“The Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje, Master of Mahamudra” by Ruth Gamble and “SN Goenka: Emissary of Insight” by Daniel M Stuart

SN Goenka: Emissary of Insight, Daniel Stuart; The Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje: Master of Mahamudra,  Ruth Gamble (Shambhala, November 2020) SN Goenka: Emissary of Insight, Daniel Stuart; The Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje: Master of Mahamudra, Ruth Gamble (Shambhala, November 2020)

These two new books from Shambhala’s excellent series Lives of the Masters introduce readers to the life and teachings of two great Buddhist innovators who lived many centuries apart, but who both contributed to the way future generations came to understand Buddhism.

Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339) was a master of the Kagyu (Oral) lineage who was responsible, among other accomplishments, for instituting the idea that lineage could be based on reincarnation, an idea which we may see today in the selection of Dalai or Panchen Lamas. Satyanārāyan Goenka (1924-2013), probably the better-known of the two, was a Burmese-born teacher and writer who spent years spreading the concepts of mindfulness and insight (Vipassana) meditation, gathering many followers in Europe and the United States.

Both volumes follow Shambhala’s attractive format of presenting scholarly yet accessible analysis and biographical information together with a generous selection of writings by the masters, many of which have not been previously translated into English. Rangjung Dorje’s writings, in particular, are not that well-known to English-speaking readers, a defect which is certainly remedied in Ruth Gamble’s wide-ranging collection of them. Goenka, whose books are readily available in English, is represented here by some newly-translated material as well as by his autobiographical writings, by means of which Daniel Stuart gives readers a much more comprehensive understanding of this great modern master than has hitherto been available.

 

Rangjung Dorje, unlike Coleridge several centuries later, “did not like Xanadu”, especially it seems, the “stately pleasure-dome” described in Coleridge’s poem. “External appearances,” he wrote in a poem of his own dating from 1337,

 

are experts in seduction
[They are] children of our mind, and we are wild in our head
… the cliffs of depravity multiply.

 

Xanadu, it seems, made Rangjung Dorje “intensely uncomfortable”. The fact that he was there on the personal invitation of the last Yuan emperor, Toghon Temūr (reigned 1333-70), didn’t make things any better, apart from the important fact that

 

it offered him a chance to teach his dharma to the world’s most powerful people, and would grant him more influence back in Tibet.

 

Putting up with Xanadu, “the legendary city, the summer capital of the Mongol Empire’s Great Khan, with all it comforts,” as well as with the winter capital Beijing (then known as Dadu) was a necessary evil for him, but it also meant that he had imperial recognition for his claim of being the third reincarnated Karmapa. These quotations are illustrative of the material available to biographers of Rangjung, as his own writings in the form of poems, social criticism and autobiographical sketches make up the bulk of what we know about him. “Reading and translating his stories and songs was like opening a time capsule,” Gamble tells us; “it was always fascinating but not always comfortable.”

As the subtitle notes, Rangjung, like others in this series, was a “master of Māhamudrā”, a form of Buddhism which concentrates on understanding the actual nature of the mind (mindfulness) to reach enlightenment. At the same time he incorporated Dzogchen (Great Completion) practices into his teachings; here, meditation is employed to achieve intrinsic awareness. Rangjung states this synthesis directly in his Aspiration for Māhamudrā:

 

The Māhamudrā is free from mental work.
The great Middle Way is free from extremes.
Since it includes everything, it is the Great Completion.

 

And, as Gamble explains, “Rangjung upheld, cultivated and encouraged several other practices that were primarily associated with other traditions.” This made him a powerful and influential teacher, but it also caused him to get into conflicts with those more doctrinaire than he was; at one point he was denied entry into a monastery and went into a retreat to the sacred mountain of Khawa Karpo, located in what is now Yunnan Province, China. “While staying at this mountain,” Gamble tell us, “he became its champion, writing guides to it and songs about it.” He was certainly a considerable lyric poet:

 

Waterfalls crash, yell and shake through chasms.
The mountains are just rocks, but they look like weapons,
Terrifying forests are splendid decorations.

 

These natural scenes, however, have their spiritual aspect, too.

 

And at their center is a
Beautiful alpine meadow,
A Dharma source, exquisitely shaped,
And graced by a pool.

 

Gamble devotes half of her book to biography, whilst in the second half, as noted above, she presents a copious selection of his writings from various stages of his life. The first section takes us through Rangjung’s early life, his wanderings and his career as spiritual adviser to emperor Toghon, ending with his last years and death. In the latter phase of his life he seems to have been unhappy. “Many times,” Gamble tells us, “he tried to escape his life in the capitals and return to Tibet,” but in the end he “had no choice but to come to terms with exile in the capitals.” As he wrote himself, if one wished for enlightenment, one should

 

Stay in isolated, mountain retreats,
Cultivate the incomparable view,

 

and

 

Cut away your attachment to food and clothes,
And unattached, alone, wander in the mountains.

 

His teachings were dedicated to buddha-nature, and all his life he strove to convey it to anyone who would hear it, and always adopting a latitudinarian attitude towards how it might be achieved. For Rangjung, buddha-nature was the “naturally pure mind without any adventitious stains.”

 

SN Goenka is in many ways a much different figure from Rangjung Dorje. He seems to have felt that it was his karma to leave his native land of Burma and travel to India, the place where Buddhism had originated and indeed from where his own people had come. Like Rangjung, though, he would eventually claim to be a reincarnation, believing himself to be that of Ledi Sayadaw (1846-1923), a Burmese master of Vipassana meditation. Most of his spiritual life, when he was not travelling and teaching worldwide, was spent in India.

Goenka came from a prosperous family of Burmese business people, whose profession he followed until quite suddenly, as the result of severe migraines, he discovered Buddhist meditation, which alleviated his suffering and led him to delve further into the philosophy. He became a pupil of U Ba Khin (1899-1971), a distinguished public servant who was also an eminent teacher of Vipassana (some people considered him a boddhisatva, or an “emanation of the next buddha”), recognized Goenka’s talents and made him his assistant. He stayed in Burma with U Ba Khin until 1969, when he moved to India, but essentially the brand of Vipassana he taught would be that of his master; by the time Goenka died, there would be schools in 194 different countries.

Goenka became very well-known in the West and wrote many books in English, as well as becoming a familiar figure on the Buddhist lecture circuit and one of the best-known and most influential practitioners of “rational” or “non-religious” Vipassana meditation in the world. “As a public figure with audiences in multiple cultural contexts,” Daniel M. Stuart explains, “he learned to speak in many languages and registers, figuratively and literally, to reach his listeners.” Goenka’s foreign pupils included, amongst many others, Baba Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), author of the well-known Be Here Now (1971), and Joseph Goldstein, the first American master of Vipassana.

Stuart, a professor of religious studies at the University of South Carolina, takes us above and beyond Goenka’s fame as a bringer of Vipassana to the West. Using Goenka’s own writings, he successfully shows that Goenka was a much deeper and profounder thinker than supposed, and consequently much more complex in his beliefs. As he puts it, his book

 

presents Goenka as a complex figure thoroughly rooted in traditional Indian, Burmese, Buddhist and Hindu worldviews and value-systems.

 

He does this by giving readers an extremely generous selection of Goenka’s writings, including new translations from Hindi and Burmese; the latter serve to highlight Goenka’s Burmese roots through his lineage and teachings in Burma. “If there is a heaven in earth and a Grove of Delight in heaven,” Goenka says in his autobiographical book Blessed Baba (2002), “Burma is indeed it. There is no other country like it.” Wherever he goes, Burma is always in Goenka’s heart as Tibet was in Rangjung’s, although the former’s universalist outlook prevented him from feeling too nostalgic about it. In Stuart’s hands, Goenka emerges as a great meditation master, a man who spent a great deal of time struggling to get his teachings out to the world, eventually succeeding in founding global meditation centres and establishing connections with religious leaders all over the world.

What made Goenka’s system attractive, particularly to westerners, was his insistence that what Buddha taught was dhamma, the way to liberation, not religion, and there was no need for anyone to give up religious practices and “convert.” As Goenka said, “I am merely a medium. Dhamma is doing its own work.” Liberation, Goenka taught, was universal; we observe through meditation how the body and mind changes, and through that realisation we attain self-knowledge. An enlightened person, he tells us, “rediscovers the path, the path of liberation. He purifies the path so that people walk on the pure path without getting deviated here or there.” There is, however, much more to Goenka’s teachings that this, as a reading of Stuart’s book reveals, and it will do much to bring Goenka’s teachings into better focus and put the work of this great modern master into perspective.

 

These two books are of immeasurable value both to scholars and non-scholars, continuing the tradition of readability in the Lives of the Masters series. It makes a great deal of sense to present these great teachers as human beings and to make more of their writings accessible to western readers. As Rangjung Dorje wrote,

 

May we have free time and opportunity, trust, enthusiasm and wisdom.
May we rely on good teachers, extract the essence of their advice,
And achieve results as we are instructed, without obstacles.

 

Goenka, I’m sure, would have heartily agreed.


John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.