I’ve been a Vipassana student of S N Goenka since 1972 and was in Burma in 1980 and 2004. I dashed off a few tales which might be of interest to an in-progress Burma guidebook for Vipassana students.
I spent three weeks at Sayagi U Ba Khin’s International Meditation Centre in Rangoon in 1980, on a 20-day course. There was an old book for comments by Western students. I’d guess that U Ba Khin had only about 50-100 Western students, and think, for two reasons, that they had very high paramis. First, U Ba Khin asked six of those students to teach (four of them did so); second, the quality of the comments suggested to me that the students had had a very deep experience and made a very strong connection with the Dhamma. In 1980, however, the strict discipline of which Goenka speaks was not present, and Noble Silence was not observed.
Outside the Centre, I found the Burmese people to be very harmonious. I had been in several Asian and Middle Eastern countries where women tended to be subservient, and it struck me that there was no apparent gender imbalance in the Burmese I observed in Rangoon, there were many women with strong personalities.
A yatra and Saya Thet’s centre
I joined Goenkaji’s yatra (pilgrimage) in Burma in December 2004. At that time I had been seriously ill for more than four years. I also have a chronic back problem arising from an old accident, which became acute several days before my trip – I couldn’t get out of bed, but was determined to go! Thai Airlines managed to give me a non-reclining seat from Brisbane to Bangkok, so I stood most of the way. At Dhamma Joti for a three-day course before the yatra, I hobbled around with a stick, bent over, I could sit for only a short time, with my back supported, before suffering agony and locking-up in a bent position. But happy to be there!
Following the course, we sat each day with Goenkaji at the Shwedagon, and I made a rapid recovery. One meditator who hadn’t seen me for a few days kept saying, “It’s a miracle! It’s a miracle!” (I relate this because I found it amusing, not because I believed his comment.)
We went out to visit Saya Thet Gyi’s centre, across the river from Rangoon. The road trip was agonising for me as I bounced around the back of a truck on very rough roads. I found the Dhamma vibration at the Centre intense, to be there was to be in deep meditation, I stood meditating on a path. A young German student asked me, very deferentially, if he could speak to me. He had found in an overgrown corner of the compound the broken-down shrine where Saya Thet first taught, with some weather-beaten stone Buddha images – apparently neglected since the existing hall was built. Standing there, I found that metta was pouring from the ground, I realised that it must have played a very important part in Saya Thet’s teaching, and my evaluation of metta was changed.
The next day, back at Dhamma Joti where Goenka’s 50 years of Dhamma service was being celebrated, my back was very difficult, I couldn’t do Anapana or Vipassana, but I could do metta. At the conventional level, many of my problems arose when my father walked out before my second birthday and my mother focussed her affections on my newly-born brother. I found through Vipassana that a major force in my life thereafter had been fear of rejection, once I understood that I could see how it had affected my relationships for over 30 years. Doing metta at Dhamma Joti, I could see how the suffering arising from my infancy had been a factor in driving me to seek a solution to suffering, which led me to the Dhamma; and I was able to forgive my father, to thank him, and send metta to him (I had visited him in Canada when I was 20).
All aboard the train!
After Goenka returned to Burma in 1990, Vipassana thrived in the country, the most positive factor there in many years. I was warned that there were spies everywhere, and I was concerned not to do anything to jeopardise Goenkaji’s mission. The yatra was moving on to Mandalay by chartered train, about 350 of us, mainly Indians. We were due to leave the main Rangoon station at 4 a.m., and a Minister in the military government was there to see us off. Almost everyone was aboard, but 4 o’clock passed with no sign of movement. I have a very carrying voice, honed at English football matches, and eventually, to hurry things along, I sang out: “All abooooard the train! All abooooard the train!” Everyone in sight turned round, heads came out of the train windows. Several officials went into a huddle with the yatra organisers, then one of the organisers came over to me. He said: “They asked if you would do that again!”
Several hours later, the train pulled into a station. I leapt off as it slowed, and yelled: “Chai! Garaam, garaam chai!” About 200 Indian heads poked out of the windows.
The Golden Palace
We got to bed in Mandalay after midnight, and after breakfast headed off to one of Burma’s main tourist attractions, the Golden Palace. The Palace was built and lived in by kings who were allegedly Buddhist, but seemed to have had huge egos – the palace covered about one-sixth of the area of a town with millions of inhabitants.
As soon as I walked into the Palace, I collapsed. I knew nothing of its background, but later that day heard some horrific tales – when it was built, more than 50 men, women and children were interred alive in the walls, to deter evil spirits (!). One queen had had 100 of her closest relatives killed to reduce the chance of a coup. I think that what happened was that since arriving in Burma I’d been in places and with people with very strong Dhamma vibrations, and here I was exposed to very strong anti-Dhamma vibrations, hence my collapse. I would not recommend a visit to the palace.
Mandalay Vipassana centre
We went from the palace to a Vipassana Centre to the North-west of the city [sorry, can’t remember the name]. The yatra was to tour by bus for a few days then return for the official opening of the centre by Goenkaji. Given my condition, I decided to stay there. There was only one English-speaker there, and he was very solicitous, taking great care of me and ensuring that all my needs were met. There was a great deal of building work going on prior to the opening, many people on site. After two days, I discovered that the English-speaker who was attending to me was the Centre Teacher, the person in charge of, and directing, all the work and organising the opening ceremony. As soon as I realised this, I approached him and said that I realised that he had a great deal to do, and that I would be fine, I could cope. His response was to take my hand, to bow and touch his forehead to it, and to say: “I will do everything I can to help you.” His compassion and metta were wonderful.
I was on the Trust at Dhamma Bhumi in New South Wales, Australia, in the 1980s, and we were fortunate that Goenkaji came to teach every year. He always stressed to the Trust that our most important task was the maintenance of harmony at the Centre, a task at which we did not always succeed. The Centre near Mandalay was the most harmonious I’ve been to, the epitome of what Goenka sought, in terms of the quality and conduct of the people there and in the design, layout and vibration of the Centre. A great deal of credit must go the Centre Teacher. I hope to return there to sit.
Saya Thet’s cave – first sitting
When Saya Thet visited Rangoon, he would spend the night in a cave near the Shwedagon, and meditate there with monks. For many years, Goenkaji had sought to locate this cave. On the day a friend and I were due to leave, we learned that Goenkaji had found the cave, that it was on military land, and that the military had given him permission to have a group sitting in the open near the site that day. The sitting was at 4, we were due at the airport at 5.30, but we couldn’t resist. There were about 40-50 people at the sitting, almost all Burmese. I thought that, from their age, most of them would be students of U Ba Khin. It was a very strong sitting, Goenka spoke almost throughout, conveying his gratitude for Saya Thet, who had first shown that a layman could teach the pure Dhamma. A wonderful occasion – and we caught the plane!
My friend said that for some time she sat with her eyes fixed on Goenkaji, who she had not met before the yatra, thinking that she might never see him again. Goenkaji looked at her – his looks can convey a great deal! – and she closed her eyes. (She did get to see him a number of times, including on the most recent yatra with a very young baby.)
[Some notes which weren’t necessary for the Guidebook: Dhamma Joti is a Vipassana Centre in Rangoon. Saya Tet (or Thet) was the first lay teacher of Vipassana: he began teaching in the 1890s, at the request of the Ven Ledi Sayadaw, a monk who was fundamental to the modern spread of Vipassana, and died in 1944. His disciple Sayagi U Ba Khin. Accountant-General of Burma from 1947-67, built a Vipassana Centre in the early 1950s. Goenka studied there from 1955.]