Satya Narayan Goenka (born so- Janurary, 1924 ) is the principal teacher of Vipassana, the practical quintessence of the Buddha’s Teaching. In ” Vipassana “, Satya Narayan Goenka found the way out of his miseries experienced in his early life. Born in Mandalay, Myanmar, in a business family of Indian origin, he became one of Myanmar’s ranking business leaders, with offices in many countries. By the age 30, he was elected president of the Yangon (formerly Rangoon) Chamber of Commerce and head of many social, educational and cultural organizations. Goenka had outstanding worldly success but not inner peace. Instead, stress brought on crippling migraine headaches, which the world’s best doctors were helpless to treat, except with addictive and debilitating drugs. Besides, Goenka said, he was a very short-tempered, egoistic, person making himself and others around him miserable.
It was at this point that Goenka met and was inspired by a unique personality in post-war Myanmar : ” Sayagyi U Ba Khin “, the first Accountant General of Independent Myanmar. U Ba Khin also taught ” Vipassana ” and worked to spread its practice in public life.
Thousands of Catholic priests, Buddhist monks and nuns, Jain ascetics, Hindu sanyasis come to Vipassana courses along with other religious leaders. Vipassana is the practical quintessence of all religions, to develop the experiential wisdom to live a happy,productive life. In the words of Sayagyi U Ba Khin, Vipassana offers results that are ” good, concrete, vivid, personal and immediate “.
In the year 1969, U Ba Khin authorized Goenka to go to India and teach Vipassana, as his representative. Since then, the Ganges of Dhamma again started flowing in the land of its origin. From India, Vipassana is spreading worldwide, including in the USA, Europe, Asia-Pacific, China, Russia, Latin America, East European countries and now Africa.
Since the year 1969, Goenkaji and his wife began conducting Vipassana courses. Mrs. Goenka, known fondly as ” Mataji – respected mother “, is also a Principal Teacher and a distinguished student of Sayagyi U Ba Khin. She has quietly supported and selflessly served in her husband’s mission of gratitude to their beloved teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin : how to serve more and more beings in benefiting from the liberating path of Vipassana.
After arriving in India, Goenka soon retired from his flourishing business and devoted his full time to teaching Vipassana. Besides being the gentle patriarch to a large joint family of his six sons and grandchildren, he is the benevolent guide of a growing, highly de-centralized and disciplined organization.
To meet the increasing demand, presently over 800 assistant teachers conduct courses on Goenka’s behalf, using recorded audio and video instructions, with the help of thousands of volunteers.
There is no fee for the teaching. Neither Goenkaji nor the assistant teachers get any financial or material gain from these courses.
Goenkaji elaborated in a talk at ‘ Dhamma Nasika ” in Nashik City, near Igatpuri, India, on 5th March, 2005 :
” Dhamma is invaluable. As soon as a fee is charged, it will become the Dhamma of the rich. Those who have money will try to gain peace by paying the highest price. But they cannot gain peace because when Dhamma becomes a commercial commodity, it fails to bring peace. No one should make the mistake, now or in the future, of turning a Vipassana centre into a commercial organization. “
A prolific writer and poet, Goenkaji wrote in English, Hindi and Rajasthani. He quotes the Buddha’s words :
” Those who have a strong feeling of gratitude, and a wish to serve others without expecting anything, are very rare people. “
With his over fifty years of dedicated Dhamma service, Goenkaji belongs to that very rare category.
In time, he trained more than 1300 assistant teachers and each year more than 120,000 people attend Goenkaji led Vipassana courses.
While Vipassana is firmly rooted in the true teachings of the Buddha, Goenkaji emphasizes that it is not a religion and involves no dogma, rites, rituals, and no conversion.
” The only conversion involved in Vipassana is from misery to happiness, from bondage to liberation “, he told an applauding audience at the World Peace Summit at the United Nations, New York, in the year 2000.
Goenkaji emphasizes that : ” The Buddha never taught a sectarian religion; he taught Dhamma .. The way to liberation.. Which is universal ” and presents his teachings as non-sectarian and open to people of all faiths or no faith.
” Liberation “, in this context, means freedom from impurities of mind and, as a result of the process of cultivating a pure mind, freedom from suffering.
Goenkaji calls Vipassana meditation an experiential scientific practice, through which one can observe the constantly changing nature of the mind and body at the deepest level, a profound understanding that leads to a truly happy and peaceful life.
As an indicator of the increasing universal acceptance of the Buddha’s scientific teachings, Goenkaji had been invited to lecture by institutions as diverse as the United Nations General Assembly, members of the Indian Parliament, Harvard Business Club, Dharma Drum Mountain Monastery ( of Ven. Sheng Yen) in Taiwan, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the Smithsonian Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology ( MIT ) and Silicon Valley Indian Professionals Association.
Goenkaji’s success in service comes from being an inspiring example and an ideal, and of practicing what he asks his students to practice. ” Develop purity in yourself if you wish to encourage others to follow the path of purity “, he told an annual meeting in Dhamma Giri, Igatpuri, on 1 st March, 1989 : ” Discover real peace and harmony within yourself, and naturally this overflow to benefit others. “
Goenkaji has been a tireless worker. In the year 2002, at the age of 78, he undertook a remarkable ” Dhamma tour ” of the West.
Accompanied by his wife IIlaichidevi Goenka, a few senior teachers and students, he travelled for 128 days through Europe and North America, joyfully sharing the priceless gift of Vipassana. The second leg of the tour was a 13,000-mile road journey in a motor caravan through the United States and Canada.
On the 62nd day of this Dhamma Odyssey, on 10lh June 2002, Goenkaji told a crowded gathering at Sonoma State University, Santa Rosa, CA:
” Throughout life, one encounters things that one does not like, and is separated from things one likes. The Buddha went to the root of this problem, and discovered the solution (of Vipassana) for liberation from all misery. He realized that we keep reacting to the pleasant and unpleasant sensations we feel on the body, with craving and aversion. And due to these mental impurities or habit patterns, we remain agitated and miserable. “
Goenkaji was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India in the year 2012 for social work.
Goenkaji vacated his physical body on 29th September 2013, and proceeded on his further journey to Higher Realms.
” My teacher said..’ No Ritual ‘ “
S.N. Goenkaji.. Teacher of ” Universal Meditation Technique .. Vipassana ” … a ten day meditation course drawn from the Buddha’s earliest teachings. Goenkaji taught this simple yet powerful technique of close attention to every sensation.
Norman Fischer is a poet and Zen priest who served as abbot of San Francisco Zen Center from the year 1995 to 2000. He is now a senior teacher at the center and the founding teacher of the everyday Zen Foundation and co-author of Benedict’s Dharma. Following are some excerpts from the interview conducted by Norman Fischer with Goenkaji.
Norman Fischer : ” Please tell us, how you became involved in practicing and teaching Buddhist meditation.”
S.N. Goenka : At first, I hesitated in getting into the Buddha’s teaching. I was born and raised in Burma in a very staunch, conservative Hindu family. We were told from a very young age that the Buddha was wonderful because he was an incarnation of Vishnu. But his teaching was not considered good for us.
However, in 1955.. At the age of 31 .. I started experiencing severe migraines and couldn’t get any help or relief. At that time, a very good friend.. I have always been very grateful to him… Said : “Go and take this ten-day meditation course.” I hesitated. “If I became a Buddhist, what would happen to me? I wouldn’t believe in a soul, I wouldn’t believe in God. Then I would go to hell. No, this was not for me.”
I hesitated for a few months, but then my friend pushed me again: ” Why don’t you go and see U Ba Khin ? ” As well as being a teacher of vipassana (insight meditation), U Ba Khin was a Householder, and in fact, a government official. When I went to see him, immediately felt that he was a saintly person.
The first thing I said was ” I have come for my migraine headaches. “
He said : ” No Goenka, I can’t help you. Go to a doctor “
Because of that response, I was very much drawn to him. You see, at the time I was a very popular person in my own community. I was president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as well as president or secretary of at least twenty social organizations, including hospitals and schools. Usually, a Guru feels great about having such a prominent person as a student. But instead he said : ” No, I won’t take you. ” He had no attachment to name or fame or gain.
He explained very lovingly,
” Look, what I teach is a path of high spirituality from India, but our country has lost it. Don’t devalue it. Don’t make use of this technique to treat some physical disease. This technique is to take you out of all misery, not just the misery of a migraine. “
His approach attracted me, but I was still doubtful. This was ” Buddhism “, after all.
Then he asked me a question : ” You are a leader of the Hindu community here in Burma. Does your Hindu religion have any objection to ‘ silla ( Pali : morality) ‘ ? “
No religion in the world would say that they are against morality. So I replied, ” No sir, I have no objection to ‘ silla ‘.” He continued : “How can you observe sila if you have no control over your mind? I will teach you control of the mind. I will teach you ‘ samadhi ‘.”
In Hindu scripture ‘ samadhi ‘, concentration, is regarded as a very high thing. The rishis, the great meditators, all do ‘ samadhi ‘. But we householders don’t know what samadhi is. We revere samadhi, but we don’t know what it is. If somebody wants then that is wonderful. ” No sir “, I replied, ” I have no objection to samadhi. ”
Then he said : ” Well, mere samadhi won’t do. It will control your mind, but deep inside the behaviour pattern is like a sleeping volcano. It will erupt again, and you will forget everything and you will break your sila. So I will teach you the purification from the deepest level of the mind, ‘ panna (Pali : wisdom) ‘. Do you have any objection to ‘ panna ‘ ? “
At the time, I was a teacher of the Bhagavad Gita. I’d been explaining, ‘ prajna (Sanskrit : wisdom) ‘, to people, but I never really knew it, I never practiced it. It was mere talk. Many times after giving a lecture on ‘ prajna ‘ I would come home and feel so sorry. Why had I spoken of all these things? I had no trace of liberation from craving, liberation from aversion. I had so much ego and yet I talked of prajna. So I said to U Ba Khin, ” If somebody teaches me ‘ panna ‘ I have no objection. ”
” Well ! Goenka ! ” he replied ” I will teach you only ‘ sila ‘, ‘ samadhi ‘ and ‘ panna ‘. Nothing else. Just accept that. If you accept that, then come. ”
So, I took the ten-day course and I found it good. The teachings of the Buddha were so complete, so pure.
Norman Fischer : ” In my Zen practice and in other forms of Buddhist practice, there is a lot of ritual, and also clergy and hierarchy. Do you feel there’s any benefit or advantage for Buddhism in ritual? “
Goenka : I don’t wish to condemn anybody but if my teacher had asked me to perform rites or rituals, I would have said good-bye.
My own Hindu tradition was full of rituals and ceremonies, so to start again with another set of rituals didn’t make sense. But, my teacher said :
“No ritual ! Buddha taught only ‘ sila ‘ , ‘ samadhi ‘, ‘ panna ‘. Nothing else. There is nothing to be added and nothing to be subtracted.”
As the Buddha said : “ Kevalaparipunnam “. ( Pali : “The whole technique is complete by itself. “)
Norman Fischer : ” Can you please tell us about your course of instruction in vipassana- the details of it, how it goes, how you teach people ?”
Goenka : Everyone who comes to the basic ten-day vipassana course must take five precepts, because morality is very important as a basis. New students, at least for those ten days, must observe these precepts very scrupulously. If one keeps on breaking, ‘ sila ‘, one cannot practice at all.
After the ten days are completed, students are their own masters. If they find it is good for them to continue with the precepts, then they can do so. Older students take eight precepts.
For the ‘ samadhi ‘ aspect of the program, we work with the respiration, the BREATH. We use the natural BREATH as it comes in and as it goes out, keeping attention to a limited area the entrance of the nostrils.
Then, from the fourth day onward one is trained to observe the sensations throughout the body-pleasant, unpleasant or neutral-and understand their basic nature. Every sensation has the same nature : arising, passing away, arising, and passing away.
Norman Fischer : ” You addressed the ‘ World Peace Summit ‘ at the United Nations. What is the relevance to world peace of a meditation technique, which seems like a very personal thing ? “
Goenka : We want peace in the entire human society, yet we don’t care whether there is peace in the mind of the individual. When we talk of human society, the human being matters most. And when we talk of peace, the mind matters most. So the mind of each individual matters most. Unless there is peace in the mind of the individual, how can there be peace in the society?
For me it is the only way, but other religions say that they have another way for people to find peace and harmony. Very good, go ahead.
What I am teaching is universal. Anybody can practice it, from any religion or tradition, and they will get the same result. We have people coming to vipassana courses from every religion in the world, and they all get the same result. I don’t tell them, ” Convert yourself from this religion to that religion. “
My teacher never asked me to convert to a religion. The only conversion is from misery to happiness.
Norman Fischer : ” The fact that there is no ritual makes it easier for people all over to join. “
Goenka : More than two thousand Christian priests and nuns have taken the meditation course. One Nun, a mother superior who was over 75 years old, told me, ” You are teaching Christianity in the name of Buddhism. I should have learned this technique fifty years ago “, because there was no technique in her background.
She had sermons on love and compassion for others, but they still left her asking how to actually practice love and compassion. With the vipassana technique you purify the mind at the root. Love comes naturally. You don’t have to make an effort to practice ‘ metta ‘ loving-kindness. It just comes.
Norman Fischer : ” So even though there is no conversion effort, others are nonetheless attracted to this practice? “
Goenka : People are attracted by the results of the practice that they see in others. When a person is angry, the influence of that anger makes everybody unhappy, including them-self. You are the first victim of your own anger. This realization is another thing that attracted me to the Buddha’s teaching.
In my early days, I believed that you lived a moral life in order not to disturb the peace and harmony of the society. In other words, as a Hindu I understood that one must live a life of morality to oblige society.
But when I took my first ten-day course, started to understand that I was not obliging anybody else, I was obliging myself. Because when I performed any unwholesome action, I couldn’t perform that action unless I had generated defilement in my mind. Every defilement, every unwholesome action, starts with an unwholesome mind.
As the Buddha said :
” Pubbe hanatu attanam, paccha hanati so pare ” .
” You first harm yourself and then you harm others. You can’t harm anybody without harming yourself. “
That was so revealing to me. Previously when I was angry, my mind was absorbed in thinking about the other person and the situation. My mind would just roll around in that without knowing that it is such thoughts that fuel the fire of anger. I had never been taught to observe myself.
When I started observing myself, I discovered anger, lots of burning. My whole body burned, my heart rate increased, tension increased. I thought, ” What I am doing? I am burning myself! “
Having practiced the meditation technique, now I know that when I live a life of ‘ sila ‘ I oblige myself first, not others. Others get obliged, which is good, but I am the first person to benefit. That is a wonderful difference in the Buddha’s teaching from any other teaching I know.
Norman Fischer: ” You have a good friendship with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Can you tell us how that developed, particularly since His Holiness’ tradition, with all its color and ritual, contrasts with your approach? ”
Goenka : In the first year, when I moved to India from Burma, there was a big public function put on by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s followers, who had become Buddhists.
They invited me to their annual celebration of the day that Dr. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism. There were some one and a half million people in attendance.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama was invited, along with me and the Japanese teacher Fuji Guruji. We were invited as chief guests, and each of us gave a speech. Mine was translated into Tibetan and His Holiness liked it so much that he said that he wanted to meet me and discuss things.
We started at nine o’clock the next morning and at two-thirty or three we were still talking-all about technique. He was very happy with my teaching.
But when I said : ” Quite a few people on the second day or third day see light “, he responded, ” No, no. That must be illusion. How can somebody see light in three days? It takes years to see light. “
I replied, ” Venerable sir, I saw light in my eyes. And so have many other people. I would not say it is an illusion. You better send a few of your lamas and let them experience it. If I am wrong, I will rectify it. I don’t teach them that they must see light. It is merely a sign, a milestone on a long path, not the final goal. “
So he sent three lamas to my next course in Sarnath. All three of them saw light, and they were so happy. When they went back and explained that to His Holiness, he was also happy. He said, ” Goenkaji, come here and give a course to my people. ” Then I wrote him back, ” When I give a course these are the rules. I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, but if your high lamas don’t agree to my rules, I cannot teach. ”
He sent a message back to me, ” Goenkaji, they will follow whatever you say for the full ten days. So don’t worry; they will follow your rules. ”
The course took place in the Tibetan library in Dharamsala, not far from where His Holiness was living. On the first day, when I told all the very top-ranking lamas my rules, they protested : ” But every day, we have rituals to perform, we have to chant so many recitations, we have to prostrate so many times. “
” Nothing doing “, I replied. ” For ten days, nothing doing. ” And they said, ” No, we can’t break our life-long vow.” So I sent word to the Dalai Lama, ” Sir, I can’t teach. Your people don’t agree. I’m sorry, I have to go. ”
And he sent word to the lamas through his private secretary,” You have to follow Goenkaji’s instructions, even if it means breaking your rules. Whatever he says, you must agree to do. ”
They all did it, and they got the same result. Rites or no rites, rituals or no rituals, the technique gives results.