In the summer of 1989, I sat my first vipassana meditation retreat with Goenka at the Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. That experience was a watershed for me. It changed my life. I view it as the single most difficult and beneficial experience of my life. It put meditation and the Buddha’s teachings at the center of my life and has been part of a daily conversation for the past almost twenty-five years.
Anyone who has sat with Goenka will remember his deep basso voice encouraging us to: “work diligently, ardently, patiently, and persistently.” If we did so, “We were bound to be successful, bound to be successful.”
This success was nothing short of liberation from suffering. Goenka was not a Buddhist; he was a Buddha and taught countless people to find their buddhanature.
Goenka was traditional and rigorous. He had a particular method of teaching vipassana that was reductionist: all phenomona were reduced to bodily sensations.
After years of practicing a devotional form of meditation in the bhakti yoga tradition, I found his disciplined approach refreshing. It grounded me in the present and turned me away from seeking blissful experiences to investigating the reality of my experience. His teachings set me towards seeking wisdom (still seeking, FYI).
Goenka devoted himself tirelessly to spreading the benefits of meditation around the world. His work in prisons has been the subject of two documentary films: Doing Vipassana; Doing Time and The Dhamma Brothers.
Goenkaji’s work with prisoners is instructive. Often, my students bristle at the idea of diving into a silent ten-day retreat, especially if they are new to meditation. But if convicts in a maximum security prison with likely little to no meditation experience and as much education can sit the retreat, anyone can. You don’t need an holistic background; you just need a desire to change. A prison is, after all, one of the best places to realize the axiom that life is suffused with anguish, stress, dissatisfaction, and all manner of sufferings.
The environment of the retreat is more disciplined then prison life. You vow to silence and not just refraining from talking, but abstaining from all social and narrative energies. No reading, no writing. Just staying within your experience and finding out what’s there. Hour after hour, day after day. After a while the mind relents; it gives up its stories and releases into fully into the now.
Goenka established hundreds of meditation centers around the world and all these centers offer their teaching on a donation basis only. In 2002 he toured North America encouraging people to embrace “Meditation Now.” I took a friend to his session and was pleased and disappointed that the venue filled up before we arrived–a testament to the appeal of his message.
As far as I know, no scandals are associated with him, a seeming rarity for meditation gurus of his stature.
He taught the dhamma (dharma), embodied the dhamma. He was Buddha and we should all be so fortunate.