Friday, July 13, 2007

A Critique of Vipassana as taught by Mr S N Goenka

This is a critical analysis of an intensive meditation practice in wide prevalence these days. Vipassana is taught in many variants, but this article focuses on the technique as taught by the organization set up by Mr S N Goenka .

The following phrases and keywords are to help google index this page: limitations of vipassana, vipassana limitation, goenka vipassana, tough regimen, silent meditation, metta meditation, faulty technique, attention manipulation, vipassana criticism, narrow focus, blind equanimity, cultist organization, brainwashing, harsh conditions.

Since this is a long article, I have typeset it in TeX, converted it into PDF and uploaded it to Googlepages. It can be found here.

An HTML version (with poorer formatting) is also available here.

PS:

Some critical web pages about Vipassana:

Vipassana and Criticism
An experience at the California Vipassana Center
Amit D Chaudhary's Blog entry
Factnet Thread
Factnet Thread
Factnet Thread
MSN Thread
Google Groups Post about Vipassana and other attention manipulation techniques

58 comments:

Latha Sukumar said...

I skimmed through your well thought out and eloquently argued piece. My only comment is that you do exactly what you claim Vipassana does, present a limited world view. Vipassanna or any other technique relating to self awareness is purely experiential, cannot be labeled and is not meant to be purposive. In essence it is not practised so one can experience inner silence, cut out chatter or even realize oneself. It is just a process of observing our thoughts and sensations born out of our conditioned learning so we see habit patterns which fetter us from having an expansive world view (for want of better lingo). I think to totally dismiss the technique is to throw the baby out with the bath water.

harmanjit said...

I will take Mr Goenka's words to be authoritative about Vipassana's purpose, and he definitely does consider it a technique to achieve a certain goal.

As it is an attention manipulation practice, it is an awareness-limiting technique.

My monograph mainly criticizes it for this aspect.

Dust Unsettled said...

Hi Harmanjit,

This comment is not about this post but about your other posts in general.

There is a sound maturity in your posts and I am really impressed by your writings on the human conditions. Keep up the good work. Blogrolled you.

Latha Sukumar said...

Every practice depends on its practioner. Mr. Goenka to his credit has spread the technique world wide. The trade off has been creating a brand with certain key identifiers, which you or anyone else may find to be purposive. However, the essence of the practice as handed down by the Buddha is attention to what is. Where then is the manipulation? Vipassana's emphasis, even per the Goenka tradition, is not on manipulating anything, but on just being in a state of awareness of the ebb and flow of sensations that arise and pass. Ultimately, since we all respond with our bodies, what better way could there be to higher creative states - where we dare to weather everything that comes our way not just what we think is sensible, clever or good?

harmanjit said...

Response to the following comment:
"Every practice depends on its practioner. Mr. Goenka to his credit has spread the technique world wide. The trade off has been creating a brand with certain key identifiers, which you or anyone else may find to be purposive. However, the essence of the practice as handed down by the Buddha is attention to what is. Where then is the manipulation? Vipassana's emphasis, even per the Goenka tradition, is not on manipulating anything, but on just being in a state of awareness of the ebb and flow of sensations that arise and pass. Ultimately, since we all respond with our bodies, what better way could there be to higher creative states - where we dare to weather everything that comes our way not just what we think is sensible, clever or good?"

"Attention manipulation" is a technical term which means asking the mind to focus on something on which it normally is not focussed. As such, vipassana as taught by Mr Goenka qualifies as an attention manipulation technique. And as it asks the mind to focus on bodily (as in over and under the skin) sensations to the exclusion of everything else, it is an awareness-limiting practice.

And as far as having a goal is concerned, most definitely there is a goal in all spiritual practices, including Vipassana. It is to "be liberated". I would be very interested to know why you think Vipassana does not have a goal. Would you really say that freedom from the sensory realm, the transitory realm, the realm of birth and death, is not on the agenda of a spiritual practice such as Vipassana?

You may find it more convenient to communicate with me via email. (My email address is at the end of my article).

Regards,
Harman.

Latha Sukumar said...

i do not think spirituality can be reduced to linear, cause-effect paradigms. as far i am concerned it is an exploration and adventure, not something done for a tangible benefit that the mind or body conjures up as a worthy experience. such a benefit can only be stale and limited in scope based as it is on an expectation set up at the level of our petty mind and thoughts. and going back to your earlier comment, creative thinking can never arise out of thought - in fact i consider the expression an oxymoron

srid said...

Harman,

I skimmed through your critique and observed a few predispositions in your writing; for example...

Goal-oriented Buddhism: 'samsara' and 'nirvana,' just like any other labels are only tools but not to be taken for literal truth. In that sense, as a practitioner, it'd be much better to "just do" what really works for me (judging based on their consequences - wholesome or not?) instead of trying to ruminate and arrive at hasty conclusions. (A 'view' is based on a thought - neither true nor false.)

I could quote several lines in your critique to explicate how you preconceived their literal truth. However, I'm afraid that could only lead to yet another verbiage.

srid said...

I would also like to invite you to read Daniel's book on "insight practices" (close to vipassana) and give a critique of it?
MCTB

Or, if you do not have the time, could you just read this article?

They might be intellectually challenging for you.

ambrish said...

hi harman
you've matured into a solid intellectual. i must confess that my intellectual capabilities are on a decline. i found your long monologue very articulate but boring. i never knew that you were cabpable of such verbosity... i am bedazzled by your brilliance and bow down to your mental prowess... hail harman... your un-"spiritual" career is on the right path... guru harman or mr h singh, let's see where you take yourself...

ambrish

Casey said...

Is there any transparency whatsoever as to where donations go?

How are the global pagodas funded?

One thing I found curious: the California Vipassana Center's application asks for the applicant's occupation. Is this information relevant?

During my 10 day experience, I observed a possible correlation between economic standing and accommodations. Most students of low economic standing were placed in older and shoddier accommodations, whereas, older and more professional looking applicants were given air-conditioned cells.

This led me to the suspicion that Goenka's 10 day courses are a money-making endeavor.

I found many of the old students to be very dogmatic concerning the superiority of Goenka's method and, thus, the unquestionable authority of Geonka's institution.

Most students on day 10 were fully convinced of the efficacy of the practice. It was surprising to me that most of the group consisted of new students.

I must ask the question: what average person, after undergoing rigorous deprivation coupled with brain washing, wouldn't give a generous donation?

Rambler said...

Thank you for your clear evaluation of the vipassana retreat. I was planning to go to one, expecting a challenging meditation course that would give me the tools to continue practice and broaden my understanding of the psyche. Your critique made me realize the reductive nature of this method.

I would still like to do some sort of retreat, even silent, but one where time is allowed to study, read and write to come to my own insights. Do you know of any such place?

harmanjit said...

I have visited many KFI retreats in the past, and they leave you alone to contemplate, and usually they have a good library (with many texts by philosophers and spiritual teachers). But they do charge a fee for the boarding and lodging, which they do also waive sometimes if according to them, you are sincere and poor.

Please note that I do not endorse, or am affiliated with, J Krishnamurti's foundation or his teachings.

You can find out more about them at:

http://www.kfionline.org/studycentres/index.asp

There are some KFI centers in other countries as well but I haven't been there.

Jeff said...

Thank you for a very interesting article, Mr Singh. I am particularly interested to know what clinical evidence there might be to support your claim that vipassana "can precipitate and exacerbate Depersonalization, a dissociative disorder (as defined in DSM-IV).” I found at least one reported case in which a practioner reports meditation helping alleviate symptoms of the disorder:

http://thebuddhistblog.blogspot.com/2008/10/buddhism-sanity-and-depersonalization.html

Harmanjit Singh said...

Hi Jeff,

The evidence is the exhortation by the teachers to become "an observer" of one's body-mind (the "drishta").

I have based this statement on my understanding of what a dissociative disorder is. As psychiatry in India is still not a respectable recourse for a person (especially a deeply spiritual person), the evidence has to be the avowed outlook of a person. I encourage you to talk to Vipassana meditators and observe whether they exhibit symptoms of depersonalization. In my experience, they do.

As for the case you have mentioned: that person is not practicing Vipassana at all. He is concentrating on his breathing and trying to "come back" into his body. He should be very careful in practicing an attention manipulation technique which aims at making one the "observer" of one's body-mind, because he is already very susceptible to it.

I am not a doctor. (disclaimer)

Jeff said...

I can forgo food for a day or two, but this is unlikely to precipitate an eating disorder. I suppose it could, but the probability is quite low.

Thank you for clarifying that it is Vipassana specifically that you see as the danger, and not Anapana.

Harmanjit Singh said...

Hi Jeff,

Vipassana retreats are very intense and involve more than 12 hours of sitting every day. That in itself is quite dangerous for someone vulnerable.

But still, it is the continued practice of cultivating the attitude of an observer which is the focus of my critique, and not just the practice in the retreat.

The Irreverent Buddhist said...

Hi Harmanjit,

I read with interest your article. I am a practising Buddhist meditator not in the Goenka tradition.

There are many issues about the Goenka organisation that do concern me.

The least of these is one you seem to focus on a lot: The development of a certain amount of detachment which is really an essential for Buddhist meditation practice.

You are right that in those predisposed to dissociation this can be a danger but it can also be a help: the key is to be in a good container environment if undertaking such practices.

Goenka retreats do not provide this - and this is of course why there are many mental health presentations from those who take a course. This is a serious issue.

Personally I started practicing Shamatha Vipassana meditation whilst I was living in a Buddhist meditation centre for a long period of time which did provide such a container.

The development of this ability to regard myself, be aware of myself was a key factor in some horrible discoveries and my recovery process.

Dissociation as a result of trauma is a response mechanism that is not well understood. It is much more comprehensible in the context of Buddhist understanding of mind than the solidified concepts of western psychiatric understanding of mind.

Whilst I meditated the distance that the development of this "detached watcher" created allowed me to start recalling and processing memories of the most horrific childhood abuse and torture. The calm established through Shamatha practice made my mind stable enough to face the truth of my past and stop hiding from it through the protective processes of dissociation. Yet it was this further, deliberately induced and well examined dissociation of developing "the watcher" which was the key to undoing the knots that bound me in pain and hid me from the truth of my past.

The things that worry me about Goenka are:

1) He claims he is not teaching Buddhism when a brief glance at the materials concerned confirm he is teaching Buddhism. An Indian friend and Bikkhu explained this was a deliberate deception as teaching Buddhism in post partition India would have unacceptable and gotten Goenka in big trouble.

2) He claims an unbroken lineage but he has strayed from the teachings of his own master in significant detail. In any case the Buddha taught there would be no unbroken lineages within 500 years of his death so all such claims are false.

3) His understanding of the nature of the Buddhist path is distorted by his own confusions. This means that highly suggestible people during these retreats are learning a mistaken view of Dhamma that whilst in the long term may not be harmful will not result in the reduction of stress and suffering they seek.

4) He teaches that his students do not need to understand what he is teaching them but that it will work anyway. The Buddha taught that people should not believe him but should find out for themselves what is harmful and what is wholesome.

Thank you for writing an interesting critique. I would add one last thing. Many studies are now looking or have looked recently at the value of insight meditation practices in conjunction with psychotherapy and found them to be highly effective.

This reflects the findings of Gwendlin who proposed the most significant factor in the success of psychotherapy was the ability to look within. This factor played a greater part according to his researches than the skill of the therapist. This is reflected in these recent studies and also in my personal experience.

For people whose personality is disordered in whatever way, the function of the disorder is to hide some of the contents of mind from the conscious realm. Psychotherapy alone is much less effective than psychotherapy combines with the delivery of tools for self analysis and observation.

Matthew

Anonymous said...

Hello jahanada,

Thank you for your article on your experience with goenka's vipasana.

i did a 2 10- day retreats back to back years back. And my healing teacher said it makes people crazy. I refused to believe. he suggested i see a psychologist. I honestly can say
i must have had hallucinations and my experience were extreme. too long a story. Other enlightened masters it has to be practiced a certain way or you can go insane.

you mention you felt like a criminal and robert savado at stanford ( I think that is his name) did the Stanford Prison experiment. Which clearly traumatizes a person for life. I am afraid that has happened to me. In fact my teacher told me I was broken and i thought of vipasana just be equanimous to everything. So i was.

Secondly, I was a graduate from college ect. and intelligent, really cute and i did not notice my brain functioning like before it was decreasing I thougth what is going on just be equanioumous. See his techinique deprives a person from social interaction and is strict sensory deprivation a person in this state will grasp any social contact they can even if it hurts them. In this case students are grasping Goenka in his discourse-give donation, tell others how great this is, you will be more productive in society, you will have more energy, don't steal don't kill dont have sex-misconduct.
Having studied psychology i could see at times, and the form seems to be like conducted experimental formats the way i was taught in college and some grad school. I am thinking this organization definitely has some underpinnings of government studies and a way of controlling people and taking away their freedom.
I have met many ex-goenkas who have gone crazy but keep thinking oh this is my bad karma be eqaunimous. So many years of my life gone.

ramanathan said...

two things here. vipassana technique and the way it is being served.


imagine a meal is being prepared. the vegetables are of the best quality. but the way it is ' cooked ' and ' served ' may not be the best quality.


vegetable is vipassana .. which is discovered by buddha or whoever. these guys are only cooking and serving.

a hungry fellow .. does not and cannot complain over it ... as long as he is hungry. once he is contented and knows how to grow the vegetable and cook and serve himself .. he leaves the ' hotel '

he is ' grateful ' to the man who farmer who grew the vegetable .. not to hotel guys.

let me get to goenka, straight.

he speaks ill of rituals and strictly asks no one to practise any ritual .. i agree .. most of us will .. what abt pali songs/ritual .. ?

and guys .. the uniqueness of this technique than the others .. is the keeping morality .. not to speak lies and lust things ..

and i dont think that is possible in the 2009 year. which means .. so much you lose moral values .. so much weak/ineffective the technique becomes.


his sesssions .. the videos .. the first five days were goood ... the last five wasnt .. reason .. he had nothing to say .. but has to say for 1 hr.

buddha .. doesnt give lecture/dicourse exactly 1 hr every day.

importantly he doesnt do videos.

it isnt real. its a mechanical thing. non-interactive.

ha .. they ask you to be aware using the mechanical stuffs!

even if you know the lectures .. next time .. you are forced to hear it. you cannot escape!


and then the sessions.


last days it got worse.

with three langues. saying same things .. for abt 45 mins in 1 1/2 session.

why cant we start observing breath from the first minute itself. the tapes are so disturbing. ( this is not possible if they were real people saying it )

he wants to get into the clothes of buddha .. to be a buddha for the year 2009 ... but buddha aint a buddhist ... he was original.

we have here imitators.

one place .. he says .. they are fake sanyasis who asks you to do that and this .. so that you will go heaven or hell.

but he himself asks people to donate and do dharma service .. ( free staffing ) to get merits in this worlld and other .. so he means heaven!

the food. they are luxurious foods. he perhaps wanted to appeal with the fooods. buddha ate once a day ..so his monks .. for body survival.


but if you ask me .. if there was a chance to go over all this once again .. i am sure will.


i benefiteed from this course, i learned from this man.

the ' I ' changes. now i see the weakness, flaw and absurdity
i put forward my ideas.


one more thing. last thing. we dont have any one other than goenka doing this vipassana course. that is the problem. he monopolized this technique. and he has no right. even if he were to die dozen times, he cannot reach the shadow of buddha.


in dhammapada,

even if a person is just behind me and speaks lie he is far from me

even if a person is miles away .. but speaks truth he is near me


those who see me , see truth
those who see truth, sees me

by the way, leave this breathing technique/s for a while ... where are you going to find good air ?

anyone thought abt it ?


what if a traffic police man does pranayama or vipassana .. he is only going get more dieseased!

seeya

Seva said...

I just finished a 10 day Vispassana course in California, and I must say that I've benefitted from it, but I am not quite a convert. There are some spiritual or "far-out" aspects that I disagreed with and chose to disregard, such as karmic reincarnation, strct morality, and the new age vibrations in the air stuff. I focused on the practical aspects - while I realised the "subtle sensations" are just nerves firing, blood coming to the surface, etc., I still enjoyed having these new sensations, and I felt more aware of the body, rather than more detached. In fact, all colors, sensations, smells, etc. became more distinct and brighter.

I am not quite a full believer in the pavlovian training of the mind to not blindly react to emotional stimuli with anger and such by teaching it to not react to body stimuli, but I'm willing to give it some benefit of the doubt - it does not seem unscientific, but it still may not work. In my first few days back in the real world, I noticed myself still reacting emotionally to fights with girlfriend, etc. but being able to slow down and see some root causes of my frustration, something I may not have done as much before. That may just be a symptom of a clearer less addled mind after 12 days of living healthily, though.

As for disassociative states of mind, I think that while eastern religions may be a bit too biased towards it, western psychology may display a similar bias against it and other altered states of mind in general. I think that I am going to try to choose direct visceral participation for fun things like for example jumping into a lake and going "whee!" - I am quite turned off by eastern religions' insistence of floating around like dull detached beings and never viscerally having fun and feeling joy. But I might reserve some of my new disassociative skills for emotionally stressful or confrontational situations, where it may be useful to observe first and then choose how to act.

srid said...

Seva:
"""
But I might reserve some of my new disassociative skills for emotionally stressful or confrontational situations, where it may be useful to observe first and then choose how to act.
"""

Been there, done that. It usually seems to work for less intensive emotional episodes though.

It never occurred to me, at that time, that I did not even have to feel that emotion in first place. Observation, detachment are second-rate ways of approaching the problem.

Thought-experiment:

During a calamitous event such as losing one's job or a close member of one's family, which of the following experiences would you want:

1) wallow in grief
2) practice detachment
3) feel excellent/happy

The Irreverent Buddhist said...

"During a calamitous event such as losing one's job or a close member of one's family, which of the following experiences would you want:

1) wallow in grief
2) practice detachment
3) feel excellent/happy"

None of the above.

Generally speaking I find the best approach to such is to have a clear awareness of what is happening including feelings arising in yourself and being aware of others around you.

Then you can honour your feelings of grief or anger and not suppress them or become them.

If you have lost a loved one you may also find yourself experiencing joy at their life and the love you shared and grief for it's loss at the same time.

A proper grieving process does not involve much "wallowing in grief" - though their may be much grief. To wallow in grief implies one is not prepared for the realities of life and is overcome by them. This is living in ignorance.

srid said...

The Irreverent Buddhist,

I can relate very well to your view point - a typical Buddhist view. Harman and I had several email exchanges regarding this which you might find interesting:

http://harmanjit.googlepages.com/conv-sridhar-daniel.html

"clear awareness of what is happening including feelings arising in yourself [while not being disturbed by the perturbations]" is pretty much (2) dissociation [of self from the feeling] however clear one's perception of the feeling maybe.

For the sake of discussion, and my own increasing tendency to avoid Buddhist philosophical lingo, have you considered this down to earth aspect: you chose to let yourself feel anger [when anger arises], for example, and have a clear awareness of it although a better alternative - feeling happy/harmless/excellent - is available. Could this be because of Buddhist conditioning? Why would a sensible person choose a less happier and/or more harmful experience after all?

Seva said...

In my life situation, "emotionally trying" times do not involve so much of personal setbacks or traumas like losing a job or a loved one. I have lost or gotten fired from plenty of jobs, wrecked cars, lost license, etc. and stuff like that never seemed to particularly upset me. As long as I can go out for a hike with my dog and smoke a joint by the lake, life's fine. As far as losing a close person , I have been lucky so far to never have been in that situation.
Instead, emotionally trying times in my life involve dealing with difficult people with anger management problems and a negative outlook on life. In those cases, a healthy amount of detachment is often the only way to maintain my own sanity and equanimity and not be dragged down into negativity and neurotic behavior myself. Vispassana training seems to help me to make the leap from being stuck in the mud of emotions to getting to the point of "I'm feeling angry and frustrated because of this - perhaps I shouldn't".

The Irreverent Buddhist said...

Dear Srid,

I will try and avoid Buddhist terminology completely and explain from my personal experience.

When my grandmother died last year I was deeply grieving. We were closer than I am to my mother or any of my family. I was very aware of my grief. I cried when I needed or wanted to cry and I laughed and remembered good times we had spent together when I needed that.

My grieving process was very balanced and rounded. I was never overcome with grief. She was an old lady and death is a part of life. It was not possible for me to attend her funeral but this was not significant. I had attended her life.

We had spent much time over many years together and I had heard every important event from her life and listened intently with all my attention. We were very good friends (and family), she was the person I cared more for in this world than anyone, but I was never overcome with grief.

This was not because I was suffering from depersonalisation or dissociation. This was because I know myself and the world more intimately through my Buddhist practice than ever I did before - and knew my grandmother intimately too.

The development of dissociation is a stage on the Buddhist path, and an essential but short lived one, if you are doing it right.

Goenka's courses don't teach people to do it right.

All great teachers of all time who founded all religions taught similar truths in differing social contexts. A core teaching of all religions is "know thyself". Let's ignore any other "spiritual" truth.

Buddhism at heart is this core teaching, expanded through much experience into a varied DIY tool-kit for doing so: the tool-kit is called the noble eightfold path, one part of which is "right" meditation.

Note that not all meditation - or all Buddhist practice - leads to knowing oneself, as there are many cultural accretions and changes in Buddhism throughout the world. Not all meditation is "right" meditation.

However, I would propose that a fundamental basis of knowing oneself is objective observation of oneself. This absolutely demands the development of a dissociated "watcher" state of mind during the first Shamatha stages of the path of meditation.

It is essential to take a grasp of the mind quite forcefully at first. However it is not a long lived phenomena and is a tool that is used to facilitate calming of the mind and development of concentration. As calm and concentration develop the force needed to grasp the mind wanes, the watcher becomes less distant and eventually disappears back into pure awareness of being.

The calm concentrated mind can upon fruition of these calming stages rest upon any object of meditation without effort and without disturbance - and without the dissociated watcher that was used as a tool on the path.

The problem with Goenka's Vipassana is that the entire path seems to consist of encouraging dissociation and the path does not seem to have a point at which this is dropped and the faculties it has engendered are used for the real work of seeing yourself clearly. Plus all the stages and techniques are introduced too quickly, in a factory-farm setting, where deep understanding is unlikely to emerge.

Before I was a Buddhist and meditator I would have been overcome with grief at the "loss" of my Grandmother.

This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of life which I can only express by telling you how I feel about her now:

This woman showed me unconditional love and I am so grateful for the life we shared together. I am grateful I put the effort in to be with and know her. I am glad I developed skills of concentration and calmness (through meditation) that let me truly listen to her and hear her - and hear the things she was not saying too.

I do not miss her presence in my life now, for death is part of life and I have accepted she is dead with grace.

However, I am very aware of what she gave to me and I celebrate her life often with happy memories of times spent together which will remain with me always.

Buddhist meditation has not lead to me being more dissociated but less dissociated - more aware of and in touch with myself and my feelings. And because of that, more capable of true empathy and compassion for others. But also less likely to get lost in mental madness at times of stress, more able to see things clearly and act compassionately.

It is necessary to recognise that induced forms of dissociation in Meditation practice are used as the tools they are - and USE them as the tools they are then DISCARD THEM.

If you practice a particular form of meditation that is hypnotic, trance inducing or habit forming (I suspect Goenka body scans for example suffer this problem) then it is possible to become stuck in the dissociation in meditation, enjoy the coma-like or sloth-like state - and end up being more depersonalised/dissociated in your own life as a result.

Matthew

Harmanjit Singh said...

A few links:

Dangers of meditation, especially Goenka Vipassana:

http://www.thehumanist.org/humanist/MaryGarden.html

A bulletin board thread about my article:

(available via free registration at http://www.lioncity.net/buddhism/index.php?showtopic=82973 or as it is at http://harmanjit.googlepages.com/vipassana-critique-lioncity-conversa.htm )

Anonymous said...

your peoples siks, only know haw to kill president and keep a lot of weapon in your temple, iam not budhist o follow any religion but you, with you opinion and your cast, giving problem to humanity
please stop, try for your evolution, live in peace,and may be you will understand yourself

Harmanjit Singh said...

Some relevant links, in addition to the ones already covered:

http://web.archive.org/web/*/http://www.vipassana-cult.co.uk/

http://www.google.co.in/search?q=vipassana+cult

especially

http://melissamaples.com/how-not-to-do-a-goenka-vipassana-retreat-in-15000-words-or-less/

and

http://blog.rajgad.com/spiritual/2006-08/experience-from-attending-vipassana-course-by-sn-goenka-4-days-out-of-10.html

swamibebop said...

I've done 4 Goenka Vipassana retreats and have found them extremely beneficial. I tried many other eastern and western techniques prior to my first course, and nothing really helped me as effectively in dealing with anger and depression. The Goenka teaching style is not perfect, and was never claimed to be. It may not be suited for some individuals, but so far it seems to work well for the majority. This assertion is based merely on my own observation and not on actual statistics.

What has been further reassuring is the sound scientific research that has emanated during the last few years, showing the benefits of focused attention (FA) and open monitoring (OM) meditation techniques such as Vipassana on brain neuroplasticity and well-being. Please take a look at this IEEE Signal Processing article by Dr. Davidson:

psyphz.psych.wisc.edu/web/pubs/2008/buddha_brain_IEEE.pdf

Di said...

Very interesting discussion going. I didn't e-mail notification for this blog :(

Anyways, I would direct everyone to read this article by Swami Vivekananda:

http://www.vedanta.org/reading/monthly/articles/2006/2.yoga_meditation.html

Meditation is not for everyone. There are stages. An infant who doesn't have teeth, doesn't know how to eat, can only drink milk. A middle school student cannot understand/learn/study PH.D level books.

So in spirituality, one cannot jump into mediation and benefit.

Also there seems to "what will I get out of this" attitude. At least in spirituality, one should have lack of attachment, result-less mindset. If we go with set expectation, then we are bound to be disappointed. If a infant eats solids he will die. If a middle schooler reads PH.D course work, he is bound to get confused/scared and abandon studies.

Harmanjit Singh said...

Sanjay Kakar has written a critique/commentary on that part of my article which ascribes cultist tendencies to the Vipassana technique and organization.

His critique is of such a size as being unsuitable for a blog comment in-situ, hence I have taken the liberty of uploading it as a webpage and linking the webpage in this comment.

His critique is available at:

http://docs.google.com/View?docID=dc35b3gv_62xdt36dcn

Thanks, Sanjay for your commentary. It is a good addition to the discussion.

I will respond to it sometime soon.

naivecortex said...

Thank you for making these dialogue exchanges public. I'll take a look at the critique (and the upcoming response) just to work on my critical thinking skills.

Harmanjit Singh said...

My response to Sanjay Kakar's averments is at:

http://docs.google.com/View?id=dc35b3gv_67gpx2m7hh

naivecortex said...

As you said, Sanjay was mostly responding to a straw man ("Vipassana is a cult") instead of analyzing the substances of the original essay.. one of which, I believe, is dissociation.

Aside: Methinks Google Wave may make conversations like this easier (without having to create a second doc and copy-pasting the responses manually).

Harmanjit Singh said...

As evidence of the fact that Mr Goenka's organization wants to portray this practice as non-sectarian inspite of the explicit Buddhist rituals and chants used in the retreats, in the entire front page of www.dhamma.org there is no mention at all of Buddhism or the Buddha.

And on http://www.dhamma.org/en/vipassana.shtml it is said that the Buddha "rediscovered" this technique (in order to make it sound less Buddhist) but no evidence is provided as to its previous discovery by others.

Why be so coy?

Sanjay Kakar said...

I agree with your observations about Vipassana at the dhamma website. But there may be a good reason for doing this. There are innumerable sects of Buddhism, many with its elaborate mythology and practices. An overwhelming number of present day Buddhist practices have very little to do with what Buddha taught. One of my Korean colleagues is an ardent Buddhist (meaning that he goes regularly to Buddhist temples), but knows little about the core teachings of the Buddha. Hence there is a big difference in considering Vipassana as a ‘Buddhist practice’ as opposed to a practice that was ‘taught by Buddha’. If their website describes the practice as Buddhist, it may create incorrect impressions about the technique or the institution of Vipassana. At the course itself, Mr Goenka makes repeated references to Buddha and that this technique was taught by him. Hence this decision may be guided by prudence rather than an expression of coyness.

I do not know whether Buddha ‘discovered’ the technique, ‘rediscovered’ it or neither of these. Like you have pointed out, no historical evidence is presented about the claim of ‘rediscovery’ by Buddha as mentioned on their website. Based on my limited reading, my impression is that Buddha ‘discovered’ his own path.

Sanjay Kakar said...

Labeling my critique as straw man by ‘naivecortex’ in his/her brief response is totally misplaced. By definition, straw man argument means that I distort your position (say A) into another argument (say B), so that I can criticize A by denouncing B. According to ‘naivecortex’, A in your critique is disassociative practice, while my response is focused on refuting alleged cult(ist) elements of Vipassana (argument B). I've neither addressed nor criticized argument A. Hence I’m not using argument B to refute argument A. Hence the straw man case as stated by ‘naivecortex’ is baseless.

Anyone who has read your critique carefully can see that your criticism involves both the technique and the practices surrounding it. So far I have focused only on a portion of the latter and haven’t commented on the former. I will write to you in detail about the Vipassana technique as well.

Harmanjit Singh said...

Sanjay's rejoinder to my response to his criticism of my critique about Vipassana being cultist:

http://docs.google.com/View?id=dc35b3gv_68hjqs9ngm

Srikaran Rajasingam said...

Harmanjit, I completely agree with your critique in (almost) all aspects.

I had many of these thoughts while I was doing a retreat recently, and in fact they interfered with my concentration on meditation significantly.

I made efforts to try to separate the pure technique from what you call the 'mimetic and cultist aspects' and the non self-evident 'theoretical basis' but the course entwines them so much with the method that it was impossible for me to do so. The claims of being purely 'rational, objective and scientific' were in my mind so clearly false that I could not move past them.

On day 7 I discussed this with the teacher, and after one more attempt at putting these thoughts aside for the sake of learning the technique (not getting rid of them though, I thought then and still believe that they represent healthy skepticism), I realised that this wasn't for me.

I spoke with the teacher again that evening and explained that I was not able to practice with these doubts in my mind, and he agreed with me and I left the course. He was quite gracious and reasonable about it actually.

I have thought about writing a critique of the course (for the sake of clarifying these thoughts to myself as well), but since you have done so so very completely and precisely I feel no need, and indeed I'm sure I could do no better, so thank you for that. Also criticism from someone who hasn't completed the course is generally not well received by those who are attached to the validity of the technique ("if you had just stayed to the end..."), so this is better coming from you than me anyway.

I will add that I found the teachers and helpers to all be good, well-meaning people and although I myself cannot accept the technique as taught in this manner, I hope it brings to them and indeed to all the ardent practitioners the happiness they are looking for.

Anonymous said...

Dear all,

Vipassanna as taught by Goenka follows the original teachings of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. Its a simple organization based on donations. The main aim of the teachings is to liberate human beings from their Dukkhas or suffering.

The techniques strives to eliminate the suffering by eliminating its root causes. There are many enemies of us which are hatred, lust, anger, ego and attachments. Vipassana follows the path of truth and with help of truth only encourages the participants to inquire on their own suffering and its causes. Complete understanding of the teachings and the right practice of Vipassana will eradicate human miseries and help them lead a life of love and compassion.

Please do not discourage people from attending such a lovely path because you yourself dint understand it. Sometimes it takes time to come to full realization and some times what you think is right might be only incomplete understanding.

Regards,

Pratik

Anonymous said...

I find the very act of sitting down to focus on something (anything, but the breath in my case) is very valuable for me. I am very manic, very impatient, very angry, and run in high gar at most times. Any dogma is bullshit...especially when you are charged ...Any method (a dirty word?) taht helps a violent person become peaceful is a treasure.

I dislike hierarchy and rank, so I meditate at home...it's free.

Parrot Tax said...

Thank you for the article.

I just completed a retreat and left feeling very manipulated and that the 10 days was an experience of a cult. On the other hand, I don't feel the organization itself outside the 10 days are that cultlike. But the high volume blaring of Goenka's rich, resonant, hypnotic voice during a time of sensory deprivation, lack of support, and inability to object was a very strong brainwashing technique.

Another thing to add is that I have ample training in recognizing the 93% of communication (according to 1 study) not in words. Goenka does not convey compassion, and is actively deriding of any other technique, and indeed of your own ability to perceive for yourself if it isn't what he says you should see. The assistant teacher was essentially just a parrot for what was written. As such, the "see for yourself" was extremely misleading. Any negative experiences are thrown back at you as essentially blame. Goenka explicitly says on the last day that the technique is perfect, and if there are problems it's because you're not doing it right or not hard enough.

There is a harshness in the experience which leads people, IMO, to create a masochistic / control oriented inner experience. I've seen people benefit from it, but I've also seen people harmed.

Anonymous said...

i will give no background or explain even vaguely my relation to vippassana and rather get right to the point.
i must admit intrigue mr. Harmanjit at a rare article criticizing vippassana and so i set upon reading your blog. two points into your critique (4.1) and i realize that you could do with listening to goenka a little more carefully.
the first point you raise about not needing to be symmetrical or go through the body part by part is amusing simply because goenka himself admitted to imposing such instruction due to the convenience of it . he said , "this is to ensure you do not miss any part of your body" . further more, it is safe to assume that after these decades of meditation, he believes that there is a more efficient way of observing sensations. In any case , i dont imagine that your hand is being twisted behind your back. there is neither coercion or compulsion.
2) sensation through contact. this is more interesting. you cite some scripture as a part of your arguement. My question to you is simple. after having practiced vippassana as you claim, havent you noticed that it is not merely external contact that you feel as sensation or found the direct conection between your thoughts, emotions, sensations?
regardless of your answer , i would like to say something to you as well as anyone who reads this. Why are you so heavily reliant on being taught everything? do you not possess a potent mind of your own, one that is capable of independently pushing forward on a path of your own making. why confine yourself to siddharta or goenka . they are merely men and to believe that they are somehow overlords is paradoxically opposite of what vippassana seems to be . i think the buddha once said ( i could be wrong) - there are many paths to enlightenment and mine is but one of them . So please , do yourself a favour and consider yourself potent enough to work something out for yourself independently. I mean , after all siddharta figuered most of this our for himself. that should be arguement enough.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much, your critique has been extremely valuable in helping to deprogram me after my escape on day 6. Down a country road. Not a cloud in sight. Freedom.

Alice Wonderland said...

Thanks for this! It's been excellent reading your critique as I've been thinking of going on a retreat, and so Vipassana is one of the retreats I've been thinking of. Having read your analysis, and thinking it over, I'm inclined to find a much gentler retreat! I've found that, when I meditate just once a week, that alone is beneficial practise in allowing me to bring a higher level of awareness into my life. And I think Buddhism on the whole is unbalanced; the journey towards ‘enlightenment’ is all-encompassing, and the ability to enjoy the fleeting moments of happiness we have can be actively discouraged, as someone else has noted here. We have been given flesh-and-blood bodies, and while I believe a regular meditation/prayer practise is beneficial, so too are compassion, love, gratitude and kindness. All which are expressed within Buddhist teachings but sometimes flattened in the pursuit of enlightenment. There does seem to be over-emphasis on the dark side of life, used as an excuse to then dodge living fully and deeply, altogether! Yet the difficult times of life teach us a lot about ourselves, and about compassion.

I’ve found I’ve had beautiful experiences meditating when I’ve least expected it, and that just from one hour, once a week in a group setting using a variety of different Buddhist meditation techniques, all of which produce a similar result, allowing me to become much more calm and aware, yet without the punishing regime which does feel like a brainwashing technique. While the Vipassana may help some people, I’m wary of delving into something with that much sensory deprivation, that doesn’t give the mind room to air its own critical evaluation. And I don’t think the answers in life lie in disassociating ourselves from our surroundings; I think Buddhism should be used as a tool to allow us to step more deeply and joyfully (and more gratefully) into the stream of life. This is an invaluable critique and I hope it helps many people to be able to carefully evaluate whether or not the Goenka Vipassana technique is for them.

Anonymous said...

it is hard not to connect this with
the milgram experiment:
"if he stops, he has to recognise he was wrong to go so far"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CLVsGz4VvfM&feature=related

at best it was mis-understanding,
at worse it was retaliation against colonisation that has caused suffering to the many. Once a way to get rid of the invader, then a way to live on his behalf.

just to remember, not to associate
with groups whose practice is known to lead to pain, dukkha, no further.

not to be against while they will have to face the consequence of their own acts.

may this be for the best of one and another.
A/

Anonymous said...

thanks for this,

just to keep memory,

normal to have no friends there,
if this body and mind only deserves
rejection: not me, not mine, not i,

A.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your impressive analysis. I almost read it all. It helped me a lot, after a whole night of internet research, to decide to postpone those 10 days. Saved my soul? I hope that was the right decision.

And in the end, Osho helped, too, funny as usual (-: http://www.satrakshita.be/osho_on_vipassana_and_goenka.htm


I am however still very interested in a meditation retreat, be it 3 days or 5 days. In Europe.

And now I know: The less religious the better. There must be meditation disciplines which are not exclusive for any specific and
compatible with all other religions, and which are taught with gentle compassion.

And I guess I am not alone in that.

Please point us to a couple of cleaner meditation retreats.

Thanks!

Value your precision!

indygo said...

Hello and happy eastern,

I get in touch by vip. 12 years ago, and first i was highly impressed by the energetic change in my life. And i sit course by course in europe centers. After some service courses i get deeper in their structure and this was interesting, and changes my view of the organization and her order in world
The technique itself may be good. But i got problems with the meaning of "purity" and "clean" and "operation of brain", and all these retorical stuff.
After some time, i always feel "dirty" and try to avoid contact with normal persons, who didn´t meditate. Now i leave these practique after more than 10 years and i feel,like i lost half of my life. I am tired of any "awarness" or "spiritual" community forever. Because i believe, it is just another way of surpress and structure the human beiings in another way to make them convienience for the 3.millenium and its challenge for the world.
with best regards and maybe see you on blogspot again. J.Stock

rparkesh said...

Dear Harmanjit and others,
I see all of your views but one thing which each one of you misses is that what Goenka method is the pristine form of vipassna, which was taught in Budhha period. Rest is upto you how you take it. But In my view if one wants to learn something it should be in diluted form and not mixed. Casey had written that there is different accomodation for different people, but when you learn vipassna, each one of us is given exact same instruction, same food and same treatment, so I don't see Casey point here. You learn vipassna and then it is upto you if you want to continue this or do some other form of practise.

Hope people will learn something practical.

Let us learn what is insight and rest not fight on some other petty issues.

The Irreverent Buddhist said...

"one thing which each one of you misses is that what Goenka method is the pristine form of vipassna, which was taught in Budhha period"

Who told you this? Some fat bloke called S N Goenk? How does he know?

He doesn't know It's bullshit - Vipassana is rarely mentioned in the Pali Canon. Jhana and Shamatha are mentioned 100 times more often.

[b]Boy you have really fallen for some full on bullshit AKA brainwashing.[/b]

Good luck on your path, you clearly need it as your powers of insight are weak.

Anonymous said...

The benefits of Vipassana far outweigh the hardship one may have to go through for a while.

Anonymous said...

A video critique of the Vipassana in the tradition of Geonka/U Ba Khin by someone else:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSnadJDVZmU&feature=context-vrec

Anonymous said...

One key question and a comment:

Nowhere in my reading have I come across recommendation to not act in face of atrocity or unfair treatment. Do you know of Budhha's teachings that preach so? (Not interpretations by others over the hundreds of years)


In the passing, I would recommend reading or even easier, listening to free podcasts available online of Dr. Paul R. Fleischman on related topics. VERY useful material.


Acquantance said...

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.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so, so, so much for posting this critique. It has really helped me on my path to mental and emotional recovery from my recent 10 day retreat.
Before I entered the retreat, I felt good, energized about life and ready to leave a positive mark on this planet until I leave it…Yet the retreat lead me into a different space, a darker space, a space of mentally self-imposed misery (I’m not saying I don’t experience suffering in my own life but Goenka did a great job at brainwashing me that I was a sorry individual stuck in this physical realm). Thus, I actually regressed in my search for peace and happiness.
I entered the retreat with very little knowledge of what to expect, that was my mistake...all I knew is that it was "challenging" and would "clean my mind of its impurities" (whatever that could mean). My experience was most difficult because of the memetic and cultist aspects of the retreat. Why did I stay? I stayed because "something must be wrong and weak with me if I just leave" but in retrospect, I was not doing myself a favor. I struggled very much trying to understand the philosophical teachings Goenka gave us each night, to make sense of them within my own worldview, but, without a space to discuss it or ask questions, I was left to figure it out on my own, which probably made it worse. I could go on and on about the reasons I found it to be hurtful to me but you did a great job shedding some logistical light on the aspects that Goenka teaches but promises are logical and non-sectarian, which lead me to the depression I entered. It's been over 2 weeks and I am still suffering from the negative thoughts and ideas that were borne from that retreat. Sure there "looks" to be potential in meditating, and it's because my logistical mind believes this that I continue to explore it. However, Goenka claims on the superiority of his technique, coupled with this worldview that only focuses on the self, essentially leaving the rest of the world to fend for themselves, leaves little space for exploring what love and compassion (what I expected to be a product of a good meditating practice) can do for the world to make it a better place. In fact, there’s no interest in this since, according to what Goenka teaches, we should all be concerned with exiting this existence…I just wish the retreat taught the technique and only the technique. The extra talk only confused me.
Again, my qualms were clarified with your critique and I am eternally grateful for that.

-onewu2

Anonymous said...

It is important and practical to study the teachings of the Buddha first before jumping straight to vipassana meditation as it might confuse you further. I hope you guys will have a clearer understanding of what vipassana meditation is all about. If you are looking for any new age stuff or short term benefits, so as to make you feel relaxed or happy, then vipassana meditation is not for you.

Chris said...

I very much enjoyed your detailed analysis. I wish I had read it before taking a 10 day course myself this summer. I only posted a small part of my observations at https://morespiritualmatters.wordpress.com/2013/08/15/the-10-day-vipassana-retreat-a-warning/