All of us seek peace and harmony, because this is what we lack in our lives. We all want to be happy; we regard it as our right. Yet happiness is a goal we strive toward more often than attain. At times we all experience dissatisfaction in life—agitation, irritation, disharmony, suffering. Even if at this moment we are free from such dissatisfactions, we can all remember a time when they afflicted us and can foresee a time when they may recur. Eventually we all must face the suffering of death.
Nor do our personal dissatisfactions remain limited to ourselves; instead, we keep sharing our suffering with others. The atmosphere around each unhappy person becomes charged with agitation, so that all who enter that environment may also feel agitated and unhappy. In this way individual tensions combine to create the tensions of society.
This is the basic problem of life: its unsatisfactory nature. Things happen that we do not want; things that we want do not happen. And we are ignorant of how or why this process works, just as we are each ignorant of our own beginning and end.
Twenty-five centuries ago in northern India, a man decided to investigate this problem, the problem of human suffering. After years of searching and trying various methods, he discovered a way to gain insight into the reality of his own nature and to experience true freedom from suffering. Having reached the highest goal of liberation, of release from misery and conflict, he devoted the rest of his life to helping others do as he had done, showing them the way to liberate themselves.
This person—Siddhattha Gotama, known as the Buddha, “the enlightened one”—never claimed to be anything other than a man. Like all great teachers he became the subject of legends, but no matter what marvelous stories were told of his past existences or his miraculous powers, still all accounts agree that he never claimed to be divine or to be divinely inspired. Whatever special qualities he had were pre-eminently human qualities that he had brought to perfection. Therefore, whatever he achieved is within the grasp of any human being who works as he did.
The Buddha did not teach any religion or philosophy or system of belief. He called his teaching Dhamma, that is, “law,” the law of nature. He had no interest in dogma or idle speculation. Instead he offered a universal, practical solution for a universal problem. “Now as before,” he said, “I teach about suffering and the eradication of suffering.”1 He refused even to discuss anything which did not lead to liberation from misery.
This teaching, he insisted, was not something that he had invented or that was divinely revealed to him.. It was simply the truth, reality, which by his own efforts he had succeeded in discovering, as many people before him had done, as many people after him would do. He claimed no monopoly on the truth.
Nor did he assert any special authority for his teaching—neither because of the faith that people had in him, nor because of the apparently logical nature of what he taught. On the contrary, he stated that it is proper to doubt and to test whatever is beyond one's experience:
Do not simply believe whatever you are told, or whatever has been handed down from past generations, or what is common opinion, or whatever the scriptures say. Do not accept something as true merely by deduction or inference, or by considering outward appearances, or by partiality for a certain view, or because of its plausibility, or because your teacher tells you it is so. But when you yourselves directly know, “These principles are unwholesome, blameworthy, condemned by the wise; when adopted and carried out they lead to harm and suffering,” then you should abandon them. And when you yourselves directly know, “These principles are wholesome, blameless, praised by the wise; when adopted and carried out they lead to welfare and happiness,” then you should accept and practise them.2
The highest authority is one’s own experience of truth. Nothing should be accepted on faith alone; we have to examine to see whether it is logical, practical, beneficial. Nor having examined a teaching by means of our reason is it sufficient to accept it as true intellectually. If we are to benefit from the truth, we have to experience it directly. Only then can we know that it is really true. The Buddha always emphasized that he taught only what he had experienced by direct knowledge, and he encouraged others to develop such knowledge themselves, to become their own authorities: “Each of you, make yourself an island, make yourself your refuge; there is no other refuge. Make truth your island, make truth your refuge; there is no other refuge.”3
The only real refuge in life, the only solid ground on which to take a stand, the only authority that can give proper guidance and protection is truth, Dhamma, the law of nature, experienced and verified by oneself. Therefore in his teaching the Buddha always gave highest importance to the direct experience of truth. What he had experienced he explained as clearly as possible so that others might have guidelines with which to work toward their own realization of truth. He said, “The teaching I have presented does not have separate outward and inward versions. Nothing has been kept hidden in the fist of the teacher.”4 He had no esoteric doctrine for a chosen few. On the contrary, he wished to make the law of nature known as plainly and as widely as possible, so that as many people as possible might benefit from it.
Neither was he interested in establishing a sect or a personality cult with himself as its center. The personality of the one who teaches, he maintained, is of minor importance compared to the teaching. His purpose was to show others how to liberate themselves, not to turn them into blind devotees. To a follower who showed excessive veneration for him he said, “What do you gain by seeing this body, which is subject to corruption? He who sees the Dhamma sees me; he who sees me sees the Dhamma.”5
Devotion toward another person, no matter how saintly, is not sufficient to liberate anyone; there can be no liberation or salvation without direct experience of reality. Therefore truth has primacy, not the one who speaks it. All respect is due to whoever teaches the truth, but the best way to show that respect is by working to realize the truth oneself. When extravagant honors were paid to him near the end of his life, the Buddha commented, “This is not how an enlightened one is properly honored, or shown respect, or revered, or reverenced, or venerated. Rather it is the monk or nun, the lay male or female follower who steadfastly walks on the path of Dhamma from the first steps to the final goal, who practises Dhamma working in the right way, that honors, respects, reveres, reverences and venerates the enlightened one with the highest respect.”6
What the Buddha taught was a way that each human being can follow. He called this path the Noble Eightfold Path, meaning a practice of eight interrelated parts. It is noble in the sense that anyone who walks on the path is bound to become a noble-hearted, saintly person, freed from suffering.
It is a path of insight into the nature of reality, a path of truth- realization. In order to solve our problems, we have to see our situation as it really is. We must learn to recognize superficial, apparent reality, and also to penetrate beyond appearances so as to perceive subtler truths, then ultimate truth, and finally to experience the truth of freedom from suffering. Whatever name we choose to give this truth of liberation, whether nibbāna, “heaven,” or anything else, is unimportant. The important thing is to experience it.
The only way to experience truth directly is to look within, to observe oneself. All our lives we have been accustomed to look outward. We have always been interested in what is happening outside, what others are doing. We have rarely, if ever, tried to examine ourselves, our own mental and physical structure, our own actions, our own reality. Therefore we remain unknown to ourselves. We do not realize how harmful this ignorance is, how much we remain the slaves of forces within ourselves of which we are unaware.
This inner darkness must be dispelled to apprehend the truth. We must gain insight into our own nature in order to understand the nature of existence. Therefore the path that the Buddha showed is a path of introspection, of self-observation. He said, “Within this very fathom-long body containing the mind with its perceptions, I make known the universe, its origin, its cessation, and the way leading to its cessation.”7 The entire universe and the laws of nature by which it works are to be experienced within oneself. They can only be experienced within oneself.
The path is also a path of purification. We investigate the truth about ourselves not out of idle intellectual curiosity but rather with a definite purpose. By observing ourselves we become aware for the first time of the conditioned reactions, the prejudices that cloud our mental vision, that hide reality from us and produce suffering. We recognize the accumulated inner tensions that keep us agitated, miserable, and we realize they can be removed. Gradually we learn how to allow them to dissolve, and our minds become pure, peaceful, and happy.
The path is a process requiring continual application. Sudden breakthroughs may come, but they are the result of sustained efforts. It is necessary to work step by step; with every step, however, the benefits are immediate. We do not follow the path in the hope of accruing benefits to be enjoyed only in the future, of attaining after death a heaven that is known here only by conjecture. The benefits must be concrete, vivid, personal, experienced here and now.
Above all, it is a teaching to be practised. Simply having faith in the Buddha or his teachings will not help to free us from suffering; neither will a merely intellectual understanding of the path. Both of these are of value only if they inspire us to put the teachings into practice. Only the actual practice of what the Buddha taught will give concrete results and change our lives for the better. The Buddha said,
Someone may recite much of the texts, but if he does not practise them, such a heedless person is like a herdsman who only counts the cows of others; he does not enjoy the rewards of the life of a truth- seeker.
Another may be able to recite only a few words from the texts, but if he lives the life of Dhamma, taking steps on the path from its beginning to the goal, then he enjoys the rewards of the life of a truth-seeker.8
The path must be followed, the teaching must be implemented; otherwise it is a meaningless exercise.
It is not necessary to call oneself a Buddhist in order to practise this teaching. Labels are irrelevant. Suffering makes no distinctions, but is common to all; therefore the remedy, to be useful, must be equally applicable to all. Neither is the practice reserved only for recluses who are divorced from ordinary life. Certainly a period must be given in which to devote oneself exclusively to the task of learning how to practise, but having done so one must apply the teaching in daily life. Someone who forsakes home and worldly responsibilities in order to follow the path has the opportunity to work more intensively, to assimilate the teaching more deeply, and therefore to progress more quickly. On the other hand, someone involved in worldly life, juggling the claims of many different responsibilities, can give only limited time to the practice. But whether homeless or householder, one must apply Dhamma.
It is only applied Dhamma that gives results. If this is truly a way from suffering to peace, then as we progress in the practice we should become more happy in our daily lives, more harmonious, more at peace with ourselves. At the same time our relations with others should become more peaceful and harmonious. Instead of adding to the tensions of society, we should be able to make a positive contribution that will increase the happiness and welfare of all. To follow the path we must live the life of Dhamma, of truth, of purity. This is the proper way to implement the teaching. Dhamma, practised correctly, is the art of living.Questions and Answers
QUESTION: You keep referring to the Buddha. Are you teaching Buddhism?
S.N. GOENKA: I am not concerned with “isms.” I teach Dhamma, that is, what the Buddha taught. He never taught any “ism” or sectarian doctrine. He taught something from which people of every background can benefit: an art of living. Remaining in ignorance is harmful for everyone; developing wisdom is good for everyone. So anyone can practise this technique and find benefit. A Christian will become a good Christian, a Jew will become a good Jew, a Muslim will become a good Muslim, a Hindu will become a good Hindu, a Buddhist will become a good Buddhist. One must become a good human being; otherwise one can never be a good Christian, a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Hindu, a good Buddhist. How to become a good human being—that is most important.You talk about conditioning. Isn't this training really a kind of conditioning of the mind, even if a positive one?
On the contrary, it is a process of de-conditioning. Instead of imposing anything on the mind, it automatically removes unwholesome qualities so that only wholesome, positive ones remain. By eliminating negativities, it uncovers the positivity which is the basic nature of a pure mind.
But over a period of time, to sit in a particular posture and direct the attention in a certain way is a form of conditioning.
If you do it as a game or mechanical ritual, then yes—you condition the mind. But that is a misuse of Vipassana. When it is practised correctly, it enables you to experience truth directly, for yourself. And from this experience, naturally understanding develops, which destroys all previous conditioning.Isn't it selfish to forget about the world and just to sit and meditate all day?
It would be if this were an end in itself, but it is a means to an end that is not at all selfish: a healthy mind. When your body is sick, you enter a hospital to recover health. You don't go there for your whole life, but simply to regain health, which you will then use in ordinary life. In the same way you come to a meditation course to gain mental health, which you will then use in ordinary life for your good and for the good of others.To remain happy and peaceful even when confronted by the suffering of others—isn't that sheer insensitivity?
Being sensitive to the suffering of others does not mean that you must become sad yourself. Instead you should remain calm and balanced, so that you can act to alleviate their suffering. If you also become sad, you increase the unhappiness around you; you do not help others, you do not help yourself.Why don't we live in a state of peace?
Because wisdom is lacking. A life without wisdom is a life of illusion, which is a state of agitation, of misery. Our first responsibility is to live a healthy, harmonious life, good for ourselves and for all others. To do so, we must learn to use our faculty of self-observation, truth-observation.Why is it necessary to join a ten-day course to learn the technique?
Well, if you could come for longer that would be better still! But ten days is the minimum time in which it is possible to grasp the outlines of the technique.Why must we remain within the course site for the ten days?
Because you are here to perform an operation on your mind. An operation must be done in a hospital, in an operating theatre protected from contamination. Here within the boundaries of the course, you can perform the operation without being disturbed by any outside influence. When the course is over the operation has ended, and you are ready once again to face the world.Does this technique heal the physical body?
Yes, as a by-product. Many psychosomatic diseases naturally disappear when mental tensions are dissolved. If the mind is agitated, physical diseases are bound to develop. When the mind becomes calm and pure, automatically they will go away. But if you take the curing of a physical disease as your goal instead of the purification of your mind, you achieve neither one nor the other. I have found that people who join a course with the aim of curing a physical illness have their attention fixed only on their disease throughout the course: “Today, is it better? No, not better . . . Today, is it improving? No, not improving!” All the ten days they waste in this way. But if the intention is simply to purify the mind, then many diseases automatically go away as a result of meditation.What would you say is the purpose of life?
To come out of misery. A human being has the wonderful ability to go deep inside, observe reality, and come out of suffering. Not to use this ability is to waste one's life. Use it to live a really healthy, happy life!You speak of being overpowered by negativity. How about being overpowered by positivity, for example, by love?
What you call “positivity” is the real nature of the mind. When the mind is free of conditioning, it is always full of love—pure love—and you feel peaceful and happy. If you remove the negativity, then positivity remains, purity remains. Let the entire world be overwhelmed by this positivity!To Walk on the Path
In the city of Sāvatthī in northern India, the Buddha had a large centre where people would come to meditate and to listen to his Dhamma talks. Every evening one young man used to come to hear his discourses. For years he came to listen to the Buddha but never put any of the teaching into practice.
After a few years, one evening this man came a little early and found the Buddha alone. He approached him and said, “Sir, I have a question that keeps arising in my mind, raising doubts.”
“Oh? There should not be any doubts on the path of Dhamma; have them clarified. What is your question?”
“Sir, for many years now I have been coming to your meditation center, and I have noticed that there are a large number of recluses around you, monks and nuns, and a still larger number of lay people, both men and women. For years some of them have been coming to you. Some of them, I can see, have certainly reached the final stage; quite obviously they are fully liberated. I can also see that others have experienced some change in their lives. They are better than they were before, although I cannot say that they are fully liberated. But sir, I also notice that a large number of people, including myself, are as they were, or sometimes they are even worse. They have not changed at all, or have not changed for the better
“Why should this be, sir? People come to you, such a great man, fully enlightened, such a powerful, compassionate person. Why don't you use your power and compassion to liberate them all?”
The Buddha smiled and said, “Young man, where do you live? What is your native place?”
“Sir, I live here in Sāvatthī, this capital city of the state of Kosala.”
“Yes, but your facial features show that you are not from this part of the country. Where are you from originally?”
“Sir, I am from the city of Rājagaha, the capital of the state of Magadha. I came and settled here in Sāvatthī a few years ago.”
“And have you severed all connections with Rājagaha?”
“No sir, I still have relatives there. I have friends there. I have business there.”
“Then certainly you must go from Savatthī to Rājagaha quite often?”
“Yes sir. Many times each year I visit Rājagaha and return to Sāvatthī.”
“Having travelled and returned so many times on the path from here to Rājagaha, certainly you must know the path very well?”
“Oh yes, sir, I know it perfectly. I might almost say that even if I was blindfolded I could find the path to Rājagaha, so many times have I walked it.”
“And your friends, those who know you well, certainly they must know that you are from Rājagaha and have settled here? They must know that you often visit Rājagaha and return, and that you know the path from here to Rājagaha perfectly?”
“Oh yes, sir. All those who are close to me know that I often go to Rājagaha and that I know the path perfectly.”
“Then it must happen that some of them come to you and ask you to explain to them the path from here to Rājagaha. Do you hide anything or do you explain the path to them clearly?”
“What is there to hide, sir? I explain it to them as clearly as I can: you start walking towards the east and then head towards Banaras, and continue onward until you reach Gaya and then Rājagaha. I explain it very plainly to them sir.”
“And these people to whom you give such clear explanation, do all of them reach Rājagaha?”
“How can that be, sir? Those who walk the entire path to its end, only they will reach Rājagaha.”
“This is what I want to explain to you, young man. People keep coming to me knowing that this is someone who has walked the path from here to nibbāna and so knows it perfectly. They come to me and ask, ‘What is the path to nibbāna, to liberation?' And what is there to hide? I explain it to them clearly: ‘This is the path.' If somebody just nods his head and says, ‘Well said, well said, a very good path, but I won't take a step on it; a wonderful path, but I won't take the trouble to walk over it,' then how can such a person reach the final goal?”
“I do not carry anyone on my shoulders to take him to the final goal. Nobody can carry anyone else on his shoulders to the final goal. At most, with love and compassion one can say, ‘Well, this is the path, and this is how I have walked on it. You also work, you also walk, and you will reach the final goal.' But each person has to walk himself, has to take every step on the path himself. He who has taken one step on the path is one step nearer the goal. He who has taken a hundred steps is a hundred steps nearer the goal. He who has taken all the steps on the path has reached the final goal. You have to walk on the path yourself.”9