The 10-day course developed by U Ba Kin and Goenka has successfully travelled around the world teaching the fundamentals of dhamma to all walks of life. It’s amazing that the combinations of rules, instructions, and discourses that Geonka put together has been translated into so many different languages to conduct successful courses. I understand the desire to solidify this teaching that has been so successful, but I feel like that also limits the growth potential of everyone else.
As a high school physics teacher, I consider what school would be like if every physics student in the world learned physics by watching the videos of a single Harvard professor. The professor is an amazing teacher who connects with 90% of his students on the first viewing. Another 9% must watch the video 3 or 4 times to understand it, but eventually get the main concepts. But the final 1% of students who watch the videos simply don’t understand.
If physics students had questions, they would go to their local Physics assistant teacher who would repeat the wisdom of the Harvard professor, but the phrasing would be almost identical to the professor because the teacher wouldn’t want to make a mistake or mislead the student. The students take several messages away from this interaction. 1) The Harvard professor is perfect and has it all figured out. 2) The assistant Physics teachers are so devoted to the Harvard professor, that questioning or rephrasing his teachings is perceived as having doubt in his teachings. 3) Students should just keep doing practice problems over and over again using the same strategies introduced in the videos because the teaching is perfect and will eventually work for them.
Unfortunately, this is just not how science works. Sure, for introductory survey classes, big lecture halls are effective at introducing the basics, but as someone takes more advanced classes, the class size must shrink so the teachers can give more personalized guidance. Eventually, the students must learn how to become teachers thinking for themselves and putting the teachings into their own words. Mistakes are identified by comparing new teacher theories to nature. It’s not the Harvard professor who is the gatekeeper of truth, but the reality that manifests itself moment to moment. By elevating Goenka’s teachings to the level of absolute truth, we’re losing our connection to reality itself, and preventing students from aligning their experiences with their own lives.
I admire Goenka as a great spiritual teacher of our time, and I’m grateful for everything that I’ve learned from him. In the same way, I admire Isaac Newton for his scientific discoveries in the 1600s, but if we refused to question Newton’s laws, the evolution of science would have stopped over 300 years ago. I’m willing to concede that the Buddha’s teachings are complete and perfect, but there are over 10,000 suttas in the Pali Canon. How can ten to twelve Goenka discourses, or even several hundred Goenka discourses from all of his long courses possibly carry all of the personalized wisdom of all the Buddha’s teachings? I believe it’s very important that we, as students, continue trying to apply the Buddha’s teachings into our own lives and to put it into our own words, because that’s part of the learning process for individuals and for a community. Individuals will make mistakes, but by asking one another questions and compare our beliefs to the realities in our world while keeping a respectful and collaborative intention, we will continue to progress towards absolute truth. We are very lucky to have the Buddha’s teachings to help guide this journey.