The more I learn about the modern Vipassana movement the more I feel it promotes an incorrect or inadequate view. But I don't know the movement well so I thought I'd ask what others here think about this increasingly popular approach to the practice.

It seems to discard much of the Buddha's teachings and focus on a quite mundane approach to living that has no metaphysical justification or philosophical significance, bringing some of the benefits of meditative practice without requiring the aspirant to commit to any particular idea of Truth and Reality.

Is this the case? Have I got it wrong? What do you make of it?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – ChrisW
    Aug 5, 2019 at 23:28

8 Answers 8


The more I learn about the modern Vipassana movement the more I feel it promotes an incorrect or inadequate view.

The modern Vipassana movement started with the renewal of interest in meditative practices in Burma due to the work of Ledi Sayadaw. It spread to the west many due to contact of many westerners with the teaching of Mahasi sayadaw.

Vipassana movement has many lineages with diverse practices some instructions between lineages even contradicting each other. There may even be elements which contradict the teaching in the Tripitaka and commentaries in some practices. Some may slant towards the commentaries more than others. Some may slant towards the Sutta Pitaka more than the Abhidhamma Pitaka. Some are more orthodox than the other which does no have incorrect or inadequate views.

But I don't know the movement well so I thought I'd ask what others here think about this increasingly popular approach to the practice.

The onus is with oneself to study and see what confirms to the original teaching, than others pointing it out in an open forum, as there are reasonable following to may of the lineages.

I personally tried with the New Burmese method and Goenka's method and settled for the latter. You can try it out through a course:

If you want to try out some of the other lineages you can try searching for a course or centre through:

It seems to discard much of the Buddha's teachings and focus on a quite mundane approach to living ...

Lineages try to justify their practice in terms of the Tripitaka and commentaries. Some slant more towards commentaries than the others. Some more towards the Suttas than the Abhidhamma. Nearly all of them accept the teaching of the Buddha.

Some lineages do have controversial practices which contradict the teachings but still, they nominally accept the teachings and confirms to reasonable parts of the teachings.

... that has no metaphysical justification or philosophical significance, ...

The Dhamma has the quality of open invitation for others to come and see and to practice for oneself. Dhamma does not have any mysticism about it.

Also, the Dhamma should be validated through experience than just being philosophical tenents.

... bringing some of the benefits of meditative practice without requiring the aspirant to commit to any particular idea of Truth and Reality.

One's knowledge of the Dhamma should be balanced with the meditative experience. So when one starts one does not need to commit to much other than there is something beneficial in the Dhamma.

As one progresses and the understanding deepens, as more theory gets validated by the practice and experience. This way one can progressively deeper truths and realities.

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    Thanks, Nice answer. But it doesn't quite put my mind at rest. I still feel, as you say. that much of the movement in fact ignores or misinterprets the Buddhas teachings The complication, as you also say, is the variety of views taught under the same general heading. Perhaps it's not possible to generalise about Vipassana. It's just that I was rather horrified by the experience of a friend who went on a retreat, as was he. .
    – user14119
    Aug 4, 2019 at 11:19
  • I did not understand the last part of this sentence: I was rather horrified by the experience of a friend who went on a retreat, as was he. Also what happened? Aug 4, 2019 at 11:23
  • Briefly, the leader seemed to promote a materialistic or at least not-fundamental view quite at odds with (what my friend and I see as) a correct interpretation of experience and the teachings. Indeed, he seemed to know little about anything much. I wondered if this was a characteristic of this approach since all that I've heard about it seems to suggest it is. I wondered if it is a false impression.
    – user14119
    Aug 4, 2019 at 11:41
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    Best is keep an open mind. See if the practice works and compare it with the Tripitaka. If you think something is wrong leave it aside. Aug 4, 2019 at 12:35

I know very little about it and no personal experience. I think I read on this site that it (the "movement") was started by people who wanted to [re]introduce meditation -- towards the beginning of the last century (e.g. early 20th) -- in Buddhist countries (e.g. Burma and Thailand) -- and, especially, to lay-people.

I'd suppose that:

  • The lay participants -- being brought up in Buddhist countries -- might have known some Buddhist doctrine[s] already -- and "metaphysical justification or philosophical significance" wasn't the whole point of the exercise (not I've been taught much metaphysics or philosophy, I understand there are people of whom you may be one who see those subjects as practical, important, fundamental).

  • You (personally) might be especially interested in "metaphysical justification or philosophical significance", but I'm not sure that's generally true or necessary -- is that the kind of topic that might interest a scholar ... and perhaps not people in general in lay society?

  • I don't know that it does "discard much of the Buddha's teachings" -- I'm willing to believe, though, that it doesn't teach all the teachings -- something similar might be true of other "schools", like Zen -- maybe true, too, of anything that is or can be taught primarily to lay-people, intended to be popular (see also e.g. "gradual training")

  • I can't comment on (I don't know) how the various lineages within the movement are self-organised, how the leaders are trained, and so on.

It's hard to say anything 'specific' and yet 'generally true' about choosing a teacher (or teachers):

  • There probably is a lot of advice on that subject, in the suttas, and in other literature
  • And it happens (more-or-less successfully) in practice, or it doesn't

... hard except, taking the Buddha and his doctrine as the summum bonum.

The topic Which type of Buddhism is for me? was thought to be too broad to be answerable on this site.

If I were trying to offer advice instead of an answer, I wouldn't know what to say, it could be almost anything:

  • You're wrong! You should try the practice, "Throw away your statues and burn your dharma books."
  • You're right! You should look for more-qualified teachers
  • You're wrong! You should let go of your view of Buddhism (and/or your "commitment to a particular idea of Truth and Reality")
  • You're right! You should learn, and focus, on more of the Buddha's teachings

Also you said, "a mundane approach to living", as if that were a bad thing.

I think that some of "the Buddha's teachings" are that people fabricate elaborate fantasies about what's real and what they want and who they are and so on -- and then "suffer" when "life isn't like that" -- and cause others' suffering -- so in contrast maybe "a mundane approach to life" isn't all bad as an idea ... or as a remedy ... a middle way, even.

Similarly non-attachment is praised, and (as you may understand) one of the types of craving or attachment is to a view or views. So the doctrine talks of Right View -- but also sometimes of not holding to fixed views, warns against a fetter of views and so on.

My guess -- this isn't personal, just paraphrasing some doctrine about how craving and attachment are said to arise -- is that at some time you learned something (a view) which you might have found pleasing or delightful, and now you hold to that, and use that as your benchmark.

  • This is definitely the rudest thing anyone has ever said to me on a forum. But I can see why you might believe it. I don't expect teachers to be metaphyscians but I do expect their teachings to be metaphysically meaningful and sound. The Vipassana teachings seem to me incomplete and non-reductive, unlike those of the Buddha. The replies I'm getting here are inconclusive but suggest I'm not wrong. I'm keeping an open mind for now but am very suspicious. . .
    – user14119
    Aug 5, 2019 at 10:34
  • I'm sorry, Peter. Would you like me to delete it? I don't know what metaphysics is, you and I might be as if talking different languages.
    – ChrisW
    Aug 5, 2019 at 14:22
  • It's okay. No worries. To suggest I'm attached to my view and fight for it only because of that attachment is a pretty fierce comment, but you can't know it's not the case. By 'metaphysical' above I just mean 'fundamental'. I'm suggesting that these teachings are partial and inadequate, unlike the teachings of the Buddha. They seem to just cherry-pick a few ideas.
    – user14119
    Aug 5, 2019 at 15:56
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    @PeterJ As I said I don't even mean it personally, they're just "shots in the dark" -- not "shots" in the sense of trying to injure, but shots in the sense of throwing multiple lines into the dark, to see whether any you may catch and find useful. I think it's axiomatic that the different "retreats" are different and that different people may benefit (or not) in different ways. The teachings of the Buddha may be fairly vast, too, even just by concentrating on (any) meditation, and for laypeople, however they do that, might be cherry-picking (as you said).
    – ChrisW
    Aug 5, 2019 at 16:18

Personally I have attended 6 vipassana retreats and plan to attend one in the near future. I also studied the teachings of J Krishnamurti for 30 years. K never mentions the Buddha, rather he promotes the necessity of buddha-lIke self exploration without depending on any technique. I find K's teachings to have the purest quality. Vipassana depends on a technique. Mindfulness meditation seems to take the technique on its on. Yes, a materialistic approach, but, hey, everyone's path is different.

  • Thanks. This is the impression I have, that Vipassana takes a technique and removes it from its wider context. It may nevertheless still be a useful technique. . . .
    – user14119
    Aug 5, 2019 at 11:55
  • Hello Jean. ; ) Aug 11, 2019 at 19:47

I had the same worries at first, and wrote Vipassana off for several years until I gave it a thorough effort and testing. I grew up in a cultish/fundamentalist environment, so my cult detector was set to high!

As mentioned in one of the earlier answers, there are several schools or lineages that fit under the banner of modern Vipassana. However, what one encounters online is people taking the experiences and teachings with one school or teacher as representative of the whole, leading to a distorted and incomplete view of what Vipassana is or can be. I often see people try it out for a couple of days, make some quick judgements, and then post it on YouTube as though they are some kind of authority based on one short experience.

Most people encounter Vipassana through the Goenka tradition, as it is highly popular and has a very successful system of propagation. It is designed to reach the largest number of people possible by staying as secular and denuded of religious or contentious aspects people may have with practicing Buddhism or meditation as possible. It's designed to allow Christians, Hindus, Muslims, atheists, etc. to all be able to give intensive meditation a shot. So when viewing this part of modern Vipassana, that's something to keep in mind.

Now, if viewing other lineages of Vipassana, one may encounter a very straightforward and familiar form of Buddhism, such as found in the Mahasi lineage, or the Forest Ajahns of Thailand, or among certain schools in Sri Lanka. Vipassana teachings include morality, karma, dependant origination, devas, etc., as seen in the suttas and commentaries. You can find as much or as little metaphysics and philosophy there as you like, and can practice a very direct path toward enlightenment based on the Sattipatthana Sutta.

It is simply a path to seeing reality more clearly, as taught by the Buddha, to bring about the end of suffering. It's worth a test at least. ;)

  • Fair comment. The Goenka tradition is the only one I've come into contact with so there's a lot a I don't know about this. .
    – user14119
    Aug 7, 2019 at 12:21

Learning to see things as they are. Truthfulness. By being mindful one can gain insight into the nature of reality. It is not the centers, books, lineage, quotes, anything other than the natural reality as it pertains to your observation of the truth. The centers, books, and fellows, are certainly helpful. The foundation of morality, can certainly help stable and calm the mind so one can explore the changing impermanent reality; as does being around concentrated people, in a conducive environment.

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    Hmm. You are reinforcing my deeper fears about this movement. .
    – user14119
    Aug 5, 2019 at 15:48
  • I have been a Trustee of one of the meditation centres. So the specific guidelines that pesticides and traps should not be used. If any of the ATs or Trustees have a "meditation partner" or do not adhere to the 5 precepts an inquiry is made and removed if true. Goenka's teacher was an accountant, which does not involve killing any being. There is no reference to which he has killed any beings. Aug 5, 2019 at 16:48
  • Dear Suminda, the actions of the ATs and/or center management to use chemical poison to kill or deter beings may be done without the express consent and direct support of the trust members. This is the issue, should one do it so others don't have to be involved in this unwholesome kamma? Or is this delusion of self, or the idea that our actions are limited to ourselves baseless. The original question is very important, and should not be pacified. Question everything! Find out, don't take a pat on the neck and aimed at the comfortable pile behind the bull, steamy and warm. Aug 6, 2019 at 4:29
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    @SumindaSirinathS.Dharmasena Sorry but on stack exchange a moderator shouldn't usually delete an answer which is 'factually wrong', instead you can comment, downvote, and/or post an answer of your own. I realise that this answer is scandalous, and you have your own personal experiences and knowledge and the OP ("Crystal Ship") has theirs -- the parable of the elephant (Ud 6.4), perhaps.
    – ChrisW
    Aug 7, 2019 at 6:59
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    @SumindaSirinathS.Dharmasena Perhaps you'd like to post a comment to explain how in your experience, the policies as they're understood by a trustee might contradict the behaviour which this answer is reportedly observing. But, I don't think it would be right of me to intervene, to edit or delete this answer.
    – ChrisW
    Aug 7, 2019 at 7:03

The modern 'Vipassana' and herein i mean just that Mindfulness practice associated with the observation of the arising, persistence & cessation of Thoughts, Feelings, Mental States & Perceptions, as it is could be generally presented in brief to a person; can be incomperhensive & insufficient.

In brief this is because;

here are cases where a foolish, inexperienced, unskillful monk remains focused on the body in & of itself — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. As he remains thus focused on the body in & of itself, his mind does not become concentrated, his defilements[2] are not abandoned. He does not take note of that fact.[3] He remains focused on feelings in & of themselves... the mind in & of itself... mental qualities in & of themselves — ardent, alert, & mindful — putting aside greed & distress with reference to the world. As he remains thus focused on mental qualities in & of themselves, his mind does not become concentrated, his defilements are not abandoned. He does not take note of that fact. As a result, he is not rewarded with a pleasant abiding here & now, nor with mindfulness & alertness. Why is that? Because the foolish, inexperienced, unskillful monk does not take note of his own mind. https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn47/sn47.008.than.html

The modern Vipassana if one could pin such a thing as the practice of mere Mindfulness establishment without picking up & making adjustments to accommodate the theme of mind, would to that extent be incopmrehensive.

There is nothing wrong with the mindfulness practice itself, the problem arises due to lack of learning and exclusion of the necessary aspects needed for development of the various types of concentration.


The three characteristics are ever present realities. 'Vipassana' is 'clearly seeing' the three characteristics. The more clear and empty of self the mind is, the more clearly it can see these ever present realities.

However, because the three characteristics are ever present realities, an individual may 'partially see' them or one of them rather than 'clearly see' them.

Yet because one or all of them are partially seen, this is sufficient for the common spiritual materialism of 'over-estimation' and the creation of new religious cults based on individuals whose ego needs to claim they are enlightened.

Thus in 'modern vipassana', there are thousands of 'certified' stream-enterers up to Arahants belonging to these overestimation cults.

Video here: Ven. Sujato - Goenka, Mahasi

  • Thanks. Your answer seems to confirm my fears.
    – user14119
    Aug 4, 2019 at 11:47
  • Perhaps this answer is part of the story, but, not the whole story: kind of one-sided. The video ends with Ven Sujato also saying, "I don't want to be one-sided about these things, I mean I'm talking about what happens when they go wrong, obviously they go right a lot of the time, I personally have very good experiences doing Mahasi practice and I always have tremendous respect and appreciation for what I learned there, but, you know, not everybody has those kinds of experiences."
    – ChrisW
    Aug 4, 2019 at 12:11

Vipassana simply means to see things as they are. Like reality exists independently of any idea about it. I have heard a monk say Vipassana is the 8 Fold Path. I would say the 8 Fold Path is the 8 Fold Path. Vipassana is a Pali word. Sattipithana means the foundations of mindfulness. Buddha says anyone observing breathe is observing body sensation. Mindfulness leads to understanding. One can develop one's own be insight to s into the nature of reality, better to question everything even if Buddha said it or any unenlightened teacher or fellow student. There is a conflict inherint in lay xlife if you have the wisdom to peruse enlightenment but are unable to let go of the trap of mundane life. I wouldn't be able to be monk without have a sworn duty to point out to other monks that Buddha said it was foolish and childish to stay for the rains and think satay for the other seasons as well. Disagreeing with this 3 times and they might not be able to say Buddha is their teacher and the Dhamma their path. Yes the purity of the practice is not completely preserved, by householders or many monastics or enlightenment would be much more common. There are monks who still don't meditate, maybe better than meditating deeply and throwing the world into defilement of killing, sex, ambition, money, etc.

  • Usually we'd prefer one answer. You can include a horizontal rule if you want to split an answer into several sections. Someone flagged this to say it should be merged with your other answer. I'll let it stay (as separate answers) because I see the two answers are very different, only don't make a habit of it please, i.e. usually prefer to post one answer per topic.
    – ChrisW
    Aug 7, 2019 at 6:45

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