My Nominee For Nobel Peace Prize

Jun 30, 2005

When we walked into town, not knowing anyone, we knew that this is the place that gave birth to a mini revolution around the world. But we didn't think we would be able to experience it first hand.

Through our host in town, who asked his son, who knew a shopkeeper, who knew a coordinator, we get admission into a ten-day Vipassana meditation camp in Igatpuri. We are told that these tickets go like hot cakes; for 650 slots, almost 3000 folks apply every ten days. Lodging, food and everything else is paid for by some anonymous donor from a previous course; all you have to commit to doing is sit in silence for about thirteen hours of the day, per their schedule that starts at 4AM, and not read, write, or talk for the entire duration.

It's an interesting offer. On one hand, it's counter intuitive to commit ten days to just sitting cross legged and not doing anything! On the other hand, what an experience to sit in silence for dozen hours of the day with hundreds of other people and without a single material worry in the world!

We not only took the offer, but felt fortunate that we got admission on a one-day notice.

The whole story of this place is quite interesting. S.N. Goenka, a leader of a business empire in Burma, India and many parts of South Asia, had it all -- money, power, fame, respect. He sat on the boards of 20 organizations, he knew the who's who in the continent, and he was a leader in the religious and social community. Unfortunately, one fine day, he started experiencing these intense migraine headaches. Leading doctors from Switzerland, Germany, Japan, England, United States, and all across Asia billed it incurable. The only way out of the unbearable pain was routine morphine injection and Goenka knew the inevitable doom of that addiction.

Back in his homeland of Burma, one of his friends suggested visiting a local meditation teacher named Sayagi U Ba Khin. Desperate for anything, Goenka goes. When U Ba Khin asks Goenka about why he wants to sit the meditation camp, he honestly replies, "To get rid of this migraine headache." "Well, then, this is not the place for you," U Ba Khin tells him in strong language, "This is a place for very sincere meditators." Goenka still stays. It ends up being a decision that would change his life and the life of millions others.

Goenka's migraine gets cured, he learns about meditation and he is deeply intrigued by this meditation technique called Vipassana. For next ten years, he stays at the feet of Sayagi U Ba Khin and becomes a meditation teacher. To fulfill his teacher's desire, he comes to India and conducts his first meditation course with a handful of people, both his parents included. Judging from the results, people asked him to conduct one more ten day course, and then a couple more. Today, those courses are continuing in a hundred centers around the world, with millions of people from all walks of life getting a real taste of an ancient Indian technique of meditation called Vipassana.

What I like about Vipassana is that it's not religious or theoretical. You don't have to believe in this or that, you don't have to bow down to him or her; it's rooted firmly in your own experience. After a couple days of watching your breath, you quickly realize that your mind doesn't listen to you; after a couple days of equanimously watching your bodily sensations, you notice that it actually is transient. A few more days and you experience that your body is not really the solid stuff that you think it is, but it's actually a sequence of subtle vibrations that science tells you it is. It all becomes obvious from your own experience.

Yes, there are also things I don't like about it. The top-down teacher hierarchies, lack of attention to the physical body, a narrow focus on just meditation that may not be suitable for all householders. Many old students come out thinking that enjoying life's vitality and color isn't conducive to real growth and then end up acting with guilt. But, to Goenka's defense, you can't please everyone when thousands of people from all backgrounds are sitting courses daily. You pick and choose your battles and I think Goenka has picked the right ones.

With Goenka's setup, there is absolutely no room to worship him. The whole show continues just fine without his physical presence and that's how he wants it. You will not see his picture anywhere on his campus nor anything named after him. Secondly, everything is free; I don't know of any other equivalent pay-it-forward model where anonymous donors are inspired to pay for housing and lodging for so many millions of people around the globe. It's absurd, if you think about it. Yet to give householders an opportunity to partake in such unbridled kindness is in and of itself an incredible offering. And finally, the biggest reason why I like Goenka's infrastructure is because it's hard core; most of the spiritual, new-agey stuff that talks about ending your misery is just superficial hog wash that leaves you feeling good for about two minutes after the retreat. With Goenka, the minimum commitment is 10 days, dozens of hours of meditation. No taste treats here. You and yourself for ten days; you become well aware of your unnecessary baggage and whether it's good or bad, you quickly learn to deal with it.

Although Goenka's revolution is an individual and internal one, its diligent work for decades has yielded many noteworthy, quantifiable results.

The government of Maharastra gives any of its staff paid time off and travel voucher to attend any Vipassana course; they have noticed a drop in corruption and other malpractices amongst those who are meditators. In the award winning documentary, 'Doing Time Doing Vipassana', there's the widely broadcasted case study of 1000 prisoners in the worst jail of India doing ten days of Vipassana; murderers came out that camp repenting for their actions and apologizing to their victims! Big corporations like Mahindra & Mahindra allow entire departments to take paid time off for attending ten days; they have noticed a rise in productivity. One Times of India newspaper office has so many meditators that the company officially invested in setting up a "meditation" room on campus. A business school in Pune has made it a requirement for all students to sit at least one ten-day course before they graduate; they consider it a step towards socially responsible business. And then there's tons of individual cases of transformation, like a billionaire from UK flying into Igatpuri for a course and saying he's a changed man or an alcoholic who's able to kick the habit after decades of internal torture, or the founder of Zee TV who takes a course and is so thankful that he decides to put Goenka's lectures on TV everyday.

Still, what amazes me most is they never 'market' any of these facts; ie. I found out some of this information in chance encounters with very senior teachers. The institution relies primarily on word of mouth for 'dharma' to spread.

It's definitely a silent revolution that no one will be able to truly measure. My sense is that Goenka really doesn't care to measure it either. His book, Art of Living, has been published in 18 languages; in fact, one of his ex-students even started a spiritual organization by that name. Goenka's ten-day discourses are also translated in all major languages of the world. He has personally given talks to anywhere from the UN Peace Summit to the Rotary and Lion Clubs of the world. Goenka could do, say and affect so much in the world. Yet he is steadfast and unrelenting in his message: give ten days of your life to this experiment in meditation and then you be the judge. Even at the ten day, his message is simple and clear: equanimously observe sensation on your body. Senior students, old students, it doesn't matter; they all do the same thing. It's simple. In fact, it's so simple that it takes people decades to actually "get it".

Such a no-frills, no-nonsense, non-material spirituality is what you might expect at a Buddhist monastery on top of a Himalayan mountain. Thanks to Goenka, though, it has reached a big city near you whether you live in Switzerland, New Zealand, or the United States.

Goenka's way is about peace; at the course, all students vow to observe rules of no talking, no stealing, no sex, no intoxicants and no killing. Goenka's outcome is about peace; people come out of the course learning how to be more balanced with the positive and negative experiences of life. Goenka's own life is about peace; for the past 35 years, he has wholeheartedly dedicated his entire life to this quest.

If world peace starts with me, and my peace starts with stillness in the heart, then courtesy of one S. N. Goenka, Planet Earth has experienced millions of hours of silence and made true strides toward peace.

If I had to nominate a person for the Nobel Peace Prize, hands-down, it would be S. N. Goenka.

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