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Pros and Cons of "Vipassana" Meditation
(as taught by Goenka)

From Brother ChiSing
May 7, 2013

Dear mindful friends,

I hesitate to write this short essay, for inevitably someone may misread or misinterpret what I am saying here as a criticism rather than a critique. But, it is something I have been meaning to write about for several years now. For whatever reason, this morning, I felt an inner guidance to "write."

Many of you may be familiar with the 10-day "Vipassana" meditation system as taught by Goenke. There is even a Vipassana retreat center in Kauffman, TX, just south of Dallas. Many persons have received great value from attending their retreats, including myself and some of my friends. I have even met Goenke in person once a few years ago, when he was visiting Berkeley, CA.

What many do not realize, however, is that what Goenke (and his teacher before him) teaches is only one particular form of Vipassana meditation. Goenke certainly does not have a monopoly on the word Vipassana. Goenke's particular way of teaching Vipassana is rather new and modern in the last hundred years, despite his claims of it being the "original" or "rediscovered" teaching of the Buddha. All you have to do is go to any other Buddhist monastery (especially in the Theravada tradition) and you will discover many different ways that Vipassana is understood, taught and practiced.

The Pali word "Vipassana" is related to the Sanskrit word "Vipashyana" which means "to look deeply" in order to "understand" and realize "insight" into the Nature of Reality. The Buddha taught meditation which integrates both Shamatha and Vipashyana. Shamatha means to "calm", "cool" and "concentrate" the mind, leading to peaceful or blissful states of consciousness (samadhi). Most meditation teachings before the Buddha only focussed on Shamatha. Ever since the Buddha, there have been hundreds of variations on how to combine Shamatha and Vipashyana, using both "Tranquility" and "Insight" on the Path of Enlightenment. All Buddhist traditions teach one or more forms of shamatha/vipashyana meditation or practice (including chanting mantras or visualizing bodhisattvas as a form of meditation). Theravada teaches it. Zen teaches it. Pure Land teaches it. Tibetan Buddhists teach it. There has never been only "one way" that Buddhism has taught shamatha-vipashyana in the last 2,600 years. (I especially enjoy the way Jack Kornfield and those from Spirit Rock teach Vipassana).

Obviously, there is great value in practicing any form of shamatha-vipashyana meditation, including Goenke's version of "Vipassana" (which begins with Shamatha, then proceeds to Vipassana, and ends with a form of Shamatha called Metta which focuses on loving-kindness). There is always benefit for anyone going to any meditation retreat, whether that be 1 day, 3 days, 5 days, 7 days or 10 days (or longer).

However, many persons who attend Goenka's 10-day Vipassana retreat for the first time have usually never attended any other kinds of Buddhist meditation retreats of 5-10 days length before. And so, there is a tendency to attribute the positive feelings or insights after a Vipassana retreat ONLY to the Goenka approach to meditation. In fact, however, most of the positive benefits felt and insights realized is due to meditation in general and being on retreat for several days. ANY and ALL Buddhist meditation retreats (not just Goenka's approach) would produce similar peace and insight.

The teachings during Goenka's 10-day Vipassana retreat are excellent. However, they are also laced with a tendency toward exclusivism and fundamentalism. Of course, this is true of almost ALL traditions, including many Buddhist ones. Through my many years of attending several kinds of Buddhist, Christian and Interfaith meditation retreats, I have discovered that they all have at least one thing in common -- they all say they are the "right" way (or the "original" way, the "best" way, the "fastest" way, the "most effective" way, etc.). There is nothing wrong with saying this, so long as it serves its intended purpose of convincing the would-be practitioner to make a choice, commit to it, and follow-through all the way to completion. Most people in our modern culture have a tendency to be wishy-washy, just dabbling in a little bit of this and a little bit of that, never going deep, staying spiritually superficial for fear of being cultish. That is why I believe that most traditions have to come across as somewhat "special" in order to convince people to commit to the practice. However, we also have to be careful of the other extreme of exclusivism and fundamentalism.

Honestly, I enjoyed many of the teachings during Goenka's 10-day Vipassana retreat. However, I was also somewhat shocked by the exclusivist and fundamentalist tone of how some teachings were presented. This shock was nothing new to me, though. I have experienced this mild shock at several other kinds of retreats, including some Zen, Theravada, Tibetan and other traditions. I usually don't experience this kind of shock, though, at retreats with Thich Nhat Hanh, for whatever reason. Maybe I have become "shock-immune" over the last several years, LOL.

It is usually not very well known that Goenka has some slight prejudices against gay persons. This is not personal, it is just what he learned from some more conservative branches of Theravada Buddhism. According to these ultra-conservative teachings, there is a belief that women and gay persons cannot be fully enlightened in their current lifetime. They would need to be reborn as heterosexual men in their next life before full enlightenment could be possible. Gay persons are allowed to attend the introductory 10-day Vipassana retreats, but they are many times forbidden to attend the later most advanced retreats. I know this is true, not only from the rumors about this, but also from two actual friends of mine, one Japanese lesbian and one Caucasian gay man. They both told me that they had to hide or renounce their sexual orientation before being allowed to participate in the more advanced retreats.

I also talked with two former directors of the Vipassana center in Kaufman, TX. They resigned after seeing how much exclusivism and fundamentalism is really going on higher up in the organization. Of course, I take what they say with a grain of salt. It is only one perspective, and sometimes people who are hurt or feel betrayed can tend to over-exaggerate. However, I do believe there is at least some truth to what they told me.

I actually felt a little disappointed after attending my first 10-day Vipassana retreat at Goenka's center in Kaufman, TX. There was no instruction on any other form of meditation besides sitting meditation. It did not feel very well-rounded. There was no instruction on walking meditation, eating meditation, or other forms of meditation. Just sitting meditation. And since there was no interaction with others in a mindfully guided way, it lacked practices for integrating Vipassana into everyday life. Thus, I noticed that most retreatants had a very hard time afterwards going back into "the real world," having had no instructions whatsoever on how to integrate this experience with daily mindful living. There was no formal way of group processing, learning mindful communication skills, speaking from the heart, etc.

Also, I have noticed over the years that the vast majority of those who attend this kind of intensive, non-integral retreat rarely ever go to another meditation retreat ever again. And if many of them try to practice an hour of daily meditation afterwards at home, most of them fizzle in their commitment after a few weeks. One of the reasons for this is because Goenka's version of Vipassana does not lead people to [practically] taking refuge in ALL THREE Jewels of Buddha AND Dharma AND Sangha, and therefore it is an incomplete and non-integral approach to spiritual development. The emphasis is primarily on just DHARMA. They do not teach devotional practices that help us more deeply open our hearts to BUDDHA, and they do not teach practices on mindful relationships and mindful communication to help us co-create SANGHA. But without deeply taking refuge in ALL THREE Jewels (not just in word but in real practice), most people will not have the necessary strength and support to continue on this Path.

One thing I love about some Zen and other Buddhist communities, and in particular Thich Nhat Hanh's approach, is that there is an emphasis not only on intensive retreat practice but mainly on gentle, gradual, ongoing daily home practice and weekly group practice. We need all three forms of practice, not just intensive retreat practice. Daily mindful living and being in a weekly spiritual community of other meditators are so very crucial and important. This Path is truly only effective over the long haul. Awakening is always gradual, not just sudden. One may have highs or breakthroughs along the way, such as at intensive retreats, but true insight must always be integrated into ordinary everyday life over a whole lifetime. True enlightenment is not just the bliss on the mountaintop. True enlightenment always goes back down into the valleys of everyday life, into work life, family life, relationships, words, actions, and serving others, caring for the planet. True Enlightenment is not just BEING but also enlightened DOING.

Now, I realize what I have shared above may sound like I am criticizing Goenka's wonderful Vipassana movement. Sometimes, critiquing can sound like criticizing. It is not my intention to criticize but to critique. For about 50% of those who attend these Vipassans retreats, there is usually some valuable experience of peace and realization of insight. And for about 10%, there will be some long-lasting change in their life if they continue consistently on this Path. But for the majority, I do not believe this approach is the best approach for most. I believe that most persons today need a more gradual and integral approach. But whatever Path you choose, please practice it with all your heart, for the benefit of ALL beings everywhere.


May all beings be happy!
May all beings transform their suffering!
May all beings rejoice in all joys!
May all beings be at peace!

Brother ChiSing
(May 2013)


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