Adventures at the Vipassana Enlightenment Factory


In December 2019 I completed a 10-day introductory course in Vipassana Meditation as taught by SN Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin. These are my notes and thoughts on this retreat as compiled afterwards.

Overview and rules

A quick introduction to this tradition: although they are ‘taught’ by SN Goenka, Goenka himself passed away in 2013. So the teachings are presented as audio and video recordings of Goenka taken while he was teaching former retreats in person. The meditation sessions at the retreat I attended were conducted in a ‘Dhamma Hall’ overlooked by male and female Assistant Teachers, who were there to help students with questions but strictly only about the technique.

The basic code of discipline is broadly as described by the Five Precepts, Buddhist rules of conduct for lay disciples:

  1. to refrain from killing any living being (remember not to swat any mosquitoes or ants)
  2. to refrain from stealing anything (all valuables are deposited for safekeeping anyway)
  3. to refrain from all sexual activity (male and female meditators are segregated, so this is easy to follow unless one is attracted to people of the same sex)
  4. to refrain from telling lies (everyone must stay silent until the afternoon of the 10th day — though you can speak to the volunteers or management if required, briefly)
  5. to refrain from all intoxicants (bringing alcohol or drugs to the retreat is forbidden)

Meditators who have attended at least one previous course are henceforth ‘old students’ in the tradition and must follow three additional rules:

  1. to refrain from eating after noon (in the evening meal they get plain lemon water without sugar, while new meditators get fruit and tea or milk with sugar)
  2. to refrain from dancing, singing, music, watching TV, wearing perfumes or cosmetics
  3. to refrain from lying on a ‘high or luxurious’ bed (in practice this rule is ignored)

Additional rules specific to the Goenka retreats are:

  1. deposit the following items when you check in:
    • mobile phone (so you can’t communicate with the outside, listen to music or watch YouTube videos)
    • wallet and car keys
    • reading material such as books
    • writing material (such as pen and paper)
  2. don’t perform physical exercise such as Yoga or jogging
  3. don’t meditate outdoors
  4. don’t wear tight or revealing clothing (no bare upper arms; cover your knees)
  5. don’t make contact with the outside world (you can’t make or receive calls even from the office, they will pass a message to you if there’s an emergency and someone calls for you; also, if there is a medical issue and you need to leave the retreat grounds to see a doctor, you cannot rejoin)
  6. don’t bathe or wash clothes during meditation hours
  7. don’t bring in your own food
  8. don’t fast or abstain from food completely
  9. don’t follow any other meditation practices or religious activities during the retreat (you’ll be asked to give up religious symbols you’re wearing, though this is not enforced consistently)

While applying for a retreat, you are asked to list any physical illnesses; any history of psychological treatment; past addictions to tobacco, alcohol or drugs; and whether you have had any previous experience with “Reiki, spiritual healing or any other meditation practices”.

If you list any physical illnesses, you may be asked to clarify whether you are fit enough to attend the retreat. This screening may be repeated at the time of checking in — as it was in my case with my haemophilia. I had to meet their doctor who interviewed me in person and gave me his approval before I was admitted and allotted a room.

Any past or fairly recent history of psychological treatment is likely to result in being rejected, sometimes with a permanent ban if the admissions committee decides you’re unlikely to be able to complete a retreat without disturbing other meditators.

If you admit to any alcohol, tobacco or drug use, you will be asked to begin abstaining for at least two weeks before the start of the retreat. This seems perfectly reasonable, but apparently a lot of people have trouble maintaining this period of abstinence. Some people leave it up to the last day and have to leave midway because substance withdrawal combined with the rigorous discipline of the retreat becomes too much to tolerate. If you think not being able to abstain for a mere two weeks is dissolute, I should mention sometimes people show up at the retreat drunk, still expecting to be let in.

The retreats are completely free, running on donations and volunteer work. You can donate at a counter they set up on the 10th day if you wish. In my experience, no attempt is made to steer students towards the donation counter and nobody is pressured to donate. Donations at the end of retreats are often insufficient to cover costs; centres frequently run shortfalls which is made up with web campaigns or by wealthy donors. Assistant Teachers and ‘Dhamma Servers’ (non-teaching volunteers who help conduct the courses, almost always Old Students) are not paid. Some centres do employ a little paid help, but the bulk of the work is done by volunteers.

This was the daily schedule:

Not every Goenka Vipassana centre has special solo meditation cells ('shunyagaar'). From the Hindi name it seems they are meant to be soundproof, but where I attended the roof of the larger building (‘pagoda’) that housed these cells had an acoustic design that amplified sounds from both inside and outside the building. So I could hear the constant sounds of traffic from the busy roads nearby, interspersed with an amplified cough or sneeze from my fellow meditators (as they heard mine). Also the floors were dusty and the walls freshly painted; and the dust and paint fumes made my throat catch so I could never sit inside for very long. The meditators’ rooms were quieter than these soundproof cells.

A gong would ring 10 minutes before the start of every meditation session and if you didn’t come to the hall at once, a server would come by and knock on your door until you came out. There were 5-minute breaks between meditation sessions; you were herded back if you dawdled.

Most of the non-group meditations were also effectively mandatory to attend — either in the hall or in the solo meditation cells — though you might be left alone if you slacked off and left in the last half hour. But if it was the 0430-0630 session and you returned to your room to catch some extra sleep, a server would come by shortly and tinkle a small handheld bell outside your door every now and then.

Options for slacking off are severely limited; there really is nothing else to do if you don’t want to meditate. You’ll soon be sick of the sight of your dorm or room, and will not want to go back there unless you want to use the toilet or take a nap. The only option you have is to walk in the designated walking areas and stare at the trees, if you are lucky enough to have trees to stare at. You are required to avoid the gaze of other meditators even while you’re out walking. Any gesture, even a nod of the head, is forbidden. You had better hope the weather is comfortable enough to permit walking breaks.

What was taught at this retreat

There were two parts to the retreat. Up to the afternoon of the fourth day, participants practiced ‘Anapana', whose purpose is to build up enough concentration ('Samadhi') and tranquility of mind ('Samatha') to be able to successfully practice ‘Vipassana’ (Insight) after the afternoon of the fourth day.

The Anapana technique is mindfulness of the natural breath; closely and continuously observing the natural in-breath and out-breath in the area between the bridge of the nose and the upper lip while gradually narrowing focus to any point between the tip of the nostrils and the upper edge of the upper lip. This practice is difficult and full of subtleties. Care must be taken continuously to gauge where one is going wrong and keep adjusting, and above all else, not get discouraged. The brain keeps taking off into memories and daydreams. You have to learn to accept your inability to stay with the breath and — very gradually — the time before you notice you are distracted decreases from 20 minutes to 5 minutes, then 2 minutes, then 1 minute or less. You are taught to drive the breath with a little force if you keep falling asleep, or to calm down and let it come naturally if you’ve become agitated. In ideal circumstances the breath will come naturally and spontaneously, and your observation of it will not affect it; but this is easier said than done. What you’ve begun to learn in this step is patience and equanimity.

After the fourth day, we switched to Vipassana. The technique of Vipassana is a gradual ‘body scan’: mindfulness of every part of the body in sequence from top to bottom (and later from bottom to top), then symmetrical body parts simultaneously, then as many parts together as one can manage until one can observe the entire body at once. You observe any sensation that is actually occurring, not any sensation you’d wish to feel or are imagining to satisfy this process of looking. If no sensation is felt immediately, one tries for a minute before moving on, noting at least the touch of cloth (if the body part is covered) or the touch of air (if it is not covered). At all times, one remains equanimous about what was felt; neither happy about a pleasant sensation, nor unhappy about an unpleasant sensation; not even happy that a sensation was felt at all or unhappy that none was felt. This equanimity is probably the most difficult quality to maintain.

Finally, for every sensation found, or even the feeling of success or non-success in finding one, you must keep in mind the quality of impermanence ('anicca'). Insight into impermanence (and later the pervading quality of unsatisfactoriness and the non-existence of a self) is what makes this a Vipassana or ‘insight’ practice.

Frequently it happens that one’s mind is too dull or too restless to concentrate on the Vipassana technique. In this case one reverts to Anapana until the mind settles and then returns again to Vipassana.

Apart from the meditation sessions, there was a discourse or ‘Dhamma Talk’ at the end of every day. This was a video recording of Goenka speaking in Hindi played back in the Dhamma Hall on a projected screen. A separate recording of Goenka speaking in English covering the same topics was played back in parallel in a separate, smaller discourse hall. If you speak both languages, Goenka was more eloquent (and fun) in Hindi than in English. The Hindi discourses were also consistently longer by about 20 minutes. A small portion of the discourses was pep talk and also discussed some specifics of the technique, but for the most part they were about Goenka preaching dogma from Theravada Buddhism with sprinklings of ideas from Hinduism and Indian folk tales. I’ll say more about this later in this note.

Why I went, and what my general experience was

I wanted to revitalise my existing meditation practice that of late had been floundering. I was no longer doing it with any particular ambition. I figured the 10 hours of practice every day at this retreat would be enough to break through any habits of laziness or doubt that had become established. But also I wanted to remind myself that meditation was something important for me to pursue, important enough to take out 10 days and travel time.

Broadly speaking, the retreat was a success for me in terms of what I wanted to get out of it. In other ways the retreat was difficult but worthwhile in retrospect, like an anti-holiday. I say in retrospect because during the retreat I found myself alternating between positive and negative moods on successive days, sometimes within the same day. Sometimes there seemed to be specific reasons I could cite to explain my present mood, but mostly the moods were involuntary conditions that seemed to filter my experience. Rap Genius co-founder Veggie Crumble in their Vipassana trip report says that “this [mood change] happens every day outside of the retreat environment, and we attempt to minimise the magnitude of the [mood] swings by eating, smoking weed, lashing out, Russian baths, etc”. Perhaps the retreat setting just makes it easier to see that this kind of cyclical mood swing is a regular occurrence in everyone’s life.

But in general there are many things that are difficult about this sort of retreat.

Superstition, dogma and general impressions

Though Goenka Vipassana retreats are billed as “scientific” and “non-sectarian”, I cannot find any charitable way to accept these labels as accurate. These retreats are — if not a cult — cult-like, and they teach mostly Theravada Buddhist beliefs with a good measure of smugness and closed-mindedness.

Immediately after you are inducted into the course, everyone is seated together and asked to repeat the Triple Gem of Buddhism in Pali:

Buddhan Saranan Gachchami,
Dhamman Saranan Gachchami,
Sanghan Saranan Gachchami

In English, this translates to:

I take refuge in the Buddha,
I take refuge in the Dhamma,
I take refuge in the Sangha

These are the same lines that you would recite if you were undergoing formal religious conversion to Buddhism. So if you take this kind of thing seriously, congratulations: you can now call yourself Buddhist.

But soon afterwards Goenka explains this doesn’t mean what you may think. To take refuge in the Buddha — he says — is to take refuge in the quality of the Buddha’s enlightenment. To take refuge in the Dhamma is to take refuge in the “true dharma” which is what the Buddha taught (“Shila, Samadhi, Pragya”, i.e., morality, concentration, wisdom). And finally, to take refuge in the Sangha is to be inspired by the select group of extraordinary meditators who “have become stream-enterer, once-returner, non-returner or fully enlightened ones."

Goenka also recites the verses of ‘surrendering’, which again the new inductees were made to repeat:

Imaham Bhante Attabhavam
Jivitam Bhagavato Pariccajami,
Imaham Bhante Attabhavam
Jivitam Acariyassa Pariccajami

The meaning of these lines was not explained, which is understandable, since it may be more of a commitment than participants in a non-sectarian meditation course are willing to make:

Venerable Sir, I surrender my person and life to the Blessed One;
Venerable Sir, I herewith surrender my person and life to the Teacher

Goenka may have broken the precept against lying here, because he asserts that we are free to forget all about his method once we leave the course, but the Pali lines represent a lifelong pledge. Or would it be the meditators breaking the precept if they abandoned the Dhamma after the retreat? Complicated.

Finally, we are asked to repeat a “formal request” in Pali to the Teacher (Goenka) to teach us the method of Anapana. A similar “formal request” must be made 4 days later to be taught the method of Vipassana.

Nibbanassa Sacchikaranatthaya,
Me Bhante Anapana Kammatthanaa Dehi

This means:

For the sake of witnessing Nibbana,
Venerable Sir, please grant me the meditation object of Anapana

This one grated on me a little. What real need was there to make these “formal requests”? We hadn’t all wandered in for a casual look or a free buffet. Every one of us had taken time off from our jobs, families and lives and agreed to remain silent and cut ties with family and friends for the next 10 days. Wasn’t that enough of a commitment?

OK, I’m aware that there are times when I can appear to possess a prickly disposition and seem unwilling to overlook minor imperfections in others. But soon it became impossible for me to remain magnanimous about what Goenka said in his discourses in the context of science, rationality and non-sectarianism. He stopped bothering with the whitewashing: every idea was presented as the literal truth as determined by the Buddha while he gained Enlightenment. More difficult than accepting this religious propaganda with equanimity was accepting Goenka’s injunction against reasoning.

Let’s start with the doctrine of rebirth as presented by Goenka. We are all declared to be caught in the universal cycle of rebirth ("Samsara") and the explicit goal of meditation — “Nibbana” — is declared to be freedom from this cycle. This is standard Buddhist dogma from the two major Buddhist schools of Mahayana and Theravada, and also the broadly prevailing view from many Indian schools of thought at the time of the Buddha. Most schools of Buddhist thought that exist now also subscribe to this core belief, with the exception of certain lineages such as that begun by Thai Forest monk Buddhadasa Bhikku who rejected the doctrine of rebirth and interpreted Nibbana as a psychological state “beyond all suffering that also transcends ordinary conceptions of happiness”.

According to Goenka, the cause of rebirth is the formation of “sankharas", which are never explicitly defined, and are said to accumulate in our “subconscious minds” as a result of instances in our present and past lives in which we wanted to obtain something (desires) or to avoid something (aversions). Vipassana meditation, he says, is the only method to purify or remove them from our minds and once they are all gone we will attain Nibbana.

You may have questions or misgivings at this point, but there is no place within the Goenka Vipassana system to ask questions or express doubts. Goenka explicitly states that he does not entertain intellectual questions about the metaphysics as presented because intellectual discussion is a waste of time. This interview with Wes Nisker shows something of the quality of Goenka’s conviction. The only questions you are allowed to ask the Assistant Teachers are questions about the technique as taught thus far. “Philosophical and speculative conversation is discouraged”, the rules state.

Goenka repeatedly refers to the Buddha (and ancient Indian sages in general) as “great scientists”, who used meditation into subjective experience alone (body sensations specifically) to investigate the nature of reality. Again and again he says that on this path contemplation and reflection on ideas is not necessary or even helpful. This despite the Pali Canon being full of examples of the Buddha and his disciples engaging in analogical and inferential reasoning to teach and debate.

Mahayana schools such as Tibetan Buddhism teach ‘analytic meditation’ — a CBT-like combination of self-observation and analytical reasoning on the causes of one’s suffering and the suffering one causes in others, honed by concentration practices. (The Dalai Lama recommends it.) Visualisation techniques — another mainstay of Mahayana — are compared by Goenka to hypnagogic hallucinations and dismissed summarily.

The Goenka Vipassana tradition discounts anything but their specific brand of Vipassana as impure Dhamma. Concentration practices from other traditions are mentioned, but only to be declared inferior than the practice of Vipassana. Mere concentration does not remove sankharas from the conscious and unconscious minds, Goenka says. There is also little flexibility in how you are allowed to meditate. You must keep your eyes closed or you will get distracted, he says. Other Buddhist schools of meditation like Zen advocate open or half-open eyes; others still leave it up to the student. Although Goenka’s Vipassana purports to conform to the Satipatthana Sutta, that text does not specifically prescribe either open or closed eyes.

Goenka says you must observe the breath only at the nose, and specifically never at the abdomen. Other Vipassana teachers like Mahasi Sayadaw taught their students to focus on the abdomen because it is easier for beginners to observe the abdomen rising and falling with the breath than to watch the breath at the nose. Some meditation teachers even instruct students to observe the breath wherever they naturally feel it the strongest: the nose, the abdomen or even the throat or chest (but thereafter staying with that location). Goenka explicitly forbade concentrating on the abdomen because he felt it was too easy and would lead to duller concentration in the end. He seemed so sure of himself, he would have taught the Buddha to meditate.

Goenka uses the metaphor of a microscope to describe the Buddha’s power of discerning body sensations as he zoomed into ever smaller parts of the body. This metaphor is probably meant to inspire student meditators to practice with as much diligence and effort as they can gather. Fair enough, but then Goenka goes on to say the Buddha extended his powers of meditative concentration into the realm of extra-sensory perception, including ceto-pariya-ñāṇa (reading minds), dibba-cakkhu (seeing things at a great distance) and pubbe-nivāsanussati (recalling past lives). Maybe the Buddha’s mind was indeed a microscope-telescope-omniscope combined, if you want to believe, but we lesser mortals have to make do with lesser minds. We may hone them into precision instruments but they will always come with a television studio attached. These same minds devise and playback elaborate dreams to us every night that we accept as reality until we awake, no matter how absurd they were. Goenka assures us that with enough practice, we would also be able to see into our own past lives (and presumably read minds and so on). But once the idea has been planted in a meditator’s head, it is already too easy to take any dream-like sequence that may appear to them as scenes from a past life.

According to former monk and Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor:

[Stephen Batchelor] In accepting the idea of rebirth, the Buddha reflected the worldview of his time. In common with Indian tradition, he maintained that the aim of life is to attain freedom from the anguished cycle of compulsive rebirth.

It is difficult to believe that a Buddha born today would not have accepted today’s prevailing worldview in which the doctrine of rebirth is inadmissible. The historical Buddha from 400 BC was considered a pragmatic person, above all. Even that Buddha stressed the importance of meditation practice above debating metaphysical issues like rebirth, so I don’t see why the emphasis on liberation from rebirth is helpful in a meditation retreat today. Meditation is worth practicing for itself.

Goenka also leans heavily on writings from other Indian religions to shore up the qualities of Dhamma and Vipassana, even reaching tenuously into Islam and Christianity. It doesn’t matter whether the writings of these religious traditions do or do not refer to the breath as meditation object; Goenka picks up any allusions to the breath (or truth, or friendliness to one’s fellow human beings) as obscure references to the Buddha’s teachings.

Let me take the case of Sikhism out of the many he cites. Several verses from the Japji Sahib — the first hymn in the Guru Granth Sahib (the primary scripture of Sikhism) — are interpreted by Goenka to portray that they are talking about Vipassana between the lines.

The first example from the Prologue of the Japji Sahib:

[Guru Nanak] Ādi sach, jugādi sach, hai bhī sach, Nānaka hosī bhī sach

According to Goenka, this means:

[Goenka] Meditation should begin with the truth as its object, and as one progresses, hai bhī sacu, one should give all importance to the truth of the present moment. As one advances step-by-step, with the base of truth, one finally reaches the stage where hosī bhī sacu, one attains the ultimate truth.

The classical interpretation of this verse is that it refers to the Ik Onkar, the supreme non-dual reality of the Creator and Creation; that this Oneness has been true since before time began and through all the ages of time, is true now and will always be true. This is a core belief in Sikhism. It is unlikely to be cryptic instructions for mindfulness, whose hidden meaning was only spotted by Goenka.

Then, from Stanza V:

[Guru Nanak] Thāpiā na jāi, kītā na hoi, āpe āpi niranjanu soi

According to Goenka, this means:

[Goenka] One should not impose any imaginary belief on the truth that manifests itself from moment to moment, within oneself (saccanāma). Therefore, it is called niranjan (neither created nor imposed truth).

The classical interpretation is that this stanza refers to idolatry; that Truth, or God is not an idol that can be created by the hands of Man and installed in a temple. Not shouldn’t, but cannot.

Again, Goenka manages to read it as instructions for meditation. You have to wonder how he came by this thesis. Did he not look up a commentary or speak with someone who could first explain the conventional understanding of these verses? He must have suspected he might be making things up.

It also seemed really unfair that Goenka felt it fair to appropriate quotable verses from the Sikh scriptures while explicitly rejecting japa (i.e., repeatedly chanting a word as meditation, e.g. in Sikhism this could be “Waheguru", among other words). Japa is called one of the Three Pillars of Sikhism, but Goenka refers to it as one of the many methods that merely concentrate the mind, but are incomplete and inferior compared to the Vipassana body scan as it cannot remove sankharas.

On the 10th day the meditators were taught Metta meditation, popularly known as ‘loving-kindness’ meditation (I prefer ‘friendliness’). Goenka chanted some lines resembling the script for a guided Metta meditation but no actual instructions were provided. Some people may have come away with the idea that listening to Goenka croon ‘looooooooooove’ like a World Cup commentator announcing a goal was the actual meditation.

In a break from his customary verbosity, Goenka did not elucidate the instructions for Metta. (Maybe he was tired on the 10th day himself.) He did however encourage practicing Metta everyday at home, calling it a “salve” after the “deep surgical operation [of Vipassana]". He recommended doing it everyday, provided you hadn’t had any unkind thoughts for anyone on that day. (I guess I’m out.) He even promised that practicing Metta in the same room every day would suffuse the room with good Metta vibrations that would benefit anyone who entered the room. This may be a (nonsensical) Theravada belief, but that aside, Metta is good for you in a different way from mindfulness and may be a better way to increase your baseline level of happiness, compared to mindfulness. But you might have to learn Metta elsewhere.

I want to stress though that Anapana and Vipassana were taught well in this 10-day course. Books like The Mind Illuminated can supplement or replace what you learn at a retreat like this, specifically teaching you better ways to monitor your dullness and agitation and better antidotes for specific issues, but Goenka started teaching Vipassana long before books like this one became available.

Some of the other superstitions were maybe not exactly harmless. On Day 6, I developed bad cold-like symptoms: runny nose, scratchy throat and a lot of sneezing and coughing. The retreat did have a Primary Care Physician who visited now and then to help meditators with minor health issues. As the cold showed no sign of abating after one night, I asked the servers if I might be able to see the doctor if he was going to visit that day, as a non-drowsy antihistamine would have really helped me. The servers agreed to let me see the doctor but one of them decided that first I needed the Assistant Teacher’s permission. And, to my surprise, the AT refused it. He said my symptoms could be the result of sankharas that were beginning to emerge because of Vipassana, so I should wait one more day to see the doctor. I agreed to wait; I had no choice because the servers would not override the AT’s command. But that night as I tried to sleep in a semi-upright position against a wall so I could breathe better, I decided I would leave the next morning if the cold had not gotten better. Of course I cursed myself for being a good boy and not having packed any medicines. Finally I managed to fall asleep and by the time I woke up, the symptoms were a little better so I stayed. I decided not to ask to see the doctor ever again, though, because I knew if the AT refused again I would have stormed out at once.

Is Goenka Vipassana a cult?

It is one, more or less. But this cultishness emerges not top-down from a cult leader, but bottom-up from the rules and beliefs of the people that serve in this organisation. I cannot bring myself to blame the intentions of the Dhamma Servers or the Assistant Teachers. They all seemed good-hearted and sincere individuals who were donating their time generously to serving and teaching, because they sincerely believed they were helping people. None of them are paid in money. Even Goenka, while he may have developed something of a Messiah Complex eventually, seemed to believe he was genuinely helping people. He comes across as a confident and ambitious person with a proclivity for empire-building, but I can’t find fault with his intentions.

Though Goenka was not quite a cult leader, the organisation he has left behind is still in its irrationality and inflexibility a Buddhist sect. A certain credulousness is required of a person that would keep attending retreats with them. There is no end to the absurd beliefs propagated by the organisation and absorbed by the Assistant Teachers and Dhamma Servers, many of whom seem to aspire to becoming Assistant Teachers themselves someday.

Goenka’s chanting in Pali and Hindi fills the Dhamma Hall during the start and end of every meditation session. The chants — sometimes bloodcurdlingly off-key — are also played back in all the corridors and the dining hall during breakfast. It was personally suggested to me that I should play these chants at home whenever I’m meditating. (They have an app.)

There is a justification offered:

[Goenka] Everything in the Universe is vibrating. This is no theory, it is a fact. The entire Universe is nothing but vibrations. The good vibrations make us happy the unwholesome vibrations cause misery.

And from

[Goenka] Convince questioners of the value of this rule by explaining that when one chants or sings one generates vibrations, and only those who have been properly trained should do that at a centre. One who has been trained to chant goes deep inside with equanimity and feels sensations whenever there is a pause. This kind of chanting generates healthy vibrations.

And to receive the full benefit, you should keep your head bowed when Goenka recites some magic Metta words at the end of a session:

[Goenka] As I said earlier, the extremity at the top of the head can receive vibrations. When a teacher expresses mettā by saying Bhavatu sabba maṅgalaṃ, he or she generates good vibrations, and when you bow down you accept those vibrations of mettā at the top of the head. It is in your own interest to accept good vibrations.

No whys and wherefores are discussed. If you are told to do something, it is “for your benefit”. If you are forbidden from attending future Goenka retreats because you have been sneakily practicing other techniques, it is “for your protection”. In ominous words you are warned against mixing other techniques with Vipassana:

[Goenka] Students are strongly warned against mixing any type of practice with Vipassana. Despite repeated warnings by the Teacher, there have been cases in the past where students have deliberately mixed Vipassana with some other ritual or practice and harmed themselves.

Techniques of meditation other than Anapana and Vipassana are not taught (except Metta, but badly). Perhaps the longer courses devote more time to Metta and instructions are dispensed in the same depth that is accorded to Anapana and Vipassana.

Most notably, the Jhanas are not taught or even mentioned.

In the words of venerated Theravada Buddhist monk and meditation teacher Bhante Gunaratana:

[Bhante Gunaratana] The Buddha is constantly seen in the suttas encouraging his disciples to develop jhana. The four jhanas are invariably included in the complete course of training laid down for disciples. They figure in the training as the discipline of higher consciousness (adhicittasikkha), right concentration (sammasamadhi) of the Noble Eightfold Path, and the faculty and power of concentration (samadhindriya, samadhibala). Though a vehicle of dry insight can be found, indications are that this path is not an easy one, lacking the aid of the powerful serenity available to the practitioner of jhana. The way of the jhana attainer seems by comparison smoother and more pleasurable (A.ii,150-52). The Buddha even refers to the four jhanas figuratively as a kind of Nibbana: he calls them immediately visible Nibbana, factorial Nibbana, Nibbana here and now (A.iv,453-54).

Goenka’s Vipassana teachings are such a “vehicle of dry insight”. Goenka himself considered the Jhanas an incomplete vehicle:

[Goenka] First he had tried eight jhanas (levels of absorption), which had purified his mind, but not to the depth. Deep inside there was what the Buddha called “sleeping impurities,” meaning that the roots of the impurities were still there. He realized that these could be taken out only through the practice of vipassana, through awareness of sensations.

This is a strange stand to take for someone who claims to follow the pure, unadulterated teachings of the Buddha. But this insistence that one’s own lineage is the only authentic one is common among religious sects.

Buddhism is vast and a variety of tranquility-concentration-insight paths exist that prescribe following the steps in varying order and emphasise different techniques. Out of Burma alone, three different Vipassana lineages have come to be popular, of which Goenka’s has achieved the most popularity, globally. The other two are the lineages of Mahasi Sayadaw and Pa Auk Sayadaw. In particular the Mahasi Sayadaw lineage teaches a noting practice that many meditators seem to find more engaging than Goenka’s method of sweeping the body for sensations; this style of noting has been developed into newer variations by modern meditation teachers like Shinzen Young and Kenneth Folk.

In the previously cited interview with Wes Nisker, Goenka claims that the body scan taught by his lineage (the lineage that goes back to Ledi Sayadaw) was devised by the Buddha himself:

[Wes Nisker] You teach a meditation practice that involves moving the mind through the body and focusing on physical sensations. This technique has become widely known as the “body scan,” and sometimes is called “sweeping.” What is the origin of this technique?

[Goenka] Buddha is the origin! (Laughs) Nobody else can be the origin. In the Satipatthana Sutta there are the words, “Sabbakaya-patisamvedi assasissamiti sikkhati… passasissamiti sikkhati.” (Feeling the whole body I shall breathe in… feeling the whole body I shall breathe out.) One should learn how to feel the entire body in one breath, breathing in and breathing out. Perhaps I am responsible for calling it “sweeping,” but this is the Buddha’s teaching.

Although Goenka cites the Satipatthana Sutta as the source of the method, that text does not describe the method in the detail with which it is taught by Goenka. The passage cited by Goenka has been interpreted differently by other monks, scholars and meditation teachers; sometimes as instructions to follow “the body of the breath” (i.e. the whole breath), sometimes as attempting to feel the effect of the incoming and outgoing breath in every body part.

However another ancient text does seem to describe the same method in detail. The text was the Dhyānasamādhi Sūtra, originally perhaps a collection of Indian meditation techniques, translated around 407 CE from Sanskrit into Chinese under the supervision of a Chinese-Indian monk named Kumarajiva. This Chinese text — which also lists the 32 marks of a “great man” found in the Buddha, among which were “very blue eyes” and “forty teeth” — seems the earliest known record of the body scan technique. But there is no evidence to show that the technique was devised by the Buddha himself.

Goenka’s injunctions against trying other techniques, against questioning and doubting, seem to go against the Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry as discussed in the Kalama Sutta.

Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, “The monk is our teacher.”

If I come across as negative, I want to reiterate that I don’t think Goenka was anything like a cult leader. I think he was a compassionate person who wanted to help others in the same way that he seemed to feel that meditation and Buddhism had helped him. Although he seemed to want to avoid the label of “Buddhism”, what he taught was nothing but Buddhism. This is where he differed from other teachers in the U Ba Khin lineage, notably Daw Mya Thwin (“Mother Sayamagyi”), considered by many to be the primary lineage holder after U Ba Khin, who seemed to have no problem being called a Theravada Buddhist teacher.

But the Goenka retreats are a cult, even with no cult leader at the helm. What ensures this is the insistence on exclusivity, the set of unfalsifiable beliefs they propagate and their special ladder of achievements consisting of the number and length of retreats one has attended within their system. The achievement system is an impressive example of gamification which hooks people effectively — whether or not this was the intention behind its design.

Starting from one’s first retreat, some persuasion to attend future retreats is applied, longer ones if possible. Goenka advises in his discourses that in addition to practicing Vipassana at home one hour every morning and one every evening, it is advisable to sit a 1-day retreat every weekend with a local group of Vipassana ‘old students’ (those who have attended at least one 10-day course). It is also necessary, according to him, to attend at least one 10-day course every year. To his credit he adds that if one can’t travel to a Vipassana centre, one can devise their own 10-day retreat at home (following the same timetable, following the same rules such as not speaking to people, etc); but these solo retreats don’t count towards official progress within the system.

To make progress within the Goenka Vipassana system, i.e., to be allowed to attend longer courses with them, you must attend an increasing number of short courses and you must volunteer to serve as a Dhamma Server. The exact list of requirements can be seen in their long course application form.

You will be told the longer courses progressively teach special refinements to the technique that are necessary for ‘final liberation’. (The Buddha himself did not teach with a ‘closed fist’, i.e. he did not give esoteric teachings to an exclusive in-group.) To be allowed to sit for longer courses, you must commit to the Goenka Vipassana system “fully and exclusively”. You must be in a “life-long committed relationship” or if not, then completely celibate for at least a year. (“Self-sex” is not allowed. Ever.) The application form even asks if your spouse practices any form of meditation other than Goenka Vipassana. That is a little cheeky, I think.

To qualify for the longest and grandest 60-day course, you must be “deeply involved” in Dhamma service. By Dhamma service, they mean serving within their system of retreats, not rescuing puppies. And if the Vipassana magic is beginning to work on you, you will be interested in the 60-day special, won’t you? Yuval Noah Harari attends one every year and he wrote Sapiens. Who knows what you could achieve?

Another aspect of gamification that this retreat system follows, probably inadvertently, is what is known as a “stamina” or “energy” system in the design of free-to-play games (of the ruinously addictive kind). You cannot take multiple courses in quick succession. There must be at least a 3-month gap between 10-day courses, and at least a 6-month gap between a long course and any other course. The only exception to the 6-month wait is if you want to serve on a course; then you may be able to sit and meditate with the others some of the time, depending on how many other servers are serving on the same course and can share the load.

By the time you qualify for the longer courses, you will have been attending and serving courses for years. You will have developed an identity as a Vipassana meditator. You will be competing with people you’ve met at courses who have done more courses than you. You will be considering quitting your job to focus on Vipassana so you can feel that “snap”.

Liberation through non-clinging, except to Vipassana.

The notion of progress on a meditative path is vague and ill-defined. Progress is subjective, uncertain and slippery. But the Goenka retreats provide an extrinsic measure of achievement in their system of progression to longer retreats. If that’s not enough, you may be told now and then that Vipassana will fix your health problems and good fortune will magically descend on your life. (I was told my haemophilia would be cured. I remain skeptical, which I suppose is my loss.) You will be encouraged to persuade family members to attend. (Goenka calls families where more than one person practices Vipassana “fortunate”.)

It’s not even clear that the people who sign up for their first retreat are on the same page as Goenka about why they should want to learn and practice Vipassana.

Enlightenment and its side effects

After silence was lifted on the last day, all of us immediately began talking and discussing our experience. It seemed that a common theme among my fellow novices was to want to lessen the stress and anxiety of ordinary life. (Social media and smartphones were blamed as the root cause and cursed by one and all; rude to point out that the Buddha said life was fundamentally unsatisfactory before smartphones.)

One of the rhyming couplets from Goenka’s chanting goes:

सुख आए नाचे नहीं,
दुख आय नहीं रोए।
दोनों में समरस रहे,
धरमवंत है सोय।

Goenka’s translation of this is:

Not dancing when pleasure comes,
not wailing when in pain,
keeping equilibrium with both—
this is living the Dhamma.

This particular couplet summarises the experienceable goal of Vipassana according to Goenka in his discourses on the Satipatthana Sutta. If you can learn to stay in a state of equanimity, constantly and effortlessly, you will experience “liberation from the miseries and bondages of life” and enjoy “real peace, real harmony and real happiness”.

I don’t think many people realise that this unshakeable equanimity may change them in ways they may not be prepared for. My impression is that people want to get on with their existing lives, but with the added benefit of the end of suffering. There is little to suggest that they know that in the process they would change dramatically as a person, let alone that they may not even like to be their future selves from their current point of view.

Not being enlightened, not knowing someone who is enlightened — we don’t know what it would be like to be this kind of person, or to live with such a person in our families or communities. If it means I would be OK with my dog dying of cancer, I’m not sure I want it. Yes, I might suffer less, and my dog will die one day anyway, and it wouldn’t help my dog for me to suffer more — but I’m not sure yet that I want to choose a spiritual tranquilliser that makes the experience more comfortable for me but does nothing for my dog. Maybe it is the better option, but I haven’t thought it through. I wouldn’t guess that my fellow Vipassana meditators had, either. There should have been some acknowledgement or discussion about what is expected to happen to a person as they begin practicing Vipassana seriously.

It’s not just the end state that is not discussed. It is not mentioned that many a serious Vipassana meditator is likely to progress to psychological states that are extremely distressing — with panic attacks, depression, depersonalisation — and may last for years, unless the meditator manages to progress beyond them or gives up meditation. There is no acknowledgement within the Goenka Vipassana system that this kind of thing happens, and little support from teachers. You will simply be advised to keep meditating. You may even be told that this happened because you must have been mixing other techniques with Goenka Vipassana. (Ironically, switching to another technique temporarily is often what gets people through this stage.)

That some people have such difficulties is not something that has been discovered recently; it is a well-known part of the ‘Stages of Insight’ — a map of expected progress on the path of Vipassana. Goenka even plays up one of these stages in a discourse: the “Bhanga Ñana” (Knowledge of Dissolution). What he neglects to mention is that the stages immediately following it — Knowledge of Fear, Knowledge of Danger, Knowledge of Disenchantment — can be terrifying; especially so for the unsuspecting meditator who has no idea what is happening to them and how they should deal with it.

According to Daniel Ingram — meditation teacher, author of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha and retired Emergency Medicine Physician:

[Daniel Ingram] These challenging but navigable “stages of insight” … are as old as meditation itself. They have, however, been largely omitted from the modern conversation. [Without ‘the right expectations and support’] … people crash out into the world a total wreck. I’ve had a hundred of these calls, more, I couldn’t possibly count them. … If you go online, the number of reports of this happening is thousands. So many I’ve lost track of them all.

In presenting a general criticism of the dogmatic and sectarian aspects of the Goenka Vipassana system, I may have come across as dissatisfied or disapproving of them. But as I’ve said my own experience of the 10-day retreat was a positive one. I am grateful to them for the opportunity and to most people I would recommend attending one retreat.

In the rest of this note, I’ll return to describing my own experience of the retreat. First I’d like to note the acute effects of 10 days of meditation, most of which have abated in the two week since the retreat. Then I’ll try to talk about the lessons that I think will stay with me.

Immediate after-effects

There were a number of positive changes such as improvement in eyesight (less myopia, smoothened brow), an uptick in self-confidence, being less obsessive about such odd things as moisturising the soles of my feet, not being cranky about an extra hour or two of missed sleep the previous night, etc.

But they are not worth dwelling on because a) most of them have reverted to the pre-retreat state so they were probably placebo effects, and b) they cannot be attributed to meditation alone as the retreat setting simultaneously changed a number of things compared to my home environment. Alternatively, they may simply have been the result of meditating 10 hours a day; but that kind of practice cannot be sustained if one hasn’t renounced the world yet.

For instance, I suspect the temporarily improved vision was a result of not using my eyes to focus on a book or electronic display for 12 hours every day. The self-confidence surge was maybe a result of having completed the very hard retreat. Being less obsessive: probably just a sustained change of environment as obsessive habits are tied to cues in familiar environments and minus the cue the habit doesn’t get triggered.

There is a popular documentary on YouTube called “Doing Time, Doing Vipassana” on the introduction of Vipassana into Tihar Jail (probably the most populated prison in the world with a current population of 17130 prisoners), and how Vipassana improved several measures of psychological well-being among the inmates that undertook it — things like anxiety, depression, sense of alienation from mainstream society, etc. This has become such a success story for Goenka Vipassana that Kiran Bedi — Inspector General of Delhi Prisons at the time — is invited to speak at major public events organised by the Goenka Vipassana organisation. Having become a Vipassana enthusiast herself, she praises it freely in TV interviews and even the odd TED talk.

But to me this is yet another example of bad science in which meditation seems to get a free pass. Introducing Vipassana was not the only improvement Bedi made to Tihar; she arranged vocational training for prisoners, introduced Yoga classes, organised sports events and celebrations for religious festivals, established petition boxes and went on daily inspections, interacting with prisoners and listening to their problems. Just like patients who feel better after homeopathic treatment, what may have mattered more to prisoners was that Bedi was actually trying to help them; they knew this and therefore already expected things to improve in their lives. Also, there seems to have been no control group in the Vipassana Tihar research. Prisoners who volunteered to learn Vipassana were segregated from the rest and may have been treated better overall. There should have been a control group that was also segregated and in all respects treated the same as the Vipassana group except for the Vipassana part.

OK, coming back to my experience. There were some unusual effects that I think I can attribute solely to the intensive meditation at the retreat.

On the last night, after the 9 PM discourse was done, we all gathered in groups in the corridors, exchanged phone numbers and talked until way past the usual bed time. It was 11.30 PM when I returned to my room and then I couldn’t fall asleep until almost 1 AM. The next morning there was still the final discourse to attend at 4.30 AM, but I had decided to get up at 3.30 AM so I could shave and clean my room before the discourse, so I could leave immediately afterwards (I didn’t know we were to free to stay a while to clean or to rest, if we liked). So now I was lying in bed, waiting to fall asleep and aware that I would get less and less rest the longer it took me to drop off.

Whenever this kind of thing happens to me, say the night before an early morning flight, I become really anxious and keep nudging my phone to look at the time. But on this night, all by itself my attention had shifted to my legs and it simply stayed there. They felt tired and sore in spots while my attention continued to probe them. And I felt zero anxiety about the sleep I was forgoing by staying awake. I was absolutely, completely calm. What was interesting was that this was a situation I had not anticipated; I had not planned to note whether I would be calm when this sort of thing would occur. I also wondered if this meant that I had some kind of generalised anxiety disorder, because it was possible that other people felt calm like this all the time, while I never did.

The second time I noticed that something had changed was on the flight back to Goa, when the plane was banking and descending for its final approach and I could see the familiar Goan landscape from my window seat. I just looked and looked at it, like I was seeing all those familiar clumps of trees and hills and streams of water for the first time. It was in great contrast from my habitual rumination; again the contrast underlined to me how much I do ruminate. Also I had a sense that these worries were context-specific, and would appear and disappear with the context. In the context of landing in Goa, I recalled I would think thoughts like “it looks it will be hot again; it’s always hot here”, and “who lives in all these empty houses near the airport?", and “I wonder if we’ll live here forever”. No useful ideas or decisions ever seemed to emerge from these thought-loops — if I even gave them time enough before the context changed again and the current set of circulating concerns was replaced with another set. The spell broke as we were about to land, and I was thinking — “we’re coming down too steep”, “remember that time an overhead bin opened”, “we’re too fast, we’ll overshoot” — just like I always do.

Lessons and insights

I’ve used the word insight but I want to mention these are only insights in the cognitive sense, not the deeper Vipassana-insights that are supposed to change the way one views the world, permanently. These are thoughts I had during meditation that I found interesting and that I probably won’t remember for very long.

I’ll break these into two sections: the first is more general, the second is about meditation specifically.

On life

On meditation

Why I meditate

I don’t meditate for liberation from samsara, the universal cycle of rebirth, because I don’t believe there is any such thing. I enjoy practicing it as a skill and relating my experience to the experience of other meditators; in that sense it is almost like playing Chess or Go as a hobby.

But there is also the conscious and deliberate tuning of the living experience that meditation makes available, which I’m just now beginning to see.

Bhante Gunaratana puts it succinctly in his article ‘What Exactly Is Vipassana Meditation?':

[Bhante Gunaratana] Essentially, Vipassana meditation is a process of retraining the mind. The state you are aiming for is one in which you are totally aware of everything that is happening in your own perceptual universe, exactly the way it happens, exactly when it is happening; total, unbroken awareness in present time.