NORTH FORK — Nestled in the serenity of the Sierra National Forest outside North Fork, the amazing Burmese architecture of the Vipassana Pagoda stands out — even amid the natural splendor of the Central Sierras.
Situated on 109 forested acres, the North Fork Vipassana Meditation Center — which will quietly mark its 30th anniversary next year — hosts students from all over the country and world, who come seeking inner peace and enlightenment through silence and meditation.
The Vipassana meditation tradition actually started around 2,600 years ago in India and then spread to Burma. Vipassana teachers say the practice is directly descended from meditation techniques taught by the Buddha.
Today’s Vipassana meditation techniques were brought back to India from Burma (now Myanmar) in 1969 by S.N.Goenka, who started the modern Vipassana tradition taught today in eleven meditation centers in the U.S. and 130 worldwide, including the center in North Fork.
The North Fork Vipassana Center opened its doors in 1991 and John Beary has been teaching there since 2001. “Vipassana is not a religion, a cult or of any specific denomination,” he said. “The Pagoda is not a temple. It’s where the students go to meditate.”
Students stay for up to ten days at the meditation center, where they are instructed on meditation techniques, such as controlled breathing exercises for the first three days.
Beginning on the fourth day students focus on body sensations — all done in complete silence. “Students only talk to instructors when necessary,” Beary said. “They also listen to the recorded Vipassana teachings of S.N Goenka.”
The course starts on a Wednesday and ends on the second Sunday after that. Course are offered for adults of all age and abilities and even teens and younger children.
Reservations to take part in the sessions can be made online; the wait for an open spot can be as long as three to six months.
Beary explains: “One hundred and fifteen students per class come to the North Fork Center trying to rid themselves of the impurities of the mind through Vipassana meditation. Fifteen volunteer workers and only two paid employees provide service to those meditating. The volunteers qualify partly by sitting through a ten-day course themselves.”
“After the initial ten day course,” Beary added, “students are then able to take courses as short as three days or as long as a 30, 45, or 60 days.”
Male and female meditators have segregated housing and meals with no communication [talking or eye contact] between them for the duration of the course, concentrating inwardly without outside influences.
Courses are taught in multiple languages with an upcoming Punjabi [Sikh] speaking Vipassana course scheduled to be taught in North Fork.
In Sanskrit, Vipassana means “special-seeing” and is sometimes translated as “insight.” The courses at the North Fork center are free although they do accept donations.
Brian McNamara has being doing Vipassana meditation for 20 years. “I was very unhappy until I began meditating. But I still have a long way to go and wisdom to gain,” he said.
McNamara’s longest course at the center was 45 days.
Vipassana is different from so-called “mindfulness” meditation, which focuses on awareness, or to transcendental meditation, which uses a mantra.
Instead, Vipassana teaches a blanket command of non-reaction — “no matter the pain as you sit, or the fact that your hands and legs fall asleep and that your brain is crying for release,” says one practitioner. “By doing so, over 10 days, you train yourself to stop reacting to the vicissitudes of life.”
One long-time local Vipassana meditator, Josh Freeman, sells Vipassana literature at the North Fork Studio on the Sunday the course ends.
Vipassana Centers have been operating in the U.S. for nearly four decades — and the North Fork meditation center will mark its 30-year anniversary in 2020. S.N Goenka died 2013 but his message still resonates — via video lectures — amid the quiet splendor of the Sierras.