Buddhism A–Z
What is Vipassana (Insight Meditation) in Buddhism?
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Vipassana, or Insight Meditation, is a practice that leads to a clear, direct understanding of the nature of physical and mental phenomena. Put simply, vipassana is seeing things as they really are.

The different meditation techniques of Buddhism are often said to fall into two categories: either mindfulness or concentration meditation (samatha), or awareness or insight meditation (vipassana). Mindfulness or concentration brings the mind to a state of calm tranquility. Then, in Insight Meditation, that calm mind is focused on seeing the true nature of reality, leading to insight or wisdom.

Vipassana (in Sanskrit, vipashyana) is most associated with Theravada Buddhism, which is the dominant school of Buddhism in most of Southeast Asia – Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand.

The Satipatthana Sutta

Vipassana is said to be based on the Satipatthana Sutta of the Pali Canon (Majjhima Nikaya 10). This is the Buddha’s discourse on the foundations of mindfulness, and it contains the most detailed instructions for meditation in the early scriptures. The sutta explains how to cultivate the powers of mindfulness, which the Buddha said is the path to end suffering and attain nirvana.

The first foundation of mindfulness is mindfulness of the body. A new practitioner will be instructed to focus on the breath. As the powers of mindfulness grow, eventually, the practitioner will focus on other aspects of the body and then on to the other foundations – feelings, mind or consciousness, and mental objects. Over time the process becomes more and more subtle, and the practitioner identifies and releases many kinds of illusions and barriers.

The Vipassana Movement

Although it has roots in early Buddhism, today’s Vipassana meditation is part of a movement that began in the late 19th century in Burma, or what is now Myanmar. For centuries the King of Burma was the head and protector of Buddhism in Burma. After the British military took control of Burma and deposed the King in 1885, the Burmese feared for the future of Buddhism. A prominent monk, Ledi Sayadaw (“venerable monk from Ledi,” 1846-1943), decided that preserving the teachings required giving them to as many people as possible, including laypeople. 

Before, advanced teachings and instruction in meditation were only available to ordained monks. Indeed, according to some scholars, by the 19th century, meditation was not always practiced, even by monks. Ledi Sayadaw published manuals in the Burmese language on Buddhist doctrine and meditation, and he taught anyone who wished to learn to meditate. Ledi Sayadaw’s efforts became a movement that eventually spread far beyond Burma. 

Another prominent monk of Burma, Mingun Sayadaw (1868–1955), became the first teacher to hold group meditation for lay people. Mahasi Sayadaw (1904–1982), a student of Mingun, established meditation centers all over Burma as well as in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Thailand. At the same time, people came from all over the world to practice at his primary center in Rangoon. 

The Vipassana Movement Spreads

U Ba Khin (1889-1971) was the first Accountant General of the independent nation of Burma. He also was a master teacher of Vipassana. Among his students was S.N. Goenka, who established meditation centers around the world. His centers are supported by donations, so instruction is free. He designed a ten-day retreat that today is taught in 94 countries. S.N. Goenka has been called “the man who taught the world to meditate.”

 In the early 20th century, Theravada meditation also was going through a revival in Thailand. The Thai Forest Buddhism master Ajahn Chah (1918-1992) was renowned for his simple and direct style of teaching. Many Westerners worked with him, including Jack Kornfield, an American who also studied for a time with Mahasi Sayadaw. In 1975 Kornfield, Sharon Salzburg, and Joseph Goldstein co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. IMS now has branches throughout the U.S. and elsewhere – England, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Ecuador, Spain, South Africa, Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Uganda, and Canada. Kornfield was also one of the founders of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, a major Insight practice center in northern California.

Vipassana is best learned directly from a teacher. But there are many good books on the practice, including The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S. N. Goenka by William Hart and Vipassana Meditation: Mindfulness and Lovingkindness by Jack Kornfield.

Related Reading

Vipassana meditation.

How to Practice Vipassana (Insight) Meditation

Step-by-step instructions on how to practice Vipassana Meditation ­— the foundation of all Buddhist meditations — from the famed master Sayadaw U Pandita.

What is Vipashyana?

Vipashyana as defined by Reginald A. Ray, an American Buddhist academic and teacher of Tibetan Buddhism.

Buddhism A–Z

Explore essential Buddhist terms, concepts, and traditions.