Honor to the Dhamma
In April 1992, during a visit to Myanmar (Burma), Goenkaji was awarded the title of Maha-Saddhamma-JotiDhaja—“great emblem of radiant Dhamma.” This is the highest honor that a lay teacher can achieve and Goenkaji was the first non-resident of Burma to receive it.
During the same visit Goenkaji spoke to two public meetings attended by thousands of people. At these meetings a large sum of money was presented to him, all of which Goenkaji donated toward starting a Vipassana center in Yangon (Rangoon), the capital.
In reply to the honors bestowed on him, Goenkaji recited a verse of the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore:
In a religious procession, the road thinks that it is being honored.
The chariot on the road feels that it is being worshipped.
The religious statue in the chariot takes all the honor to itself.
Seeing all this, the Lord laughs!
Goenkaji explained, “All these salutations, offerings and honors are to the Dhamma. Without the Dhamma, the person has no value.”
(Courtesy: International Vipassana Newsletter, Vol. 20, No. 2, June 1993)
Recollection of Early Courses
-By Reinette Brown
(Reinette and Kirk Brown are now the teachers responsible for Dhamma Dīpa in the U.K.)
I remember an incident on a course in 1981. A large tent had been erected as a Dhamma hall. It was Day 5, during the evening discourse. Goenkaji was in full flow and I was meditating with closed eyes, enjoying my favorite discourse. I was sitting near the front, on the aisle. Suddenly I became aware of footsteps approaching from behind me. A male student was striding down the aisle toward the Dhamma seat, waving his arms. He started shouting at Goenkaji. The managers jumped to their feet but the man stood his ground and continued berating Goenkaji. Goenkaji calmly and smilingly indicated to the man to sit down. But he wouldn‘t move; he turned around and started addressing people in the hall, urging them to "rebel." Still Goenkaji sat, smiling and patient. Eventually the man turned and strode back down the aisle. He stopped and addressed his girlfriend, who was sitting right behind me: "I‘m going. Are you coming?" She replied, "No." So off he stormed, out of the course.
My heart was pounding so much that I felt giddy and had to make an effort to calm down. What on earth is Goenkaji going to do now, I wondered? Well, he and Mataji smiled benevolently and he continued the discourse. It so happened, on that course another meditator was recording the discourses on a large reel-to-reel tape machine. This was running throughout the incident. He told us afterwards that when he came to listen to the recording, he found he could splice the tape from the point where the man started his tirade and to the point where he stopped. Goenkaji had resumed his discourse exactly where he left off, and there was no perceptible break.
The story doesn‘t end there. The course venue was a former farmhouse with outbuildings. I was sleeping in a makeshift dormitory upstairs in a barn, next to the man‘s girlfriend. That night as I was drifting off to sleep, I heard a Dhamma server come quietly up the steps and whisper to the girl, "Goenkaji wants to know—what‘s the name of your friend? He wants to send him mettā."
(Courtesy: Excerpt from an article published in International Vipassana Newsletter, Vol. 38, No. 3, July 2011. )
My Experiences with Goenkaji
My name is Rampratap Yadav. I was a personal assistant to revered Goenkaji. I live at Dhammagiri, and work in a small office in Goenkaji’s residential quarters. I work here today just the way I used to do previously. It is metta day today, and I am looking out at the very first Vipassana center ever built! How wonderful it all looks with the large Dhamma halls, the beautiful greenery, the colorful foliage around Goenkaji’s residence, and there in the background rises the beautiful golden pagoda. At this moment the smiling, bright faces of students delight me, fill me with joy. There are also residences with all modern amenities for students and teachers. Tasty, healthy meals are served in the dining halls for nearly a thousand persons every day, and always on time. It is monsoon season, and there are many cascading waterfalls from the hills nearby which make the scene so captivating! Seeing all this brings back memories of those initial days with Goenkaji. The memory of his unique journey surfaces on the mind vividly like a movie. He accomplished this journey with incomparable faith, devotion and resolute effort despite so many challenges along the way.
I consider myself fortunate in that I got the incredible opportunity to serve Goenkaji immediately upon his arrival in India in June 1969. The day after his arrival in Mumbai, he came to the fifth floor offices of his younger brother Shyamsunder, on Kalbadevi Road, and I was summoned for correspondence in Hindi. He had brought along with him a list of about 200 names and addresses. These people were to be informed that his Vipassana teacher, the revered Sayagyi U Ba Khin had appointed him to teach Vipassana and that a ten day retreat would be held in Mumbai. All those who wanted to participate in this course, or wanted to organize a retreat within their local areas, should reply immediately. The letter-exchange started. Apart from Mumbai, several places started requesting for courses. These included Chennai (Madras then), Sarnath, Kolkata (Calcutta then), Delhi, Tadepalligudam (Andhra Pradesh), Madhoganj (U.P.) and Ajmer (Rajasthan), among many others.
The first 10-day course was organized in a dharamshala (a public rest house) named Panchayat Wadi, from the 3rd-13th of July. The meditation hall was large and the number of participating students was a mere fourteen. However, there was no appropriate accommodation for housing Goenkaji. Female accommodation was in an area above the hall and although there was a room available above this, Goenkaji would have to go up and down a flight of steps that passed through this area. Goenkaji managed to have a residence for the course created with a cloth partition at one end of the long meditation hall. He had the Dhamma seat set up on the opposite side of the curtain, while he shared the common entrance to the hall. On this course even the few toilets were shared. People used them turn by turn standing in a queue. When Goenkaji needed to use them he would make an enquiry whether one of the toilets was available.
For all purposes, the course was running smoothly. However on the fifth day, I and a few other students suddenly became ill. Goenkaji was concerned about what might have gone wrong. At first he wondered if the food might be the cause. A doctor was summoned and he examined and treated us. I felt a bit better the next day, after having taken the medication, I was prescribed for fever. Later, after further consideration, Goenkaji approached me in my office and asked me if I was practicing any other form of meditation. I confided to him that indeed I had been practicing a different technique (Ananda marg) for half an hour, two times a day. “Oh,” he said “no wonder you took ill along with the other students.” He explained further, “This is a Beej Mantra (repetition of a word with strong vibration) based technique, but I teach a different path based on the laws of nature, and both cannot co-exist under the same roof. Either you have to stop practicing the mantra or else you will have to leave.” I told him that from now onwards I would only practice at home but I could not possibly give it up. With much compassion, he began explaining to me the differences between the two techniques. He assured me that if I quit the mantra and practiced only this, it would cause me no harm. He smiled. “In the future so many courses are going to be organized, so better build a strong foundation straight away.”
Fraught with turmoil, I agreed. He took me to the hall and taught me Anapana. The course was already past mid-way so there was not much more that could be done now. I was instructed just to work with the breath. I did as I was told and the course completed peacefully--all disruptions ceased.
The next course was scheduled for 24th August through the 3rd of September in Chennai. Fifteen days before it began, we travelled there together and stayed with his older brother Mr. Bala Krishna. One day, during my practice there, I suddenly felt an ant crawl up under my nose. I swiped my hand to remove it, but it seemed to return as soon as I closed my eyes again. I was puzzled about this new difficulty. After taking dictation from Goenkaji, I asked him about this; he merely advised me not to pay any attention to it. “Just focus on the breath,” he said. “I will tell you more in your ten-day retreat.”
When the course on the 24th of August started, I enrolled in it as a student. However my duties related to letter-correspondence continued. I would take dictation as and when required, and burn the mid-night oil typing it up, all the while meditating as per the course schedule. My practice of Anapana for a longer period paid off, and when Vipassana was given I got sensations everywhere. However my previous practice of a different technique presented some major challenges, and I struggled with the fact that I had quit my previous technique. Goenkaji wrote a detailed letter about these to his older brother in Rangoon, Mr. Babulal, requesting him to forward it to Sayagyi U Ba Khin. Sayagyi’s powerful metta helped me battle these storms and they subsided. I feel so immensely fortunate for this help.
In those days, courses held in dharamshalas were filled with unique and at times difficult challenges. Goenkaji had to endure a host of adversities during these, but I never saw even a shadow of displeasure crease his forehead. He would say, “Since we have come prepared for difficulties, really there is nothing to complain about, after all the students are facing similar difficulties.”
One such course was held in a small village, Sādrā near Ahmedabad in Gujarat. In this unique course, the students had volunteered to manage the running of the course. This included the setting up of an outdoor fire pit to cook meals. After checking, both male and female students would work together to cook lunch and then clean up afterwards. Goenkaji had informed me beforehand that the participants in the course were very poor, and so I should not ask them for anything. I was to accept whatever was given, and never to question it. When I went to get his lunch on the first day, I brought back one cooked vegetable, lentil soup, dry half burnt rotis, half an onion for salad, and butter-milk. Before eating, Goenkaji asked me again, “You did not ask for anything, did you?” I assured him that I had not. Later on the students approached Goenkaji lamenting, “Goenkaji, we are so sorry. We know our food is not good, but this is all we have. This place is far away from the city, so please forgive us.” Goenkaji laughed, “Oh, but the food was delicious! It had your metta in it. You should all focus on your practice, don’t worry about me, as I am very comfortable here.” Today some people from that course are Vipassana Teachers, and have served many others in Dhamma.
Around the same time, a course was organized in Pushkar, a town near Ajmer in Rajasthan. The person organizing the course had sent out invitations for participation in a 10-day course using colorful and persuasive language. Even Goenkaji was taken in by his beautiful correspondence and consented to conduct the course. The organizer wanted to set up a retreat in Ajmer, but was unable to secure a course site. There were many dharamshalas there, but their administrators would not rent them out fearing that this was a Buddhist tradition. Unsuccessful in Ajmer, he finally settled for the nearby pilgrimage town of Pushkar. It was not yet festival season, so the dharamshala there sat unoccupied and he secured it. However, since this was finalized at the last minute, no one from Ajmer or nearby areas signed up for the course.
In those days, Goenkaji travelled by train in the ordinary three-tiered coach, or what we know today as ‘sleeper class’. Both Goenkaji and I would travel together. During our journey to Ajmer, a Saadhu (an ascetic) sat across from us. He had no specific destination, and so was prepared to get off the train as and when he wanted. While discussing meditation techniques, he expressed an interest in sitting a course. Goenkaji mentioned to him that there was a course that began the very next day and that he could accompany us to Pushkar. The course organizer greeted us when we arrived at the station, and together we set off for Pushkar. The public guesthouse was named ‘Yadav Dharamshala’ and there was not even a single toilet or shower stall on the premises. Just outside the building ran a dry canal. The organizer showed us a toilet enclosure that had been erected, made of straw and clay on the concrete ridge of this canal. It was just about four feet tall, just tall enough for privacy. We were also shown an area of the courtyard where a small corner had been enclosed to serve as a shower stall. As no one occupied the upper floors, this would provide sufficient privacy. The watchman drew water for our needs from a nearby well, and he was also our cook and cleaner. In order not to cause him more trouble, Goenkaji decided he would bathe at the plinth by the well, thereby saving the watchman from having to carry water across the yard.
At this point, it was clear that only two people would sit the course, the Saadhu we met on the train and our course organizer. But Goenkaji was not disheartened at all and instead suggested that both he and I also sit the course along with them. So the course doubled in size from two to four. The postal service was slow, and phone facilities non-existent in that little village, resulting in our course being very quiet, very peaceful. Goenkaji meditated with us, but he also gave discourses in the same way he did at other ten-day retreats. The course organizer, who had never attended a ten-day Vipassana course before, informed Goenkaji that he could only stay for seven days, as he needed to attend an important meeting in Sri Lanka. So, after the seventh day, it was just the three of us on the course. The watchman continued to serve us food – this was simply whatever he had also cooked for himself that day. Our course ended well. The Saadhu was overcome with gratitude. He felt that the past twelve years of his austere life in the Himalayas had been futile, and that only now could he rightly claim to be an ascetic. Mataji arrived from Myanmar a year later. Initially, she stayed with the family and children for some time, and then she too started helping Goenkaji with his Dhamma work. She untangled herself from her attachment to the family and her children, and devoted all her time to Dhamma service. The children gradually grew up, finished schooling and found livelihoods. When Goenkaji returned from conducting courses, he would share with them his expertise and insight from his past life as a businessman. He also shared with them his experiences while serving the Dhamma. He always emphasized to them the benefits and importance of serving on the Dhamma path. This is how he lived until the very end. With the same immeasurable devotion, boundless effort, and unwavering sincerity towards his teacher and Dhamma father Sayagyi U Ba Khin and the path of Dhamma he taught. He kept the promise he gave his Dhamma father to maintain the purity of Dhamma until he breathed his last. I felt compelled to share the recollections of some incidents of his life. But no matter how much I write, how many stories I tell, it is nearly impossible to do justice to these memories. They are now a cherished companion for the rest of my life, and a source of continuous inspiration as I walk on the path of Dhamma.
Goenkaji’s Inexhaustible Service until the Very End of his Life
Just as Yadavji has shared his reminiscences of respected Goenkaji in the early days of his teaching of Vipassana in India, I would like to share my reminiscences of his final years.
From 1990 to 2013 I assisted Goenkaji with the creation and compilation of Dhamma literature. This also included his early articles written while in Burma, his poems, letters, and articles on the culture of Myanmar, etc. I was also entrusted with research related activities. Due to my ability to write shorthand directly in Hindi, I also had the good fortune of sitting in close proximity with Goenkaji to take down his dictation for new articles.
During 2011 Mr. Yadav took ill, and I was summoned to Goenkaji’s residence in Mumbai for editorial work in his absence. Goenkaji even helped me get a small apartment close to his home in Andheri, so my wife Anandi and I could be together while I worked most days, usually from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. During this time noteworthy works such as ‘The Coffee Table Book’, ‘Vipassana Centers’ and ‘Meri Kavitayen’ (My Poems) were published. In addition almost a thousand new dohas (rhyming stanzas) were added to the collection ‘Mangal Hua Prabhat’ (An auspicious day has dawned). After their initial composition and compilation, Goenkaji meticulously went through them to finalize the selection. I benefitted from his invaluable insight and guidance as I observed him working on these publications.
Owing to his declining health, a large part of Goenkaji’s day was taken up by treatments and therapies. But whatever time was left after treatment, he would not waste even a minute of it. He used every last moment to immerse himself in Dhamma work. Often it is seen that serious physical ailments and old age adversely affect one’s mind. One does not feel like doing any work, because one feels exhausted and disappointed. However Goenkaji was no ordinary human being. Not only was he a very capable and established Vipassana meditator, he was also a great Teacher of this wonderful path. Even in his last days, the strength of Dhamma within him was boundless. There was no doubt that his capacity transcended the usual abilities of a normal person. I would like to say with honest assurance that Goenkaji was in good mental health and that his physical health never precluded his ability to make decisions with clarity. No doubt his physical abilities were limited owing to his weakened health at times, but his unblemished mind was always robust with incisive insight.
I am truly fortunate to have had the opportunity to be of assistance to him. His last days have infused me with boundless inspiration. I saw first-hand how great the strength of Vipassana, the strength of Dhamma can be. Our teacher was a great being who was chosen by Dhamma to establish its second dispensation.
I believe that all of us, who learned Vipassana under his compassionate guidance and became his disciples, are truly fortunate.
Almost all major countries in the world today have Vipassana centers. Each one of them has been established under the watchful guidance of Goenkaji. In all these centers, no matter where they are in the world, Vipassana courses are being conducted using guidelines set by Goenkaji: the same guidelines, instructions, discipline, rules, regulations and time-table. A system is in place where trustees and assistant teachers are appointed to manage centers and teach Vipassana respectively. Goenkaji’s objective in doing this was that Vipassana would be able to survive for centuries to come in its pure and undiluted form, so that generation after generation of suffering humanity could benefit from it.
I hope that through Goenkaji’s vision and guidance Vipassana will endure. Goenkaji used to say that it was his responsibility to ensure that this valuable teaching survives for the next 2,500 years. A large part of this responsibility now is on the shoulders of all of us, his assistant teachers, to safeguard it. Goenkaji accomplished his part, dutifully and with dedication. Now we have to make sure that we nurture it with care, and secure this precious inheritance for future generations. This is the only way to pay homage to our late revered Dhamma father.
Rameshwarlal Sharma, Dhamma-assistant to Goenkaji
The Gratitude Gathering
On January 17, 2010, the great dome of the Global Vipassana Pagoda in Mumbai was the site for the Gratitude Gathering. This extraordinary event attracted thousands of people from around the world.
At the event Goenkaji expressed his gratitude to his teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, for giving him the gift of Dhamma. Goenkaji described this as a second birth, which brought real fulfilment: “Human life becomes meaningful only when one breaks the shell of ignorance and becomes established in wisdom, just as a chick breaks through its eggshell and emerges into the light.”
At the same time Goenkaji expressed gratitude to all his students worldwide for enabling him to develop his paramis by accepting from him the gift of Dhamma, as he had received it from Sayagyi. Goenkaji particularly mentioned those who joined courses in the first 10 years after he came to India in 1969 to teach Vipassana meditation. “If they had not come to me,” he said, “how could Dhamma have spread throughout the world?”
Goenkaji noted the achievements in the four decades since he took up the task of Dhammaduta (“envoy of the Dhamma”). People from every part of the world, from every religion and background have been drawn to the teaching of Vipassana. For this remarkable success, Goenkaji gave credit to Sayagyi U Ba Khin and the Dhamma, as well as to his own students. “I have only two hands,” he said, “but the Dhamma has thousands.”
Among the countless thousands who have helped, Goenkaji mentioned a number of individuals who contributed in particular ways. Some were present at the Gathering, while others were unable to attend for various reasons.
In his closing talk, Goenkaji explained the purpose and utility of the Global Vipassana Pagoda.
He recalled that when the Buddha’s teaching spread to neighbouring countries 2,300 years ago, people were inspired to build Shwedagon and thousands of other pagodas in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia. Today these monuments still bear witness to India’s gift of the Dhamma. They inspire boundless devotion towards India and especially towards Emperor Asoka, who sent out Dhammadutas far and wide.
Similarly, for thousands of years the Global Vipassana Pagoda will inspire devotion towards Myanmar and Sayagyi U Ba Khin. It will stand as a reminder of the unbroken chain of teachers and pupils who preserved the practice of Vipassana through millennia in that country. And its strong Dhamma atmosphere will give strength to all who meditate there.
Numerous Vipassana meditators joyfully took advantage of the rare opportunity to meet Goenkaji. He himself was happy to see so many of his old students.
At a press conference held after the Gathering, Goenkaji said that Vipassana is beneficial to everyone. Its regular practice makes a meditator peaceful and committed to fulfilling his or her responsibilities. Several newspapers and television channels covered the press conference.
(Courtesy: International Vipassana Newsletter, Vol. 37, No. 1, March 2010. )
Padma Bhushan Award
Goenkaji was one of 123 people announced as recipients of a 2012 Padma Award, India’s highest civilian honor. The awards are conferred annually by the President of India on the occasion of Republic Day, January 26.
Goenkaji was awarded the Padma Bhushan for distinguished service of a high order in the field of social work.
The award is recognition of Goenkaji’s decades of selfless service to re-establish the practice of Vipassana in India. It is also recognition of the practice itself—the essence of the teaching of the Buddha and the brightest jewel in India’s rich spiritual heritage.
The President of India at that time, Mrs. Pratibha Devisingh Patil, is herself a Vipassana meditator.
(Courtesy: International Vipassana Newsletter, Vol. 39, No. 1, March 2012)