The Rigidity of the Tradition: Part 2

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.  

Implicit Messaging

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.

Explicit Messaging

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.

3 thoughts on “The Rigidity of the Tradition: Part 2

  1. Tejas

    Those who mistake the unessential to be essential and the essential to be unessential, dwelling in wrong thoughts, never arrive at the essential. ~ Dhammapada 1.11, Gautama Buddha

  2. Anna

    Hello and thank u for ur articles
    So I had my first course in 2007. I went up to satipatana course and when I realized that the soul concept was not part of the theory of this tradition and of Buddhism in general, I felt really disturbed.
    I used to teach Hatha yoga at that time and was so passionate about spirituality I wanted to explore so many paths. I actually did. I explored different types of yoga such as Styananda with very different types of meditations. As I was going through some hard times it was very difficult for me to practice Vipassana at that time and I needed more “pragmatic” kind of meditations, I mean meditation that can help me achieve things and reach goals in life… Vipassana was only giving me the desire to become a nun and retire from the mundane world…. I actually relocated and where I settled was a pranic healing center. I engaged in that practice and followed many courses and upgraded my knowledge and practiced their arhatic meditations.
    But to be honest, I didn’t like their organization and the way that they are practicing and also worshipping the guru even if the teachings on healing are quite valuable and clear. O didn’t like their meditation neither. I found them to shallow. After that episode of a few years, I moved to India for 6 months lately, at the Ashram of a famous guru where you are quite free with ur practice. The only thing is that twice a day there is Vedas recitation and some devotional Bajans. I studied part of Vedas there even learnt and chanted. Read a lot about the guru, met great devotees who had really strong faith. But as I was going to the Mandir to follow the chantings, It turned out that I went back to Vipassana because all the kind of meditations I have learnt, included those there at this Ashram, are actually full of imagination, projection and don’t address suffering. They’re kind of spiritual bypassing… I really enjoyed the energy of faith in the Ashram though, and I have great respect for the guru who built a very beautiful and useful place for people of the village and recluses from all over the country who can come and stay there for almost nothing and do their practices. All those people have all the reasons to have faith in their guru. I completely understand their gratitude and I myself feel very grateful to have spent so much time during the lockdown feeling safe there and being surrounded by so kind hearted people.
    Now, I am currently going back to Vipassana, after practicing some mindfulness techniques. What I can say is that Goenka says that it is the only path because that is what the Buddha said. I think in pali is ekayano Maggo. U can find the reference in the satipatana sutta. I think I’m grasping the meaning of it now more deeply and this is probably because I have the experience of other paths: we have no other choice than to face suffering. We cannot run away from it. If u concentrate your mind on a pleasant object such as a deity or a mantra or nowadays u practice positive focus, you will never be liberated. This is really the truth. And there is nothing to do with sectarianism… The only way out is in and the Buddha gives us the way to observe deeply. Studying the texts is very useful. It helps to understand why Goenka is saying such things. You can also see how other tradition interpret and on Wich practice they insist. This is very interesting.
    I totally understand what you are talking about and I myself have been called by AT because I was very honest saying in the form u have to fill the first day, that I was using anapana with my yoga student… I explained to her that there was no copyright on this technique and she asked me to explained more in depth how I was using it. She wanted to make sure that I was not talking about energy… You know, after studying pranic healing and witnessing how the students are constantly rejecting the fault on other because of their bad energies and being obsessed with energy cleaning and protection, I now understand… Ultimately we are responsible for our reactions…
    But this Understanding I could only have it because I explored other paths. I think Goenka says that it’s okay to explore but ultimately you have to make a decision. And I agree… As far as I’m concerned, I think I’m slowly making my decision even if I think that some mindfulness can be useful especially to understand the contact with the sense doors. But I would say that if you feel the desire to explore, do it. See and experience by yourself, after all that’s what Goenka and Buddha constantly remind us with bhavanamaya Panna. And see what suits you the most. I also read a very interesting article about yoga and Vipassana where Goenka explains the 8th Jana and how Buddha went beyong those states and how Vipassana is different from the techniques that the Buddha experienced himself before creating his technique to reach full liberation. To make up your mind about the fact that Vipassana as taught by Goenka is this technique, you cannot escape the study of the Pali Canon I guess.

    I wish you all the best on the path!

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