I work, read, write, cook, watch movies, eat, sleep, carry on with my daily life. But deep inside, a restless voice keeps bothering me – What do I do with this life? Is this life just for material success? Earn money, own house-car-jewelry, marry and have kids, run after name, fame, career, social position? Then why do we feel sorrow? Why does a millionaire wallow in misery, a woman wrapped in diamonds silently weeps, a man successful in the worldly sense renounces everything to seek happiness? What is happiness? Is it something elusive, imaginary, unattainable?
Vivek, my computer engineer, comes the other day at my frantic call. He sets my computer right and announces, ‘Ma’am, I won’t be available for the next ten days.’
‘Why? What if there’s a problem again?’ I sound helpless.
‘But I’ll be out of town Ma’am. Won’t be reachable even on phone.’
‘But where are you going?’
‘For a Vipassana course.’
‘Vi-pasana? Whats that?’
Vivek quickly types an URL. Dhamma.org. ‘Everything is here. You can register for the course online.’
Vivek leaves. I browse through the pages. I gather that it’s not Vi-pasana but VIPASSANA, pronounced as VI-PASHYANA (Vi- a special way, Passana – to see), where PASSANA is derived from the Pali word PASSA which mean ‘seeing’. A special way to see? See what? I become curious. I decide to learn more about VIPASSANA.
Three years pass by. Life goes on as usual – I work, read, write, cook, watch movies, eat, sleep, carry on with my daily routine. And deep inside, the restless voice keeps bothering me: What do I do with this life?
Then suddenly one day I leave behind my work, family, friends, my books-theatres-films – and register myself for a 10 day Vipassana course. On reaching the center at Igatpuri, I’m pleasantly surprised to know that the entire 10-day stay is free! I look at the long queue and wonder how they manage to provide free boarding and lodging for so many meditation students. I would soon know that it is the grateful donation or dana of past students who benefitted from the course, that keeps this vast system running. When my turn comes, I dutifully hand over my mobile, cash and other-worldly possessions and set forth to live like a monk on humble alms (living on donation is alms, right?). The silent journey in quest of my SELF begins.
Those ten days were the most valuable experiences of my life. How busy we are without a moment to spend with our own self! Questions, doubts, worries, sorrows constantly crowd our mind but we keep avoiding them. We indulge in detailed research on Rinky’s husband’s character, endlessly debate on whether Mrs. Shah is older than Mr. Shah while remaining totally ignorant about our closest companion – our SELF. This course made me go through that tough task of facing myself, seeing my INNER SELF in its true light and accepting it as it is, with all the warts and moles and blemishes. I had read ‘Aatmaanam biddhi’ (Know Thyself); who knew I would learn to practice it someday! By and by, I learn to see reality in its true perspective and not as I want it to be. I learn to deal with the chaos around me. I get to know the two main causes of suffering – Craving and Aversion. On one hand is this chain of cravings – want this, want that, want more, still more; on the other hand is the sea of aversions – don’t want this, don’t want that, this is rubbish, that is disgusting. Caught between these two emotions, how i suffered in the past. Finally I find a rational, scientific tool to free myself from sufferings.
Vipassana appealed to me for three distinct reasons.
Firstly, there is no need to leave my faith and follow Buddhism or chant Buddhist mantras to practice Vipassana which Buddha discovered 2500 years ago. Buddha taught us ‘Dhamma’ (Law of Nature), not Buddhism which was created by his followers much later. In fact, Buddhism goes directly against his teachings because he always opposed any sort of division, especially organized religions and sects. Doesn’t Buddhism create a divide between Buddhists and Non Buddhists? Whereas ‘Dhamma’ or ‘Law of Nature’ applies to all living beings and can be universally practiced, even by a non-believer.
The second impressive thing about Vipassana is that it is a natural phenomenon that needs no complex physical effort. One has to just sit at rest and silently observe one’s own breath. Of course it’s not as easy as it sounds. Anybody with the slightest idea of meditation will know. That is why it is so important to stay secluded for ten days under the able guidance of teachers in order to learn this meditation technique.
The third and most important factor to me is that it does not support “blind faith”, rather encourages one to explore the teachings himself. So his faith or wisdom is not generated from something he has read (Gyanmaya panna) or from what he has heard from his parents or teachers (Shrutamaya panna) but based on his OWN experience (Bhavnamaya panna).
Currently, there are Vipassana centers in more than 100 countries including China, the United States, Europe, Japan, the Middle East and Thailand where Vipassana is taught without taking a single penny, maintaining the millennia-old non-commercial purity of the teaching. Jasmine, my fellow meditator at one of my courses, had done her first course in Washington DC and while on a research assignment in Delhi, had come for the second course to Igatpuri. Another meditator Magdalene from Austria had read a story about Vipassana and Igatpuri, checked them on the internet and seeing that they exist in real life, flew down to attend the course and seek answers.
Just as I had come to Vipassana with my restless quest: What do I do with this life? The deal was simple. All we had to risk were ten days of our life. We were free to leave the course if we didn’t like it, or reject it once back home. Fortunately, it worked for me and I was deeply influenced. And then? ‘He who hears His clarion call, rushes forth with boundless energy undaunted and fearless’ (যে শুনেছে কানে তাহার আহ্বানগীত ছুটেছে সে নির্ভীক পরাণে – a Tagore quote).
Today I see Life differently. I have a changed attitude, a new way of seeing the world. It is like wearing a pair of glasses. Everything was clouded before. I stumbled at every step, suffered from fear and lack of confidence, felt miserable and blamed others for my misery. After wearing the ‘glasses’, everything before me has become crystal clear – the road, the people, the pot-holes. Now I walk boldly, safely, confidently. Who says ‘happiness’ is elusive, imaginary, unattainable? We can find it here in this very life. We just need a pair of glasses. And then I bet we’ll keep singing – What a beautiful world!
Anjana Chattopadhyay is a freelance Translator, Journalist, and Social Worker. Runs her own NGO Metta Foundation. Has authored two books in Bengali. Member of Council of International Programs (CIPUSA), an international social workers’ organization. Loves to travel exploring new places, new people and new cultures. Presently residing in Kolkata.