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This interview first appeared in the Winter 2000 issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and is reprinted with permission
S. N. Goenka has been teaching Vipassana meditation for thirty-one years and is most widely known, perhaps, for his famous introductory ten-day intensive courses, which are held free of charge in centers all around the world, supported by student donations. Born in Mandalay, Burma in 1924, he was trained by the renowned Vipassana teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin (1899-1971). After fourteen years of training, he retired from his life as a successful businessman to devote himself to teaching meditation. Today he oversees an organization of more than eighty meditation centers worldwide and has had remarkable success in bringing meditation into prisons, first in India, and then in numerous 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 ten-day courses.
S. N. Goenka came to New York this fall for the Millennium World Peace Summit at the United Nations. He was interviewed there by Helen Tworkov.
Tworkov: According to some people, Vipassana is a particular meditation practice of the Theravada School; for others, it is a lineage of its own. How do you use the term?
S.N. Goenka: This is a lineage, but it is a lineage that has nothing to do with any sect. To me, Buddha never established a sect. When I met my teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, he simply asked me a few questions. He asked me if, as a Hindu leader, I had any objection towards sila, that is, morality. How can there be any objection? But how can you practice sila unless you have control of the mind? He said, I will teach you to practice sila with controlled mind. I will teach you samadhi, concentration. Any objection? What can be objected to in samadhi? Then he said, that alone will not help—that will purify your mind at the surface level. Deep inside there are complexes, there are habit patterns, which are not broken by samadhi. I will teach you prajna, wisdom, insight, which will take you to the depth of the mind. I will teach you to go to the depth of the mind, the source where the impurities start and they get multiplied and they get stored so that you can clear them out. So when my teacher told me: I will teach you only these three—sila, samadhi and prajna—and nothing else, I was affected. I said, let me try.
How is sila generated by watching the mind?
When I began to learn Vipassana meditation, I became convinced that Buddha was a not a founder of religion, he was a super-scientist. A spiritual super-scientist. When he teaches morality, the point is, of course, there that we are human beings, living in human society, and we should not do anything which would harm the society. It's quite true. But then—and it's as a scientist he's talking here—he says that when you harm anybody, when you perform any unwholesome action, you are the first victim. You first harm yourself and then you harm others. As soon as a defilement arises in the mind, your nature is such that you feel miserable. That is what vipassana teaches me.
So if you can see that mental defilement is causing anxiety and pain for yourself, that is the beginning of sila and of compassion?
If you can change that to compassion, then another reality becomes so clear. If instead of generating anger or hatred or passion or fear or ego, I generate love, compassion, goodwill, then nature starts rewarding me. I feel so peaceful, so much harmony within me. It is such that when I defile my mind I get punishment then and there, and when I purify my mind I get a reward then and there.
What happens during a 10-day Vipassana course?
The whole process is one of total realization, the process of self-realization, truth pertaining to oneself, by oneself, within oneself. It is not an intellectual game. It is not an emotional or devotional game: "Oh, Buddha said such and such . . . so wonderful . . . I must accept." It is pure science. I must understand what's happening within me, what's the truth within me. We start with breath. It looks like a physical concept, the breath moving in and moving out. It is true. But on the deeper level the breath is strongly connected to mind, to mental impurities. While we're meditating, and we're observing the breath, the mind starts wandering—some memory of the past, some thoughts of the future—immediately what we notice is that the breath has lost its normality: it might be slightly hard, slightly fast. And as soon as that impurity is gone away it is normal again. That means the breath is strongly connected to the mind, and not only mind but mental impurities. So we are here to experiment, to explore what is happening within us. At a deeper level, one finds that mind is affecting the body at the sensation level.
This causes another big discovery . . . that you are not reacting to an outside object. Say I hear a sound and I find that it is some kind of praise for me; or I find someone abusing me, I get angry. You are reacting to the words at the apparent level, yes, true. You are reacting. But Buddha says you are actually reacting to the sensations, body sensations. That when you feel body sensation and you are ignorant, then you keep on defiling your mind by craving or by aversion, by greed or by hatred or anger. Because you don't know what's happening.
When you hear praise or abuse, is the response filtered through the psychological mind to the bodily sensations, or is it simultaneous?
It is one after the other, but so quick that you can't separate them. So quick! At some point automatically you can start realizing, "Look what's happening! I have generated anger." And the Vipassana meditator will immediately say, "Oh, a lot of hate! There is a lot of hate in the body, palpitation is increased . . . Oh, miserable. I feel miserable."
If you are not working with the body sensations, then you are working only at the intellectual level. You might say, "Anger is not good," or "Lust is not good," or "Fear is not—." All of this is intellectual, moral teachings heard in childhood. Wonderful. They help. But when you practice, you understand why they're not good. Not only do I harm others by generating these defilements of anger or passion or fear or evil, I harm myself also, simultaneously.
Vipassana is observing the truth. With the breath I am observing the truth at the surface level, at the crust level. This takes me to the subtler, subtler, subtler levels. Within three days the mind becomes so sharp, because you are observing the truth. It's not imagination. Not philosophy or thinking. Truth, breath, truth as breath, deep or shallow. The mind becomes so sharp that in the area around the nostrils, you start feeling some biochemical reaction that means some physical sensation. This is always there throughout the body, but the mind was so gross it was feeling only very gross sensations like pain or such. But otherwise there are so many sensations which the mind is not capable to feel.
The complete article is available in the Winter 2000 issue of Tricycle.
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