This biography gives an outline of the life of S.N. Goenka, an international Vipassana (Insight Meditation) Teacher, who set up around 120 vipassana centres (page 117) worldwide.
To his everlasting credit, Goenka ensured that all his centres stayed 100% true to the Buddhist tradition of dana (a donation, a gift, the practice of generosity) for all participants in his courses. The staff also offer their services freely.
This approach enables anybody to attend a course knowing that they could donate at the end of the course if they wished to cover costs for the next retreat.
Buddhist monasteries have moved through 2500 years of wars, famines, plagues and floods. The monasteries will get through this global pandemic due to total trust in dana rather than a model of expensive weekly rates.
Written by Daniel M. Stuart, a US associate professor of religious studies, the biography explores the long life of Goenka until his death in 2013, aged 90, with modest references to an analysis of his teachings, his single minded approach to meditation, including the benefits and the limits.
S.N. Goenka, Emissary of Insight, a 330-page book, falls into two sections. The first section up to page 153 offers biographic details of Goenka’s life from his birth in a strict Hindu family in Mandalay, Myanmar in February 1924 until his demise. In the second section up to page 275, Daniel Stuart draws upon the Vipasyana Newsletter and other writings where Goenka referred to his life story and his views on issues. Remaining pages include notes, bibliography and index.
In the first sentence of his Preface, the author tells readers it is a “difficult task to write a historical and critical book about one’s own meditation teacher.” To his credit, he handles the task with integrity as he communicates his devotion to Goenka with critiques of some issues around Goenka, his questionable views and problematic issues within the organisation.
The book provides a worthwhile read for anyone who has attended a 10-day Goenka course or attended insight meditation retreats (vipassana) in the East or West. Hindus and Buddhists in Burma and India will benefit from reading about his life. Buddhist scholars will also find material in the book showing the development in the West of a major tradition of vipassana with its roots in Theravada Buddhism.
Goenka taught a strict form of vipassana with around 10 hours a day of 60-minute sitting meditations, no formal walking/standing/reclining posture, concentration on the tip of the nose (he called anapanasati – mindfulness of breathing) for the first three days. From the fourth to 10th day, meditators engaged in ‘sweeping’ meditation, namely moment to moment moving the attention slowly down through the body from head to toes to experience ‘subtle sensations.’ Goenka called this vipassana meditation.
In his general approach, he appeared to combine religious features of Hinduism and Buddhism, such as the Brahmin tradition of guru devotion (to his teacher Sayagi U Ba Khin of Myanmar and to Myanmar, the land of Goenka’s birth. See page 223) and devotion to his lineage of teachers. He engaged in Buddhist chanting, building of a large Buddhist pagoda (page 251) in Mumbai and frequent use of the language of ‘purity’— such as “pristine purity of the technique.” He also stressed a secular teaching on his courses, widely welcome among many of his students.
The Buddha only occasionally used the Brahmin language of ‘purity’ but in reference to ethics, views and vision. Purity confirms the absence of greed, aggression and other corruptions in the mind..
Prior to teaching his courses, Goenka proved himself to be a successful businessman in Myanmar and involved himself in Indian nationalistic politics. He had no peace of mind. Goenka had unresolved bursts of rage, which he inflicted at times upon his children (page 39). He suffered intense migraines. Doctors in the East nor West could resolve these migraines so he tried vipassana meditation with U Ba Khin, a Myanmar government minister, as well vipassana teacher.
The course changed Goenka’s life. He then engaged in the practice of Vipassana and study of the Buddha-Dharma, especially the discourses (suttas). It takes a bold step for an Indian to convert from orthodox Hinduism to Buddha-Dharma. Goenka made that step despite disapproval from some in his family. It is as if a person in a deeply Christian family converted to Islam, even though both faiths spring from the same Abraham tradition.
U Ba Khin encouraged Goenka to teach “without interfering …with religious faith.” Goenka’s teacher also authorised five Westerners (page 72, 99) to teach vipassana – Robert Hover, Ruth Denison, John Coleman, Jan Van Amersfoort and Leon Wright. In Myanmar and UK, Mother Sayama and U Chit Tin, her husband also taught courses. Instead of co-operation, all the appointed teachers went their different ways, withdrawing communication with each other.
Goenka took upon himself to be a kind of CEO or Guru figure of the U Ba Khin tradition. He dropped all reference to Mother Sayama, to whom he referred to for years with immense love in the final talk of every 10-day retreat. Goenka gave no explanation for the disconnection between the teachers.
Limits of the 10 Day Courses
The author refers to the key theme of ‘seeds’ (page 113) in Goenka’s teaching. Goenka ‘sowed the seeds’ of Dharma to large numbers of people. This approach to reach as many people as possible became Goenka’s mission. On all his courses, Goenka referred to his primary aim of spreading seeds of vipassana worldwide.
The author appreciates the mission but also points out, to his credit, the shadow of such a project. Stuart writes…this emphasis took off the table the possibility that those coming to learn meditation from Goenka might actually attain the stage of enlightenment that were the final goal of practice.”
To explore the expanse and variety of depths of the Dharma, Goenka students would need to look elsewhere to Dharma teachers and teachings in the Buddha Dharma if they viewed liberation more important than loyalty to Goenka and his rigid standpoint on a single technique. You can dig a hole in the same spot for years, but it does not mean it leads to gold.
Goenka strongly discouraged his students going to all other Dharma teachers. Some stayed devoted to their Guru and his teachings while others explored beyond the limitations of a single technique in their journey to a liberated life.
The Buddha once compared himself to a doctor who offers a diagnosis and the medicine applicable for that diagnosis. His teachings offered a vast range of ‘medicines’ addressing the numerous issues in the human experience.
Goenka sincerely believed that he represented the only pure tradition going back to the teachings of the Buddha. For example, Goenka refers to ‘two aspects of the truth.’ (page 187) – “conventional truth or truth as it appears and ultimate truth or the actual truth.”
He stated that “our bodies and all physical realities are made up of the tiniest sub-atomic particles…When one can experience directly experience such a collection of particles….by virtue of vipasyana, one has reached the stage of ultimate truth.” (page 198).
Pali word for a sub-atomic particle is kalapa. The Buddha never referred on a single occasion to sub-atomic particles in 10,000 discourses but the word does appear in Abhidhamma commentaries, written 1000 years after the Buddha. The Buddha revealed the truth of liberation as the goal rather than atomistic claims as ultimate truth.
Goenka never worked closely with his students to guide them to seeing and knowing an awakened and liberated way of life. He did not offer the guidance or could not. He regarded himself as a channel (page 121) to be a world teacher, reintroduce vipassana in India and plant Dharma seeds into the minds of people. To his credit, he achieved his mission.
In 60 years of teaching, Goenka “never felt his students were competent to teach the Dharma themselves.” This is a fierce critique from the author. To put it in another way, quantity (of students) took priority over quality (a liberating wisdom to share with others).
As a result, Goenka only permitted his video/audio talks on retreats while his assistant teachers answered basic meditation questions. Once teachers give Dharma talks, it paves the way for difference of view. Most Buddhist traditions welcome diversity of views, except those with sectarian tendencies.
The Sangha of the Buddha-Dharma for 2600 years embraces a wide range of teachers, teachings and approaches. This confirms the health of a decentralised approach.
It would be churlish to focus just on Goenka’s views. The 10-day courses have changed the lives of tens of thousands of people from every conceivable background. Students appreciate his recorded 10 evening Dharma talks, the precision of instructions, the dana principle and the dedicated staff who ensure the smooth running of the courses. Some raise concerns about the tight control over meditators, the pressure to sit still in meditation and harmful impact of such a style on vulnerable beginners.
You get exactly the same approach in all of his centres. For over 30 years, meditators have (sometimes affectionately) called Goenka’s approach McMeditation.
In the last paragraph of the biographical section, Daniel Stuart concludes with his personal view of Goenka. “He was a master par excellence.”
I sat four 10-day courses with Goenka in the Burmese Vihara
in Bodh Gaya and Varanasi in 1974,
plus one course with John Coleman and one course with Robert Hover in India.
I had been a monk for about four years at that time
including around three years
in a strict vipassana monastery in Thailand.
Thank you to Shambhala for kindly sending me a copy to review.
S.N. Goenka. Emissary of Insight
Daniel M. Stuart
Shambhala Publications, USA November 2020.
Support your local bookshop. Take the ISBN number with you.