When a Hindu reassertion drove Buddhism—and with it its texts, arts, philosophy and rituals—out of India, the ancient meditation form of Vipassana was also lost to us. But it survived in Burma and continued through an unbroken chain of teachers who followed the very technique that the Buddha had prescribed 2,500 years ago. Satya Narayanji Goenka, who passed away this week at 90, was said to belong to the same chain of teachers. Born in an orthodox Hindu Marwari business family in Burma in 1924, Goenkaji, as he was reverentially called by followers, renounced the material world at the age of 31 to learn the Buddhist meditation technique under the tutelage of Sayagyi U BaKhin, a high Burmese government official, who introduced him to Vipassana when he was suffering from a bout of acute migraine.
After learning under the great master for 14 years, Goenkaji arrived in India in 1961 to bring Vipassana back to the land of its origin. Starting with Igatpuri in Maharashtra in 1976, he set up a number of centres in idyllic locales across India and trained a handful of disciples to become teachers, thus continuing the unbroken tradition. “A teacher should not be made an idol, like god. He is a teacher,” he once said.
Working on the premise that the sorrows and despair of our present is the result of the mind’s wandering in the past or anticipating the future, Vipassana seeks to keep the mind still, to experience things as they are. Which, for all practical purposes, means it empowers one’s mind to remain unaffected by everyday ephemeral emotions like fear, ambition, ego, jealousy, greed, aspiration and expectation....
I arrive at a Dhamma Sikhara Vipassana Center located in a Himalayan town in the rainy month of August. The woods are damp and sky-kissing deodar trees rise all around the spartan, pristine centre, atop a hill overlooking a shanty-town below. We are a group of about seventy men and women, aged between 20-70. There are Indians, Israelis, Britons, Japanese, Norwegians. We have all registered online to participate in a 10-day-long Vipassana meditation exercise. The course is free, but there are certain conditions that all participants must adhere to. During these 10 days, we will physically confine ourselves to the designated area of the centre, which is the meditation hall, our 8x4 feet room with a concrete slab and thin damp mattress for a bed and the small garden outside. We are to remain silent all day. We cannot look each other in the eye. We can only retain the bare essentials of clothing; which means toiletry and medicines, books, cellphones, laptops, all are to be surrendered.
Our day begins at 4.30 am. Vipassana essentially deals with breath, which is the prana or life, the sole proof that atman, the essential self, resides in the mortal self. The proof that we are living is our breath. For the first few days, all we do is sit and concentrate on our breath. From the time the breath enters through the nostrils, brushing past its walls into the lungs and the stomach and similarly tracing the path of the breath that leaves the body, feeling the breath on the upper lip as it goes out.
The head-teacher is present only at the beginning and at the end of each session. He does speak sometimes but mostly it’s Goenkaji’s recorded voice that’s played to guide us through the sessions. We meditate till 7.30 in the evening, with two one-hour breaks for tea and a two-hour lunch break at noon. There is no dinner. The only physical activity during the sessions is the walk to the toilet and back. Each day ends with a 90-minute video lecture by Goenkaji. We are told not to stretch our legs towards the television while Goenkaji is on the screen....
Goenkaji spoke of peace, and of love, of anger and of ego. It is only when he dealt with science and the western way of life that he seemed not to totally follow the path he was professing. Perhaps all paths that show the way to moksha or enlightenment are impaired with some dogma that somewhere contradicts the core of the belief. At the end of 10 days, I had something within me that I carried back home. Some of which I feel I still carry within me.