Satya Narayan Goenka (born 1924) is a leading lay teacher of Vipassanā meditation and a student of Sayagyi U Ba Khin. He has trained more than 800 assistant teachers and each year more than 100,000 people attend Goenka led Vipassana courses.
Goenka emphasises that, “The Buddha never taught a sectarian religion; he taught Dhamma – the way to liberation – which is universal” and presents his teachings as non-sectarian and open to people of all faiths or no faith. Goenka calls Vipassana meditation an experiential scientific practice, through which one can observe the constantly changing nature of the mind and body at the deepest level, a profound understanding that leads to a truly happy and peaceful life. Goenka Ji has also been conferred the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian honour in India for social work on the occasion of India’s 63rd republic day
Mr Satya Narayan Goenka (born 1924) is a Principal Teacher of Vipassana, the practical quintessence of the Buddha’s teaching and a student of Sayagyi U Ba Khin . He has trained more than 800 assistant teachers and each year more than 100,000 people attend Vipassana courses.
Goenkaji emphasises that, “The Buddha never taught a sectarian religion; he taught Dhamma – the way to liberation – which is universal” and presents his teachings as non-sectarian and open to people of all faiths or no faith. Goenkaji calls Vipassana meditation an experiential scientific practice, through which one can observe the constantly changing nature of the mind and body at the deepest level, a profound understanding that leads to a truly happy and peaceful life.
A leading industrialist in Myanmar (Burma) after the Second World War, Goenkaji, as he is affectionately known, is living proof that the mental exercise of meditation is necessary for a wholesome and beneficial life. Known for his humility, deep compassion, unperturbed composure, Mr. Goenka’s emphasis on the self-dependent, non-sectarian and result-oriented nature of Vipassana found appeal in a world searching for a practical path out of stress and suffering.
As an indicator of the increasing universal acceptance of the Buddha’s scientific teachings, Mr. Goenka has been invited to lecture by institutions as diverse as the United Nations General Assembly, members of the Indian Parliament, Harvard Business Club, Dharma Drum Mountain Monastery (of Ven. Sheng Yen) in Taiwan, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the Smithsonian Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Silicon Valley Indian Professionals Association.
Mr. Goenka’s success in service comes from being an inspiring example and an ideal, and of practicing what he asks his students to practice. “Develop purity in yourself if you wish to encourage others to follow the path of purity,” he told an annual meeting in Dhamma Giri, Igatpuri, on March 1, 1989. “Discover real peace and harmony within yourself, and naturally this will overflow to benefit others.”
Mr. Goenka is a tireless worker. In 2002, at the age of 78, he undertook a remarkable Dhamma tour of the West. Accompanied by his wife Illaichidevi Goenka, a few senior teachers and students, he traveled for 128 days through Europe and North America, joy fully sharing the priceless gift of Vipassana. The second leg of the tour was a 13,000-mile road journey in a motor caravan through the United States and Canada.
Goenka is a prolific orator, writer and a poet. He writes in English, Hindi and Rajasthani languages. He has traveled widely and lectured to audiences worldwide including at the World Economic Forum, Davos, and at the “Millennium World Peace Summit” at the United Nations in August, 2000. For four months in 2002, he undertook the Meditation Now Tour of North America.
A nearly 100-meter-tall pagoda in the outskirts of Mumbai named the Global Vipassana Pagoda was recently completed by students of S.N. Goenka. The pagoda is to serve as a monument of peace and harmony.
Students are encouraged to examine and test their own experience at the experiential level by observing themselves with equanimity, and examining the results. The technique involves adherence to a moral code and the observation of sensations.
To quiet the mind during Vipassana courses, students are asked to have no contact with the outside world or other students, though they may talk to an assistant teacher about questions concerning the technique or to a student manager for any material problems. Mere observation of breath allows the mind to become naturally concentrated, a practice called Anapana. This concentration prepares one for the main part of the practice—non-attached observation of the reality of the present moment, as it manifests in one’s own mind and body. This is the Vipassana practice itself which involves carefully “scanning” the surface of the body with one’s attention and observing the sensations with equanimity, becoming progressively more aware of their ever-changing nature.
Goenka explains in his talks that the practice of Vipassana is the essence of the path of Dhamma, the path to Truth. He does not claim that this Vipassana tradition is the only way to Truth, and constantly reminds students of the Universal and non-sectarian quality of this path. However he claims that an authentic tradition survived in Burma, passing from teacher to student in a long lineage from the time of the Buddha to his teacher, U Ba Khin, and now through himself, to the student.
In his courses and lectures Goenka describes Vipassana meditation as a scientific investigation of the mind-matter phenomenon.
The Vipassana Meditation Centers that he has helped to establish throughout the world offer 10-day courses that provide a thorough and guided introduction to the practice of Vipassana meditation. These courses are supported by voluntary donations of people who want to contribute for future courses. There are no charges for either the course or for the lodging and boarding during the course. Only donations made at the end of the course go towards paying for future new students.
With the ever-growing number of people learning Vipassana from these centers, Goenka tries to ensure that the whole network does not become a sectarian religion or cult. He recommends the expansion should be for the benefit of others, not mere expansion for the sake of expansion due to any blind belief—but with the intention may more people benefit, rather than for the sake of your own organization’s growth. Through the application process, however, much effort is made to prepare potential students for the rigorous and serious nature of the intensive 10-day meditation.
People with serious mental disorders have occasionally come to Vipassana courses with the unrealistic expectation that the technique will cure or alleviate their mental problems. Unstable interpersonal relationships and a history of various treatments can be additional factors which make it difficult for such people to benefit from, or even complete, a ten-day course. Our capacity as a nonprofessional volunteer organization makes it impossible for us to properly care for people with these backgrounds. Although Vipassana meditation is beneficial for most people, it is not a substitute for medical or psychiatric treatment and we do not recommend it for people with serious psychiatric disorders.
The organization of the centers are de-centralized and self-sufficient, and may be run by volunteers of varying experience, which may account for differences in attitudes and experiences. In an effort to provide a more uniform experience in all of the centers, all public instruction during the retreat is given by audio and video tapes of Goenka. When asked about problems related to growth and expansion, Goenka is quoted as:
The cause of the problem is included in the question. When these organizations work for their own expansion, they have already started rotting. The aim should be to increase other people’s benefits. Then there is a pure Dhamma volition and there is no chance of decay. When there is a Dhamma volition, “May more and more people benefit,” there is no attachment. But if you want your organization to grow, there is attachment and that pollutes Dhamma.
Students practicing Goenka’s Vipassana technique at the meditation centres are asked to agree to refrain from practicing any other religious practices. Concerning practices of other religions, Goenka says, “Understand. The names of many practices are all words of pure Dhamma, of Vipassana. But today the essence is lost; it is just a lifeless shell that people perform. And that has no benefit.”
Global Vipassana Pagoda
One of Goenka’s wishes was fulfilled in November 2008 when the construction of the Global Vipassana Pagoda was completed on the outskirts of Mumbai. He hopes that this monument will act as a bridge between different communities, different sects, different countries and different races to make the world a more harmonious and peaceful place.
The Pagoda contains the world’s largest pillar-less stone dome structure and is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world wanting to learn more about it and Vipassana meditation. Architecturally, this building is by far the largest single-span stone dome in the world, twice as big as the Basilica of St. Peter at the Vatican. At its centre is a circular meditation hall, 280 feet in diameter, which has a seating capacity of 8,000. At 325 feet height, it is almost as tall as a 30-story building. Approximately 2.5 million tons of stone was used in the construction.
The pagoda is seen by its creators as an expression of gratitude towards the Buddha and his teachings. It is also an expression of gratitude to the teachers who preserved the Buddha’s teaching to this day, especially to Ba Khin. By choosing the form of a Burmese pagoda, it is also a sign of gratitude to the country of Myanmar which kept the tradition alive for over 2000 years.
Vipassana Research Institute
Goenka believes that theory and practice should go hand-in-hand and accordingly has also established a Vipassana Research Institute to investigate and publish literature on Vipassana and its effects. The Vipassana Research Institute focusses on two main areas: translation and publication of the Pali texts, and research into the application of Vipassana in daily life.
Vipassana in prisons
Goenka was able to bring Vipassana meditation into prisons, first in India, and then in other countries. The organization estimates that as many as 10,000 prisoners, as well as many members of the police and military, have attended the 10-day courses.
‘Doing Time, Doing Vipassana’ is a documentary about the introduction of S.N. Goenka’ Vipassana 10-day classes to Tihar Jail in the early 1990s by then Inspector General of Prisons in New Delhi, Kiran Bedi. Bedi first had her guards trained then she had Goenka give his initial class to 1,000 prisoners.
The Dhamma Brothers is a documentary film released in 2007 about a prison Vipassana meditation program at Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, Alabama. The film concentrates on four inmates, all convicted of murder. It also includes interviews of guards, prison officials, and local residents and includes reenactments of the inmates’ crimes.