Saturday, October 22, 2011

Goenka-style Vipassana meditation, and my reactions

I spent 10 days at a Buddhist Vipassana meditation course led by S.N. Goenka. I've explained more about the course itself on my travel blog. Here I'll explain in more depth the teaching:
  • Proper living (/enlightenment) has 3 parts: Sila (morality), Samadhi (concentration), Panna ("pan-ya", with tildes on the n's. wisdom.) Sounds familiar.
  • Morality is just living your ordinary life well. Five precepts, etc. It's simple enough- we've been learning this our whole lives. Not to say it's easy, but it's more or less simple.
  • Concentration can be developed by a lot of meditative practices, including "Anapana" meditation, where you just focus on the feeling of your breath in the nose. Just focus on it. When your mind wanders, gently bring it back, non-judgmentally.
  • Wisdom can be developed by Vipassana meditation. In Goenka's teaching, Vipassana goes as follows: feel the sensations in your body, both the gross sensations (like pain in your knees) and the subtle ones (like just focus on your hands, right now, and after a few seconds you'll probably feel a little tingling, or maybe heartbeat-like pulsing.) Notice them, develop your awareness, and also develop your equanimity- don't react to them with clinging or aversion.
  • How does Vipassana meditation develop wisdom? You start to realize that you have no permanent independent "self"; you are constantly changing. Every sensation is something changing on a small level. Eventually you realize that everything is impermanent ("anitcha") and that will bring you to enlightenment.
  • Also, any attachment or aversion you develop is like a line you draw in a rock, or a "sankara", that lies deep within you. When you just notice all your sensations with equanimity, you stop generating new sankaras, and your old ones bubble up to the surface and get evaporated. When you evaporate all your sankaras, you'll be enlightened.

I mostly like his teachings. Here are things about the teachings that I like:

  • it's mostly in line with things I know about Buddhism.
  • the body-scanning technique is kind of like the Mahasi Sayadaw-style mind-scanning technique I'd been doing, but for the body instead of the mind. This is sort of easier, because you can go in a direction. Start at the top of the head and go down, start at the feet and go up. You can't really scan the whole mind.

But I have a few beefs. Here are some things I don't like, ordered from least crazy to most crazy:

  • solving your mind's problems through the body seems like the wrong way to do it. Like debugging software by examining the entire contents of memory. It might work sometimes, but usually it's just inefficient. But then, I am willing to concede that I might be wrong here.
  • plus, it's kinda boring. After I scan a couple times, I get bored.
  • he teaches his style of Vipassana as if it is the only way to do Vipassana. Obviously this is frustrating.
  • he keeps arguing against straw-man organized religions. "Vipassana is a technique, not an organized religion where you do this ritual and pray to that god and do this good deed and then you get rewarded after death." I think very few people would agree that their own religion is "do this ritual and pray to that god and do this good deed and then you get rewarded after death."
  • at some point he started talking about "kalapas", which are the tiniest particles, smaller than quarks, that make up matter. Apparently each kalapa has the four elements of earth, water, fire, and air. I'll stop here because you can probably sense my scowl.
  • he also liked to talk about the "law of nature", which I think had something to do with karma, in the sense of "if you do something bad, that will come back to bite you." Guys, this is false. Or he'd start off a story with "there's this guy who had a fortunate life due to some past karma..." Hey, sounds like "do this good deed and you get rewarded after death." (admittedly, he talked about karma sometimes in a non-wacky sense, like how if you generate anger towards someone, it hurts you too.)
  • that bit about the sankaras! That makes no sense! He offers no explanation as to how this happens, beyond some hand-wavey thing where I guess, e.g., you might develop anger towards someone, and then you'll get a sankara, and later it'll manifest itself as a pain in your foot. I don't know.
  • and then, after all this, he says "Buddhism is scientific!" ... Goenka-ji, it can be, but you're doing it wrong.
So you might get the idea that I thought the whole thing was crazy. Not so. Most of it actually made a lot of sense, and it was only about 10% talking, 90% meditating anyway. You don't go to this retreat to philosophize, you go to meditate. And now that I think about it, if you just skipped all the dharma talks after maybe day 4, you could have a really great retreat. (however, this is very frowned upon.)
And as Goenka said, if you are eating delicious kheer, and you find a cardamom seed that you don't like, then just leave it aside and eat the rest of the kheer. Eventually you may realize that you like cardamom too, and then you eat that bit. Or maybe not, also fine.

1 comment:

Glying Shido said...

Vipassana meditation is something very good which help us be mindful all day. I met a guru who practice for over 30years, he is Venerable Vimokkha and did share his teaching in MP3 files in my blog. His teaching is recorded during our Vipassana meditation retreat. Feel free download it for free at: