October 01, 2013

S. N. Goenka, Pioneer of Secular Meditation Movement, Dies at 90

Erik Braun

S. N. Goenka, leader of an enormously popular worldwide insight meditation (vipassana) movement, died on September 29 of natural causes in Mumbai, India. He was 90 years old.

Goenka came from a family of Indian extraction, but was born in 1924 in British Burma, a Theravada Buddhist culture. Seeking a cure for his debilitating migraines, Goenka consulted the lay meditation teacher U Ba Khin at his International Meditation Center (IMC) in Rangoon in 1956. While U Ba Khin refused to teach meditation for the purpose of curing headaches, the teacher’s demeanor nonetheless impressed Goenka. “I said to myself, ‘Look, this is another religion, Buddhism. And these people are atheists, they don’t believe in God or in the existence of a soul! If I become an atheist, then what will happen to me? Oh no, I had better die in my own religion. I will never go near them.” Still, he sensed an atmosphere of peace at the IMC that he wanted for himself. Eventually, he overcame his initial concerns and undertook a retreat.

By his own account, the ten-day course transformed him, showing him what he called “the dark chamber of the mind within . . . full of snakes and scorpions and centipedes, because of which I had to endure so much suffering.” He understood this nature of mind to be typical of all unawakened people. Meditation was, he realized, the way to cleanse the mind, to let light in and clear away the vermin. Vipassana was not part of a religion, then, but a nonsectarian technique available in the here and now to help all people, whether Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, or anything else. His reservations dissipated, and he became convinced that “[the Buddha] never taught any ‘ism’ or sectarian doctrine,” but rather “something from which people of every background can benefit: an art of living.”

Goenka studied another 14 years under U Ba Khin while conducting business in Rangoon and supporting his family of six sons. His own status as a layman would become part of the appeal of his movement. Just as Goenka stressed that vipassana, as a technique, was applicable to people of all faiths (or none), he also insisted that it was fully available to people living in the everyday world. In 1969, having been designated a teacher by U Ba Khin, he emigrated to Mumbai, India, and began to teach meditation there full time, first to his family but soon to others as word about his teachings spread.

Goenka presented meditation as the fundamental teaching of the Buddha. He matched his emphasis on vipassana as the heart of the Buddha’s teaching with an emphasis on the technique of observing the sensations of the body, which he understood to be handed down without any change whatsoever from the time of the Buddha:

Five centuries after the Buddha, the noble heritage of Vipassana had disappeared from India. The purity of the teaching was lost elsewhere as well. In the country of Myanmar, however, it was preserved by a chain of devoted teachers. From generation to generation, over two thousand years, this dedicated lineage transmitted the technique in its pristine purity.

This idea that meditation was what mattered most among the Buddha’s teachings, combined with the notion that it was open to all, detached such practice from any particular tradition. In fact, it made insight meditation a separate tradition in its own right.

Goenka tied this conception of an unchanging technique as the quintessence of Buddhism to a highly standardized method of instruction. Indeed, although there are hundreds of assistant teachers throughout the world who lead courses with the help of volunteers, even today the main sources of instruction during retreats are videotapes and audio recordings by Goenka himself. A commitment to never charging fees for courses, in addition to a highly standardized form of practice, supported his vision for accessible meditation.

The lack of any fees in particular made retreats accessible to all classes of people. In the 1970s this drew many Westerners on the “hippie trail” and increased Goenka’s popularity and renown. Some Westerners who took courses would go on to become influential meditation teachers, including Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, founders with Jack Kornfield of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS). Goenka’s organization of courses, shaped by his teacher U Ba Khin, influenced the structure of retreats in the West at IMS and elsewhere, with alternating periods of personal and group practice and periodic group interviews by teachers.

Goenka’s transformation of vipassana into a standalone movement has had a profound effect on general conceptions of Buddhist practice in the modern world. By presenting meditation as a universal art of living, Goenka enabled practice to further permeate societies as a secular technique, especially in Europe and North America. His later efforts, such as founding a research institute to study vipassana’s social effects and, in 2002, touring 35 North American cities to spread the word about meditation, further reinforced the popular message that meditation is nonreligious. His practical presentation has influenced many, particularly in the West, to see vipassana as essentially about one’s current life and how it is lived.

Goenka’s view of vipassana as an art of living extends to the very end of life, for to learn how to live is to learn how to die: “Vipassana teaches the art of dying: how to die peacefully, harmoniously. And one learns the art of dying by learning the art of living: how to become master of the present moment.”

Goenka is reported to have passed away peacefully in his home. That his life ended in such an everyday setting fits with his vision of meditation. “When your own death comes, observe it, at the level of sensations,” writes Goenka. “Everyone has to observe one's death: coming, coming, coming, going, going, going, gone! Be happy!”


Erik Braun is the author of The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw, which will be published by University of Chicago Press in November. He teaches religious studies at the University of Oklahoma.

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wangchok_drolma's picture

I just left a goenka retreat in the USA. I have been practicing meditation with various Buddhist groups in many traditions and am a psychotherapist. I have serious concerns with how these retreats are structured and the level of coercion and indeed brainwashing that occurs. Goenka uses hypnotic techniques in the audio discourses and the assistant teachers have absolutely no respect for any other Buddhist tradition. Students must sit each and every session or else they have to leave the retreat. For someone who boasts of being so nonsectarian, I was criticized for placing my hands in a standard meditation midrange and for leaving my eyes slightly open during meditation. I was told to stop this immediately or leave the retreat. You might want to do some googling as there are some very well researched.critiques of goenka's organization. I do feel that they are borderline cult like and will be contacting a few organizations in North America that raise awareness and share information. I strongly advise against this org. If you wish to learn this technique then I recommend the insight meditation society who have quietly distanced themselves from goenka.

DanielD's picture

It is brainwashing, but in the best sense possible and done by yourself by looking into yourself, observing objectively what's going on inside your body. Because your mind is superpowerful, this technique is very hard to learn. That's why it's 10 days of 100 hrs of meditation. Some can focus easier in the morning, others in the evening. Furthermore to be able to shut off your thoughts and focus for more than just some seconds it needs this much training. And since every distraction makes this training harder, the rules are more limiting than in a prison. No talking, body language or eye contact. Why? Because it's distracting. Imagine someone tells you he experienced superawesome things and he maybe exaggerated a little bit because he was so overwhelmed. You start to want to have this experience as well as soon as possible, so your mind is distracted, uncalm and craving. And he lied and harmed you both by that. Additionally no reading or writing material because it's distracting you as well which means an uncalm mind. It's this combination of intensive hard work, sitting mostly in pain 10 hrs a day and these rules minimizing distractions that enables you after hours and hours of trying to focus for longer periods to actually be able to focus for an hour without any thought on what's going on inside your body, precisely observing occurring sensations objectively and by that slowly but gradually purify yourself.
This course is free. Someone else's voluntarily donation enabled you to do this course for free. The whole financing is just based on voluntary donations. And only old students are allowed to donate. No one else. And who is the benefactor of these donations? Only one: a new student, you. Neither the servers, nor the assistant teacher, nor even the teacher are getting any money. They do it for free. Because they want to enable other people to do this course because Vipassana worked/works for them. So how can this be sectarian?
Furthermore the instructions are just about focus on breathing and how to scan your body and the description of body sensations. There is no "give me all your money" or "follow only me" shit. Instead Goenka advices you to question everything and only believe in what you experience in your body. Nobody has the power to implement wrong feelings into your body (except your mind). So what do you mean with hypnotic techniques and for which purpose?
I actually understand your concerns. I was annoyed by his singing and yeah because of the repetition and listening to an audio tape I felt uncomfortable as well. You can double check what he's singing about on dhamma.org. There it is translated. Distinguish your discomfort into doubt and actual questioning. Doubt is your enemy, it is your mind not liking that you try to get back control so it says to you to "doubt what your hear there". And you doubted it. So effortlessly your mind made you stop trying to get back control. And your mind is far more powerful than that in preventing you from taking back control: hunger, tiredness, discomfort, getting annoyed by all kinds of things, feeling no progress, pure superlong thoughts keeping you away from focussing, blank sensations, superpainful sensations etc. The list long.
So I think you exaggerate when you say that assistant teachers have no respect with other teachings. I think your mind made you perceive it like that. I think you didn't give Vipassana a real chance, you didn't keep your promises and you distracted other students. When you applied completely voluntarily and free of any costs you committed yourself to go along with a set of rules. These rules include to sit each and every session for your own benefit which you didn't get close to, because you disobeyed although you promised not to disobey. The same goes for your eyes. You wasted your time by doing your own style instead of giving the Vipassana technique a chance. You again broke your promise with that behaviour. I kind of doubt that the behaviour of the teacher and the assistant teacher has been that harsh. Your mind made it perceive like that because it got angry that you were not allowed to take breaks as you pleased and you were not allowed to keep your eyes open. You wasted your time. You wasted donation money. And you probably distracted other students with your behaviour otherwise they wouldn't have want you to leave the centre.
And here comes the plot twist. It's alright. I don't judge you, they don't judge you and they are not angry about you. You forgot your promise, you distracted others and you probably left the centre before finishing the course highly frustrated and with anger and incomprehension. All because your mind is unpure - mine is as well, it's true for the vast majority - and made you perceive what happened there like you perceived it. Now it's up to you of how much you are able to self reflect and maybe see your behaviour from a different angle, a different point of view or if you go with your flawed mind - your are more than not alone with that - and think you are absolutely right and these people and I must be totally wrong.

lisabethsilverman's picture

At the retreat they ask you to try what they are offering. Simple, beautiful transformative technique. Seems like you went to judge and not simply experience what was offered. I am grateful this was my foundational practice. I do go to IMS and was able to sit with Ruth Denison who also had Ubakin as a teacher and because I went to goenka first for the foundation I was able to experience her teaching in a deeper way.
I am grateful to Goenka for dedicating the end of his life to the freedom of sufferingof others-when I do Metta I have always sent some his way.
I think the minds of people make things cult like but would not think for one moment that that is what he dedicated his life to. A lot of people-including the founders of IMS benefitted form his teaching.

karmicwake's picture

I was lucky to sit my first 10 day course at Dhamma Kunja ( Onalaska Washington ) in April 1992. The integrity of the Goenkaji's discourses and of the Assistant Teachers & servers has had a lasting an profound effect on my life. It is truly a remarkable path for healing hearts and minds, by the gradual removal of mental impurities.

Gratitude to Gonekaji and all those on the path.

Genghis Cunn's picture

You write that "The lack of any fees in particular made retreats accessible to all classes of people. In the 1970s this drew many Westerners on the “hippie trail” and increased Goenka’s popularity and renown." In fact, there were charges for the direct costs of providing courses (never for the teaching or other service) in the early years, at least until 1974 - something which Goenka later called a mistake. The hippies you mention were there at that time, most course attendees were in India on a spiritual search (in most cases fuelled earlier by psychedelic drugs), and were attracted to Goenka by word-of-mouth as to the quality of Goenka and the Vipassana technique - as I was in 1972. Cost was not a factor.

Otherwise, thanks for the article, and vale Goenkaji. Meeting him transformed my life, and I have given Vipassana service since 1973.

Gloria Erickson's picture

So grateful for Goenkaji's crystal clear, life-changing teachings and his loving heart and compassion that freely gave the seed of Dhamma to so many. Words cannot express the depth of my gratitude.

Gordon Benson's picture

I feel very sad to have just learned of Goenka's death. I have sat many retreats over the last 40 odd years and the one I sat with Goenka in Norwich, England in 1985 or 6 is a real standout. My memories of it are still vivid and I still play the tapes of his talks from time to time. As Goenka would say (to almost everything): anicca. A truly great teacher, so clear, so right-to-the heart-of-it-no-time to-waste-nonsense-free and so charismatic and inspiring.

Lshreve's picture

A delightful read with important content. I consider all my teachers, the good examples and the horrible warnings, as part of my Sangha. Learning to discriminate between the two is vital. The horrible warnings are often telling us what to do while the good examples are showing us how to figure it out for ourselves - with insight. My small contribution, after being with far too many people approaching death, their own or others, with fear and great disturbance, is a nascent website/blog: www.MindfulDying.com. Thank you Sangha.

mobrien17's picture

Goenka made an invaluable contribution to bringing meditation into prisons around the world. His teachings have transformed the lives of many persons who have commted serious crimes from bitter angry inmates, to caring persons who have found meditation as a means for changing attitutes and lives.

Genghis Cunn's picture

Most people who go to prison have self-destructive and anti-social habit patterns. Vipassana is the only thing I know which will change deep-seated habit patterns. I was involved in a presentation on Vipassana to Queensland (Australia) Corrective Services in the 1990s, those present were very keen to pursue Vipassana in prisons, but the system as a whole was too conservative.

mralexander99's picture

There has been a slight disturbance in the "force" - the quaking tremor of a "Lion's Roar" is silent!

bill.cook68's picture

although I have only read a few of his books i am really grateful for the impact he made on my practice

anitacarter's picture

Thanks for sharing.

youngc23's picture

Indeed, the world has lost a great teacher. Although my wife and I never met Goenka, his teachings and retreats formed our practice and touched our hearts more than any other. We are forever greatful.

williamftyler's picture

Goenka has provided a great gift to everyone. Thank you

unyk's picture

The world has lost a great teacher :(