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!