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The Universal Meditation Technique of S.N. Goenka

Norman Fischer interviews S.N. Goenka

Hundreds of thousands of people—from iliterate Indian farmers to Roman Catholic priests—have benefited from the famed 10-day meditation course pioneered by vipassana teacher S.N. Goenka. Drawing from the Buddha's earliest teachings, Goenka teaches a simple yet powerful technique of close attention to every sensation.  

Norman Fischer: Please tell us, if you will, how you became involved in practicing and teaching Buddhist meditation.

S.N. Goenka: At first, I hesitated in getting into the Buddha's teaching. I was born and raised in Burma in a very staunch, conservative Hindu family. We were told from a very young age that the Buddha was wonderful because he was an incarnation of Vishnu. But his teaching was not considered good for us.

However in 1955, at the age of 31, I started experiencing severe migraines and couldn't get any help or relief. At that time, a very good friend—I have always been very grateful to him—said, "Go and take this ten-day meditation course." I hesitated. If I became a Buddhist, what would happen to me? I wouldn't believe in a soul, I wouldn't believe in God. Then I would go to hell. No, this was not for me.

I hesitated for a few months, but then my friend pushed me again: "Why don't you go and see U Ba Khin?" As well as being a teacher of vipassana (insight meditation), U Ba Khin was a householder, and in fact, a government official. When I went to see him, I immediately felt that he was a saintly person. The first thing I said was, "I have come for my migraine headaches." He said, "No, Goenka, I can't help you. Go to a doctor."

Because of that response, I was very much drawn to him. You see, at the time I was a very popular person in my own community. I was president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as well as president or secretary of at least twenty social organizations, including hospitals and schools. Usually, a guru feels great about having such a prominent person as a student. But instead he said, "No, I won't take you." He had no attachment to name or fame or gain. He explained very lovingly, "Look, what I teach is a path of high spirituality from India, but our country has lost it. Don't devalue it. Don't make use of this technique to treat some physical disease. This technique is to take you out of all misery, not just the misery of a migraine."

His approach attracted me, but I was still doubtful. This was Buddhism, after all. Then he asked me a question: "You are a leader of the Hindu community here in Burma. Does your Hindu religion have any objection to sila [Pali: morality]?" No religion in the world would say that they are against morality. So I replied, "No sir, I have no objection to sila."

He continued: "How can you observe sila if you have no control over your mind? I will teach you control of the mind. I will teach you samadhi." In Hindu scripture, samadhi, concentration, is regarded as a very high thing. The rishis, the great meditators, all do samadhi. But we householders don't know what samadhi is. We revere samadhi, but we don't know what it is. If somebody wants then that is wonderful. "No sir," I replied, "I have no objection to samadhi."

Then he said, "Well, mere samadhi won't do. It will control your mind, but deep inside the behavior pattern is like a sleeping volcano. It will erupt again, and you will forget everything and you will break your sila. So I will teach you the purification from the deepest level of the mind, panna [Pali: wisdom]. Do you have any objection to panna?"

At the time, I was a teacher of the Bhagavad Gita. I'd been explaining prajna [Sanskrit: wisdom] to people, but I never really knew it, I never practiced it. It was mere talk. Many times after giving a lecture on prajna, I would come home and feel so sorry. Why had I spoken of all these things? I had no trace of liberation from craving, liberation from aversion. I had so much ego and yet I talked of prajna. So I said to U Ba Khin, "If somebody teaches me panna, no sir, I have no objection."

"Well Goenka," he replied," I will teach you only sila, samadhi and panna. Nothing else. Just accept that. If you accept that, then come." So I took the ten-day course and I found it good. The teachings of the Buddha were so complete, so pure.

Norman Fischer: In my Zen practice and in other forms of Buddhist practice, there is a lot of ritual, and also clergy and hierarchy. Do you feel there's any benefit or advantage for Buddhism in ritual?

S.N. Goenka: I don't wish to condemn anybody, but if my teacher had asked me to perform rites or rituals, I would have said good-bye. My own Hindu tradition was full of rituals and ceremonies, so to start again with another set of rituals didn't make sense. But my teacher said, "No ritual. Buddha taught only sila, samadhi, panna. Nothing else. There is nothing to be added and nothing to be subtracted." As the Buddha said, "Kevalaparipunnam." [Pali: "The whole technique is complete by itself."]

Norman Fischer: Can you please tell us about your course of instruction in vipassana-the details of it, how it goes, how you teach people?

S.N. Goenka:
Everyone who comes to the basic ten-day vipassana course must take five precepts, because morality is very important as a basis. New students, at least for those ten days, must observe these precepts very scrupulously. If one keeps on breaking sila, one cannot practice at all. After the ten days are completed, students are their own masters. If they find it is good for them to continue with the precepts, then they can do so. Older students take eight precepts.

For the samadhi aspect of the program, we work with the respiration, the breath. We use the natural breath as it comes in and as it goes out, keeping attention to a limited area-the entrance of the nostrils. Then from the fourth day onward one is trained to observe the sensations throughout the body-pleasant, unpleasant or neutral-and understand their basic nature. Every sensation has the same nature: arising, passing away, arising, passing away.

Understanding this impermanence, one maintains equanimity as much as possible. One doesn't react, and not reacting starts changing the habit pattern at the deep level of the mind. Over time, one has built up and strengthened the blind habit pattern of reaction. Any pleasant experience-craving. Any unpleasant experience-aversion. This habit pattern has to be broken. It can be broken at the surface level, but the Buddha wanted to purify the totality of the mind, so we work at the deepest level.

Norman Fischer:
Do practitioners simply observe whatever sensations arise in the body, or do they go systematically through the different parts of the body?

S.N. Goenka: We use a systematic approach. We want the students to reach the stage where they experience all kinds of sensations and experience them in every part of the body. If you work systematically, then the stage of experiencing all kinds of sensations throughout the body comes much earlier.

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