It was a significant moment in the history of the Dhamma, that winter of 1971 in Bodhgaya, when S. N. Goenka began to teach his 10 day retreats in vipassana meditation, attended primarily by young people from the West. Most of us had come to India on a pilgrimage to check out the source of this ancient wisdom tradition that we had been reading about at college in paperback books; the writings of hip scholars like Alan Watts and the spiritual beatnik poets.
I attended my first meditation retreat with Goenka that winter, there at the Burmese Buddhist Vihara, where 30 or 40 of us had gathered, spreading our hippie backpacks and sleeping bags across the roof and through the garden; a new generation from the other side of the planet looking for liberation on the road; on the Buddha’s path.
Some have since called it “the meditation retreat that shook the world.” In spite of the fact that it was a somewhat random convergence of individuals, among those in attendance were Ram Dass and his entourage, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Daniel Goleman, John Travis and others who would return to the West with the jewels of the Dhamma, beautifully polished and presented to us by Goenkaji, as we affectionately called him. That retreat helped to spawn many books and launch many teachers who would eventually help to create a spiritual revolution in the world.
Goenka was a worldly man and taught a straight-ahead Dhamma, perfect for Westerners, using science and common sense and lots of good humor. He used to say, “I’m not teaching Buddhism. I’m teaching the art of living.”
He had an interest in theater and happened to have a lovely baritone voice. I will never forget listening to Goenka singing Buddhist chants to us in the early morning and evening, many of the melodies composed by Goenka himself. I can hear his voice mixing with the tinkle of rickshaw bells and the cries of street vendors just outside the Vihara.
Goenkaji’s love of the Dhamma was palpable, and we trusted him, and practiced hard with him, and under his kind gaze we also fell in love with the Dhamma. Although like many of us who attended those first retreats with Goenka, I went on to study with other teachers, I will always remember scanning my awareness through my body, focusing on the ever-changing physical sensations as Goenkaji chanted to us “Annica! Annica!” (Impermanent! Impermanent!) I will also remember his sincerity, his wonderful laugh, and his admonishment to us at the close of every sitting: “Be happy! Be happy!”
Goenkaji was a true master of the Dhamma, and his presence will be missed in the world.
Wes Nisker wesnisker.com