The Importance of “Why”

Written by Dan Kaminsky

This tradition is very clear in its views of blind faith. Goenka repeatedly instructs people to never operate out of blind faith, and it seems that he feels strongly that operating out of a place of experiential wisdom is crucial in safeguarding a non-sectarian tradition. I think increasing transparency about the reasons behind rules, practices and suggestions will achieve the illusive goal of not acting out of blind faith and devotion.  

Here’s a (rather minor) concrete example of what I mean: 

At meditation centers, cushion toppers need to be washed separately by gender. For years, I have sat and served at centers and never thought to ask why. When a staff member asked me to do laundry this way, I did so because that’s how things are done.  

Then, I became a staff member at a center. When assigning this task, I ensured that the servers knew to wash cushion toppers separately. It was only at this point that I recognized I had no idea why I was enforcing this rule. 

I acknowledge that after realizing I wasn’t clear as to why I was enforcing this rule, I could have asked an AT.  And indeed, anybody can ask ATs the reasoning behind any of these rules and regulations that they are unsure of. When I have done that, for the most part, I have found ATs to be extremely patient and generous with their time in ensuring I understand.

To respond to the claim that it should be the individual’s responsibility to seek out answers they are confused about, I have three points worth considering. The first is the subtle discouragement at centers to rock the boat in any way because of the emphasis on harmony.  Harmony is so essential, and I am glad it is emphasized in the way that it is at centers.  The shadow side of harmony though is that in my experience it has been very hard to speak up about things I don’t agree with.  Even certain questions can come off as combative, and I know I personally have often opted to keep quiet in favor of keeping the peace and group harmony.

The second is if we leave it up to individuals to ask questions and individual AT’s to respond, things can go awry. While I said above that often AT’s have been generous with their time and explanations, I have also occasionally gotten the exact opposite response.  On two different occasions I have been told by an AT that “it isn’t your job to think.” That is a rather unfortunate attitude in my mind, and a danger to the idea of trying to steer clear from a blind-faith oriented sect. Yet still, I can be spiritually generous enough with those individual AT’s to equate their responses to the inherent stress of running a course, and the recognition that they likely just did not have the time or capacity in that moment to adequately respond.

The third and most important point for me is that we shouldn’t wait for certain individuals to ask certain questions. Instead the reasoning should be organizationally built in behind rules and regulations so everyone has the opportunity to understand.  That to me would stem blind devotion. To use the example above, for years I went about engaging in an activity (washing cushion toppers separately) in a way that I now realize was based in blind devotion — I didn’t know why I was doing it but trusted that was the right way to do it.  

This feels like blind faith to me because it is quite far removed from my personal experience — I have never sat on a cushion and thought “there’s been a female sitting on this cushion, that must be why I’m agitated.”  I have no experience with which to base separating cushion toppers, and have not been given an explanation as to why I am doing that, yet continued to do so.  I don’t think the organization should continue putting servers or students in that position. I think the organization needs to prioritize making the reasoning behind it’s decisions and practices clear. 

In my mind, further embedding the “why” into the organization could look many different ways.  Some starter thoughts are:

-While I was on staff we had regular meetings about all that needed to be done without ever discussing why. Maybe there could be two parts to staff meetings; one covering the what, one covering the why. That could then filter down to servers.  When staff asks a server to complete a task, baked into the request could be an explanation. 

-Anytime there is a sign posted with a rule or regulation, there can also be a brief explanation as to why that rule is there.  So for example, there are many signs that exclaim “don’t point your feet at the dhamma seat”, the sign could include “because” and a one sentence explanation as to why that rule exists.  I imagine a counter response to this would be that we don’t want to distract students, and putting explanations on signs would increase distractions.  My response to that is that engaging in a matrix of rules and regulations without understanding them is ultimately more damaging than a momentary distraction of reading a longer sign.  

-Maybe there can be documents with explanations of the regulations that exist and their reasonings for any curious meditator to consult.  So for example, I know I am not supposed to meditate with others meditating in other traditions or styles. Yet, I have never been explained why.  Maybe as I delved deeper into the tradition I could have received an email after my first long course (similar to how students receive an email with resources after a ten day course) explaining the suggestions/rules in existance and their reasoning.  

I think there are many possible solutions of how to better include the why in this tradition and I am not necessarily wedded to any of the above proposals.  Moreso, I’d love to dialogue about the importance of putting why at the center of what we do, and how we can best include the why in ways that feel good to all involved.  

7 thoughts on “The Importance of “Why”

  1. tomwhitemore

    Very clear and constructive. Thank you. As a suggestion could we use this space to compile questions that could go into the suggested folder with the intention to deepen our understanding and assure our doubts of ‘blind faith’?

  2. Ricky

    A centipede was happy – quite!
    Until a toad in fun Said, “Pray, which leg comes after which?”
    Which threw her mind in such a pitch,
    She laid bewildered in the ditch
    Considering how to run.

    Keep on writing such articles…your previous one was also on the same note….and you ll keep confusing new students n some not so ripened old students…..
    Not everything needs to be questioned….not everything…
    I guess you are getting a kick out of it…if you got so entangled about a small thing like washing cushion covers separately…..🙄🙄
    You have written 2 articles…as far as I know…n both are about criticizing the organization in some ways that you couldn’t understand…if you would write an article about how the practice helped you in your life in different ways…you might inspire people to practice daily
    The goal of the life is not to live in the vipassana centers … just goes to the centre to learn the meditation or experience more depth for old students…n then….its about meditating daily n living dhamma in daily life….
    You might be thinking that you look smart with these articles…but in reality you are doing a disservice to dhamma ….
    I really wanted to write a reply for your previous article also…because you were wrong on each n every point there….but I dont want to argue on that as all the explanations are given by goenkaji in his Discourses or book called ‘for the benefit of many’s
    But after listening to goenkaji and doing long courses…you still have questions….I don’t know what you really are doing then….

  3. Tom – I think that’s a fantastic idea! Do you have any questions that come to mind?

    Ricky – I’m very happy that your Vipassana practice has brought you so many benefits and that your devotion to Goenka has inspired your uninterrupted practice and the integration of dhamma into your life. If you want to share your inspiring story, I would welcome you to do so on this blog.

    I’m less comfortable with your claims that Dan is either finding entertainment by confusing new students or feeding his ego by trying to look smart. I would suggest that using a rolling eye emoji demonstrates your reactiveness rather than the dhamma traits of equanimity and compassion. If you want to comment on this blog, please do so with respect and kindness so we can have a constructive dialogue.

    Now, I want to bring attention to your statement, “Not everything needs to be questioned.” What’s wrong with questions? Isn’t vipassana a tool that is supposed to erode all ignorance and take us to the final absolute truth? Isn’t it logical that along that journey we will need to ask ourselves hard questions to ensure that we fully understand the truth of what we’re learning? Didn’t most of us come to vipassana because we were seeking answers to our questions?

    I’ve tried to make it clear that every post on this blog is an individual’s personal opinion. We are not teachers or assistant teachers, nor do any of us claim to have all the answers. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’re in the wrong place. This is a space for people to share their personal thoughts, opinions, and experiences so other peers can help them process their reflections.

    Dan has been sitting on a pile of concerns for quite some time now, and he hasn’t gotten the answers he needs from the cushion or ATs to inspiring him to keep working. I respect his desire to steer clear of blind faith, and I hope this blog can help him to connect with others who have successfully grappled with similar questions. If you want to help Dan, or anyone else who writes on this blog, I welcome your insightful and respectful comments or questions. If you don’t find this blog to be helpful for you on your journey, you don’t need to read it.

    Dan – Thank you for sharing your personal struggles and concerns. I agree that it’s important to develop true understanding beyond blind faith, but it’s a complicated question to determine how that should happen within a Center. So much insight occurs on the cushion beyond the intellect, and for me, learning how to meditate partially meant learning how to stop thinking so much. Seeing a bunch of signs with explanations would probably distract me from the work of vipassana. I do like your idea of having a binder with detailed explanations. I’ll have to think on this some more before I can come up with anything particularly insightful. Thanks again! 🙂

  4. Daniel J Kaminsky

    Hello Ricky!

    Thanks for writing in. It seems to me that we have different experiences and perspectives in this tradition, which is healthy.  And from what I can tell, you are really pleased with the tradition how it is. I am genuinely happy to hear that. I want the tradition to be helpful and beneficial for as many as possible, and if how it currently functions is working well for you, that is wonderful to hear.

    It also seems that there is some fear or hesitation about people presenting their own experiences within the tradition when it lies within a critical lens. If I had to venture a guess, it would be because you have benefited so greatly from vipassana that criticisms are nerve wracking because it opens up the possibility of changing an organization that works well.

    This all makes a great deal of sense to me. My main response is to propose that hearing other perspectives of the potential blind spots or shortcomings of how things are structured now is a healthy exercise for all organizations to engage in. We all know the value of self-reflection; what I am hoping for is an opportunity to engage in collective self-reflection, and have the humility to acknowledge we aren’t perfect and address those opportunities for improvement.

    I would like these articles only to be part of a larger eco-system of dialogue. I truly don’t mind if people don’t agree with me, and very much welcome the dialogue and perspective shifts that are made possible by people having a variety of views.  In that light, as Ryan suggests, I invite you to write a blog post to share your perspective.  

    Ryan, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this and other matters and for facilitating this blog!  Yes, “the how” on steering clear of blind faith is an important matter, and one that I look forward to continue dialoguing about. 

    All the best,

  5. Ricky

    Dan….Criticism just for the sake of criticism is not constructive criticism…..your previous post had all the things that goenkaji has himself answered…he himself has said…if you dont agree with the theory ….forget about it…but you can practice sila …samadhi and panna…you dont need to agree with theory to practice the meditation ….but you still has criticism for the theory…isn’t it possible that maybe you still have some way to go to understand the theory behind these things….
    As for this post…you want an answer about why cushion covers are washed separately….and the assistant teachers gave an answer which you didnt agree.. or believe………I served at a non centre…there were no cushions…..the students brought their own stuff… these questions didnt come in our minds because they were not there at all…..people came there to meditate n servers came there to serve …..but you raising these questions for cushion covers seems to me that instead of appreciating what the centers are giving you…a place to learn meditation and a place to serve others to learn meditation…you are criticizing on things that most people dont care at all….but if you want to write a blog why they wash cushion covers separately…ofcourse you can do that…but it’s not helping or serving anyone in posting and reading this blog…or maybe its helping….in another way that students shouldn’t criticize unnecessary things…that doesn’t support them in their practice

    And Ryan….probably you are right…not probably..but you are right…this place is not for me for sure…you said it’s a place for expressing personal opinions……well that’s what they are …opinions….not truth…so we can say that what this person is saying is wrong ……the easiest thing in the world is to criticize…..if its constructive…I can understand also…but the criticism that I have read here…is not constructive at all….its just criticism in the cloak of constructive criticism…..
    Anyway…enough of argument…it doesnt help me also arguing about these things 🙂
    You wont see me here anymore after this..thank you

  6. Hi Ricky – Thank you for your feedback. You are right that these are opinions, not truth, and I respect your choice to find your inspiration elsewhere. I also believe you make an important point about distinguishing between constructive and unconstructive criticism. It’s important to me that this site is a place for well intentioned constructive criticism, and I believe Dan’s posts fall within that scope. This is a bigger topic than I want to get into here, but I’ll try to share a post about it soon. Take care, and good luck on your dhamma journey!

  7. Pingback: Outside the Circle of Universality: Part 1 – Living Vipassana

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