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S.N. GoenkaI found out via Justin Whitaker the sad news that S.N. Goenka died this week. The name needs little introduction for Yavanayāna Buddhists, but others may wish some additional insight.

Goenka, born in Burma, was a pioneer – really the pioneer – of what is now known as vipassanā meditation. This term vipassanā (usually translated “insight”) is found in the classical Pali texts, and so is the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta from which Goenka originally drew the meditation technique. Notably, though, the term vipassanā does not show up in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta itself. And that detail, I think, is telling about Goenka’s whole project.

I recall Goenka claiming, like many other contemporary Buddhist teachers, that what he was teaching was not new; it was just the teaching of the Buddha. That statement is not false exactly, but it’s not the whole truth. Like most, he emphasized some teachings at the expense of others. He also taught his preferred form of meditation as a “technique”, available to people from multiple traditions, rather than insisting on a specific commitment to Buddhism per se. Perhaps the biggest innovation: he insisted on a practise devoted entirely to lay people, householders. One person I spoke to at the Goenka meditation centre in Massachusetts noted that while people were allowed to stay at the centre and help with its operations and while living off of donated food for a while, he specifically prohibited people from staying there for a prolonged period of time – effectively, in that respect, prohibiting monasticism. One cannot be a Goenka monk, not because it’s logistically impossible but because Goenka didn’t allow it. That is not, to put it mildly, an approach that the Pali texts recommend. It is unquestionably an innovation.

But this should come as little surprise to those who have studied those disparate phenomena so often referred to as “religion”. People are cautious toward innovation, and so they innovate through conservatism: create something new in the language of the old. This approach is itself a very old one. In his obviously innovative eighth-century work Śāntideva proclaimed that he was saying nothing new; back in the second century, Marcion of Sinope edited out the Jewish bits of Christian scripture in order to take an old text and make it fit his newer message.

In previous posts on innovation through conservatism I’ve noted that there are often good reasons for such a project. And Goenka’s own project has produced great results. I have seen firsthand what a difference it has made for my mother, and many others swear by it.

One might ask: but does it need to tie itself back to the Buddha’s teachings? Couldn’t Goenka just have cleared out the accretions and kept it down to the basic meditation technique? Psychologists are now studying the effects of meditation in a controlled nonsectarian setting and demonstrating its efficacy, after all.

But I’m not so sure whether Goenka’s technique would be as good in such a stripped-down, non-Buddhist context. Most of those people who follow Goenka’s teachings are impressed by the core practices of vipassanā meditation itself – developing awareness of one’s sensations beginning with one’s breath. But I’ve noted before that this was not the case for me when I attended; I got far more benefit from the course’s asceticism and its closing redirection of good karma. If Goenka’s meditation course had been stripped down to the bare meditation without these Buddhist “trappings”, I probably would have got nothing out of it.

There are far too many scholars who sneer at Yavanayāna traditions like Goenka’s, pretending that it’s somehow “less Buddhist” than the East Asian traditions that make equally great modifications to classical tradition. I’ve defended such traditions before and will continue to do so. I salute Goenka for the good he did for Buddhist tradition and for humanity. But then he does not need anyone’s posthumous praise. He was joyfully aware that all conditioned things pass away.