“When there is darkness, light is needed.”

“When there is darkness, light is needed. Today, with so much agony caused by violent conflict, war and bloodshed, the world badly needs peace and harmony. This is a great challenge for religious and spiritual leaders. Let us accept this challenge.”

– S. N. Goenka, August 29 2000, United Nations

goenkaSatya Narayan Goenka, one of the most important teachers of Buddhism meditation in our time, passed away on September 29th. He was 89 years old.

He was born in Burma as a Hindu, and as an adult become a very successful businessman. He was not happy, however. He suffered from debilitating migraine headaches brought on by stress, which he tried to treat medically with drugs. Around this time, he met Sayagyi U Ba Khin, the first Accountant-General of independent Myanmar. U Ba Khin also taught meditation, and it was from him that Goenka learned the Vipsassana method. In 1969, Goenka went to India and since then his Vipsassana teachings have spread all over the globe.

He was not an ordained teacher, but just a man who had discovered a way to calm the mind and endeavored to share it with as many people he could. He didn’t like calling what he taught Buddhism. At the same time, he didn’t try to distance himself from it, or give what he taught another name, create a new “ism.” He simply called it dhamma (dharma), or by calling it Vipassana, he was saying, it’s just meditation.

I heard Goenka speak once at UCLA. I was impressed with his secular, non-sectarian approach, and although his Buddhist orientation was the Theravada tradition, his teachings seemed firmly rooted in compassion, a real appreciation for the spirit of “practice for oneself and others.”

Vipassana means “insight,” a form of meditation said to have been taught by the historical Buddha. In most cases, there is very little difference between vipassana and anapanasati or “mindfulness of breathing.” In the West, it’s often called Insight Meditation. As far as I know, Goenka Vipassana courses are always offered free of charge. And they are usually fairly intense, 10-day affairs, in which a “Code of Disipline” is taught in tandem with the practice. I’ve never taken one of these courses, but I have a lot of respect for this approach, and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anything negative about it.

It should be noted that Goenka was one of those responsible for reintroducing Buddhist meditation to the country of its origin, India, and other Theravada countries, where it had become a lost art. One of the more significant accomplishments of Goenka’s Vipsassana movement was bring meditation to prisons. In the early 70s, Vipassana courses were taught for both police officers and inmates beginning with the Central Jail in Jaipur. Since 1997, The North American Vipassana Prison Trust (VPT) had brought Goenka Vipassana courses to dozens of prisons in the United States.

Here are some “sayings” from this important teacher:

What is Dhamma?
Dhamma is not a religion.
Dhamma is a code of conduct.
Dhamma is an ethical, moral way of life.
Dhamma is an art of living.
Dhamma is to live a happy, healthy, wholesome life.
Dhamma is to live peacefully and harmoniously within oneself and generate a peaceful and harmonious atmosphere around oneself.

“Anyone belonging to any country, creed, caste, color, gender, status, profession in society can practice Vipassana and get the same wholesome results. The tree gives sweet or bitter fruit depending on the seed that is planted, and not whether a Muslim planted it, a Hindu planted it, or whether a Christian planted it . . . as the seed is, so the fruit will be. This is the law of nature, universal and applicable to all, anywhere, at all times. So too is Vipassana, a universal technique, a practical tool enabling one to live according to the law of nature or Dhamma, and enjoy the sweet fruits of Dhamma.”

“When we practice Buddha-Dhamma, we are not getting involved in a particular sect. Rather, we are actually working to develop in ourselves the nature of a Buddha – to attain freedom from craving, aversion, delusion. And the means by which we develop this nature is the practice of sila [ethics], samadhi [meditation], panna [wisdom], which is universally acceptable to all.”


The Dhamma Brothers

The Dhamma Brothers is a remarkable documentary about inmates at an Alabama prison who do a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat. It’s currently being shown on PBS stations around the country.

Vipassana, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a traditional form of Buddhist meditation. The Vipassana course taught at the prison was based on the program developed by S. N. Goenka.

Although this was not the purpose of the documentary, as an introduction to the teachings of Buddhism, The Dhamma Brothers was far superior to The Buddha shown on PBS a few weeks ago. I found this to be a powerful film, with fresh insights into the process of meditation, and overall, a very positive message. The Vipassana program appears to offer some hope to men in a hopeless situation.

The Goenka approach to meditation is non-sectarian. “It’s not that it’s teaching a religion,” says Warden Stephen Bullard in the film. “It’s teaching a meditation practice that was born there.” The warden goes on to say that if the Vipassana teachers came in and tried to teach against Christianity, and to teach Buddhism, it would become a problem.

Apparently, it did anyway. This film was released to theaters in 2008 (and won quite a few awards), but for television they have cut out some of the more controversial elements. The film now only deals briefly with the controversy that resulted in shutting down the Vipassana program. The Wikipedia article on the film states, “According to New York Times reviewer Whitney Joiner this was because the chaplain of the prison complained to administrators that he was losing his inmate congregation. In December 2005, the prison administration changed and the meditation program was allowed to begin again. The film also includes interviews with local residents who provide statements that are negative about the meditation program, perceiving it as anti-Christian. One resident compared Buddhism with witchcraft.” Very little of that was in the film I watched.

The Dhamma Brothers offers some excellent instructions regarding the philosophy of meditation. One of the meditation teachers says, “No one is telling them what to look at or how to change. They have been getting their insights from within themselves.”

One of the prisoners comments, “I thought my greatest fear was growing old and dying in prison. In truth, my biggest fear was growing old and not knowing myself.” Another says, “When you start to practice Vipassana, you can’t hide anymore.”

And some great insight on how to teach: “We can’t really expect the men to do anything. Our job is, you know, just to give. The results really are up to the men.”

If you want to find out when this excellent film will be showing in your area, go to The Dhamma Brothers website here.