S. N. Goenka is a seminal figure in contemporary Buddhism, having taught his famous ten-day meditation courses to many thousands of people around the world. Goenka teaches a powerful technique of focusing on sensations in the body and espouses a universal, humanistic approach to the dharma. During a recent journey to the United States from his home in India, Goenka was interviewed by Inquiring Mind editors Wes Nisker and Dennis Crean.
Inquiring Mind: You often refer to the Buddha as a great scientist. What do mean by giving him that title?
S. N. Goenka: I say that Buddha was the greatest spiritual superscientist the world has ever known. He taught pure science, the science of the interaction of mind and matter, how the mind influences the body and how the body influences the mind. He discovered that because we aren’t aware of what is happening within ourselves, impurities start. They multiply, multiply, multiply and overpower us. He taught us just to observe this.
Before Buddha, the Hindu sages taught people not to indulge in sensual objects—eye coming in contact with shape, color, form; ears, sound; nose, smell; tongue, taste; body, touch. Don’t react to them. The missing link discovered by Buddha was that your reaction only begins once there’s sensation in the body. That was a big discovery by this spiritual scientist. When sound comes, then a part of the mind cognizes there is sound. Another part of the mind recognizes the sound and evaluates it as good or bad. A third part of the mind feels the sensation generated by the sound coming in contact with the body. Then the fourth part of the mind starts reacting. This all happens so quickly. So as soon as sensation arises, we can be aware there is sensation, and understanding its impermanent nature, we break the habit pattern of reacting. The teaching is so simple. Pure science.
IM: The meditation method that you teach focuses almost exclusively on physical sensations, but in the “Mahasatipatthana Sutta,” the Buddha describes four foundations of mindfulness; he definitely says we should pay attention to the physical sensations, but also to mind-states and mental objects.
SNG: Yes, that is true, but in all four foundations, vedana, sensation, is there. Whatever arises in the mind has associated sensations in the body. This again was the big discovery of Buddha. When you react to thoughts or difficult emotions, what you are actually reacting to are the sensations associated with those thoughts or emotions. You are not reacting to mind-states; you are reacting to the sensations. If you miss that important link, then you are not going to the depth of the problem. Observe the body, but along with it, “Oh, this sensation.” Similarly observe your mind along with the sensation. You are not reacting to it. So also observe the contents of the mind along with the sensation. You are not reacting. You have to change the habit pattern of your mind at the deepest level, where it has become a prisoner to craving, aversion, craving, aversion. What you are missing if you simply look at thoughts as thoughts, waiting for them to pass away, is that deep inside, a part of the mind keeps on reacting. Because with the thought, there’s also a sensation. You must not miss this root.
People come to me saying they are depressed, deeply depressed. I teach them to just accept the fact that there is depression in the mind. They say, “I am depressed due to this or that problem,” but I tell them, “Nothing doing! It doesn’t matter. Depression is depression. Accept it, and see what sensations you have in the body.” There can’t be depression without sensations in the body. So just keep observing these sensations through the practice of vipassana. You know very well by your own experience that sensations are always arising, passing, arising, passing. They are not eternal. Therefore, depression is also not eternal. By observing the sensations, the overpowering feeling of depression goes away.
Not only depression, but everything that is giving us trouble is linked to sensation. People come to me saying, “I’m addicted to alcohol. Please help me; I’ve tried so many things.” I say, “Wrong! You’re not addicted to alcohol. You are addicted to the sensations you feel by taking alcohol.” Deep inside of people’s minds, craving arises for those particular sensations, and so they drink. At the apparent level, yes, it seems you are addicted to alcohol, or to drugs, or to this or that. But if you use the technique to observe closely, you’ll see that the addiction is really to these sensations. If you keep on observing the sensations, the addiction will go away. Whenever there is an urge for alcohol, just observe sensations for ten minutes; the sensation of craving will pass away and you will be free. For some addicted people, after just one or two vipassana courses, the addiction is gone. For some, maybe it takes three or four retreats, in some cases five, but that is all.
IM: Being raised in the Hindu tradition, is it unusual that you would become a teacher of Buddhism?
SNG: Yes, indeed. According to many Hindu priests, there is no need to learn what Buddha taught, because Buddha took everything from our Hindu tradition in the first place.
I used to be a teacher of the Bhagavad Gita, talking about pañña, wisdom, and telling people, “Remain established in pañña and you will be liberated.” But nobody had taught me how to become established in pañña, how to make wisdom the basis of my behavior or my life. There were no practices; only sermons. When I finally learned vipassana, I realized, “Oh, this is the applied teaching.” I had been teaching only theory, but Buddha taught us how to apply the theory to practice, and that is what attracted me to dhamma.
IM: So now you teach what the Buddha taught, but you don’t call it Buddhism.
SNG: I once gave a talk at the university in Rangoon. The monks asked me many questions. “You don’t teach Buddhism?” I don’t teach Buddhism. “You aren’t a Buddhist?” I’m not a Buddhist. “So what, then, are you teaching?” I explained, using what little Pali I knew, that the word “Bauddh” (Buddhist and Buddhism) is not to be found in all the teaching of Buddha, in the commentaries or subcommentaries. It is not there. He teaches dhamma, and those who follow his teaching are dharmic (dhammiko). As long as you keep Buddha’s teaching as dhamma, it remains universal. The moment you say that it is “Buddhism,” it is only for Buddhists. It becomes sectarian.
IM: The Dalai Lama recently spoke to a gathering of teachers at Spirit Rock Meditation Center and said, “I don’t teach Buddhism; I propagate human values. That’s all.”
SNG: He is right. So also, I teach a lot of courses in India, and if I say, “Come, I’m teaching Buddhism,” not a single Indian person will come to study with me. But when I say I’m teaching dhamma, nobody objects.
IM: But in America, if you say you are teaching Buddhism, a lot of people will come.
SNG: Even in America, I do not want people to think of Buddha’s teaching as sectarian. Buddha taught universal dhamma, the “law of nature.” He taught in a very scientific way, saying: “If this happens, then that will be the result. If we don’t want that result, then this must be removed.” When two parts of hydrogen join one part of oxygen, moisture is bound to result. The same kind of rules can be applied to the workings of our own bodies and minds. It’s scientific; and whether there is Buddha or no Buddha, the law of nature remains.
IM: Do you still have people take the traditional refuge in the Buddha?
SNG: Yes, but Buddha does not mean an individual, not only Gautama Buddha. Anybody can become a buddha. There were many buddhas before Gautama Buddha, and there will be many after. When you take refuge in Buddha, you are not taking refuge in a person, but in the qualities of that person. Buddha is a personification of enlightenment, and you take refuge in this enlightenment to develop your own enlightenment. This is taking refuge in Buddha. I explain this in the beginning of every vipassana course.
IM: By emphasizing the secular, nonreligious aspect of dhamma, do you think that you have attracted a lot of people to meditation practice who might not have come if it were called Buddhism?
SNG: Yes, no doubt about that. More than two thousand Christian priests and nuns have attended our vipassana courses. So many Muslims are coming; courses are being given in Iran and in countries around the Middle East. People understand that this is just the art of living, the science of mind and matter. It’s like practicing yoga. India gave the world this wonderful technique to keep the body healthy, and now everybody practices it, but not to get converted from one organized religion to another. It is the same with vipassana. India gave the world this wonderful technique to keep the mind healthy, and anyone can practice. Send them to me. I am here to serve all people.
IM: Are you surprised by what has happened since you started teaching, this explosion of interest in dhamma?
SNG: Not so surprised. I knew this was going to happen. My teacher said that the time was ripe. It is believed that the teacher of Asoka, the Indian king who spread Buddha’s teaching to many parts of Asia, once predicted that the only country that would maintain practical dhamma in its purity would be Burma, Myanmar, then called “the Golden Land.” He also predicted that 2,500 years after Buddha, the true dhamma would be brought back from the Golden Land to India, the country of its origin. It would once again be established there and then spread around the world.
IM: You have never charged money for your retreats, not even for room and board.
SNG: Did Buddha charge? So who am I to charge? I don’t want to alter the purity of the Buddha’s method of teaching.
IM: Many Buddhist centers could not survive without charging money, or actively seeking donations.
SNG: Why should they fear not getting donations? If there are no donations, then don’t teach. If you start craving more people, more money, more people, more money—this is not Buddha’s way. My teacher was so strict. He said, “Never ask for money.” Dhamma teachers should never ask for money.
If there is a program or a building project, we write the plan on a big blackboard: This is the plan, it will cost so much. That’s all. This information remains on the board for two weeks. If people give donations, very good. If they don’t give donations, it means people do not want to carry out this project. I apply the same method. Who am I to want it? It is for the people. If they want, they give, and they are giving willingly.
Buddha teaches us to become fearless. If nobody comes to me, I will meditate by myself. Why fear? This fear shows that you have no confidence in yourself or in Buddha’s teaching. At first, Buddha taught only five persons. Five became 500, then 5,000, then millions. It’s the same thing today. I started my first course with fourteen people, then 100, then 500. Now at the main center in Igatpuri there’s a waiting list. Construction is going on to build bigger facilities so that we can give longer courses: twenty, thirty, sixty, ninety days. When I began, I was very green, as you say. How can I give a ten-day course? Who will come? Who will manage a residential course? But it all happened because so many people are thirsty for this dhamma, this art of living.
IM: Yes, I was at course number two. You know why? Because you started singing. That’s why everybody came.
SNG: [Laughter] People seem to want the big singers!
IM: Many of the Asian schools of dhamma have developed Western teachers to help offer the Buddha’s wisdom to the world. In your organization, you have authorized a number of assistant teachers, but for the most part, they are not allowed to give dhamma talks. Instead, they use audio and video tapes of you speaking.
SNG: The teachings must remain uniform. If I were to say that so-and-so is a teacher, then out of overenthusiasm or out of ignorance he or she may say something that will be incorrect or damaging to students later on. Besides, the people who come to my courses are satisfied with seeing the videos. If there is any question not fully explained in my videos, then the assistant teachers will come and tell me, and if I accept the suggestion, I make changes. Besides, I am teaching only according to Buddha’s words.
IM: There is a feeling in the Western Buddhist community that you have kept your dhamma groups somewhat apart from the rest of us. For instance, last year there was a large gathering of Western dhamma teachers from all traditions and lineages, but nobody representing your group attended, even though they were invited.
SNG: I am concerned that at this sort of gathering, controversy will start, debate will start. This will create bad feelings. People will argue, “I am teaching like this, not like that.” If this debate doesn’t happen at this meeting, it may start at the next. Buddha said, “Debate and controversy are harmful. Whenever arguments arise, it is dangerous for dhamma.”
IM: More to the point is that many people would love to have your sangha be part of the larger Buddhist community, to share with all of us your wisdom and how you are offering the dhamma to the Western world.
SNG: I am part of Buddha’s teaching. But what can be gained from these meetings, even if we just explain our techniques? It is better to be happy carrying on my own way, and you carrying on your own way. People are getting benefit. This is enough for me. I don’t want to become a world figure or Buddhist leader. I just want everyone to be happy.