On a pleasant, calm Saturday in December 2015, I was one of the 95 participants of the 144th ten-day Vipassana Meditation programme conducted at the Dhamma Sobha Vipassana Meditation Centre in Kosgama. It is located about 47 km from Colombo, on the Colombo-Ratnapura Road. Dhamma Sobha, Dhamma Kuta and Dhamma Anuradha are three Vipassana meditation [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Vipassana meditation: An eye opener


On a pleasant, calm Saturday in December 2015, I was one of the 95 participants of the 144th ten-day Vipassana Meditation programme conducted at the Dhamma Sobha Vipassana Meditation Centre in Kosgama. It is located about 47 km from Colombo, on the Colombo-Ratnapura Road. Dhamma Sobha, Dhamma Kuta and Dhamma Anuradha are three Vipassana meditation centres in Sri Lanka that follow the meditation method taught by S.N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin of Burma.

Today, Vipassana courses, in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin are held at 227 locations in 94 countries, of which about 120 are permanent vipassana meditation centres. These centres are found in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, the United Kingdom, Japan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar and Thailand, with 56 centres in India.

Participants at the residential course on Vipassana mediation

Following this method of meditation at Dhamma Sobha was truly an eye-opener for me, as a Buddhist of over six decades. Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Gautama Buddha more than 2500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills, i.e., the true art of living. This non-sectarian technique aims for the total eradication of mental impurities (cleansing of the mind) and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation.

It all started with a telephone call from my sister one morning in November 2015. She said “Akka, I am going to attend a ten-day residential course on Vipassana mediation, with one of our cousins how about you joining?” Without asking for any further details, I at once decided to join them. Thus began my pursuit to arrange things with my husband to see to the homefront and free myself from all other obligations for a period of 12 days; from December 12 – 23, 2015, in order to attend the meditation course.

Obtaining a place on the course was the first step, for which, one has to fill the web application (or application obtained by post) and submit it by email, which I did without delay. The following day, I received a letter of confirmation saying “We are pleased to confirm you for the ten-day Vipassana Meditation course from 12-Dec-2015 to 23-Dec-2015. Your confirmation number is NF13”.

This letter carried most importantly the code of discipline for vipassana meditation, which one should abide by very scrupulously, along with brief instructions about arrival, departure, the programme and a list of personal items one should bring. A younger cousin of ours gave us constant encouragement until our departure, she and her husband being past participants of this course and currently practising the method.

We arrived at the Dhamma Sobha Vipassana Meditation Centre in Kosgama before midday on December 12, 2015. Already the place was a hub of activity. Participants were arriving, using different modes of transportation. Many were dropped off by their children with grand children waving and looking sad to leave their grandparents behind. In the main hall, which was the office cum dining hall, lunch was already laid on the table for anyone to have. We tucked into the lunch packets that my sister had brought from home, not knowing the arrangements. On arrival, participants were asked to fill the registration form after which one is assigned a room in the two-storey residential building, for the entire stay and a seat number in the meditation hall for the entire meditation programme.

The three of us were given three different rooms in the ground floor of the residential building, which housed 21 twin rooms and two sets of washrooms. Each twin room is partitioned by a curtain and has a bed, a mosquito net and shelves to keep personal belongings. The female and male participants are housed in two different buildings. Participants sorted out their accommodation, arranged their beds, handed over their valuables to responsible office staff to be kept under lock and got ready for group instructions given at 6 p.m. in the dining hall, on the day of arrival. Instructions were on tape and were given in both Sinhala and English as there were five foreign participants. Dinner was served from 5-6 p.m. The very first meditation session was from 8 -10 p.m. at the meditation hall. Thus, began the 144th meditation course at Dhamma Sobha with 63 females, 24 males and 8 monks.

From Day 1 to Day 10 of the Vipassana Meditation programme a common timetable was followed. Noble silence was of paramount importance during the entire period, which was strictly enforced. The day began with the wake-up bell at 4 a.m. in the morning, at which time there is a hive of activity around the wash rooms. At 4.20 a.m. the second bell goes informing the participants to arrive at the meditation hall (located up a small hill about 50 metres from the residential hall) and take the seats allocated to each participant. I sat at No. 49, where on a colourful mat, a larger square cushion was placed and on top of that a smaller cushion was placed to sit on, all covered with a sea blue cloth. All 98 participants sat in rows arranged facing the front where the Dhamma teachers sat on chairs and from where the tapes were operated and announcements were made.

The daily meditation session began sharp at 4.30 a.m., with all the participants seated silently, clad mostly in white. A two-hour meditation session followed with instruction by tape, with a 10 minute break every hour, for participants to take a short rest. The meditation session ended for breakfast, served at 6.30 a.m. in the dining hall.

On entering the dining hall, participants collected a stainless steel plate and a mug from a neatly stacked set of crockery and cutlery, served their meal of rice with three vegetarian curries, including pulses and sat at nursery style chairs and tables meant for two. Tea, soup and a fruit with a sweet on a side plate were served at the table. Participants partook of their meal silently, washed their plates and mugs at the sinks provided at the entrance to the hall, wiped and stacked them back for use at the next meal. This was the form for the two main meals; breakfast and lunch, where a delicious, balanced meal was served each day.

Breakfast was followed by a period of rest until 8 a.m., after which all the participants returned to the meditation hall. Meditation continued under instruction until 11.30 a.m., the time for lunch. Lunch was followed by a short period of rest in the residential building, where participants could have a bath, wash clothes or retire to their rooms. Participants again gathered at the mediation hall at 1 p.m. for group meditation and meditation under instructions, until 5 p.m. This session was interrupted by short breaks at hourly intervals.

Evening tea, served from 5 – 6 p.m. comprised a light diet of biscuits, bananas and a cup of tea, thus completing the meals for the day. Participants under medication could eat something light thereafter, if they wished. The evening meditation session continued from 6 p.m. until 9.30 p.m., with 10 minute hourly breaks for rest and with a discourse from 7 – 8.30 p.m. This daily discourse, delivered on tape was most enlightening as it highlights the progress in meditation, the importance of that day’s training, provides answers for much of the questions and doubts that arises in one’s mind and ends with an introduction to the next day’s meditation session. Participants retire to rooms after 9.30 p.m. This daily routine that starts at 4.30 a.m. in the early hours of the day ends at 9.30 pm late at night and runs for 10 days with the participants observing noble silence throughout.

The ten-day meditation sessions take you slowly and patiently through the different stages of vipassana meditation starting with “Anapana Sathi Bhawana”, which prepares one to develop deep sensation and mindfulness. During Anapana Sathi Bawana one observes his or her breathing process, paying much attention initially, to the area around the nostrils and thereafter to a smaller triangular area above the upper lip and below the nose. Sharp focused attention in this area, concentrating on the inhaling and exhaling process, together with the sensation of cold air being inhaled and warm air being exhaled, prepares one to use this process as the tool to examine your entire body, during vipassana meditation. Practice of Anapana Sathi Bhawana continues in this manner over three days and training in vipassana meditation begins on the 4th day, with an introduction to this system of meditation.

Both Buddhist lay persons and priests with vast experience in the method of meditation, supervise the course and act as teachers (Dhamam Seva) to answer questions of participants in relation to the practice of meditation and problems related to their daily life. This invaluable system was appreciated by all.

With the start of vipassana meditation one is energized and becomes more eager to master this method of meditation, in spite of the initial aches and pains that one feels, which pass away with continued practice. The daily discourse provides lengthy explanations to the principles behind the practice of vipassana meditation making you understand the “Nama-Rupa”- mind body – relationship, where with deep concentration in one’s mind, one scans the entire body with the use of the nervous system, sensitizing all the receptors, both extero and intero, as I understood. Thus a wave of deep sensation/concentration is made to pass through the entire body starting from head to toe. During this process one passes through blind areas in the body where no sensation is perceived and areas where gross sensation is perceived and areas where finer sensation is perceived. One is advised to concentrate more on blind areas in the body and areas where gross sensation is perceived, taking more time, until a finer sensation is perceived throughout the body. Thus, during practice, waves of deep concentration/sensation are made to pass from head to toe and vice versa, with no blocks to prevent the smooth free flow of sensation. By about the 8th or 9th day of practice one begins to feel a state of inner excitement passing through the entire body, a free flow of energy throughout the body, which is called the ‘banga’ state.

It is explained that during this state, layers of past ‘sanskara’ in your mind are shed progressively, leading to the cleansing of the mind. One’s reaction to the sensations perceived during this deep concentration should be one of ‘upekkha, with no craving or aversion attached to it. The neutral state of ‘upekkha, with neither positive of negative energy being generated will help one in getting rid of past ‘sanskara’ and also trains one how not to develop new ‘sanskara’, thus leading to the cleansing of one’s mind and seeing things as they are, which is the ultimate goal of vipassana meditation.

‘Sila’ or good conduct (through the five precepts), ‘samadhi’ or deep concentration and ‘prajñ’ or wisdom are premises on which vipassana meditation is built. Thus, ‘shraddha’ or faith, the initial acceptance of the Buddha’s teaching prior to realizing its truth for oneself, does not come into the practice, other than for Buddhists. Hence, this non-sectarian technique of meditation, not affiliated with or restricted to a particular religious group has attracted more non-Buddhists world over than Buddhists. Hence, vipassana meditation has become more popular in the Western world than in the East.

This short experience of Vipassana meditation, through the ten-day course was an eye opener for me as a person who has studied and taught the nervous system of animals and humans as a zoologist, for nearly four decades, in the university. Never did it occur to me, even as a Buddhist, the relationship between the mind, body and the nervous system. Text book sketches of the central and peripheral nervous system with its receptors together with the limbic system came to my mind, when listening to the discourse and when sweeping the body with deep concentration during meditation.

The limbic system is the part of the brain that deals with three key functions: emotions (such as anger, happiness, pride and fear), memories and arousal (stimulation or excitation). The limbic system connects parts of the brain that deal with high and low functions. It is responsible for detecting and relaying information from our five senses, of physical movements of the body, for maintaining a constant internal environment in the body of higher organisms to compensate for changes in the external environmental. In short, it is said that the limbic system is the part of the nervous system that comes into action when one is asleep. Thus, this method of meditation with a scientific basis was very enlightening not only to me but to all others who had a knowledge of biology, who were a minority among the participants.

On the last day of the ten-day programme, how to practise metta bhavana or the practice of loving kindness was taught, where the well being of all life forms; related and unrelated, seen and unseen are thought of. Furthermore, participants were advised to practise vipassana meditation daily, spending one hour, early in the morning and before going to bed and to end each session with a few minutes of metta bhavana.

On the eve of the last day of the programme, the ban on noble silence was lifted and the participants moved freely, inquiring after the local and foreign participants. It was then that one realized that the participants ranged in age from 22 to 73 years, comprised of individuals who were single, recently married couples, parents and grandparents, as well as people of all walks of life ranging from housewives to professionals in varied sectors, some retired, others still working. My room-mate of 12 days was a retired bank officer and a grandmother of two, from a nearby town. The single foreign female participant on the course was a 28-year-old surfer from Russia, whose mother had found the meditation course on the web and requested her daughter to attend. After the course, she left for Unawatuna beach in the south, famous for surfing. It is with nostalgic memories that the participants parted on the morning of December 23, 2015. There is no doubt that the course would be a milestone in the life of all participants.

(The ten-day Vipassana meditation course is free of charge for anyone to attend. More information about Vipassana meditation and Goenka Vipassana Meditation Centers can be found in the web and YouTube)

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