S.N. Goenka. Emissary of Insight. A Review of a Biography of a Vipassana (Insight Meditation) teacher.

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.

www.christophertitmuss.net

S.N. Goenka. Emissary of Insight

Daniel M. Stuart

Shambhala Publications, USA November 2020.

£16.99

ISBN 978-1-3-61180-818-6-52695

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  • The book by Daniel Stuart indeed captures the many complexities about Goenka’s life and work in a uniquely engaging manner.

    I’ve only recently begun my engagement with Buddhist meditation and my retreat experience is only with a few Goenka retreats in India. But, there are a few things worth noting in this context:

    One needs to distinguish between (a) the 10-day silent meditation course of the Goenka organisation, (b) Goenkaji as an individual, and, (c) the Goenka organisation itself. The shortcomings of the Goenka organisation may affect people in a different manner than the introductory course does.

    In my personal experience, the introductory course turned out to be much better than I’d initially expected. But, I’m open to the possibility that others may have very different experiences in the 10-day introductory course. But, it is important to remember that the course is not compulsory for people, so, if they don’t like it they need not return for more courses.

    In my experience at the Goenka retreats, I’ve seen some elderly people using chairs and in some cases, even young people (in early 20s) using back support. This happened at a retreat which had almost all participants who were Indians (who typically have sat cross legged in their off-the cushion lives too).

    In a silent retreat, there are four occasions where the teacher may need to speak: (a) while giving meditation instructions, (b) while giving dhamma talks, (c) during student interviews, (d) other occasions for conversations with students (e.g. on day 10, the Metta day on a Goenka retreat). The assistant teachers still do the talking on the last two occasions listed here. So, it is not that the assistant teachers never get to express their views. E.g. in personal interviews, the advice I got was slightly different depending on the assistant teachers (not just their different meditative experiences but also their different life-experiences and slightly different worldviews).

    As far as giving meditation instructions goes, when the courses are run in languages other than Hindi or English (this includes various other Indian languages e.g. Bengali, Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil etc but also foreign languages such as Spanish ot French), the recorded instructions aren’t recorded in Goenka’s voice, so, technically, someone else is giving instructions. One might ask: why isn’t someone else allowed to give instructions impromptu? In this context, an interesting article published in the June 2012 issue of Vipassana Newsletter titled “Thirty years of the Assistant Teacher program: recording the teachings” describes how, in the beginning, there were no recordings and many assistant teachers initially taught impromptu.

    There is one more aspect of giving meditation instruction which people who listen to only translations of Goenka’s recordings don’t understand: in the early 1980s, the voice of Goenka and the quality of instructions given, especially in Hindi was extremely effective. I heard these instructions for the first time only a short while ago but I heard the hindi instructions. The language used in English instructions is fairly ordinary english which still captures the basic instruction, but the words chosen in hindi instructions are archaic and the way they are spoken are simply brilliant. Some of these words I had only heard in some (hindu) religious context when I was a kid (I’ve been an atheist for a very long time after that) and the words and the instructions could cause some genuinely deep sense of seriousness in me. In short, the instructions given were a performance. In an online app of the Goenka organisation, there are recordings of instructions given by other people, even in Hindi: but even I, who has no association with Goenka himself, find his instructions to be much more effective purely because of sheer performance.

    This illustrates an important point which many westerners miss about the introductory Goenka course: it was originally designed for mostly non-Buddhist (typically hindu / jain) Indian public of the late 1960s and early 1970s, an era with limited globalisation – it is important to keep this context in mind. This shows up in all his evening discourses as well: they aren’t consistent with my worldview – I always replace “sankharas of previous lives” by “genes”; but since I know the context well, I don’t get bothered by his worldview.

    Similarly, while I’m also uncomfortable with the requirement that, in order to take longer courses in this tradition, one should be only practising vipassana meditation in Goenka tradition; I think people in other Vipassana traditions (e.g. Sayadaw lineage) often forget that Goenka organisation has most of its centres in India and “other techniques” often refers to the so many meditation techniques, particularly in the context of so many Hindu traditions, prevalent in India. The other Indian traditions (e.g. chakras, nadis, kundalini yoga, kriya, shakti, divine light etc) have very different interpretations of the sensations and this often leads people to follow different instructions e.g. forgetting to maintain equanimity (as in other traditions, these experiences often carry special / divine interpretations).

    In summary, Goenka organisation is far from perfect, but while judging it, one has to see it in the right context and not easily surrender to prejudices towards something which is culturally so different. E.g. one needs to remember that if a society has many people with very limited critical thinking skills and superstitious beliefs and the education system doesn’t fix this, Vipassana meditation also won’t fix it. So, people come to Vipassana meditation, become excellent meditators, become lovely people who care for all of humanity (in fact all of living things); but they do not necessarily become careful thinkers who question every unexamined view.

    I do hope that other researchers will explore all this and add to Stuart’s brilliant work about this.

  • Thank you so much for widening my understanding of how the “Goinka”path fits the wider goal -less goal of liberation. A lifetime money struggle limited my experiences to many Vipassana courses and little else , and I have been severe on myself . Your comments make me congratulate myself as I had taken the desperate pain and emotional turmoil I endured as standard beginners fare to even creep a millimeter on a billion mile trip (adaption of a Goinka analogy).Now I see how all 61 years of desperate pain in myriad forms are the same as the pain that somehow turbo boosts progress during Vipassana practice when surrendered to.

    • Hi Nicholas!

      Mind you, I am now 60, born a German in this life…

      Desperate pain?
      Emotional turmoil?
      Crisis? Wot crisis?

      Ah, the whole lot of it….

      The aphorism that suits me best:

      Walk when you walk –
      run when you run –
      but don’t wobble.

  • It is wonderful that you give time and space and thought to another tradition in the meditation sphere. This to me feels so appreciable!

    What’s about superiority? When there is only discovery?

    After two years of intensive vipassana retreats in the east I participated in
    two of the 10days Goenka retreats. My conclusion: it all fits “in the picture”.
    However, this is quite easily spoken not being a beginner in this kind of meditation at that point in time: intense sitting, no moving, pain left right and centre – and possibly no individual advise given. That can be hard, certainly.

    Besides, I like reading about the lives of such persons with such a large scope of
    experiences (and possibly non-experiences, too): read about John Coleman for instance.

    Wonderful. Wonderful.

  • Wonderful post.

    I don’t have a major problem with Goenka method, it’s a little culty, but seemingly harmless enough, although the emphasis on only sitting can be unsafe for some (blood clots and DVTs) and not allowing people to use a chair when they feel they need to or simply wish to is authoritarian. This could be changed easily enough, incorporate walking meditation, and have chairs available. But they won’t do that because that’s not the Goenka way.

    It’s also a bit annoying when they try to portray their way as coming straight from the Buddha or “pure” dharma. Bhikkhu Analayo has a new book “Superiority Concept in Buddhist Traditions”.

    A Goenka retreat can be difficult. Some new people may sign up for a Goenka vipassana meditation retreat and think it will be peaceful, restful, and bliss. If they haven’t sat cross-legged, like most Westerners, they may be in for a shock when on day 2, they’re sitting for two hours in a group sit. Then a five minute break, and back to sitting for an hour. Rinse & repeat. If you ask for a chair on day 3, because of severe leg pain, you’re likely to be denied and told to meditate on the pain. If you try to skip out on meditation, they will come for you. Nice people though. And it’s great they put on these retreats for dana. I think of the Goenka retreats as like a marathon and some people like to run marathons.

    If people know what they are signing up for, I think they’re more likely to be successful. I had meditated for years before doing my first Goenka retreat. I asked for a chair beforehand (I recommend this), and it was still a hard slog. I was counting down the days until the end. On other vipassana retreats (like yours) I lose track of the days and enjoy the retreat.

    • Just to note that I’ve sat 2 Goenka retreats in the UK, and chairs were made available when requested. Some people spent the entire retreat in a chair, while others moved to a chair from a cushion later in each day.


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