The well-known global populariser of Vipassana meditation, S.N. (Satya Narayan) Goenka passed away last night in his home in Mumbai at the age of 89. I had the great fortune of seeing him speak in Montana around ten years ago and ever since then, his voice has been the one I hear when reading meditation instructions to myself.
Originally of Indian descent, Goenka was born and raised in Burma, where he became a successful businessman. The story he told about his journey to Buddhism is one many of us can relate to: suffering. In the midst of his wealth and success, Goenka began to develop inreasingly painful and debilitating migraine headaches. With his wealth he was able to travel the world to see expert neurologists in search for a cure, but nothing worked.
Finally he went to one of the leading teachers of meditation in Burma, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, who taught him vipassana. After some time with the practice, the pain subsided and Goenka’s entire life focus shifted to sharing the technique that had saved him from his life of suffering. Since then he traveled the world, establishing vipassana retreat and training centers while offering the simplified and direct version of the Buddha’s Dhamma that typifies much of Buddhist Modernism, with statements like, “The Buddha never taught a sectarian religion; he taught Dhamma – the way to liberation – which is universal.”
While McMahon (author of “The Making of Buddhist Modernism“) considers this and similar statements to indicate a kind of “antitraditionalism,” other labels such as “expansionism” or “universalizing” or my own here: “popularizing” can better describe his activities. He didn’t ever seem to be opposed to tradition explicitely, but rather tried to get people to look beyond the confines of this or that tradition. In a 2000 UN Peace Summit speech, he said “Let us focus on the commonalities of all religions, on the inner core of all religions which is purity of heart. We should all give importance to this aspect of religion and avoid conflict over the outer shell of the religions, which is various rites, rituals, festivals and dogmas.” True to his vipassana roots, however, most of his teaching focused on living mindfully in the moment, seeing the true nature of reality in terms of its impermanence, not-self, and unsatisfactoriness:
Real wisdom is recognizing and accepting that every experience is impermanent. With this insight you will not be overwhelmed by ups and downs. And when you are able to maintain an inner balance, you can choose to act in ways that will create happiness for you and for others.
Living each moment happily with an equanimous mind, you will surely progress toward the ultimate goal of liberation from all suffering.
A sensation appears, and liking or disliking begins. This fleeting moment, if we are unaware of it, is repeated and intensified into craving and aversion, becoming a strong emotion that eventually overpowers the conscious mind. We become caught up in the emotion, and all our better judgment is swept aside. The result is that we find ourselves engaged in unwholesome speech and action, harming ourselves and others. We create misery for ourselves, suffering now and in the future, because of one moment of blind reaction.
But if we are aware at the point where the process of reaction begins–that is, if we are aware of the sensation–we can choose not to allow any reaction to occur or to intensify… in those moments the mind is free. Perhaps at first these may be only a few moments in a meditation period, and the rest of the time the mind remains submerged in the old habit of reaction to sensations, the old round of craving, aversion, and misery. But with repeated practice those few brief moments will become seconds, will become minutes, until finally the old habit of reaction is broken, and the mind remains continuously at peace. This is how suffering can be stopped.
The notice from his Vipassana Research Institute simply reads:
Param Pujya Gurudev Shri Satya Narayan Goenka, Global Acharya of Vipassana Meditation, has passed away peacefully at the ripe age of 90 at his residence on Sunday, 29th September, 2013 at 10:40 PM, Indian Time.
His Funeral will be held on Tuesday, 1st October 2013 at 10:30 AM, Indian Time, at Electric Funeral Ground near Oshiwara Bridge, Relief Road, (Opposite Ghaswala Compound), Jogeshwari West, Mumbai, India.
May he be happy, peaceful & liberated.
”All conditioned things are transitory. When one understands this with wisdom, then he is disgusted with suffering. This is the path to purity.” -Dhammapada-277
Arun Likhati of Dharma Folk shares his memories, beginning, “It was my first ten-day retreat, and it changed my life” here.
David from The Endless Further writes “Where there is darkness, light is needed.“
[Please share links to other posts/articles worthy of mention in the comments – thanks!]