During the course of his Dhamma work, beginning in 1969, Principal Teacher of Vipassana Sayagyi U Goenka (1924 - 2013) had been asked thousands of questions, by Vipassana students and others all over the world. The questions range a fascinating spectrum from what is Dhamma, Vipassana meditation, aim of life, human misery, God, rebirth to insomnia....
Sayagyi's answers - with penetrating insight - were based on the person sitting in front of him, state of mind of that person at that moment, and capacity to understand the subtleties of Dhamma.
Thousands of letters also came each year from across the world, from Vipassana students, teachers, Dhamma servers, discussing personal issues or seeking clarification on Vipassana practice or on Dhamma work.
He emphasized that the real benefits, self-dependent answers free from any doubt, can only come from continuous and correct practice of Vipassana.
Question: What is mind? Where is it?
Sayagyi U Goenka: The mind is there in every atom of your body. This is what you will understand by practising Vipassana. With it, you will make an analytical study of your mind, an analytical study of your matter, and the interaction of the two.
Q: You spoke about taking out the bad qualities from the mind. What does that mean?
SNG: Like you have emotions in you- feelings of depression in you-feelings of animosity towards others. All those are bad qualities. They keep you unhappy. With these you harm yourself and you harm others. Little by little you have to take them out. And you will enjoy great peace of mind.
Q: What is the connection between the mind and the brain?
SNG: The brain itself is just a physical organ. As you deal with other parts of the body, you deal with the brain in the same way, that's all. Nothing special to do with the brain. But the mind is totally different. In the West, all importance is given to the brain as if the mind is located here. Nothing doing, it is everywhere. The mind is in the whole body. So give attention to the whole body.
Q: If you purify the body, you purify the mind?
SNG: No. Even though you purify the body, the mind may remain dirty and it will again make the body impure. So the root is the mind, not the body. The body is just the base. With the help of the body, the mind is working, but the mind has to be purified. You keep on washing your body as much as you can, but the mind is not washed. Mind remains still impure. Mind has to be pure. But if you purify the mind, the body gets purified. It has an effect. The aim of Vipassana is to purify the mind.
Q: How can the mind remain balanced when we are in pain?
SNG: Whenever something happens in the external world that we do not like, there are unpleasant sensations in the body. A Vipassana meditator focuses the entire attention on these sensations without reacting, just observing them very objectively. It is very difficult in the beginning, but slowly it becomes easier to observe the gross unpleasant sensations - what we call pain - with a balanced, calm mind. Pleasant, unpleasant, makes no difference. Every sensation arises only to pass away. Why react to something that is so ephemeral.
Q: If one does something wrong, then one is bound to suffer in the future?
SNG: No, not just in the future, but also here and now ! The law of nature punishes immediately, at the very moment one starts generating a defilement in the mind. One cannot generate a defilement and feel peaceful. The misery is instant. Only when you realize that suffering is here and now that you will change the habit pattern of generating defilements that lead to wrong verbal or physical action. If you think, 'Oh, I'll be punished only in future lives, and I'm not bothered now', it won't help.
Q: Isn't it selfish to forget about the world, and just to sit and meditate all day?
SNG: Meditation as a means to acquiring a healthy mind is not at all selfish. When your body is sick, you enter a hospital to recover health. One doesn't say, 'Oh, I'm being selfish'. One knows that it is not possible to live a proper life with a sick, wounded body. Or one goes to a gymnasium to make one's body stronger. Similarly, one doesn't go to a meditation center for the whole life, but simply to make the mind more healthy. And a healthy mind is most necessary to live one's day to day life in a way that is good for oneself and others.
Q: How can professionals, who have less time, practice meditation?
SNG: Meditation is all the more important for professionals! Those who are householders, who have responsibilities in life, need Vipassana much more, because they have to face situations in life where there are so many vicissitudes. They become agitated because of these ups and downs. If they learn Vipassana, they can face life much better. They can make good decisions, correct decisions, which will be very helpful to them and others.
Q: Can one learn Vipassana from a book?
SNG: No. It can be very dangerous. Vipassana is a very delicate and deep operation of the mind. One must take a 10-day course, to make a beginning.
Q: What are the charges / fee for a Vipassana course?
SNG: Charges?! Dhamma is priceless! There is no fee and there can never be a fee charged for teaching Vipassana. Vipassana courses are completely free of charge. Earlier, for a short time, some small actuals were charged for boarding and lodging expenses. Fortunately, that has been removed. So one does not have to pay anything to attend a Vipassana course.
Q: Why are there no fees charged for doing a Vipassana course?
SNG: One reason, as I said, is that Dhamma is priceless. It cannot be valued in money. Another reason is that a student taking a Vipassana course practices renunciation from the householders' responsibilities, for the duration of the course. He or she lives like a monk or a nun, on the charity of others. This is to reduce the ego, a big cause of one's misery. If one even pays a small token fee, then the ego gets built up, and one may say, " Oh, I want this. This facility is not to my liking", " I can do whatever I want here", and so on. This ego becomes a big hindrance in progressing on the path of Dhamma. This is another reason why no fee is charged. This has been the Dhamma tradition for millennia. The Buddha did not charge any fee for distributing this invaluable gem of Vipassana!
Q: How are expenses met for a Vipassana course, since no fee is charged from students?
SNG: The expenses are met from voluntary donations (dana) from students who have completed at least one Vipassana course. The donation, in money or services, is given with the Dhamma volition that, "as I benefited by getting this wonderful technique due to the generous dana of others, may others also benefit ". Most important is the volition with which the dana is given. Even a handful of fertile soil given with a pure Dhamma volition, is far more beneficial than a bag of gold given with ego, or with no Dhamma volition. The dana given with a pure mind gives benefits to the giver.
However, this does not mean that somebody will go around at the end of the course, asking every student if he wants to give a donation. A table is put in a quiet corner, and whoever wishes to give dana goes there and gives it, that's all.
Q: Why is there segregation of sexes during a course (and in Vipassana centres)?
SNG: This would not have been necessary if we were working with other types of meditation which impose a good layer at the surface of the mind, making you forget everything that is deep inside.
But the practice of Vipassana is totally different. From the very beginning it starts an operation of the mind, taking out the impurities from the deepest level. When you operate on a wound, only pus will come out; you can't expect rose water to come out. What is the pus of the mind? Now the worst pus that you have is sexual passion.
The entire loka in which you are living is called kama-loka, the loka where sexual passion is predominant. Even at the apparent level your birth is because of the sexual contact of your parents. The base of sexual passion is deep inside. And if sexual passion comes on the surface, it becomes stronger for a male when he is in contact with the vibration of a female. When a female develops passion, it is strengthened by contact with the vibrations of a male. And if you remain intermingled while you are doing this operation, it is dangerous. It will harm you. Instead of your coming out of passion, there is every possibility that you will multiply passion. So better remain separated as much as possible. It is essential.
Q: What about sex within the framework of Vipassana?
SNG: For a new Vipassana student, we don't say that you have to have suppressed celibacy, forced celibacy. It is not healthy. It creates more difficulty, more tensions, more knots. So that is why the advise for a Vipassana student (who wishes to be married) is have relations with one spouse, one man-one woman, and disciplined sex. And if both are Vipassana meditators, a time will come that they will naturally come out of the need for sex. Sex is not necessary. By nature, they are contented, so happy, the body relations have no meaning. But that should happen naturally, not forcefully. So as one starts practicing Vipassana, it is not necessary one should be celibate. But at the same time, there must be relations with only one person; otherwise, this madness will continue. Then the passion (lust) keeps on multiplying, one cannot come out of it (suffering).
Q: What is the difference between right and wrong sexual conduct? Is it a question of volition?
SNG: No. Sex has a proper place in the life of a householder. It should not be forcibly suppressed, because a forced celibacy produces tensions which create more problems, more difficulties. However, if you give free licence to the sexual urge, and allow yourself to have sexual relations with anyone whenever passion arises, then you can never free your mind of passion. Avoiding these two equally dangerous extremes, Dhamma offers a middle path, a healthy expression of sexuality which still permits spiritual development, and that is sexual relations between two persons who are committed to each other. And if your partner is also a Vipassana meditator, whenever passion arises you both observe it, at the level of bodily sensations as Vipassana trains you to do. This is neither suppression nor free licence. By observing you can easily free yourself of passion. At times a couple will have sexual relations, but gradually they develop towards the stage in which sex has no meaning at all. This is the stage of real, natural celibacy, when not even a thought of passion arises in the mind. This celibacy gives a joy far greater than any sexual satisfaction. Always one feels so contended, so harmonious. One must learn to experience this real happiness.
Q: In the West, many think that sexual relations between any two consenting adults are permissible.
SNG: That view is far away from Dhamma. Someone who has sex with one person, then another, and then someone else, is multiplying his passion, his misery. You must be either committed to one person or be living in complete celibacy.
Q:What is the difference between Vipassana and concentration?
SNG: Vipassana is not merely concentration. Vipassana is observation of the truth within, from moment to moment. You develop your faculty of awareness, your mindfulness. Things keep changing, but you remain aware - this is Vipassana. But if you concentrate only on one object, which may be an imaginary object, then nothing will change. When you are with this imagination, and your mind remains concentrated on it, you are not observing the truth. When you are observing the truth, it is bound to change. It keeps constantly changing, and yet you are aware of it. This is Vipassana.
Q:You talk about conditioning of the mind. But isn't this training also a kind of conditioning of the mind, even if a positive one?
SNG: On the contrary, Vipassana is a process of de-conditioning. Instead of imposing anything on the mind, it automatically removes unwholesome qualities so that only positive, wholesome qualities remain. By eliminating negativities, it uncovers the positivity which is the basic nature of the pure mind.
Q: Are there Dhamma forces that support us as we develop on the Path?
SNG: Certainly – visible as well as invisible ones. For example, people tend to associate with those of similar interest, background and character. When we develop good qualities in us, we naturally attract people who have such good qualities. When we come in contact with such good people, naturally we get support from them.
If we develop love, compassion and goodwill, we will get tuned up with all beings, visible or invisible, that have these positive vibrations, and we will start getting support from them. It is like tuning a radio to receive waves of a certain meter band from a distant broadcasting station. Similarly, we tune ourselves to vibrations of the type we generate; and so we receive the benefit of those vibrations. But all this happens only if we work hard and correctly.
Q: Isn't anger, aversion, sadness etc all natural human emotions?
SNG: You call them 'natural' human emotions, but the mind by nature is very pure. This is a very common mistake (to call harmful habit patterns as 'natural'). The true, pure nature of the mind is so much lost that the impure nature of the mind is often called 'natural'! The true natural mind is so pure, full of compassion, goodwill.
Q: I will give you an example. Suppose somebody close to me dies. It is natural for me to...
SNG: Again you are saying the same thing! It is the wrong nature in which you are involved. If somebody dies, no crying. Crying doesn't solve any problem. All those moments when you have been crying you are sowing seeds of crying. Nature wouldn't see why you are crying, nature only sees what seed you have sowed and the seed of crying will only bring more crying.
Q: I am always full of anxiety. Can Vipassana help me?
SNG: Certainly. This is the purpose of Vipassana - to liberate you from all miseries. Anxiety and worry are the biggest miseries, and they are there because of certain impurities deep within you. With practise of Vipassana, these impurities will come on the surface and gradually pass away. Of course, it takes time. There is no magic, no miracle, no gurudom involved. Somebody will just show you the correct Path. You have to walk on the Path, work out your own liberation from all miseries.
Q: What is wrong with wanting material things to make life more comfortable?
SNG: If it is a real requirement, there is nothing wrong, provided you do not become attached to it. For example, you are thirsty, you need water-so you work, get it, and quench your thirst. But if it becomes an obsession, that does not help at all; it harms you. Whatever necessities you require, work to get them. If you fail to get something, then smile and try again in a different way. If you succeed, then enjoy what you get, but without attachment.
Q: You spoke about non-attachment to things. What about persons?
SNG: Yes, persons also. You have true love for the person, compassionate love for this person, this is totally different. But when you have attachment, then you don't have love, you only love yourself, because you expect something -material, emotional etc - from this person. With whomever you have attachment, you are expecting something in return. When you start truly loving this person, then you only give, a one-way traffic. You don't expect anything in return, then the (ego-based) attachment goes. The tension goes. You are so happy.
Q: How can the world function without attachment? If parents were detached then they would not even care for their children. How is it possible to love or be involved in life without attachment?
SNG: Detachment does not mean indifference; it is correctly called "holy indifference". Detachment means equanimity, detachment from one's ego. As a parent, you must meet your responsibility to care for your child with all your love, but without clinging. Out of pure, selfless love you do your duty. Suppose you tend a sick person, and despite your care, he does not recover. You don't start crying; that would be useless. With a balanced mind, you try to find another way to help him. This is holy indifference : neither inaction or reaction, but real, positive action with a balanced mind.
Q: Isn't performing a right action a kind of attachment?
SNG: No. It is simply doing your best, understanding that the results are beyond your control. You do your job and leave the results to nature, to Dhamma.
Q: .....then it is being willing to make a mistake?
SNG: If you make a mistake you accept it, and try not to repeat it the next time. Again you may fail; again you smile and try a different way. If you can smile in the face of failure, you are not attached. If failure depresses you and success makes you elated, you are certainly attached.
Q: Can you describe in practical terms what is happening in the body and in the mind, how this law of cause and effect works, and how this change can help us?
SNG: The Buddha said that understanding the Dhamma is nothing other than understanding the law of cause and effect. You have to realize this truth within yourself. In a ten-day Vipassana course you have the opportunity to learn how to do this. This investigation of truth pertaining to matter, pertaining to mind and pertaining to the mental concomitants, the mental contents, is not merely for the sake of curiosity, but to change your mental habit pattern at the deepest level of the mind. As you keep proceeding you will realize how the mind influences matter, and how matter influences the mind.
(For the answer in more detail: 'The Law of Cause and Effect' )
Q:Aren’t there any chance happenings, random occurrences without a cause?
SNG: Nothing happens without a cause. It is not possible. Sometimes our limited senses and intellects cannot clearly find it, but that does not mean that there is no cause.
Q: Is everything in this life predetermined?
SNG: Well, certainly our past actions will give fruit, good or bad. They will determine the type of life we have, the general situation in which we find ourselves. But that does not mean that whatever happens to us is predestined, ordained by our past actions, and that nothing else can happen. That is not the case. Our past actions influence the flow of our life, directing them towards pleasant or unpleasant experiences. But present actions are equally important. Nature has given us the ability to become masters of our present actions. With that mastery, we can change our future.
May all beings be happy, be liberated.
for more Question and Answers on Vipassana and life
* Clarifications on Vipassana practice for old students (those who have completed at least one 10-day Vipassana course)