“Peace in the world cannot be achieved unless there is peace within individuals”—S. N. Goenka
Buddhist Vipassana teacher speaks in Minneapolis July 12
“EVERYONE SEEKS PEACE and harmony because these are what we lack in our lives. From time to time we all experience agitation, irritation, disharmony, suffering and when one suffers from agitation, one does not keep this misery limited to oneself. One keeps distributing it to others as well. The agitation permeates the atmosphere around the miserable person. Everyone who comes into contact with him also becomes irritated, agitated. Certainly this is not the proper way to live.”
So began S. N. Goenka in a talk on “The Art of Living” in Berne, Switzerland. Described as the foremost lay teacher of Vipassana meditation in the world, Mr. Goenka teaches a tradition that is traced back to the Buddha. Born in 1924, S. N. Goenka was a prominent Indian businessman in Burma (Myanmar) until a new military government nationalized all industry in 1962. He has been studying and teaching Vipassana meditation since 1956, and established his center near Bombay in 1974. He has personally taught tens of thousands of people in more than 400 10-day courses in Asia, North America, Europe, and Australasia. His 700 assistant teachers, with the help of thousands of volunteers, have held Vipassana courses in more than 90 countries around the world; about 100,000 people attend courses each year.
“Vipassana” means “seeing things as they really are.” It is described as a practical method of self-awareness that makes it possible to face the tensions and problems of daily life in a calm and balanced way. It is learned through an intensive 10-day residential course.
A remarkable aspect of Mr. Goenka’s work is the prison ministry. Two documentary films are available on this work: the award-winning “Doing Time, Doing Vipassana,” about the effects of meditation in a 10,000 inmate Indian jail, and “Changing from Inside,” about a pilot program for women inmates in a Seattle jail. Courses are held regularly in prisons in the United States, as well as in India and the United Kingdom.
As part of his April-August 2002 U. S. tour (his only extended tour in the West), Mr. Goenka will appear in Minneapolis July 12 at the Ted Mann Concert Hall at 7 p.m. There is no charge for this event. It is, in fact, a unique aspect of all his organization’s events that they are offered free of any charge, including the 10-day course Mr. Goenka presented this spring for U.S. business and government leaders following his keynote speech at the Spirit in Business Conference in New York. All expenses are met by donations from people who have already completed courses.
Following is a recent interview with Mr. Goenka.
Twin Cities WELLNESS (TCW): TCW’s focus for this year is peacemaking and global wellness. How do you think an individual's meditation practice influences peace?
S. N. Goenka: You see, to get peace in the world it is absolutely essential that there must be peace in the mind of the individual. Society is made up of individuals, and if the individual’s mind remains agitated, and we expect peace in the world, I think it’s not possible. So although it takes time to work with individuals . . . Let us say the whole forest has withered away, and we want it to again become green and blooming, we need to give water to the root of every tree. Every tree must become green and then the whole forest becomes green. And so we work with individuals, and from the individuals more and more individuals get attracted.
Do you think an individual's meditation practice really has an influence on the world? How?
Yes, you see, first one develops peace and harmony within oneself, and then naturally, if one goes to the depth of the mind, with peace and harmony, one generates vibrations which get permeated in the atmosphere around, and that generates a kind of peace and harmony in the atmosphere also. And as more and more people start working on it, more and more the atmosphere gets charged with peace and harmony.
What do you think are the key requisites for a person to be able to do this course and this practice?
For me, every person is capable of doing it. It is so simple and it’s so logical and scientific that people find no difficulty in accepting it and working on it. And that is why people from different traditions, different backgrounds, they come and get the same benefit out of it. We don’t have to choose meditators.
But in the prison videos, some made the commitment and others didn’t. What do you think makes the difference?
If even a few have taken this, and a change comes in their life, others naturally get attracted. Now a large number of prisoners in India and also abroad are demanding these courses, and we can’t supply so many teachers, so the demand is there, people are getting attracted because when they see their fellow prisoners in a better position than before, and coming out of so many types of different addictions, and all, they want it. So initially a few will come, and then slowly all the prisoners in the jail start meditating.
You have done significant work in prisons, and you are also very familiar with the business world. Are there differences between the challenges that prisoners face in doing the practice and the challenges that, say, business people face?
For me, everyone is a prisoner, a prisoner of one’s own unwholesome habit pattern at the depth of the mind. Everybody’s suffering because of that. And the technique takes you to the depth of the mind when you see how, out of ignorance, one keeps on generating nothing but misery for oneself. Every moment, one keeps on reacting at the depth of the mind by craving or by aversion, and becomes agitated. This technique makes people realize that, and this starts helping them to come out of their habit pattern of misery. So it is the same, whether one is a prisoner or one is outside, it makes no difference.
This seems to be an entirely mental, observational practice. The Buddha preached compassion, or loving kindness, and I see it in your actions and those of the assistant teachers in the videos, but where does it appear in the practice?
It automatically comes in the practice. When the mind is full of negativities, anger, hatred, ill will, animosity, then there can’t be real love, compassion, goodwill. So the whole technique is to get rid of these negativities. And the technique is so scientific that people easily start getting rid of all that, and their nature becomes full of love, compassion, they won’t have to generate special love for anybody. It is just love, compassion.
So it just comes up automatically.
Automatically. The pure mind, by nature, is full of love, compassion, goodwill. It is only the negativity that defiles the mind. And if the negativities are gone, the mind is again very pure. Like our cloth becomes stained, and when we wash it with soap, again it becomes white and clean, the same with the mind that has been agitated because of the impurities that have come. When those impurities go away, then automatically it is full of love, compassion, goodwill.
What is the relationship of the practice to spirituality, that is, to becoming aligned with the Divine?
For me, spirituality is quite independent of this religion or that religion, or even no religion. Spirituality is a way of life, how to live. It’s a code of conduct, how to live a moral life, with a disciplined mind, pure mind, full of love, compassion, goodwill, tolerance. This can be practiced by anyone, whether one believes in this religious tradition or that religious tradition, it makes no difference.
Well, mind keeps on influencing the body as the body keeps on influencing the mind. If the mind is sound, healthy, wholesome, it has very good effect on the body also. And we have found many psychosomatic diseases automatically go away, although the aim is not to help people to come out of these psychosomatic diseases, but as the mind becomes purer and purer, it has good effect on the body.
If the mind is impure, full of defilements, anger, hatred, ill will, animosity, passion, ego, et cetera, this is a sick mind. And a sick mind is a weak mind. It harms oneself and harms others also. Whenever I generate negativity, whether anger or hatred or anything, I am the first victim of my negativity. By this technique one starts realizing, “Look, when I generate negativity, there is a lot of burning sensation, palpitation increases, tension gets built up, so I am a miserable person. I am generating misery for myself.” By this experience, people start coming out of their wrong habits of harming themselves and others. When I generate anger, hatred, I am the first victim, I become agitated, I become miserable, and I don’t keep this misery limited to myself. I keep on throwing this misery on others. I make the entire atmosphere around me so tense, anybody who comes in contact with me at that time becomes miserable. So this is not the proper way of life, harming myself and harming others. With spirituality you don’t harm yourself, you don’t harm others, you generate peace and harmony within, and you feel peace and harmony in the atmosphere outside so that others can also live in peace and harmony.
And that also makes one more effective?
Quite true. If you are yourself agitated, how can you help others, how can you affect others? A lame person cannot support another lame person. A blind person cannot show the path to another blind person. So first we must be very strong, healthy, wholesome, then naturally it gives strength to the whole atmosphere outside and to the people outside.
Well, we believe there is no change because the words of Buddha have been also preserved for these 2,500 years in Burma, in Sri Lanka, in Thailand, in Cambodia, in Laos. And now at our center a research organization has been started, and all the words of Buddha and the commentaries and sub-commentaries are put in the CD-ROM, and we find that the practice tallies perfectly with the words of Buddha. Actually, to me Buddha was a super-scientist of spirituality. He discovered so many things which people didn’t know. And he made use of them, for his liberation, and he helped people to get liberated. And those things are so in line with Buddha’s words that we can be sure that the tradition is pure.
About S. N. Goenka:
A prolific writer and poet, Mr. Goenka composes in English, Hindi and Rajasthani, and his works have been translated into many languages.
S. N. Goenka event July 12, 7 p.m., at Ted Mann Concert Hall, University of Minnesota's West Bank campus. Free and open to the public. For directions call 612-626-8742 or visit www.music.umn.edu. For general information about the talk, call 651-649-4725.
Vipassana meditation courses, open to everyone without charge, will be held June 26-July 7 in Bagley, Wisconsin, and August 7-18 in Hinckley, Minnesota. For further information or registration, call Midwest Vipassana Association, c/o Julie, 952-922-1701. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Web site: www.dhamma.org.
Judy Steele is a living-skills teacher, Huna teacher, counselor and coach with a master’s degree in transpersonal psychology and over 30 years of experience is working with the mental, emotional and spiritual roots of effective living and working. Contact: email@example.com or 952-943-8249. Web site: www.schoolforliving.org.