Is Goenka Vipassana Universal?

Goenka seems to present two different paths. First, he shares that sila (morality), samadhi (concentration through breath awareness), and panna (wisdom through body sensation awareness) are the three universal components of the path towards ultimate truth. Second, he shares that the ultimate goal is to liberate the mind from the cycle of birth and death. While the first path is comprised of three universal components that add up to a universal path, the second path elevates the Buddhist beliefs of reincarnation, liberation, and enlightenment. While individuals from any religion can certainly practice the first path, the second path is a sectarian belief.

These two paths only become one if the individual discovers through their own experience that reincarnation, liberation, and enlightenment are real. For anyone who has not experienced liberation, which is nearly all of us (including Goenka I believe), this sectarian belief is no more helpful than any other sectarian belief of the afterlife. Using these pebbles of insight as motivation to work towards truth is helpful, but forcing someone from one belief to another removes the universality of Vipassana and can cause tension and division. For this reason, I think it’s harmful to encourage anyone to jump to the conclusion that Goenka is the one true teacher and that the goal of this path is to reach liberation. It’s enough for each individual to continue dividing and dissecting their own experiences on the path to discovering their personal truth. What unites us is the belief that Vipassana is a tool that helps us walk in the right direction.

Through the video recordings, Goenka tries to share small milestones that each person can discover for themselves through their practice. Since people progress at different rates, the longer a group of people meditates, the more divergent their experiences will become. Goenka was challenged to create videos that continued to guide the most advanced students while trying not to confuse or distract the slower paced students. While Goenka does an amazing job, at some point, videos can’t serve the individual needs of every student. This challenge for the tradition is far above my pay grade, but I understand why some students feel that Goenka’s teachings are not universal.

Instead of pushing everyone towards the sectarian goal of liberation, I would like to celebrate the abundance of ways that individuals integrate sila, samadhi, and panna into their lives. I’m always amazed by the diversity of students who attend Goenka courses. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear all of their unique stories of how they integrate Vipassana into their current beliefs and lifestyles? Beliefs are bound to evolve over time; they aren’t meant to be rigid. Let’s celebrate the wonderful diversity of people in our tradition while continuing to evolve towards the ultimate truth, whatever that may be, together. If you would like to share your story, please email me at ryanshelton7@yahoo.com. May all beings be happy!

4 thoughts on “Is Goenka Vipassana Universal?

  1. Nathan Kretzschmar

    Great post Ryan! I think you are raising some very important points that we should not be afraid as a tradition to address. We need frank and honest dialogue about these seeming contradictions in order to to continue being a living, growing tradition that matures along with its practitioners in these evolving times. We are a tradition which has as one of its central tenants the understanding of impermanence, but I’m really not trying to be facetious when I say, we cannot be afraid of change.

  2. Ciara

    love it Nathan! Great post Ryan.. separating coming out of our suffering from the afterlife/ full liberation. It ties in with truth from our own experience. I certainly suffer much less daily as a result of sila, samadhi and panna. thanks for this article. Ciara

  3. Hi Ciara! Thanks for reading our blog and sharing your comments. I’m glad you’re finding these posts helpful on your journey. I hope we will continue to hear more of your thoughts in the future. 🙂

  4. Zach

    I agree that the Goenka tradition is loaded with faith-based ideas. The more ‘into it’ you get, the more this is true. But the second path, as you call it, can be restated as Ciara put it, liberation from suffering which does not preclude believing in rebirth. The Buddha said he only teaches 2 things, suffering, and the end of suffering. If we look at the rebirth idea that actions have results, it is then important to have some understanding about kamma, at least as far as it’s observable. And as the Buddha teaches, in regards to not knowing for sure, it is a safer bet to act as if an afterlife might be true. If we think their will be no consequences, this would change a lot of people’s morality. If you behave as if there are consequences, here and afterwards, you will be praised by the upstanding people in society, and if there is an afterlife, you’ll be ok. (The Safe Bet Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 60) It is possible to follow a view that leads to more wholesome action without adhering to the belief itself, if we’re uncertain about it.

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