A Silent Knock on ‘Seeing Things as They Really are’
By Billy Rosenbeck, Faculty English Department
As I rode A stuffy, creaking, green Volkswagen bus from the center of Kathmandu to Dhamma Shringa, it began to hail. Having arrived in Nepal three days earlier, I was already familiar with the pattern of the country’s monsoon season, when each oppressively humid day gives way to a fleeting but intense afternoon shower; so timing-wise, this storm was typical.
The frozen pellets pouring down from the sky, however, were not.
I was on the last bus to Dhamma Shringa, a Vipassana Meditation Center located on the northern edge of the Kathmandu Valley, where I’d be participating in a silent, 10-day meditation course. In good weather, Dhamma Shringa is a half an hour ride from the City Offices, where the 150-or-so participants had gathered for registration, and were slowly transported to campus. But as hail clattered the bus and turned into a violent rain — and as the gravel streets of Kathmandu turned into winding, dirt paths — the bus’s progress slowed, then stalled, then stopped.
Word came from those further along that the roads were too muddy and dangerous to drive on, so two miles downhill from the center, our bus pulled over. We were instructed to gather our bags, and began to hike against the spitting, blinding rain.
Someone smarter than me might have taken this as a sign; I kept trudging onward.
Vipassana is a meditation technique with a reputation for being one of the world’s purest, but also one of its most rigid meditative practices. In fact, when I first landed in Nepal and told the customs officer the purpose for my visit, he replied, “Vipassana is very harsh. I tried it once, but only made it seven days,” which was not the vote of confidence I was looking for after 24 hours of travel. On the other hand, during my first evening at Dhamma Shringa, while speech was still permitted, I asked a local who’d previously attended two courses for any advice he might be able to share.
He thought for a moment, paused, then said, “You’re lucky.”
These are just a few of the conflicting messages that surround Vipassana, a technique that was once almost entirely lost to humanity, but which was rediscovered and repopularized by the Buddha, Siddhartha Gotama, 2,500 years ago. During the intervening centuries, Vipassana once again faded from view and was all but erased in India. However, the practice was preserved in neighboring Burma in its original form, and in the 20th century, was reignited by a teacher named Saya Gyi U Ba Khin, who taught Satya Naryan Goenka, the individual credited with spreading Vipassana meditation across the globe.
Though he died in 2013, Goenka is still the figurehead of Vipassana, and continues to “teach” all Vipassana courses throughout the world with a series of audio and video recordings.
Meaning “to see things as they really are,” Vipassana is a secular practice, that — despite its association with Buddhism — is unbeholden to any sect. Religious traditions aside, when you attend a Vipassana course, you agree to a specific Code of Discipline, which requires all participants to abstain from stealing, lying, taking intoxicants, participating in any sexual activity or killing any living thing. Students are not allowed to read, write or exercise, and courses are separated by gender, with no interaction between men and women. Each day begins with the sound of a gong at 4 a.m., concludes between 9–9:30 p.m., and consists of a total of 10 hours of meditation. In between, there are two vegetarian meals — breakfast at 6:30 a.m. and lunch at 11 a.m., with a tea break at 5 p.m. — and an evening discourse, given by Goenka.
While not the case at every Vipassana Center, accommodations at Dhamma Shringa are particularly Spartan: the “shower” in my dorm, for instance, was a waist-high faucet with a bucket next to it, which ran hot only about half the time, and in each hallway, there was a note reminding us to keep ours windows closed, so monkeys couldn’t get in.
A Vipassana course — especially one in a country like Nepal — is a monastic experience, which feels like some kind of ascetic summer camp. But of all the rules and restrictions, the most prominent is the Noble Silence, a complete “silence of body, speech, and mind,” which prohibits “any form of communication with fellow students, whether by gestures, sign language, written notes,” or the like. This includes eye contact, which is discouraged between students, so one can “cultivate the feeling of working in complete solitude.” While students may approach the assistant (read: “present” or “living”) teachers with questions related to the technique, a Vipassana course is likely as quiet as a layperson can be in the modern world, and before entering and since leaving, I’ve been asked about the Noble Silence more than any other aspect, for good reason. Such complete quiet is a foreign concept on the outside, but within the confines of the course, the Noble Silence is so strict and all-encompassing that you settle into it relatively quickly: it’s simply the way it is, and while certainly not easy, like most students, I arrived prepared to accept this part of the experience.
For me, the not talking was not nearly as difficult as the not knowing: not knowing how other students felt, not knowing how they were handling the experience, and not knowing if I was progressing properly. Looking at others’ stoic exteriors, I assumed everyone else was navigating this gauntlet with a blissful ease, while I often felt like I was barely scraping by. Of course, once the Noble Silence was broken, I’d not only learned that my assumption was wrong, but that almost everyone felt this way about everybody else.
Likewise, there was equal difficulty in the feeling of my family not knowing, and I struggled with the helplessness of being so far, without the ability to communicate that I was OK. Even though I knew it was futile, I wanted to ease their worries, and seek their advice during the inevitable moments when I wondered how I was ever going to make it. In those moments, with little else to grasp on to, I repeated the words my great uncle once told me: “The only way to get through it is to go through it.”
Unfortunately, not everyone was able to make it through, and among the most challenging moments of my experience was when Ryan — one of the few other Westerners at the course — didn’t show up to the meditation hall on Day 5. My first Vipassana friend, I’d met Ryan at registration: we rode on the same bus, hiked up the muddy hillside in the pouring rain side-by-side, and joked that this was our initiation to “a really friendly cult.” We’d even planned to meet up in Pokhara after the course, but that afternoon, Ryan’s meditation cushion — three back from my own — was unceremoniously removed by the volunteers and placed back in storage.
Over the remaining five days, more cushions were removed, and on several occasions, I arrived to a meditation session with a new neighbor — someone I’d never seen before, on my right.
But I can’t fault Ryan or any of the others who didn’t complete the course, because Vipassana is hard. Really hard.
Without a doubt, the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
To explain it as simply as I can, Vipassana is a practice designed to purify the mind, which aims to train practitioners to stop clinging to pleasant sensations and to stop feelings of aversion towards unpleasant sensations, which are the root of all suffering, according to the Buddhist tradition. In practice, this goal is achieved primarily through breath observation and body scans, where one attempts to look at the sensations of the body with equanimity, rather than reactivity. While it sounds simple enough, I’d not anticipated how physically grueling it could be to sit on the floor for 10 hours a day, and by lunch, my lower back ached, my legs cramped and my body burned.
According to the teachers, however, these physical pains are a manifestation of mental impurities, and as Vipassana meditators, our job is to observe without reaction and, ultimately, release such impurities.
In Goenka’s view, the environment of a Vipassana course keeps one from adding new impurities — what are known as sankharas in Pali, but which we in the West might call someone’s “emotional baggage.” The idea is that, by not adding new sankharas, one begins to burn up the inner stock of old sankharas, allowing that individual to live with greater peace and harmony. More tangibly, Goenka and other teachers liken this process to a “surgery of the mind,” often saying that the more puss that comes to the surface during the procedure, the better. In other words, “no pain, no gain.” However, the customs officer at the airport simply said, “In Vipassana, all your sins will be revealed” — again, he was not the most positive individual I met in Nepal.
Neither of these ideas were exactly my experience, however, and if I were to summarize Vipassana, I’d characterize it as a practice of facing, accepting and letting go of an array of experiences, which in no small part, includes the past. However you choose to describe it, though, a Vipassana course is a psychologically intense environment that brings you to the physical and emotional outer edges, and a few months removed from this experience, the greatest amount of pride I feel is finding the courage and willpower to complete it.
(Willpower is actually integral to the Vipassana technique, as on Day 4, “Sittings of Strong Determination” are introduced. These are three separate hour-long sessions during the day, where one intends to remain still for the entire 60 minutes. At the very least, you try to change your position as little as possible, slowly moving less each session. My record was twice.)
The thoughts and feelings that surround my time at Dhamma Shringa run deep, and could fill these pages many times over. Truth be told, I blew way past the original word limit when writing this article, a consequence of the 240 hours of silence. However, more than time and space, I feel that whatever insights I gained are best articulated in the classroom, a place where they can be discussed, analyzed, employed, and batted around by other students, and with that in mind, I’ll simply summarize the day-to-day experience like this: Vipassana is hard. Really hard. Without a doubt, the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
On Day 10, the Noble Silence was lifted, and there was a collective exhale across Dhamma Shringa, as it became clear exactly how difficult this course had been. But while challenging in the extreme, many students arrived at great clarity, finding a new path to walk, calling it “life-changing,” and saying that a great weight had been lifted, that they’d never felt better. There were smiles, laughter and joy all around, and a clear brotherhood had been formed among our silent mass: no one else could relate to us at that moment, and a deep sense of connection bubbled over across the campus, as men re-familiarized themselves with talking and touching, and looking one another in the eye.
Going into the course, I assumed this is where I’d end up: I thought I’d be among those effusive with praise, that I’d be calling this experience “life-changing”; I thought I’d leave floating, delivering dollops of wisdom like a flower girl strewing petals across an aisle.
At some level, I’m sure this course has left an indelible impact, that it has been “life-changing,” even if I haven’t fully felt its effect yet. However, my reaction to Vipassana was more tepid than most. A positive experience? Certainly, but I was not among the immediate verbiage and theory surrounding the technique. Of course, this is not to say that I see no value in Vipassana, and I actually continue to employ many similar practices in class and during my own meditation. However, during my 10 days, I found myself continually drawn towards something my first meditation teacher — Andy Kelley, the Boston Buddha — had told me. “There are many doors to the same room.”
For many, Vipasanna is the door; for me, there are others, which I’ve continued to study, pursue and practice.
But as long as the room is peace, love and happiness, I don’t care if someone rings the doorbell, climbs through a window or sneaks in through the back alley.
I don’t care how anyone enters the room; I just want us all to get there.