Thursday, October 31, 2013

Saba ka mangala -- May all be happy

Shri Satya Narayan Goenka, more commonly known as S.N. Goenka or, among his students, Goenkaji, died on September 29, just over a month ago. I count myself among the students, as the very first Buddhist retreat I ever attended was one taught by him (electronically) at Dhamma Kunja in Washington State in February of 2005. It was the hardest thing I've ever done -- mentally, emotionally, and physically, but I was and remain utterly glad that I stuck it out, despite wanting to leave every day. And, although I do not practice the exact technique of meditation he teaches, it's safe to say that I continue to feel that it gave me the basics, which led to my desire to continue as a student of Vipassana and Theravadin Buddhism in general. For this, I will always be grateful.

Yesterday I received an email from the guiding Vipassana group, with a link to a lengthy newsletter devoted to this wonderful man. I wish I could share the link, but the site is password protected and while everyone who has ever completed a 10-day course anywhere in the world knows the login, we are asked not to divulge it, and I honor that request. I found it truly worthwhile to read.

Still, although I can't share the entire newsletter, I will share the following portion:

It was late afternoon of a long day toward the end of August 2000. In the United Nations General Assembly Hall in New York, delegates to the Millennium World Peace Summit were weary and a little jaded. This was the first global gathering of religious and spiritual leaders at the UN, and it had descended into acrimony. Far from finding common ground, the delegates had sharply differed over the question of conversion. Some delegates were highly critical of the practice; others representing some of the leading religions rejected those views. Over the years, the hall had often been the setting for this sort of wrangle involving politicians; it was disappointing to see spiritual leaders doing no better.

To close the session, a lesser-known figure made his way to the podium, helped by an assistant. His silver hair gleamed; he wore a smartly tailored Indian suit. Carefully he paid respects and smilingly surveyed the crowd. Then he started speaking, and within seconds he had caught the attention of the assembled dignitaries.

“Religion is religion only when it unites,” he said. “Religion is no religion when it divides. Religion is not for dividing people. It is for uniting people.”

“So much has been said for and against conversion. I am for conversion, not against it. But conversion not from one organized religion to another organized religion—no. Conversion from misery to happiness. Conversion from bondage to liberation. Conversion from cruelty to compassion. That is the conversion needed today.”

“If I have an agitated mind full of anger, hatred, ill will and animosity, how can I give peace to the world? “Therefore all the sages and saints and seers of the world have said, ‘Know thyself.’ Not merely at the intellectual, emotional or devotional level, but at the actual level. When you know the truth about yourself at the experiential level, many of the problems get solved. You start understanding the universal law of nature or God, which is applicable to one and all.
“When I observe myself and find that I am generating anger, ill will or animosity, I realize that I am the first victim of the hatred or animosity I am generating within myself. Only afterwards do I start harming others. And if I am free from these negativities, nature or God Almighty starts rewarding me: I feel so peaceful.

“Whether I call myself a Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian or a Jain, it makes no difference: a human being is a human being. Human mind is human mind. Conversion should be from impurity of the mind to purity of the mind. This is the real conversion that is necessary—nothing else.”

“Every religion has the wholesome core of love, compassion and good will. The outer shell differs, but give importance to the inner essence and there will be no quarrel. Don’t condemn anything, give importance to the essence of every religion and there will be real peace and harmony.”

The ruler referred to was the great Emperor Ashoka of India, who had issued the message—the world’s first call for religious tolerance—more than two millennia before. And the messenger was a man who always regarded Ashoka as a hero and had devoted his life to teaching a way to inner peace: Satya Narayan Goenka.

Saba ka mangala -- may all be happy -- are the last words heard from Goenkaji at the end of every 10-day course. None of his students are ever likely to forget it. I certainly haven't -- in fact, as he left the hall, chanting this, I wanted to cry because I knew it was over and it was time to return to 'real' life.