins" and calling it Buddhism, thereby getting nowhere in particular.

I guess herein lies the fundamental attraction of dharma lineage and transmission, but that would be nice if it worked (or, at least, worked in such a way that newbies could see).

HVVH Robert "Holder Of The Great Torch Of Dharma-osity, Sage Of Seiza Benchiosis" McL (The 14th, Of The Line Of Mughlai Korma)
Robert McLune, modified 8 Years ago at 7/20/13 8:01 PM
Created 8 Years ago at 7/20/13 8:01 PM

RE: I don't teach Vipassana, but I know a man who does...?

Posts: 255 Join Date: 9/8/12 Recent Posts
A recent (episode 176) "The Secular Buddhist" podcast implicitly poses my question again. In his intro to Shinzen Young, Ted Meissner says:

Eventually [Shinzen] went to Asia and did extensive teaching in each of the three major Buddhist traditions: ...

Now at that point I expected him to continue with something like "...Theravada, Mahayana, and <something else>"[1]. What he in fact continued with was:

... Vajrayana, Zen, and Vipassana

What did he mean?
(Maybe another way to ask this is: in the overall "namespace" of Buddhism, what "class of object" is "Vipassana"?)

thx.


[1] My choice of example as to what I thought he was going to say is irrelevant, so don't worry about correcting that. I've no doubt it was wrong. But the point is not about what I thought he might say, but about what he actually went on to say.

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