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. These 10-day courses have benefited many, many people worldwide. The courses have changed people’s lives through learning the techniques to find insights, calmness, equanimity and loving kindness. Yet, there are concerns.
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.
Just a quick reply to the 12 suggestions:
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.
1 and 2: I can’t see this happening in the foreseeable future. I kinda like the Goenka tradition being the Coca-Cola of Dhamma: one concentrate exported around the world and diluted locally to produce the same coke taste everywhere. I’m well aware of the pros and cons of the approach.
3: In depth counseling is available. Each AT makes their own calls on when it’s needed. If you hang out with the tradition for a longer time, you’ll be able to develop a more personal relationship with an AT. This is actually required for long courses (recommending AT should know the student well).
4: There is public Q and A in the meditation hall every day at 9pm except on days 0 and 10.
5: Guidance on posture is given: Any comfortable posture that you can maintain, keeping your neck and back straight. Pushing yourself with difficult postures is discouraged. Benches, cushions, back rests and chairs are available.
6:Can’t see this happening. Same as 1 and 2.
7:Centers have a varying amount of suttas available for reading. Reading is permitted for everyone except students during the course. Most centers would have Digha Nikaya and Majjhima Nikaya at least. There’s plenty of other Dhamma literature too.
8: Can’t really understand what’s this suggestion about. Instructions and ATs emphasise working in a balanced way. I’ve personally been reminded by the ATs not to push too much :).
9: Heaps of people come to check it out. Not everyone picks up the practice. That’s life I’d say. It’s a remarkable achievement to have so many people to come for their first courses. Also, the number of people becoming established in the practice isn’t small by any means, either. Of course it’s wonderful to try help more of the people coming for a try to become established.
10 and 11: Could be. I can see the potential of this leading to some confusion, which is probably why it’s not happening. Again, there’s pros and cons to these suggestions.
12: Many centers email or hand out feedback forms.
I see the post was written in 2016. As far as I recall, things were pretty much as I described above back then as well. Only the feedback forms are a more recent development.
As for issues raised in the comments about exclusivity: You can practice other techniques and join 10 day courses. Longer courses are for students who have chosen this practice. The only exception is people teaching other techniques. I suppose this rule is quite rigid as Goenka/ATs wouldn’t want someone to come get what’s taught and then go out to commercialize it.
As for comments about other satipattanas: I find observing the mind etc comes quite naturally and spontaneously when I train to observe the sensations. Like, I read the suttas and notice my mind working the way they advise.
I’ve been practicing the Goenka style Vipassana for a number of years and courses.
I started ten vippassanna in 2007 in Kenya.its a wonderful technique.Why would anybody want to mix it with another technique. I was to sit for the first 30 day course in august in Tapovann 1. But corona is making us see things as they Are and enjoy the present.The technique might not be perfect.But one gets to know the gyst of pure meditation in the first few ten day courses.Than its up to them too continue the technique or not. Goenkaji’s insistence on his voice being played too teach the technique is an act of “Divinity.” It will ensure the continiuity of meditation in its pristine quality. Its not possible for all of us too go a “holy” forest and learn meditation under a sage. meditation has assisted in reducing my pain gradually and spread love to everyone. Without vippassana meditation I would be an angry young man! Bhuddham sharnam gachammi
Paul Fleischmann, psychiatrist snd senior teacher Vipassana says just not to practice them in the same session. Keep them separate one hour apart and there will be no dangers. he himself uses Reiji and other methods in his practice. the problem is mixing, which is like chemicals which coupled with our individual psychic makeup can prove volatile and unpredictable. In some cases (but not all) dangerous
Hi edgar negron,
Can you (or anyone) please share the source of this information: “[Paul Fleischman, psychiatrist and senior teacher Vipassana] himself uses Reiji”?
One aspect of the Goenka tradition is that of the ‘closed fist’ policy. Detractors are often told that the 10 day course is the kindergarten of Buddhism and that Goenka gives ‘higher’ teachings as a meditator proves his/her worth… 10 day, 20 day, 45 day, 90 day etc. whichever way this is explained away, it is pretty much like the vajrayana tradition of higher and higher initiations. The Buddha put his teachings out there… make of them what you will, but he didn’t teach by holding anything back.
Agree. However, if there are so many injuries, traumas, triggerings of mental illness and DEATHS. It is not safe for many and this must change.
I’d like to include that I was made aware yesterday of a recent death of a person near me who attended the center I had attended. The death is linked to her experience at the retreat. It saddens me so.
I would appear as if ‘Goenkaji’s’ teacher ‘Sayagyi U Ba Khin’ was happy to talk about Buddhism and Buddhist meditation. U Ba Khin’s Buddhist meditation was the samatha/vipassana teachings that I presume he past onto Goenkaji. Goenkaji – and the organisation he founded – insist that what happens on a Vipassana course is not Buddhism. Is this some kind of pretence that was invented to disguise U Ba Khin’s teaching of Buddhist meditation and practice in order to make it appear more universal and non-sectarian so as not to spook the Indians – who have mixed feelings about the Buddha – as expressed in Hinduism, Jainism etc.? Westerners also come from a variety of ideological backgrounds. The marketing of the courses as ‘secular’ seems to have been a strategy that was designed to increase its appeal to a wider audience. People seem to feel reassured by the propaganda that vipassana courses are not Buddhist. They are often unaware that the wool has been pulled over their eyes in order to allay their fears of the strange and the unfamiliar. A lot of the story about itself – perpetuated by Goenkaji’s Vipassana organisation – has aspects of this kind of hidden manipulation. The only remedy to this little game is an in-depth exploration of the Buddha’s teachings – in its earliest form. This is not something that ‘insiders’ are likely to do as their faith and commitment to the in-group is seen as a virtue – that should not be questioned. It is tragic but fairly commonplace in spiritual circles. The Buddha insisted we closely scrutinize (him) teacher and his teachings as an essential prerequisite for awakening. He gave instructions on how to go about this to help us avoid being captured by teachers and their exclusive in-groups. You can lead a horse to water…
I’ve learned a little of the history of the teaching approach of U Ba Khin, and those he authorised to teach, from people involved in Vipassana in Australia in 1980s. Certainly the innovation to denote his teaching as not being ‘Buddhist’ was at odds with his own teacher, and also his teacher’s leading disciple, Mother Sayamagyi. Indeed, Mother Sayamagyi and Goenka taught together on courses in the early years; however, they fell out over precisely this question. It is also interesting that the Goenka organisation stresses maintaining the purity of the technique, and yet, as far as I can gather, the use of fairly rapid sweeping, as opposed to steadily and systemically observing sensations throughout the body, appears to have been an innovation of Goenka. Some view this as more of an energetic yoga practice.
Christopher, final comments. You say that “Goenka repeatedly stated on his retreats that his tradition does not constitute a sect. … his sincerely held views that only Burma and U Ba Khin preserved the purity of the practice dating back to the Buddha.” TheBuddha did not found a sect, he taught a practice which is most clearly spelt out in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta. This sutta is the foundation of Goenka’s teaching. On the Satipatthana courses, for the evening discourse Goenka works though this Sutta. He demonstrates clearly that what he teaches is what is prescribed by the Buddha, and where some have expressed different views or interpretations, he explains clearly and convincingly why the practice as he teaches it is what the Buddha taught. (This has been backed up by reference to many related suttas.) He constantly stresses that this is a non-sectarian technique which anyone, of any or no religion, can practise, and that if you follow a particular religion, practising Vipassana will make you a better exponent of that religion. There is no sectarianism here. I don’t know if you have sat a Satipatthana course; if not, I suggest that you do so before repeating the criticisms of this blog post.
U Ba Khin (who was not, as you say, a government minister but a civil servant, the Accountant-General and at times also head of three other departments) was charged by his teacher Saya Tet with returning the pure Dhamma to India and from there spreading it to the world. He was unable to do so as the regime would not let him leave Burma, and passed the task to Goenka. (You refer to Goenka as “sitting many courses” before going to India. You might acknowledge that Goenka worked very closely with U Ba Khin for many years, and was specifically trained by him.) This Goenka did very successfully: approaching two million people have sat Vipassana courses in this tradition, and it is practised in almost every country, a remarkable achievement for a donation-funded project which suggests that many have found it of value. I believe that his great business and managerial skills, as well as his Dhamma qualities, made him the ideal person to effect this spread of the Dhamma.
Finally: you make – perhaps rather cavalierly – a number of suggestions as to how this very successful project might be better conducted. I have not been involved with the running of centres etc for 13 years, but have recently been asked to return to being a Centre Trust member. If I find in this role that anything you have proposed seems pertinent – I might not, as I’ve said, you seem to base your post on a number of misunderstandings – I will pursue it further.
I have been meditating in goenka ‘s centers for 9 years, I’ve always been meditating vipassana in this style since I’ve started, one or two courses every year, sitting and serving. A lot of my friends and family started to meditate after I’ve shared my enthusiasm with them.
Recently I’ve been denied to attend a course because, in my profession as holistic psychotherapist, I use basic mindfulness techniques in the mental wellbeing courses that I offer, where I am learning how to use mindfulness for mental health and how to monitor the development of the participant’s conditions.
I was told that this makes me a teacher of another meditation technique, even if my only practiced technique is vipassana in goenka style. I was accused to be an MBSR teacher and giving MBSR courses and intentionally wanting to deceive the assistant teacher to whom I explained my work in detail, who told me that he “accidentally” came across information in the Internet where it is clear that I am organising several MBSR courses in different locations and charging money for it – this with the signature “….., vipassana teacher”. He did not write “I came across information in the Internet that makes me confused about the information you provided and would like to double check with you how it fits in your profile”, but a final judgment accusation that I tried to deceive him and therefore I was denied the access to the course. (I am not an MBSR teacher by the Way) I wouldn’t expect a vipassana teacher to act in this way, but in reality I know we are all humans. I do find it a problem when these people are in a somehow authority position and are forgetting what is their role and contribution there with no humility and the will to serve others and contribute to their spiritual development. In one course, where my boyfriend was sitting, just before the 9 – 10 am group sitting, he had an attack of diarrhea and had to remain on the toilet. The male manager came looking for him and my boyfriend replied from the toilet that he was not feeling good and had diarrhea but he will try to come to the hall as soon as possible. When he was about to go back, he felt sick again and went back to the toilet. The male manager came back and told him “the teacher says that if you don’t come immediately to the hall you will be expelled from the course “. So he rushed to go back, feeling sick. Nobody enquired with him afterwards how he was feeling, not a single word. Is this a good example of a vipassana assistant teacher full of love and compassion?
Is this an universal technique, accessible to everyone then?I don’t think that Goenka himself would deny access in this way. This behaviour makes it a sectarian place, where some people are on serious power game, who makes them feeling the judges of what is good and what not, who is allowed to access the courses and who is not.
this is not dhamma, this is betraying vipassana and goenka’s legacy.
I wonder what benefits it might bring to anyone the fact that I am not able to attend a course in what has always been my sangha, but I’ve concluded that I know that “dhamma works” and everyone will learn eventually what is really bringing benefits to themselves and to others. Even if I was an MBSR teacher, which I am not, I don’t see how this could in anyway not be compatible with vipassana. If it’s really a non-sectarian technique, access should be evaluated only for people that might have serious psychic disorders, and this only because they would be too fragile for such a deep psychological work.
I’m really saddened to see the European centres taking the direction of exclusivity and sectarianism and I hope that all the people like me who are being denied an opportunity to continue their practice manage to maintain their will to meditate and to walk the path of dhamma.
Thank you for sharing. I was recently refused to take part because of similar reasons as you. I felt upset, I thought I had already shown my devotion to the technique by practizing it for 4 years.
Thanks for the encouragement and reminding me its about the dhamma.
I think that is a bad development.
Especially MBSR is very similar to Vipassana.
They should be happy to have similar methods be spreading around the world. But instead they rely on strict preservation.
Sad in a world of change. I think some things have to be re-adjusted.
Just like the Buddha always did.
Whenever an issue came up, he dealt with it and set up new rules for his following.
Today we see numerous issues coming up with Vipassana retreats, but seemingly there is no Buddha to deal with those issues or enforce those rules or whatever.
What a sad state.
I think Vipassana meditation has a lot of value.
But I also came to view it as an somewhat dogmatic approach.
It really has it’s place in this world.
But some update maybe due.
Christopher, some further points. A critical element of Vipassana as taught by Goenka is continuity of practice: “Continuity of practice is the secret of our success.” First, in an effort to have Vipassana accessible to as many people as possible, Goenka sought the minimum course length in which people could grasp the essence of the practice and experience its benefits. Second, the aim is to bring to the surface and eradicate deep-rooted sankharas, or mental conditionings. The continuity of practice is fundamental to this: the more continuous the practice, the deeper one goes. Interspersing this with shorter sessions, exercise routines and walking meditation would weaken the continuity. The one-hour sittings of adhittana where you are asked to remain still if possible help to bring things to the surface, and the continuity throughout the day helps the depth of the aditthana sittings. Without this emphasis on continuity, students would be less likely to sufficiently grasp and appreciate the technique in ten days.
As regards sitting with other teachers, Goenka says that you should find a technique which suits you and stick with it. He says you might give Vipassana three trials; at that time you should make up your mind whether or not the technique is for you; if so, work at it, if not, look elsewhere. What he advises against is constant trials of different techniques without choosing one to focus on.
In terms of exclusivity: I cooked for Achaan Sumedho and his monks in Hampstead when they first began to establish the English sangha; one result was a Vipassana friend, after whom I named my son, took robes with Achaan Cha as Ven Sumano. I spent two months as a novice with Achaan Cha at Wat Ba Pong, while maintaining my Vipassana practice. At the request of Ven Dr Rewatadhamma, I assisted with Mahasi Sayadaw’s first visit to Europe, and travelled with him to Switzerland. These were opportunities to serve the Dhamma which I took, and which did not prevent me from being a Vipassana Centre trustee, often as chairman, for much of the period 1986-2004 (at which point I resigned as after several years with multiple fatiguing illnesses, I lacked the energy for the task and was unable to maintain what I considered sufficient meditation to be fit for the task).
Psychological difficulties: some major breakthroughs for me were accompanied by storms which led me to cry, call out, get up, fall down etc, all the while maintaining equanimous observation of my sensations. This was in the relatively early days: it would not be permitted now, managers or hall monitors have to keep an eye on students, and intervene if anyone shows such reactions or disturbs other students, they would be escorted from the hall until they had settled down. In the early days, those who turned up could sit. For a long time, application forms have been designed to screen out patients who might not be able to cope with a course because of mental problems, and they would be questioned if there were any doubt.
Someone mentioned someone screaming on a course. There was screaming on my first course, I felt great compassion for the first screamer I heard. But I discovered that there were a group, of which she was one, who I called Goenka’s travelling circus who travelled from course to course without really practising, including four women who seemed to me to engage in competitive screaming. For many years a screamer would be escorted from the hall, both so that they could calm down and so as not to disturb others.
As for students who leave the course in distress: about 5-6% leave during the course (having been told strongly that they should attend only if fully committed to ten days, given that the course is sequential, it will bring things to the surface but if you stay will deal with them), of the rest, virtually all I have seen over many courses are very happy with their experience and find it beneficial. The low repeat rate seems to arise from people falling back into old habit patterns and/or finding maintaining sitting too difficult for whatever reason. No one says its easy.
Other points: I’ve never met someone who thinks that mixing techniques will make you mad, although I have known two people who were very disturbed when trying to mix Vipassana with observation of chakras, which was warned against. The student in Israel had not grasped the technique and refused to work as instructed: fair enough. Vipassana is not about concentrating on a sensation of choice but treating each sensation with detachment, without evaluation; she chose not to do the practice. Marital difficulties? Well, they are pretty common, one case of someone failing to understand the practice does not condemn it. Goenka always said “family comes first,” your practice is to help you live harmoniously, to have good relations with others, not to separate yourself from them. But if married teachers choose to be celibate, and agree to sleep apart, why shouldn’t they? That’s only one part of their relationship. The question about other practices, therapies etc is not a barrier, it’s to help the Assistant Teacher help the student if they have difficulties on the course. A student who lies on their course form after attending a non-Goenka retreat is breaking sila, they have not understood its importance as a foundation of Dhamma practice, whether as taught by Goenka or not.
Dear Michael Cunningham,
It is clear to me that you have not grasped my teachings. Go practice more.
Hi, Christopher. Much here requires a comprehensive reply, just a quick comment for now. I met you in Dalhousie in 1974 and stayed with you briefly in Kent in 1977. I also worked in the 1970s with two of the commenters on your post, Steve Griffin and Bhikku Pesala, who have differing views. (I accidentally emigrated to Australia in 1979.)
First, the alleged stress on intensity. My first course with Goenka in 1972 was very intense – it was like ten acid trips. I had never worked so hard in my life; and the course changed my life. But intensity is not part of the practice as taught by Goenkaji. On the contrary, trying too hard is counter-productive, and Goenka discouraged it, advocating a balanced approach; John Coleman made comments such as “relaxed effort,” which echoed Goenka’s instructions. You can’t force yourself in this practice, and those who choose to are counselled against it. It’s about balance, observing the reality of the present moment, bringing your attention back calmly when you lose it rather than berating yourself. Goenka advises, including on serious long courses, that students take a break if they are finding things too difficult, walk for five minutes, etc. I was in many ways a very intense person before starting Vipassana, much less so now and as I walk around Brisbane people respond positively to whatever is emanating from me, with warm smiles and comments.
Contrary to what you wrote, Goenka asks students to sit in a position they find comfortable, preferably cross-legged because this helps one remain stable, and to maintain their back and neck in an upright position. During the one-hour aditthana sessions in which you are asked not to move unless you find it absolutely necessary, an exception is that if you find you are slumped, you should straighten your back. Goenka asks students not to engage in any exercises which might distract others. As a result of severe road accident injuries and long fatiguing illnesses, I need to do a variety of exercises at the beginning of the day, and at times during it, and do them in private. Those who need to can use stools or chairs so that they can sit with less discomfort.
You make much of getting pain out of the body by correct posture. You seem to misunderstand the nature of the practice as taught by Goenka. That is to observe with equanimity whatever sensation arises on the body from moment to moment; the nature of the sensation is irrelevant, it might be pain, it might a subtle, pleasant sensation, it doesn’t matter: the training is to observe with detachment. In 1965 when I was riding a motorbike, a car drove straight across the road and into my leg, shattering the tibia into many separate pieces. I also suffered a fractured pelvis and multiple internal haemorrhages – the pain was unimaginable, far beyond anything that could be experienced in meditation – and the doctors wouldn’t touch the leg, expecting me to die and that I definitely would if they touched the leg. I had several remedial operations in later years, one botched so that I lost my ankle movement, which had been fine. So when I came to sit, I had great difficulties, and for years whenever I did a course I had severe pain at the point of impact with the car. But the practice is to observe; I observed. Eventually, the intense pain subsided, and pains arose elsewhere.
As for the dissolving of old sankharas, that process seems evident to me, and often I have been able to link a particular experience to the release of conditioning from a particular past experience, and the positive effects of that release are evident. I could give examples, including discovering at age 32 that since a family break-up around my second birthday, my life had been dominated by fear of rejection, and getting rid of much of that fear.
Enough for now, perhaps more later. Christopher, I thought in the mid-70s that you were well-intentioned but misguided; I can’t comment on how you are in 2017, but you do appear to be criticising Goenka’s approach without full understanding it.
Dear Christopher – this is an entirely personal response to your blog that I write with some hesitation – I don’t want to further this sense of a division. To me your blog does touch on some difficult issues that the U Ba Khin/Goenka Vipassana organisation is aware of and needs to address, but you wrap them up with a great deal of distortion. Other things you mention I would not consider as being a part of a serious meditation course and can be left to the individual’s own interests outside the discipline of a Vipassana course. You make a lot of the word ‘intensity’ when associated with the practice. I would replace it with the word ‘serious’. The common use of ‘intensity’ is not known to me – it certainly doesn’t “haunt” the practice as you suggest.
Some of what you point to is the result of what I believe to be the occasional failings of extremely busy volunteers or the result of people leaving courses prematurely with negativity. (I do not minimise the importance of supporting meditators having a difficult time. As you well understand, the practise is designed to raise things that we otherwise would avoid confronting.) Furthermore, you understand the great variety of people who find themselves on courses, many of whom have their own particular take on the practice (and life in general…) that many would find disagreements with. You well know that you have had your own intrigues.
I was sitting the Dalhousie course you mention and know why you travelled all that way to see Goenkaji – and that you ignored the advice he gave you. We met a few years later (maybe 1978?) in Oak Tree House when you visited with a few of your meditators. Much of what is behind your blog you were saying then – you have been writing that blog, at least in your head, for many years.
I have chosen a practice that suits my temperament. Accepting that it is not unusual to find myself sadly or incredulously shaking my head at the behaviour of others of ‘all traditions and none’, I most certainly do not expect everyone to walk in my footsteps. We should learn to coexist amicably, allowing the individual to find their own way. One of the fruits of the practice should be a stable and objective independence of mind.
Thank you for clarifying and giving your point of view on this article.
“ … leaving courses prematurely with negativity” … really? Have some compassion, man. Clearly you have no idea what is happening when people leave courses early. I don’t have to ask if you have any idea; I can see it simply in my experience leaving early and your opinion about it.
I thought your blog article about Goenka’s organization was fair and balanced.
I went to two of his retreats in the United States back in the 1990s.
I’m very glad I had the opportunity to go to his retreats and I am also very glad that I have had exposure to other approaches. The best of both worlds.
I think the most valuable things I got from my two retreats with his organization was an emphasis on the strong connection between disturbing emotions and physical sensations. It helped me to become a little bit less scared of my feelings seeing them as just physical sensations.
I found myself saying “amen!” to myself at many points while reading your article regarding things about his organization that can and should change. My hope is that the many changes that are needed will be done, but without spoiling the three things that makes Goenka’s organization special:
1. Financing it through donations.
2. The many locations of his centers, especially in places where there is nowhere else to get teachings or retreats.
3. The sweeping technique, as Goenka teaches it.
Regarding #1 and #2, people who have the time for retreats rarely have the money to pay for retreats that other organizations offer.
At least in the United States, not many Buddhist organization teach sweeping, and in the way Goenka teaches it.
In addition to those things, I think the people now running Goenka’s organizations should form a council and decided what things uniquely Goenka are worth keeping and what are worth leaving behind.
My first suggestion would be giving the organization a better name. I do remember Goenka emphasizing that the organization wasn’t about him, but his organization either gets referred to as “Goenka’s centers” or “Vipassana Centers”. In regards to the latter, many people mistakenly think “vipassana” is a word he made up for his centers, or a meditation technique he made up.
Beyond that I offer my resounding “yes” for making the organization less authoritarian, less cult like, less narrow minded, and less superstitious. I loved the two retreats I had with his organization back in the 90s, but chose not to continue because of a very ugly experience I had with those elements.
I am a long term, seasoned meditator. Education about proper posture and stretching do help. In my experience, those things will not eliminate pain during long retreats, especially for the amount of time Goenka’s courses ask.
I’ve been to two of Goenka’s courses.
No way would I go to one now that I am older. Even a good meditation retreat is not worth injuring my back and knees. They seriously need to think about including chairs at the retreats if they currently do not.
I did my first 10-day course with Mr John Coleman in 1975, and thereafter attended numerous 10-day courses at Oakenholt Buddhist Centre with him and with other teachers. I also attended one 10-day course with Mrs Ruth Denison. She first introduced me to walking meditation, which made sitting much less painful.
After doing a few courses with Say?daw U Rewata Dhamma at Oakenholt, and one at Oaktree House, a Vipassan? community in Amberley, I went to live in Birmingham as the Say?daw’s live-in helper in 1976.
I ordained in 1979 with the Venerable Mah?si Say?daw as my preceptor when he was invited to Oakenholt by the owner U Myat Saw, with Say?daw Rewata Dhamma’s support and encouragement.
After practising both methods, I compare the Goenka method to a two-wheel drive car, which is fine on a smooth road (in a retreat centre), but not as reliable as a four-wheel drive car when off the beaten track (when not on retreat).
Emphasising only contemplation of the body and feelings is not sufficient. There are four foundations of mindfulness in the Satipatth?na Sutta, and all four should be cultivated, at least after day three, if not from the start of a 10-day retreat
The teachers should study the Suttas, and practice other meditation methods with famous meditation masters to get a broader knowledge and practical experience of the Buddha’s teachings on meditation. Then they will be more capable of tailoring their instructions to suit individual students. They should teach walking meditation, mindfulness of all daily activities (sampajañña), and if necessary, other methods such as Buddh?nussati to calm those who are over-anxious.
Anyone should be allowed to attend a 10-day retreat, regardless of their previous experience. The only rule should be that while staying there they should practise as instructed by the teacher, and let go of any other techniques they have used before.
This more tolerant approach should help more students not to become Non-returners after the first course, but to come back again and again until they become Stream-winners. Then they will become independent of any teacher.
Bhikku Pesala: hello, you might recall Helen and I working with you in Birmingham in 1977. Anyone is allowed to sit a ten-day Goenka retreat, unless it appears that they are too mentally unstable to do so, on the proviso that you support, of putting aside other practices during the Vipassana retreat. As to your 2/4-wheel drive analogy, I have found Vipassana very beneficial for over 40 years. My work life since we last met has included, for example, being an economic policy adviser to the Australian Prime Minister while being chairman of the trust at the first purpose-built Vipassana centre outside India; not the smoothest of roads. With metta, Mike C.
I should have added to my example “while raising two small children and a baby, and more than four hours drive from the Centre.” 🙂
I find these comments reasonable. I have had quite some problems after my first meditation retreat: on day 7 of the course, I have had for some seconds the experience of myself being the universe, of the nirvana. I was not prepared for it and I shared what happened with the assistant teacher. Her answer was “this is nothing, continue to meditate “. If I met somebody that experienced the nirvana for the first time I would first listen carefully about their experience, to distinguish between a sensation of bliss or deep ecstasy and this particular, unmistakable experience that changes life completely. then I would coach them on what it actually means, and how to protect themselves of what might follow: the sadness for acutely perceiving the separation in daily life, that might lead into depression. The fact that whatever you do, your mind will never forget that moment, and that we always need to remember that this is a lighthouse and while we are still ships in the ocean we still have to focus on the navigation.
I have found out about what my experience meant only after one year, reading about the stages of enlightenment. From then on I knew that such an experience is an important step that needs to be treated with a lot of Metta for what it brings.
I didn’t have this support in the center and i was lucky enough to have a strong will to understand and to continue meditating, the same will that I have now after I was “banned” from the goenka centers and I wonder…is this spreading dhamma or killing dhamma?
I share your point of view. I feel that the Mahasi style is a more holistic and practical approach, as well as being closer to the instructions in the Suttas.
Your suggestions for the teachers are also excellent.
Appoint a successor to Goenka, and a lineage of full teachers.
Too many things are impersonal these days. That includes learning something “spiritual” form a series of video tapes.
Those video tapes are only going to get older with time, and people will become less interested in using limited resources to go somewhere and watch a recording.
I am a practitionner of Vipassana for years from Goenka and I also do Mindfulness: they are so complementary! It is sad to see that points of views create separation instead of wisdom from the whole point of view. As Goenka-ji expressed the fable of the elephant and the blind men: 4 blind persons touches an elephant and think the reality he touches is the only reality: “Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.
“Oh, no! it is like a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail.
“Oh, no! it is like a thick branch of a tree,” said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.
“It is like a big hand fan” said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.”
Everybody was right but only partially. It’s only buy sharing in wisdom (eg accepting the reality of the others) that we can come closer to Reality and Truth… and love can emerge by connecting to others in this way. Thank you of sharing this important issue. Metta.
Absolutely agree. It is sad that people who are failing to catch the essence of dhamma are in quite important positions: assistant teachers who select who can attend, trust members whose ego blinds them. And this eventually affects everyone. It is very sad. Hopefully there will be some development and old divisions will be healed, so that a lot of unnecessary suffering is avoided.
There is a documentary called” Doing time doing Vipassana “(available on youtube)that follows Sri Goenka in his attempt to introduce meditation into an infamous jail in Delhi.The film like the Goenka method has its limitations but has also got some valid points.
I think I got an idea that may be the only way to address the issue! The thing about vip.org is the success of its organisational method! You mentioned the SPIRITUAL FAT-CAT problem that makes intensive inquiry and practice inaccessible to so many – myself included! Vip.org has filled the gap in providing there services free of charge! Why can’t we create a similar organisation on the same guidelines? Adopt an identical organisational approach – if it works for vip.org why should it not work for anyone else? The problem might be the other Buddhist groups are to much like businesses while others are to anarchic and fail to create a tight cohesive group that are committed to work together in the way the Goenkaji’s model seems to produce?
I have down numerous Goenka Vipassana Retreat s without any prolem. I always have been offered a chair and have always sat in a chair with a straight spine which is all that is important in meditation. Too many young participants I have observed on courses feel it is very important to sit in either lotus or half lotus positions so by the time the course is over every single cushion and prop has been used up….always made me me smile. ????
Thanks very much indeed Christopher for this lengthy and insightful post.
I would add that in order for students and teachers invested in Goenka’s techniques and ideology to be of greater service it is vitally important for them to overcome their sectarianism and fundamentalism, which are rooted in the entirely false belief that what they are doing represents the “original” teachings and practice of the Buddha. The actual fact is that these techniques, valuable as they are, were invented out of whole cloth in late 19th and early 20th century Burma, and are quite far removed from the practice of samatha leading to jh?na in the service of insight taught in the suttas.
The post below by David Chapman provides a really good overview on how and why modern vipassana meditation techniques were created, with links to further resources. Following it, I’m also providing a link to a wonderful article by Jack Kornfield on the history of Spirit Rock meditation center that talks about how he and the other founders of that center and IMS tried to reconcile the conflicting meditation instructions and techniques they received into what has become modern vipassana. It is no wonder that students are confused!
I enjoyed the article. Here is one more Goenka horror story.
I wrote the below in 2010 for a Goenka survivors’ forum. It tells the story of how I had what I now know was something like a nervous breakdown, tried to recover using the Goenka technique, and ultimately found help with another meditation technique.
I did my first retreat with Mr. G when I was 29 years old in 1979. After that I did perhaps six retreats including one in India with Mr. G. himself. At that time I remember him asking me if I was having any thoughts.
“Yes.” I said.
“Are they of the Buddha?”
He has an incredible presence which infects all of those around him. It had affected me greatly.
Three years later I suffered a severe personal crisis. I was convinced that if I did enough meditation I could heal myself.
One afternoon I sat for four hours without moving. I didn’t experience a single sensation. Later I did two more retreats and got no relief at all. The thoughts just wouldn’t stop.
At that time I was traveling around Thailand. I went to one monastery and told the abbot that I wanted to do meditation there. When I told him I was a student of Mr. G, he said that there was nothing wrong with that technique but that I would not be allowed to practice it there. In that meditation Center one had to do the technique that Mahasi Sawadaw taught.
I was desperate so I said okay.
With that technique one simply notes what ever is going on in the body and mind. One of the techniques of noting is labeling one’s thoughts. So if one gets many thoughts of anger one can just mindfully note, “Anger arising.” In that tradition there is also walking meditation. I found that I enjoyed walking meditation and that it helped heighten my concentration.
After 10 days of practicing the Mahasi Sawadaw technique I got some relief for my painful thoughts.
Since that time I’ve done perhaps 100 retreats in the tradition of Mahasi Sawadaw or Buddhadasa.
Once, however, I was trying to introduce a friend to meditation so I went back and did a Goenka retreat. I hated it. I didn’t like hearing Mr. G. ridicule every other meditation technique. Also I didn’t like not being able to do walking meditation.
Later, talking to the students of Mr. G. I realized that what happens with this technique is that one initially has an extremely dramatic experience which can stay with one for years and years. The experience is so dramatic that many people are convinced that this is the one and only authentic meditation practice. Later however they get stuck in the practice because after one reaches a certain point, not much else happens. In my case, on my third retreat with Mr. G., I went back and relived many of my early childhood experiences which involved some violence. So it was very dramatic. But when push came to shove that technique let me down.
Later I took heart in the fact that people like Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Saltzberg and Christopher Titmuss also did the Goenka technique and ultimately found it unfulfilling.
A former student of Mr. G. told me that when he meditates he is able to field a sensation in every single part of his body and he is able to sweep through his body from head to foot and foot to head with perfect concentration. “But so what?”
I found that to be true. But just practicing mindfulness of breathing, I’ve always found to be ultimately fulfilling.
In the 70’s my partner Bobbi arranged to visit some friends who were strongly Goenka students…She was shocked to find that these friends wouldn’t let her meditate with them because of ‘purity’ issues.
My response..This is not Buddha Dhamma this is a heretical view. So i never went to a Goenka event. Some other things I heard over the years led me to conclude that mr Goenka was deeply into the ‘purity’ nonsense of Hinduism ..one of the things used to enforce the caste system. He had failed to reform his Hindu belief, and had not grounding in the breadth of Buddha Dhamma and pedaled the ‘meditation’ is all you need ‘ nonsense that bedevils much western ‘Buddhism’ . Seems to me his teachers failed to challenge his attitudes and he was out of reach of them too quick..
I call it the ‘meditation’ fashion nonsense because what is actually meant is some narrow technique..usually vaunted as the ‘real’ practice. Vipassana? In the Goenka method seems to me to just be a concentration practice…and ANY concentration technique will give some effect sooner or later. Trouble is, people take some samadhi effect as a conformation of the truth or efficacy of a practice….based on a sample of one …of course so called ‘noble silence’ means people don’t get to find out what is going on for others, or to clarify there own situation..
As I have heard from several people over the years, you also say he has helped introduce people to meditation, and that’s some how laudable..Really? I have spent a lot of time working with people over the years undoing the damage wrought by the wrong views encoded in the Goenka approch. ( I also know of 2 cases of stress induced tinnitus resulting from Goenka courses)
One of the tricky things I have noticed is that people often default to a variation of the first meditation instructions they ever had no matter how many different approaches they try. So some real work is necessary to actually apply a new approch. More important than the formal ‘instruction’ is the ‘vibe’ the attitude, the assumptions underlying and encoded in the whole approch.
Added to this is the massive problem of most meditation instructors applying tired old and un-examined rhetoric about meditation which derives from various Kayaupassana (awareness of body) methods including breath meditation and U Ba Khin’s ‘sweeping’ ..
Things like ‘just one practice’, bring the mind back, ‘distractions’, treating ‘mind’ as an enemy, etc etc. This may be fine …if done intelligently and without force. BUT its mostly useless and counterproductive for citta upassana ..awareness of citta –mind and ‘mental’ states. In the former the OBJECT of awareness becomes the important thing…if one is not careful . In the later the awareness itself is the important matter and ‘objects’ less so because they are in flux , changing. The obsession with purity of the ‘practice’ arises from this preference of the ‘object’.. the sweeping ect. Its what the Buddha warned about in developing a ‘sankata’ like peace, metta etc …and taking it to be ‘real’ a ‘thing…’ This is probably further muddied by later Abhidamma notions encoded in various mahasi derived approaches which seem to think there are ‘dhammas’ -here meaning unchanging ‘things’ – some sort of greco indian atom theory. As far as I can make out this version of so called ‘vipassana’ has one aim of finding these so called unchanging realities….and, it would seem, forget annica impermanence.
Its not for nothing that Dr Ambedkar formulated 20 or so extra undertakings on top of the 3 refuges and 5 precepts for Dalits converting to Buddhism …his undertakings are designed to work on ‘decolonising’ the hearts of dalits from the Empire of the Caste system and its enforcer…Hinduism. Some solid intellectual work and attitudinal adjustment seems indicated from long term Goenka exposure.
The Buddha reckoned it one of the duties of a student of his to know what is Dharma and what is not Dharma. Otherwise we have little hope of recognising counterfeits. remember a counterfeit is not an obvious fake , its something that resembles the real thing.
My overall take on your article..a little too generous and polite.
Cheers fro Oz John Allan
Thanks Christopher for a thoughtful and compassionate critique of the Goenka method. A couple of years back I was taken aside by the assistant Teacher at a 3-day retreat for ‘old students’ and told that I would not be welcome to attend any further courses as I was involved in teaching MBCT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy) as part of my role as a Mental Health clinician. The fundamentalist and rigid attitude surprised and disappointed me. There seems to be a similar mix of grandiosity and paranoia about mixing the Teachings as that found in the (new) Kadampa tradition. Both of these very different groups seem to have detrimental effects on the mental health of many of their students. Both groups can also have quite a seductive appeal to people who are new to meditation so thanks again for your post
Its an interesting subject Christopher! We all aspire to greater freedom for ourselves and others! Out of love and concern for people who get involved in exclusive in-groups – that seem to exercise to much control – we reach out and encourage more open inquiry! However, some people – teachers included – seem to find something of value in belonging to a sect/organisation/tribe etc. in which they find a sense of belonging. At some point, they may outgrow this desire and be willing to leave their enclosures and risk insecurity! Not very one seems to be ready for such a leap! Might it be better to extend the invitation – inviting one to come and see? Vipassana.org is like a staging post that leads out into the vast field of free inquiry! As such, it seems to be providing an important service just as it is! I would imagine the chances of reform are approaching zero? XXOO