Was Goenka a Guru?

10/14/2013 12:59 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The response to my recent HuffPost reflection on the life and teachings of S.N. Goenka, who died Sept. 29, has been overwhelming. Having blogged for many years here, and written a handful of books, the number of readers this particular post attracted is yet another reminder of the simple truth that life is unpredictable. Thank you!

Reading the comments on that article, I was struck by the sincerity of those whose lives have been touched by Goenka ("Goenka-ji," in the common Indian grammatical form showing respect for a teacher), and by their concerns that his legacy be untainted by associations with gurus, or money, or contemporary commercialization. This is understandable, of course. When I feel grateful to a teacher, I, too, don't want to see them besmirched in any way.

Yet it's also worth looking at these specific concerns, because as meditation and mindfulness spread, they are only going to intensify. I'm going to focus on two of them: the question of the guru and the very related question of money and vulgarization.

Was Goenka a guru? I admit, when I first came across his work, I thought so. I had come up through the more egalitarian community created by some of his students, and was astonished to learn that at Goenka retreats, most of the teaching was done by Goenka himself, recorded on video. Compared to the live give-and-take that was part of the retreats I'd done, this seemed authoritarian and weird.

And yet, as I learned more about Goenka and his vast, global network of communities, I began to revise those initial impressions. Goenka never set himself up as someone to be blindly followed, never changed his name or wore special clothes, and never got rich from his teaching (more on that below). If a guru is a teacher claiming super-human powers, or demanding obedience, Goenka was definitely not that.

But why the fear of association? The guru is a venerable institution in many Asian traditions. There are many who say that without totally submitting yourself to a teacher, your ego will always get in the way of learning. You'll hear what you want to hear, do what you want to do -- and so you'll never get over your own self-centeredness.

Indeed, this is what some commenters complained about when it comes to contemporary mindfulness -- that it's vulgarized and watered down, that it caters to customers rather than instructs students. It's almost as if there are two poles being projected: slavish adherence to a guru at one end, narcissistic and vulgar 'spirituality' at the other.

And when it comes to vulgarization, we ain't seen nothing yet. As I describe in my book Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment -- being published next week! -- the Western world is at a point of inflection regarding the brain, the mind, and what to do about them. As I noted in the earlier article, there are one million new meditators each year in America, mostly encountering mindfulness in health care contexts, not as spiritual practice but as secular forms of relaxation. And this is only going to increase as the benefits of mindfulness become better quantified economically.

Understandably, this drives many meditators nuts. Goenka worked in a tradition oriented toward awakening, not chilling out. No wonder so many commenters sought to put down the commercial-yoga crowd.

Yet Gautama Buddha himself also had to navigate between these poles. He operated within the guru tradition in 6th-century-BCE India, and although he insisted that he should only be regarded as an enlightened human being, he has nonetheless been venerated as a god by millions of people. Practitioners of secular mindfulness (including Goenka's method) are often shocked to enter a Buddhist temple and see people praying, bowing, and presenting offerings. But like it or not, for millions of people, Buddhism is indeed a religion.

At the same time, the Buddha himself demanded that students discover the truth for themselves, and test all of his teachings according to their own experience. This remains a radical teaching even today.

And sure enough, he was attacked for it. Just as today's meditation purists attack the commercializers, so the spiritual teachers of the Buddha's day attacked him for teaching laypeople, for not insisting on rigorous austerity, for declining to take a stand on key philosophical questions. And, make no mistake, Goenka's orthodox critics attacked him in the same way. To this day, there are many who believe that teaching non-monks is a mistake.

In other words, the debates surrounding Goenka, and many other contemporary teachers, are not so new. How much authority do we surrender to another person? How much do we adjust what we have to say, based on the capacity of the listener to hear it?

We see different answers to these questions not only in spiritual schools (Transcendental Meditation, with its magical thinking and powerful guru, provides an interesting point of contrast to Goenka's teaching) but throughout our political and social lives. As Jonathan Haidt has pointed out, some of us favor more authority, others more egalitarianism. The difference is almost one of taste.

And yet, there are some new elements here, which I think are liberating ones. On balance, I think it's good that our current cultural values are skeptical of gurus, financial exploitation, and hucksterism. (As for Goenka's organization, yes, they don't charge for retreats, but they do solicit donations, and have considerable assets under management.) Personally, I'm in between the generation that Dylan told "don't follow leaders" and the generation that created Occupy, but I think all of us are shaped by both.

And that's a good thing. In the meditation world in particular, we've seen the tragic results of hierarchical spiritual traditions transplanted into Western contexts: scandals, abuse, even violence. Conversely, some of the most exciting trends in the evolving dharma world are networked, peer-led communities like Buddhist Geeks and the Dharma Overground, where practitioners help one another rather than rely on authority from above. And out in the "real" worlds of business, politics, and society, of course, the abuses of authority are even more apparent. Power corrupts.

And that is a lesson most of us need to re-learn every day. So... how about another mindful breath?