Observing my fellow travelers inside the microbus heading towards Dharmashringa, I sensed a multitude of emotions. Some conveyed excitement, cheerfulness and curiosity, while others looked apprehensive and nervous. We were all going to the Vipassana meditation center at Budhanilkantha, and as our microbus moved forward, I gave in to the act of scrutinizing my fellow travelers. I don’t enjoy prying into the emotions of strangers, but then there wasn’t much else to do. Senior monks at the center
I discerned that the emotions felt by my companions arose out of anticipation of what lay ahead. And it didn’t take long to figure out that the most nervous were the new ones and the cheerful and excited were the old students.
Apprehension upon approaching the Dharmashringa for the first time can be attributed to several unfounded myths and well-grounded truths associated with the practice: that once you are inside, no matter what, they won’t allow you to leave the center; that they won’t allow you to utter a word for 10 days; that by leaving the center without completing the course you put yourself at grave risk; that they won’t give you enough food; that they’ll force you to sit for really, really long hours without so much as letting you stir, even if you feel your muscles beginning to pop out or bones crumble; that they are engaged in proselytizing, converting everyone to Buddhism; that they hypnotize…, and so forth. Well!
These sort of incredulities are common among those who have never attended the Vipassana meditation camp. Inside the microbus, therefore, the moment old students were identified the new ones fired questions incessantly. Tired of trying to quell the nervous excitement, the old ones concluded that understanding the meditation by attending a 10 day course is the best way to bust the myths and begin to understand the practice.
Located near Shivapuri National Park, the meditation center is sprawled across four acres of jagged slope at the base of Shivapuri hill; at enough height to afford, from strategic points, a panoramic view of the Kathmandu valley. The center has several meditation halls, including one main Dhamma Hall were some 250 students can meditate at one go. The other facilities include separate residential quarters and dining halls for male and female students, an administrative block, housing for teachers and a recently built stupa with 84 individual meditation cells.
Greenery abounds inside the center that almost appears as an extension of the nearby national park. Trees, plants and flowers of many varieties dot the center’s landscape and coax everybody to stop, relax, draw a long breath and be aware. The calming atmosphere settles people down immediately with a feeling that it is, indeed, an ideal meditation retreat.
Before we were shown to our rooms, we were asked to queue up at an administrative wing to deposit valuables (cash, jewelry, cameras etc.) for safekeeping. Keeping them at the dormitories and independent quarters, we were told, would be at our own risk. The students are urged to not bring in things like camera, mobile, walkman, books, notebook and pen into the center.
Back at the Kantipath office, where we had gathered for final registration, a lanky man had given a chastising lecture to all the participants on why we wouldn’t need many things that we feel are indispensible to our life outside the center. “For 10 days all you will do is observe yourself,” he said. “You are not going there to marvel at the scenery, pry on others, picnic or have fun.” His emphatic manners betrayed his feeling that that was exactly why some were going. “Often people bring those things that are utterly unnecessary, even a nuisance. But they forget to bring things we ask them to like soap, mosquito repellant, bed sheet, pillow cover, umbrella, water bottle, etc.,” a staff was overheard lamenting.
At the center, it was time for a light meal. Then the students were directed to the orientation hall. There an experienced Vipassana teacher elaborated on the center’s rule, code of conduct and described the facility.
The participants now realized the seriousness of it all, and given the strict regimen, any hope of an ideal holiday at a forest retreat was not only undermined but thoroughly quashed. The spirit of some, particularly youngsters and some cheeky old uncles who were attending the course for the first time, seemed dampened. “Each new group consists of some people who would have joined the course without giving it a serious thought,” said a staff at the center. “These people not only waste their time, but also are a nuisance to the whole batch.”
Vipassana is rigorous meditation, but it is also one of the most logical and result oriented meditations there is. Participants are expected to abide by five precepts, following daily meditation schedule and meditating exactly according to instructions.
Attuning oneself to the precepts is like warming up before a heavy exercise. The five precepts are the foundation stones upon which the whole practice stands. The precepts are to maintain noble silence (telling lies), to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct and taking intoxicants. Noble silence, the foremost of all precepts, means desisting from all forms of communication including gesticulation and eye contact. In case of emergency or inconvenience, however, the students are allowed short, to-the-point dialogues with a teacher or Dhamma workers.
“The longer and the more strictly you keep to the precepts, the sooner you are able to concentrate better,” said a teacher with many years of experience. Any of the activities forbidden by the precepts are capable of rousing strong emotions destabilizing the whole effort to concentrate. Just as one has to let the sediments settle down to see what lies at the depth of turbid water, to understand the nature of mind one has to let it calm down. “So it is better to align one’s lifestyle to the precepts much before one is planning to attend a camp,” says the teacher. “An agitated mind is difficult to conquer and unless you conquer the mind you cannot concentrate. The five precepts help calm the agitated mind.”
Another rule strictly followed for the entire duration of the course is the daily meditation schedule. Each day, the students wake up at 4am and are expected to be inside the main meditation hall by 4:30. After that, with three breaks (6:30 - 8:00am, 11:00am - 1:00pm and 5:00 - 6pm), the students are required to meditate throughout the day, before retiring at around 9:30pm.
New students are served breakfast and lunch (a full course meal), and snacks in the evening, whereas old students get only breakfast and lunch. There are no restrictions on how much a student can eat, but too much causes lethargy.
Vipassana equanimity and the end of suffering
To get the most out of the 10 day at the center students must meditate according to instructions. “Mixing previously learned techniques or not following some part of the practice can sometimes lead to troubles,” says the Reverend Guruji S. N. Goenka who instructs the students through a recorded tape during the entire course. “We expect students to withhold other practices for ten days and dedicate themselves wholly to our technique. If you do not benefit from the technique, you can always switch back to what you were doing.”
Vipassana meditation has three phases: Anapana, Vipassana and Metta.
During Anapana we observed natural flow of respiration, concentrating our mind at a fixed point right below the nostrils. But the habit of our mind is either to delve in the past or slip away into the future, never living in the present. Our rudderless mind hops from one subject to another that are in no way related, just as a restless monkey jumps from branch of one tree to another. Many students begin to feel impatient after a whole day of fruitless attempts to control the mind and concentrate.
“The ‘good time’ I had with my girlfriend just a few days before signing up for the course kept flashing back stymieing my efforts to concentrate,” said 28 year old Jean-Paul (real names are not used) when I asked him, at the end of the course, why he found Anapana difficult. Jean, from France, decided to attend the course after he heard from some friends that Dharmashringa was one of the best Vipassana centers around the world.
Surjit Bista, a 26 year old from New Baneshwor, said he could not concentrate because he kept thinking about his job, his ageing mother and “thousand other things I don’t even care about.” On the third day, he said, he was so frustrated that he wanted to leave and go home.
“In the normal course of life we are not aware of the nonsense that goes on in our mind,” said another teacher. “But as we sit to meditate the wantonness of our own mind, that surfaces more starkly during our effort to concentrate, becomes too much to put up with.”
Senior monks at the center
“It is not easy to discipline a mind, that has been wayward for so many years, in a day or two,” said the teacher. “Since the students do not understand that truth, Vipassana teachers always come prepared to calm down and motivate students to complete the course.”
One third of the whole duration of a course is dedicated to Anapana. It is practiced for three days in a 10 day course, 10 days in a month-long course and for 30 days in a course that extends to three months. “We are aware that three days aren’t enough to master Anapana,” said the teacher. “But the 10 day course is designed to help new students learn and old students mature in the practice.”
It is however pointless to enter the next phase, that is Vipassana, without at least having some control over the mind. Because by the end of Anapana, participants undertake a delicate task of observing sensations like heat, cold, movement, itching, prickling, tickling, pain, etc, at the point of concentration, that is the area just below the nostrils. There are sensations in our body all the time, but our mind, always muddled in senseless thoughts, does not feel them, particularly the subtle ones.
When sense organs namely nose, tongue, eyes, ears, and skin come in contact with their corresponding sense objects—smells, tastes, colors, shapes, sounds—nerve impulses circulate through our body which we experience as sensations. The habit of our mind is to immediately tag these sensations as good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant.
This habit of discrimination sets the habit pattern of our mind to yearn for pleasant sensations and keep away from the unpleasant ones. It contributes to our restlessness and the agitated state of our mind. Since it is to the sensations we react, during Vipassana we feel, observe and remain equanimous to them.
According to Buddha if we don’t stop discriminating we will always be in dukkha or suffering. He says that the sensations we perceive as pain is indeed a pain, but what eludes us is the truth that even the sensations we think of as pleasure is harbinger of pain because nothing is everlasting, and everything, sooner or later, passes away. Now, isn’t the end of a pleasurable experience painful?
We react to the sensations because of our ignorance or denial of the impermanent nature of sensations, pleasant or unpleasant; and that our mind does not know how to remain balanced. The end of suffering can be attained by training our mind to maintain equanimity. The equanimity, however, has to be a natural response attained through devoted practice, rather than a forced mental disposition shaped by reading or hearing.
“As we begin to experience the mind-body interactions at the level of sensations, we develop the understanding that our attachment or aversion is not to the person or object, as we generally believe, but to the sensations which arise when we come in their contact, and which, sooner or later, pass away on their own,” says the teacher S. N. Goenka in one of his recorded discourses played at the end of each day’s meditation.
With that understanding of the transitory or impermanent nature of sensations we cut the chain of reaction by learning to observe them dispassionately, without identifying with them. As we learn to live with an equanimous mind, we become happier and create peace and harmony around us.
A pure mind is best suited to offer true prayer. Since Vipassana meditation’s main goal is to purify the mind, in the end the students are taught Metta which means sharing one’s merit for the goodwill of others. The students “fill” their sensations with love and compassion and let that feeling permeate the atmosphere. They wish peace and happiness and freedom from mental and physical suffering for all.
By practicing Vipassana meditation we clear our mind of defilements and by observing the five precepts we avoid the conditions ideal for generating them. But to go by the response of many practitioners, new and old, “It is easier said than done.”
While those who found the meditation beneficial described their experiences in words that ranged from ‘pleasing’, ‘exhilarating’ to ‘humbling’ and ‘life changing’, the detractors shunned the practice calling it ‘very rigorous’.
From initial doubts about the whole tradition to understanding the technique to keeping up with the practice, all pose a serious challenge to many. Instead of deriving notions from hearsay, it is better to come at a conviction by attending a 10 day course in any of the Vipassana centers around the country. The best way to understand, and as a consequence accept or reject, Vipassana meditation is to practice it. The guruji S. N. Goenka puts it aptly: Reading, listening or debating about Vipassana won’t be of any use unless someone practices it.
To attend a ten day course at Dharmashringa contact Nepal Vipassana Center’s city office at 4250581, 4223968 or visit www.np.dhamma.org. To know more about worldwide Vipassana centers log on to www.dhamma.org.
Amendra Pokhrel is a freelance writer and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed concerning the practice are based on the writer’s personal experience.