Sydney’s insight meditation sanghas in the big picture


~ by Winton Higgins •


Three lay sanghas meet regularly to practise insight meditation in the Buddha’s dispensation, in various localities around Sydney – Beaches Sangha (the northern beaches), Bluegum Sangha (lower north shore), and Golden Wattle Sangha (eastern suburbs). All of them feature the Buddhist word for a community of spiritual practitioners – sangha – in their names. They are all members of an umbrella organisation called Sydney Insight Meditators (SIM). There are four sanghas mainly because people want to belong to a group that meets regularly close to where they live. In time still others may form.

Each sangha has its own location and character, but they all belong to the same distinctive tradition – let’s call it the modern insight tradition – in today’s Buddhist world, which itself has for millennia consisted of many diverse strands and lineages. The modern insight tradition has spawned likeminded groups around the western world, especially in the English-speaking countries, and the Sydney insight sanghas enjoy lively links in particular with their counterparts in other Australian regional centres. The insight community website provides a point of contact for these groups and a comprehensive list of their upcoming retreats and workshops.

But can we say more about how these sanghas and the tradition they represent fit into the wider pattern? For instance, are they – as is sometimes assumed – Theravadin groups?

A widespread assumption has it that all organised manifestations of the dharma (the Buddha’s teaching) can be sorted into three overarching divisions: Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. If this were true, then our modern insight sanghas would indeed fit into the Theravada. After all, we have inherited insight (vipassana) meditation in the immediate past from the Theravadin monastic tradition. And like the latter, we seek our guidance and inspiration in the first instance from the Pali canon, one of the two first accounts of the Buddha’s life and teaching. For this reason, many practitioners in the modern insight tradition tend to stay in touch with major teachings coming out of the Theravada.

However, as I’ll indicate, these days we need to let go of the initial assumption that Buddhism (like Julius Caesar’s Gaul) is still divided into three parts – Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. And for this reason we shouldn’t infer that the Pali canon and its interpretation, as well as insight (vipassana) meditation itself, somehow represent proprietary lines that are eternally Theravadin.

We need to look for a more helpful location for the modern insight tradition by going back to first principles, starting from Stephen Batchelor’s idea in his book Buddhism without beliefs: a contemporary guide to awakening (London: Bloomsbury, 1998), that all those who seek to practise the Buddha’s dharma participate in (and contribute to) a special broad-church culture of awakening.


Tradition living and dead

As the present-day philosopher Alasdair McIntyre has suggested in After virtue: a study in moral theory (London: Duckworth, 1985), every practice worthy of the name is held and informed by a tradition, which preserves experience to date and guarantees coherence and effectiveness in how we practise now. A living tradition (as opposed to a dead one) is an intergenerational conversation in which the participants know how the conversation began – the original questions the founders addressed – and how it has developed since then. How both questions and answers have been honed over time.

A living tradition does not resist change in either practice or doctrine – rather, it informs development and guarantees its coherence, and means we don’t constantly have to muddle around and re-invent the wheel as we evolve and adapt. To have a future, we first have to have an accessible past.

A dead tradition, on the other hand, is one that does resist change, because the original questions have been lost, together with memory of how present practice and doctrine actually evolved. In this case, adherents are stuck endlessly reproducing what they find they’ve inherited; they don’t have the requisite background knowledge or incentive needed to move forward coherently.

Since I began teaching the dharma I’ve been highly conscious of working in a living tradition, and I suspect almost all modern insight teachers feel the same way, even if they wouldn’t put it quite the same way as I do.


Which categorisation is that?

There are at least three ways of dividing and specifying the dharma (or Buddhist) world. As we’ve seen, the best known of these is the Theravada-Mahayana-Vajrayana distinction. Today it may be the least useful division of them all as well. In Buddhism without beliefs, Stephen Batchelor gives us a more useful division, one between ‘dharma practice’ and ‘religious Buddhism’.

The third and perhaps most promising approach is to look at four developmental periods in the wider tradition’s 2500-year-old history – developmental periods that suggest certain ideal types in today’s Buddhist world, and thereby a new analytical perspective – albeit one that might usefully go hand in hand with the religious Buddhism/dharma practice distinction. (An ‘ideal type’ is a pure model, not usually found in any actually existing case – which will be more complex – but nonetheless a useful device in sorting main trends out.) In his article ‘Global Buddhism: developmental periods, regional histories, and a new analytical perspective’, (Journal of Global Buddhism, 2001, no.2, pp.1-44) Martin Baumann suggested this approach, and in a nutshell here it is:

  1. Canonical Buddhism, from the life of the Buddha, c 480-400 BCE, up to the reign of the Indian emperor Ashoka (273-232 BCE). (I would suggest, however, that the canonical period proper ended with the Buddha’s death);
  2. Traditional or historical Buddhism, a very long period from Ashoka to the mid- or late-19th century CE;
  3. Modern or revival Buddhism from the mid/late-19th century to the late 20th century; and
  4. Global Buddhism (alternatively ‘postmodern’ Buddhism) of the last three decades. Secular Buddhism exemplifies developments in this period.

Note that these stages are not mutually exclusive; often the different types of Buddhism overlap in time, especially at the present time. In particular, traditional Buddhism is still alive and well in many parts of Asia, to say nothing of Sydney’s western suburbs where it is supported by diasporic Asian communities.

And many currents in today’s global Buddhism – not least the modern insight tradition – have an enormous appetite for looking afresh at the canonical period, and the Pali canon itself, just like modern Buddhism did. All three Sydney sanghas have regular sutta study nights, which provide solid introductions to the canonical period. This was, of course, the inspirational, pioneering phase, a time of experimentation, trial and error, and of tentative and makeshift institutional arrangements. Every living Buddhist tradition today needs to ground itself in this phase.


The three post-canonical types of Buddhism

But let’s now have a brief look at the other periods and ideal types:

Traditional (or historical) Buddhism

After the Buddha’s death, his tradition gradually took on a religious mode of expression and institutionalisation. He did his utmost just before his death to cut off this development, by refusing to pass on charismatic authority to any successor, and by refusing to formulate any fundamental tenets. The integrity and diligence of individual practice was the only basis on which his tradition could thrive, he said. The adjective ‘traditional’ attached to this division, I suggest, invokes the distinction (referred to above) between a living and a dead tradition.

Religification made Buddhism a religion like any other – one moulded to the social-integrative and politically conservative role of institutionalised religion, rather than to the teaching of the founder. Religious Buddhism involved the following developments, which are comparable to the development of all the major institutionalised religions:

  • Privileged institutions (in this case monastic orders) sedimented, and claimed to exclusively embody the tradition, practice and doctrine;
  • The institutions gradually became more dogmatic, hierarchical, patriarchal and socially conservative (because their elites formed alliances with economic and socio-political elites, above all temporal rulers);
  • These institutions attracted and lived off a laity to which they taught certitudes and consolations, not least in the inevitable life transitions (birth, marriage, death) and other life crises, while their own functionaries enjoyed high prestige and social security;
  • The living tradition’s focus on open investigation and practice fell away in favour of rituals and a usually pre-Buddhist or folkloric belief system, especially for the laity. The four ennobling truths – the linchpin of the Buddha’s teaching – were re-rendered as metaphysical beliefs, no longer tasks and inquiry questions to inform practice. Lay observance came to turn on a rigid belief in rebirth, and the gaining of merit in this life to secure a fortunate rebirth in the next. Apart from basic ethics (above all, donating to temples and monasteries to gain merit), lay people were not encouraged to practise dharma in a multi-faceted way, especially not meditation;
  • The Buddha became a transcendental privileged religious object like a god – to be worshipped, not understood in the context of his own human life, and not to be emulated through a rounded spiritual practice.

Hence in traditional Buddhism, full awakening and liberation became an ever-vanishing horizon, something that the lay faithful could only approach over many lifetimes. (In the Buddha’s time it often occurred within months – and sometimes just minutes – of first contact with the teaching!)

In this ‘traditional’ phase, different sects arose, and with them the Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. So this tripartite distinction properly belongs to ‘traditional’ or religious Buddhism. The Mahayana represented a genuine (at times awe-inspiring) re-flowering of the tradition, albeit in poetic and mythic directions that might have caused some bemusement for the Buddha himself if he’d come back to life.

But those who came to claim the mantle of his most faithful disciples – the Theravada – had an equally problematic account of the original teachings, one now turned into an orthodoxy based largely on the Abhidhamma and Buddhaghosa’s 5th century CE commentary, The path of purification.

All these institutionalised forms of Buddhism ensconced themselves within the social fabric and the folkways of many widespread Asian communities.

Modern or revival Buddhism

This form of Buddhism began in Sri Lanka (but set a trend followed in Burma, Thailand and Japan) as a response to European colonialism and its companion, missionary Christianity. Especially Protestant missionaries set out to convert the populace from Buddhism, and a movement began to thwart this project by reforming Buddhism, bringing it back to its original spirit to some extent, and challenging the monastics’ monopoly on serious spiritual practice.

Ironically, this movement emulated the Protestants in putting great emphasis on lay practice, piety and charitable works; criticising the pretensions of the monastics; and discarding the overlay of superstition and folk belief that had accumulated around popular religious observance. Modern Buddhism had a rationalistic temper, but under its auspices, lay people gained access to the suttas (the Buddha’s own teachings) in written form for the first time.

One commentator (Richard Gombrich & Gananath Obeyesekere, in Buddhism transformed: religion and change in Sri Lanka [Princeton Univ Press, 1988]) has actually dubbed this kind of Buddhism ‘Protestant Buddhism’. At least among the new Sri Lankan middle class, it was highly effective. In the process, the heritage of the Pali canon was revived and placed in the hands of lay people.

Certain aspects of traditional Buddhism remained, however. The monastic-lay relationship remained important, and the idea of dharma transmission through teacher lineages still held sway. As with the culture of modernity as a whole, modern Buddhism espoused the idea of rational progress through fidelity to a ‘ one right way’, in relationship to which all alternatives were ‘wrong’.

The beginning of significant Buddhist practice among westerners in the last three decades of the 20th century was largely inspired by this modern Buddhism. Many of the great revivalist late-19th and early/mid-20th century meditation masters of Burma, Thailand and Japan exemplify this stage in the tradition’s development, and their students are now (appropriately disrobed) the most senior native-born westerners in teaching positions in western countries. The revival of insight (vipassana) practice has its origins in this distinctively modern development.

Modern Buddhism arrived in the west at the same time (especially the 1970s) as a number of radical social and political movements which themselves expressed the modern spirit – feminism, democratic ways of associating, environmentalism and pacifism. These important moral causes have tended to mould so-called ‘western’ Buddhism.

Global Buddhism

In recent times, Buddhism has established itself on all continents of the planet, including Africa and Latin America. Asian traditions, which had for many centuries developed in isolation from each other, have now made contact with each other, thanks to air travel and new information and communication technologies. And often these Asian traditions meet each other in western countries. In other words, the myriad forms of Buddhism have become de-territorialised and thrown into the mixer together. Diversity is the order of the day, and ‘one right ways’ are out. In many western cities like Sydney, virtually all of the more established and once-national schools and traditions have a foothold.

Martin Baumann – a German academic at the time working at the University of Hanover – tells a little anecdote that gives the flavour of global Buddhism. A friend of his, a fellow Hanoverian, took up dharma practice and went to live in a Vietnamese Buddhist monastery in Hanover as a novice monk. In March 2000 this ordinary German sent an email in English to 70 friends around the world which said: ‘Hallo everybody, I’ll be absent for the next 2 weeks (leaving Germany for Australia to become a bhikshu/monk(ey)).’

To take this senior ordination you need a number of senior monastics to be present at the ceremony. The order he wanted to join was inaugurating a new temple in Perth, and senior monastics of the order were coming to it from different parts around the world – enough for our friend’s purposes. So it was just a matter of getting a taxi to the airport, and off we go! No need to set foot in Vietnam. And note the self-ironic humour in the reference to ‘monk(ey)’ – unthinkable in any previous era. But that’s the postmodern condition, not taking grand narratives seriously. Even one’s own. Incidentally, it’s also the dharmic condition.

The increasing numbers of westerners who are becoming involved in dharma practice are creating organisations and ways of doing things that virtually lack precedent in the 2,500-year-old dharma tradition, such as all-lay, democratic associations that insist on feminist principles in spreading influence, leadership positions and senior teaching roles.

Global Buddhism thus exhibits marked creativity and hybridity. But also a strong canonical streak, with close study of the Pali canon a major feature in many quarters, especially for those practising the now widespread insight meditation. This keeps the living tradition of dharma practice going, and stakes out the middle way between a stultifying dead tradition on the one hand, and an incoherent, eclectic and trendy mishmash on the other.


Back to the Sydney insight sanghas

The Sydney sanghas exemplify this global-Buddhist trend. Beyond that, they exhibit markedly more affinity with the canonical and modern forms of Buddhism than with ‘traditional’ or religious Buddhism. Yet outside Buddhist circles, most people’s conception of Buddhism is based on the latter, which is the most eye-catching and most easily captured in standard points of comparison with other religions (beliefs and rituals in the main.) For this reason, some western dharma practitioners today eschew the ‘Buddhist’ label. After all, ‘Buddhism’ – like ‘Asia’ – is a problematic European coinage from the colonial era; both terms lack historical equivalents in Asian languages, and still attract a lot of European colonial projections.

The revolution in communications – quick, affordable travel, a flowering of serious dharma publishing, and digital information technology – mean that today’s dharma practitioners have many sources of teaching and inspiration, which in turn engenders diversity and experimentation in dharma practice. The old Australian curse, ‘the tyranny of distance’, has taken quite a hiding.

So long as we stick to the middle way, and thus avoid incoherent eclecticism, we can make good use of these resources coming to us from near and far. Among other things, we can wean ourselves off the lineage model of vertical master-disciple ‘dharma transmission’ in favour of receptivity to many horizontal inputs. This, too, is a feature of the modern Sydney insight ‘scene’. Diversity is the new orthodoxy!

Yet there is something oddly familiar about our essential situation. The Buddha, too, lived in a time of rapid urbanisation, social upheaval, and intellectual creativity and diversity. As a spiritual teacher he clearly thrived in this environment – all the more reason for us to resonate to his pioneering work, to see ourselves as the heirs of his investigative, liberating project.


• This talk was given to NAME OF Sangha, Sydney, in April 2009. Winton Higgins has been a Buddhist practitioner since 1987 and a teacher of insight meditation since 1995. He has contributed to the development of a secular Buddhism internationally, and is a senior teacher for Sydney Insight Meditators and Secular Buddhism in Aotearoa New Zealand.


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