S.N. Goenka has been teaching vipassana for more than thirty years, but if you ask him if he’s a Buddhist, the answer is, “No.” Goenka talks with Buddhadharma about the technique of vipassana and his views on Buddhism and other religions.
Yes. Buddha's original teaching in Pali and the technique of vipassana were maintained for five hundred years. Later on, both of them were lost in India. There are fifteen thousand pages of Buddha's words in Pali and about thirty thousand pages of commentary. But not a single page was left in India, so the technique was totally lost.
When I went to my teacher, who was Burmese, he told me, "I'm going to teach you a very ancient technique of your country called 'vipassana.'" I had never heard that word. Vipassana, what is that? I went home and looked through my Hindi dictionary—the word was not there. I looked in my Sanskrit dictionary and the word was not there. So even the word “vipassana” was lost from the country.
The previous buddhas, and all buddhas, become buddhas with the practice of vipassana. Because there is a big interval between one buddha and the next buddha, the technique gets lost. The word was there and it kept on flowing with the stream of language in different traditions. Yet the meaning was lost, so the technique was lost.
You refer to vipassana as a pure science. Why so?
For me, Buddha was a great scientist. He discovered something which was lost, which people had forgotten. In science, there is no blind faith, no blind belief. You experiment with things. If many people experiment and get the same result, they accept it. Moreover, Buddha kept on saying, "Buddha or no Buddha, the law of nature, dhamma, prevails always." The law remains the same. If you generate anger, you are bound to become miserable. If you generate peace, love and compassion, you are bound to have peace and harmony. This law was always there, before Buddha and after Buddha.
Could you explain the vipassana technique that you teach, because it seems that it's taught differently in various cultures and traditions?
Before I give an explanation of what I am teaching, one point should be clear: I am not here to condemn any technique or to compare or contrast whatever technique people teach in the name of vipassana. I teach only what I got from the tradition.
The whole technique is investigating reality at the experiential level, within oneself. In this technique, it is very important that people stay at a congenial place where they can meditate with the least amount of disturbance. If one is connected with outside objects, one cannot go to the depth of the mind.
Continuity of practice is also very important. Today we ask people to stay a minimum of ten days in a place where they can receive guidance from an experienced person; previously students were required to spend six weeks learning this technique.
Everyone has to take five precepts: don't kill, don't steal, don't have any sexual activities, don't speak lies or harsh words, and don't take any kind of intoxicants. The precepts are not a rite or a ritual; they are part of the technique. The Buddha realized—and a good vipassana meditator also realizes—that when you break any of these precepts you do so only after generating an impurity in the mind. These impurities are like high waves that prevent you from going to the depth of the mind.
After taking the precepts you start to train your mind in concentration. Buddha talked about vikkhitta-citta, scattered mind, and sankhitta-citta, one-pointed concentrated mind. He wants us to work with one-pointed concentrated mind, and in order to get the mind concentrated we need to focus on a small area. He was clear that the first general area must be the nasal gate. But the nasal gate has many areas: the front part of the nose, the area between the nose and upper lip, and so on. It was made very clear by commentators later on that the first focus of attention must be on the middle part above the upper lip (uttara-otthassa-vemajjappadese) or at the tip of the nose (nasikagge). Attention must be on this small area. If the attention is scattered, then it is vikkhitta; it is not sankhitta. It must be one-pointed concentration.
The Buddha taught that one should focus on the awareness of respiration in this small area. There are many objects that can help to concentrate the mind, but the idea here is not merely concentration. Concentration is necessary for all the steps that we take on the path, but concentration is not the end; it is just an aid to start. The ultimate aim is to purify the totality of the mind.
By focusing attention on respiration, the mind becomes so sharp, so sensitive, that penetratingly, piercingly, it can feel sensations in the middle part above the upper lip, and then eventually sensations throughout the body. For three days one has to work on this small area with only the breath. The moment you start adding something to it there is a danger that the mind will get diverted to a particular verbalization or visualization or imagination. These things might help to get the mind concentrated, but you lose touch with the reality pertaining to your own mind-matter phenomenon because you are not working with the truth—and Buddha wanted us to be with the truth.
No breathing exercise is required. We simply work with the pure breath, mere breath—as it comes in, as it goes out. If it is deep, it is deep; if it is shallow, it is shallow. One explores the truth pertaining to the mind-matter phenomenon through breath. One must accept the truth as it is, not try to create a truth.
Why is meditating on the breath associated with truth?
In order to use an object other than what we have, we have to create it. For instance, with an image, we have to visualize the image and work on it. But from the time you have taken birth to the time you pass away, day and night, the breath is there. Breath is both conscious and unconscious, voluntary and involuntary. Thus it is a function that can act as a bridge, connecting us from the known field to the unknown field, and to the truth about ourselves. If you work with bare breath without any kind of imposition, without any kind of creation, you find within three days the mind becomes so sharp that it starts feeling sensations in the area just above the upper lip.
At what point can one expand the focus of meditation beyond this small area?
On the fourth day of the ten-day course, you start working from the top of the head to the tips of the toes, the whole body. Initially you may not feel sensations everywhere, because the mind is still not as sharp as it should be. Or you may only get very gross sensations like pain, pressure, heaviness and so forth.
It is important to move through the body in order and not run from one part of the body to another part of the body. If at first there's no sensation, you just calmly keep the mind there for a minute and you will feel a sensation. If you don't get a sensation, it doesn't matter. You don't feel defeated; you move on. If you keep on working patiently and persistently, you are bound to feel sensations everywhere, in every part of the body.
What happens at this stage, when you begin to feel these sensations throughout your body?
Initially you may not feel very subtle sensations. You may get only gross sensations, solidified sensations. But if you keep on working and make no imposition of any kind on the natural truth, the law of nature is such that the mind becomes sharper, more sensitive, and the solidity gets dissolved. After that, you begin to feel very subtle vibrations throughout the body. So you experience the entire world, within the framework of your body, as vibrations. There is no solidity; that is the reality the Buddha wants you to experience.
There are two types of truth: apparent truth and ultimate truth. At the apparent level, it looks like there is solidity in the body. Also, within the mind it feels as though the mental contents are very solid—there are big emotions which become solidified and very intense. But as you keep observing the sensation in the body, you find the solidity gets divided, dissected, dissolved. The ultimate truth of matter is that it is mere vibration. The ultimate truth of mind and mental contents is that they are also mere vibration. All mind and matter are mere vibration.
The Buddha very clearly said that you feel reality arising and passing away. You may be experiencing a very solidified pain or pressure. It has arisen and it seems to stay for some time, but sooner or later, it passes away. It is not eternal; it is not going to stay forever. As it arises, so it passes away.
This means that when one feels a period where the gross sensation seems to stay, actually there is no such period. A vibration is there—arising and passing, arising and passing. Within that, there are very important stages of the technique. The first stage is uppadavaya—arising separately, passing separately. The second stage is bhanga, or dissolving. As it arises, so it passes away. It doesn't stay. It's arising and passing, arising and passing.
This makes you understand the entire mind-matter phenomenon and how it works. Everywhere there is arising and passing, arising and passing, arising and passing. You come to the eye sense door, or ear sense door, or nose sense door, or tongue sense door, or body sense door, or mind sense door—it is all mere vibration. Any outside object which comes in contact with any of the sense doors is also vibration. The sense organ is vibration; the sense object is vibration. It is vibration coming in contact with vibration, and it generates nothing but vibration.
How does experiencing the world as vibrations address the fundamental root of suffering?
The First Noble Truth says that you must go to the depth of the interaction of mind and matter. The Second Noble Truth says that you must see what is the cause of your misery, which is that you are reacting to the contact. Because of contact with sensation you start generating craving and aversion. If you like the sensation, you start craving for more and if you dislike the sensation you start generating aversion.
Buddha's technique takes us to the depth of the mind, where one starts reacting to sensations. When one has reached that depth, training the mind becomes easy. Don't react. Sensations are bound to be there. Contact is bound to be there, so long as you are alive. So when the contact is there and sensation is there, just observe. Observe objectively, without identifying yourself with this sensation, and without identifying yourself with the body or the mind, or the combination of the two. Just observe. It arises and sooner or later it passes away.
This is impermanence, which is not a philosophy of Buddha. It is the law of the universe. The training enables us to experience that. An ordinary mind, a scattered mind, cannot feel the very subtle oscillations of arising and passing. The training of the mind is very important for this purpose.
In the first ten-day vipassana course one may not be able to feel many kinds of sensations. But sooner or later, one gets to the stage where one can feel the subtler sensations. When one is aware of subtler sensation, mind is calm; one just observes the sensations.
Whatever defilement you generate in your mind disturbs the mind. The peace gets disturbed. Buddha's teaching about the precepts is very clear. You can't kill someone without generating hatred, ill will or anger. In vipassana, one understands that as soon as you generate any negativity, you are the first victim of that negativity. One becomes so miserable—there is a burning sensation, palpitation increases, tension builds up. One is creating misery for oneself and nobody wants to do that.
The teaching about precepts, about not performing unwholesome actions as a human being living in a society, existed before Buddha. Buddha's contribution was to teach us to work with the body sensations, and to understand that we are reacting to body sensations. If we forget body sensations, we are straying from Buddha's teaching.
I gather from reading some of your talks that you don't believe in using the words "Buddhism" or "Buddhist." Why?
When people ask me, "How many people have you converted to Buddhism?" I respond, "Not a single one. I'm not converted myself." They say, "Don't you teach Buddhism? Aren't you a Buddhist?" I say, "No, I don't teach Buddhism. I'm not a Buddhist." In Myanmar [Burma], my motherland, the monks were very annoyed by this in the beginning. They said, "This fellow has learned from us and now he wants to teach something of his own. He's not a Buddhist. He's so ungrateful." They were really shaken.
Fortunately, the former president came to a course in India and he found that everything I teach is according to Buddha's teaching. He was so satisfied and got such a good result from the practice that there were tears coming out of his eyes. When he returned, he told the cabinet, "People are speaking out against Goenka, but what he is teaching is the Buddha's pure teaching."
The Burmese government invited me to discuss with the leading monks the reason why I don't use the word "Buddhism." I told them that the words “Buddhism” and “Buddhist” do not exist in Pali. In the entire words of Buddha and in the commentaries, the word boddh—the equivalent of “Buddhist”—is missing. Buddha taught only dhamma. Dhamma means the law of nature, truth. Those who follow that are called dhammiko. If Buddha never made anybody a Buddhist, who am I to make someone a Buddhist? If Buddha didn't teach Buddhism, who am I to teach Buddhism? Buddha taught dhamma; I am teaching dhamma. Buddha made people dhammiko; I am making people dhammiko.
For the first two days, they said, "No, we can't believe that. Let us investigate. There must be a word for Buddhism." After two days, they said, "No, there is no such word; you are correct."
You say that people can practice vipassana regardless of whether they are Catholic or Muslim or Buddhist. But can religion in fact be an obstacle to cultivating this practice?
Some people have great attachment to their belief, and if I say, "First break your belief and then come to me," who will come to me? Nobody will come to me. Therefore, I say, “Keep your belief and work.” As they work, they realize, "This is truth and our belief is far away from the truth." Then automatically they come out of it. They may not condemn that belief, and I don't want anyone to condemn anything, as I'm not condemning anything. But the truth is there, which becomes so clear: “This is the truth.” So the problem gets solved.
The truth is the same for everyone, whether one is a Catholic or a Protestant or a Hindu or a Muslim. It makes no difference. Truth is truth.
Is organized religion compatible with this truth you are talking about?
In the beginning, children might have difficulty walking on their own so they hold on to something to help them walk. But when they're able to walk on their own they throw those things away. All those outer shells [of religion] are necessary for people, because they can't walk without them. But, as they get strength in dhamma, they throw them away. I don't say, "Throw them away." They throw them away on their own. These things are compatible in the beginning, in kindergarten, when they are infants. But after that, they are not.
I imagine some people would react strongly to being told their religion is like kindergarten.
That is why I can't go around shouting that your religion is kindergarten. I don’t shout like that. I don't say, “Accept this because I say so.” As one works, one will see, "Oh, this was helpful to me, but now it is not necessary." A child sucks milk, and uses a soother. Let him suck when he is a child, but not throughout life.
What is Buddhism, then, in your view?
Dhamma, the way of life, the law of nature, is universal. The nature of fire is to burn. This is the dhamma; this is the nature of fire. Can you say this is Buddhist dhamma or Christian dhamma? Dhamma is nature. If fire does not burn, then it is something else. Similarly, the nature of any negativity you generate in your mind is to burn, to make you miserable. It makes everybody miserable. If you generate love, compassion, good will, with a pure mind, you will have peace and harmony. Everyone will have the same thing. This is dhamma.
The law of nature is available to everyone. The sun does not shine and give light only to this person and not to the other. When the wind blows, it doesn't blow only for this person and not for the other person. Dhamma is universal.
I am not here to condemn any tradition, certainly not any Buddhist tradition. People who have not gone to the depth to realize the universal law of nature at the experiential level can at least work at the surface level and gain some benefit.
When I say this, people are offended. They hear me saying, "You are at the surface level, and Goenka is at the depth." It not just Goenka who is at the depth; if you practice, you will also find it. I got so much benefit from a mantra technique that I learned. I don't condemn that. How could I condemn it? It gave me so much benefit and it gives benefit to so many people. But I say there are further steps. Why not take further steps? Life is there for us to progress. Don't accept it because Goenka says so or the Buddha said so or the scriptures said so. Practice it, find it, and you will accept it.
If religion is, as you say, merely a soother or a pacifier, is it not then an obstacle to practicing the dharma?
It can become an obstacle. Every religion worth the name has the same inner essence. Not only Buddha's, every religion. Every religion says, live a moral life with a disciplined mind, with a pure mind, full of love, compassion, goodwill, tolerance. This is the quintessence of every religion.
But the outer shells of religion differ from one to the other. The outer shell is the rite, ritual, ceremony or celebration, and a philosophical belief that differs from one to the other. So long as people have their own rites and rituals but give importance to the inner essence, it won't be harmful. But as soon as they forget the inner essence, and give all importance to the outer shell and get attached, they become fundamentalists or even terrorists: "Accept my religion or I will kill you. The whole world will be liberated only when everyone converts to my religion." Giving importance only to the outer shell and having tremendous attachment towards it, forgetting all about the inner essence, is so very dangerous.
Are there any ceremonies or rites in your community?
What community? For those who meditate, the only rite or ritual is that they meditate and observe what is happening inside. There is no other rite or ritual.
How would you define an enlightened person?
Such a person must have understood the truth at the experiential level. They must have been liberated from all impurities, not just on the surface but in the totality of the mind. Then, by nature, they will be full of love, compassion and goodwill. We can say that such a person is enlightened.
Enlightenment is a progression. You start with some enlightenment and eventually you become fully enlightened. As much as one is enlightened, one is a good person—good for oneself, good for others.
Do you see any need for monastic training?
Certainly, because monastic people have the opportunity to learn more deeply about the dhamma. They feel that human life is very precious and want to take maximum advantage of it. As householders, they would have multifaceted responsibilities and wouldn't have enough time. So, they leave the householder's life and live as a monk or a nun.
If someone decides to live as a monk or a nun, and does not get proper training on how to live as a renunciate, there will be problems. The Buddha wanted them to have proper training. He didn't take anybody and everybody who came and asked to take robes. He would ask his chief disciples first to examine a person. Many times, he would say, "You stay with our sangha for three months and then we will decide whether to take you or not." Other times he would say, "Get permission from your parents about becoming a monk. Otherwise, I won't take you."
One should be really fit to be a monk or nun and not just do it out of emotion. And even after one has become a monk or a nun, one has to work continuously and more seriously than a householder. Training is very important for those who leave the householder's life.
The ten-day course is like monastic life. Although participants do not shave their heads or take robes, they live monastically. There are no charges for food or anything else. Like monks or nuns, the students go in line and get their food. Whatever food is given, they eat. If they were to pay fees, then they could say, "I paid fifty dollars for this? This is too spicy, this is too oily." Then it isn’t a monk's life. In a monk's life, whatever comes in the begging bowl, you take it. During the ten days, participants learn how to live like a monk or a nun.
You have trained over seven hundred assistant teachers. As I understand it, they support the workshops by organizing them. But the actual teachings are presented by you on videotape or audio cassette. Why don't the assistant teachers themselves present the teachings?
The whole idea is that people should get the real message of dhamma. And it must be uniform. If one message comes from one teacher and another comes from another teacher, there are differences and the students will become confused. People listen to the lecture on video and the instructions on audio, and if they don't understand something, the assistant teacher is there to explain.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
One thing that is very important, according to the words of Buddha in the Dhamma na vanim care is, "Don't make dhamma a business. Don't make it a livelihood." The moment you make it a business commodity, it loses all its efficacy, all its purity. If you want to earn money, why don't you do another business? There are so many businesses you could engage in. Why make dhamma a business?
That is why the tradition is very careful. So long as one is a monk or a nun, there is no question of making money. Their basic requirements are being fulfilled. But the householder has so many responsibilities and if they teach and they have no money, they will start to ask for money. So we are very careful. Once we find that a person in all other respects is fit to be made an assistant teacher, we also inquire whether this person has a good independent means of livelihood or not. If he or she has means of livelihood, then we will train this person to be an assistant teacher, and later a senior assistant teacher or full teacher. That is why we do not charge for the teachings. The whole tradition never charges for anything. The moment you start charging, it is spoiled.
You may say, "I charge just for running the course." No! Let people give voluntarily for the course. If people want to learn this technique, if people want this technique to spread for so many miserable people, they will give a donation. If they are not satisfied with the teachings, they will not give a donation. If people are not benefiting from the teachings, don’t teach. You are not getting any benefit by teaching. The people must want the teachings, and when they demand the teachings, there will be people who will support them.
It must be all voluntary donation. No one should even ask. And only a very few should know what is donated. Otherwise, there will be competition. "Oh, he has given $100 dollars; I must give $101." That madness will be there. Give whatever you can, according to your capacity, according to your volition.
I'm told that your wife is almost always by your side during speaking engagements and interviews, as she is today. How long have you and your wife been married?
Last year, we celebrated our sixtieth wedding anniversary. And we are so happy. So long as we are alive, more and more happiness will come. It is a lifetime connection, a lifetime relation. It is not marrying today, and then tomorrow I will think about marrying someone else. That is not dhamma.
Thank you very much.
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