3 Challenges I’ve Faced in Goenka’s Vipassana

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: 

Religiosity

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.

Dogma

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.  

Goenka

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!

7 thoughts on “3 Challenges I’ve Faced in Goenka’s Vipassana

  1. Yasmine

    I always think of when goenka tells the story about the mother and the boy and the boy refusing his kir because it has a stone in it. And the mother says “that’s not a stone, it’s cardamom”…

    I always look at Vipassana as offering what it offers. You don’t have to change your life or thinking to do a 10-day or multiple 10-days. However, you are asked to commit on a different level to attend longer courses. I think this is fair enough. They can’t be everything to everybody.

    However, I’m coming at this from the point of view of someone who Vipassana as an organisation makes sense to. Initially I was more wary – not of the technique but of the organisation. What convinced me of their methods was to keep asking questions, serving a at centres and on committees. I also got the chance to question a very established old teacher at a Europeans dhamma servers meeting. This allayed a lot of my apprehensions.

    I always see Vipassana as just people doing their best and trying to spread the dhamma to the best of their abilities.

  2. Hi Dan. Thank you for sharing your sincere and honest feedback. I agree with you that the tradition should be diligent to ensure it remains universal and non-sectarian, but I disagree that the solution is to remove everything you state is “belief based” like reincarnation, devas, and enlightenment. Before sitting a 10-day course, I would have claimed that observing the breath and sensations for extended periods to reduce difficult to reach mental agitation was simply a placebo like many other self-help strategies. Even though I was skeptical, to discover the benefits of Vipassana, I needed to conduct an experiment and try it myself. This tradition has grown because many people have conducted this experiment and discovered truth in what seemed like a myth.

    As the teacher, Goenka should be sharing the truth he has experienced that is just beyond his students’ experiences to inspire them to continue developing their personal truth. Blind faith starts creeping in when Goenka is sharing Buddha’s truth, then ATs share Goenka’s words, and we get several generations removed from actual experience. This is why we must all be diligent students who continuously ask probing questions and seek knowledgeable teachers to guide us. It’s easy to get complacent if we believe Goenka figured it all out, but that’s just patients preaching the accolades of their doctor without trying to understand it themselves. I’ve certainly experienced this within the tradition. I think we can do a better job honoring and encouraging everyone’s personal journey towards truth while avoiding pushing blind faith. The only way I know how to do this is by engaging in honest dialog to uncover our hidden biases. Hopefully this blog can be a place for robust constructive dialog. Thanks again for sharing Dan!

  3. tomwhitemore

    Hi Dan,

    Thank you for sharing your ‘difficulties’ with Vipassana meditation. I don’t know where I would be had I not discovered Vipassana and found a way to make it part of my life. But your reflections resonated with me and made me think maybe I did accept a lot and not question enough? Surely we cannot expect the gifts that Goenke was able to share with so many people to continue to be a vital part of our lives if the tradition does not evolve and adapt?

  4. Dan Kaminsky

    Hello! 

    Wow, just in these four responses (one came via email) there is enough to write a whole other post! Thank you for engaging in this dialogue. For now I’ll respond here with some brief follow up thoughts. 

    Interestingly, people have mostly responded to my comments about religiosity.  I don’t know if that means there is consensus on the other issues, or if rather I’m an outlier in my thoughts on religiosity. 

    I think it’s worth clarifying for me then, the central question for me on religiosity is not whether or not to strip the tradition of these concepts. For me, the central question is are these concepts universal?  That then opens up a very different dialogue.  I think it is quite possible to like these concepts, believe that they are important to the meditators path, but also think they aren’t universal in that they are incompatible with other beliefs (eg reincarnation vs heaven).

    If after collective dialogue there is agreement that certain concepts aren’t universal, then the questions become what are our priorities? What should we be telling the world we are? How should we package ourselves? Is it okay to use words like universal and non-sectarian while keeping buddhist theories present? Are there theories we’d like to remove from the discourses, or instead should we just re-brand what we say we are?

    What’s troubling to me personally isn’t the presence of these concepts, it’s that the tradition is packaging itself as something and in my experience turned out to be something different. While many individual meditators have been able to treat the concepts they don’t agree with as black stones, and look past the (what I believe to be) mis-representative packaging, I don’t think it’s fair or truthful for the tradition to continue to ask new generations of meditators to do that. And while Goenka likely did believe everything he was saying was universal, that was a very different context.

    So my follow up question would be are there things in the tradition (even if you believe in them) that aren’t universal? If so, what are they? Is the tradition packaging itself accurately?
     
    Thank you all again!  I’m excited that some dialogue is starting 🙂

  5. Ciara

    wow Dan this has given me alot to think about… I always tell people it’s not religious and then I warn them about the chanting. I often think about the religious comments Goenka makes about organised religions and how the religious people I know wouldn’t like that. I hadn’t thought about if the words he says are actually akin to religiousness. thanks for food for though. Ciara

  6. Anonymous

    Hi Dan, Your challenges are mine too mostly. My experiences with Goenka’s vipassana are fewer ( 1 10-day course, 1 10-day service and many 1-day courses). All are in one year + time period.
    Because I practice other techniques for a long time before vipassana, I experienced uniqueness immediately ; both positives and negatives. I understand they are just my personal feelings.
    I found the door of Goenka’s vipassana is narrow to me. Easy to feel ” different opinion is not welcome”. ” Liberate!” Goenka said in taped discourse is in distance.
    Goenka’s vipassana has their reasons to against other techniques. During the courses, I followed. But I also practice other techniques off course. I feel different techniques point to the same goal. There is no conflicts to me. All techniques help me to that goal. I welcome them as benefits are there.
    About robotic answers from AT, I had same experience like you. If ATs just play role without soul, it is hard to be connected and related.

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