Let’s cover in detail one of the best-known meditation methods: the U Ba Khin Vipassana meditation system. This is the variety taught at S.N. Goenka retreat centres globally, and its popularity has boomed with the rise of the famous 10-day courses.
There are several other Vipassana systems, not least the Mahasi Sayadaw system, which is based on breathing, noticing impulses and using labelling to aid our attention. The U Ba Khin approach is different: he created a system based primarily on the body.
We’ll cover everything you need to know to get into this form of spiritual practice, from the definition of Vipassana, to key terminology, the goals, and the four phases in this system.
Let’s begin by discussing U Ba Khin’s definition of Vipassana.
What is U Ba Khin’s Vipassana Method?
In many ways, Vipassana is analogous to mindfulness meditation, and its influence on modern, secular meditation is obvious. It’s a form of insight meditation that relies on direct self-observation. It’s one of India’s most ancient techniques and the Buddha rediscovered it over 2500 years ago. In his time, passana literally meant “seeing with open eyes”. Vipassana derives from this and means “clear seeing”.
“Vipassana means to observe things as they are, not just as they seem to be.”
Let’s specify what this means: “clear seeing” has a particular interpretation in this context. It means observing the mind and body with exquisite clarity to gain insight into their nature. Thus, all the teachings of Vipassana are an experiential guide for us to put into practice. It’s not about believing, remembering, or intellectualising. It’s phenomenological – it’s about gaining direct knowledge of what’s happening in our first-person experience.
In particular, we attempt to observe the changing, temporary nature of our body sensations. We can experience this in all kinds of body experience, from pain, to pleasure, to pressure.
While our mental world also has these characteristics, we work with the body because it enables direct experience and helps us avoid certain confusions that appear when meditating on the mind. In any case, all mental activity leaves a mark on the body as soon as it appears. So by working with the body, we indirectly work with the mind too.
Key Terminology in U Ba Khin’s Method
Let’s look at some key terminology in U Ba Khin’s system, most of which dates back to Buddha. I’ll say in advance that spiritual language often sounds sexy, exotic, or far-removed. Always remember that this jargon merely points to your own first-person experience, and your job is to verify these qualities yourself.
Anicca: Impermanence. The transient and temporary nature of all sensory phenomena.
Anicca, dukkha (suffering) and anatta (egolessness): The three defining characteristics of our experience. They’re linked.
Kalapas: The tiniest discernible parts of our sensory experience. These are the quarks or atoms of our body and mind. We experience them as a stream of energy or as wavelets that die out almost immediately after appearing. “A trillion such moments are said to elapse during the wink of a man’s eye.” We’re able to perceive them after lots of Vipasanna practice.
Samadhi: Synonymous with concentration. The foundation of all spiritual practice.
Sila: Morality. This dates back to the Buddha’s five moral precepts, and we’ll cover this further down in the Preliminaries section.
Sankhara: Popularly known as karma. In Buddhist thought, all actions leave behind a remnant that is stored in our karmic account.
Who is U Ba Khin?
U Ba Khin created the meditation system we’re about to study, which has become popular worldwide thanks to its accessibility and practicality. His students, like S.N. Goenka, have also contributed by taking it out of Myanmar, where U Ba Khin taught Vipassana for twenty years.
One of U Ba Khin’s unique contributions was to emphasise the 10-day immersion period for laypeople. This provides a powerful introduction to Vipassana that prepares them for regular practice at home. After reading this article, you’ll be well equipped to start using this method without the need for a retreat.
Let’s talk about the goals of Vipassana meditation.
Goals of U Ba Khin’s Vipassana Method
We’ll sort the goals and outcomes of U Ba Khin’s system into six categories: Master Suffering, Insight into Impermanence, Transform the Body and Mind, Benevolence, Master Actions, and Enlightenment.
It’s important to keep these goals in mind while not grasping for them. By all means inspire yourself and ground yourself in these outcomes, but focus primarily on the practice and let it work on you.
One of Buddhism’s great contributions to our understanding of human psychology is its treatment of suffering.
It says that we become unsettled when we generate negativity or impurities in the mind. We do this when unpleasant experiences happen. These lead to inner tension, and we start tying ourselves in knots.
Yet we all have unpleasant experiences, so how do we cope? We tend to look outside for a solution, not realising the cause is internal and based on our reactions. We tend to seek solutions in distractions like entertainment, alcohol, or other kinds of temporary fixes.
When we do so, we push our tension into the subconscious. Deep down, we keep reacting and suffering, and we continue creating sankhara.
Vipassana encourages the opposite approach. It’s adamant that the solution isn’t to divert our focus, even though this appears to solve the issue.
So we must follow the opposite path: observe and face our inner storms. To do so, we must be aware of when they start. This is where Vipassana comes in.
All negative emotions are visible in the body and mind. Even our breathing alters. By observing the body, we observe the negativity, and its strength diminishes. We observe without losing our balance and let it pass away as everything inevitably does, thanks to anicca.
With time, we come out of negativity and the mind becomes pure. We go beyond our misery, and we stop acting unskillfully as a result of our inner turmoil. We stop creating samkhara.
Insight into Impermanence
One of the key goals of Vipassana is to activate our experience of anicca in the body and mind. With enough practice, we see that all sensory experience is wavy, not solid: it’s a collection of kalapas.
“From the gross, external, apparent truth, one penetrates to the ultimate truth of mind and matter.”
Remember that this isn’t an intellectual pursuit. To progress, we need to know anicca as continuously as possible. We strive to maintain awareness of it in all postures.
The six senses and everything in them have the characteristics of anicca (impermanence), dukkha (suffering), and anatta (egolessness). Before we practice meditation, our senses seem permanent, solid, and personal, and we’re locked into them, thrown here and there by their activity.
In the end, we come to realise that every sensation arises and passes away. Nothing is eternal, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant. This is anicca.
This discovery reduces our tendency for craving and aversion, and our attitude changes. We remain equanimous in the face of challenging situations. Anicca is also the basis for discovering the truth of dukkha and anatta.
“In one who perceives impermanence… the perception of substantiality is established. And in one who perceives insubstantiality, egotism is destroyed”
With enough practice, we find something that doesn’t pass away: awareness itself.
Transform the Body and Mind
Observing ourselves with detachment boosts our knowledge of ourselves and cleans up the impurities in the mind and body.
We tend to evaluate what we experience, file it as pleasant or unpleasant, then react with craving or aversion accordingly. With Vipasanna, we cultivate awareness of the judging habit.
In this way, Vipassana takes you from the surface of the mind to the depths, exposing your mental impurities. By reacting with equanimity to all sensations, we undo the habit of craving and aversion.
In terms of the body element, we can say that most humans perceive the body as a solid, unchanging lump. But as we pay close attention to anicca, we realise the body is nothing but kalapas. It’s a pool upon which each sensation has a ripple effect.
This grows and expands throughout the body, opening up the knots within it and clearing the mind of desires, fears, aversions, and tensions.
Our attachment to our personality diminishes, because we realise that even our sense of self is a wave of kalapas that swells and subsides in each moment.
Eventually we realise there is no I, no self. It was a fictional identify we had held on to.
As we train ourselves to observe our inner turmoil caused by the changing circumstances of life, this tends to make us compassionate, joyful, loving, and equanimous. Indeed, we train such qualities in Stage 4 of this practice. Eventually we come out of our impurities and live with a pure mind in service of others. This is evident within a few years of practice.
Goenka claimed moral action is a natural effect of Vipassana practice. But I’m not convinced. I think we should deliberately train this all-encompassing compassion through Metta or Lovingkindess, which is scientifically proven to boost our compassion muscles.
In the literature, there’s also a clear emphasis on mastering our actions through the lessons of Vipassana.
Our heightened self-observation helps us refine our habitual actions, which often harm, and stop creating negative sankhara. And as our concentration muscle grows, we live in the here and now, able to act more purely and spontaneously, less thrown around by our inner reactions.
In difficult moments, we can separate our emotional challenges from the situation itself, enabling ourselves to remain centred and take pragmatic action.
The ultimate goal, the North Star of Vipassana meditation, is full enlightenment and total liberation. The archetypical fully enlightened being, called an arhat in Sanskrit, is “one who has gained insight into the true nature of existence and has achieved nirvana (spiritual enlightenment). The arhat, having freed himself from the bonds of desire, will not be reborn.” [Britannica.com]
Though I’m open to the concept of reincarnation, I prefer to frame rebirth metaphorically, not literally. To me, it means to get off the wheel of sankhara.
In any case, the process of enlightenment begins the first time we meditate, and the first attainment is called stream-entry, which is when we realise the impermanence and insubstantiality of the self.
From there is a long road to the theoretical endpoint of full enlightenment. I may be wrong, but my hunch is that there are very few humans alive who are 100% enlightened. The process is not an on-off switch, and perfection is an unattainable ideal.
Even after decades of work, we don’t suddenly become perfected and free of our old ways. We still have blockages and impurities. We’re human after all, and this isn’t a problem, so long as we’re aware of the situation. Closely observe any master and you’ll see the impurities in them, even if shows up as a subtle judgement of “non-perfected beings”.
Anyways, let’s move on to the four steps!
The Four Steps in U Ba Khin’s Method
Let’s look at the four steps in U Ba Khin’s Vipassana method. Think of these both as phases in overall meditative attainment and a series of meditations that build on one another.
At a Goenka retreat, you spend a few days on each one, gradually building towards Body Sweeping and Lovingkindness. You can mimic this at home by spending a few weeks on each one. You might even divide your practice sessions into these four steps. Get creative and see what fits you.
Before we undertake any kind of practice, let’s look at Buddha’s Five Moral Precepts. These are five commitments that both improve our behaviour in the world and strengthen our spiritual work. We can’t work to overcome our impurities if we continue acting impurely. The idea is to abstain from actions that disturb the peace of others.
Here are Buddha’s five moral precepts:
1. no stealing
2. no sexual misconduct
3. no killing
4. no lying
5. no consumption of intoxicants.
We shouldn’t primarily think of these as some enforced, external code of behaviour. These are practical guidelines: see them as supports for your own practice.
Finally, in all four steps, we measure success not by how pleasant our session is, rather how equanimous we can be with our experience.
Vipassana Meditation Phase 1: Breath Practice (anapana)
The first step in U Ba Khin’s technique is to train our concentration muscle using a single object: the breath. This is a prerequisite for the later phases.
In this phase, we develop the skills of one-pointedness and selective attention. We focus on a small area to increase the sharpness of mind; the smaller, the better.
The breath is the connection between our intentional and subconscious minds and is strongly linked to our mental impurities, which alter our breathing.
To begin with, we place our attention on breathing sensations at the nostrils, inside of nostrils, and the upper lip. After some time, we restrict our focus to the spot between the nostrils and upper lip.
Breathe naturally; as U Ba Khin reiterated, this isn’t a breathing exercise. It’s about maintaining our attention on these sensations as long as possible, not altering our breathing patterns.
There are several variables to track. You can pay attention to the regularity, duration and strength of the breath, for example.
When you inevitably get distracted, return your attention to breath and continue. After some practice, try restricting the area of focus to boost your concentration skills.
Though we can take breathing meditation to the high levels, until the point of unshakable, effortless attention, there’s no need to reach this level here. Move on to phase 2 whenever you feel ready. You can always come back.
Vipassana Meditation Phase 2: Body Awareness
In this phase, we systematically direct our attention to various parts of body. We start at the top of the head, moving down through the head, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, torso, waist, legs, and feet.
This is when we explicitly start looking for anicca and the kalapas. We can contact anicca in any of the senses, but it’s most apparent in touch. Try to become aware of the spontaneous activity in the body and develop increasingly subtle, clear and penetrating awareness of sensations.
Eventually you’ll be able to capture the arising and passing of phenomena. A body sensation appears as a collection of kalapas, each of which die out almost immediately, and the sensation passes.
This practice helps to open up the body and trains our mind on subtle sensations, in doing so purifying it.
U Ba Khin Phase 3: Body Sweeping
In this step in U Ba Khin’s method, we examine the whole body at once. This is called free flowing or body sweeping. Try to observe at once all the physical sensations you’re experiencing. At the same time, contact their insubstantiality and movement.
As you dissolve the sense that your body is solid, you’ll be able to freely sweep your attention from head to feet. Hold that awareness, finding anicca and kalapas across the entire body. By this stage in the practice, you should be able to determine different flavours in your body experience, detect movement, and penetrate solidity.
This also encourages the realisation that the ego, since it’s strongly rooted in the body, is insubstantial and in constant flux.
U Ba Khin Phase 4: Lovingkindness (metta)
Think of this phase of U Ba Khin’s system as a concentrated form of practice for positive action and benevolence in the real world. We drop the scanning technique and turn outwards, towards all humans. We allow feelings of peace and goodwill flow from body in all directions.
Think of all the people you know, whether they’re close, distant, difficult, or wonderful, and send love to them all.
By doing so, we sow the seeds of compassionate action. This is the bridge between the liberating work of Vipassana meditation and how we embody it in the world.
The beauty of U Ba Khin’s Vipassana is its focus on experiential insight and inner transformation instead of book knowledge and intellectual work. The skills you learn in these four stages are useful in myriad other forms of meditation practice, so I advise you to spend some time working on these techniques.
Indeed, you can even dedicate years and decades to the practice of Vipassana. It only deepens and complexifies with time, and you have everything you need to start a long-term dedicated practice.
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