Thursday, November 27, 2008

Revealing What Is: Vipassana Meditation As Taught by S.N. Goenka

By Meera Sanghani

S.N. GoenkaIn the search for spiritual development, we inevitably consider the art and practice of meditation. If possible, we explore and experiment with a variety of techniques until we arrive at the style that meshes with our beliefs, values and personalities. Whether practicing transcendental or Zen meditation, we ultimately seek a sense of inner calm in the face of change.

With a strong desire to grow spiritually and a myriad of meditation options now "on the market," we can, ironically, impede our very good intentions to become better human beings by feverishly looking for bliss. By definition, meditation is deep reflection that invites us into reality, rather than taking us away from it. Meditation is not a hypnotic trance or some esoteric ideology.

Vipassana means "to see things as they really are." As one of the world's most ancient meditative techniques, vipassana is the form of meditation that the Buddha practiced to achieve enlightenment, and this is the method he taught for 45 years throughout the Indian subcontinent. The Buddha never taught a sectarian religion; he taught "dhamma"--the way to liberation--which is universal. If we can understand ourselves inwardly, completely and within the experience of our body, then liberation from burdensome mental habits and patterned thinking is truly possible.

S.N. Goenka, the foremost living teacher of vipassana meditation, addressed participants of the Millennium World Peace Summit in August 2000 and declared, "Peace in the world cannot be achieved unless there is peace within individuals. Agitation and peace cannot co-exist. One way to achieve inner peace is vipassana, or insight meditation--a non-sectarian, scientific, results-oriented technique of self-observation and truth realization. Practice of this technique brings experiential understanding of how mind and body interact…[and] reveals that mental action precedes every physical and vocal action, determining whether that action will be wholesome or unwholesome. Mind matters most."

S.N. Goenka's approach to vipassana meditation is introduced to students during a 10-day course in which participants are requested to abstain from verbal and nonverbal communication with others. Removing the interpersonal interaction affords the opportunity for students to look inward and observe and unearth mental habits. This approach offers insight into how our experience of the "outside" world is influenced by the tools of perception--the body and mind. Only when we undertake the work of looking at how we react (to pain and/or pleasure) can we understand how we may be "wired" for certain behaviors.

I attended a vipassana meditation course in the summer of 2001 at a retreat center in Plano, Illinois. I had heard from relatives and friends about the benefits of meditation; but, of course, experience is the best teacher. It is worth mentioning that the courses (taught all over the world) are free of charge for participants and funded by donations from former students who believe in the value of the vipassana technique. In a retreat setting, away from the bustle of urban living and in an environment in which all my energy could be directed towards self-work, many of my mental habits emerged during our group and individual meditation sittings.

One particular habit that I became aware of related to my father. Though he passed away almost ten years ago, I realized that I maintained a relationship to who he was. For example, without considering my own feelings, I found myself doing things that I knew he would have wanted me to do. This behavior stifled my ability to acknowledge his death and grow as an individual. Vipassana, however, is not some quick-fix for sorrow; but, rather, it allows all experiences, emotions, sensations and thoughts to surface so that we can truly observe them and recognize the change that is inherent to living.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of all during the course was to observe the body's reactions with stillness and the mind's reactions with objectivity. Vipassana meditation can indeed reveal what is.

Every evening the group would view a videotaped discourse of S.N. Goenka, in which he related instructive anecdotes from Gautama Buddha's life as well as shared his own experiences with vipassana meditation over some 30 years. Mr. Goenka also spoke of the way of dhamma and encouraged us to sit through whatever may arrive during our seated meditation, giving it our full attention. Vipassana does not encourage escapism but rather direct confrontation with who we are; and perhaps out of that encounter we can free ourselves from mental bondage.

Every year, over 100,000 people participate in such 10-day meditation retreats under S.N. Goenka's guidance. His relentless efforts to bring the technique to as many people as possible--including prison inmates and corporate CEOs--are evidence of his devotion to vipassana. Most importantly, Mr. Goenka stresses the universality of this practice, whereby ideological differences can be bridged and people of diverse backgrounds can experience deep benefits without fearing conversion.

Forces fight through siege hotels

A man being carried from the Taj Mahal hotel, 27 November 2008
Security forces have freed some of the people trapped in two hotels

Commandos are fighting to clear the last gunmen from two luxury hotels in Mumbai, more than 24 hours after a series of attacks across the city.

The Taj Mahal hotel was nearly free of gunmen, officials said, but operations continued at the Oberoi-Trident hotel.

At a third stand-off, at a Jewish centre, seven hostages were freed, a security official said.

Indian PM Manmohan Singh vowed to track down the attackers, who have killed at least 119 people and injured 300.

Gunmen targeted at least seven sites in Mumbai late on Wednesday, opening fire indiscriminately on crowds at a major railway station, the two hotels, the Jewish centre and a cafe frequented by foreigners.

The attacks are the worst in the city since 260 people were killed in a series of bombings.

A security official said one gunman remained in the Taj Mahal hotel and that the military was in control of the situation.

Commandos were continuing their sweep of the Oberoi-Trident, where a number of guests were trapped in their rooms or being held hostage, said JK Dutt, of the National Security Guards.

A home ministry official said earlier there might be 20-30 people being held hostage at the Oberoi-Trident. Owners said some 200 people were trapped in the hotel.

Cafe owner Farzed Jehani: 'A grenade was thrown into the restaurant'

But Maj Gen RK Hooda said he did not think there were any hostages there, and 39 people had been rescued.

"When the search was carried out from room to room these were the people, they had locked themselves into the rooms," he said.

One militant at the Jewish centre reportedly phoned local TV from the centre offering to negotiate over the release of hostages.

Israel's embassy in New Delhi had earlier said at least 10 Israeli nationals were trapped or being held hostage in Mumbai.

In other developments:

· The Indian navy said it was searching ships off the west coast following reports that gunmen had arrived in Mumbai by boat

· The UK Foreign Office said a British national, Andreas Liveras had died; a German, a Japanese man and an Italian are also among the dead

· The Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Toiba, which has been blamed for past bombings in India, denied any role in the attacks

In a televised address, Mr Singh said the government "will take whatever measures are necessary to ensure the safety and security of our citizens".

He said the attackers were based "outside the country" and that India would not tolerate "neighbours" who provide a haven to militants targeting it.

He described the attacks as "well-planned and well-orchestrated... intended to create a sense of panic by choosing high profile targets and indiscriminately killing foreigners".

Flames and black smoke billow from the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, Mumbai, on 27/11/08

India has complained in the past that attacks on its soil have been carried out by groups based in Pakistan, although relations between the two countries have improved in recent years and Pakistani leaders were swift to condemn the latest attacks.

Maj Gen Hooda said authorities had intercepted conversations between some of the attackers speaking in Punjabi, an apparent reference to Pakistan-based militants.

Earlier reports said the attackers spoke Hindi, indicating they were from India.

But Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, in New Delhi for talks, said no-one should be blamed until investigations were finished.

"Our experience in the past tells us that we should not jump to conclusions," he told Dawn television.

Amid international condemnation of the attacks, US President George W Bush telephoned Mr Singh to offer his condolences and support.

Claim of responsibility

In the attacks late on Wednesday night, groups of young men, armed with grenades and automatic weapons, targeted at least seven sites including the city's main commuter train station, a hospital and a restaurant popular with tourists.

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: "Whatever measures are necessary"

Police say 14 police officers, 81 Indian nationals and six foreigners have been killed.

Four suspected terrorists have also been killed and nine arrested, they add.

At the height of the stand-off at the Taj Mahal hotel, gunfire and explosions could be heard from inside.

Earlier eyewitness reports from the hotels suggested the attackers were singling out British and American passport holders.

If the reports are true, our security correspondent Frank Gardner says it implies an Islamist motive - attacks inspired or co-ordinated by al-Qaeda.

A claim of responsibility has been made by a previously unknown group calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen. Our correspondent says it could be a hoax or assumed name for another group.

 Map of Mumbai showing location of attacks

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

India moon craft hit by heat rise

By Swaminathan Natarajan
BBC Tamil service

Moon (ISRO)
The lunar surface viewed by the Moon Impact Probe on its descent

Indian scientists are exploring various options to cool down a sudden surge of temperature inside the country's first unmanned lunar craft, Chandrayaan 1.

The temperature inside the satellite has gone over 50C, prompting scientists to take drastic measures.

They say that the problem arose because of very hot temperatures during the lunar orbit.

The mission is regarded as a major step for India as it seeks to keep pace with other space-faring nations in Asia.

Earlier this month the spacecraft sent a probe onto the surface of the moon.

Urgent measures

"Now the moon, our satellite and the sun are in same line this means our craft is receiving 1,200 watts of heat from the moon and 1,300 watts from the sun per meter square," said M Annadurai, project director of Indian's moon mission.

Infographic (BBC)
1 - Chandrayaan Energetic Neutral Analyzer (CENA)
2 - Moon Impact Probe (MIP)
3 - Radiation Dose Monitor (RADOM)
4 - Terrain Mapping Camera (TMC)
5 - Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3)
6 - Chandrayaan 1 X-ray Spectrometer (C1XS)
7 - Solar Panel

If the temperature is not kept in check, many instruments on board the orbiter may fail to perform, scientists say.

This has prompted them to take urgent measures. Most of the instruments are now switched off or being used sparingly.

"We have rotated the spacecraft by 20 degrees and this has helped to reduce the temperature of the craft. We have also switched off certain equipment like mission computers and this has resulted in the reduction of temperature to 40C now. At this temperature all the equipment can perform very well," Mr Annadurai said.

"Although we did factor in the thermal conditions in the lunar orbit, the temperature is a bit higher than we anticipated."

He insisted all the instruments carried on board of the satellite have been tested and were working properly.

While the turning-off of certain equipment will have an impact on lunar research, Mr Annadurai said that it was not worth "taking the risk to run it" at present.

Scientists also plan to raise the orbit of the Indian craft to cool it down. It is presently in orbit 100km (62 miles) from the moon. However Mr Annadurai said that would only be done as a last resort.

He said that the next month would be critical for the survival of the mission, which has an intended life span of two years.

"We are able to use terrain mapping cameras to take picture of the moon whenever required," Mr Annadurai said.

India launched its first lunar mission on 22 October. The mission aims to map the lunar surface, look for traces of water and the presence of helium.

The current difficulties are the first to be experienced by the probe, which has been praised for sending the probe onto the moon's surface.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Mumbai - the city of foreign dreams

By Sanjiv Buttoo
BBC Asian Network, Mumbai

Deepa Mehta
Mumbai has much to offer its expatriate residents

For the thousands of people who leave the UK each year and head for a new life in India, the world's largest democracy is certainly no third world option.

The growing numbers of British expatriates living in Mumbai (Bombay) - locally known as the Manhattan of the East - say that life here is not a cheap alternative.

According to the latest UK Government statistics, migration to South Asia is up by over 100% in the past five years and that trend looks set to continue.

It is not difficult to see why the statistics are moving upwards. Mumbai is a cosmopolitan city where you can get anything you want anytime you want it.

'Very expensive'

The only problem is that you have to pay for it and you will find you are not the only ones wanting the best table in that restaurant or that prime piece of real estate.

In reality you are probably at the back of a long queue where everyone's got money and they came here before you.

Disc jockey MaFaiza
Mumbai is uplifting, it's fun, it's sexy, it's feminine and also provocative
Club disc jockey MaFaiza

Deepa Mehta has just moved here from Camden Town in London and is trying to find a suitable apartment in a favourable location.

She has viewed over 60 properties, has already seen one deal fall through at the last minute and is tired of living in a serviced flat.

"Real estate here is very expensive and a good place will cost me at least £4,000 to £5,000 a month to rent," she says.

"One of the big problems I am having is that I need a place where the kitchen is top notch as I like to cook. Here the kitchens are not that good because everyone has servants, so developers spend more time and money on living areas and bedrooms.

"I have just moved here and found it very easy to find a good location to set up my business and office, so I just hope I manage to find somewhere to live.

"But there as so many British expats here - the competition is fierce and all the estate agents know it."

It's not just property that has seen a surge in prices - the number of shopping malls and retail complexes are also booming.

Debenhams, Next, Marks and Spencer and Mothercare have all arrived in India looking for new business.

Each month others are joining them to quench the thirst for foreign products.

Designer brands such as Louis Vuitton, Fendi and Chopard have been here for years and say business is good.

Amrita Sanghera moved to Mumbai from the English county of Buckinghamshire one year ago and has settled down as an expatriate wife.

She is a regular shopper and says English stores remind her of home - but most of their pricing is higher than you would find in the UK so its not necessarily good value.

View of Mumbai
Mumbai is also lively, exciting and very expensive

"We feel more at home when we see English retailers on the Indian High Street and even though we could get the same products cheaper in the UK we still buy them as the quality is better than Indian products.

"Life here is great and the shopping is a plus as you can get authentic Indian products along side a pair of Marks and Spencer trousers".

Dalbir Bains moved from the UK to Mumbai - leaving behind a lucrative job buying lingerie for British Home Stores.

She opened an up-market boutique on the fashionable Juhu Tara Road one year ago and has not looked back.

"Indians don't know the quality and depth of products available in the UK," she said, "so I thought why not open a retail outlet here and bring my expertise to a city that will appreciate what I am trying to do?

"Many of my clients are Bollywood stars and rich housewives, but I also sell to the middle class shopper and of course the many British expats who are living here. So far my business is doing very well and I am glad I made the move."

'Not perfect'

Amid all the glitz of the city famous for its Bollywood film industry, Upen Patel started out as a model in London and still flies the flag for the British as an actor.

"I love it here and I think Mumbai is the best place in the world to live in. India maybe a developing country but the city in terms of pounds per square foot is the fourth most expensive place in the world," he said.

"My life in London does not compare. Here I cannot go out shopping, everywhere I go I have to use a driver, a bodyguard and have police security. It's not a perfect way to live but it's one that I have chosen and I have no regrets."

Upen Patel
For many, the pros of life in Mumbai outweigh the cons

Club disc jockey MaFaiza came to India 15 years ago to "find herself" and ended up selling mix tapes on a beach in Goa. She soon realised that India was the place to settle down.

Her parents were concerned but are now pleased she is doing well. She works all over India and in Europe but calls the city of Pune, near Mumbai, her home.

"It's uplifting, it's fun, it's sexy, it's feminine and also provocative. India has allowed me to express my creativity. India is extreme, humbling and inspiring. Somehow here magic happens and everyday I can honestly say to myself thank-you for being here," she says.

In Mumbai the number of baby and toddler groups is rising and there are more social expatriate groups than ever.

Re-location companies and property agents are cropping up everywhere because there is so much demand from foreign workers.

It is difficult to ascertain the exact number of British expatriates living in India because many people of Indian origin now have long-term visas.

The Indian Government say it is aware of the shift in population and welcomes anyone who wants to come as both will prosper.

Indian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Shiv Mukherjee, says that British-born people of Indian origin "may have different coloured passports but they are Indian".

"If they want to see the mother country and in the process if they want to work, they are most welcome," he says.

You can hear Sanjiv Buttoo's reports on the Asian Network on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday this week.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Tibetan exiles at a crossroads

Tibetan exiles at the Tsuglakhang temple in Dharmsala, India, 23 Nov 2008
Delegates backed the Dalai Lama's policy of autonomy after a week of meetings

By Chris Morris
BBC News, Dharamsala

The Dalai Lama's temple compound in the foothills of the Himalayas was an appropriate setting for the final session of this week's meetings.

The Tibetan exile community may not agree on everything, but there's no doubt that they continue to revere the Dalai Lama as their spiritual and political leader.

His policy of non-violence was unanimously endorsed.

"The first and foremost thing is that we've been able to convey the message to the Chinese government," said Tsering Norzung, one of the hundreds of delegates who had travelled here from around the world.

"His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the supreme leader of the Tibetan people."

The delegates sat and listened with rapt attention as the Dalai Lama addressed them at length.

The Dalai Lama talks to the press in Dharmsala, India, 23 Nov 2008
My faith in the Chinese people has never been shaken. People are always there, but sometimes governments change
Dalai Lama
Tibet's spiritual leader

He said he was pleased that so many different views had been expressed during the week, but when asked for his own opinion at a press conference he was suitably enigmatic.

"Wait for a month," he declared.

He also emphasised several times the need for greater contacts with ordinary people inside China.

Quite how that might happen remains a mystery, but the Dalai Lama insisted that most Chinese can't be held responsible for what he called the use of fear and brutal repression in Tibet itself.

"My faith in the Chinese people has never been shaken," he stressed. "In any dialogue there are two levels - dialogue with the government and dialogue with the people."

"People are always there," he said, "but sometimes governments change and certainly leaderships change."

So from his hilltop retreat in India the Dalai Lama is hoping for change in China.

Perhaps he knows that that could have far more influence on events in Tibet than anything the exile community can do.

But how long will people be prepared to wait?

New urgency

There's no sign at all of the current Chinese leadership making any concessions on Tibet, and that's why many Tibetans are frustrated - the Dalai Lama included.

Delegates attend the meeting in Dharmsala, India, 22 Nov 2008
The Dalai Lama warned against radical options raised for the first time

The majority view during these meetings was that efforts to negotiate with China on greater autonomy - the Middle Way Approach - should continue.

But for the first time other, more radical options have been given a formal hearing.

"This time what has changed is that we have adopted independence as the alternative," said Tenzin Tsundue, a prominent Tibetan activist. "We are going to give a short period of time for China to respond appropriately."

But that's not something with which the Dalai Lama appears to agree.

He warned the delegates that if they were not careful about their plans for the next 20 years, the Tibetan community would face great danger, and the possibility of failure.

One of the reasons he called for Tibetans from around the world to gather here may have been to foster a new sense of unity among them.

For now he seems to have succeeded. But many exile leaders accept that their movement has come to something of a crossroads.

The 14th Dalai Lama, widely known and respected as a Nobel peace laureate, is 73 years old and he won't be around for ever.

"It is my moral responsibility until my death to work for the Tibetan cause," he said.

But he's trying to prepare his people for what could be a complex transition.