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 S. N. Goenka died yesterday - "The Man who Taught the World to Meditate"

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PostSubject: S. N. Goenka died yesterday - "The Man who Taught the World to Meditate"   Mon Sep 30, 2013 1:03 pm

S.N. Goenka: The Man who Taught the World to Meditate
Posted: 09/30/2013 11:19 am - by Jay Michaelson - posted in HuffingtonPost

You may not know the name of S.N. Goenka, who died Saturday at the age of 90. But if you've counted your breaths to relax in a hospital, or if you've ever tried to eat, walk, or speak "mindfully," you've felt his influence. He might even have changed your life.

Satya Narayan Goenka did not set out to be a meditation guru. He was an Indian businessman who happened to come across the teachings of a then-radical Burmese Buddhist tradition which had adapted Buddhist meditation practices and taught them to laypeople, like me and (probably) you. That may not seem so radical today, but one hundred years ago, it absolutely was. These techniques had been monastic traditions only - imagine what it would have been like had medieval monks suddenly taught peasants to read the Bible.

Goenka was one of many laypeople whose lives were changed by meditation - but he had the widest influence. He was a core teacher for the first generation of "insight" meditation teachers to have an impact in the United States, and through them, to popularizers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, whose Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR) is now taught across the country in hospitals, schools, even prisons.

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.

At the same time, Goenka did work within a specific Buddhist tradition, and created a very rigorous format designed to attain certain levels of mental understanding on ten and twenty day silent retreats. To Westerners, he can indeed seem like the very image of the Indian sage, talking about enlightenment while insisting on a very demanding (and inflexible) set of contemplative exercises. Goenka retreats are austere - not only no speaking, but also no reading or writing, and with arduous schedules of concentration and meditation.

Indeed, rather like Bikram yoga, Goenka's method has become something of a fixation for his followers. To this day, Goenka-style retreats are taught by Goenka himself - by video, of course - and it was Goenka's insistence on this point that led some of his leading American students to break from their master and create the forms of mindfulness more familiar to us today. These Americans were ex-hippies, after all. And while Goenka centers have proliferated around the globe, the more flexible techniques taught by his former students (as well as parallel versions from Zen and Tibetan traditions) have had an even wider impact.

That impact has been enormous. Studies suggest that one million more Americans take up meditation every year - mostly in healthcare contexts. These people are not interested in enlightenment or awakening, and they aren't about to spend ten days in silence watching videotapes of spiritual teachings. They're taking up mindfulness (basically, paying attention to present-moment experience in a particular, focused way, whether in formal meditation or in other activities) because they're suffering from chronic pain or post-traumatic stress. Or they're doing it because they work at Google, or Twitter, or Apple, or one of the dozens of technology companies using mindfulness to improve the performance and well-being of employees. This is how the teachings known as the "dharma" have evolved - beyond religion, beyond spirituality, into every walk of life. And S.N. Goenka is largely responsible for it.

America is on the threshold of a mindfulness revolution. As the data regarding mindfulness's economic impact becomes better developed and better known, we are going to see mindfulness offered everywhere - not for reasons of spirituality, but for sheer economics. These technologies decrease healthcare costs, improve productivity, and speed processes of healing. The Buddha may have taught them to lead to enlightenment - but they also save a ton of money.

How this experiment will turn out is anyone's guess. Maybe mindfulness will just be a fad. Maybe it'll last but, like yoga, be limited only to some. Or maybe it really will transform our society. Whatever comes next, all of us who have used it to relax, get well, or just get through the day owe a debt of gratitude to an Indian businessman who passed away last week. Let's take a mindful breath to remember him.
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PostSubject: from Sharon Salzberg - on Goenka   Wed Oct 02, 2013 3:21 pm

How SN Goenka Changed My Life—And the Lives of Millions More

by Sharon Salzberg Oct 2, 2013 - the Daily Beast

SN Goenka, who died on Saturday, embodied the teachings of the Buddha, yet insisted on a completely inclusive approach. We could use a man like him right now, writes Sharon Salzberg.

SN Goenka, who died Sept 29, was my very first meditation teacher. I went to India in 1970, when only 18, specifically to study meditation. Goenka-ji had been living in Burma, raising a family and building a successful business, and for many years also deepening his meditation practice. Shortly before I arrived in India he himself arrived in India in order to visit his mother, who had been ill. Our paths converged in Bodhgaya, the town that surrounds the tree the Buddha is said to have been sitting under when he became enlightened.

Former president of India Pratibha Patil, takes blessings from S.N. Goenka during a ceremony in Mumbai, India on February 8, 2009. (EPA/Newscom)

I was moved to travel there by an Asian philosophy course I had taken that laid out two pillars of the Buddha’s teaching: first, an unashamed, unafraid acknowledgment of the suffering in life; and second, a conviction that we can do something about our unhappiness. Like many, I had already suffered mightily even by the age of 18—my parents divorced when I was 4, my mother died when I was 9, my father had a severe mental illness—and, like many, I viewed my pain as shameful and isolating, rather than as a source of compassion and connection to others. Not a single person I knew openly admitted that suffering was a part of life, but apparently the Buddha had had no such compunctions.

And there was the revolutionary idea that we can affect our pain—not the pain of circumstance, which might always occur—but we can transform the ways we relate to our own and others’ difficulty to transform our lives. The breathtaking part of the Buddha’s vision was that no one was left out of this possibility—you didn’t have to be a special person or lucky person or have really great parents who didn’t die young or drink too much or struggle with terrible demons. You just had to find the tools (also known as meditation) to change the habits of your mind, and apply them. I left for India the first chance I got.

I met Goenka-ji in January 1971, when I entered a 10-day intensive meditation retreat he guided. I hadn’t meditated before for one single second. Goenka-ji himself fascinated me. He seemed so…whole. It didn’t look like he was shaped by the expectations of others. He talked freely about pain and suffering, yet seemed so happy. He posited a world where we grow closer to one another through our shared vulnerability to change and loss. He so much embodied the ancient teachings of the Buddha, yet insisted on a completely inclusive, secular, contemporary approach. The first night of the retreat he said, “The Buddha did not teach Buddhism, he taught a way of life.”

Goenka-ji was a jolly looking man with a sonorous voice and fluent but somewhat simplistic English (“Clean up your dirty minds,” was one of his sayings, pointing to the incredibly nuanced purification process that accompanies meditation). He was kind of ordinary yet not ordinary at all. A friend said to me, “It’s like you can see the compassion shining out of his skin.” I had never experienced anyone like him.

Quote :
He talked freely about pain and suffering, yet seemed so happy.
Though I went on to study with many other teachers and explore several methods of meditation, that first 10-day retreat remains the singular turning point of my life—I’ve never turned back.

Now, more than 40 years later, we live in a world where the United States government has shut down, where we have incredible ways to communicate with one another yet so rarely truly communicate, where the earth itself is nearly overcome by our greed, hatred and delusion. I think of those timeless truths Goenka-ji spent his life counseling. We have the potential to be whole, without an endless need to acquire more and more. We can acknowledge pain and suffering and still be happy, because we learn to hold life with compassion instead of bitterness. We are all vulnerable, and can live as “we” rather than “us and them”. We can participate in spiritual teachings without being insular and separate. We can learn to clean up our dirty minds, so to speak, and not be driven by what we’re simply used to.

Today an estimated one million Americans learn meditation each year. There are many styles and lineages represented in that number, but Goenka-ji’s role in that statistic is extraordinary, both through his direct instruction and through the work of those whom he influenced. Even now that he has died, in this very shaky time where we need both inner strength and one another, I would bet that his influence will grow and grow.
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PostSubject: Re: S. N. Goenka died yesterday - "The Man who Taught the World to Meditate"   Mon Jun 16, 2014 11:32 pm

Was Goenka a Guru? by Jay Michaelson
Posted: 10/14/2013 1:59 pm - follow-up from previous HuffPost blog

The response to my recent HuffPost reflection on the life and teachings of S.N. Goenka, who died Sept. 29, has been overwhelming. Having blogged for many years here, and written a handful of books, the number of readers this particular post attracted is yet another reminder of the simple truth that life is unpredictable. Thank you!

Reading the comments on that article, I was struck by the sincerity of those whose lives have been touched by Goenka ("Goenka-ji," in the common Indian grammatical form showing respect for a teacher), and by their concerns that his legacy be untainted by associations with gurus, or money, or contemporary commercialization. This is understandable, of course. When I feel grateful to a teacher, I, too, don't want to see them besmirched in any way.

Yet it's also worth looking at these specific concerns, because as meditation and mindfulness spread, they are only going to intensify. I'm going to focus on two of them: the question of the guru and the very related question of money and vulgarization.

Was Goenka a guru? I admit, when I first came across his work, I thought so. I had come up through the more egalitarian community created by some of his students, and was astonished to learn that at Goenka retreats, most of the teaching was done by Goenka himself, recorded on video. Compared to the live give-and-take that was part of the retreats I'd done, this seemed authoritarian and weird.

And yet, as I learned more about Goenka and his vast, global network of communities, I began to revise those initial impressions. Goenka never set himself up as someone to be blindly followed, never changed his name or wore special clothes, and never got rich from his teaching (more on that below). If a guru is a teacher claiming super-human powers, or demanding obedience, Goenka was definitely not that.

But why the fear of association? The guru is a venerable institution in many Asian traditions. There are many who say that without totally submitting yourself to a teacher, your ego will always get in the way of learning. You'll hear what you want to hear, do what you want to do -- and so you'll never get over your own self-centeredness.

Indeed, this is what some commenters complained about when it comes to contemporary mindfulness -- that it's vulgarized and watered down, that it caters to customers rather than instructs students. It's almost as if there are two poles being projected: slavish adherence to a guru at one end, narcissistic and vulgar 'spirituality' at the other.

And when it comes to vulgarization, we ain't seen nothing yet. As I describe in my book Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment -- being published next week! -- the Western world is at a point of inflection regarding the brain, the mind, and what to do about them. As I noted in the earlier article, there are one million new meditators each year in America, mostly encountering mindfulness in health care contexts, not as spiritual practice but as secular forms of relaxation. And this is only going to increase as the benefits of mindfulness become better quantified economically.

Understandably, this drives many meditators nuts. Goenka worked in a tradition oriented toward awakening, not chilling out. No wonder so many commenters sought to put down the commercial-yoga crowd.

Yet Gautama Buddha himself also had to navigate between these poles. He operated within the guru tradition in 6th-century-BCE India, and although he insisted that he should only be regarded as an enlightened human being, he has nonetheless been venerated as a god by millions of people. Practitioners of secular mindfulness (including Goenka's method) are often shocked to enter a Buddhist temple and see people praying, bowing, and presenting offerings. But like it or not, for millions of people, Buddhism is indeed a religion.

At the same time, the Buddha himself demanded that students discover the truth for themselves, and test all of his teachings according to their own experience. This remains a radical teaching even today.

And sure enough, he was attacked for it. Just as today's meditation purists attack the commercializers, so the spiritual teachers of the Buddha's day attacked him for teaching laypeople, for not insisting on rigorous austerity, for declining to take a stand on key philosophical questions. And, make no mistake, Goenka's orthodox critics attacked him in the same way. To this day, there are many who believe that teaching non-monks is a mistake.

In other words, the debates surrounding Goenka, and many other contemporary teachers, are not so new. How much authority do we surrender to another person? How much do we adjust what we have to say, based on the capacity of the listener to hear it?

We see different answers to these questions not only in spiritual schools (Transcendental Meditation, with its magical thinking and powerful guru, provides an interesting point of contrast to Goenka's teaching) but throughout our political and social lives. As Jonathan Haidt has pointed out, some of us favor more authority, others more egalitarianism. The difference is almost one of taste.

And yet, there are some new elements here, which I think are liberating ones. On balance, I think it's good that our current cultural values are skeptical of gurus, financial exploitation, and hucksterism. (As for Goenka's organization, yes, they don't charge for retreats, but they do solicit donations, and have considerable assets under management.) Personally, I'm in between the generation that Dylan told "don't follow leaders" and the generation that created Occupy, but I think all of us are shaped by both.

And that's a good thing. In the meditation world in particular, we've seen the tragic results of hierarchical spiritual traditions transplanted into Western contexts: scandals, abuse, even violence. Conversely, some of the most exciting trends in the evolving dharma world are networked, peer-led communities like Buddhist Geeks and the Dharma Overground, where practitioners help one another rather than rely on authority from above. And out in the "real" worlds of business, politics, and society, of course, the abuses of authority are even more apparent. Power corrupts.

And that is a lesson most of us need to re-learn every day. So... how about another mindful breath?
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PostSubject: Re: S. N. Goenka died yesterday - "The Man who Taught the World to Meditate"   Mon Jun 16, 2014 11:39 pm

8,000 Miles to India

An encounter with S. N. Goenka by Bill Higgins - Tricycle.com

The first piece of wisdom I gathered as a 21-year-old going to India in 1971 was: Don’t do it in mid-June. That’s when the pre-monsoon season hits its hot, dry peak. Oddly, there were bizarre ways—mostly the visual and sensory overload—in which India resembled Las Vegas, but universal air-conditioning was not one of them. Into this stifling heat arrived thousands of baby boomers who had come overland. Ground transportation cost roughly $40 from Istanbul. Buses, trains, and shuttles would take you in relative comfort—really, the transportation itself wasn’t that bad—through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and into India. The French called the route Le Grand Boulevard. At that time, the dollar got about 11 rupees on the black market (7 in banks, though I never met a foreigner who had ever entered one), and a frugal person could live fairly well on $1 or so per day. I don’t remember paying more than 60 cents for a place to stay. An Indian thali meal cost around a rupee or two. A cup of chai was pennies. On the downside, there was no such thing as bottled water, and stomach problems were endemic—and you don’t want to hear about Indian bathrooms.

If the first problems were the heat and the gastrointestinal distress, the next was figuring India out. A few years later, Lonely Planet published an almost overachieving guidebook that decoded travel in the subcontinent. But in 1971, a lot was left to luck. Mostly you learned by bumping into people who knew their way around.

My luck improved when I stayed at a “rest house” near New Delhi’s Connaught Place, where an Anglo-Indian woman rented space in her crowded second-floor apartment to foreigners. She also had a thing about letting stray dogs wander around. Whatever your mind conjures up about the wretched condition of Indian stray dogs is right. It was the kind of place where you would lie on a decrepit Raj-era couch in a muggy room thinking, “This is not the reason I came 8,000 miles to India,” while a mangy dog licked your hand. What got me out of there was a guy named Alan Abrams, who would later go on to a successful career as a film sound editor. He told me he’d heard of a Buddhist meditation teacher named Golunka-ji, and if we left on the 15-hour train trip that night, we could travel the 650 miles to Bodh Gaya in time for a 10-day course. What was there to lose? The trip itself was the standard overcrowded third-class Indian train ride. I think we had tickets, but it didn’t seem to matter. We found the ashram where the meditation course would be held easily enough and learned the teacher was not “Golunka-ji” but S. N. Goenka, who was then 47. An ethnically Indian student of Burma’s Sayagyi U Ba Khin, Goenka had begun teaching Vipassana in India two years earlier. Attending courses at the centers he later started would be by donation only, but back then we had to contribute to the expenses, around $5 each. There were about 50 students, almost equally split between male and female, Indian and foreign. What we had in common is that most of us were truly terrible meditation students.

The retreat was supposed to be held in silence, but people spoke incessantly, the Indians probably even more than the foreigners. What you discovered right away is that if you weren’t keeping silent, a meditation course was a great place to meet people. The Indians were curious about the hippies who had descended on their country, and before this trip I hadn’t met anyone from India. So we would hang out in the garden and talk. There were some nice times.

For his part, Goenka really only insisted on us coming to the three-times-daily group meditations. In fact, we were supposed to be meditating most of the day—“maintaining the continuity of practice,” in his words—beginning at four a.m. and ending at nine p.m., but that wasn’t enforced. For most of us, those three sessions were hard enough. The foreigners had no experience sitting cross-legged on a hard floor, and we were crammed knee-to-knee in a room with little ventilation. (Sweating profusely was just one of the sensations we were told to watch with equanimity.)

I think the biggest revelation, at least for the foreigners, was how completely out of control our minds were. Meditation held a mirror up to our laissez-faire mental chaos. No one had told us, in my case certainly not in Catholic school, that there was something wrong with a mental state where internal dialogue yammered away 24/7. Goenka would use the analogy of sprinkling water on a hot metal plate to describe the way Vipassana would slowly quiet our minds. It was going to take something like a Niagara Falls of meditation to quiet this mind.

Over the next year, I took more courses with Goenka-ji in India. A notable one was in December 1971 in an old residential section of Bombay. A few days after the course began, so did the Indo-Pakistani War. One night the sky lit up with hundreds of anti-aircraft bursts when the Indians thought a Pakistani jet was approaching the city. (I never heard a confirmed reason for the shooting, although rumor had it that the military had mistakenly targeted an Air France flight.) You could hear the shrapnel from the shells landing like hard rain on the metal roofs.

None of this seemed to bother Goenka. On top of his less-than-perfect students and a location in a Bombay neighborhood whose population density made New York’s East Village seem like Wyoming, now he had anti-aircraft shells exploding over his meditation course. But he just kept at it. Maybe that was as much a part of his teaching as the Vipassana. His gentle persistence and an amicable tolerance for his students’ limitations led to his having 120 permanent meditation centers around the world. And while I was certainly not one of his better students, I keep at the Vipassana myself.

When I heard of his death on September 29 at 89, I realized that he had been a spiritual father figure to me. Those meditation courses had changed my life. As chaotic as the whole process of traveling to India had been, there was a reason to make the trip: those kinds of teachings, that kind of wisdom, and a meditation practice that would integrate into your life simply weren’t available then except in India and Southeast Asia. I’d like to think that the hundreds who studied with S. N. Goenka in those early days repaid him, in part, by becoming the ants who carried the dharma to the West.

Bill Higgins is a Los Angeles-based journalist currently writing for The Hollywood Reporter.

Image: Meditation teacher S. N. Goenka in Bodh Gaya, India, July 1971. Courtesy of the author.
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