The following article grew out of several conversations I had with Goenkaji in December of 1986, a month which I spent sitting and studying at Dhammagiri, Goenkaji’s main meditation center in India. In keeping with Goenka’s use of Pali, the traditional language of the Theravada lineage, the Buddhist terms in this article are given in their Pali forms rather than in Sanskrit. For example, the Pali term Dhamma is used in place of the more familiar Sanskrit word Dharma, kamma is used instead of karma, and so on.
During the third century B.C., the teachings of the Buddha spread across the Indian subcontinent and into Southeast Asia under the auspices of the great Indian emperor Ashoka, also known as Dhammaraja, the King of Dhamma. According to legend, Ashoka’s chief Dhamma teacher sent two monks to Burma to offer “the triple gem” to the people there, and as he sent them off he made this prediction: The Dhamma would one day disappear from India and the rest of the world but would be preserved in its pure form in Burma, the Golden Land. The teacher also predicted that 2,500 years after the Buddha, the Dhamma would be transported from Burma back to India and from there it would spread throughout the world.
This prophecy now seems to be coming true, and playing a major role in its fulfillment is S.N. Goenka, or “Goenkaji” as he is affectionately known, one of the most influential Dhamma teachers in the world today.
Goenka was born in 1923 into a wealthy Indian family living in Rangoon, Burma. As a young man, Goenka became very successful in business and at the same time began developing severe migraine headaches. He traveled around the world searching in vain for treatments and cures until finally, back home in Rangoon, he began studying vipassana meditation with Sayagyi U Ba Khin. Eventually his headaches went away, but more than that, his life was transformed. Goenka became a devoted follower of the Buddha’s path.
In 1969, Goenka moved to India, where he began teaching vipassana, helping to bring this age-old meditation practice back to the land of its origin. Since then he has taught thousands of people and has established meditation centers in India, America, Europe and Australia.
A three-hour train ride from the urban chaos of Bombay, on a hill overlooking the rural Indian town of Igatpuri, there is a refuge of great peace and beauty. This is Dhammagiri, Goenka’s main meditation center. Established in 1976, Dhammagiri features a large Burmese-style pagoda, a spacious meditation hall and over three hundred individual meditation cells where students can practice in isolation. The grounds are planted with flowers and fruit trees, the living quarters are comfortable, and the food is clean and nourishing. Inside Dhammagiri the purity is tangible.
S.N. GOENKA: Purity is very important because what is going on at meditation retreats is nothing less than surgery on the mind. When you have surgery on your body, you go to the surgery theater, which is kept so pure, no contamination is allowed there because a wound is being opened, and if some outside dirt gets in, it will cause infection. It is the same in this surgery of the mind. If it is not a purified place then it may harm the student. It is very important to maintain the purity.
Inquiring Mind: When students arrive for retreats you even ask them to turn in their novels for storage until they are ready to leave. What is the reason for that rule?
Goenka: Because when someone reads a novel of passion, or a novel of fear, they are generating those vibrations. Whatever you generate from your mind also comes in contact with inanimate objects and affects them, and then those objects remain in the area where you are trying to purify your mind. This is not just a vain belief. It is very scientific. Later on, as you progress on the path, you can start feeling the vibrations not only of living human beings or creatures, but you can also feel the vibrations of these inanimate objects around you.
The meditation retreats at Dhammagiri include people from many nations and from a variety of religious and economic backgrounds. There are Indians who belong to various Hindu sects, Jain nuns, Catholic priests and some Westerners with no beliefs at all. Goenka says he is not teaching them Buddhism. He says he is simply teaching the Dhamma, the law of nature.
Goenka: Buddha’s pure teaching is nothing but the law of nature. The Buddha himself said that whether there is a Buddha in the world or no Buddha in the world, the law of nature remains. If you generate craving and aversion in the mind, you are bound to become miserable. If you want to come out of your misery then get rid of craving and aversion. This is just the law of nature, and this law is applicable in every culture.
Even people who belong to sects that are totally opposed to Buddhism are now coming to take these vipassana meditation courses. For example, for twenty-five centuries in India the Jain community has been teaching that the Buddha’s path is wrong. And now their leaders are coming, their monks and nuns are coming to study this teaching. The same with the Hindus. I was born in a conservative Hindu family and from childhood we are taught that if you are going down a very narrow lane and a wild elephant is coming at you and is about to crush you, and there is an open door of a Buddhist temple on your right and the open door of a Jain temple on your left, it is better to get crushed by the elephant than escape through those doors. And now there are a great many of these Hindus coming to the meditation courses. Once the practice is established, it is all just the law of nature. The law of nature does not give preference to a Christian or to a Hindu. If you place your hand on the fire, your hand will burn. It is so simple. And this is the Dhamma. I have no belief in Buddhism. I believe only in Dhamma. For me Hinduism and Buddhism are both madness.*
IM: When you are teaching the Dhamma do you find that the Indian or Asian students are different from Westerners? And do you ever alter your teaching to accommodate people of different cultures?
Goenka: The basic teaching remains the same and the meditation technique remains the same. But when I am teaching Indians, I don’t need to place so much emphasis on sila (morality). It is not that the people in India are full of sila, but at least they understand sila and it is very important to them. So I don’t need to talk too much against free sex or drugs. But in the West I have to give more emphasis to those issues. The Indians have more trouble with their philosophical beliefs, especially concerning the “soul.” One community believes that the soul is the size of the thumb. Another believes that it is the size of a persimmon seed. And there are so many different gods here in India, gods with two hands or four hands, gods of this shape or that color. So I tell the Indians that it is all right to believe in this kind of soul or that kind of soul, or this god or that god, but you still have to purify your mind. Otherwise you will remain miserable.
IM: Do you feel that Westerners are more attached to the concept of “self” than the Indians?
Goenka: If by “self” you mean a soul, then the Indians have a harder time with it. But when you talk of self as ego, then it is the same everywhere. In Burma, India, or America, people are mad with their ego. That is why the meditation technique is most important. The technique is to dissolve the ego.
IM: However it is undoubtedly more difficult for Westerners to accept some of the traditional Buddhist beliefs, such as the idea of rebirth. How does this affect their meditation practice?
Goenka: A belief in reincarnation is not important, but as you develop in vipassana, it will become clear to you by your own understanding. Anyway, to me, this present life is much more important than a future life. Why worry about a future life? If you do something to better your present life then your future life will automatically become better. But if you are doing something for a future life and it doesn’t help you in your present life, then, to me, it is useless.
IM: What about the belief in the goal of enlightenment?
Goenka: Enlightenment is not something which will come at a particular time. You are getting enlightened step by step. As you develop your insight you are getting enlightened, as you walk on the path you are getting enlightened.
IM: And the hell realms and heaven realms?
Goenka: All the hells and heavens are within the framework of the body. When you are feeling miserable you are passing through a hell realm, and if you start feeling blissful you are passing through the celestial planes of devas or Brahmas. They are all within you.
IM: So many spiritual teachers who have come to the West in the past few decades have been discredited or somehow involved in scandal. Why do you think this is occurring so frequently?
Goenka: Well, if some teacher goes to the West with the ambition to acquire material wealth, then this person has nothing to do with Dhamma. Dhamma can be kept pure, and the meditation techniques can be kept pure, only if the teacher expects nothing in return, not even any fame or status. If there is any such craving in the mind of a teacher, then this person is not worthy of becoming a teacher. If a teacher is a monk, then he must beg his food, and if the teacher is a householder, then he or she must have another means of livelihood. The teaching of Dhamma cannot be a means of livelihood.
Another problem for many teachers in the West is the great freedom of sex that exists there. But how can any vipassana teacher even think of passion toward his own students of the opposite sex? For a vipassana teacher all female students are their daughters and all males students are their sons. Everyone who received the Dhamma from the Buddha was his child. If you are teaching Dhamma that means you are giving people a new life, a new birth, and those people then become your children. I can’t understand how a teacher can have sexual relations with a student. This must not happen, otherwise you will not have pure Dhamma.
Goenka teaches a very powerful meditation practice that has come to be called the “sweeping technique.” In this method the meditator gains concentration of mind by watching the breath at the nostrils and then begins moving the mind up and down the body or “sweeping,” focusing awareness on the sensations within the body. Goenka believes that this technique is the essence of vipassana and that this is what the Buddha describes in the Satipattana Sutra as the path to enlightenment.
IM: What is the origin of this “sweeping” technique?
Goenka: Buddha is the origin! (Laughs) Nobody else can be the origin. In the Satipatthana Sutra there are the words, “Sabbakaya-patisamvedi assasissamiti sikkhati . . . passasissamiti sikkhati.” (Feeling the whole body I shall breathe in . . . feeling the whole body I shall breathe out.) One should learn how to feel the entire body in one breath, breathing in and breathing out. Perhaps I am responsible for calling it sweeping, but this is the Buddha’s teaching.
The whole technique of the Buddha is to move you from the gross level of reality to the subtle. The apparent truths are always gross and solidified, full of illusions and delusions. The purpose of vipassana meditation is to penetrate the gross and go to the ultimate truth. The ultimate truth of mind and body is nothing but vibration and that is what you are observing when you practice this technique.
IM: What about other meditation practices? Are there different methods that could lead people to this ultimate truth?
Goenka: The starting point for meditation can be different for different people. There might be some people who cannot start with respiration because it is too subtle an object for them. So some gross object can be given as a beginning. But we believe that eventually one has to come on the same road, the road where one experiences sensations in the entire body. Sampajana (thorough understanding) must be there, and in order to have sampajana one must feel sensations in the whole body.
IM: Do you feel that slowing down one’s activities, such as slow walking or slow eating, is a useful way to feel these sensations in the body?
Goenka: Perhaps to start. But I have seen people who have started with slow walking, and after ten years they are still practicing slow walking. We believe that once you are able to feel sensations in the body, then there is no need to continue the slow walking. You walk naturally and you eat naturally and you simply remain aware of sensations in the body. Just like with the breath, if you can’t be aware of the natural breath then we tell people to try a few slightly hard breaths. But if this person continues with this hard breathing then he is not developing. It is the same with the slow walking and eating practice.
IM: What about the practice of noting or labeling of thoughts?
Goenka: We don’t condemn other techniques, but so far as our method is concerned, both verbalization and visualization are prohibited. Perhaps, if one uses a few words once or twice just to calm the mind, it is perfectly all right. But if you keep on repeating the words then it becomes a mantra. Also, if you keep on saying, “itching, itching, itching,” or “heat, heat, heat,” for a long time, then you are generating a particular vibration because every word that you utter, mentally even, generates a vibration and your whole being can get engulfed in this created vibration. The Buddha wants us to observe only the natural vibrations, and that is why verbalization has no place in this technique. The same with visualization. This technique is to disintegrate the apparent truth, and with visualization you are creating another apparent truth, an imaginary apparent truth, and, therefore, you are unnecessarily creating trouble for yourself.
IM: In this meditation practice you do not give much emphasis to cittanupassana (observation of mind), or dhammanupassana (observation of mental contents). Is there a reason for this?
Goenka: Observing thoughts is never taught by the Buddha. In the Satipatthana Sutra, in the section on cittanupassana, the Buddha says, “Here a bhikkhu understands properly mind with craving as mind with craving.” Craving for what is not important. If you observe the thought, then you start rolling in its contents. So instead you simply observe that craving has started in the mind, and at the same time you feel the arising and passing away of sensations in the body. If you are equanimous with the sensations, then you are also equanimous with the craving, and in this way, layer after layer of that particular sankhara (reaction) in your mind will be erased automatically.
IM: It sounds like you are dealing here with a very deep, subconscious level of the mind.
Goenka: Yes, and that is why this technique was developed by the Buddha. First he had tried eight jhanas (levels of absorption) which had purified his mind, but not to the depth. Deep inside there was what the Buddha called “sleeping impurities,” meaning that the roots of the impurities were still there. He realized that these could be taken out only through the practice of vipassana, through awareness of sensations.
You see, in reality your so-called unconscious mind is actually conscious every moment; it is always conscious of the sensations of the body. For example, if you are in deep sleep and a mosquito bites you, your unconscious mind knows it and you react even though you remain sleeping. Many times you will spend the whole night scratching and your conscious mind doesn’t know it at all. The same thing happens during the day. If you sit for a long time, and some discomfort starts, then you begin shifting and changing position; these are all reactions of the unconscious mind.
Buddha understood that the unconscious mind is constantly in contact with the body sensations. So if we are going to purify the unconscious mind we have to work with these sensations. If you forget the sensations of the body, then you are dealing only with the surface of the mind. The surface of your mind will become purified and you will benefit from that also, but those complexities lying deep below, the deep conditioning of the past, will remain unchanged.
IM: So you are training the mind not to react in a habitual way to any sensations that may arise.
Goenka: Yes, exactly. Whatever external event happens will generate sensations in the body and you will have trained your mind to be equanimous with those sensations. So you are at the roots, you are making the roots of your mind healthy. If the roots are healthy then the tree will automatically be healthy. You need not worry. This is how it works.
IM: In your meditation instructions you often talk about having choiceless awareness; however, by moving the mind up and down throughout the body there seems to be some deliberate choice involved.
Goenka: What is choiceless in this technique is the sensations. We don’t try to create sensations and then observe them. This is an effortless observation of whatever sensations arise. We have only chosen the field of awareness, which is the body; but the sensations remain choiceless.
The reason we move the mind in an orderly fashion throughout the body is just to be able to observe the totality of the body. Actually, there is sensation in every particle of the body and the subconscious mind is reacting to these sensations. So if you don’t move in some order, then many parts of your body will remain unknown to you and you won’t observe them at all. If you move systematically from head to feet and feet to head, then you don’t miss any part. But if you go from one place where you have strong sensation to another place where you have strong sensation, then so many parts of your body remain blind to you and you never feel them. If you are missing the sensations in some parts of your body, it means you are not penetrating to the subtlest level, you are not dissolving the illusion of solidity, the illusion of self. Moving systematically through every part of the body makes it easier to reach the stage where everything gets dissolved. That is why we practice this way.
IM: Also, this technique of moving the mind up and down through the body seems to help develop very strong samadhi (power of concentration).
Goenka: That is true. There is a story . . . and I am a good storyteller (laughs). Through certain powers somebody once got hold of a ghost or genie. The ghost said, “I will serve you and whatever you want I will get for you, but you must keep me busy. As soon as I have finished one task there must be another one for me. Otherwise I will devour you.” So the man told the ghost to get him a big palace and immediately it was done. Then the man asked for this and for that until he had everything he wanted, but still he had to give the ghost some task to complete or else he would be devoured. So finally, the man got a bamboo tree and told the ghost, “Alright, climb up and down, up and down . . . and just continue. I give you this work; you continue.” (Laughs) The same with this mad mind; it wants to do so many things. So we just keep it busy moving up and down within the framework of the body.
A distinctive and joyous feature of Goenka’s meditation retreats is his chanting. In his deep, rich, baritone voice he chants verses from the Pali texts, which are heard either live or on tape every morning and also before and after each sitting session. Many people comment that his chanting has a powerful impact on their meditation practice and stays with them long after a retreat is over.
Goenka: Chanting is very important, but only when combined with meditation. When students come here for longer courses they are taught that you have to first observe the subtle sensations in the body and only then start chanting. And with every gap between two words you are to observe sensations. Then the chanting carries vibrations which permeate the atmosphere around you and helps your progress in meditation.
IM: It is now common for vipassana meditation retreats to be ten days in length, but this is just a modern development. Is it true that U Ba Khin started this practice?
Goenka: As far as I know, U Ba Khin’s teacher started working with these ten-day sessions. Then U Ba Khin made it a rule. He said that you can’t grasp the technique properly in less than ten days. If you can sit for longer periods then it is better, but ten days is the minimum.
IM: You say that you are teaching meditation in order to repay your dept to U Ba Khin, your teacher.
Goenka: Yes. My teacher spent so much time and energy and love and compassion to give me this jewel; the Dhamma, that I feel the only way to pay back the debt is to use my full energy in distributing it to others. At the same time, it is a great satisfaction to me, seeing miserable people come out of their misery. I get letters from people who, after taking a course, write to tell me, “I am a changed person. I’ve got a new life.” It gives me so much satisfaction and contentment m my mind to know that my efforts are being helpful. U Ba Khin used to say, “The clock of vipassana has struck!” and somehow, due to my circumstances, I got the opportunity to distribute this teaching. So I am just a vehicle.
IM: A very comfortable vehicle. Thank you, Goenkaji.
Goenka: Be happy. Be happy.
For further investigation into the teaching and ideas of S. N. Goenka, we recommend the book, The Art of Living; Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S. N. Goenka, by William Hart, published by Harper and Row, 1987.
In Volume 4.2 of Inquiring Mind, Mr. Goenka further explained his thoughts on “madness” — click here to read his clarification.