The Rigidity of the Tradition: Part 1

Written by Dan Kaminsky

There is this fear that the meditation technique will get watered down or changed by people looking to make it easier or more pleasant, and the essence of the technique will be lost.  This fear then leads to some of the rigidities around exploration that are in existence.  This fear is somewhat founded in my mind; I think this meditation technique is quite powerful and the essence of working to observe sensations equanimously and understand anicca should not be changed.

That said, our collective attachment to this one way of practicing doesn’t align with my understanding of this tradition’s history.  My Buddhist theory and history aren’t particularly strong, but from what I understand, the Buddha had multiple different techniques he offered to students depending on where the student was at.  In terms of this specific lineage, the systematic scanning method, a staple in this tradition of how to practice, was only added in the last century by U Ba Khin.  

There are real benefits to the systematic scanning method and to rigidly guarding the meditation technique. This formulaic method has allowed this method of meditation to become accessible to many, and has allowed this tradition to grow rapidly.   

Yet, I also wonder what it would be like for AT’s to have other tools in the toolkit to teach struggling students other than the simple one size fits all formulas? Or for meditators comfortable in the technique to be able to use other practices to aid in their efforts when they hit rocks in the road.

I think the centerpiece of this tradition always should be working to feel sensations, observe them equanimously and understand that they are changing.  But what if we viewed the systematic scanning method as only one way (even if the main way) in an array of approaches to achieve this.  

I will start with anapana.  My understanding of anapana is to calm the mind and increase concentration to prepare for vipassana.  What if students who were struggling to concentrate or who had very wandering minds were allowed to count their breath for the first five minutes to help boost concentration? Or what if students who were very agitated were allowed to do walking meditation for the first fifteen minutes of the hour? From time to time I also use sound as the meditation object as a way to ground in the present.  What if struggling students were allowed to use these tools to aid them?  Or what would it look like to empower AT’s to be able to suggest tools other than the one’s Goenka recommends on a case by case basis depending on the needs of the student?  

I say these things because I recently have been experimenting with these techniques and others.  I have an incredibly overactive mind, and have been finding them really helpful tools to work with to meditate in different ways.  My aim is to always get back to sensations and to work to understand anicca, but using these other strategies has been helpful to get me there.  I think this technically puts me “outside the tradition” and ineligible to serve (and potentially sit).  I don’t think such wanderings should be discouraged but wonder what it would be like if other tools were embraced, and integrated into the tradition in some way that could benefit people.

To me, it is like going to the gym and being told the only useful activity here is to squat in this one way.  Indeed, squats are an amazing exercise that benefits the whole body.  And maybe we can agree squats should be the centerpiece of what is worked on when at the gym.  But don’t leg presses aid in the effort to achieve the squat?  And even if leg presses weren’t explicitly part of the formula for how to achieve the squat, I don’t think doing them should be discouraged and disqualify you from going to the gym at all. 

If we think about innovation, innovation needs openness.  This tradition has had a remarkable history of innovation from making meditation available to lay people, to the scanning method, to the removal of much of the Buddhist parameters, to ensuring courses are donation-based.  My hope is we embrace this history of innovation as opposed to stifling it.  

In terms of a central dialogue question stemming from here, I hope the takeaway isn’t the specifics of what I’d like to see added, but rather what is the essence of the tradition?  What shouldn’t be changed (in my mind it is anicca and sensation-based meditation) and what can undergo innovation as new generations have new needs?

6 thoughts on “The Rigidity of the Tradition: Part 1

  1. Yasmine Phillips

    Things weren’t rigid in buddha’s time because there was a Buddha to teach. And I think the same thing can be said as you go down the lineage to U’ ba Kin and Goenka. We really only have what they say to go on. As far as I understand it, there are no teachers in the tradition at this moment in time who would be qualified to be less rigid and more creative. And I think it is so easy to fall into confusion. Unfortunately we live in a time where we have these rigid instructions to follow. Not ideal for sure but it’s the best we have. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with you experimenting outside of the Vipassana organisation and finding what works for you. But I personally trust in the rigid system and trust the AT’s and teachers to help me out of confusion when it occurs for me. I’d prefer if it wasn’t changed as it has given me so much as it is.

  2. Hi Yasmine – Thank you for your comment. I think you make some wonderful points. If I can summarize, the rigid teaching is helpful, and we don’t want to lose it by allowing a teacher less qualified than Goenka to make modifications. I agree with you.

    Dan – Our tradition is centered around the 10-day recorded course. To serve the number of students interested in attending courses, we need to rely on new ATs with the support of the recorded instructions. With so much momentum and positive results from this model, any change to the 10-day course does seem like a diversion from the core of the tradition.

    My question for both of you is, can we keep the core of the tradition in tact (mainly the 10-day course), while allowing more flexibility and exploration for students established in this tradition? While we want newer Goenka students to sit the foundational 10-day recorded course, could we also allow senior ATs to personally mentor established students and share more about their personal journeys? Can we create opportunities for established ATs and old students to impact the world beyond Centers together? Can we allow conversations that explore the content of Goenka’s discourses to enhance understanding?

    I believe it’s possible to preserve the rigidity of the entry point for this tradition (the new student 10-day course) while allowing flexibility and support for all old students and the many directions their lives may take them. Creating the guidelines to make this successful is a difficult challenge, but I believe it would be worth the effort. What do you think?

  3. Daniel J Kaminsky

    Heyy Ryan and Yasmine!  Great comments all around.  Ryan, I think your post serves as a really nice bridge between Yasmine’s experience and my own, thank you for writing it.

    Ryan, this paragraph is really what I hope to be getting at: “I believe it’s possible to preserve the rigidity of the entry point for this tradition (the new student 10-day course) while allowing flexibility and support for all old students and the many directions their lives may take them. Creating the guidelines to make this successful is a difficult challenge, but I believe it would be worth the effort.” 

    To back up a little bit, I think the tradition does a wonderful job introducing people to meditation.  The ten day courses are of immense value, well set up, and well organized.  I think the tradition doesn’t do as great of a job supporting old students and serious old students.  This makes sense to me; I think the literal mission statement of Goenka’s was to spread the seeds of Vipassana far and wide, which this organization has done and is doing.  

    I also agree with Yasmine’s point about the current capacity of AT’s.  The vast majority of AT’s are lay people with jobs, kids, hectic lives etc. and all are entirely volunteer.  The volunteer service oriented component is truly an inspiring part of the Goenka model.  But this also means that, as Yasmine points out, AT’s likely may not be able to give the sort of guidance that certain students need, and may need to stick with parroting back Goenka’s instructions.

    Ideally, I would love it if AT’s in this tradition did have the capacity and authority to take on the task of personalized instructions, but until that happens it makes sense that students may look to other teachers, other models or other techniques to aid in their efforts on the path.  
    This then is a central point of what I am getting at.  I don’t think it is fair for the tradition to ask of serious old students that we make a commitment to this and only this path, but then not give students making that commitment the support they need.  My definite preference would be to loosen some of the rigidities around exploration.

    This affirms the question you are asking Ryan.  I think the question then becomes what are the guidelines to maintain the core rigidity of the ten day, while simultaneously creating flexibility for old students?  What things are truly incompatible with this tradition, and what can be allowed as an aid or a compliment?  

  4. Yasmine

    Hi Ryan!

    Gosh I feel so unimaginative when I read your comment 😂

    I think I see what you’re saying … you’re saying that as you become more established on the path that you’d like things to be more dynamic perhaps?

    On an individual level I agree with you in the sense that everyone is on their own path and has to find a way that makes sense to them. However, in regard to Vipassana as an organisation I think I see it differently to you. The way I see it is Vipassana offers what they offer. You can take or leave it and are under no obligation. If you don’t like the rules then you don’t need to follow them, but your access to certain things will be limited. I think it’s fair enough.

    For me, walking the path requires a great amount of trust in the teachers guiding you. This trust should not be blind and everyone needs to build their own relationship with their guiding teachers. I’ve had two major problems/questions during my 8 years of practice. Questions that I put to multiple ATs with no satisfactory answer or resolution. However I kept asking and was lucky enough to eventually find experienced teachers to answer them and in one case to work with me quite dynamically on a 20-day course. I feel very lucky about this.

    I’m not sure if I answered your question, but I suppose I sense that something is unsatisfactory to you in the same way it was for me. I hope you find a resolution soon… or perhaps I’m totally wrong! 😄


  5. Hi Yasmine – Yes, you answered my question. Thank you for engaging! I think you understand exactly where I’m coming from. Similar to you, I’ve had some concerns that multiple ATs have not been able to present answers that satisfy me. Over the last 2 months, I’ve presented these concerns on this blog with the hope of connecting with someone who may be able to provide satisfactory answers. Hopefully I will be as fortunate as you to find someone who can help to bring resolution. Regardless of the outcome, I’m enjoying the journey. Thanks for your support!

  6. Pingback: Honoring the Ask – Living Vipassana

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