by Alan Bassal and Victor von der Heyde, June 2017
Insight Meditation (IM) is a term that can have two distinct meanings. In one meaning it is a modern form of Buddhism, with practices on ethics, meditations and ways of looking at and understanding experience shaped by the teachings of the Buddha. In the other meaning it is simply a range of meditation practices. In both cases the meditation practices are based on suttas (discourses) in the Pali Canon (one of the earlier records of what the Buddha was regarded as having taught). The sutta that has had the most prominence in Insight Meditation is the Satipatthana sutta.
The terms "Insight Meditation" and "Vipassana" were used nearly interchangeably for many years. "Vipassana" has been translated as "seeing into" or "insight" or "seeing deeply".
An overview of the roots of Insight Meditation as a form of Buddhism can be found in the Wikipedia article Vipassana movement. This article gives a good account of the roots in South East Asia but mostly giving prominence to American teachers and institutions compared to teachers and institutions in other Western countries.
Over the years, from the 1970s to the present, what has been taught by Insight Meditation teachers and in Insight Meditation Centres has broadened. Influences have included Zen, Advaita Vedanta, Western psychology, social and environmental concerns and to some extent Tibetan Buddhism. One landmark book by an Insight Meditation teacher which showed the way that other Buddhist traditions were being embraced was Joseph Goldstein's One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism (2003).
Despite this broadening, some lay teachers in the IM community identify as Theravada teachers (Theravada is a branch of Buddhism that uses the Buddha's teaching preserved in the Pāli Canon as its doctrinal core. It first developed in Sri Lanka and spread to the rest of Southeast Asia), while more identify as IM teachers and see IM as a separate school or tradition, albeit with Theravada roots(1). While the Insight Meditation movement has primarily lay teachers, there are some centres or groups (Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre BMIMC and the Perth Insight Meditation Group PIMG in Australia, see below) which have a mixture of lay and monastic teachers.
Compared to other forms of Buddhism, Insight Meditation has few obvious rituals and most often no chanting, devotional activities nor merit-making attitudes. IM organisations tend to develop with principles of egalitarianism, gender inclusiveness and transparency.
The three most prominent IM centres in the West are IMS, the Insight Meditation Society centre in Massachusetts, US; Spirit Rock Meditation Center near San Francisco in California, US; and Gaia House in the UK.
Insight Meditation as a meditation practice is found in forms of Buddhism other than Theravada, such as the style of Zen taught by Thich Nhat Hanh. Elements of IM, and in particular elements of mindfulness, are also used in corporate and military settings, in types of psychotherapy, and in structured stress reduction programs, notably the MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Insight Meditation in Australia
Two prominent figures in the early development of Insight Meditation in Australia were Ilse Lederman (nee Kussel, 1923 - 1997, later Ayya Khemma) and Phra Khantipalo. Ilse Lederman organised the first ten day retreats in Queensland in the mid-1970s and brought overseas teachers to lead those retreats. She became a founder of Wat Buddha Dhamma (WBD), just north of Sydney with Phra Khantipalo in 1978. She later took robes, became known as Ayya Khemma, wrote a number well-received books on practice, including Being Nobody, Going Nowhere: Meditations on the Buddhist Path, and taught worldwide. In her later years she was based at Buddha Haus in Munich.
Phra Khantipalo (1932 - ) led one of the earliest or the earliest IM retreat in Northern NSW in the mid 1970s. He is a Pali scholar, has written numerous articles on Buddhism, became the founding abbot of Wat Buddha Dhamma, later disrobed and used a variation of his birth name Lawrence Khantipalo Mills and then still later re-ordained in the Vietnamese Mahayana tradition under the name Mihn Ah.
Ilse Lederman and Phra Khantipalo were central to the foundation of Wat Buddha Dhamma. The Wat was in the bush surrounded by Dharug National Park, less than two hours’ drive north of Sydney, and it became a thriving Insight Meditation related practice community. While it was formally a Wat (a Buddhist temple), it embraced western values and approaches very different to the Theravada norm. This was not to last.
There were two other community developments related to Insight Meditation in the mid 1970s and early 1980s.
One was in Northern NSW and involved the building of the Forest Meditation Centre (FMC) in The Channon. This meditation centre was built without electricity, largely by people on two communities: Bodhi Farm and Dhammananda. At the time Subhana Barzaghi and Radha Nicholson were living in Bodhi Farm and Carol Perry (and later Ellen Davison) were on Dhammananda. Each of these people later become IM teachers. The FMC land was part of the Dhammanada community property. It is a very basic facility but it was used regularly for retreats for twenty years from 1976, most often led by Christopher Titmuss, until access and risk management issues put a damper on activities. It is still used on occasion. The retreats in that twenty year period were mostly organised by people from the two communities.
The other development was the formation of a group in the Sydney region in the 1980s connected to the Mahasi style of practice (originating from Mahasi Sayadaw a Burmese Theravada Buddhist monk). This group included, among others, Grahame White, Lynne Bousfield, Tara MacLachlan (later Frances) and Patrick Kearney, each of whom later became IM teachers. It organised many retreats, bringing a variety of overseas teachers including Joseph Goldstein, Steven Smith, Michelle McDonald and monks from the Mahasi Centre in Burma/Myanmar. The group became the Buddha Sasana Association (BSA). In 1988, the BSA bought land at Medlow Bath in the Blue Mountains and built a meditation centre which is now the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre (BMIMC). Over the years, the BSA organised both shorter and longer retreats, including regular retreats of one to two months. This centre remains aligned to the Mahasi style of practice. There is an online history of its early years.
The overseas IM teacher who has most often come to Australia to teach is Christopher Titmuss. He first came in 1976 and he has come most years since then. He teaches on the NSW North Coast and has been an influential teacher in Australia.
Australian teachers began leading retreats in the 1990s. The two Australian teachers who have offered most retreats since then are Subhana Barzaghi and Patrick Kearney. Most current teachers were asked or authorised to teach either by monastics (in the case of the BMIMC teachers) or by long-standing lay retreat teachers most notably Subhana Barzaghi.
Different groups emerged around the country to organise retreats. On the west coast Sanath and Kanthi de Tissera, Ray and Sky Dawson and others started organising retreats in the early 1990s and formed the Perth Insight Meditation Group, a Mahasi oriented group. Sky went on to become an Insight Meditation teacher in the US.
DharmaCloud in Brisbane, convened by Victor von der Heyde, started organising retreats in 1997, both in South East Queensland and in NSW. These were the first retreats with Subhana Barzaghi as the primary teacher. DharmaCloud also started the first Australia-wide Insight Meditation website, www.dharma.org.au, which went online in 2002.
Kuan Yin Meditation Centre in Lismore ran retreats from 2001. Tallowwood Sangha in Bellingen from 2004, Anna Markey and later the Coast and City Sangha in South Australia, also organised retreats from 2004, and the Melbourne Insight Meditation Group started running retreats from 2009.
In some cases students organised retreats for specific teachers without the existence of a formal group or organisational structure.
Prior to 2004, many retreats not held at BMIMC (which has limited space) were large, with between 50 and 80 participants. Since then, with more retreats on offer and more Australian teachers, the retreat sizes have become smaller, giving more time for teacher-student contact.
Along with an increase in the number of silent meditation retreats on offer in the 2000s, there was an expansion of types of residential IM events: dharma yatras (silent walks), dharma gatherings, Insight Dialogue retreats, dharma facilitator programs, and Stillness in Action retreats (led by Bobbi Allan and others, focusing on responses to social and environmental circumstances). In Sydney the formation of an organisation to offer retreats or other programs was prompted by a sudden shift in circumstances ‘described below’.
Formation and Development of Sydney Insight Meditators (SIM)
There was an Insight Meditation group in Sydney from the year 2000 onward. It was Bluegum Sangha (the western meaning of the word sangha is ‘community’ ) and had been started by Subhana Barzaghi and Victor von der Heyde with the support of Annie Ferguson and Paul Aroney. The group met at Annie and Paul's house in Castlecrag. It moved later to Margit and Paul Frischknecht's house in Middle Cove, then to Wendy Cox's house in Chatswood. As the group grew, it moved to John Barter's Well Awareness Centre in North Sydney.
Much earlier, Wat Buddha Dhamma (WBD), mentioned above, had been established as a generalist dharma centre – a combination of a monastery, retreat centre, and village – set up under Theravadin auspices. It ran on increasingly unusual monastic lines until around 1992. In 1994 it re-defined itself as a lay retreat centre which also offered hermitage facilities for monastics on private retreat. For years the retreat centre operated with great success, despite tight finances. It was well-run and patronised, pluralistic, western and feminist in its management and ethos. It wasn’t specifically an Insight centre, or a secular one, although it had those qualities. It was supported by many people in what is now seen as the Insight Meditation community. Sydney’s Insight teachers and a variety of international teachers taught there for over a decade. There were retreat cabins, where people did supported solitary retreats, and the first Australian dharma gathering, a large Insight Meditation event, was held there in late 2003.
In February 2005 the owners of the property made a major change, converting WBD into an orthodox Thai Theravadin monastery. This collided with the values and orientation of the western dharma teachers and lay practitioners who had been actively involved for many years. There were community meetings to see what could be done to retain some of the open character of the Wat, and there were approaches to the owners. A dozen lay teachers, all members of what was then the Insight Teacher Circle of Australia (ITCA), published an open letter saying that they could no longer teach at WBD, given the new restrictions. As it turned out, there was no place for them as teachers in what became an orthodox monastery.
In response to this, a group of now ex-WBD people and Bluegum people (some were both) had meetings to talk about setting up an association to organise retreats, invite both local and overseas teachers to lead retreats, and help support the broad Sydney IM sangha. These meetings led to the founding of Sydney Insight Meditators (SIM). There's a list of SIM founders at the end of this article.
The Buddhist Library, established in the 1990s, was an important inner-urban centre for western and some ethnic Buddhists where meditation groups met and workshops were held. Many of the early western dharma teachers had been teaching there and had contributed articles to the Buddhist Library’s newsletter, Dharma Vision. In late 2005 the Buddhist Library in Sydney shifted to a more commercial and less democratic, community-oriented model. The majority of the western teachers found the change unacceptable, and left. This gave SIM an additional role, which had fortunately been envisaged in the constitution: to support non-residential activities, such as introductory courses, workshops and weekly sitting groups.
Other sitting groups did emerge in the late 2000s with SIM support. First there was Golden Wattle Sangha in Paddington (and later in Bondi Junction), convened in the early years by Hilary Denholm, Peter Hughes and Kaye Gartner. Then there was Beaches Sangha in Oxford Falls, organised largely by Lenorë Lambert and Betsy Faen. More recently there have been other groups that have come under the SIM umbrella.
In terms of teachers, many people have taken teaching roles in Sydney sanghas. Subhana Barzaghi was the primary teacher of Bluegum in the earlier years. In recent years, Winton Higgins has been the most frequent teacher for the Sydney groups.
The circumstances that led to the formation of SIM brought a particular character to the association. There was recognition that there needed to be a clean break with monastic organisational culture. SIM adopted principles of gender inclusiveness, democratic values, tolerance and a pluralistic lay orientation. SIM deliberately avoided tying itself to any particular teacher. It acts as an umbrella organisation supporting lay Insight communities in and around Sydney. There are representatives of these communities on the SIM committee.
Apart from regularly organising a range of retreats with different styles of practice, SIM has brought overseas teachers Stephen and Martine Batchelor to Australia, as well as Jason Siff and Linda Modaro. SIM also offers a variety of workshops and introductory courses each year.
Many people have contributed to the ongoing success of SIM and the sanghas in the Sydney region. SIM is run solely by volunteers, and these volunteers have shown enormous dedication over the years.
Founding members of SIM
Lena Bruselid, Wendy Cox, Rena Czaplinska-Archer, Leona Dawson, Hilary Denholm, Paul and Margrit Frischknecht, Victor von der Heyde, Winton Higgins, Peter Hughes, Ben Triefus, Camilla Wilkins.