As the news of the death of SN Goenka, the founder of the Dhamma organization that teaches Vipassana meditation across the globe, made its way across the virtual world on the night of September 29 this year, the memory of a 56-year-old grandmother from a village in Haryana, a state in northern India, struck me.
I had met her at a Vipassana meditation camp founded by Goenka in the sleepy town of Sohna, about 60 kilometers from New Delhi. Goenka, an Indian businessman from Myanmar who learnt the Buddhist meditation technique from his guru U Ba Khin, began propounding Vipassana in 1969, and was responsible for setting up hundreds of centers of meditation across the globe and India, influencing hundreds of thousands of lives. These centers offer 10- or 20-day ascetic silent retreats, each day carefully structured and rigorous, with teachings that are gentle, non-sectarian and cut across religions and faiths. For all his achievements in the realm of the human spirit, Goenka received the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian award, last year.
As our 10-day beginner’s residential retreat would allow for no talking, gestures, or even eye contact, the 48 women and 72 men at the Dhamma Sota center who were about to commence on their inner journey used the first evening to learn as much as possible about one another. My neighbor and I exchanged notes in typical Indian style, probing shamelessly about one another’s backgrounds, marital status, number of children, professions and pasts. I was a journalist in a fashion magazine, struggling with complex New-Age feelings and urban dilemmas, a single mother who had fallen in love and then broken up with a good man. For me, this retreat was both penance and the pursuit of peace; I was seeking solace, silence, answers, myself.
She was a farmer’s wife with many children – she didn’t specify how many and I suspect she lost some along the way – but the married ones didn’t enjoy having her around. Her daughters-in-law were caustic and nasty. Besides, food was scarce in her village and it was difficult to sleep with so many members of the family cramped in one hut. And so she came almost every month for a Vipassana course, she said. Her reasons were less complicated than mine: Here, she was well fed, she had a nice room to herself, with an attached toilet (the modern flushing kinds, imagine, not a hole in the ground, and running water too), and she didn’t even have to pay any rent. For her, this was a pleasant holiday and she didn’t mind sitting quietly with her eyes closed for 10 hours a day in return.
While I marveled at our very different reasons for making a similar journey into our souls, I was also struck at the two very different versions of Indian women we represented, living just a few dozen kilometers away from each other. Over the next 10 days, without any communication, we nevertheless developed a daily rhythm of unspoken companionship with each other and with all the others on the women’s side of the ashram.
I observed her sitting in silence a few cushions ahead of me in the neat rows arranged at the meditation hall. As SN Goenka’s wise, persuasive voice boomed instructions over the speakers, I saw her head frequently loll forward, and assumed she had fallen asleep. No one disturbed her. At mealtime, despite the frequent reminders to eat light to avoid dulling our powers of concentration, I watched her load up her plate with the freshly made vegan meals being served, relishing them to the fullest.
While on day four, I was a mangled mess of nerves, bawling my eyes out in desperation and complete breakdown of the ego, she went calmly about her business, unperturbed. While I sweated it out in the frequent power cuts, swatting away at the mosquitoes we were forbidden to kill, and covering myself up with a wet dupatta (cotton veil) to keep me cool at night in the absence of air-conditioning, she glowed with the luxury she had here, compared with her own home. While I pined for my books, my smartphone, my computer, she sat contentedly watching the peacocks dance. I was rolling down a bumpy hill of excavated memories and withdrawal symptoms, aching all over. She was merely on a roll.
On day 10, we were allowed to speak with one another, and were given our phones back, initiating us back to our earthly, material lives. I called my folks, my kids, and then – following an unwavering knowing that rose from deep within me – dialed the number of the only man I had ever truly loved and with whom I had not been in touch for a year and a half. He answered with a quiet understanding, and we planned to meet the same evening upon my return to the city.
My neighbor called her family too; she told them she’d walk home as usual, and asked about the health of her five-year-old grandson who couldn’t sleep without her around and who was unwell when she’d left. At the voluntary donation counter at the exit, where people were giving a whole range of amounts – from rupees fifty to rupees fifty thousand – she gave a hundred-rupee note that was accepted with a smile by the men at the donation table. It was not a small amount for her. Goenka’s determination to reach the masses with this ‘pay-as-per-your-own-capacity’ policy was working well; how could a worldly wise city dweller and a poor farmer’s wife both find peace at the same time and same place otherwise? Goenka didn’t mind where people came from and why people came, as long as they did. We all returned enriched anyway.
A few years later, I married the man, but not until he attended the retreat too. If not in person, SN Goenka’s spirit had blessed our union. We are bound to him forever.
I wonder if the lady still goes for her Vipassana vacations.