Written by Dan Kaminsky
I sat my first course back in 2010. I was 21 years old, about to graduate college, and rather confused about my next steps in life. It proved to be immensely helpful. I continued to sit courses and by my fourth course I decided to make dhamma one of the central pillars of my life. I took a job that was seasonal in large part so that I could spend the entire off-season sitting and serving courses.
During the work season I joined local committees, and helped organize non-center courses so that dhamma service became pretty central even when I was not at centers. Finally, I moved to a center to become a staff member. I left my position as a staff member early and am still very much processing my understanding of that experience and this organization at large.
At this stage I am feeling several major emotions when I think about this organization. The first and most dominant among them is gratitude that I found this path at all. Yet, underneath the layers of gratitude is the feeling of being truly misled. I devoted so much of my time to this organization really believing the claims of non-sectarianism and universality. At each stage more and more wasn’t sitting well with me, but I tried to observe it and continue to work on the cushion to feel the benefits.
To me, any organization that asks you to commit to following only their path if you’d like to progress, has very explicit messaging that their path is better than others, and doesn’t allow for exploration outside of itself, is walking in dangerous territories of religiosity.
In addition to the above regulations, the inclusion of highly theoretical subject matters that are sectarian by nature (in that only certain groups believe in them – reincarnation, karma, enlightenment) provides further feelings that this is a sectarian organization.
I don’t believe that Goenka viewed it this way; considering his context and how much of the typical buddhist theory he was able to strip away, I do presume he thought this was universal. So I don’t think Goenka, or anyone in this organization is intentionally misleading anyone. But I do believe that continuing to call this tradition universal and non-sectarian doesn’t feel to be truthful. Considering the emphasis on truth telling, continuing to package the organization as one thing, when there are very clear contradictions to me warrants very serious pause and reflection.
I also feel gaslit. To me it is a rather obvious statement that reincarnation (for example) is not a universal idea. Yet when presenting questions or critiques like this I was essentially told that these comments are coming from my own baggage and are my own sankhara’s or paramis. That to me is really classic gaslighting.
On day 9 Goenka gives a discourse about how people typically find fault outside of one’s self. When presenting critiques of the organization to then immediately fling the critique back on the critiquer feels to be missing a valuable opportunity to engage in the practice. Sure the critiquer needs to be aware of their own baggage. Yet ideally the organization and those in it can also take in the information, sit with it, observe themselves and see if there is any validity to the criticism. To be told in essence, the organization is perfect and the problem is you, has ultimately proved to be a rather harmful thing for me to hear over and over. I left long term service feeling pretty confused and isolated because of this messaging.
I have loved my time at this organization and I truly have gained so much from this practice and this organization. I am deeply grateful for all it has given me. But I also think really deep self-evaluation needs to occur. I hope that serious old students, AT’s and leaders in this tradition are up to the task of viewing the tradition as it is, and evaluating how best to meet students’ needs, remain true to the teaching and technique, and tell the truth about what the tradition is and is not.