Written by Dan Kaminsky
Hello! My goal with this blog post is to lay out some of the challenges I have faced after ten years in the Goenka tradition. I would like to preface these challenges by saying that these critiques are coming from a place of gratitude and understanding of the immense benefits I have gotten from sitting within this tradition. It is from this place that I would like to see some of the rigidity broken down, so the tradition can live up to its fullest potential and be as accessible and beneficial to all as possible. The pitfalls below are challenges I have personally faced, and also challenges I think hinder the tradition from being as effective as it could be in the dissemination of meditation.
My critiques can be broken down into a few main categories; religiosity, dogma and rigidity and Goenka/the AT structure. I’ll keep my comments here brief and maybe come back with a future post if necessary to elaborate further:
Of the challenges I have, this is the number one challenge for me. When I say religiosity, what I mean is the inclusion of belief based items within the tradition. By belief-based items, I mean anything that is not directly experienced by the meditator or grounded in objective scientific understandings. This list for me includes: reincarnation, karma, devas, celestial beings, sassanas, enlightenment, kalapas, “sending metta,” the process of purification, the 37 planes of existence, stream entry and vibrations. It’s worth saying I am not claiming that I know for a fact that the above items are not possible/in existence. Rather, I am suggesting they are out of place in a tradition that prides itself on its universality and non-sectarianism.
From a personal standpoint, I have found the inclusion of these concepts (all of which I don’t believe in) to make me feel like I am in a religion. The bigger issue I have had, as I have gone deeper down this path, is that I feel misled. I entered the tradition excited by the preachings of universality, and as I have gotten farther in, I have found increasing concepts that feel sectarian.
The tradition prioritizes being universal and non-sectarian. In my mind, this is the gold standard to which to strive for. For me, the above concepts are antithetical to the idea of non-sectarianism. Let’s take the example of reincarnation — if I am a religious Christian and believe I will go to heaven after I die, that is a pretty incompatible belief system with the belief that when I die I will get reincarnated into another being. Conversely, if I am a religious Christian, and I am only asked to focus on respiration or sensations, there is zero ideological conflict there.
I think as long as there are belief-based items included within the tradition, I don’t think we can truthfully claim to be universal. And if we truly are interested in opening this up to as many people from as many backgrounds as possible, we need to have a very hard collective reflection on what doesn’t make the cut of universality.
I deeply admire the tradition and Goenka’s stated intention to create a path that is non-dogmatic. It is something that drew me to the tradition in the first place. I am putting some examples below of things that have felt dogmatic to me. I acknowledge that there are other ways to see these examples:
–Discouragement of practicing other techniques – This discouragement happens in a handful of ways:
-Asking what other techniques have been practiced since the last course when applying. What would the tradition feel like if the course application asked, “what’s your experience with meditation?” Could a simple reframing achieve similar goals without subtle discouragement of exploration?
-Goenka’s comments claiming other techniques are like kindergarten (in the same breath as saying we aren’t here to condemn other techniques).
-The digging shallow wells analogy in the ten-day discourse -This to me feels to be a manipulative example (albeit I will say I doubt Goenka is intentionally manipulating). It is true if you keep digging shallow wells, you will not hit water. That to me in no way is analogous to spiritual exploration. Yet because one part of the analogy is true (not hitting water), it’s hard to critically reflect whether the analogy as a whole holds up.
-Strict rules that make you ineligible to serve and ineligible for long courses if you try any other meditation technique, or even going to workshops of other traditions.
-Long courses – The rhetoric on the long courses becomes deeply divergent from the rhetoric on the ten days. The opening statement of the 20-day is something along the lines of “you are here because you realize this is the only path….”
-Spiritual bypassing – When approaching AT’s with concerns about the tradition, the common response I have gotten is to just observe. I certainly take ownership over my criticism by working to be unattached to it. Ideally, all involved are engaging in that sort of self reflection.
-There are no books from outside sources at any center (ie. Kornfeld, Thich nhat Hanh etc.) who can be very inspiring and allow people to further progress.
-The rule that serious students can’t meditate vipassana in the same space while others meditate a different technique. There are two issues with this for me. The first is its existence; I believe this sort of rigidity is more harmful than helpful. The second is the lack of explanation around this and other rules. I know this is a rule, but have never been given a credible explanation as to why this exists, in a way that makes sense to me. I think we can’t impose regulations on people’s lives without having them fully understand and agree with why the regulations exist.
-Having to take refuge in Buddha/Sangha/Dhamma at the start of a course. I personally haven’t experienced any benefit of saying these opening formalities, and think this being the opening moment of a course does damage to confused new students.
The third thing I struggle with is Goenka, and several realities that having a tradition started by Goenka enables. I feel similar to Goenka as I do about my great grandfather; there’s love, respect and the acknowledgment that without him, I wouldn’t be here. Yet, there is total disconnection; I haven’t met them, and quite frankly if they were sitting in the same room as me I don’t know how much we’d have in common. The specifics below:
-Patriarchal — Starting with Goenka, and down to the AT’s (typically men control the speaker box, do the announcements etc.)
-Segregation of sexes – Goenka’s understanding of gender is radically different from north america’s current understanding.
-Robotic nature of AT answers – it seems AT’s often follow a script goenka laid out and give the same handful of canned answers regardless of the situation.
-Goenka being the only teacher – His discourses, theories and philosophies truly do not resonate with me at this point (which I sort of outlined above). The repetitive nature of having to listen to the same discourses over and over means it is easy to lose inspiration. Having live trained teachers responsive to student needs would be far more inspiring in my mind.
These are some of the challenges I have had in recent years. Are there others who have struggled with similar issues? How have you navigated them within this tradition? Your thoughts and ideas would be much appreciated! Hopefully this medium can be part of an effort to grow the tradition to best serve the needs of present and future students. Thanks so much for reading!