Due to motivation and the inspiration provided by Shri Ratnakar Gaikwad, Additional Municipal Commissioner of Mumbai, a concept of holding Vipassana meditation course for leprosy patients of the hospital was introduced. Shri Ratnakar, on his first visit to the Ackworth Municipal Hospital for Leprosy was over whelmed by the greenery within the hospital campus, residing right in the heart of Mumbai and felt that the general environment is conducive for holding a Vipassana course here. He further pursued the idea and brought it to reality.
The leprosy patients-- the inmates of the hospital, are predominantly long term residents of the hospital. They have already suffered from relentless social stigma which dislocated them from the outside society and made them spend their life in the hospital. Any external element trying to understand them by coming close and spending time with them, is always welcome. In view of this, the idea of some people form the outside world coming and staying in the hospital for ten days for holding Vipassana meditation camp was welcomed by the inmates with enthusiasm without knowing what Vipassana is.
As a first step, a video cassette of Shri Goenkaji was heard, one hour each on three consecutive days which provoked many inmates to know more about this technique and participate in the same. In further meetings, many inmates asked questions regarding the course details and its requirements. They were mainly worried about their physical handicap due to leprosy, which may not permit them to sit in one position for hours. They were also sceptical about their routine medications and dressing of their wounds during the camps period. Once they were confident that they will not be inconvenienced to sit in one position as they can even sit on the chairs and any medication required will be continued even during the ten days of the course, many of the expressed willingness to participate. However, some of them could not be permitted, as they were required to look after day-to-day routine activities in the hospital inpatient and outpatient section. Nevertheless, a group of forty patients was identified to take part in the first ten day Vipassana meditation course organised in the month of May 1997. One staff-member also joined the course.
As the date to commence the first course was fixed, the patients and the staff of the hospital were all determined to make it a great success. The requirements to hold this type of course were enlisted and were completed one by one. The places for Dhamma Hall, residence for male and female participants and for assistant teachers and volunteers were fixed and were improved by painting, etc. About forty cushions with blue cloth covers were prepared by the leprosy patients themselves in just two days. Arrangements of breakfast, lunch, evening meals were made form the hospital kitchen. Everything was set to commence the course on the stipulated day and timing.
The inmates of the hospital and the staff-members were extremely fortunate to have Goenkaji to inaugurate the course for leprosy patients at the Ackworth Leprosy Hospital. His inspiring speech was tailored specially for the occasion, taking into account the fact that the participants in the course were leprosy sufferers. The audio record of the same speech is being used for subsequent programmes too. Goenkaji himself taught ``Anapana’’ to the participants in the inaugural session.
Everything went on as per schedule. Many inmates as well as the staff of the hospital were putting in co-ordinated efforts right from early morning to evening to provide all the requited facilities so that the course being undertaken by the participants could be smoothly practised without interruption. The entire atmosphere within the hospital campus changed and became holistic.
The assistant teachers who conducted the course grasped the minds of not only participating patients but also of other patients and staff members in a short time. During the ten days’ main course, the Assistant Teacher also took short introductory sessions almost in all inpatient wards and also for the group of the staff making everybody aware about Vipassana meditation. The other volunteers who stayed in the hospital campus for ten days also quickly assimilated with the hospital atmosphere and freely mixed with the leprosy patients without any inhibitions. This made the attitude of the inmates very positive towards the programme.
The unique nature of the participants and their sincerity in completing the course made Goenkaji visit the hospital camps once again on the metta day. On the same day he also addressed the meeting of many eminent persons.
On completion of the first course, everybody congratulated the participants while they profusely thanked assistant teachers, volunteers and others who helped them follow the path towards ``Dhamma’’ though Vipassana meditation. They could not express their feelings in terms of Sila, Samadhi and Pragya but the light in their eyes, the bold determination in their voice showed that there was a great change in them by which they can totally face the dreaded disease they are suffering from and the stigmatising society they are living in.
As head of the hospital, I had opportunity to participate in the organisation of the course from the very beginning to the end. Moreover; the enlightenment enthused in the participating leprosy patients inspired me to participate in the course myself. I took the opportunity by attending a ten-day course at Igatpuri in June 1997.
Participation in the Vipassana meditation course was a great experience. The scientific approach of introspection gives one ample opportunities to go through the intricacies of one is own mind and behaviour, possibly through ``Anapana’’ and `Vipassana’ To remain equanimous without reacting to any event will be a goal to be achieved and this ten days course could be just a first step towards the goal. The immense benefits and the experience gathered during the course cannot be expressed in words and I sincerely thank those who introduced Vipassana to me.
We could organise two more ten-day courses during July and August 1997 at Ackworth Leprosy Hospital without any difficulty. These courses were not only attended by the inmates but also by more staff members and by some OPD patients. With the existing facilities and little more inputs a ``Vipassana Meditation centre’’ can be established at the Ackworth Leprosy Hospital for the benefit of many more.
Subsequent to ten-day courses, now it has become a permanent feature that every day, one hour each morning and evening, all old students practise meditation in the ``Dhamma Hall’’. Since June 1997 onwards a one-day course from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. is being arranged on second Sunday of every month in which not only old students among inmates but also from nearby areas are also taking part. In the near future, the Ackworth Municipal Hospital for Leprosy could become one of the well-known centres for holding Vipassana meditation camps.
Letters from Vipassana Course Participants