Theravada reinvents meditation

Vipassana meditation is the most Buddhist thing in “Consensus Buddhism.” This post starts to ask how Buddhist vipassana is, by tracing its history.

It appears that, in the early 1800s, vipassana had been completely, or almost completely, lost in the Theravada world. Either no one, or perhaps only a handful of people, knew how to do it.

Vipassana was reinvented by four people in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They started with descriptions of meditation in scripture. Those were vague and contradictory, so the inventors tried out different things that seemed like they might be what the texts were talking about, to see if they worked. They each came up with different methods.

Since then, extensive innovation in Theravada meditation has continued. Advocates of different methods disagree, often harshly, about which is correct. I am not a Theravadin, and don’t practice any of these methods, so I have no opinion about that.

I’m also not trying to prove that modern vipassana is “inauthentic.” Coming from Tibetan Buddhism, this rapid innovation, based on practical experiments, is slightly shocking for me. But as a scientist and engineer, it’s also inspiring. I am happy to regard all of it as terma—the Tibetan term for a valid new religious revelation.

Records from 1800s Thailand and Burma are somewhat sketchy, and details of the reinvention of vipassana are still an area of active historical research. However, you can verify all the facts presented in this post in the sources I cite.

Why did Theravada reinvent vipassana around 1900?

What I want to explore is the context in which modern vipassana developed. Two things stand out:

In my last post, I described how Thai Theravada was Westernized under the kings of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Similar Buddhist modernization occurred in Sri Lanka and Burma, the other two places meditation was reinvented. In the case of Thailand and Sri Lanka, there’s evidence that meditation was first reinvented because of Western influence. It’s known definitely that Asians, influenced by Western ideas, extensively revised vipassana methods during the 1900s.

Based on that, we can ask: how have Western ideas about meditation affected the new methods, and the ways they are explained?

Knowing that, we can wonder whether it’s the best practice for people who aren’t ascetics.

How do you reinvent vipassana?

Perhaps many people were trying to figure out how to do vipassana in the late 1800s. Only four succeeded. They all started from descriptions in the Pali scriptures. The most detailed are in the Satipatthana Sutta, the Visuddhimagga, and the Anapanasati Sutta.

In the mid-1800s, these texts were revered because supposedly they showed the way to nirvana. However, the way they were practiced was for groups of monks to ritually chant the text in unison. This is like a bunch of people who don’t know what a computer is reading the manual out loud, hoping the machine will spring to life, without realizing you need to plug it in.

The people who reinvented vipassana tried to actually do what the scriptures said. That wasn’t a possibility seriously considered before; no one was seriously attempting to reach nirvana. The idea that you could read scripture and try to figure out what it meant was one of the Western-influenced 1800s Protestant Buddhist innovations.

Reinventing vipassana was difficult. It took each of the reinventors many years of trial-and-error experimentation before they came up with methods they considered worked. Their biographers emphasize what a hard time they had.

The vipassana scriptures are vague, and they contradict each other. Proponents of different vipassana systems consider different suttas authoritative. They disagree strongly about which is most important, and how to interpret it.

If you read the Satipatthana Sutta, the most-used one, and if you know how to meditate, you can say “yeah, parts of that are a pretty good description of what we do.” (Other parts are nothing like what people do now. I think that’s important, as I’ll explain in a later post.) If you had no idea what meditation was, the Sutta would not seem like much of a guide.

The methods the various reinventors came up with were different from each other. Quite possibly they are all unlike the way vipassana was practiced before the method was lost—in ways that probably reflect Western influence. I return to that point in a later post, too.

Anagarika Dharmapala in Sri Lanka

Anagarika Dharmapala was born in 1864, the son of a wealthy Sri Lankan businessman. Sri Lanka was a British colony them, and he was educated at British Christian mission schools.

As a teenager, he was interested in Western occultism. In 1884, at age 20, he met Helena Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, a mystical “philosophy” that borrowed heavily from German Romantic Idealism. He was much taken with her, and vice versa; he regarded her as his principal teacher for the rest of her life. He wanted to study Western occultism with her, but she told him to learn Pali instead, because in the Pali scriptures he would find everything he was looking for.

Dharmapala, at Blavatsky’s instruction, set up the Sri Lankan branch of the Theosophical Society. Both considered that its job was to reinforce Buddhism against Christian missionary influence.

This is highly ironic. With Buddhism in Sri Lanka mostly dead, Dharmapala looked to a Westerner for answers to his spiritual issues. But Blavatsky had come to Asia because she imagined the secret to solving the spiritual crisis of Western culture was there. Blavatsky had no idea what was in the Pali scriptures, but she “intuited” that they must have the answer. Particularly, she imagined that “meditation” was the practical key. But what was “meditation”?

In the 1880s, there is no evidence that anyone in Sri Lanka knew how to meditate. One biography of Dharmapala says flatly that “the practice had been neglected and then forgotten.” It’s possible that there were a few monks somewhere who still practiced vipassana, but there is no evidence for that. We do know that he travelled extensively in Sri Lanka, and “in spite of all his enquiries he never succeeded in finding even a single person, whether monk or layman, who could instruct him in… meditation practices.”

Eventually, he decided to start meditating anyway. He based his practice on texts he had found, mainly the Satipatthana Sutta and Visuddhimagga. Presumably his ideas about meditation were influenced by Blavatsky’s, however, and by the methods of Christian prayer he had learned at school. Later, he received some brief instruction from a Burmese teacher in India.

“Dharmapala’s advocacy of meditation practice and the availability of modern translations of these three texts did much to foster Sri Lankan interest in meditation.” [Fronsdal, cited below]

However, his method is probably extinct, or insignificant. Since the late 1950s, the Mahasi method (discussed below) has been dominant in Sri Lanka. And, Sri Lankan Buddhism has not had much influence on the West.


Gil Fronsdal, “Theravada Spirituality in the West.”

Gombrich & Obeyeskere, Buddhism Transformed.

Bhikkhu Sangharakshita, Anagarika Dharmapala: A Biographical Sketch. (This was the same Sangharakshita who founded the Triratna Buddhist Community.)

The Maha Bodhi, Volumes 98-99 (available on Google Books).

Tricycle, “Anagarika Dharmapala.”

The Thai lineage

King Mongkut was the major reformer of Thai Buddhism (as explained in my last post). His reforms were based on Western ideas. He believed that meditation was important, but was unable to find anyone who could teach him a method he found plausible.

The only meditation methods available then were “called vichaa aakhom, or incantation knowledge; [they] involved initiations and invocations used for shamanistic purposes, such as protective charms and magical powers.” This seems to have been a mixture of tantra (Hindu and/or Buddhist) and Thai folk animism. “They rarely mentioned nirvana except as an entity to be invoked for shamanic rites.”

Mongkut rejected this “meditation.” The Pali scriptures—to which he insisted everyone should return—say that the goal of buddhism is nirvana, attained through the practice of vipassana. Vipassana was, as far as Mongkut could find out, lost in mid-1800s Thailand.

He and his students tried to reinvent vipassana based on scriptural explanations, but he considered that they had failed.

Mongkut founded a monastic movement called Dhammayuttika, which emphasized strict adherence to vinaya (the code of conduct for monks).

It was Ajahn Mun Bhuridatta, born in 1870, who developed the Thai vipassana method. Mun was a Dhammayuttika monk. I suspect it was Mongkut’s insistence on the importance of vipassana that led Mun to his discoveries, but I don’t have direct evidence of that.

His main teacher was Ajahn Sao Kantasilo. Sao taught a meditation method that consisted simply of repeating the word “Buddho.” I have not been able to discover who his teacher was, or where he got this method. I don’t know if it has any basis in Buddhist scripture or earlier practice; I haven’t found any.

Ajahn Mun remained devoted to Ajahn Sao throughout his life, but Sao was unable to answer most of his questions about meditation, and Mun had doubts about the “Buddho” method. Sao, according to Mun’s foremost student, was “not a competent teacher.” Mun set off on his own, looking for someone who could actually teach him vipassana. He spent nearly two decades wandering around Thailand, Laos, and Burma, but never found anyone.

Ajahn Mun gradually developed his own vipassana method, starting in the 1890s, with the main breakthrough apparently between 1911 and 1914. He experimented with various techniques, developed what worked, and dropped what didn’t. According to his biographies, some key ideas came to him in visions (described in detail). Presumably his method was also based partly on his reading of scriptural explanations.

Ajahn Mun had two main students, Ajahn Maha Bua and Ajahn Chah. Both had Western students, but Chah was far more influential.

Ajahn Chah actually only spent one week with Ajahn Mun. He developed his own style of practice that is more Westerner-friendly.

Ajahn Chah was the primary teacher for Jack Kornfield, among many other well-known Western vipassana teachers.

Sao, Mun, Maha Bua, and Chah all practiced an extreme form of asceticism called dhutanga, which goes beyond even strict adherence to vinaya. They considered that dhutanga and vipassana were closely linked. The point of both was to violently destroy all desires through extreme effort and austerity.

Although the Thai method is still taught, the “easier” Burmese Mahasi method (described below) is more popular in the U.S., and even in Thailand.


Phra Ajaan Phut Thaniyo, “Ajaan Sao’s Teaching.”

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “The Customs of the Noble Ones.”

Ajahn Maha Bua, The Biography of the Venerable Phra Acharn Mun Bhuridatta Thera.

Ajahn Maha Bua, The Venerable Phra Acharn Mun Bhuridatta Thera: Meditation Master.

Brooke Schedneck, “Comparing Forest Masters’ Techniques and Implications for International Meditators.”

Brooke Schedneck, “Meditation Techniques of the Masters: Luangda Maha Bua.”

The Mahasi (“New Burmese”) method

The “Mahasi method” is the most-practiced vipassana nowadays. It is considered faster and easier than the Thai method, and than the other Burmese method I describe later. Proponents of those methods consider it bogus, however.

It was developed by Mahasi Sayadaw (1904-1982), but does have antecedents.

Mahasi’s teacher was Mingun Sayadaw (1868-1955), also known as U Narada. Many sources count Mingun as the originator of the lineage.

Mingun’s teacher was Ale-Tawya Sayadaw, whose teacher was The-lon Sayadaw. According to Strong Roots, cited below, “The-Lon Sayadaw… put this textual guidance [the Visuddhimagga] into practice without a personal teacher to guide [him] in mindfulness practice” (p. 110). This is based oral history from a traditional Burmese monk in The-lon Sayadaw’s lineage. I can’t find dates for The-lon or Ale-Tawya.

It appears that The-lon Sayadaw developed some method based on the Visuddhimagga, which was learned and then substantially modified by Mingun, which was learned and then substantially modified by Mahasi.

As background, in the late 1800s, Burma, under King Mindon, tried to follow the same path of modernization that successfully held off the British in Thailand. It failed, and the British seized it in 1885, and ran the place until 1948. So Western ideas were common in Burma throughout the period the Mahasi lineage developed.

Mahasi made several innovations. The most important was skipping samatha and the development of the jhanas (concentration states) and going directly to vipassana. He thought that samatha would take care of itself, if you practice vipassana correctly. The jhanas are not ends in themselves, so bypassing samatha is a practical shortcut.

Mahasi taught that one should aim directly for sotapatti, a first taste of nirvana. Experiencing sotapatti guarantees you cannot be reborn other than as a human or in heaven, and no more than seven more times. He said that sotapatti could reached by newcomers in a month.

Mahasi aimed his teaching particularly at lay people, rather than monks. He imported from the West the “meditation center” idea (not a traditional Asian institution). He eliminated ritual and minimized textual study.

Mahasi’s best-known Asian student was Anagarika Munindra (1915-2003). Munindra was also a student of S.N. Goenka, from the other Burmese lineage. Munindra therefore joined the two Burmese vipassana systems. Munindra was the teacher of Dipa Ma.

Many influential American teachers, including most of the main figures in what I call “Consensus Buddhism,” were students of Mahasi, Munindra, and/or Dipa Ma. They include:

These Western teachers have, of course, further modified the combined vipassana systems.


Jake H. Davis, Strong Roots: Liberation Teachings of Mindfulness in North America. Much useful history here.

Robert H. Sharf, “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience.”

Mahasi Sayadaw, “Satipatthana Vipassana: Criticisms and Replies.”

Joseph Goldstein, One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism. Has some information on Mahasi by his best-known Western student.

Brooke Schedneck, “The Role of Samadhi in Meditation Centers and the Forest Tradition” and “Book Review: The Experience of Samadhi by Richard Shankman.” On samatha vs. vipassana, and differences between the various vipassana methods.

Gil Fronsdal, “Theravāda Spirituality in the West,” “Insight Meditation in the United States: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” and “The Treasures of the Theravada: Recovering the Riches of Our Tradition.” Insightful articles on the ways vipassana has been adapted in the West. Gil Fronsdal is a student of Jack Kornfield, but not afraid to point out problems with the Consensus approach.

The Ledi lineage (also Burmese)

This lineage begins with Ledi Sayadaw (1846-1923).

Little is known about how Ledi Sayadaw began to practice vipassana. The Wikipedia says that “he learned the technique of vipassana still being taught in the caves of the Sagaing Hills,” and this line has been copied all over the internet. As far as I can tell, it is wrong. I can’t find that information in any reliable source. It is contradicted by Strong Roots, cited above, which quotes a traditional monk from the Sagaing Hills as saying Ledi Sayadaw developed his method on his own, based only on texts. (The Sagaing Hills are a major royal temple complex, on the outskirts of Mandalay, then the capital. They are not remote or obscure, and if vipassana was commonly taught there, it seems that would be well-documented.)

Ledi Sayadaw’s biography on S.N. Goenka’s site says “although we do not have any definitive information, it seems likely that [1882-1885] was the period when he began practicing Vipassana in the traditional Burmese way: with attention to Anapana (respiration) and vedana (sensation).” S.N. Goenka is the main teacher in the Ledi linage now, and presumably if he knew of a source for Ledi Sayadaw’s method, he would say so. “The traditional Burmese way” was probably lost sometime long before 1882.

The Ledi method was extensively revised by his grand-student U Ba Khin (1899-1971) in the 1950s. U Ba Khin was a lay man, and the head accountant for the Burmese government. According to Sharf (cited below), “U Ba Khin apparently experimented with different techniques throughout his career, all of which focused primarily on bodily sensations.” The resulting differences from Ledi’s method are large enough that many sources refer to “the U Ba Khin method.” Like Mahasi, he removed most traditional aspects of Buddhism in order to teach lay people, and aimed directly for transformational experience.

S.N. Goenka teaches U Ba Khin’s method.

Lama Surya Das, one of the main founders of “Consensus Buddhism,” was a student of Goenka (among many others).

[Update, November 2013:] I’ve found a recent journal article, “On saints and wizards,” by Patrick Pranke, that traces the Burmese revival of vipassana back to the mid-1700s. This paper confirms that vipassana had been entirely lost prior to then, but provides earlier history than I had previously known about. Ledi Sayadaw learned vipassana from “U Hpo Hlaing (1830–1883) who was notable for his avid interest in western science and efforts to reconcile this new perspective with abhidhamma.” Before that the exact lineage is unclear, but it appears that from-scripture reinvention began with Medawi (1728–1816) who published his first vipassana manual in 1756.

[Another update, February 2014:] Published late last year, Erik Braun’s The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw seems to contradict Pranke’s article. I haven’t read the book, but from the part available free on Amazon, we have: “he did not get his understanding of meditation from a particular teacher, nor did he find it in a book. He developed his presentation of meditation himself…” These experts seemingly disagree in this area of current historical research.


Erik Braun, The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw.

Jake H. Davis, Strong Roots: Liberation Teachings of Mindfulness in North America.

Gil Fronsdal, “Theravāda Spirituality in the West.”

Patrick Pranke, “On saints and wizards: Ideals of human perfection and power in contemporary Burmese Buddhism.”

Robert H. Sharf, “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience.”

Later developments

The four lineages I’ve described above originated independently, and around the same time.

Later in the 1900s, several other meditation methods were invented within Asian Theravada.

One of these, due to Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (1906-1993), has had some influence in the West. He developed his meditation method based on the Anapanasati Sutta (rejecting the Satipatthana Suttas as vague and muddled) and extensive personal experimentation.

Buddhadasa was a classic Protestant Buddhist modernizer, emphasizing rationality, universalism, scriptural authority, and meditation, eliminating ritual and supernatural beliefs. He actually dissociated himself from Buddhism altogether, preaching “No Religion”: the idea that the mystical core of all religions is the same, and found in meditation. This idea is common in Consensus Buddhism now.

Two methods seem to have had no influence on the West as yet. They are the quasi-tantric methods of the Dhammakaya movement, and the idiosyncratic teaching of Sunlun Sayadaw. These are quite different from any of the others.

Theravada, apparently, remains open to major innovations in meditation technique.


Gil Fronsdal, “Theravada Spirituality in the West.”

Robert H. Sharf, “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience.”

Suchira Payulpitack, Buddhadasa’s movement : an analysis of its origins, development, and social impact.

Brooke Schedneck, “Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and Modern Buddhism” and “Meditation Techniques of the Masters: Ajahn Buddhadasa Bhikkhu.”