The sound silence

The old practice of Vipassana, perceiving things as they are in utter silence, is making noise as it has new and young takers

Global Vipassana Pagoda is a mediation hall in Mumbai

When there is darkness, light is needed,” explained Satya Narayan Goenka on August 29, 2000 in the United Nations General Assembly Hall. “Today, with so much agony caused by conflict, war and bloodshed, the world badly needs peace and harmony. This is a great challenge for religious and spiritual leaders. Let us accept this challenge.”

Goenka was addressing a gathering of the world’s religious and spiritual leaders at the Millennium World Peace Summit, held under the auspices of (the then) UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

In the course of his speech, the 76-year-old Indian spiritualist and pioneer of the Buddhist Vipassana Meditation pleaded for a concrete plan for peace, and gave a call for surmounting religious, political and cultural differences. “Ancient India gave two practices to the world. One is the physical exercise of yoga postures (Asanas) and breath control (Pranayama) for keeping the body healthy. The other is the mental exercise of Vipassana for keeping the mind healthy. People of any faith can practise both these methods. At the same time, they may follow their own religions in peace and harmony; there is no necessity for conversion, a common source of tension and conflict.”

Goenka (1924-2013), who dedicated a major part of his adult life in propagating the values and virtues of Vipassana across the globe, was born and raised in Burma (now Myanmar).

A successful businessman with substantial wealth, he came in contact with the Vipassana master Sayagyi U Ba Khin (1899-1971) in 1955. What followed was a 14-year-long training, during which he learnt various techniques of meditation and became one of Sayagyi’s foremost students.

Settling in India, he began teaching Vipassana Meditation in 1969. Seven years later, he established the Vipassana International Academy in Igatpuri, Maharashtra. In the course of time, dozens of such centres were opened worldwide attracting thousands of people to the meditation courses. Buoyed by the response, Goenka began training and appointing assistant teachers to help him to meet the growing demand for courses. Today, there are nearly 200 Vipassana centres across Asia, Americas, Europe, Oceania and Africa.

By the time he passed away on September 29, 2013, in Mumbai, aged 90, Goenka had immensely popularised Vipassana in the spiritual world. His courses were free-of-charge, and many of the participants found them to be beneficial, and even life-transforming.

Goenka wrote many books and lectured extensively on the subject of human suffering and the path to enlightenment as enunciated by Gautama Buddha. He received honours and recognitions including the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India in 2012. The Global Vipassana Pagoda near Mumbai envisioned by him as an international spiritual centre became a reality during his lifetime. Designed as a replica of the Shwedagon Pagoda of Yangon, Myanmar, the centre, with its 325-foot-high pagoda, took 11 years (1997-2008) to complete. The central meditation hall, 280 feet in diameter, has a seating capacity of 8,000 people.

What is Vipassana?


Monks in practice.
Buddha is believed to have taught Vipassana as a universal remedy for universal ills.

Simply put, Vipassana means ‘to see things as they really are’. Buddha is believed to have taught Vipassana as a universal remedy for universal ills. It aims to eliminate negative thoughts and habits that cloud pure consciousness and block the flow of mankind’s highest qualities — pure love (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha). It highlights the truth of impermanence (anicca), suffering (dukkha), and egolessness (anatta) by purification of the mind and developing wisdom.

“Vipassana is the highest form of awareness — the total perception of the mind-matter phenomena in its true nature,” explains www.dhamma.org, which organises Vipassana Meditation courses across the world as taught by S N Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin. “It is the choiceless observation of things as they are.”

Vipassana teachers and meditators insist that the practice is free from dogma. “There is no mysticism in Vipassana. Nothing magical happens. There is no dependence on books, theories or intellectual games in Vipassana. There is no guru-worship or competition among students. It can be practised by anyone, irrespective of race, caste or creed. It is a science of the mind that goes beyond psychology by not only understanding but also purifying the mental process. It teaches one to be aware and equanimous, despite all the ups and downs of life.”

Emphasising that the process and techniques were geared to provide a unique ‘experience’ to the meditator, Sayagyi U Bak Khin would reportedly state: “Vipassana Meditation is so subtle and delicate that the less you talk about it, the more you will benefit from it.”

Vipassana courses are not the usual easy-going and feel-good types. On the contrary, they are quite demanding and rigorous, requiring the participant’s full attention, involvement and time. Even the basic course entails the participant to commit 10 full days at the Vipassana centre. Every day begins at 4 am and includes hours and hours of guided meditation sessions. Most importantly, the participants have to observe complete silence during the entire programme. There is no question of reading, writing, and messaging, leave alone whispering or even making eye-contact with a co-participant.

During the course, one is likely to experience a variety of feelings and emotions, some of which could be disturbing, bewildering and nerve-wracking. Writes Troy Erstling (An Open Letter to New (and old) Students Who Wish to Take a 10-Day Vipassana Meditation course, As Taught by S N Goenka): “Although I’ve now completed my third course (twice as a student, once as a server), I’ve definitely had my days where I felt like walking out.”

Some students, unable to face the rigours of the course, do try their utmost to flee from the centre. But the centres are generally like fortresses, and it is not easy to hoodwink the watch and ward staff. This writer knows of a lady who claims to have climbed a high compound wall in the night and ‘escaped’. However, such incidents are very few in number. The popularity of the courses across the world clearly indicates that most of the participants not only overcome physical and psychological turbulence and complete, but return to repeat the course.

“Like everything else, the 10 days will fly by (no matter how long it seems at the time),” writes Erstling. “Enjoy the experience, and work hard. Goenka continually says that every moment is precious, and it’s true. Appreciate every moment you have there, because in the end, it’s impermanent and will pass before you know it. I’m eternally grateful for discovering this technique, and I couldn’t be happier with the changes I’ve seen in myself.”

Most of the participants vouch that Vipassana has affected their lives in a significant way. “It certainly was the strongest and most transformative experience in my life so far (I’ll have to revisit that after the birth of our daughter to be),” writes Yacine Ghalim.

“It was also probably the hardest one… For me, the hardest thing was by far the physical pain, which frankly felt excruciating at times. Next in line was the fact that you have no choice but to face your own thoughts for 10 days. Including the darker ones. You don’t really have that many distractions, so you do think A LOT. In that sense it was a strong and positive introspective experience. I feel like I’ve learnt more about myself in 10 days than in 10 years. It would be a lie to say that I didn’t feel like running away from that place every single day. But I’m glad I didn’t.”

Celebrity meditators 

Vipassana has broken many barriers and attracted people from different age groups, geographical locations and professions. Way back in the 1990s, Kiran Bedi (then Inspector General (IG) of Prisons /now Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry), stated publicly that her search for a method that would bring about a transformation of prisoners ended after finding Vipassana meditation.

Bengaluru-based Sanjay Krishna, an independent law practice professional and environmental activist, says that he was prodded by three of his close family members — brother, father-in-law, and cousin — to take up the Vipassana course. “Being a lawyer, you can imagine how appalling the suggestion to remain silent is, even for a few hours, leave alone for 10 days,” he says. “Still, I mustered courage and enrolled myself despite all the initial doubts and misgivings. All I can say is that the ‘Noble Silence’ helped me realise, experience and appreciate both the ‘nature of laws’ and ‘laws of nature’ much better.”

Among the many international celebrities who vouch for Vipassana is Israeli historian and bestselling author, Yuval Harari (born 1976). Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) became a ‘publishing phenomenon’, and climbed The New York Times bestseller list. His second book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016), was also a global bestseller. Harari, who earned his doctorate at Oxford specialising in medieval military history, is a long-time practitioner of Vipassana meditation, which he discovered at the age of 24. He has reportedly developed a regimen of spending two hours every day meditating, besides going on one to two-month meditation retreat every year.

He claims that meditation has made him a better historian. His book Homo Deus is dedicated to S N Goenka. He acknowledges that Goenka ‘taught me the technique of Vipassana meditation, which has helped me to observe reality as it is, and to know the mind and the world better. I could not have written this book without the focus, peace and insight gained from practising Vipassana for 15 years.’

Reviewing Harari’s book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018), Bill Gates wrote: “Sprinkled throughout is some practical advice, including a three-prong strategy for fighting terrorism and a few tips for dealing with fake news. But his big idea boils down to this: meditate. Of course he isn’t suggesting that the world’s problems will vanish if enough of us start sitting in the lotus position and chanting om. But he does insist that life in the 21st century demands mindfulness — getting to know ourselves better and seeing how we contribute to suffering in our own lives. This is easy to mock, but as someone who’s taking a course on mindfulness and meditation, I found it compelling.” 

Not everyone, of course, is impressed or taken in by Vipassana. There are people — both in the East and the West — who have serious issues with Goenka’s Vipassana technique and its theoretical foundations. Some accuse it to be a misinterpretation of Buddha’s teaching of mindfulness, and call it “a cult, so beware!” There are others who feel that the schedule of the Vipassana course is unnecessarily taxing (and even traumatic), while the benefits are not commensurate and often grossly exaggerated. There are also those who prefer to take the middle ground. “My experience with this group and their retreat was that it was very difficult and challenging, but also very rewarding,” says one of them.

Jodi Ettenberg, a writer, took a course of Vipassana in January 2015 in a bird sanctuary outside Auckland.  One year later, she wrote: “The Vipassana did not cure me of insomnia or anxiety permanently. Instead, it provided me with a valuable tool: it showed me that I could manage my mind more than I realised… A full 10 days of constant meditation created a barrier between the worrying and me. It allowed me to observe the anxiety more objectively. The whole process calmed me at a deep and inexplicable level; I am still the same neurotic person I always was, but it imbued me with a sense of perspective I now maintain and am deeply grateful for. Would I do the course again? Definitely."

Writing for The Guardian (‘Seeking Inner Peace In a Violent, Unequal World Is Not a Selfish Act’ / December 31, 2018), trade unionist and Labour Party activist Holly Rigby brought in another perspective. “Vipassana’s core teachings seemed attractive; my retreat emphasised that human experience will always be a series of pleasurable and painful episodes, and that learning to respond to these with equanimity can develop one’s sense of inner peace and harmony.”

She added that we live in a complicated, troubled world and that taking part in the struggle to transform society for the better was the fundamental collective task that faces us today. “Self-care can never be a substitute for political struggle,” she says, seemingly to imply that Vipassana’s doctrine of ‘acceptance of the present as it was’ offers, at times, a problematic proposition, or at best, a partial solution. But that would NOT stop her from meditating, either! Towards the end of his UN speech, Goenka quoted a sage who said, “A balanced mind is necessary to balance the unbalanced mind of others.”

Good enough reason to begin the silent meditation?

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