What Does Vipassanā Actually Mean? Part 7: Why Does it Still Dominate?

This is the next post on my controversial view of Vipassanā. Here is the complete series:

So why is vipassanā so popular? Part of the reason is that many of our most charismatic teachers are vipassanā proponents. They studied in Burma and brought the teaching back with them. But certainly this doesn’t explain everything.

Another possibility is that it’s just a damn good meditation method. It might not be exactly what was taught in the suttas, but that hardly matters if it works. That’s fine with me.

I think the real answer is something a little more insidious, though. The short answer is: Vipassana is more attractive to Westerners. Now, at first blush, this might seem improbable. After all, Vipassana is tough. It shuns the bliss and the emotional content that is so important for Samatha. It is sometimes called “dry” meditation because it is meditation stripped of pleasure. So why would Westerners be attracted to something so harsh?

The appeal of Vipassana is that it seems less religious than original Buddhism. The Buddha put a lot of emphasis on both the teachings of the path and on the bliss of jhana. Both of these smack of religion. Something that is often scary to Westerners coming to Buddhism. Not that there aren’t Westerners that are religious, it’s just that they aren’t coming to Buddhism! A common path to the Buddha goes something like this: 1.) either isn’t interested in or renounces Christianity; 2.) finds a place in their heart where religious is missing; 3.) find Buddhism because the heard “it isn’t really a religion, it’s just a philosophy.”

So there is a tendency to LOOK for dry, un-religious practices that emphasize the intellect over the heart. Here Vipassana fits the bill perfects. You don’t even have to be a Buddhist! You just “practice Vipassana.” This is an idea practice for people who blanch at the idea of rebirth, think monks are too “religious”, and have a scientific mindset.

There’s nothing wrong with this. It was certainly the attitude that I first came to Buddhism with. It can be a good place to start. It’s certainly better than no meditation at all. But if you ever find your meditation lacking: too dry, too “in the head”, too much thinking, remember there are alternatives.

In a while I’ll do another series on the next part of this investigation: Jhana Wars.

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