It was at this time that Asoka came to know about the teachings of the Buddha and was instantly attracted. He began by studying the words of the Enlightened One. Then someone told him that knowledge of the texts was not enough to give an understanding of the real meaning of the teachings; that can come only through the development of insight, that is, vipassanā-bhāvanā, or Vipassana meditation.
Printing then was unknown but Asoka was determined to spread the Buddha’s teachings among his subjects. He gave orders to inscribe the core teachings in stone, where everyone could see. This happened little more than two centuries after the Buddha, before his original words had been altered in any way. That is why we see the pure teachings of the Buddha in Asoka’s rock inscriptions.
In ancient India there were two communities, the samaṇas and the brāhmaṇas. The Buddha tried to unite people of all sects in the practice of Dhamma. Similarly, Asoka made no distinction between samaṇas and brāhmaṇas. He gave donations to both and encouraged others to do the same.
In fact, with the practice of Vipassana, differences between the two communities began to fade and they lived together in harmony. Asoka’s reign saw no communal tension or fighting.
Asoka tried to interest all communities in Vipassana. Far from being the monopoly of any one group, he showed that Vipassana belongs to all. It is universal.
The Buddha sent forth his disciples, telling each to go in a different direction and offer his pure, non-sectarian teaching. The result was that the Dhamma began to spread far and wide through northern India, bringing happiness to many. People from every major system of belief came in contact with the Buddha’s teachings and changed for the better.
To bring people of all religious backgrounds to a righteous way of living, Asoka urged them to learn and develop in Vipassana. He appointed male and female teachers, both members of the Sangha and laypeople. All began to teach Vipassana throughout India. In modern times as well, my revered teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin taught Vipassana to followers of the Buddha in Myanmar and also to other people of many different backgrounds.
Asoka decided to establish cetiyas, or memorials to the Buddha, the length and breadth of his empire. Afterwards bhikkhus came to reside at these calm and inspiring sites, which were ideal places for the teaching of the Dhamma.
Out of compassion, Asoka saw that Vipassana was taught to prison inmates so that they might be transformed. In modern times as well, prison inmates in India, Myanmar, the United States and other countries have the opportunity to change their lives through Vipassana.
Asoka was instrumental in spreading the pure teachings of the Buddha as far afield as Iran, Iraq, Egypt and Europe, although in those countries the memory of the Dhamma faded. The story was different in some Asian countries such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos: there the Dhamma took root with Asoka’s help and flourishes still today.
Asoka had the military strength to conquer neighbouring countries and extend the frontiers of his empire. Instead he chose to expand the kingdom of Dhamma, so that people would live a good life. In doing so, he won the hearts of all.
With the passage of centuries, in some countries the teachings of the Buddha did not remain in the original, authentic form as sent by Asoka. But in Myanmar, people preserved the words of the Buddha and the technique of Vipassana meditation in their pristine purity from generation to generation. At least among a few, the theory and practice were handed on from teacher to pupil in their pure form as sent by Asoka.
In modern times the Venerable Ledi Sayadaw decided to revive the ancient tradition of lay teachers of the Dhamma. There was a common belief that 2,500 years after the time of the Buddha, there would be a resurgence of the Dhamma for another 2,500 years. The time was approaching for that resurgence, when the Buddha’s teachings could be expected to spread rapidly and widely. To prepare for this moment, Ledi Sayadaw trained Saya Thet Gyi and appointed him the first lay teacher of Dhamma. Saya Thet Gyi in turn taught Vipassana to lay people as well as some bhikkhus.
After Saya Thet Gyi, the next link in the chain of teachers was my own teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin. In him we have a glimpse of both the Buddha and Asoka. In his discourses he spoke at length about pariyatti. But in his courses, the focus was on the practice of Vipassana from morning to evening.
Dhammena na vanaṃ care
Anyone who ignores this injunction teaches not Dhamma but its opposite.
* Dhamma reasons why no fees are charged for Vipassana courses - including for boarding and lodging
* One-day Vipassana courses at Global Pagoda (for those who have completed a 10-day Vipassana course)