October 1, 2013

Thank You, Goenkaji: A Tribute to the Late, Great Vipassana Teacher.

“We need conversion from misery to happiness, from bondage to liberation, from cruelty to compassion; that is the conversion needed today.”

~ S. N. Goenka

All the millions of people around the world who have been touched by the experience of a Vipassana course are mourning the passing of a great spiritual teacher, S. N. Goenka.

He died peacefully due to natural causes in his home on Sunday, September 29, 2013 at the age of 89.

S. N. Goenka was born and raised in Burma. When he met his Dhamma teacher, Sayagi U Ba Khin, he was a successful business person. Goenka studied with his teacher for 14 years and began teaching Vipassana meditation in 1969. In 1976, the first Vipassana center opened in Igatpuri, India.

Vipassana is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was first taught by the Buddha in India more than 2,500 years ago.

Today, silent Vipassana meditation retreats are offered at 173 Vipassana meditation centers worldwide, including 75 in India. Operating solely on donations, these centers offer invaluable, clear and non-dogmatic meditation instruction, plus room and board.

I highly recommend attending a course. To my knowledge, it’s the most effective way to deepen and intensify your spiritual practice.

Although it might feel like the longest 10 days of your life.

Usually when I tell people about the course, they think it sounds crazy and really difficult not to talk for 10 days straight. For me, the most difficult part wasn’t the vow of silence, it was the hours upon hours of meditation each day, beginning at 4:30 a.m. and continuing in one and two-hour stretches until the evening with a few breaks.

My first 10-day course was in 2007 in north Texas. In July, I drove myself to the Dallas area to participate. As expected, it was amazing, wonderful, terrible and, above all, intense.

Some days were lovely and serene; other days I wanted to yell out, “Serenity now!” in the meditation hall.

You’re not supposed to speak, read or write during the 10 days. I cheated a little, breaking the rules by reading (a Joseph Goldstein book on Buddhism, so shoot me!) and writing (a daily journal entry).

Still, there was no escape from my mind.

On day four, it tried to convince me that a headache was a brain tumor and that I really should leave to get a CAT scan.

On day five, I spent over an hour of afternoon meditation obsessing over the details of my potential future wedding, to my ex-boyfriend, despite the fact that we’d broken up. I mentally noted everything from the guest list to the floral arrangements before reeling it in, coming back to the technique and letting all those fantasies go.

On day nine, I struck up a conversation with a jackrabbit that crossed my path. “Hey, bunny. How are you?” He hopped away without a word.

My next course took place in Dehradun, India in 2008, almost exactly a year later.

It wasn’t any easier the second time around.

In India, I followed the rules. No reading. No writing. Until day five, when I snuck to my room and scrawled this sentence on the back of a crumpled up receipt from my wallet:

No escape… spiders everywhere.

A huge red one kept me up half the first night. I was sure it was plotting to kill me in my sleep. It rained every day. I ate vegetarian breakfast and lunch and drank only lemon water for dinner.

I noticed that my mind always kept looking forward. It was hard to be present. Some days were lovely and calm and on others I would internally curse, I can only take so much fucking meditation!

On day nine, I slipped and cut my knee on the sidewalk. It didn’t physically hurt, but I started sobbing silently as the gruff Indian helper lady scuttled away to the kitchen. She brought back a handful of turmeric powder and threw it on my scraped skin. It was a poetic moment, the blood seeping through the saffron colored powder.

I survived the cut, and the course… patiently and persistently, with imperfect equanimity. And I definitely want to take another course at some point.

Although I never met Goenkaji personally, like every Vipassana meditator, I saw his image and heard his voice through the nightly discourses we watched on DVD each evening at seven o’clock.

I was charmed and enthralled by his way of presenting the Buddha’s teachings through stories, jokes and anecdotes.

So was an entire generation (or two) of Americans. According to Jay Michaelson’s tribute in The Huffington Post

Indeed, the very notion that meditation may be practiced in a non-religious, non-sectarian way owes much to Goenka himself. Basically a rationalist and a pragmatist, Goenka emphasized that meditation was not spirituality and not religion, but more like a technology – a set of tools for upgrading and optimizing the mind. These are my terms, not his (I discuss this fascinating story of secularization and popularization in my book Evolving Dharma), but the gist is the same. You don’t have to believe anything, wear special clothes, or chant special words in order to calm the mind, improve memory, and attain the various other benefits of meditation.

The core teachings of Vipassana are simple and straightforward. Dharma 101. The four noble truths. Life contains suffering. Suffering results from attachment and aversion. Impermanence is a fact. Every single thing, from a bodily sensation to an emotion to a mood or feeling or relationship– is impermanent. Everything that arises passes away.

We humans want pleasure and don’t want pain. So, we cling to feelings of happiness and push away the ugly and unpleasant, the dreadful and fear-inducing.

Vipassana meditation offers a practical, non-sectarian technique for uprooting these tendencies to cling and reject from the source. One hundred thousand people worldwide attend Vipassana courses each year.

S.N. Goenka talking at the UN Peace Summit

Rest in peace, blessed teacher.

Thank you, Goenkaji for sharing these teachings with me and the world!

Bonus: Watch Goenka speak at UN World Peace Summit in 2000 {Video}

S. N. Goenka Quotes:

“Religion is not for dividing people. It is for uniting people.”

“Whether I call myself a Hindu or Muslim or a Christian or Jew makes no difference. Human being is human being.”

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Ed: Sara Crolick

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