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Driven to Enlighten

S.N. Goenka tours the U.S. teaching a technique of silent sitting to relieve anxiety.


The guru is in his RV, gently swaying and bouncing in his tan armchair (seat belt fastened!), offering sage words on Buddhist teachings, enlightenment, and how to cope with road rage.

A small, round Indian man with bushy salt and pepper eyebrows and a wise, kind face, 79-year-old S.N. Goenka has attained a kind of rock-star status among meditation groupies. They swear his 10-day sessions of sitting without speaking can drive fear from the heart and calm anxiety in the deepest recesses of the mind.

Now the meditation guru, who lives in Bombay, is on a road trip, crisscrossing the United States and Canada for four months in his immense, 37-foot-long, beige and brown Pace Arrow.

On Monday morning at the tail end of rush hour, Goenkaji (the "ji" suffix denotes affection and respect in Hindi) is setting out from the Burmese monastery Bhrama Vihara in Azusa for a tour of the Museum of Tolerance in West L.A. From there he and his entourage, consisting of his wife, his cook, his secretary, a documentarian and several devoted Vipassana teachers, will continue their 35-city North American tour, "Meditation Now: Inner Peace Through Inner Wisdom." Walkie-talkies in hand, handlers at the ready, the two-RV, two-camper caravan will head upstate to North Fork, a town near Yosemite, and the California Vipassana Center.

Goenka, who remains unruffled even amid a mild media circus, allowed a reporter to spend an hour aboard the RV as it cruised the L.A. freeways.

Already, Goenka has hooked up at RV parks, from Charlotte, North Carolina to Boulder, Colorado. He has spoken at high schools, college campuses and, on Saturday, at the Wadsworth Theatre in Brentwood. He has traversed the forests, mountains, deserts and national parks of this country, driven the 5, the 10 and the 405, on a quintessentially American road trip--not exactly seeking enlightenment, a la Jack Kerouac or Ken Kesey, but delivering it.

Regrettably, Goenka missed the Grand Canyon, because he had to fly back to the United Nations to give a keynote address on May 28 for a celebration of Vesakha, which marks the birth, enlightenment and the death of Buddha. He called his talk "Buddha: Super-Scientist of Peace."

Goenka rides like a business traveler, reading spectacles ready, crisp New York Times and Wall Street Journal tucked under his arm. His chauffeurs are his students, volunteers who are honored to drive the great teacher.

His cook, who has been with him for more than 30 years, travels in a separate camper full of spices brought from India and procured from Indian groceries scattered across the nation, on call to cook curries. All Goenka's support here in the U.S. is unpaid. Everywhere he goes, his students turn out with food.

From Azusa, the RV zoomed up the onramp and sailed down the freeway, a bubble of calm and quiet, traveling through the mad urban jungle that stretched gray and ceaseless to the horizon. Out the window, the jagged skyline of downtown Los Angeles rose from the sprawl and the smog. "When I pass through the downtown of a city, I think, look at the people, they are so miserable," Goenka said. "Look, they are running, running, running. I passed through that life. So I know how much tension there is in that life."

Goenka prefers the open country.

As the RV caravan neared a downtown interchange, traffic ground to a halt. Irritated drivers all around sighed, and screamed into their cell phones. His wife tapped her watch. The secretary looked agitated. Walkie-talkies crackled. Goenka remained unperturbed.

"How much tension those people must be feeling," Goenka said, peering with compassion through the panorama of the front window into the ribbon of cars, buses and pickups. "They have to be at a certain place, at a certain time, they hit a red light ... with this practice, they can remain with a smile."

Goenka was born to ethnic Indian parents in the city of Mandalay in what used to be Burma and is now Myanmar. He became a successful businessman, with manufacturing firms. At 31, he took his first meditation course, and after the military took over the country, nationalized its industry, he turned to his study of meditation full time. He became a teacher, and in 1969 went to India to conduct his first 10-day course.

Over the years, various meditation movements have achieved popularity in America. In the 1950s, authors like Kerouac and poet Allen Ginsberg popularized Zen meditation. Later, with the rise of the Beatles, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's transcendental meditation became something of a fad.

Vipassana, which means "to see things as they really are," is one of India's ancient meditation techniques. Practitioners are initiated through a 10-day course, during which they sit for hours-long stretches in absolute silence, without eye contact, writing, or communication of any kind except with teachers at the end of each day.

The goal is freedom--often from the self.

"Instead of wandering like a monkey here and there, the monkey mind gets calm," Goenka said.

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