Monday, January 12, 2009

Critical appraisals of Goenka's Vipassana

Below are three online resources for those that might be interested in reading critical appraisals of Vipassana meditation as taught at centers run by SN Goenka. I would greatly appreciate referrals to any more you might know of or run across.

Harmanjit Singh has written a thorough examination that should be of interest to any long-time follower of Goenka, particularly his analysis of religious aspects of the methodology. For all the assumptions he claims to uncover, though, he seems to bring a few of his own, most notably materialism (a philosophy in which all phenomenon are reducible to chemical reactions and all knowledge arrived at through the measurement of such), distrust in spiritual techniques for manipulating the mind (manipulation for other purposes, such as writing academic papers, are presumably acceptable), and a general disdain for the spiritual and in particular for spiritual teachers (he refers to the Buddha as Mr Siddharth Gautam, as if he referred to the Christ as Mr Jesus). For those that haven't yet taken a Goenka course but are seriously considering it, I would delay reading this until after you've done the course. It may negatively affect your experience, which you should first evaluate for yourself before letting Singh evaluate it for you. Signh's blog, with html and pdf versions can be found here.

American meditator Jeffrey S. Brooks writes of his experience at a California Goenka center in the early 00's. The behavior of the retreat manager appears a bit odd, as if he were not prepared to deal with the likes of Mr Brooks, a guy who's been around, who can talk the talk, who quotes scripture to best opponents in argument, who uses his knowledge to challenge authority. He raises some valid points about Goenka, particularly that in over 30 years of teaching he has not yet authorized any full disciples, only assistant teachers who work at his centers playing tapes of the master's lectures. His accusations of cult-like behavior seem off the mark, a petty accusation lobbed to repay the lack of respect he felt he should have been accorded for his extensive meditation experience. You can read his account here.

A more recent piece comes from an anonymous meditator in the Goenka tradition for more than 10 years who was expelled from the order for asking too many questions. Among the sensitive topics are Goenka's unproven historical claims to the “purity” of his method and the utter lack of textual and philosophical training for his assistant teachers. Unlike Brooks, who seems more intent on puffing up his own credentials through tearing down Goenka's, or like Singh, who has an allergic reaction to the spiritual, Anonymous inquires compassionately and seems genuinely concerned to reform the tradition to which he has given a large part of his life. His Inquiries can be read here. Clicking the Reply button at the end of each section will take you a bulletin board where you may discuss this particular issue with other meditators and interested parties.



  1. Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for compiling the list.

    I am not "allergic" to spirituality, or manipulative (?) in writing an academic paper, or have disdain for Mr Gautam or Mr Goenka.

    1. I am indeed a non-spiritual, atheist, person, who does not believe in metaphysical/spiritual realms.

    2. My general style of writing, especially when criticizing something, is to be precise without intonation. I had a lot of issues to cover in my criticism, and therefore chose a structured format for my monologue. It was not meant as an academic paper, and has not been sent to any publication.

    3. I refer to the Buddha as Mr Gautam (and also Guru Nanak as Mr Nanak Bedi) as I find that this way of addressing tends to dissipate the hagiography and awe for a generally revered figure.

  2. However we might perceive ourselves, others invariably perceive us differently. I don't wish to argue your points. Readers can judge for themselves.

    Thank you for stopping by, Mr Singh, and for some very precise writing.

  3. Not doing anything but Observing the world within/without with Tranquil Harmony.

    Those who have attended the 10 day course of Vipassana is taught not to move ones body while meditating to any aversion or pleasure that the body goes through. This is of course a radical material phenomenon and has nothing to do directly with non-material speculative principles of abstract spiritualism. It is of course contrary to any philosophy that the world has evolved in the last 2000 yrs.

    Philosophy and/or pedagogic mythology does not pertain to enlightenment but to an unresolvable argument to understand the complex changing civilizations/society that we are born too, as not everyone wants to renounce the seductive material world. Every Expression originates from the ego as a reaction to the pleasure/aversion that one goes through.

    Ephemeral comes closest to Global Ecological Harmony, anything Concrete is a perversion that will eventually become a reason for the Glacial Meltdown.

  4. I am new to meditation.

    Would it be unwise for me to pursue a 10 day Goenka's Vipassina retreat? How else to best learn?

    In my naive thinking, I'd like to find someone who is, or at least has been for a moment, "truely enlightened", so as to understand their pathway. Of course, I too would mistrust anyone who claimed such enlightenment.

    I understand I must experience "for myself." Yet all pathways taken involve significant effort and "faith" before the way becomes least so it seems.

    Thanks for any advice and ideas

  5. Hello, Ken. Go ahead and try a retreat. You're likely to get more than you might lose. If you wait to find an enlightened teacher, it might be a long time before you ever begin.

    All the best.

  6. People don't seem to understand the method Goenka teaches. It is very simple at it's core.
    1. Observe yourself, examine yourself.
    2. See what makes you miserable.
    3. And then stop doing what makes your miserable

    As you do this exercise, you yourself will notice that
    1. It so happens that misery is caused by our habits of reacting to sensory phenomena, either by craving or aversion.
    2. Once you stop reacting, you find your misery get's less and less
    3. Not reacting is a habit. At some point, this habit will fall away completely just like any other bad habits like alchoholism, or good habits like exercising regularly drop away with neglect. When the habit of reacting drops away completely, that is the extinction of misery.

    What is so difficult to understand about that? What is so wrong about that? What part of that is incorrect? What part of that is goenka not teaching? I never hear any debunkers invalidate/criticise this core concept. Instead i hear all sorts of inconsequential arguments.