By Daniel Scharpenburg
Before I read this book I didn’t know much about S.N. Goenka.
I knew he was a teacher from Burma who spread Vipassana Meditation to the west, and I knew about the Ten Day Vipassana Retreats that he created. As far as I know, those Goenka Retreats are the only completely donation based, ten day retreats people can join, at least here in the United States.
While many people spend a lot of time talking and writing about the high cost of retreats, these opportunities exist. I haven’t gone on one, but I have a friend that did and he said it was amazing.
Vipassana is sometimes called Insight Meditation. That’s, in my opinion, a really cool name for a meditation style. Honestly if I had found Vipassana before I found Zen/Chan, I think that would be my practice and teaching. But things happen the way they do.
S.N. Goenka: Emissary of Insight is a big book, nearly 300 pages. The first half is the biography and the second half is a collection of Goenka’s writings. The writer, Daniel M. Stuart, promises in the introduction that this is an unbiased account and I believe it is.
So, what did I learn?
Goenka (1924-2013) was from an Indian family that moved to Burma. He grew up to be a successful businessman, but developed crippling migraines and looked to meditation for help. He found a teacher named U Ba Khin, went on a ten day retreat, and the whole direction of his life changed.
He began leading 10 day retreats where he taught this meditation style called Vipassana all over the world. And he tried to teach in a way that was not religious, per se, but rather that anyone could participate in. Vipassana is certainly a Buddhist practice, but he tried to teach it without the Buddhism.
Is teaching what the Buddha taught the same as teaching Buddhism? I don’t know.
Goenka was also a lay teacher his whole life and his goal was to bring the teachings to as many people as possible—and he was ahead of his time. He recorded some of his ten day retreats and trained assistants to do retreats with the recordings. That allowed him to keep up with demand and it’s allowed the retreats to go on after his death. But the most important thing is that he was determined to keep the whole thing donation based.
The retreat centers he created were—and still are—run by donations only. And he said no one in his organization, including him, should be paid.
If you’re seriously thinking of attending a 10 day retreat, I’d say you should read this book and do as much research as you possibly can. There can be a dark side to retreats at times, and we always need to be careful.
These retreats are held around the country if you’re interested: https://www.dhamma.org/en-US/index
There are a few things in this book about areas he disagreed with other teachers, but that’s as far as it goes. There are no scandals in this book, although it does indicate that Goenka walked between two worlds, sometimes as a global teacher to everyone and other times as a Buddhist teacher. In recent years, only one side of him is really talked about, as the teacher trying to bring meditation to everyone. It is made clear in the book that matters are a little more complicated than that.
The book ends with Goenka’s death and some of his students trying to figure out what to do. So, what has happened since then isn’t explored.
If you’re a fan of Goenka or Vipassana Meditation, I’d recommend this reading S.N. Goenka: Emissary of Insight. Learning about where this came from is important.
Photo: Shambhala Publications
Editor: Dana Gornall
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