Does Theory Matter?

Goenka shares a lot of theory in the 10-day discourses on topics like reincarnation, sankaras, metta, and liberation. He also shares that believing the theory isn’t important as long as you follow the practice of sila, samadhi, and panna. Goenka wants students to learn the benefits of practicing vipassana through their own experience, and since confusion or doubt about the theory can interfere with a person’s motivation to practice, he simply encourages students to remove any of the theory they’re uncomfortable with (“like a black stone”). As someone who never meditated before my first 10-day course, this advice was critical to helping me establish my daily meditation practice. This new skill of developing awareness and equanimity of body sensations was giving amazing results, and the theory that was beyond my comprehension would simply have gotten in the way. But I think the “black stone” advice has limitations as students progress along the path.

The reason we prioritize the practice over the theory is so that we can experience the truth about reality for ourselves. If something is beyond our experience like reincarnation, evaluating it simply becomes an intellectual game which is unhelpful. But what do I do if my experiential wisdom conflicts with the theory? If I ignore my experiential wisdom and accept the theory, this becomes blind faith. If I ignore the theory and accept my experiential wisdom, I become critical and doubtful of all the theory. Both of these outcomes are immensely problematic. A third option is to reevaluate the theory intellectually to resolve the differences between my experiential wisdom and the theory.

Now this is starting to read like a philosophical logic class, so let’s talk through an example. The organizational rules state that committed old students (group sitting hosts, trust members, long course students, ATs) should not sit with practitioners from any other tradition. Some of the reasons include that this is considered mixing techniques, the vibrations are harmful to my practice, and it can cause confusion in newer students. In my personal experience, I’ve always found it helpful to meditate with non-Goenka practitioners who also meditate silently sitting. My sittings feel deeper, I enjoy connecting to the larger meditation community, and it allows me to connect my cushion practice with the outside world. In contrast, when I refrain from sitting with non-Goenka practitioners, I feel restricted from this connection causing feelings of isolation and depression. The healthy choice for me is obviously to sit with non-Goenka practitioners.

The situation gets tricky when evaluating my standing within the tradition. By making this choice to follow my experiential wisdom and sit with non-Goenka meditators, I’ve returned to the category of students “not committed to this tradition.” I can no longer serve on trusts or sit long courses. It becomes tempting to blindly follow the rules without question, or to break my sila by lying, to avoid being dislodged from the tradition. I feel that this has lead to a culture overemphasizing faith rather than incorporating intellectual understanding.

This is a complicated issue for a large organization. There are times when a student must surrender to the rules and trust the teachers. Without any guidelines for structure or hierarchy, the organization would not be able to function. But if the organization is truly trying to guide people towards absolute truth, we need to find ways to help students resolve intellectual discrepancies. I don’t believe faith in the technique alone can lead us to the truth.

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