“My confidence in Dhamma is unshakable. I am only a medium – it is Dhamma that is working. Dhamma has to choose some medium to get the work done.” - Mr. S N Goenka
A few hundred yards from the sleepy railway station, a small group of seven men, all Vipassana meditators, slowly made their way up a deserted hill. One of them had his foot in plaster. He hobbled along painfully with a crutch. The others addressed him as ‘Guruji’. S.N. Goenka and the group reached the top of the hill, a desolate land with ancient ruins and a few scattered trees. Nearby, the group could see bodies burning in a cemetery. “Guruji, this place could hardly be ideal for a meditation centre”, one amongst the group said nervously. Goenkaji smiled. “On the contrary, this is the ideal place. You can see the ultimate fate of this physical body for which we have so much attachment”. The Dhamma teacher experienced the vibrations on the lonely hill. “We were not looking for this place”, he said quietly. “This place was looking for us”. After millennia, the priceless jewel of Dhamma had found a casket--Dhamma Giri.
The Early Days
From 1969 to December 1975, Vipassana courses had already been held in 11 Indian states and 37 towns and cities. Courses were organized in wadis, schools, colleges, hostels, hotels, dharamsalas, ashrams, temples, viharas, bungalows, offices, a stadium, a jail, a mosque. The Ganges of Dhamma had begun to flow in the country of its origin.
Soon, the decision was taken to have a Vipassana centre. The search for a suitable land began. One amongst the group on the Igatpuri hill on that December day in 1974, returned to Bombay, went directly to the owner of the deserted site, made the payment and only then went home. He had decided to donate the entire cost of the land the moment Goenkaji had approved of it. The land for the first Vipassana centre in India after millennia was ready. That meditator who offered that invaluable Dhamma dana lives in Mumbai to this day. The first ten-day course at Dhamma Giri was held in 1976. The early courses were given by Goenkaji himself. The assistant teachers were yet to be appointed. ‘Guruji’ as he is called by his Indian students and ‘Goenkaji’ as he is called by the Western students, would be in the Dhamma Hall for the early morning chanting, group sittings and would personally check each student. At 7.00 p.m, he would give the Dhamma discourse personally. No tape-recorders were used. There were barely 100 students in each course.
The Dhamma Hall in those days was where the present ‘X’, ‘Y’, ‘Z’ dormitory is now. The students stayed in A,B,C dormitories. The Teacher’s Residence was the present male course office. The earlier Teacher’s Residence was in the present ‘D’ dormitory – the block serving as residence, library, visitors’ room. The facilities were the barest minimum. There were no pucca toilets and bathrooms, not even fans. Dhamma servers had no particular living quarters. Their baggage would be kept anywhere possible and they often slept in the dining hall, waking up when the kitchen staff came to work before 4.00 a.m. Most of the early development work, like the electrical wiring was done by meditators themselves. Dhamma workers would work around the clock, often engaged in hard physical labour. Many of those early dedicated long stay Dhamma servers are now Teachers. Demand for courses exceeded available capacity even in those days.
Courses were not conducted as often as now, but many students would come for regular self-courses. The beautiful greenery of Dhamma Giri one sees now is owed to the dedicated efforts of meditators of those early days. Hundreds of saplings were planted and the gardens planned in great detail, often under the personal care of the Teacher. Under a benevolent Dhamma atmosphere growing stronger as more and more students meditated on this land, Dhamma Giri expanded rapidly. The Vipassana International Academy, Dhamma Giri currently serves over a thousand students every month in fortnightly ten-day courses and parallel long courses. The centre now has five Dhamma Halls and around 400 meditation cells in a new pagoda. It also hosts the Vipassana Research Institute (VRI), established to conduct research and publish the authentic teachings of the Buddha and other Dhamma literature.
The Rest of India
In February 1982, Goenkaji and Mataji made a pilgrimage to Bodhgaya, Sarnath, Sravasti, Kushinagar and Lumbini. From being lost to India, Vipassana had returned to the sacred places from where the wheel of Dhamma had started rotating this sasana. Vipassana spread rapidly across the length and breadth of India . The regional bases were Jaipur in the West, Calcutta in the East, Delhi in the North and Hyderabad in the South. The first Vipassana course was held in South India on 24th July, 1969, in Agarwal Bhavan, Madras (now Chennai). It was the second course conducted by Goenkaji in India. That seed has grown to centres in Hyderabad and Dhamma Setu in Madras. Courses are being held in South India, including Kerala, which had two 10-day Vipassana courses recently. The most heartening aspect of Dhamma developments in South India is that instructions and discourses are now available in regional languages. This has meant more Tamil, Telugu and Kannada-speaking peoples participating in courses. In South Gujarat, a population of over 80 lakh people, nearly half of whom are tribals, have begun to benefit from Dhamma. A dedicated team of six senior Dhamma servers are working in earnest to conduct courses even in the more remote interior regions. Courses have also been held at the Kakarpur Atomic Power Project at Anumala Township. Its management was so pleased with the results that small batches of employees are being sent to various Dhamma centres to attend courses.
Vipassana has spread rapidly in the region with ten-day courses having been conducted in almost all the major towns and cities. To enable Vipassana to reach far-flung interior regions, a group of Bhikkhu Teachers have been authorized to introduce Vipassana through part-time courses, based on Goenkaji’s discourses.
In Balaghat, the new Dhamma Kanan Vipassana Centre is serving the southern part of the state. hamma Dhaja (Banner of Dhamma) has been named as a centre in the Punjab. It has 40 acres of land and is situated in Hoshiapur district of that State. These are pointers to the rapidity with which new Dhamma centres are arising to serve the small towns and interiors of India.
Vipassana has firmly entered the prison system in India with two Dhamma centres established inside the very walls of two notorious prisons – Dhamma Tihar in Delhi and a centre in Nashik Jail, both of which conduct fortnightly ten-day courses. Courses are being held regularly for focus groups all over the country– children, teenagers, juvenile delinquents, college students, the visually handicapped, the leprosy –afflicted, management trainees, police officers.
For society to change, the individual must change. Vipassana is providing that powerful tool for change. One of the most telling developments is the Government of Maharashtra Resolution (GR No. 2496 / 3 / SER-9, dated 15/5/97) that offers paid leave for senior government officials to undertake Vipassana courses.
This is perhaps the first tangible acceptance of Vipassana by a government to enhance its own working. The fact that this acceptance comes from one of India’s most advanced and industrialized states, holds great significance.
The Maharashtra Government has also been the first to declare that Vipassana courses be conducted in every prison in the state. The edicts of Emperor Asoka indicate that he himself and vast sections of his people practiced Dhamma. His empire, one of the largest in the world then, flourished. That period in history is part of the Golden Age of India. The country is again beginning to benefit from the invaluable heritage of the Buddha.