Fear and distress reign. Although less reported, some developments bring peace and happiness to people’s lives. One such development is the spread of Gautama the Buddha’s ancient teaching of compassion and wisdom in the world today. The Buddha is believed to have lived from around 563 BCE to 483 BCE in India.
Mindfulness meditation, which is inspired by the teachings of the Buddha, helps many people reduce stress and improve their well-being. However, mindfulness as commonly taught only provides a limited technical approach, removed from other integral aspects of the Buddha’s teaching, especially ethical conduct and wisdom.
A more comprehensive approach in the Buddha’s teaching is Vipassana or Insight meditation. It is intimately related to the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha (suffering, the origin of suffering, the end of suffering, the path to end suffering) – the Noble Eightfold Path. The Path constitutes three aspects: Concentration (Right Effort, Right Attention, Right Concentration), Ethical Conduct (Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood) and Wisdom (Right Understanding, Right Thought).
The Buddha’s teaching and Vipassana disappeared from India after its demise in 5 BCE due to internal strife, resurgence of Hindu Brahmanism, and Islamic invasion. Fortunately, the Buddha’s teaching has been preserved, with difficulty, in neighboring countries. Teaching was first devoted to writing in Sri Lanka in 1 BCE and in Burma, Vipassana was maintained in an unbroken line from teacher to student.
Today, many teachers from various traditions, mostly monks, teach Vipassana meditation in Asian Buddhist countries as well as in the West. Perhaps the most widely followed among them is the lay teacher, SN Goenka (respectfully called Goenkaji).
Satya Narayan Goenka was born in Burma (now Myanmar) to a conservative Hindu family of Indian descent. A successful but harassed businessman, he became a student of the great Burmese meditation teacher Sayagi U Ba Khin in 1956. Goenka moved to India in 1969, and there he relied on the work of his teacher, producing an intensive ten-day course that is now being replicated across the world. The Vipassana Research Institute which Goenka established in Mumbai, India in 1985, also plays a vital role in exploring the theoretical aspects of the Buddha’s teaching in relation to the practice of meditation.
Currently, Vipassana meditation as presented by SN Goenka is taught in some 362 locations in 225 permanent centers and 137 non-centers in over 94 countries. There are 166 permanent centers in Asia, 31 in the Americas, 18 in Europe, 9 in Oceania and one in Africa. Hundreds of assistant teachers, course directors and other staff are engaged in conducting the courses, which are offered continuously at most permanent centers. Classes for teenagers and children are also available and a few classes have been conducted in prisons in India and the United States.
Classes involve a grueling regimen – a strict ethical code of conduct, complete silence, a 4am wake-up call, nearly 12 hours of meditation a day, and no evening meals. Yet they are highly sought after. Students come back again and again and even the most difficult 20, 30, 45 day courses often have waiting lists. Hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life have successfully completed a 10 day course and as demand grows more centers are being established. The lack of fulfillment in modern life, the timelessness and universal relevance of the Buddha’s teaching, and Goenka’s unique strengths as a wise and caring teacher and as a visionary and skilled organizer are the reasons for this phenomenal worldwide expansion of Vipassana.
Goenka insists that he does not teach a sectarian dogma or ideology and that his intention, like that of the Buddha, is not the conversion of the world to “Buddhism“, but to free people from suffering. Goenka’s teaching is entirely profane. There are no rites or rituals, only the chanting of Buddha discourses invoking blessings for all. The Buddha encouraged his disciples to continue to support their former spiritual masters. Goenka also points out that although students are required to set aside other spiritual practices during a course, after completing a course they are free to practice whatever they wish.
A scholar with extensive knowledge of Buddhist scriptures in the original Pali language, as well as a poet, Goenka distilled the vast teaching of the Buddha and presented it in a lucid, succinct and engaging manner. He explained the Buddha’s teaching as the Dhamma, the law of nature which is universally applicable to all people, regardless of ethno-religious, socio-economic background or time period. He presented the Dhamma as the law of cause and effect as explained in the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha constituting the realities of suffering; the impermanence and appearance of suffering; its termination; and the path of liberation, the Noble Eightfold Path.
Following the Buddha, Goenka guided students to understand the Dhamma not just on a theoretical level, but as experiential learning gained through meditation. Students learn to pay attention to the breath and other sensations in their body, not to react to changing body-mind phenomena, and to develop equanimity or poise of mind in the process. The practice of meditation is not presented as an end in itself, but as a path to freeing the mind from its conditioned patterns of craving, aversion and self-attachment. The insight gained in one’s own mind through the practice of Vipassana should help one face the vicissitudes of life with detachment, inner peace and freedom.
Sense of organization
The success of Goenka’s mission to spread the Buddha Dhamma owes much to his devotion to the Buddha’s teaching as well as his business experience and innovative organizational wisdom.
A unique aspect of the Goenka courses is the use of communication technology. While much of modern communication technology today is used to spread lies and conflict, Goenka’s example shows that technology can be used positively to spread wisdom and harmony instead. Goenka’s courses are reproduced worldwide through reproductions of his original video and audio recordings.
The same teaching – meditation instructions and philosophical discourses – is given in all centers according to the exact same course schedule. The effective use of technology in conjunction with the well-designed course structure has enabled Goenka to be the teacher for all of his courses worldwide. The uniformity and authority thus created leave no room for varying interpretations by assistant teachers conducting classes in different locations.
Another unique and exemplary characteristic of the Goenka approach concerns finance. All courses are conducted at no cost or cost to students and all teaching, course management, cooking and other work (with some exceptions) is also done by volunteers without any payment in return. The considerable sums of money needed to establish centers and run courses all come from voluntary donations from students who have completed their courses.
The necessary manpower also comes from students who have taken courses and want to help others to take courses as well. While this kind of generosity is unprecedented in the exploitative market economy, it is a testament to the success of Goenka’s teaching and the practical application of the Buddha’s teaching. The Buddha Dhamma imparted by Goenka touches students on a deep level, generating compassion, generosity and selflessness. This inspires them to donate money and services so that the Dhamma continues to spread, benefiting more and more people.
Satya Narayan Goenka died on September 29, 2013. Elaichi Devi Goenka (Mataji), his wife and partner in Dhamma mission, also died on January 5, 2016. Yet, through his recordings, Goenkaji continues to teach hundreds sites around the world every day. As he repeatedly chants the blessing of the Buddha Bhavatu Sabba Mangalam (May all beings be happy), the darkness of ignorance, greed and hatred diminishes, spreading the light of compassion, generosity and wisdom around the world.
(The writer, scholar, and practitioner has taught at Yale, Brandeis, Mount Holyoke (where she was tenured), Georgetown, U.S. and other universities, and colleges in the U.S. and abroad)