Alternative Views on Sankhara’s and the Process of Purification: Part 2

Written by Dan Kaminsky

My experience with meditation causes me to question Goenka’s explanation of Sankhara’s and the process of purification (discussed in part one of this post).  In this post, I want to discuss the intellectual challenges I have with Goenka’s theory on Sankhara’s. 

On the intellectual level, two main things about Goenka’s model on this trouble me. The first is his presentation of it all.  In my opinion, when explaining this theory of the process of purification, it is presented as scientific fact as opposed to philosophical theory.  He may believe in it deeply, yet it remains a theory and in my opinion should be explained and presented as such so as to not confuse students.  

One specific example is his explanation that it is mental reactions of previous times that are the cause of present consciousness.  The cause of consciousness is one of the great scientific and philosophical mysteries of our time.  This is one of the appeals of religions and spiritual sects; they provide answers to life’s great unknowns. While seeking answers to unsolvable problems is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, I think there is also great wisdom in sitting in the discomfort of acknowledging one doesn’t have an answer.  Providing an answer to the cause of consciousness in such a factual way in my mind unintentionally helps carve out a sect.  

I also have trouble parsing out which theories come from where.  Is this explanation of Sankhara’s and the process of purification from the Buddha?  Is it from somewhere else?  I think it is important to not only emphasize the theoretical nature of these ideas, but also to discuss what these ideas are rooted in and where they came from.

The second theoretical challenge I have with this theory is the finite nature of it. Goenka explains that there are a finite number of reactions we need to get through and once we accomplish that task, we are enlightened. To demonstrate that point, he gives examples like the fire where you don’t add any more wood, and all the previous wood will burn away.  In my experience we are constantly reacting, every second of every day with an infinite number of new mental impressions and reactions. Therefore the idea that we can pause all new reactions and work through a finite number of old reactions doesn’t hold up to my experience.  This then calls into question the existence of enlightenment and reincarnation (which I will save for future posts).

Finally, there does seem to be a faith element here, even though it is presented as a practice based explanation. For a while, my meditation practice had plateaued.  After each of the first few ten days I sat I felt enormous shifts.  After I had been in it a while though, each course felt less beneficial and I was getting less benefit out of my daily practice.  When asking AT’s about this, they told me that I was finally getting to the rocky layers of sankhara’s and therefore need to keep working diligently.  Who knows, maybe this is true, but practically the effect this had on me is I continued to meditate in this one way beyond the time I was feeling immediate, noticeable benefit.  I continued really based on faith alone that I was getting at these deeper layers.  

To reel myself back from the theoretical, Goenka stresses that all importance should be placed on meditation, not on theoretical understandings.  Largely speaking, I agree.  I know I get benefits from meditating, so what difference does it really make why or how it works?  I can flicker on my light switch without needing to understand the entirety of how that process works, the only thing I need to know is the light will turn on.  I generally believe the same should be true of meditating.  

So the reason then that this is important to me is not in my own need to understand what is happening in my brain when I meditate (although I must admit I am curious).  I would like to deeply stress that the importance of this for me comes not from having disagreements with Goenka, but from how it is all packaged.  If Goenka said “here’s my theory as to all of this” then I don’t think I would have any issue.  By presenting this as the answer, I believe he begins carving borders around what “we” believe as ”truth” thereby inadvertently creating a sect. 

This is compounded when you begin to question or find holes with these theories or beliefs, you’re told things like “just observe” or “you don’t understand it yet.” Answers like that further the idea that this is the truth, and your disbelief is your own shortcoming as opposed to acknowledging the theoretical nature of the subject at hand.

What do others think?  Do people think these ideas are presented factually, or is it clear enough that these are only theoretical understandings?  Are there ways we could make it clearer to ensure that people know there are many different ways and understandings of these subjects?  Thanks for reading!


2 thoughts on “Alternative Views on Sankhara’s and the Process of Purification: Part 2

  1. Tejas


    At the age of forty-two, while living the life of a good householder, there arose in me a tremendous urge to pursue the path of purification of mind. This was stirred up in me as a result of a saintly person saying to me, “There can be no progress in the spiritual life without purification of the mind.” Upon hearing these words, I immediately began to search for a method by which the mind could be purified.

    Two friends of mine told me about Vipassana meditation as taught by Goenkaji, but at that time I was not inclined to go and try. But when another friend attended the course and within a month expressed his desire to take a second course, I thought there must be something worthwhile in it. This was primarily because this man was a businessman to whom time and money were important, yet he was prepared to sacrifice both for the sake of Vipassana.

    I attended my first course in July 1972 at Nashik and immediately stayed on for the following short course. In this first course, even though one gets only a glimpse of the technique, I felt that such a unique experience was just what I had been searching for. For the first time in my life I was a real meditator: really introverted, observing myself.

    Despite this positive feeling, I did not want to blindly accept this technique without experimenting and putting it to the test. So I decided to practise for three months at home and then practise intensively for another three months doing courses with Goenkaji in different camps throughout India. At the end of this period I was firmly convinced that here was a wonderful technique for purification of the mind, purification which can eradicate defilements from the deepest level of the mind. Now Vipassana has become a part of my life—not a mere rite or ritual, but a way of life.

    While the experiences that can arise in meditation are not to be compared nor given any valuation, nevertheless, relating them sometimes helps to inspire confidence in others who are struggling on the same path. But if certain of these experiences are taken as something which one must attain, then they create obstacles. A few instances will illustrate this point.

    One meditator who had taken twenty or twenty-five courses read somewhere that when you concentrate on a small area below the nostrils and above the upper lip, you see a light and experience warmth. She had not experienced this, so she came to me with a long, sad face.

    She was worried because she was not having a particular experience. This is not Vipassana. Even after many courses this student was giving importance to certain experiences over others, with no equanimity.

    From my own experience, I had initially come to understand how the sensations arise, seem to stay for some time, and then pass away. After some practice the sensations which “seem to stay for some time” begin to get disintegrated, and we reach the stage where only the arising and passing away of sensations is experienced.

    When a severe pain is present somewhere in the body, we expect it to pass away quickly and naturally. After all, we are repeatedly told it is anicca, anicca (impermanent). But still the pain persists. One hour, two hours, two days, ten days and it still persists, so we get upset because it is not going. In my own case it remained for about two years. In my upper back there was a solid plate about eight inches by six inches and three quarters of an inch thick. It was so solid that tremendous pain began as soon as I sat for meditation. It wasn’t there when I was not meditating. I patiently observed it with never a thought that it should go away. But it persisted for two years, and sometimes it became so hot it seemed as if you could prepare chapatis on it.

    This solidity started melting and became liquid and began to move about within the same area, like water moving in a hot water bag. This lasted for about four to five months; then it started to disintegrate in the form of sparks, as if a live volcano was erupting. It was really hell-fire, not for a few days but for months together. Gradually the volcano has become quiet, but that area has become so sensitive that when anything happens outside or inside, there will immediately be a reaction on that part of the body. It is like a signal (as in Goenkaji’s story about the private secretary), a warning signal for me to be aware. No one should expect a similar experience, but the point to be noted is that sensations which are intense, solidified and gross do seem to “stay for some time”; but this “staying for some time” does not necessarily mean minutes, hours or days, but maybe years or even the whole lifetime. So very patiently, quietly we just observe, observe.

    Another experience which may be of help to meditators is that in my tenth or eleventh course I could not feel sensations below the nostrils and the upper lip, nor anywhere else on the body for seven or eight days. I was equanimous with the situation and continued to do Anapana for those seven or eight days. No complaint, no advice sought. Just observed what it was.

    Once it happened that after about seven or eight years of meditation, having taken a number of courses and assisting Goenkaji with the teaching work, there arose in me during one course a tremendous aversion to the discipline, rules and regulations. It began the first day at the first sitting and was so strong that it was not possible for me to do even a moment of Anapana. This continued for two full days. I had been telling students to return to Anapana when any difficulty arises. Now here I was in the same predicament.

    Normally I find solutions to problems which arise by myself. So what to do? Despite being unable to do Anapana, there was no worry or tension. Sitting quietly doing nothing, after a few hours on the third day, I noticed that the resistance had cleared and I began working effortlessly with enthusiasm for the remainder of the course.

    All these experiences have been very helpful for me in learning how to deal with different situations equanimously. May they serve the reader likewise on the path of Dhamma.

    Mr. N. H. Parikh
    (Mr. Parikh, Vipassana Teacher, was among the first assistant teachers appointed by Goenkaji. He served Dhamma in various capacities for many years and made a significant contribution to the spread of Vipassana. He passed away peacefully at his residence in Mumbai last year.)
    source –

    Hope this gives some answer to your confusion

  2. Daniel J Kaminsky

    Hello Tejas!
    Thanks for writing in.  I think this piece you posted has plenty of wisdom in it, and I am sure it has helped many students who are a) either looking for something special or b) struggling with any one of these different circumstances.  The continued reminder of anicca is great, and the encouragement to just observe no matter what the situation can be very helpful practical advice for meditators encountering a circumstance they are unsure how to deal with.

    I presume you posted this story because for you, instead of discussing my concerns with the tradition I should be putting that same energy into observing these concerns and understanding that they are a manifestation of doubt.  Is that right? There is obvious wisdom in that approach.  I talked more about this very issue in a prior post titled “In response to treat it like a black stone.”  Feel free to read it.  

    The thing that I think is worth saying here is that I am less focused with this post on my own agitation, and more so hoping to prompt conversation about what I feel are real tensions of a universal, non-sectarian tradition promoting sectarian ideas and then labeling them as truth.  This to me warrants thorough tradition wide investigation and conversation.  In this post I tried to present why to me Goenka’s discussion of the process of purification feels like theory (certainly a plausible theory) and not fact.  I think for the future of the tradition to remain true to it’s core values of non-sectarianism we need to be engaging in this dialogue together.  

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