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July 2, 2022

The Legacy of Vipassanā

Every summer, the July Insight Retreat is the one time each year that we host teachers from our sister center, Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Connecting and practicing together always brings reminders of lineage, spiritual friendship, and Refuge.

Lineage, like any family tree, is a web of relationships. Lineage is one of the deep meanings of saṅgha, the spiritual community, reflecting the guidance and realization that flows between teachers, students, and friends on the Path. A lineage is a line of teachers and students, but the energy of the Saṅgha also flows through dreams, visions, stories, places, and texts. It is creative, and reinvents itself as conditions change. The practice we call Insight Meditation (vipassanā) is one of many reinventions in Buddhist history that arose as a result of the teachings coming to new lands, new people, and new cultures.

Modern vipassanā has a lineage of teachers and students that traces back to the early 20th century, when reform-oriented and Western-influenced monks in Burma and Thailand invented new practice forms out of hints in an ancient text. Our practice is rooted in that text, the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (The Foundations of Mindfulness, MN 10), but how we’re practicing it is a modern creation, which like many powerful reformations began as resistance to oppression.

In Burma after the 1885 British conquest, a popular movement arose to preserve Buddhism through the colonial occupation. The removal of the Burmese king, traditionally the protector of the Dharma, and an influx of Christian missionaries impelled Burmese monks and lay practitioners to organize to protect the monastic Saṅgha and preserve the Dharma. Two influential monks, Ledi Sayādaw and Mingun Sayadaw, focusing on lay people instead of monastics, started what is now called “The Vipassanā Movement.” These venerable Sayādaws (“respected teacher”) and their students are our ancestors.

Ledi Sayādaw & the U Ba Khin Method

The first, Ledi Sayādaw (1846-1923), taught the detailed analytical texts called Abhidhamma to laypeople, and began to revive meditation, which was not commonly practiced in Burma at the time. Ledi developed the idea that anyone could achieve at least the beginning stages of liberation by attending mindfully to ordinary sense perceptions, even without having developed meditative concentration (jhāna). This then-radical idea was the basis for the many different vipassanā styles that would soon develop, some of which would evolve into what we now call mindfulness.

[Inline quote] To those whose knowledge is developed, everything within and without oneself, within and without one’s house, within and without one’s village and town, is an object at the sight of which the insight of impermanence may spring up and develop.

— Ledi Sayādaw

The revival of meditation initiated by Ledi Sayādaw continued not through a monastic successor, but through a brilliant lay disciple, Saya Thetgyi (1873-1945), who started the first non-monastic meditation center in Burma. Saya Thetgyi’s student Sayagyi U Ba Khin (1899-1971), a Burmese government accountant, formalized the vipassanā technique of sweeping attention through the body, and U Ba Khin’s Indian student S.N. Goenka popularized the method for a global audience. 

Goenka (1924-2013) was a businessman who became devoted to the Dharma, and was asked by U Ba Khin to bring vipassanā practice to India, which he did in 1969, becoming part of the post-independence Buddhist revival in India. There, Goenka became an important teacher for many early Insight Meditation teachers, including Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, and subsequently spread U Ba Khin’s method worldwide. Sayagyi U Ba Khin’s most prominent Western student was Ruth Denison (1922-2015), who taught at IMS and Spirit Rock, and founded Dhamma Dena meditation center in Joshua Tree.

Mingun Sayādaw & the Mahāsī Method

The second source for the Vipassanā Movement was Mingun Jetavāna Sayādaw (also known as U Nārada, 1868–1955). As a young monk, he traveled around Burma searching for a teacher who could guide him in meditation, but failed to find one. Following the advice of an elder monk, he turned to the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. Based on his study of the text, he created his own style of vipassanā focused on continuous mindfulness of changing sensory experiences.

Mingun’s student Mahāsī Sayādaw (1904-1982) developed the technique into what is now called the “Mahāsī method,” which uses continuous mental noting as a support for “momentary concentration” (khaṇika samādhi). Like U Ba Khin’s method, the focus of Mahāsī practice is on experiencing impermanence directly through continuous observation of changing phenomena, without needing to first attain jhāna. This style of practice, which also includes the use of repeated phrases to develop lovingkindness (mettā), is the primary technique the founders of IMS brought back from their study in India and Southeast Asia. 

In a historic ceremony at IMS in 1979, Mahāsī Sayādaw gave teaching authorization to four American students: Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Jacqueline Mandell. Mahāsī’s students U Paṇḍitā (1921-2016) and Anāgarika Munindra (1915-2003), and Munindra’s student Dīpā Mā (1911-1989) all taught at IMS, continuing to develop their teacher’s method, which remains the foundational approach to practice in our lineage.


Jack, Joseph, Sharon, Jacquelyn with Mahashi Sayadaw at authorization to teach ceremony
1979 teaching authorization ceremony at Insight Meditation Society with Mahāsī Sayādaw (top row, center), U Paṇḍitā (to the right of Mahāsī), and the IMS founders (front row, L-R): Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Jacqueline Mandell.


Practice at IMS and Spirit Rock has evolved from its roots in Burmese vipassanā, and at Spirit Rock is particularly influenced by the Thai Forest Saṅgha style of Ajahn Chah, Jack Kornfield’s root teacher, in the lineage of Ajahn Mun. But the influence of the Burmese Vipassanā movement can still be felt, woven throughout the basic instructions we give, in our use of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness as the sequence of practice, and in the retreat form itself.

This month, as we once again host IMS teachers for retreat, we celebrate the lineage of liberation we are blessed to hold and carry into the future for the benefit of all beings. The talks collected here, from the July Insight teaching team, reflect the roots of our practice and its continuing evolution. 

In every generation, carried by dedicated practitioners from ever-changing backgrounds, cultures, and social positions, the practice evolves. May we continue to carry forward the blessing of the Dharma, and like our spiritual ancestors in Burma who reinvented meditation 100 years ago in response to a world changed beyond recognition, may we skillfully meet the needs of all those who come seeking peace, clarity, and inner freedom.


July 16, 2000 - States Of Enlightenment: Working With The Hindrances

What the Buddha saw so clearly, and what we can see for ourselves, is that the underlying sources of suffering and freedom are forces or energies in our own minds. It’s not something outside of ourselves. Why is there suffering in the world? Why is there injustice, hunger, exploitation? The same forces which cause these kinds of suffering in the world exist within our own minds as well. We have to see that the sources of suffering and freedom are within us, they’re not outside of us. This insight is the foundation of the entire spiritual path.

July 29, 2010 - Faith and Aspiration

Each of us have come to be on a spiritual path—and this spiritual path—because we have some deep intuitive sense that on the spiritual path we’ve chosen, we can become better human beings. We have some heart-based intelligence that this particular path will lead us more deeply, more surely, into a place of certainty within ourselves. Somehow we know that it’ll benefit us because we’ve seen that it benefits others. This is faith. Each of us may express it differently, but we come to the very same things in different ways. Faith is a combination of a wholesome kind of yearning with an aspiration to fulfill that yearning. And then a willingness to take the steps that are necessary to fulfill that yearning.

July 29, 2010 - Bringing Compassion to a World on Fire: Mind and Heart Together

There is suffering. There is no getting away from it if you are embodied. However, through this practice, and this way of understanding embodiment, there is the opportunity to hold it with dignity and grace. If you keep compassion alive in your listening and understanding, then anger and bitterness cannot arise. Compassion alone can keep you from becoming irritated, angry, or full of despair. Compassion is born from happiness, and also from understanding. When compassion and understanding are alive in your heart, and mind, you are safe whatever the circumstances or situation you are meeting.

July 10, 2021 - The Wisdom of the Body

The miracle of being on this earth is so profound, you know, such a blessing. When we come into presence and touch the moment, we connect with the beauty around us. Yes, there’s lots of messy stuff going on in this world, but there’s so much beauty too that we miss because we’re not present. This is the practice; this is the path we’re on. The path of liberation starts here in this moment, in this body right now. The mind could take us into the past, into the future, into me, mine, and I; into you, into all kinds of emotions. The mind could just take us and whirl us around everywhere! But the body is always present. And we find in our practice that resting in the body is a real refuge.

July 17, 2021 - Morning Stillness Meditation

Meeting ourselves where we are, aware of the overall mind state we’re in, we do our best to just see things as they really are—not needing them to be different. This moment is like this. Noticing the attitude in the mind, and bringing awareness, curiosity, and kindness—for ourselves, and for those around us. Knowing we need a certain amount of energy for the practice as well, sometimes it brings energy to just really connect with the breath and the sense of the body sitting here, feeling the in-breath fully throughout the whole body.

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