VIPASSANA MEDITATION AS TAUGHT BY S.N. GOENKA
VIPASSANA MEDITATION AS TAUGHT BY S.N. GOENKA TIMELINE
1915: Ledi Sayadaw appointed Saya Thetgyi as a lay teacher and gave him the task of teaching the technique to the laity.
1937: U Ba Khin, then Accountant General of British Burma, took his first ten-day vipassana course with Saya Thetgyi.
1924: Goenka was born into a family of Indian descent in British Burma.
1952: U Ba Khin founded the International Meditation Center in Yangon and taught vipassana to the public as well as Westerners.
1955: Goenka attended his first ten-day course with U Ba Khin in Yangon.
1969: Goenka was authorized by U Ba Khin to teach vipassana in India.
1971: U Ba Khin passed away in Yangon, Burma.
1974: Goenka established the first vipassana center in India, now the headquarters of the movement, Dhamma Giri, Igatpuri, near Mumbai, India.
1979: Goenka’s first ten-day vipassana course outside India and Burma was held in Gaillon, France.
1981: The first vipassana centers in the West were established in Shelburne Massachusetts, U.S., and Blackheath, NSW, Australia.
1985: The Vipassana Research Insitute (VRI) was founded in Igatpuri, India.
1994: The largest vipassana course in prison was conducted by Goenka and his assistant teachers for over 1,000 inmates at the Tihar Prison, India.
2000 (January): Goenka spoke at the World Economic Forum on the subject of ‘Spirituality in Business’ in Davos, Switzerland.
2000 (August): Goenka took part in the World Millennium Peace Summit at the United Nations, New York.
2002: The first vipassana course in North American prisons was conducted at the Donaldson Correctional Facility in Alabama.
2008: Construction of the Global Vipassana Pagoda, near Mumbai, India was completed.
2012: Goenka received the Padma Bhushan award from the Indian government.
2012 (December): VRI Newsletter published a full list of the Center Teachers and Co-ordinator Area Teachers appointed by Goenka.
2013: Goenka passed away from natural causes in Mumbai, India.
Satya Narayan Goenka, commonly known as S. N. Goenka (1924-2013) was the most recent leader of the enormous international vipassana (insight) meditation movement, best known for their ten-day silent meditation retreats. Goenka, a businessman of Indian descent, was born in January 1924 in British Burma. In 1955 and in pursuit of finding a cure for his severe migraines, Goenka attended his first ten-day vipassana meditation course at the International Meditation Center (IMC) in Yangon, taught by the lay meditation teacher U Ba Khin (1899-1971). While U Ba Khin initially refused to teach Goenka solely for the purpose of curing his headaches, Goenka soon became one of U Ba Khin’s most successful students. Between 1964 and 1966 Goenka’s corporations and industries were taken over when the newly installed government of Myanmar (Burma) nationalised all the industries in the country (Goenka 2014:4-5). According to Goenka, the new circumstances gave him an opportunity to focus on his meditational practice under the guidance of his teacher U Ba Khin. After fourteen years of practice, U Ba Khin authorised Goenka as a vipassana teacher in 1969 and appointed him the task of returning vipassana to the land of its alleged origin, India. After ten years of teaching vipassana in India, Goenka embarked on a journey to fulfil his teacher’s vision of spreading vipassana meditation globally. For the next twelve years he regularly travelled to the western countries, teaching vipassana, establishing meditation centers, and training assistant teachers to conduct courses on his behalf.
Today, Goenka’s network is the largest global donor-funded vipassana organization, with over 160 official (and over 110 non-official) centers worldwide (“Dhamma” n.d.). The biggest centers are located in India, where Goenka had a significant influence inintroducing vipassana to a Hindu audience. In some countries vipassana courses are now conducted for “primary, secondary, and post-secondary students, prisoners, management trainees, police officers, bureaucrats, homeless people, and the visually impaired” (Goldberg 2014). Goenka’s global success is in part due to his ability to divorce the meditational practice of vipassana from its religious foundations in Theravada Buddhism. His interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings (dhamma) as “universal,” “non-sectarian,” “scientific,” and “rational” (Goldberg 2014), enables him to repackage a quintessentially Buddhist practice in ways that resonate with his modern audience. Accordingly, the organization’s website (“Dhamma” n.d.) introduces the practice as the following terms:
Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Gotama Buddha more than 2500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills, i.e., an Art Of Living. This non-sectarian technique aims for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation.
Vipassana is a way of self-transformation through self-observation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between mind and body, which can be experienced directly by disciplined attention to the physical sensations that form the life of the body, and that continuously interconnect and condition the life of the mind. It is this observation-based, self-exploratory journey to the common root of mind and body that dissolves mental impurity, resulting in a balanced mind full of love and compassion.
The scientific laws that operate one’s thoughts, feelings, judgements and sensations become clear. Through direct experience, the nature of how one grows or regresses, how one produces suffering or frees oneself from suffering is understood. Life becomes characterised by increased awareness, non-delusion, self-control and peace.
To understand the growth of vipassana meditation as taught by S.N. Goenka, it is important to locate it in a wider historical perspective. Up until the end of the nineteenth century, the practice of vipassana was restricted to ordained monks. The emergence of a lineage of teachers who were not necessarily ordained monks, and who taught vipassana to laity, women and foreigners represents a modern transformation common to Theravada countries (Gombrich 1983; Jordt 2007; Cook 2010). One of the most important figures who influenced this transformation is the famous Burmese monk, Ledi Sayadaw (1846-1923) (see Braun 2013a). Ledi Sayadaw pushed towards the popularization of vipassana and was one of the firsts to appoint lay meditation teachers. Goenka’s lineage of teachers is tracked back to Ledi Sayadaw’s student Saya Thetgyi, a renounced family holder, (1873-1945), who received Sayadaw’s permission to teach vipassana in 1915. Saya Thetgyi in turn passed the tradition to the Burmese government official, U Ba Khin (1899-1971) who taught many Burmese householders and international students during his lifetime, including Sayamagyi Daw Mya Thwin (known as Mother Sayamagyi), Ruth Deninson, John Coleman, Robert Hover, and S. N. Goenka (Rawlinson 1997:593).
The general consensus in the existing literature connects the rise of vipassana meditation as a laicised practice to the European colonialism of Southeast Asian countries that occurred at the end of the 19th century (Braun 2013a; Gombrich and Obeyesekere 1988; Sharf 1995). According to Sharf (1995:252), Theravada Buddhism during this period experienced a series of reforms, which emphasised values of individualism; rejection of the authority of clergy; a rational and “instrumental” approach to Buddhist teachings; the repudiation of the supernatural or magical aspects of Buddhism and the rejection of “empty” ritual; a sense of “universalism” accompanied by the insistence that Buddhism is a “philosophy” rather than “religion.” Thus, when Goenka’s claims of non-sectarianism are assessed against this historical framework, it becomes clear that his tradition is precisely following the same trend commonly referred to as “Buddhist modernism” (Bechert 1984, 1994) or “Protestant Buddhism” (Gombrich and Obeyesekere 1988). This “scientific” and “non-sectarian” representation of vipassana by meditation teachers such as Goenka, has widely contributed to the general modern conceptions of meditation as a non-religious activity (Braun 2013b, “Trycicle” n.d.). Moreover, Goenka’s desire to maintain a scientific, and pragmatic character is echoed in his efforts in establishing the Vipassana Research Institute (VRI) in 1985, an organization that is primarily concerned with publishing translations of Pali scripture, and conducting research into the application of vipassana meditation in daily life (“Vipassana Research Institute” n.d.).
Goenka makes use of the basic Buddhist doctrines of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path to theoretically underpin the practice of vipassana meditation. However, he resists calling his teachings Buddhism and instead uses the Pali word Dhamma, meaning the teachings of the Buddha.
As other contemporary vipassana schools, Goenka’s teachings of vipassana rest on an interpretation of the Satipatthana Sutta in light of the seminal Theravada text, “The Path of Purification,” and the Abhidhamma. He emphasizes the premise that impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha ), and not-self (anatta) are the true characteristics of all physical and mental phenomena. According to Goenka, our human existence is characterised by suffering, resulting from attachment and aversion to things that are impermanent. In order to attain liberation and eliminate suffering from one’s life, one must understand the true source of this suffering at the experiential level. This insight, according to Goenka, can truly be gained through the observance of Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, which is divided into three sections: morality ( sīla ), concentration (samādhi), and wisdom (paññā). A standard 10-day vipassana course is structured in a way to practice these three stages of the Noble Eightfold Path in order to develop insight into the true characteristics of reality, as it is understood in the Theravada Buddhist tradition (Pagis 2010a).
The vipassana technique that Goenka teaches is based on a unique interpretation of the Satipatthana Sutta . In the Satipatthana Sutta , the Buddha offers four objects for the practice of mindfulness: the body, sensations, the mind, and mental objects. Whereas most vipassana schools teach being equally mindful of both body and mind, Goenka’s technique (following the teachings of U Ba Khin) puts extra emphasis on being mindful to bodily sensations and includes a method of bodily sweeping.
Common to contemporary practice of vipassana, Goenka’s interpretation of Buddha’s teachings involves a great emphasis on personal experience. It is through the element of first-hand personal experience that Goenka differentiates his tradition from “religion,” “blind belief,” and dogma. Goenka asserts that, “Beliefs are always sectarian. Dhamma has no belief. In Dhamma you experience, and then you believe. There is no blind belief in Dhamma. You must experience and then only believe whatever you have experienced” (“Vipassana Research Institute” n.d.). Therefore, despite the fact that Goenka incorporated various Buddhist doctrines into his teachings, he actively discouraged his students from accepting them “blindly”. Instead, students are told to accept them only if they have succeeded in experiencing these themes introspectively for themselves (Pagis 2010a). Following this spirit, the meditation courses include relatively little theory and are mainly based on meditation training (i.e., in each day, eleven hours of meditation practice and one hour discourse). Only one advanced course includes a reading of a text, the Satipatthana Sutta, and readings and interpretation of texts are not common in courses or collective group sittings. In addition, the theoretical bases of vipassana are introduced gradually according to the level of practice. Novice students are exposed to selected and limited parts of the Buddha’s teachings, while advanced meditation courses introduce more theoretical elements, including Buddhist cosmology.
Goenka’s organization offers a wide range of courses of varying durations, although the standard ten-day retreat is the most frequently held and best attended. The structure of the ten-day course is meticulously planned and almost identical all over the world. The course follows a strict programme with extensive hours of meditation starting from 4:30 in the morning and ending at 21:00 each day. Although the courses are run under the supervision of assistant teachers, all meditation instructions are taught via audio recordings and video footage of Goenka himself. This use of technology enables a global standardization of the teachings, as meditation instructions are given in English by Goenka and followed by a translation into the local language.
During the meditation courses, all participants are required to take a vow of silence, known as the Noble Silence, which restricts a student from communicating with fellow students whether by speech, gesture, sign language or written notes. Indeed, other restrictions are imposed in an attempt to minimise external stimuli. These include: complete segregation between men and women, outside contact, physical contact, possession of religious objects, practice of other religious/spiritual rites or rituals, listening to music, reading or writing. In fact, the whole environment of the centers, from color to taste, from sound to touch, are reduced in order to create minimal stimulations for the practitioners (Pagis 2010b, 2015).
To practice the first stage of the Noble Eightfold Path, morality (sīla), students must take a vow to keep the five precepts for the duration of the course. These include abstaining from killing any being, abstaining from stealing, abstaining from all sexual activity, abstaining from telling lies, abstaining from all intoxicants. An additional three precepts are required from advanced students: To abstain from eating after midday, to abstain from sensual entertainment and bodily decorations, to abstain from using high or luxurious beds.
Each day begins with thirty minutes of pre-recorded audiotapes in which Goenka chants passages from Tipitaka in Pali for the purpose of creating “good vibrations,” and ends with an hour of his discourse, in which he explains the Buddhist theories relevant to the technique in simple and humorous language.
The first three days of the course are dedicated to ānāpāna meditation which is a breath observation technique aimed at increasing the concentration of the mind. The exercise of ānāpāna , which embodies the second stage of the Noble Eightfold Path, namely samādhi, consists of focusing one’s attention on the tip of the nose and the upper lip, underneath the nostrils, observing the sensation of the air as one breathes in and out (Sole-Leris 1986:46).
From the forth day onwards, students learn the practice of vipassana, in order to develop insight or wisdom (paññā), the third and final stage of the Noble Eightfold Path. Vipassana meditation in Goenka’s tradition, involves the development of awareness and equanimity toward all physical sensations. (Pagis 2009; Goldberg 2014). Students learn to systematically observe all the bodily sensations (pleasant and unpleasant) that arise within the framework of their bodies in a non-reactive, objective manner. The point is to develop a detached standpoint whereby the practitioner understands and experiences the impermanent nature of these sensations. It is said that through this practice one begins to gradually transform the mind’s “habit patterns” of blind reaction and, consequently, experience a state of “peace and harmony” resulting from a “balanced mind” (“Vipassana Research Institute” n.d.).
The Noble Silence officially ends on the last day of the standard ten-day course, and students can share their experience with each other after nine days of intense introspection. On this day, students are introduced to a new method of meditation, namely mettā-bhāvanā or meditation of loving kindness, which is central to the Buddhist path towards liberation. The students are taught to end each vipassana one hour sitting with a few minutes of mettā meditation.
Since all vipassana courses are offered for free, including food and accommodations, teaching and other services, students who successfully finish a course are encouraged to donate as per their convenience “without expecting anything in return, […] so that others may experience the benefits of Dhamma and may come out of their suffering” (VRI discourse summaries). Those who wish to do so will have a chance at the end of the course to donate or buy books or audio/video material from the many VRI publications on display. Moreover, students are encouraged to return to the centers and volunteer their services in cooking, cleaning, administration and so forth, as a form of dāna , which is known as dhamma service. This, according to Goenka, is understood as a valuable opportunity, and he generally propagated that “the dāna of Dhamma service is higher than the dāna of money” (“Vipassana Research Institute” n.d.).
At the end of the meditation course, students are recommended to continue their daily practice of vipassana (one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening) after returning to their normal lives. In addition, even though ten-day courses are identical, students are encouraged to return to a ten-day course at least once a year. They can also participate three- days courses, one-day courses and weekly group sittings organized locally by more advanced practitioners. In addition, Goenka’s organization offers a variety of advanced courses, from the Satipatthana eight- day course, to twenty, thirty, forty-five and even sixty-day courses. Participation in these courses is restricted to advanced students who have fulfilled certain requirements, including completion of less advances courses and daily vipassana practice.
Goenka’s global organization offers all vipassana courses free of charge for everyone. These courses are administrated and operated by a group of volunteers who receive no salary from the organization. This, according to Goenka, ensures the purity of Dhamma. The organization financially sustains itself through donations received from people who have completed at least one ten-day vipassana course. These donations in turn pay for future courses and the upkeep of the centers. However, despite the general norm of using volunteers for administration and maintenance of the centers, it is not uncommon for some centers to use part-time paid staff for more specific professions.
During his life, Goenka single-handedly maintained the role of supreme authority within his organization and did not appoint a successor prior to his demise. In 1982, in an attempt to prevent deviation from his technique and its teachings, Goenka began a time consuming project of recording all of his instructions and teachings. These recordings allowed him to appoint assistant teachers to conduct courses on his behalf. With time, Goenka promoted assistant teachers to higher ranks, such senior teachers. In general, all teachers that teach in the centers that are a part of the organization are not authorized to act/teach independently and must follow the set of rules and guidelines laid by Goenka (Melnikova 2014:52).
Although Goenka had established detailed guidelines for his organization, he also encouraged individual centers to manage themselves independently, though all centers maintain some connection to the VRI and the Dhamma Giri. Up until 2012, each center was administrated by a board of Trustees and directed by a team of teachers. However, in 2012 Goenka reshaped the organization’s structure. This involved the introduction of two new positions of the Center-Teacher and Co-ordinator Area Teacher. According to the new setup, each center is now directed by a specific Center-Teacher (sometimes two) whose responsibilities include appointing Trustees and ensuring their activities are managed in time and in accordance with the guidelines set by Goenka; managing the meditation courses; training Dhamma servers; and sending quarterly report to the respective Co-ordinator Area Teacher and the VRI (“Vipassana Research Institute” n.d.).
In turn, the Co-ordinator Area Teachers, who are appointed regionally (e.g., South Africa, Central and Northern Africa, Upper Africa, and Rest of Africa), are given amongst many other responsibilities the task to spread vipassana and ensure that the organization’s literature is translated into the local languages of the respective area. Over and above all, the Co-ordinator Area Teacher is responsible for ensuring all the activities of vipassana centers conform to Goenka’s guidelines. The detailed conditions of Goenka’s guidelines were published in the VRI monthly Newsletter in December 2012 (“Vipassana Newsletter” n.d.). The most important of these guidelines reflect Goenka’s concerns with the preservation of his teachings and the teaching materials (all types of instructions and training modules). Since his demise, the centers continue to conduct vipassana courses, train dhamma workers and new assistant teachers based on the pre-recorded instruction kits provided by Goenka.
Goenka’s organization has been successful in establishing vipassana in various secular domains, including the business world and prisons. The Executive Course for example, is tailored specifically for business executives and government officials (“Vipassana Meditation Course for Business Executives” n.d.). The structure of this course is almost identical to the standard 10-day course. The only difference is that Goenka, as an experienced businessman, gives additional talks and guidance in applying the principles of vipassana to the challenges and stresses of the business world (“Vipassana Research Institute” n.d.). According to the Vipassana Research Institute’s website, Executive Courses have been held in Texas, Massachusetts, Washington State, California, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Australia/New Zealand and India since 2002.
Perhaps what best echoes Goenka’s success is his mission of promoting vipassana courses as a “rehabilitating tool” within prisonsin several countries, including India, Israel, Mongolia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Thailand, U.K., Myanmar and the United States (“Vipassana Meditation Courses for Correction Facilities” n.d.). These courses are identical to the standard ten-day courses in terms of teachings, structure and codes of conduct. However, they seem to involve a different agenda in this context: to reduce anger and violence, reduce and control substance addictions and decrease of recidivism among inmates.
Lastly, even though the organization emphasizes the spread of vipassana teachings in relatively non-religious terms, it was involved in the construction of a Buddhist monument. In 2008, Goenka’s organization completed the construction of the Global Vipassana Pagoda (GVP) near Mumbai, India (“Global Vipassana Pagoda” n.d.). This Pagoda, which has the capacity to seat over 8,000 meditators, claims to be “the world’s largest hollow stone masonry structure containing relics of the Buddha” (“Global Vipassana Pagoda” n.d.). According to the vipassana organization, the genuine relics of Gautama Buddha are enshrined in the central locking stone of the Pagoda’s largest dome. The purpose of enshrining the Buddha’s relics, as argued by Goenka, is that “if one meditates with the relics of the Buddha, which have such strong vibrations, one progresses more easily” (“Vipassana Research Institute” n.d.). The GVP, a replica of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangoon, is claimed to be erected as an expression of gratitude towards the Buddha, his teachings, and U Ba Khin, who was responsible for returning vipassana to its mother land, India (Goldberg and Décary 2012:333).
Goenka’s vipassana organization has generally maintained a positive reputation. The organization has received little external opposition with the exception of criticisms from some Orthodox Buddhist communities (Melnikova 2014:57).
The main opposition the organization faced came from former members who reject the adherence to Goenka’s guidelines, which they understand as too strict. While Goenka acknowledged different versions of vipassana and different paths to liberation, he insisted that each person much choose one path and was strictly against any form of borrowing and mixing of traditions. Therefore, individuals that continue and practice other meditation traditions along side Goenka’s vipassana, are not given permission to participate in the more advanced courses. In addition, his guidelines for vipassana courses follow the relatively conservative tradition of South-East Asia, including, among others, separation between men and women and modest dress codes.
Some former students of Goenka have diverged from his teachings and opened meditation centers that are more inclusive to other vipassana teachings and to Western norms regarding dress and gender mixing. With the demise of Goenka, this tendency to diverge may increase, and thus the main challenge the organization faces today is its ability to continue and adhere to Goenka’s teachings and guidelines. This challenge to maintain coherence is intensified by the fact that Goenka announced all the teachers and future teachers in the organization to be his successors and thus prevented the rise of one substitute leader.
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5 May 2015