I have just returned from a ten day Goenka Vipassana retreat at Damma Dipa in Herefordshire. It was a challenging, rewarding and inspiring experience and I am finding it something of a challenge to write a blog about it.
Firstly a description of what a ten day Goenka Vipassana retreat is. These retreats are taken by thousands of people a year at many retreat centres and hired facilities around the world. They are run for free depending entirely on the generosity of old students to fund the next generations of students and ongoing support of the facilities. The courses were originally run by S.N. Goenka himself but he is now very old and so all courses are run ‘virtually’. Each teaching session takes the form of an audio recorded, lead meditation by the great man. Each evening and in the morning of the last day (11) there is a one to one and a half hour video talk from Goenka. All meditations start and finish with between five and ten minutes of Goenka chanting slowly in Pali.To add a human touch there are two or more assistant teachers physically present. They are there to answer questions at designated times and after the evening discourses. The male teacher (in my case) was the one who ran the audio and video recordings. These teachers are quite distant. They live in their own separate quarters and only appear at designated times. There are also course managers who look after house keeping and will help out and they mix with the students.
Nine days of the course are held in Noble Silence. This means there is not only no talking but no communication between fellow students. No reading and No writing. Males and females are strictly segregated until the last day. You are to behave as if you are doing the course on your own – like a solitary retreat. You can, of course, talk to the course managers and also the servers who provide delicious vegetarian food – ah ha! – but there is no food after mid day apart from two pieces for fruit at 5pm if this is your first course. If you are an old student then there is only lemon water to drink after noon.
The days start with a 4am wake up bell followed by meditation and breakfast at 6:30am and more meditation then lunch at 11am then more meditation then tea (fruit or nothing) at 5pm then more meditation and the evening discourse and a little more meditation then bed at 9pm. I think you get the picture! There are a few hours during the day for rest and there are periods when you can meditate in your room or in the meditation hall that can also be used for sleeping – I recommend that you sleep during these times if you really can’t stay upright. During rest periods you can walk in the grounds – but not leave them.
The first three and half days of the course are spent doing Anapana (Mindfulness of Breathing) meditation. This is orientated around focusing the mind. As such the instruction is to concentrate first on the air entering and leaving the nose but later just the sensations found between the upper lip and the nostrils. This latter part is in preparation for what is termed ‘Vipassana’ which comes, with something of a fanfare.
For the ‘Vipassana’ proper one takes ones highly focused attention (and believe me it is highly focused after over twenty four hours of meditation just on a small area of the face) and move it around the body. It should be possible to feel ‘sensations’ of various types at every point in the body. Once this is established one is encouraged to sweep the body with ones attention noting the sensations at every point. Finally one should reach the point (probably not without years of practice) of having a totally transparent body (my words) where one is aware of sensations through out. No mention is made of what happens next!
The whole process is very much about focus with continual references to ‘purifying the mind’. It is also very internal. One is directed to sit with eyes close the entire time and to ignore external stimuli. Just focus on sensations in the body – by implication physical sensations.
After the initial shock of hearing Goenka’s chanting I enjoyed the first three days a lot. I have been on retreat before but nothing as intense or quite as long as this. Focusing the mind and allowing life’s worries to drop away had the familiar emotional effects. I tuned in more to my heightened emotional sate – or was it my regular emotional state – and felt the waves of joy and sorrow. The ‘Vipassana’ phase started well but after a day I developed a headache. This was now five days of focussing the mind narrowly and just internally and I think I needed to step back. I was also experiencing ‘issues’ with Goenka’s claims to spiritual authority and I think these were bothering me.
What follows may sound like gripes and groans but they are not intended to put anyone off doing a Goenka Vipassana retreat. They are merely my reflections.
Goenka repeatedly claims that ‘Vipassana’ is a ‘technique’ that is totally non-sectarian and can be practiced by anyone but also says that it reveals the truth of anattā (not-self) which is a direct denial of the atman – the existence of a self or soul. Anatta doesn’t bother me as I am a Buddhist but it it totally incompatible with the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Islam, Judaism and maybe Sikhism) and also Hinduism which does bother me. Either Goenka and everyone else involved is naive on this point or he is cynically ignoring the incompatibility in order to ensure people will follow his practice – which brakes the basic precepts he professes. Either way it feels bad.
Goenka claims that this technique of Vipassana meditation died out everywhere apart from in Burma (Myanmar) and that he was responsible for re-introducing it to India and hence the world. In a throw away remark he says that the words remained in the countries of the Theravadin Buddhist world but the actual practice was lost. This effectively rights off all other schools of Buddhism over the past two thousand years at a single stroke. I have never practiced in a group that says that ALL the other groups are wrong.
If you have practiced other forms of Buddhist meditation it would strike you that there is absolutely nothing different about what Goenka teaches apart from maybe his insistence one should stick only to bodily sensations. This might be fine. Perhaps this is the bit that was preserved in Burma and forgotten everywhere else but alas that hypothesis just doesn’t stand up. Reference is often made to the Satipatthana Sutta and if you actually read that sutta (there are translations all over the web) you find that it describes the Goenka technique plus a whole lot more including awareness of ‘feelings’ (emotions) and ‘mind objects’ (thoughts). Reading the Satipatthana one comes away with a much more rounded view of what one should be mindful of in order to progress on the path of spiritual development. Again Goenka is either naive or being intentionally misleading – neither is a good thing. On the final day, when one can talk to fellow students, I asked around a few old students (who had been doing this for years) and asked if they had practiced other ways or read the suttas and they all said no. This was not an exhaustive survey!
Vipassana actually means insight into the true nature of things. Will the Goenka technique bring this insight?Yes it will some but probably not as much as practicing a broader technique that includes awareness of feelings, thoughts and ones surroundings. If one strives to purify the mind so much I can’t help feeling one will end up with a very pure mind but will not transcend self.
For the past ten years I have been sitting with my eyes half closed. I therefore found the instruction to close them difficult to follow but stuck with it for seven days and then only opened them occasionally. The eyes closed instruction is symptomatic of the incredibly inwardly bodily focused style of meditation which I found increasingly claustrophobic.
Perhaps the thing that bothered me the most was the hard sell Goenka gives to ‘his’ technique. It is like a soap salesman who strives to blur the distinction between the advantages of using any brand of washing powder with the advantages of using his brand. So it becomes difficult to tell whether it is universal Buddha Dhamma that bring the benefits or this particular meditation technique and no other.
I feel it is a shame that we were sitting there listening to twenty year old recordings of a man chanting. If the technique is so good why haven’t the assistant teachers reached a point where they can do the chanting and lead the meditation? Will they be playing the same recordings in another twenty years even when Goenka’s stories have become totally inappropriate? It seems a little sad, moribund perhaps. Doing a ten day course involves listening to about fourteen hours of discourse and another seven or so of chanting and instruction. If you repeat the course you get exactly the same again and again – re-record not fade away. When I was in one of my giggly moods (we all get them on retreat) I would think of the Monty Python sketch of the Man with a Tape Recorder in His Nose. There was something comical about the solemnity with which the assistant would walk in, climb on his perch, wait for silence and then just press “Play”. Surely this is not what we have come to!
Please don’t let my moaning put you off. If you are thinking of doing a Goenka course go ahead and do it. It is not a cult it is a bunch of good people teaching the Dhamma in the way they understand it. It will certainly deepen your practice but keep your eyes open (figuratively) and read the original suttas. What is presented is not the answer. That is bigger.
I must express my gratitude again for the Vipassana organisation that enabled me to sit this retreat and wish it every success in the future.