A charismatic meditation master who fashioned a global movement, S. N. Goenka had a profound impact on modern spiritual practice. Daniel Stuart’s introduction to him in S. N. Goenka: Emissary of Insight is bound to attract a lot of interest, and there is much fascinating and useful information in the book. But as I will describe below, Stuart overlooks key aspects of Goenka’s practice and philosophy. These oversights lead Stuart to misconstrue the book’s subject, undercutting its value for readers looking for an authoritative study of this seminal figure.

S. N. Goenka: Emissary of Insight

By Daniel Stuart
Shambhala Publications, Nov. 2020, $26.95, 288 pp., paper

In his introduction, Stuart refers to three obituaries of Goenka—one that I wrote for this magazine, one from the Huffington Post, and another from the New York Times—as he frames the purpose of the biography. Finding myself mentioned at the start of the book put me on guard to assess it with generosity, but, unfortunately, that same spirit of generosity is missing here and elsewhere in Stuart’s analysis. All three obituaries, he says, show an “asymmetrical” concern for Goenka only in so far as he fulfills a Western desire for a rational or pragmatic vision of Buddhism. The problem with this critique is that the obituaries are simply reporting Goenka’s own desire. He celebrated the Buddha as a “super-scientist of peace,” explained the Buddha’s teachings in terms of modern atomic theory, and likened meditation to a “deep surgery” on the mind—to give just a few examples. I don’t mean to suggest that these brief obituaries or any other writings on Goenka have adequately captured the significance of his life. More work rooted in Asian sources and perspectives is sorely needed. But as his captious take on these obits suggests, Stuart’s book takes such a narrow (and often peevish) approach to what matters in understanding Goenka that it distorts his crucial role in the formulation of meditation across the world.

The first half of Emissary of Insight traces the arc of Goenka’s life. He was born in Burma in 1924, where he spent his early years until he and family members fled invading Japanese soldiers, settling on the Indian subcontinent from 1942 to 1947; in the mid-1950s he met his Burmese Buddhist teacher, U Ba Khin, and began practicing; in 1969 he moved back to India and soon after embarked on a global career of teaching meditation. The final biographical chapter focuses on the last years of his life before his death, in 2013, at the age of 89.

As is standard in Shambhala’s Lives of the Masters series, the latter half of the book is a collection of extracts from Goenka’s writings, mostly translated from Hindi. While they do not alter the impression of Goenka provided by English sources already available to us, they are a valuable supplement. Selections include poems and prose pieces on such matters as faith, the positive influence of the Buddha’s teachings on ancient Indian society (both morally and politically), life in Burma, the global spread of doctrinal teachings, concentrative versus insight-based practices, and the construction of the huge Global Vipassana Pagoda near Mumbai.

Goenka’s own words showed that a belief in psychic forces fits with a rational perspective on meditation.

Yet although many details in the book are illuminating, Stuart has elected not to describe the nature of Goenka’s practice and the detailed (and easily accessible) theory that underpins it. This decision creates a distorted narrative that comes to a head in Stuart’s notion of Goenka’s most important role as a meditation teacher. Calling him, fundamentally, “cultic,” the biographer describes Goenka as “dedicated to serving as a powerful channel for his teacher’s [U Ba Khin’s] vijjadhatu, . . . the psychic force of the wisdom of vipasyana [insight meditation] made available to Goenka and his students by the grace of U Ba Khin and his enlightened nonhuman guides.” Later in the book, Stuart even claims Goenka believed that by virtue of his role as a channel for his teacher’s power he was himself “a guru worthy of worship.” It is true that the Burmese Buddhist vision of practice is not just as a form of self-improvement in a secular framework. But Goenka’s own words show that belief in nonhuman agents and psychic forces fit with a rational perspective on meditation. He spent much of his life laying out in great detail the technique—to his way of thinking, eminently logical—that a person could use to purify his or her own mind. Stuart runs roughshod over the fact that Goenka explicitly dismissed the idea of a saving guru’s grace and stressed self-cultivation, even in a world of spiritual forces. If Stuart had given more attention to his subject’s explanations of practice, these facts would have been evident.

Besides constructing the problematic characterization of Goenka as a sort of shaman-guru, Stuart often makes disparaging claims with little proof to back them up. For instance, he writes that Goenka created his special course on the Satipatthana Sutta (“The Establishing of Mindfulness Sutta”) as a ploy to establish scholarly bona fides; that Robert Hover and other U Ba Khin students were indispensable participants in the founding in 1975 of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, but were written out of its history; and that the Vipassana Research Institute established by Goenka in 1985 to research the origins and applications of vipassana was largely a bait-and-switch gambit to gain tax advantages and serve missionary impulses. At the same time, Stuart never seriously considers psychological motivations or tensions in Goenka’s life. This was a man who was adopted by his uncle at 13 so that the uncle would have an heir, married by arrangement to a 12-year-old when he was 18, and denied by his family the university education he sought; who trekked over the mountains out of Burma with the Japanese on his heels and lost his thriving business to a government takeover. The role of cultural context means that these events would not necessarily have had the same effects on him as they might have had on, say, an American, but they surely shaped his life and the choices he would make.

Orwell said that saints should always be judged guilty until they are proven innocent. Possibly so, but in this book Goenka never really gets a chance to make his case. Perhaps not everything he did was wise or purely for spiritual purposes. But by not taking him seriously on his own terms and considering all the evidence, the biographer turns him into an apparently passive recipient of ideas and events, not formed within a context but reduced to it. Stuart’s biography will provide much of interest to those drawn to Goenka’s story, but they will have to wait for another book for a more reliable picture of the man.

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