S. N. Goenka

Emissary of Insight

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Daniel M. Stuart, S. N. Goenka
Lives of the Masters
  • Boulder, CO: 
    Shambhala
    , November
     2020.
     352 pages.
     $26.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781611808186.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Daniel M. Stuart’s S.N. Goenka Emissary of Insight is a welcome addition to understanding the development of secularized meditation and mindfulness. Through the figure of one of the most important popularizers of vipaśyanā meditation, Satya Narayan Goenka, Stuart analyzes the tension between modern presentations of global meditation and meditation practices rooted within Buddhist systems of cosmology. Goenka presents his teachings as uncomplicatedly “nonsectarian” dhamma, which expresses the pure teachings of the Buddha. Stuart’s biography reveals how and why Goenka describes his meditation teachings in this modern way, paired with Goenka’s own discipleship in much more esoteric settings.

The short introduction to this book is immediately eye-opening. Stuart uncovers the ways in which Goenka was a much more complicated figure than the superficial picture of a modern lay Buddhist teacher. This well-worn narrative of a universal and modern meditation teacher and technique, Stuart rightly argues, is ripe for deconstruction. Using autobiographical sources, mostly in Hindi, Stuart broadens the perspective on Goenka, situating him within his historical and interpersonal contexts.

The book is divided into two parts: the Biography and the Writings and Teachings. The Biography contains seven chapters, following the chronology of Goenka’s life. This portion of the book, written lyrically and often with sharp analysisis, is an illuminating study of Goenka’s private life, raised as a Hindu in Buddhist Burma, who eventually becomes a Buddhist meditation teacher. Goenka’s life is a story of an individual’s shifting religious identities, who transitions into a missionary, spreading meditation to a global audience.

Goenka’s early life is a fascinating account of his previous self, which will be read with interest by anyone who knows his accomplishments within Buddhism. Stuart explores Goenka’s heritage as a conservative Hindu and how it marked his family as part of an immigrant community in Burma. In his youth, Goenka became a well-known authority on Hinduism and Sanskrit texts, giving talks on such topics during Hindu festivals. In the common English-language narratives of Goenka’s path to meditation, he emphasizes his secular status as a highly regarded and successful businessman, rather than a Hindu. Centering his nonreligious status made Goenka’s story more relatable and appealing to his global audiences outside of India. Despite Goenka’s worldly success and rich social and family life, he could not avoid suffering. He had extreme bouts of anger towards his family and physical pain.

Goenka’s initial reason for seeking out vipaśyanā meditation was painful migraines, which he experienced throughout his life. In his youth, Stuart describes Goenka’s mother tenderly massaging his head until the pain dissipated into tingling sensations throughout his body. Stuart relates how Goenka eventually learned to create these sensations on his own through vipaśyanā as his migraines became more frequent in adulthood. After encountering meditation, and crucially, his teacher, Burmese layman U Ba Khin, Goenka grew less attached to his Hindu religious identity. Vipaśyanā meditation not only cures Goenka’s migraines but becomes the focus and passion for the rest of his life.

Stuart chronicles Goenka’s first attempts at missionizing, after he was formally authorized to spread the benefits of vipaśyanā to the people of India. Goenka was met with challenges upon his arrival in 1969 but was able to organize courses and eventually receive support from his friends and family members. He learned how to tread carefully, emphasizing how Buddhism is rooted in Indian heritage and land, while focusing on the dharma as universal teachings, rather than a religion with specific beliefs to follow and institutions to join.

The final part of the biography pivots to Goenka’s flourishing as a teacher and missionary of vipaśyanā while experiencing challenges maintaining the boundaries of U Ba Khin’s lineage. After U Ba Khin’s death in 1971, his Burmese disciple, Mother Sayama, came to India in 1978. Here Goenka formally separated from the other disciples of U Ba Khin, partly because he felt all retreats should run by donation only, while Mother Sayama suggested a fee model. The split was also about religious identity, as U Ba Khin’s Burmese disciples emphasized the Buddhist religion, while Goenka downplayed the necessity of a Buddhist identity for his audiences in India. In his account, Stuart deftly handles the intricacy and tensions within these relationships, using primarily the autobiographical writings and letters of Goenka, interspersed with primary sources from Goenka’s teacher and U Ba Khin’s other disciples.

Goenka’s particular mission, as Stuart explains, came to be viewed by Goenka and his disciples, as a teacher, who spreads the seeds of dharma widely. His work touches the surface for many, getting them interested and involved in vipaśyanā, but does not delve deeply into teaching advanced stages of meditation. This explains why Goenka’s focus was the global masses, rather than the limited number who would continue to make attainments towards enlightenment.

In his role as a spreader of seeds, Goenka founded meditation centers throughout the world, at least 150 permanent centers, demonstrating his skill in organization and institution building. In the 1980s he developed his retreat model to train and appoint assistant teachers so that many students could learn at once without Goenka’s physical presence at each center. Goenka remained the only teaching authority, however, through the use of tape-recorded instructions and talks by Goenka, played identically at each of the meditation courses. This successful model shaped the format of global secular meditation retreats. In the end Stuart argues that Goenka’s universal dharma must be situated within Goenka’s individual life and time in history, which is a narrative of many layers and identities.

For those interested in modern vipaśyanā meditation, this is essential reading. Because Goenka has shaped so much of the modern phenomenon of the meditation retreat, and meditation for non-Buddhists, this detailed account of his background is much needed and appreciated as part of the series Lives of Buddhist Masters. The narrative of Goenka’s life may have selectively fit nicely into secular mindfulness of modern Buddhism, but this biography reveals Goenka’s deep commitments to the Hindu God Krishna and initial distrust of and exclusivist stance against Buddhism. Alongside this is Goenka’s references to non-human agents, karma and rebirth, including the identity of his own teacher, U Ba Khin, as the being who would eventually become the next fully enlightened buddha, Maitreya. Stuart’s work sheds light on a different, much more complex, and interesting figure who does not perfectly mimic the demythologized tropes of modern Buddhism.

The selection of writings and teachings in this book span Goenka’s career and include various formats like poems, autobiographical writing, essays, and dharma talks. These selections are also varied in themes focusing on the dharma, the Buddha, mindfulness, concentration, sacred sites, and Buddhism in India. After reading Stuart’s analysis, some readers might be interested to read Goenka’s words themselves, without interpretation. For this reader, by far the more interesting part of the book is Stuart’s biography.

A long-time student of Goenka, Stuart writes respectfully, fairly, and with nuance. It is clear that a huge amount of care went into the construction of this biography. This is an important work for any student of Goenka’s vipaśyanā meditation retreats as well as for scholars working on modern Buddhism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brooke Schedneck is assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Rhodes College.

Date of Review: 
June 20, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel M. Stuart, associate professor of religious studies at the University of South Carolina, is a scholar of South Asian religions, literary cultures, and meditation traditions specializing in the texts and practices of the Buddhist tradition. He is the author of The Stream of Deathless NectarA Less Traveled Path, and Thinking About Cessation.

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