The 10-day Goenka courses have become well known in the Buddhist world since Goenka (30 January, 1924 – 29 September, 2013), a wealthy Mumbai businessman, launched his Vipassana courses in 1969 to a group of Western seekers travelling in India.
Sri Goenka learnt a Vipassana (Insight Meditation) technique from U Ba Khin, a Burmese government minister, who taught Burmese workers the method during their 10 day annual holidays. Webu Sayadaw, a respected Burmese monk, encouraged U Ba Khin to teach.
Suffering with acute migraines, Goenka had travelled to Europe and Japan in an effort to find a cure. The 10-day course with U B Khin cured him. After attending numerous more courses and sitting twice daily at home, he began teaching in India.
Today, more than 170 centres around the world offer these 10-day Goenka courses on a donation (dana) basis to cover the running costs. These donations ensure the next course can take place. With many spirituality practices becoming more and more expensive, the Goenka course offers a model of service and expression of trust in generosity. Their courses are truly available to everyone regardless of whether they have disposable income or not. The fat cats of spirituality can learn from the Buddhist tradition of dana.
From a certain perspective, you can find intensity in the Goenka courses but to his credit, the courses offer more than that with disciplines of meditation, a worthwhile technique and supportive talks from the videos of Goenka, alongside his precise audio tape instructions.
Goenka students sit and meditate around 8 – 12 hours per day or longer in the meditation hall with the segregation of men sitting in one half of the hall and women sitting in the other half. The course strictly forbids eye contact between students who observe noble silence. The main meal is served around 11 am with just tea and fruit available in the late afternoon. Mobile phones and other devices are not permitted. Students are not permitted to point the soles of their feet towards the assistant teacher at the front of the hall.
These courses in Vipassana meditation have a reputation for intensity. The word ‘intensity’ haunts this tradition of Buddhist meditation like patriarchy haunts religion and poverty haunts India.
The external pressure from the course, itself, shows in the stringent approach that the course imposes on the meditators. The students of the meditation often double the pressure through imposing upon themselves the demand to follow strictly the rules and techniques and to achieve certain goals such as seeing clearly the nature of impermanence. The combination of the external pressure and internal pressure generates the intensity.
Goenka claims that the physical pain that students experience arises due to samkharas (mental formations). There is no guidance about sitting in an upright posture. Students would benefit from careful instruction for an upright posture. This would go a long way to reduce most of the physical pain owing to the many hours in the sitting posture.
Supportive exercises, such as yoga/bending and stretching of back, legs and knees at the start of the day, or during the day. would reduce most pain in the sitting posture. The course does not make available precise posture instructions nor exercises to support the sitting posture.
Once much of the pain has gone out of the body through correct posture and exercise, then most of the intensity of the 10 days gets eliminated as well.
Short outline of Goenka’s approach
The 10-day courses display a tightly controlled system that demands stillness in the sitting posture and keeping the eyes closed. There are no meditations allowed inthe walking, standing or reclining postures. The technique includes a strict focussing on the tip of the nose for the first three days. This is referred to as anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing) and then on the 4th afternoon an introduction to vipassana – defined by Goenka as a slow and systematic movement of the attention to experience sensations from the top of the head down to the toes. This afternoon session lasts for two hours. After that, the meditations lasted for a one-hour duration.
The courses emphasise the experiencing of body sensations, pleasant, painful and in-between, seeing of impermanence and dwelling in equanimity.
The meditators learn to witness anicca (impermanence, change) dukkha (unsatisfactoriness/suffering) and anatta (non-self, impersonal) moment to moment.
The course places priority on the observation of sensations from head to feet, known as sweeping.
Goenka says that through seeing the impermanence of the physical sensations with equanimity, the meditator does not create new samkharas and dissolves the old samkharas.
Goenka taught that when meditators go deep, they experience kalapas (sub-atomic particles) that confirm anicca, dukkha and anatta. The application of the technique gradually purifies the mind eventually leading the student to Nirvana. (Incidentally, the concept kalapas does not appear anywhere in Buddha’s teachings in the suttas. We can find the concept in the 5th century commentaries of the Buddha’s teachings).
Goenka and the assistant teachers on the courses make it clear that any other meditation practices, outside of Goenka’s methods, would result in mixing the “pristine purity of the technique.”
The mixing of meditation techniques constitutes a serious violation of Goenka’s teachings. The mixing of technique regularly results in permanent expulsion of some students from his courses.
Goenka established numerous centres around the world which repeat exactly the same formula everywhere. Not surprisingly, his courses became known as MacMeditation during the past 30 years.
His regular students insist that they find something new in his teachings, even if they have listened to the same set of talks and instructions on frequent courses. The students are strongly encouraged only to attend his courses and not go elsewhere to meditate. Thus, the students deny themselves access to other teachings in a large Buddhist tradition upholding diversity and respect for extensive enquiry into the human condition.
One Goenka student from Germany told me he had sat 123 Goenka courses. He came secretly to sit a retreat with me because he said he felt “stuck.” He said he was sick of being told by various assistant teachers to “keep on practising.” Two Australians told me they had sat more than 60 courses and longer courses. They also said they felt they were “in a rut.”
After attending five courses and serving on the management team, students can continue onto 20 day courses.
Goenka strongly advises his students not to sit with other teachers. He said it is like digging lots of holes in the ground and not going deep. It could be equally stated that one could keep digging in the same hole for years and it is not going anywhere. A pointless digging, digging, digging the same hole for oneself.
The Limits to the Goenka method
The limits of the Goenka approach slowly but surely begin to emerge among his students following his death in 2013. Quietly, more and more are beginning to find their voice. The long standing students have so much devotion to Goenka that they would never question the limits of his teachings during his lifetime. New students are speaking up. Words of Goenka often seem to matter more for his senior students than the words of the Buddha.
The passing away of Goenka gives the opportunity for assistant teachers, managers and senior students to question the limits of the technique.
It will take courage and fearless to bring the subject up for the welfare of a wider range of practitioners. The Goenka approach belongs to one of the ultra-orthodox traditions in Buddhism reflecting the Brahmin heritage of Goenka. It will not be easy to change for the welfare of all students without exception.
I hear rumours of concern about the limits of the courses among certain Goenka’s assistant teachers and senior students. The assistant teachers can only offer the barest advice on the technique to the students on the Goenka courses. A student spends a maximum of five minutes with the assistant teacher. Students may require much longer to go deep into an issue but the course does not provide such opportunity or only very rarely.
The assistant teachers never give a Dharma talk themselves as the course plays a video of a Goenka course. The same assistants do not know how to give meditation instructions as they only have permission to play an audio talk of Goenka’s instructions. There is a certain disquiet about this situation among some of those who attend a Goenka course.
The assistant teachers have years of practising the Dharma on these courses but they find themselves totally restrained in what they can say and what they can teach. It is ironic that a Dharma teaching which points to liberation and expression of wisdom sets severe limits on the assistant teachers.
The assistant teachers earnestly believe that the Buddha handed down this method through various Burmese teachers who preserved its purity. This is the primary reason preventing any enquiry into the limits of the approach. In the minds of the assistant teachers, any changes or expansion of the technique would break the purity of transmission over 2500 years. There is nothing in the Buddha discourses (suttas) to support this belief. How far back this tradition goes also remains debateable since we only know about U Ba Khin and a little about his teacher.
Goenka adopted the view that one shoe fits all in terms of meditation. The Buddha, himself, offered a wide variety of approaches to ethics, experiences, meditation, insights and realisations. His expansive approach shows in the recorded 10,000 discourses upon which all Buddhist traditions, especially the Theravada tradition, have their foundation.
When Goenka passed away in 2013, he left a tradition without a fully accredited teacher. It is hard to fathom out why. It could be that he did not trust anyone of his senior students to give Dharma teachings, develop the practices and offer a range of instructions suitable for the different types of seekers/meditators. Perhaps Goenka did not have the confidence to hand the responsibility onto anyone to become his successor following on from himself and U Ba Khin.
One of his senior students contacted me soon after Goenka’s death. He said that Goenka had left a final message to his senior students on his website. You needed a password to read the message. I had sat some courses with Goenka in the mid-1970’s and would be considered a senior student. The student knew this.
He asked me if I would like the password to read the message. Of course. I am curious. I cannot recall the details but I seem to remember that Goenka mentioned in the message something along the lines that if one of his centres fell into division, the other centres should carry on preserving the purity of his teachings.
Issues with Goenka courses
A very small number of Goenka students find themselves dealing with a psychological crisis, needing a counsellor or medication, partly as a result of the intensity of the course and the pressure it places on the minds of vulnerable meditators.
Students have found themselves experiencing panic attacks, clinical depression and severe forms of mental instability requiring hospitalisation. There have been very occasional reports of self harm, attempted suicide and suicide.
There are concerns about this kind of suffering associated with the courses. It has also brought unwelcome but understandable publicity in the social and printed media.
Researchers at Goenka’s headquarters at Igatpuri in India examined the situation of nine people who engaged in self harm after a course. The report concluded that all practiced other forms of meditation, used healing techniques, or used drugs prior to the course. These conclusions have been disputed.
The courses fail to offer the necessary safety net for those whose inner life starts unravelling and falling apart on the course or soon afterwards. The assistant teachers and managers seem to lack the skills, expertise and experience for such vulnerable students. They depend on the technique failing to realise the technique and intensity can trigger for a few a mental breakdown. Information on registration forms will not filter the wide range of vulnerable people who cannot cope with the combination of external pressure and internal issues.
A few parents have reported that their adult children have had a mental breakdown on or after the course despite having no history of mental health problems.
These concerns deserve a depth of inquiry among the assistant teachers and managers. It is irresponsible to pass all the responsibility for a psychological crisis onto the mind state of students or the mixing of techniques.
There are a growing number of websites, blogs, forums and chat rooms for those who have sat the courses. Students, who have left the course very upset and very dissatisfied with their experience, report their suffering. Some said they did not receive the necessary support. They were told that their suffering was their samkharas coming up. Some report in the forums that the suffering that started on the course continued for days, weeks or months after.
Teachers in other well established Vipassana traditions hesitate to recommend Goenka courses in case the demands on the students trigger a psychological breakdown.
Psychological breakdowns and hospitalisation very rarely occur on Vipassana retreats that experienced Western teachers elsewhere offer. The teachers will offer a different and more gradual approach for the meditator who appears in need of ongoing support. Teachers interview all students for a minimum of 10 minutes in their room during the retreat. Teachers have the registration form in their room which lists the history of the student in terms of courses and mental health issues. Many teachers lead small groups on the retreats. Most sitting meditations last for 45 minutes, instead of an hour, along with walking meditations. Many teachers offer a yoga class with a yoga teacher at the start of the day to reduce pain in the posture.
The teachers have a variety of approaches, counselling skills and forms of support for any meditator facing a major upheaval. Goenka’s courses lack this kind of support. Goenka courses reject other approaches and stress that students stay only with their method. This is an error of judgement.
One Goenka student wrote to me in 2015 about her experience with exploring the Goenka method and other Dharma practices. She had completed her training in MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) in the UK, which provides a valuable service to people with stress in daily life around major mind and health issues. She wrote this down on the registration form.
Here is an extract from her email to me:
“After 17 years with Goenka’s tradition, a couple of weeks ago I was banned from attending any retreats on the grounds that “I’m practising other techniques and I’m facilitating mindfulness courses” and it is for “my protection”.
There is a belief among a number of senior Goenka students that a person can go mad if they mix techniques. The students base their standpoints on the views of Goenka.
“I lost my Sangha and my Dharma friends” she told me.
It would appear that the assistant teachers do not offer the Buddha’s teachings on the end of clinging to forms, methods and techniques. There appears to be a rejection of the importance of offering mindfulness practices, such as MBSR, to those in need, as an act of metta (loving kindness).
One student told me she had to leave a 10-day course in Israel because she was not following the sweeping method. She told the assistant teacher she preferred to concentrate on a pain in her knee instead of sweeping her attention through the body. A manager ordered her to leave the course the following day.
Another student in the USA told me that her husband, who has sat numerous Goenka courses, had moved into their spare room. She said he did not want to share the same bed with her, or let her touch him. He said he wanted to preserve the purity of his practice.
She told me: “I am not interested in attending these meditation courses. My husband is married to a Buddhist sect.”
A number of assistant teachers and senior students regard celibacy as a sign of spiritual development since it ends communication and inter-action of bodily sensations. Such students believe that celibacy shows the transcendence of the desire for pleasurable body sensations. Some married assistant teachers and other long standing students now sleep in separate bedrooms.
I hear in Germany that assistant teachers washed their cutlery in separate water from the students in case they picked up impurities.
Goenka claims that reiki and vipassana are incompatible and can lead to mental health problems. Goenka states that such practices “attempt to alter reality by means of calling on some external force or autosuggestion.”
Reiki therapists, who also practice vipassana, have not reported any adverse effects. (Reiki is a healing technique through the applying energy through touch).
Assistant teachers, managers and seniors need to engage in long discussions on these issues and not keep sweeping them under the carpet.
I have some experience of the 10-day Goenka courses. After some four years as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, I travelled back to India as a Buddhist monk. While in Bodh Gaya, some Westerners told me that a Vipasssana teacher from Burma, aged in his 50s, offered 10 day courses. I recall that word ‘intensity’ sprung from their lips. I attended a few such courses with Goenka at the Burmese Monastery in Bodh Gaya,, where the Buddha realised an enlightened way of life and the Burmese Monastery in Varanasi.
Many beginners find the course severe due primarily to lack of experience, poor posture and feeling under pressure.
After the austerity of the Thai Vipassana monastery, the 10-day course seemed like a holiday camp. After all, the course finished at lunch on the 10th day, not continuing week after week, month after month, and year after year, of daily practice.
I marvelled at Goenka’s capacity to give exactly the same set of 10 talks, barely changing a word from one course to the next. His Dharma talks were clear, supportive and well delivered. He had written each talk with meticulous care and then memorised every sentence so he could repeat it in an effortless way course after course.
I appreciated the course but also had concerns. I recall one man sobbing in the meditation hall and nobody giving him support. On another course, a woman was screaming alone in the hall. Two or three of us ignored the rules of noble silence and offered some counsel and comfort.
I remember going for a walk for an hour with Goenka in August 1975 Dalhousie in the foothills of the Himalayas.
He told me that there was no Vipassana practice in Thailand. I had travelled to India from Thailand where I had spent three years in a dedicated Vipassana monastery under the guidance of Ajahn Dhammadharo in Nakornsrikdhammaraj. Then he acknowledged he had never been to a Thai monastery to practice.
I asked why people coming from outside the course to listen to his evening talk in Dalhousie had to sit in a room and meditate for an hour before going into the Dharma hall. He said he did not want them to carry their “impure vibrations” into the hall.
Goenka told me that the longest personal retreat he had done was 60 days. Thai and Burmese monks in Vipassana monasteries, long term lay practitioners and meditators in caves would surely have offered a wry smile at such a modest length of time of ongoing practice.
Has Goenka founded a Sect?
Goenka repeatedly stated on his retreats that his tradition does not constitute a sect. The view depends on the definition of a sect. Many regard Goenka’s courses as a sect of Theravada Buddhism. A sect or cult could be defined as having a leader invested with absolute authority who advocates his method above all else and expels those senior students who explore other approaches. A sect could be defined as keeping itself apart from other traditions, lineages, debates, conferences and gatherings. Goenka students deny they belong to a sect. They say that the Goenka tradition is not a sect of an organised religion.
The long standing students show an immense devotion to Goenka and would never dream of questioning the evidence of his sincerely held views that only Burma and U Ba Khin preserved the purity of the practice dating back to the Buddha.
A small number of long standing Goenka students regularly attend my retreats and vice-versa. It is not easy for them. Some students are afraid that the assistant teachers or managers might ban them from all Goenka centres if they sit with a teacher from another tradition. They tell me they experience guilt when they return after a retreat to sit another Goenka course; they deliberately cannot be completely truthful on the registration form about attending retreats elsewhere.
The Goenka registration form asks: “Have you had any previous experience with meditation techniques, therapies, or healing practices?”
Twelve Proposals for the Goenka Courses
The Sangha in the Goenka tradition certainly works hard to make vipassana meditation available to a significant number of people of all ages and backgrounds. It is time for those with much experience in the Goenka method to step forward and speak up. The expression of doubts can contribute to fresh insights and explorations. Many will benefit if the seniors listen to the widespread concerns about the rigidity of view in the Goenka tradition and its consequences on some of their students.
Assistant teachers, managers and seniors in the Goenka could discuss expanding their teachings to support the diversity of needs of people attending their courses. These meetings could decide:
- To invite assistant teachers to give a Dharma talk so they can share their wisdom.
- To invite assistant teachers to give meditation instructions on their courses.
- To offer every student in depth counselling, if needed.
- To hold question and answer sessions in the hall with the assistant teachers.
- To give guidance with details on the posture, cross legged on a zafu, kneeling on a stool or use of a chair. Hands on guidance with the posture could be available, if necessary. (Zen tradition offers excellent instructions for a steady, upright posture).
- To encourage assistant teachers, managers and seniors to attend Vipassana retreats elsewhere to see if some of the other approaches might support the Goenka method.
- To encourage assistant teachers, managers and seniors to explore the suttas to acknowledge the Buddha’s diversity of meditations, practices and forms. Assistant teachers need the authority to address comprehensively every link in the noble path, as well as meditation.
- To distinguish the difference between calmness (samatha), insight (vipassana), mindfulness (sati) and intensity, pressure and control.
- To find out why the vast majority of Goenka students only attend 1, 2 or 3 courses and do not return. (The courses have served as a valuable introduction to meditation for many thousands of people worldwide).
- To invite senior teachers, managers and seniors of Vipassana in other traditions to meet with assistant teachers, managers and seniors in the Goenka tradition to share experiences.
- To attend various Buddhist conferences, seminars and international meetings on mindfulness, meditation and insight (Vipassana) for the mutual benefit of all.
- To invite those who have participated in Goenka courses to offer feedback to the assistant teachers. Invite past students to make proposals for changes that would help students develop and deepen their practice.
Goenka has initiated thousands of Vipassana courses. It is to his immense credit. Yet, none of us are beyond reproach. We all belong to a Sangha of meditation, reflection and enquiry. We can all develop greater wisdom in order serve others to the best of our abilities.
Skilful means (upaya) matters for one and all.