Is Dhamma Fragile?

You know the story: 2500 years ago the Buddha brought the complete path of Dhamma to India. Over the centuries, these teachings became polluted until they were lost in most parts of the world. Only in Burma was the complete teaching preserved in writing and practice. After 2500 years, the teachings were professed to return to India and spread around the world, and Goenka succeeded at doing just that. So now, as the noble followers of Goenka and the Buddha, we’re asked to protect these teachings to preserve them for future generations.

This story creates two narratives that make me uncomfortable. First, it creates the perception that Goenka is the holy being destined to be the one who carried the dhamma around the world. It elevates his teachings above every other contemporary teacher, and sometimes even the teachings of the Buddha. It elevates Goenka’s recorded discourses from one teacher’s helpful interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching to universal fact. While Goenka was an amazing human being, he never declared to be a god, so I don’t think we should put him on that pedestal.

My second discomfort – On one hand, this spread of dhamma was destined to happen, meaning it was beyond any individuals ability to start or stop. On the other hand, each of us has the ability to introduce contaminants that could lead to a second extermination of the teachings from the planet. This dichotomy can mess with your head. First, we should be humble and grateful to experience this miracle of dhamma. Then we must do everything just right to prevent this miracle from crumbling. What rises is this belief that nothing should be questioned, and everything should remain exactly as it is. This again elevates Goenka, this wonderful teacher, to the level of a perfect god that should be followed without questioning.

So what is the Dhamma? Goenka teaches that dhamma is the law of nature that can be experienced by every individual from their own experience. In order to develop wisdom, we must maintain our practice on the cushion, but I don’t think that’s enough. We must have guides and mentors who can give us personalized feedback on our practices to help us avoid subtle pitfalls and confusions. We must return to the theory and ask question about topics we don’t understand. We must continue to explore how our experience on the cushion connects to our experience in the world. All of this should help us develop a deeper understanding of truth, not contaminate the teaching.

Goenka wanted us to be great scientists of the mind-matter phenomenon. Scientists don’t change the laws of science when they ask questions and conduct experiments. The law of gravity has not changed as humans have developed a deeper understanding of how it works. The dhamma is not fragile; Dhamma is truth. Instead of worrying about the long term consequences of change, let’s embrace the amazing journey of discovery. Let’s celebrate curiosity and inquisitiveness, and model how time on the cushion can help us on this journey. Time to meditate!

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