It was my first ten-day retreat, and it changed my life. I used to look down on S.N. Goenka’s vipassana retreats, which all seemed to be just another new-agey approach to Buddhist meditation. But I found myself compelled to attend one such vipassana retreat, after I was overwhelmed with regret for mocking some friends about their dedication to this particular vipassana community. After the retreat, I wrote my friends a long apology and then finally wrapped up my studies to pursue the career I had held off on for so long.
S.N. Goenka’s passing brought me to think about the numerous ways in which he had left an imprint on my life. When I was in my teens, it was S.N. Goenka’s book, The Art of Living, that a Burmese monk at temple used as a guide to talk about meditation in English. Many of my friends, from ordained Buddhist monks to ordained Methodist ministers, have found their meditation practices bolstered after attending Goenka’s vipassana retreats. Having attended a Goenka-style vipassana retreat myself has proven to be an important connection point with many other Buddhists, even if it is not exactly the way I have continued to practice.
Perhaps most important is that S.N. Goenka managed to create an institutional movement that embodies many of the Buddhist values that are dear to my heart. His retreats were dana-based, where none are forced to donate and only those who have attended a retreat are allowed to donate. He valued the Mahasangha and saw his position as a lay teacher in complement—not a replacement—to the monastic community. And his teachings, developed by Asians and based in Asia, have been presented in a format that are accessible enough to global audiences that even Westerners are easily able to embrace them as their own.
S.N. Goenka has not been universally praised and his vipassana movement has attracted criticism. But I strongly feel that he has done a great deal to make the world more receptive to the power of meditation and has strengthened the Buddhist community—even without being Buddhist.