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Questions & Answers with S. N. Goenka

excerpted from The Clock of Vipassana Has Struck

Most of the questions and answers at the end of each chapter are taken from an exclusive interview with S.N. Goenka in 1991, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Sayagyi's death. We have also drawn on articles and other sources to explain the technique and its benefits and to elucidate the personality and the teachings of U Ba Khin and the value of Vipassana meditation.-Ed.

Q: Did U Ba Khin call himself a Buddhist?How could he call the teaching universal without giving it a sectarian connotation?

S.N. Goenka: U Ba Khin was Buddhist by birth and felt quite proud and satisfied to say so, but it was very clear in his teaching that his intention was not to convert people from one organized religion to another organized religion. My own experience is an example: he never pressed me to become a Buddhist. Sayagyi's way of teaching always remained nonsectarian. The teaching of the Buddha is so universal that people from different sects and communities can follow it and experience its benefits.

For Sayagyi the essence of Buddhism was Dhamma, the universal law of nature, and a true Buddhist was one who practiced Dhamma, one who lived according to this universal law. He was interested in helping people to establish themselves in sila (morality), in samadhi (concentration), and in pañña (wisdom); to show people how to convert themselves from misery to happiness. If someone who had undergone this conversion from impurity to purity then wished to call himself a Buddhist, Sayagyi was pleased; but the important point was the change which had come in the person's life, not merely the change in the name he called himself.

Sayagyi would even admonish enthusiasts who were eager to convert others to Buddhism, saying to them: "The only way to convert people is to become established oneself in Dhamma-in sila, samadhi, pañña-and to help others similarly to get established. When you yourselves are not established in sila, samadhi, pañña, what is the sense in your trying to convert others? You may call yourselves Buddhists but unless you practice sila, samaadhi, pañña, to me you are not Buddhists. But if someone practices sila, samadhi, pañña, then even though he may not call himself a Buddhist, nevertheless he is a true follower of the teachings of the Buddha, whatever he may label himself.

One incident illustrating this nonsectarian attitude occurred when a staunch Christian came to take a course under Sayagyi. While the opening formalities were being explained, this man became frightened that he was being asked to convert from Christianity to Buddhism; and out of this groundless fear, he refused to take refuge in Buddha. "I can take refuge in Jesus Christ but not in Buddha," he said. "Very well," replied Sayagyi smilingly, "Take refuge in Jesus Christ-but with the understanding that you are actually taking refuge in the qualities of Christ, in order to develop these very qualities in yourself." In this way the person began to work; and by the end of the course he realized that his initial objection had been unnecessary, that his fears of conversion had been without cause.

Q: Why did U Ba Khin teach only a few very developed people, while you teach the same technique to all people no matter what their background?

SNG: Because Sayagyi was in an official position of responsibility at a time when the government of his country was inefficient and corrupt, the Prime Minister wanted him to make some improvements in the administration. That he could do by teaching Vipassana. But his dedication to government affairs continued until he was sixty-seven, so he didn't have time to give courses to the masses. He could teach only a few people. Because of that situation, he took a vow to teach only people with well-developed parami so that "I can give the seed of Dhamma to them and then they can later spread it around the world."

Q: Why do you call your teaching an "art of living"? And how can meditation be used as a tool for creating a better society?

SNG: The entire teaching of Buddha is an art of living. If one lives the life of sila, of morality, this itself is an art of living. But living an ethical life while having many negative reactions in the mind also makes one unhappy. So controlling the mind and purifying the mind-samadhi and pañña-along with sila, one lives a very peaceful and harmonious life. When one lives a life of negativity, one remains tense within and gives nothing but tension to others. When one is living a peaceful, harmonious life, one generates peace and harmony for others also. It is for this reason that Sayagyi used to call Buddha's teaching an art of living, as a way of life, a code of conduct.

In my own life before meeting Sayagyi, I found the tension was so horrible that I remained miserable, and I made others miserable. Coming onto the Path, I found that I was much relieved. I started living a better life, which was more beneficial for the members of my family, for my friends and for society. So if an individual remains full of negativity, society suffers. If an individual changes for the better, it has a good effect on society.

Q: Many episodes in Sayagyi's life demonstrate his commitment to his work in the government. Can you describe his feelings for social involvement and his attitudes toward his work?

SNG: Well, as a householder one must live a life of responsibility. As a monk one doesn't have this social responsibility because all the time is dedicated to meditation. But as a householder, as a lay person, one must take on that responsibility. Since he was a government servant, Sayagyi wanted to see the people under him working with integrity, discipline, honesty and with efficiency in their work so that they would give good results. By giving a great deal of his time to improving the public administration of his country, Sayagyi was serving society.

Q: Meditation has always been considered a withdrawal from society. Why did U Ba Khin give so much importance to the social aspect of meditation? In particular, for householders, do you think that our involvement in society, rather than isolation, can truly help the progress of our meditation?

SNG: To gain purity of mind and to gain the Dhamma energy, you withdraw from others and take your attention inside. But then that energy has to be used in an extroverted way. It is like someone making a long jump. You have to step back a little, then run and make the jump. In the same way, you withdraw inside yourself, and you get the energy you need, then you make a long jump into society to serve it. These two cannot be separated. Buddha left his householder's life for six years to gain Buddhahood, but once attained, he was involved in society for the next forty-five years, the remainder of his life, day and night. In the same way, anyone who develops in Dhamma does not run away from the responsibilities of society.

Q: How did U Ba Khin use Vipassana meditation to confront corruption?

SNG: Sayagyi's colleagues and subordinates who were involved in corrupt practices did so with minds full of greed and craving. When one begins practicing Vipassana meditation, greed begins to diminish. So these people, having begun to meditate, developed the will to refrain from illegally taking other people's money. Teaching this technique of meditation to his colleagues, U Ba Khin went to the root of the problem-craving in the mind.

Not everyone was corrupt, but still, many were inefficient. Because their minds were clouded, they were not capable of making decisions rapidly and effectively. With Vipassana, eliminating every kind of impurity, the mind becomes clearer, sharper, able to get to the root of any problem and respond effectively. So in this way their efficiency increased. Vipassana meditation was truly used to eradicate corruption and increase the efficiency of the administration. An important aspect of Sayagyi's personality that supported him in this endeavor was his absolute faithfulness to the truth, unwavering in face of pressure or temptation of any kind.

Q: Why did U Ba Khin continue to work after he reached the age of retirement instead of devoting himself entirely to teaching?

SNG: As we have seen, as a householder, he faced his responsibilities. When Myanmar became independent, the efficiency of the Administration was very low and moral integrity was minimal in many government functionaries. His own example was a way to demonstrate how Vipassana meditation could help the administration. Just as it could help an individual, it could help the masses, the society, the government, the nation. So I think he made a very good decision, doing the best he could do, on the one hand teaching Vipassana and on the other demonstrating by his example its results on society.

Q: Can you describe any significant or important episodes from your first meeting with U Ba Khin?

SNG: A friend of mine, knowing that I suffered from strong and incurable migraine headaches, suggested that I participate in a meditation course taught by U Ba Khin. When I met him, the whole atmosphere was so peaceful, and he was quite happy when I told him I was coming to take a course. He inspired me by saying: "You are a Hindu and a leader of the Hindu community, so don't hesitate to come. I won't convert you to any other religion. You will just get a good way of life, you will get peace of mind."

But when I said that I was coming to relieve myself of migraines, Sayagyi-a very straightforward person-said: "No, then I won't take you. You are devaluing Dhamma. Dhamma is not for this purpose. It is to take you out of the misery of lifetime after lifetime. For so many world cycles you have been suffering in misery, and you will continue to suffer unless you learn how to come out of it. To make use of Vipassana for this ordinary physical pain is devaluing it." At the same time, very lovingly he said: "Your aim is to purify the mind. Then all the diseases which are psychosomatic will naturally get cured as a by-product. But the aim should not be to cure a particular disease. Otherwise you will get neither this nor that." That had a very great impact on my mind.

Q: From the experience of U Ba Khin and from the personal experience of both of you as householders, what suggestions would you give to all people who live in society to help them make the best use of their lives and to live happily?

SNG: Vipassana serves exactly that purpose. For those who leave the householder's life to live as monks, there is nothing to do but meditate, day and night, and arrive at a stage where they can help others. But householders must meditate and also make use of this meditation in their daily life, to fulfill their responsibilities toward the members of their family, their community, their society and their country. In that way they help others. When householders take Vipassana meditation, they must do it not only for their own good but for the good of others also.