Filed in Vipassana, History

Meditation en Masse

How colonialism sparked the global Vipassana movementErik Braun

Article Preview

To access this entire article and all other member-supported
content, join Tricycle as a Supporting or Sustaining Member

These days many assume that Buddhism and meditation go hand in hand—sometimes they are even considered to be one and the same. But even counting Theravadins, progenitors of the massively popular insight meditation (Vipassana) movement, relatively few Buddhists historically have ever understood meditation to be essential. On the contrary, instead of meditating, the majority of Theravadins and dedicated Buddhists of other traditions, including monks and nuns, have focused on cultivating moral behavior, preserving the Buddha’s teachings (dharma), and acquiring the good karma that comes from generous giving. To be sure, such folks have recognized the critical role meditation plays in awakening—in the Theravada view, you cannot become enlightened without such practice—but they have not doubted that one can live a worthwhile and authentic Buddhist life without meditating. Aiming not toward awakening but toward a good rebirth, many Theravadins have even argued that meditation is inappropriate in our degenerate age, except perhaps for a rare few living in the isolation of jungles or mountain caves. Where, then, did this now pervasive idea come from that meditation lies at the heart of Buddhist life?

This question brings us to Burma just over a century ago. Prior to this time, no trend toward widespread meditation had developed anywhere. It is true that Thai forest masters, above all Ajaan Mun (1870–1949) and revivalist figures in Sri Lanka such as Dharmapala (1864–1933), played an important part in the establishment of insight practice and sounded the call for lay meditation. But they did not spark any broad-based movements. One must look instead to Burma to account for the ascendance of meditation to a popular practice—specifically, that of insight meditation. The Vipassana view understood meditation as the logical and even necessary application of a Buddhist perspective to one’s life, whether lay or monastic. The rise of this practice, however, was not strictly an indigenous development. It came into being specifically through colonial influence. (In fact, no current tradition of insight practice can reliably trace its history back further than the late 19th or early 20th century.) Though now a global movement, insight practice had its start in a moment of interaction between a Western empire and an Eastern dynasty. Indeed, one could go so far as to pinpoint its origins to a particular day: November 28, 1885, when the British Imperial Army conquered the Buddhist kingdom of Burma.

The foreign soldiers who took control of the Burmese capital of Mandalay on that fateful day did not just destroy a kingdom but also the world as the Burmese knew it. To the Burmese way of thinking, the last king of Burma, like the kings before him, sat at the axis of a cosmos that rotated around the throne in Mandalay. Residing at the still point of the world, Thibaw, who ruled from 1878 to 1885, had as his defining responsibility the protection of Buddhism. Days after the British takeover, Burmese subjects watched as their king, surrounded by foreign soldiers brandishing rifles, was transported in a lowly oxcart from the royal palace (which became an officer’s club for drinking and socializing) to the steamship that would carry him into exile. Yet the trauma of this event and the sweeping societal changes that followed would ultimately lead to the proliferation of insight meditation worldwide.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.

Become a Supporting Member

$35*

*With Autorenew

  • You Get
  • Tricycle | The Magazine - a one-year subscription to premier Buddhist quarterly
  • Tricycle Retreats - a new online video teaching every every week by a contemporary Buddhist teacher
  • Tricycle | The Digital Edition - web based edition of the magazine
  • The Wisdom Collection - nearly two decades of teachings by the world's most compelling teachers, from the pages of Tricycle
  • Tricycle Gallery - the best in Buddhist art to download and share with friends
  • Tricycle Book Club - online discussions with leading Buddhist authors
  • Tricycle Discussions - teacher-led explorations of dharma in daily life
  • The Tricycle Blog - our diary of the global Buddhist movement
  • Daily Dharma - heart advice delivered direct to your inbox
  • The Tricycle Newsletter - the latest news, teachings, events, and more, every Monday

Become a Supporting Member

Become a Sustaining Member

$40*

*With Autorenew

  • You Get
  • Tricycle | The Magazine - a one-year subscription to premier Buddhist quarterly
  • Tricycle Retreats - a new online video teaching every every week by a contemporary Buddhist teacher
  • Tricycle | The Digital Edition - web based edition of the magazine
  • The Wisdom Collection - nearly two decades of teachings by the world's most compelling teachers, from the pages of Tricycle
  • Tricycle Gallery - the best in Buddhist art to download and share with friends
  • Tricycle Book Club - online discussions with leading Buddhist authors
  • Tricycle Discussions - teacher-led explorations of dharma in daily life
  • The Tricycle Blog - our diary of the global Buddhist movement
  • Daily Dharma - heart advice delivered direct to your inbox
  • The Tricycle Newsletter - the latest news, teachings, events, and more, every Monday

Become a Sustaining Member