Who Is S N Goenka? Biography & Teachings Of A Vipassana Meditation Teacher

Here at yogajala, we believe that meditation and yoga are two interdependent and overlapping spheres for finding peace and living well.

Both yogic philosophy and meditation are punctuated by themes of liberation, self-transformation, and insight into the true nature of reality.

Where yoga is traditionally a practice to prepare the body for prolonged meditation, the latter aids in the development of concentration and tranquillity – essential to strengthen the yogic template of body and mind.

person sat meditating with their hand on their heart

If you’re a yogi into meditation, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of S N Goenka and his Vipassana meditation technique.

S N Goenka brought teachings of Vipassana meditation to the fore of the modern world in the 20th century, his legacy continuing in various Vipassana meditation retreat centres established worldwide.

Primarily offering 10-day retreats, these centers are dedicated to the pursuit of Dhamma (loosely translated as ‘the universal path to liberation’); seemingly as the Buddha taught it over 2500 years ago.

For those looking to incorporate meditation into their spiritual lives and accessing Vipassana, which aims to enable its practitioners to ‘see things as they really are’, an exploration into the life of Goenka and the fruits of his labor is a fantastic place to start.

In this article, we’ll take a look at:

  • Goenka’s life and teachings
  • The tenets of Goenka’s Vipassana meditation
  • Goenka’s legacy today
  • Modern-day meditation retreats

Who Was Satya Narayan Goenka?

Also known as Goenka-ji (the suffix -ji used to show deep respect for person and their achievements), S N Goenka was a pivotal figure in the introduction of mindfulness and insight meditation to the west.

Not a monk, but an authorized lay teacher, Goenka-ji proclaimed the principles of Dhamma as secular and universal, expounding of the teachings of the Buddha without necessitating subscription or non-subscription to any sect or religion, including Buddhism.

temple where s N Goenka taught

This provided a welcoming invitation for people from all walks of life and religions, contributing to the worldwide expansion of over 100 meditation centres by the time of his death in 2013. Today, that number sits at over 200!

s n Goenka: Life and Legacy

Early life

Born into a devout Hindu family in 1924, Goenka was second-generation Burmese of Indian origin.

Fifty years prior, Goenka-ji’s grandfather was one of the many Indian immigrants seeking a new life in Myanmar during the British Raj, wherein India was under the control of the British Crown.

Goenka-ji grew up in affluence, in a conservative household. He did extremely well academically, entering the family textile business before the Second World War struck through Asia.

The Japanese invasion of Myanmar in 1942 pushed Goenka and his family to seek asylum in southern India, wherein they remained through the war years. Following the defeat of the Japanese, Goenka-ji returned to Myanmar, his home.

myanmar temples and trees

The next decade saw Goenka-ji make incredible strides as a businessman, quickly generating financial and social success, and rising as a leader of the local Indian community in Myanmar.

The stressful and driven industrialist lifestyle led Goenka to suffer from extreme migraines that
significantly impacted his quality of life.

Finding Vipassana

This affliction took him to seek counsel from doctors in Asia, Europe and America. His only relief was granted in high-dose extremely addictive morphine. Goenka-ji found himself wrapped in misery, victim to his migraines.

Desperate to quell his migraines, Goenka was recommended by a friend to contact a local lay teacher of Vipassana named Sayagyi U Ba Khin.

Spiritually inclined throughout his life, Goenka-ji visited his recently established international meditation centre in Yangon, Myanmar in 1955.

U Ba Khin, the latest at this time of a lineage of Burmese Buddhist teachers, initially refused Goenka’s request to meditate under him.

“You are devaluing the technique if you come to cure a physical disease,” said U Ba Khin. “Come to relieve your mind of tension and suffering; the physical benefits will automatically follow.”

Goenka-ji agreed and experienced the profound benefits of this practice of self-introspection. For the next 14 years, he studied Vipassana under U Ba Khin, immersing himself in the Dhamma, seeking liberation from self and developing awareness and insight.

buddhist monk sat meditating with hands in lap

He was all the while being trained to become a teacher of the Dhamma, as U Ba Khin recognised great promise in Goenka-ji’s ability to share the technique.

U Ba Khin recollected an ancient prophecy that 2500 years after the Buddha, the teaching would one day be re-established in India, where the practice was considered essentially forgotten.

This opportunity came in 1969, where Goenka-ji travelled to Mumbai to teach his first 10-day course in Hindi.

People came to meditate, one course led to another, and with little money or support, Goenka-ji was able to offer meditation teachings in a barebones style that he managed independently.

Oftentimes serving food himself, and organising accommodation for the students, Goenka’s faith in and dedication to the technique was truly incredible.

In the late 1960s and early 70s, there were many Westerners making the pilgrimage to India in search of personal spiritual revolution. Over time, with the blessing of U Ba Khin, Goenka-ji began teaching in English.

Goenka’s retreats were gaining popularity, and he went on to teach Vipassana to a number of well-known spiritual titans of the 20th and 21st centuries, namely:

1. Ram Dass

A pivotal figure of the spiritual path, Ram Dass is well-known for his seminal book ‘Be Here Now’.

Monumentally influential, Ram Dass has been credited with articulating a panoramic array of
Eastern spiritual methods and practices to a Western audience.

Drawing on bhakti yoga, Buddhist meditation in the Theravadin, Mahayana Tibetan, and Zen Buddhist schools, and Sufi and Jewish mystical studies, Ram Dass has a spot on the spiritual world stage.

group of people stood meditating with hands in anjali mudra

2. Joseph Goldstein

One of the first American Vipassana teachers, Joseph Goldstein brought to light in the Western world multiple insights into Buddhism in his 2002 work ‘One Dhamma’.

Since 1974, Joseph has been leading insight (Vipassana) and loving-kindness (metta) retreats worldwide.

3. Sharon Salzberg

NY Times bestselling author Sharon Salzberg sat with S N Goenka in the 1970’s, as one of the many Westerners seeking the Dhamma in India.

She has now been teaching Vipassana and metta for around half a century, having started the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts with Joseph Goldstein.

Sharon considered Goenka-ji as someone who ‘talked so freely about pain and suffering, yet seemed so happy’ and that her first 10-day retreat with Goenka remains the singular turning point of her life.

Vipassana Meditation Style

A key tenet of the Buddha’s teaching, Vipassana can be understood in English as insight. The
technique in Buddhist history is considered to be one of the routes to enlightenment, as taught by the Buddha.

young boy stood in front of buddhist statues

Meditation is a route to experientially identify the three marks of existence: ‘no-self’ (anatta), ‘suffering’ (dukkha), and ‘impermanence’ (anicca).

Goenka-ji’s style of Vipassana comes from the Satipatthana Sutta, with a focus on mindfulness of the body.

In the Satipatthana Sutta, the 4 foundations of mindfulness are comprised of mindfulness of the body (kayanupassana), mindfulness of the mind (cittanupassana), mindfulness of feelings (vedananupassana), and mindfulness of Dhamma (dhammanupassana).

Within the category of mindfulness of the body, Goenka-ji’s meditation technique focuses on mindfulness of breathing, mindfulness of posture, and contemplation of the body as composed of the four elements.

UN Peace Summit (2000)

At the turn of the millennium, Goenka-ji addressed spiritual and religious leaders at the World Peace Summit in the United Nations General Assembly Hall.

Focusing on religious harmony, tolerance and peaceful coexistence, Goenka-ji stressed that world peace was subject to peace achieved within every individual.

UN peace summit

Quoting his speech

One who has love and compassion with a pure heart experiences the Kingdom of Heaven within. This is the Law of Nature, or if one would rather, God’s will.

Quotes from S N Goenka

“We should try to convert people from misery to happiness, from bondage to liberation and from cruelty to compassion”

“Work diligently. Diligently. Work patiently and persistently. Patiently and persistently. And you’re bound to be successful. Bound to be successful.”

“For real happiness, for real lasting stable happiness, one has to make a journey deep within oneself and see that one gets rid of all the unhappiness and misery stored in the deeper levels of the mind.”

“When one experiences truth, the madness of finding fault with others disappears.”

“A Hindu who learns Vipassana may continue to call himself a Hindu; a Muslim a Muslim, and so on for a Jain, a Christian, a Buddhist. The important point is to become a good person, living a happy and harmonious life. Dhamma helps everyone to become a good human being.”

“The Buddha never taught a sectarian religion; he taught Dhamma – the way to liberation – which is universal.”

“People of the world, awake! The dark night is over. The light of Dhamma has come, the dawn of happiness.”

woman sat meditating

Accessing Vipassana Today

Nowadays, people can access S N Goenka’s strain of Dhamma teachings worldwide. It’s an incredible introduction to meditation and the techniques of enlightenment derivative of the Buddha. Goenka’s teachings are also available on Youtube and Spotify.

If you’re interested in attending a 10-day course, you can visit the global website dhamma.org which shows you locations, course applications and further information on Vipassana, Goenka-ji and the institution’s legacy.

Liked this article? why not find out more about S N Goenka and the vipassana Technique here.

Photo of author
Tish Qvortrup is a Brighton-born Yogi, with a passion for living intentionally. A Yoga Alliance registered 300hr teacher, she found her calling in Yin and Yang yoga. In her spare time, she loves exploring the outdoors and cooking plant-based goodies.

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