Reflections 1 Year After Leaving Long Term Service

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.

6 thoughts on “Reflections 1 Year After Leaving Long Term Service

  1. Hey Dan,

    I’d like to share that I’ve also had many similar thoughts regarding sectarianism etc. I recently had an affirming experience which may be of some benefit for me to share here. I was serving at Dhamma Kunja and got to read a transcript written by Paul Fleischman. It was called something along the lines of “Preserving Our Tradition While Adopting To Modern Times”. Maybe you have seen this transcript? In case somebody may not have I will briefly describe that it was originally written for a workshop of the same name that Paul Fleishman co-facilitated for ATs. It goes over many of the difficult questions that the T’s, AT’s, and acharyas are discussing when it comes to this tradition. The transcript is mostly written in the form of questions.

    I couldn’t believe it when I got to the part of the transcript that explores sectarianism and blind faith. The transcript very directly asks questions along the lines of “On what grounds do you claim a belief in reincarnation?” and “Are we sure that we haven’t created a religious sect?”. After years of hearing AT’s answer my questions with seemingly unshakable confidence, to read that Paul Fleishman himself might not be sure whether this is a religious sect or not was just incredible to me. The transcript touched on many of my other concerns about the organization. It left me with a sense that while on the surface the organization may have a duty to uphold an air of confidence (that this is truly “The one and only path”), the reality may be much more along the lines of endless consideration and questioning.

    All in all, hearing your experience and hoping you’re feeling supported in your journey.


  2. Christina – Dan started at Dhamma Dhara. I started at Dhamma Patapa. We have both spent significant time serving at Dhamma Pubbananda. All three centers are on the east coast of the USA. Why do you ask?

    Matt – Thank your for commenting. While I’m aware that Paul Fleishman has facilitated a few workshops with valuable open discussions, I didn’t know there was a transcript. If you or anyone else has a copy of it, please share it with me.

    Your comment prompts so many thoughts and questions for me, but the most important are on the topic of transparency. Having “a duty to uphold an air of confidence that this is truly the one and only path” seems irresponsible and wrong. The organization and every individual in it should have a duty to Truth, and an obligation to provide the resources needed so each person can reach their own conclusions. I feel like anyone who is promoting blind confidence is harming the tradition, and the belief that only ATs are mature enough to examine the foundations of our tradition feels disrespectful and arrogant.

    For our tradition to thrive for future generations, I believe we need to open up these conversations for everyone to engage in and contribute to. Matt – I would enjoy learning more about your journey and how you’ve reconciled your concerns allowing you to continue skillfully on your dhamma journey. If you would like to write a post for this blog, please let me know.

  3. Chandru

    Hi. Please let me know about any community living in India which allows people to practice their techniques (while I follow vipassana meditation, I have a different diet of fruits for lunch and raw vegetables for dinner). Any help will be appreciated. Thank you.

  4. Flor

    Thanks for this wonderful article. Remaining critical is a personal responsibility wether we are meditators, muslims, buddhists or whatever. I guess the deeper you delve into an organisation like this one, the more chance there is that you encounter people (including AT) with ‘tunnel vision’, i.e. an absence of healthy criticism.
    To me, Vipassana is a tool, so far a great one, to increase my quality of living. Whenever I hear ‘the only’, ‘the best’, etc. I thus (silently) giggle: so how come some enlightened beings that will always inspire me may have never heard of this technique, or may have never even meditated?
    Let’s remain open yet very critical towards any signs of presumed superiority. To me, that’s the purest way I can think of.

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