Is Old Student Dialogue Helpful?

Open discussions are rare in the Goenka tradition for good reason. The tradition’s focus is on encouraging people to meditate, and intellectual discussions can lead to confusion and doubt that detract from the personal journey experienced on the cushion. There’s also the problem of determining who is advanced enough in their development to share their opinions. Many people believe that Goenka is the leading authority on the Buddha’s teachings, so we should simply let Goenka’s words carry the message to prevent any adaptations to his teachings.

My concern is that if the only two sources of information that a Goenka student has are Goenka’s recordings and what they learn on the cushion, we’re forcing every student to navigate this difficult path in isolation. That’s certainly how I’ve felt at times. I believe that our peers on the path can be incredibly valuable additional assets if we learn how to communicate skillfully. So what does that look like?

First, individuals need to be confident enough to share their opinions, also known as the wisdom they’ve gained from their personal experiences, while being humble enough to admit their flaws and receive others responses openly.

Second, readers need to be mature enough to parse through complex responses to discover tokens of wisdom while not being misled by others confusions.

Third, when opinions are in conflict and resolution can’t be found, both parties must be able to have respect and compassion for those with a different opinion, and simply move in different directions.

While opening these dialogues may seem like more trouble than they’re worth, I believe they’re a very important evolution of a community. Our world is polarized in so many ways. As one example in America, political views are so divided that counterproductive attacks are the norm and constructive dialogues are rare. As meditators following the dhamma, if we truly want to develop our ability to bring the practice into our daily lives, we need to learn how to have these dialogues alongside our meditation practices. That means we must feel safe and comfortable openly sharing our ideas and criticisms with an audience that’s willing to listen with equanimity even if they disagree. Only then will we be able to help others in our society to resolve much more divergent dilemmas.

I understand that this blog isn’t for everyone, and if you don’t find it helpful, I encourage you to spend your time elsewhere. For those of you who find discussions helpful, and are willing to engage constructively, I invite your participation and enthusiasm. The diversity and cohesion we can bring together on this site will help us all to bring dhamma into our local communities. Thank your for reading.

3 thoughts on “Is Old Student Dialogue Helpful?

  1. Anonymous

    I really love talking about my practice with fellow meditators but have always felt like I shouldn’t in case I confuse them or confuse myself. I serve on committees and courses in order to spend time with other meditators as i find i need this support to live dhamma day to day, to feel like i’m not the only one sitting 2 hours a day, to talk about challenges with my Sila, to talk about how I’m growing in equanimity through hard situations. it definitely helps me. I would like to have more people to talk “dhamma” with. I don’t read enough dhamma books so these conversations fill my cup. thanks for this article.

  2. Zach

    The Buddha praised discussion in good measure. The suttas share a story of how he once visited 3 monks living together and the Buddha asked how they were getting on. They had a system for getting things done so that most days they hardly needed to speak with each other and spent their days practicing. However, every 6th day they would spend the day discussing their practice with each other, which the Buddha praised. Saddhu saddhu saddhu

    In my own life, when I was a monk, the best rains retreat I had was spent in community with abundant dialogue. We often shared our insights with each other. I often found when I shared my insights, the insight itself would strengthen in the retelling of it, or the friends responses to it would trigger even more insights. In hearing others insights, in being present to the fruits of someone else’s living practice with their enthusiasm, would often trigger minor related insights just in the listening. A group of about 8 of us, both monastic and lay, read and discussed the Majjhima Nikaya together over these 3 months. We talked about what was interesting, insightful, encouraging, or confusing. It was really a great 3 months of growth and inspiration in Dhamma. In the community of Dhamma friends practicing and discussing the Dhamma together, each friend acts like a catalyst for accelerated growth. I found the experience incomparable to working in isolation and enormously more beneficial.

    It’s okay to be confused. In fact it’s great. It’s a sign of growth and expansion. If we come across something that confuses us, it’s a sign that we’re continuing to grow and uncover issues. What do we think is better? Staying safe and never encountering confusion? Or working through that very confusion via investigation both inward and outward, and through asking questions, through dialogue. I see in the Goenka community, some use this idea of ‘causing others confusion’ as a weapon to keep people in line. It keeps people in the Goenka organization, but for the wrong reasons. I definitely support and encourage skilful dialogue, to embrace confusion when it comes. Get curious about it, and seek answers. Investigation of dhammas is the 2nd factor of enlightement.

  3. Jonathan

    I would like to add to this and Zach’s comment.

    You note that for productive discussion to be had, there must be maturity on the side of the speaker and the listener, and that disagreement ought to be handled respectfully. The difficulty here definitely lies in overestimation of that maturity, and I have been and seen both of these roles played out without understanding. There is also the matter of time and place; while real discussion is certainly of benefit, leaving it outside of retreat times ensures that a student can tell themselves “I know that this can be addressed, but I can put this question aside for now”.

    You note that “we must feel safe and comfortable . . .sharing with an audience that’s willing to listen with equanimity even if they disagree.” This is asking a lot, and I would like to turn it around. It is up to us as students to be brave enough to speak even when we fear reprisal, to encourage others who don’t have that bravery themselves, to speak respectfully even when we lack equanimity, and at times to defer to teachings we don’t yet understand. I emphasize this “at times” in the last, because there are undoubtedly times when there are teachers who give extreme teachings. Access to Insight has a post on this (The Power of Judgment) that has many good points.

    More generally, the Buddha encouraged students to know different teachers. He said that one who understands and has developed vipassana should speak to one who has developed samatha, and vice versa. Sariputta’s students would also train with Maha Moggallana, and vice versa. It is noted that the style of Anuruddha is different from Maha Kassapa is different from Maha Kaccana and so on. What is universal is the way that things are, not any given technique. That being said, heavy emphasis on faith is a strong catalyst for understanding/meditation and I am happy for those for whom it works.

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