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Before the 20th century, meditation in the Theravada Buddhist communities of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia was practiced almost exclusively by monastics. For various reasons—historical, social, political, and spiritual— Vipassana, Insight meditation, began to be shared with and encouraged in the lay population. Monks who were particularly effective in sharing the Buddha’s wisdom teachings (known as the dharma) grew in popularity and Buddhism in many forms spread to the West.

Western spiritual seekers traveled to study and meditate in monasteries and retreat centers in India and in Southeast Asia. When they returned home to the West, some shared what they had learned, set up sitting groups in homes and churches that grew into meditation centers like Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock Meditation Center in the U.S., and Gaia House in England. Today these centers offer full schedules of regular classes and residential retreats.

Other schools of Buddhism -- such as Zen, Soka Gakkai, Tibetan, and Shambala -- were also well-received in the West. Each school shares a common reverence for the wisdom of the Buddha and the dharma. But each school may focus on different aspects of the teachings and methods of practice. These many schools reflect a diversity of the Buddha’s teachings, the way they developed over the centuries, and each culture’s unique expression of this spiritual tradition.

Today, Insight Meditation provides a comprehensive and interdependent system of deep practice and exploration, as prescribed by the Buddha.

The practice of Insight Meditation is directly informed by the Pali Canon, the record of the original teachings of early Buddhism. These texts were transmitted orally for the first few hundred years after the Buddha’s death and then recorded in the Pali language, a language specifically created to preserve the Buddha’s teachings that scholars believe is closely related to the actual language spoken by the Buddha. Outside of monasteries, the Pali Canon is studied by advanced students, scholars, and teachers.

Many teachers in the West give dharma talks inspired by their understanding of the Buddha’s teachings, sharing their own experiences to illustrate how the dharma shows up in all of our lives if only we are paying attention. Each teacher offers a unique perspective on the teachings and their benefits. Various focuses may include the heart-based practices of loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity, as well as wisdom teachings on how to bring an end to personal and collective suffering.  Teachers continue to find ways to add to ever-evolving conversation through direct teaching, online offerings, and books.

As the number of trained teachers and sanghas increased, the Buddhist Insight Network was formed in 2010 as a non-profit organization to offer connection and support between them.

The Insight community in the West is actively engaged in social and environmental concerns. Recognizing the predominantly white background of the first generation of teachers, a concerted effort has been made to train teachers that are more representative of the diversity in our world. With this diversity comes a richer understanding of the teachings, how they apply to modern life, and more versatile ways of sharing the teachings to each community’s specific concerns and challenges.

We at the Buddhist Insight Network encourage you to visit a sangha near you to find out more. Regardless of experience, all are welcome!

For more information about the history of Insight Meditation in the West: 

The Birth of Insight, by Eric Braun
Specific to the Theravada tradition in Burma, the development of lay meditation, and how it seeded and grew in the West. 2013

How the Swans Came to the Lake, by Rick Fields
A comprehensive exploration of the history of all forms of Buddhism, but limited in recent history since it was written in the 1980s.

A Brief History of Insight Meditation

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