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.

4 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!

  3. Jemma Ini

    I think what may be behind the requirement to commit to the path is that doing so is part of the long process of protecting and trying to keep the Theravada teachings as pure as possible. As time passes, years, decades, centuries, with all those who carry the tradition on, it would too easily drift, become watered down, and eventually become unrecognizable to the original teachings.

    I, too, have gone from one tradition to another trying to find what “best suits me”, and have very often encountered the experience where a teacher as an aside would inject their own interpretations or borrowed elements from various paths they’ve tried in the past. Some even incorporating elements of those teachings into their version of whatever. That would be one sure fire way a tradition would slowly become adulterated over time. But today, with the advent of all the technologies we have for communicating information to one another, that possibility would quickly change from slow changes over many years, to happening very quickly.

    Other thoughts have crossed my mind while reading your post and some comments regarding the need for an individual to simply commit to one and only one path. Another being to protect oneself from muddying one’s own waters by moving from one tradition to another, seeking differing beliefs that could quickly lead to confusion, self-doubt, questions of which is the best, or correct way of thinking, etc. That alone, I have and still suffer from, and I wonder if there will ever come a time in this life that I will overcome this. I sometimes, if not quite often, look back over my years and regret having had such freedom and easy access to so many different philosophies and religious teachings. It is great for one who is interested in the study of religion for its own sake, but for a spiritually minded person seeking to dedicate oneself to one path, it is dangerous. For someone like myself, who is and has always questioned, who for the most part of life was not quite able to commit to one specific anything –– let alone a religious tradition, that process of always seeking did more damage than good. Unfortunately, now in my fifties, disabled, and unable to participate in the world freely, I am only beginning to this and that perhaps all paths are one and one are all. At least in respect to finding a way to enlightenment. I also believe that one may have more success or benefit in their endeavors within their own culture rather than trying to adapt to a practice from another culture. Just the differences that arise from the cultural divide are enough to create confusion, misunderstandings, and misjudgments as to why something is that way it is. As American’s we are not accustomed to being told one most do this, or that, even less so that we are required to commit to something despite inevitable occurrences of questions arising from ethnocentrism, and cultural dissonance.

    As I am of the belief that enlightenment does not generally if ever occur within one lifetime, we probably go through many if not all the world’s traditions in our many existences, before finally reaching that special point that to me defies a name. And personally, I am still of the opinion that arriving at that pinnacle in no way is dependent solely on or requires one to subscribe to Buddhism in any of its forms. Such a state of being can happen in any tradition. However, when in one life, I do believe committing to one tradition is very important, if for no other reason than to contribute to maintaining those teachings essential purity within the tradition itself as well as within our own minds.

    It isn’t only for the mental stability of the seeker that such requirements are put into place, but also to maintain the historicity of the teachings, to maintain the purity of what is considered to be the actual words or teachings of that religion’s main prophet and/or teacher(s). There is a real and justified concern of protecting teachings from being watered down and overly simplified by the masses who wish to be part of that tradition, but are either incapable or unwilling to adhere to a system’s strict requirements. One reason such degradation occurs is a result of individuals with power, wealth, and influence having sway over such things. It is no accident that many religions have suffered such damage as a result of their wishing to be part of a practice yet not being able to or interested in meeting that tradition’s strict level of adherence or commit to its deep levels of requirement. Yet, their desire to attain the outward finery and benefits of such traditions is so captivating, they utilize their influence to change those requirements, or exempt themselves from them, and even change the messaging as well.

    There are so many more reasons why I can see the value of a tradition requiring such adherence and commitment, but it would require a long, extensive comment that I am sure most would lose interest in quickly (thanks to any who got this far!). In the States, we have no long-standing tradition stemming back over the centuries other than those that were brought here from somewhere else. For all the reasons that have been a benefit, so too has it been a danger. For too many it creates a buffet scenario where we try a little of this, mixed with a little of that. . . Too often creating great confusion for people, and for other’s driving them away entirely. As easy as it may appear to make it for us to seek and find the path that best suits us, sometimes it leads us to believe that we actually have such a choice to begin with. Sometimes, a spiritual tradition just is. And we must accept the parts we don’t care for, either that or find a way to work with or around them. Perhaps that is one reason why, so few in the world find what they are seeking, and the trust and protection of what exists ends up being left to a very small few within that tradition’s culture.

    One thing I will say is that when any of us choose not to adhere or commit to the requirements within a tradition, we run the risk of never find one. There will always be something or someone within a practice we shall find problematic for us. But rather than mistake that issue for the entirety of the practice, we do ourselves a great disservice by turning our backs on it. Is there an answer to this problem? As far as I can tell, no. Yet, there are thousands if not millions who over the centuries have committed to practices despite having encountered the same problems and yet not having the smorgasbord of spiritual practices to run to as we do, manage to continue on. And those that couldn’t or wouldn’t, simply walked away having no alternatives.

    Remember, there was a time not too long ago where humans had little to no choices about much of anything in life, let alone their spiritual alternatives. If you chose to, or were promised to, or were drawn to a spiritual practice, a monastic lifestyle, etc., your options were largely limited to what was in your immediate geography and your people’s culture. Today, however, we suffer from too many choices. Too much accessibility. And because of this, we live under the illusion of choice and suffer greatly for it.

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