Written by Dan Kaminsky
In the last post on the tradition’s rigidity I mainly focused on the technique itself. Here I’d like to discuss the tradition’s view of exploration.
In my experience the tradition implicitly and explicitly discourages exploration of other meditation or spiritual paths.
Implicitly the messaging happens in a few ways. Goenka at the end of the ten day gives an analogy of digging shallow wells. The story goes that only if you stay in one place and dig deep will you ever hit water. The analogy is true – you wont hit water if you keep moving around. But in my view, this is in no way analogous to spiritual exploration. To me, spiritual exploration is more like a plate of food. Sure, once in a while some foods don’t mix well together, yet oftentimes different foods can complement each other really well.
Other implicit messaging that discourages exploration is that this technique and tradition are better than others. Goenka will sometimes say this outright. At one point he says something like “we aren’t here to condemn other techniques” and then in the same sentence says “other techniques are like the kindergarten of vipassana.”
There is also the messaging that this is the technique that the Buddha taught and practiced himself to reach enlightenment. Firstly, I question such a statements truthfulness or validity. Secondly this messaging can go a long way in convincing someone that this one and only tradition holds the power to help you reach enlightenment thereby discouraging you from looking elsewhere.
There are several ways the tradition explicitly discourages you from exploring other techniques. The first and most obvious is the course application. If you answer that you have been exploring other techniques or traditions, you will often get a phone call from an AT. Many friends who I know who have been in that situation have said the AT told them they are only allowed to take three more courses within the tradition and then must make a decision of which path to follow.
One example of when this felt particularly strict was when an old student friend of mine went to a lecture by Pema Chodron who is a very wise and saintly meditation teacher. She then applied to serve a course a week after the lecture and was denied because of the fear of mixing techniques.
The most intense example of explicit discouragement is when you apply for a long course. You are asked explicitly if you have committed to this and only this path. And when you arrive at the long course, the opening line of Goenka’s reaffirms that this is the only path to enlightenment. Anything that asks you to commit to it and only it is walking dangerously close to religion to me.
I presume for some these parameters are justified. In my mind, many of these parameters feel more harmful than helpful. I think for this tradition to live up to its full potential it should be as open, accessible and universal as possible. To me, many of these parameters close it down and isolate the students and the tradition from the outside world. I think these parameters have made this feel far more like a religion to me than I would like it to feel like.