In Memoriam – Honoring our Dharma Elders

Sayadaw U Pandita, 1921 – 2016

The Venerable Sayadaw U Pandita died on April 16, 2016. This eminent Dharma master was a key influence on many of IMS’s teachers and played an important role in IMS’s history.

The talks Sayadaw U Pandita gave at IMS in 1984 were later collected in the book In This Very Life: Liberation Teachings of the Buddha. In 1989, Sayadaw taught the first IMS retreat for teens, now an annual offering. He also taught the inaugural period of practice at the Forest Refuge in 2003 and returned there in 2005.

IMS cofounder and guiding teacher Joseph Goldstein wrote, “Sayadaw U Pandita was a powerful influence for so many of us. His great learning and mastery of the teachings set a high bar of aspiration and endeavor, urging us all to realize our highest potentials.” 

Sharon Salzberg, also an IMS cofounder and guiding teacher, recalled, “We brought Sayadaw U Pandita to the IMS in 1984, to lead a three-month silent retreat. He turned out to be quite fierce and demanding. He also absolutely brought out my best effort, no holding back, and revitalized my meditation practice.” 

IMS teacher Kamala Masters wrote, “Sayadaw U Pandita’s passing away has had a strong yet steadying impact on my heart. It is as if a bright star, like a north star that represents a spiritual compass, fell from the sky and left an empty space there. But then I remember that that star, the Dhamma, is within me, which was one of his strongest and most precious teachings…. He advised us to take the Dhamma as our true refuge, as the Buddha taught as well. We have so much gratitude for the teachings he so tirelessly offered to us during his lifetime.”

Sayadaw U Pandita

Ruth Denison, 1922 – 2015 

Pioneering teacher and remarkable Dharma elder Ruth Denison passed away peacefully in her home early in the morning of February 26, 2015, attended by a small group of friends and students. She was 92.

Born in what was then East Prussia, Ruth immigrated to California as a young woman and studied with major spiritual teachers in several traditions. Later she became one of only four Westerners who received permission to teach from Burmese master Sayagi U Ba Khin. Ruth led courses at IMS from the time we opened our doors in 1976 until her last teaching visit to the Retreat Center in 2011. She also founded Dhamma Dena Desert Vipassana Center in Joshua Tree, CA, and was the first Buddhist teacher in the US to lead an all-women’s meditation retreat.

Ruth’s fearless teaching style and sense of adventure inspired many of us. Through her strong emphasis on awareness of body sensations, she communicated to her students a deep understanding of the Buddha’s teachings on the Three Characteristics – anatta (no-self), anicca (impermanence) and dukkha (life without wisdom, or suffering). 

Read a profile of Ruth from IMS’s Insight Newsletter, Fall 2010 – A Dharma Life: The Extraordinary is Always Arising.

Ruth Denison

Sayadaw U Lakkhana, 1935 – 2014

One of Burma’s revered meditation masters, Ven. Sayadaw U Lakkhana, passed away in early June 2014. Instructed by Mahasi Sayadaw and Sayadaw U Pandita, he in turn instructed a number of our own teachers and was a precious link in the chain of teachers who first introduced vipassana (insight) meditation to Western students. His presence and depth of insight will be greatly missed. 

IMS teacher Greg Scharf shares a story from Sayadaw’s first visit to both the US and IMS, in 1998: “At that time, I had the pleasure and honor of serving as attendant to Sayadaw U Lakkhana when he came to IMS. Most days, he and I would walk to the meditation hall from our lodgings. At one point, I noticed that Sayadaw was whispering something very quietly as we walked along. As I paid closer attention, I realized that he was saying metta (lovingkindness) phrases in Pali for all the beings that we happened to encounter en route: squirrels, birds, retreatants. It was such a simple, yet moving, example of the quality of kindness that he manifested so effortlessly – the external expression of his internal state.” 

Ven. Sayadaw U Lakkhana at IMS

Satya Narayan Goenka, 1924 – 2013

Satya Narayan Goenka, who played a pivotal role in bringing vipassana (insight) meditation practice to contemporary students both in Asia and the West, died at his home in India on Sunday, September 29, 2013. Affectionately known as ‘Goenka-ji,’ he was one of the early mentors of IMS’s founders and senior teachers, who sat retreats taught by him in India in the early 1970s.

As co-founder Sharon Salzberg recalls, “I first learned to meditate in January 1971, in a retreat led by S.N. Goenka. His voice was the one that described a path of morality, concentration and insight leading to liberation. His words were the opening to a whole new sense of possibility for me, and set the course for my entire life. His teaching of metta (lovingkindness) was the first time I had a sense of boundless love and compassion. I am profoundly grateful for having studied with him.” (See also Sharon’s piece, How S.N. Goenka Changed My Life – And the Lives of Millions More.)

A 1971 retreat in India taught by Goenka-ji that was attended by IMS founders Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein.

Anagarika Munindra, 1914 – 2003

Anagarika Munindra passed away October 14, 2003. Affectionately known as ‘Munindraji,’ he was one of the significant teachers of IMS founders Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein, playing a pivotal role in the transmission of Buddhism from East to West.

Sharon Salzberg recalls, “When I went to India, at the age of 18, Munindraji was one of the first teachers I met. At one point he said to me, ‘The Buddha’s enlightenment solved the Buddha’s problem, now you solve yours.’ I found that the most inspiring statement, because it implied that I could in fact solve my own problem – the unhappiness and confusion that had brought me to India to begin with. The teachings of the Buddha say that no one else will accomplish our freedom from suffering for us, and that no one else need to, because we ourselves can actually do it.

“Once, someone asked Munindra why he practiced meditation. His students gathered around, expecting to hear an exalted, lofty answer. He simply replied, ‘I practice meditation to notice the small purple flowers growing by the roadside, which I otherwise might miss.’ When we start to notice the small purple flowers, we come to not only enjoy them for ourselves, but to wish that others might also see them, for their solace and enjoyment.”

Anagarika Munindra