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.