The Westerners Attend their first Meditation Course


It seems that one of the essential initiations for Westerners in India was taking at least one Vipassana meditation course, taught by S.N. Goenka. Born and raised in Burma (now Myanmar), Goenka spent fourteen years studying Vipassana meditation with Sayagyi U Ba Khin before settling in India. He began teaching in 1969, just around the time Westerners were starting to journey to India…

Mirabai Bush: Our first week in India, I met Sharon Salzberg on the street in Delhi. She and I both had been at Buffalo; I hadn’t known her there, but we knew of each other. Bhagavan Das had told her there was a meditation course being taught for the first time by Goenka for Westerners and it was going to be in Bodhgaya, where the Buddha had been enlightened. It seemed almost like having wine and cheese in Paris. Let’s go learn to meditate! I was clueless. I had never sat with my legs crossed, let alone closed my eyes and looked within. The only related thing I remembered was Allen Ginsberg OMing at the Pentagon.

I met Ram Dass right outside the gates to the Burmese vihara (monastery), standing there with a couple of the others. They were trying to figure out how many cookies they should buy to take in, because once we got inside the gates, there wouldn’t be any sweets. I liked him immediately.

From the beginning, I was deeply moved by Goenka, by the practice, and by the dedication of all of us students. Forget meditation cushions or carpets – we were on the floor sitting cross-legged in our hippie clothes. We did one ten-day course, and then we did another and another, so we were there for a couple of months, sitting in silence, meditating our little hearts out. It was wonderful to simplify and just sit. In graduate school I had read a thousand books and my head was full of ideas and words. Letting it all go and looking to see what was really inside changed my life.

We would have a day or two in between the ten-day sessions when we would be able to go out and get more cookies and talk. Ram Dass would make fun of us. He called us the “used-to-bes” as in “What did you used to be?” He thought it would be better to be here now. I still didn’t know anything about Maharajji. A couple of times Ram Dass would lead Kirtan in the Buddhist monastery, singing Sri Ram Jai Ram, and I loved it, but I was pretty much in the moment with the whole Buddhist practice.

One night I was on the roof with Ram Dass looking at the stars. Ram Dass was talking about being connected to everything. I remember looking at the stars and getting it, getting that we were all part of one great whole and there was a reason we were here. It was one of those moments after which nothing was ever the same again.

-Mirabai Bush, excerpt from Love Everyone

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