The Passing of S.N. Goenka

While I never met the man in person, I learned meditation from him. Taking advantage of the increasingly affordable video recording technology of the early 1990s, Vipassana teachers worked with Goenka-ji to record his “Dhamma Talks”, which are still used to train new students to this day.

Training people to remove themselves from suffering is serious business, and Goenka-ji did it well. By providing training passed down from Burmese monks and from the words of the Buddha himself, Mr. Goenka distilled 30 day meditation retreats into 10 days of hard, but empowering training for those opting to participate.

In Goenka’s approach to Vipassana meditation, which is the central means to enlightenment in Theravada Buddhism, they are so concerned with following the instructions of the Buddha literally, that most teachers go on to become scholars of the ancient Pali language. This allows them to understand the meditation instructions given in the 2000 year old transcriptions of the Pali Canon and Tipitika from the Buddha himself, which had previously been taught through oral tradition. Goenka-ji maintains that the Burmese monks kept the instructions free from their own interpretation throughout the years, unlike many other sects of Buddhism.

Former president of India Pratibha Patil, takes blessings from S.N. Goenka during a ceremony in Mumbai on February 8, 2009. (EPA/Newscom)

Former president of India Pratibha Patil, takes blessings from S.N. Goenka during a ceremony in Mumbai on February 8, 2009. (EPA/Newscom)

I’ve already elaborated on my experience with learning the vipassana technique in this web journal. Here’s an account from another “old student” who learned from Goenka in the 1970s:

Seeing, Focus, Clarity, and Vision





All these terms can pertain to both thought and the act of witnessing with one’s eyes. The metaphors between the two processes are endless.  It’s no accident that the optic nerve is the most direct pathway to the brain.  It’s also no accident that the word “Vipassana” is translated into both “Insight” and “Mindfulness” Meditation.

The word “Recognition” is often a potent reminder of how the root words provide keys to origins of words and their concepts. In today’s world, to ‘recognize’ something means to see something and know what it is, with the emphasis being on the seeing part.  More poignantly, to recognize something means to re-think it or re-“cognize” it.  To see it something, know what it is, and reflect on what you know about it.  In so doing we reprocess and reinforce the ideas about what we know about it in our minds.  Whether what we are reinforcing is true or not, is a different story.

As a child and adolescent I remember staring at myself in the mirror, focusing at looking into my own eyes and repeating the sentence “I am a human being” and dwelling on the idea of my own existence.  I’m not sure how I came up with that, but the net effect was to take me out of the whirlwind of thought and experiences surrounding my life at the moment and have a moment or two of rather deep, self-awareness.  I felt like the exercise verified and connected me to every other human being. It allowed me to, however briefly, see myself as thought I were looking at a different person other than myself, perhaps providing a glimpse into what others were seeing when they looked at me.

I find that when my mind wanders during Vipassana meditation and I find tensions arising the act of putting my attention on what I’m seeing behind my closed yelids helps awaken my mind to the reality of the moment – as opposed to whatever I had been thinking about when I noticed my attention was not on sensation.  This may be a slight deviation from the technique of focusing solely on body sensations, but I find it is instantaneously grounding.

Similarly, focusing on other sensations beyond feeling the surface of the skin:  Smell, taste, hearing could likewise may prove helpful in bringing one back to center and closer to the objective of feeling sensations on the surface of the body objectively.  The only downside is it seems to pull me out of what seem like deeper states of meditation, which may in fact be just rolling in thought and not meditation at all.

Necessary Conditions and Principles of Aikido

Advanced fundamentals in Aikikai aikido is one of the classes I take currently.  In it the instructors recently offered some key insight into the universal characteristics shared that indicate when any given aikido technique is performed successfully.  According to them a successful technique is comprised of the following Necessary Conditions:

  1. Once you realize you are being attacked, relax your body and mind.
  2. While being attacked, change your body to put yourself into a good posture, where you are not at a disadvantage in terms of the amount of pressure your attacker(s) are using to grab or restrain you.
  3. If you are neutral in terms of position, or are at less than 50% of an advantage, move yourself relative to your partner so you have a greater than 50% of their balance while staying relaxed.
  4. Stay 70% focused on and curious about the intentions of your partner/attacker while keeping 30% focused on maintaining your own correct posture. Eventually put 100% attention on your attacker.
  5. Maintain equanimity regardless of their attack, your situation or discomfort level.

Another instructor of mine from Ki-Aikido (a different school of aikido) pointed out these are similar to some of the fundamental concepts of Ki-Akido which focuses on ki (or energy), and maintaining one-point (or centered and balanced posture), while training.

The Four major principles to unify mind and body in Ki-Aikido are:

  1. Keep one-point.
  2. Relax completely.
  3. Keep weight underside.
  4. Extend Ki.

and the Five Principles of Ki-Aikido:

  1. Ki is extending.
  2. Know your partner’s mind.
  3. Respect your partner’s Ki.
  4. Put yourself in the place of your partner.
  5. Perform with confidence.

While there is some overlap, there is also some unique information in each set of rules. In both, I find vagueness and also helpful specifics.  It’s alot to know and keep in mind in the span of a few seconds as an attack and technique are executed regardless of the school one follows. The objective however is to train with these concepts in mind while executing techniques skillfully.  Eventually both the concepts and techniques go away and all that’s left is skillful aikido:  Flowing and connected energy.