Why Goenka’s Vipassana is so culty

In my previous post, I described the content of one of Goenka’s 10-day “Vipassana” meditation courses, and offered a quick explanation about what goes on there. I ended with an observation that, in addition to its core content, the courses also had some drawbacks. What I meant by this is, essentially:

In addition to training you to do what I described in the first post, these retreats do everything they plausibly can, from their underlying structure to their finer points, to brainwash and mislead you in ways that don’t give you any real benefit, but do suck you into the orbit of S.N. Goenka and the institution he founded.

One bit of backtracking before we start. I don’t want this to turn into an attack piece. I’m not trying to “take Goenka down” or anything. The point is to move beyond what is (in my opinion) the extremely narrow and one-sided view which Goenka provides. And the only way to begin doing that is by negation and critique. The thing is, though — if I stop every single paragraph to soften the point and phrase it gently, we’ll be here forever. So, for the rest of this piece, I’m going to try and stay on-message, be direct, and just focus on explaining the drawbacks. Even if that means I’ll come across like a Negative Nancy. Also, please forgive the snarkiness; it’s mostly just an artifact of style.
So, imagine two restaurants. They both offer nutritious food. And so, you like the restaurants, and will probably come again, to have more nutritious food. However. The second restaurant also puts a small dose of heroin in their food. That doesn’t make you healthier. But it does make you come back again… for reasons other than to have nutritious food. Goenka’s Vipassana retreats are like the second restaurant.
Institutions, such as restaurants and religious sects, give you some benefit. They offer a good or service, so to speak. But they also do things to make you identify yourself with them, and become a member, and prefer them to other institutions. Let’s call this marketing, or propaganda. Every institution, to a greater or lesser extent, does this. The ones that don’t, eventually disappear or change beyond recognition.

The extent to which an organization does this determines how culty it is.

And Goenka’s Vipassana is right smack in that uncanny valley between “this is kind of annoying” and “someone should step in and stop this”. So, it’s more than just kind of annoying, but not so bad that I could tear into it without being a something of an asshole in the process. I’ll quickly sum up how I’m going to organize my thoughts on this, before exploring each point at greater length.

I. Firstly, Goenka tries to establish the idea that what he’s teaching is somehow unique, rather than just a more accessible, watered-down version of standard Buddhist doctrine and practice (with one interesting tweak).

II. On top of his largely generic core content, Goenka does add some unique elements… all of which serve more to keep you in his thrall than actually lead you to personal liberation.

III. In addition to the double-pronged attack described above, Goenka spends a lot of time constructing and entrenching an elaborate narrative around what he’s doing — one that anticipates and discourages critical thoughts.

IV. In addition to actively spinning these narratives, Goenka relies on a key mechanism which operates at the background of everything in these courses: accidental association. In other words, he exploits the fact that when we experience two things at once, we associate them with each other — and thus, we end up associating our personal journeys of self-discovery, and the revelations we pick up on the way, with him and his specific teaching, even though there is no real connection between them at all.

V. Lastly, Goenka relies on and exploits another key mechanism: the multiplier effect of hate-to-love. Basically, when you dislike something and then switch to liking it, you like it twice as much as you would have otherwise. Goenka uses this to encourage his cult of personality, and this also serves to discredit critical thoughts.

(Basically, you get angry and frustrated, think critical thoughts, realize how harmful your anger and frustration are, let these things go, and feel amazingly light and free. From that point on, you start to automatically assume critical thoughts come from your weakness and inflated ego, or from someone else’s inflated ego, even when they are perfectly benevolent and reasonable.)

Now I’ll expand on each point.

I. Pretend it’s unique

Let’s say you went to a restaurant that offered macaroni-and-cheese. If they were upfront about the fact that all they’re doing is boiling pasta and putting coagulated milk on it, then they couldn’t do any marketing. You’d know you could go somewhere else to get this… or just do it yourself. So what they have to do, if they are to start making you identify with them and become a loyal customer, is establish the idea that mac’n’cheese is something unique to them… and what all the other restaurants are offering is actually something else. Something that departs from the One True BigMac’n’Cheese. Something impure, diluted, deluded. And that’s what Goenka spends a huge amount of his time doing. Spinning a fairy tale whereby the historical Buddha did exactly what he’s doing, and nothing else. That he taught this very specific technique, known as Vipassana, and that this was lost to the world after his passing… but it survived in Burma, from where — so it was prophesied — it would be reintroduced back to its land of origin, and then the wider world, 2500 years after his death. And Goenka came to do his first 10-day course exactly 2500 years after the Buddha’s death. And then he started teaching the courses in India… and now millions have learned the true, pure dhamma through him. This story is so… unbelievably… full of shit… that I’m genuinely at a loss as to how to begin to refute it. It would be like trying to debunk Flat Earthers —  they say something super simple and totally outrageous, and then you look like a blowhard when you struggle through the complexity of trying to explain the entire history and philosophy of science. They go “The world is flat. Just look at it. It looks flat.” And then you have to go. “No. So. …ok. Ptolemy. Copernicus. Newton. Einstein. Bohr.” Which takes a lot longer. He is, in a word, trolling us. Massively, massively trolling. But…OK. I’ll bite at the bait. I’ll feed the trolls. Like I always do. I’ve written and re-written the next section, like, five or six times. It’s just impossible to do this both quickly and accurately. So let me put it this way. Goenka presents an extremely biased and inaccurate narrative about his “technique” in the 10-day course. The most efficient way to try and respond to this is to provide a counter-narrative, to balance it out. So, I’m not saying that the following narrative is true. What I’m saying is that it’s a healthy counter-weight to Goenka’s. And, if you had to pick one story about Buddhist history from Siddartha Gautama down to SN Goenka (and one story only), this is the best one I  am currently capable of putting forward in 10 minutes.
OK. So. The historical Buddha lived in the 5th Century BCE. He taught, essentially, two things. Right view, and meditation.

So, if you came up to him and asked him questions which showed you were looking at things in a flawed way, he would suggest a different perspective, based on his understanding of things. (This understanding would, of course, entail taking certain actions instead of others; hence morality, monastic practices, etc.)

But just looking at things in a new way sometimes isn’t enough. Therefore, in addition to that, he taught the practice of jhana — an integrated meditative approach leading to stages of consciousness which are optimal for actually remoulding the mind into one liberated from the root causes of suffering.

A host of technical terms cropped up over the course of his teaching and its later transmission, to describe the mental qualities which meditation involves and encourages.

Samadhi  Firstly, this is an extremely general term to refer to meditative consciousness across all Indian traditions. Secondly, in the early Buddhist texts, it is used to refer to the calmness, clarity, and concentration of the mind.

However, a hunter who is just about to loose the killing arrow is also in an extremely calm, clear, concentrated state of mind. So, we need something more.

Sati Usually translated as “mindfulness”, or “awareness”. That’s… well, one of the more complex and misrepresented bits of Buddhist terminology… but basically it’s “what you keep in mind”, “what you know to look for, based on past experience and advice”.

But simply looking in the right direction isn’t enough. You have to learn from it.

Vipassana As mentioned last time, this is insight into what our experience is and how it works. This develops hand-in-hand with the calmness of samadhi and the attentiveness of sati, in a virtuous cycle.

In other words, let’s say you’re interested in watching a game of football on television.

Samadhi refers to the camera being clear and steady. The lens is not caked in grime. It’s not shaking about uncontrollably. Ideally, it’s even capable of zooming in, so you can get a better view of the most important bits.

Sati refers to pointing the camera at the relevant things.

Vipassana refers to actually watching the game, and starting to understand how and why one team is winning and the other is losing.

There are other relevant mental qualities, though. The most influential early list of them is probably the Seven Awakening Factors, or bojjhaṅgā. In addition to the characteristics we’ve just discussed, they add:

Viriya “Energy”, or “determination; effort”. Cus you won’t get very far if you just do it for a few minutes and then stop.

Piti “Joy”, or “rapture”. Because, once you get the hang of it, this process is supposed to generate a great deal of pleasure which is very stable and completely self-generated (without reference to any sense objects) – thus making meditation a pleasant alternative to other forms of pleasure-seeking.

Upekkha Equanimity. Because otherwise, the whole process goes up in smoke. You have to observe everything there is to observe, take everything as it comes, without exception. If you don’t have this, then there’s no real difference between meditation and normal, everyday experience.

So, in sum, the Buddha taught a certain viewpoint on things, and he taught meditation that involved observing your experience in this calm, collected, insightful way, paying attention to the key aspects of it. Once one became adept at that, one would experience the four stages of jhana, and attain liberation. What I’m implying with this is that the Buddha did not teach a specific technique, or even a specific set of ‘true’ ideas. He had a certain understanding of things, and used whatever practices or words he thought could get you there. In this view, meditation is just like any other skill. If I wanted to teach you how to write, the only universal thing I could tell you is “Put words on a page.” If forced to elaborate, I’d say: “Do that well. Skilfully. Rather than badly.” If forced to elaborate more, I could expand to “Well… make it clear… and beautiful… and succinct… and interesting.” And if you wanted me to elaborate more, I could give you pointers. “OK, so I think this bit of your story is interesting, based on what I think is interesting about literature. And here’s why. And this bit is boring. And here’s why. So think about that, and keep reading, and keep writing, and eventually you’ll learn how to write well.” But I can’t come up with definitive “Rules for Writing”, or set up a training regime that will make everyone into a good writer. “Write ten haikus about your childhood, then ten short stories about your adolescence, then one novel or epic poem about your step into adulthood…” There’s no “technique” for becoming a good writer. There’s just the creative process of mastering something (in the case of meditation: your mind). I can give you some tips about how to get better. I can suggest some exercises, which can sometimes be useful. But to think there is one specific way to go about this is to severely misunderstand the nature of what it is I’m trying to teach. And meditation is the same. The Buddha has a certain understanding of our experience. And he wants to share that understanding. So he tells you to look at your experience until you get there. And he tells you to do it skilfully, rather than really badly. And… that’s it. You’d sit down and do it. And then you’d tell him about it. And he’d be like “Man, you sound really angry. Don’t be angry. In fact, observe your anger; get to know it. Once you’ve done that, think about close friends, people you love, and pay attention to how that makes you feel. That should solve it. Then come back to me.” And then next time he’d be like “OK, sounds like you’re getting distracted a lot. Try practicing focusing on one thing. Then come back.” To someone else, he might say “So you keep falling into sexual fantasies, huh? Think about their hair and teeth falling out. Next! What’s that? Huh? Nah, you’re overthinking it. Just focus on your breath for a while.” And then, potentially, at some point he’d be like “Ah. You seem to have gotten it. If so… what do you think about this? Yeah, that checks out. Alright… howbout that? Yeah, that sounds about right. I think you get it. Nice one. Continue with your life now. And feel free to come back if you ever feel like a chat.”
OK. In the Buddha’s lifetime, he could teach this creatively, without the need for a specific, set structure. But after he died, and as the community expanded, there arose the need for a standardized methodology. And so, dedicated meditation manuals began to appear. One of the most important of these was the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta (or the Discourse on the Establishment of Mindfulness [sati]). For the story we’re telling today, it’s far and away the single most important text. Here’s a good, recent translation (you can enable side-by-side Pali in the settings). It was compiled possibly decades, possibly centuries after the Buddha’s death. It provides a step-by-step beginner’s guide to the meditative process, in four sections.
  1. You examine the body [kaya].
    1. You observe the breath.
    2. You maintain awareness of the basic actions of the body (walking, standing, lying down…).
    3. You maintain awareness of the more minute actions of the body (extending a limb; holding things; chewing; etc.)
    4. You observe and reflect on the repulsiveness of the body (the bile, the pus, the phlegm, the urine).
    5. You observe the four elements (earth, fire, water, air) as they manifest in the body.
    6. You observe a corpse, and realize your body is the same (a corpse with flesh still on it; an intact skeleton; a pile of scattered bones…).
  2. You examine sensations [vedana].
    1. You notice how they can be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, how they arise and pass away, and you get to know them to the extent necessary for knowledge and awareness.
  3. You examine the mind and its contents [citta]
    1. You observe what different mental states are like. This is what greed is like — hate; delusion; distraction. This is what an expansive, open mind is like; this is what a constricted, trapped mind is like. And… oh. This is what a supreme and liberated mind is like. Nice.
  4. You examine… dhammas. Hard to translate. In this case, “phenomena” is probably the best choice. Otherwise, “principles”, or “Buddhist teaching” may work better.
    1. You observe the five hindrances (sensual desire, ill will, drowsiness, restlessness, doubt). You get to know them, and see exactly how these keep you from being happy and figuring things out. And thus, because you understand them, you understand the way to get out of them.
    2. You observe the five skandhas — the aggregates or bundles of experience I explained in the first post.
    3. You observe the six sense fields: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and thinking. You notice how each works, and how each can trap you with wanting nice sights/sounds/thoughts and avoiding unpleasant sights/sounds/thoughts.
    4. You observe the seven awakening factors. Basically, the opposite of the five hindrances. “OK, so this is what calmness is like. This is what clean joy is like. This is what it’s like to investigate my experience. This is what sustained, energetic focus is like. I see how they work, and how they lead to a purified, healthy mind.”
    5. You observe the Four Noble Truths. You are able to make out the fact of suffering, the origin and cause of it, what the cessation of it would look like, and how to get there. Once you are able to see how that works, and understand it… congrats. You’re free.
So, if you’re a beginner and are overwhelmed by the idea of just sitting there until you can calmly and skilfully observe and understand the nature of experience… just follow this sequence. Start with examining your body, then check out how you feel about things, then check out your mental states… and then move on to observing the general nature of experience and consciousness. Neat!
In the subsequent centuries, the Buddhist community split. New texts and ideas developed in India, and subsequently migrated to East Asia (China, and subsequently Korea and Japan). This is the Mahayana branch, the “Greater Vehicle”, which supersedes the previous, ‘lesser’ vehicle. Traditionalists, who disagreed with the new ideas and did not view the old ones as “lesser”, became the Theravada branch — the Way of the Elders. This became the dominant form of Buddhism in South Asia (Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand…). The Therevada community developed an extensive commentarial literature — first through the Abhidhamma phase of scholastic systematization, and eventually in a slow trickle of elaboration which culminated in the seminal Visuddhimagga of Buddhaghosa (The Path of Purification), which was written in the 5th Century CE, and became the definitive Theravadin meditation manual. From this point on, Theravadin teaching basically freezes for over a thousand years. Now. In this commentarial literature, a distinction was made between two totally different kinds of meditation. Samadhi was now interpreted exclusively as ekagatta — or one-pointedness of mind. And so, Samadhi meditation meant one-pointed concentration meditation, where one would hold an object of attention unwaveringly for as long as possible. The jhanas were considered as extremely deep states of absorption attained through this kind of concentration meditation. Vipassana, on the other hand, referred to meditation as insight into the true nature of reality. The Mahayana branch, funnily enough, did not make this distinction. They changed pretty much everything else, but they did keep Calm-Insight meditation as a cohesive process (zhiguan), and kept the idea of the singular practice of jhana (transliterated as Chan in China, Zen in Japanese).
OK. So, it appears that, by the 10th Century, meditation almost entirely ceased to be practiced in the Theravadin tradition. The idea was that we were in a fallen age, and enlightenment in this lifetime was no longer possible. Instead, the monastic community concentrated on keeping to the traditional code of ethical behaviour and engaging in prayers and rituals to ensure a favourable rebirth in a better age, when the next Buddha could lead them to the final step.
The 19th Century saw this state of affairs start to change with the birth of Burmese Modernism (paralleled by the Thai Forest tradition next door). Burmese monks and laypeople started bypassing the worldview which had become traditional, and re-engaging critically with the source texts (specifically, the Visuddhimagga and the Satipatthana Sutta), and comparing it with their own experience. Over the next century or so, they developed an approach to meditation which emphasized satipatthana — the establishment of mindfulness — to the exclusion of all else. In perhaps their most radical move, they interpreted sati not as “awareness of phenomena, in light of Buddhist doctrine”, but rather, as “bare awareness of phenomena”. In other words, sati became “no view”, rather than “right view”. And so, mindfulness stopped at “when you’re aware of the breath, just be aware of the breath”. “When you’re aware you’re standing, just be aware you’re standing.” “When you’re aware of the itch on your left arm, just be aware of the itch on your left arm.” “Practice apprehending your experience without any conceptual or emotional scaffolding on top of it.” Rather than “Practice apprehending your experience with the correct conceptual and emotional scaffolding, as pointed out by the Buddha”. The process of meditation was streamlined into a simple, bare-bones approach: it was all about advancing through a sequence of guided observations, and maintaining clear, non-judgemental awareness of the present moment of experience at all times. And, due to the Theravadin commentarial distinction between concentration meditation and observation meditation, they called this approach “vipassana“. Because, well… it wasn’t intensive concentration meditation. Hence the name of the “Vipassana” Movement. People like Jon Kabat-Zinn studied with teachers in this tradition, and denuded it even further of the complexities of Buddhist doctrine, creating what we now know as “Mindfulness”.
SO. To make an extremely long story short… that’s the history of Goenka’s teaching. Here are the main points.
  • It’s not the unique teaching of the historical Buddha, lost to humanity for two millennia. He taught an integrated approach to meditation, and explicitly recommended a dozen other different things you can try (focusing on the repulsiveness of the body… developing lovingkindness and empathetic joy…) which I haven’t mentioned here.
  • There is no “technique”. What’s more, anyone who tells you they have the one correct way of teaching meditation is fundamentally deluded.There can be no set technique for teaching a skill   Skills are creative; they are adaptive to different circumstances; they are a process. Thus, there can be no static, universalizable, exclusive way of attaining mastery in them. People will become great writers doing a huge variety of specific things; the only similarities will be general ones (good style; good structure; etc.). Just so, the only universals in becoming a great meditator are extremely general (calm; awareness; insightfulness; equanimity…). There are only different approaches, which emphasize different things to varying extents, and have different historical idiosyncrasies. Which leads me to my next point…
  • The only reason Goenka thinks that what he’s doing is optimal or unique is because of twists and turns in the history of thought. It’s only the division of meditation into two unrelated streams of concentration and observation that allows him to champion the supremacy of “Vipassana”, as opposed to something else. And it’s the bare-bones approach of Burmese modernism which created the idea that simply looking at physical experience, without any further intellectual or spiritual sophistication, is the road to enlightenment. On which note…
  • What he teaches is literally just mindfulness. In terms of ‘technique’, everything he teaches is identical to what you’d find on a mindfulness course. He doesn’t actually teach insight (vipassana). He teaches the establishment of mindfulness (satipatthana). Only Burmese Modernists think they are the same thing. He tells you where to look; he doesn’t teach you how to understand what you see there. In fact, he only even does the first half of it; the last two parts of the Satipatthana Sutta are pretty much ignored. So, he just tells you to pay attention to the breath, then your physical sensations. And he tells you to do it clearly, calmly, and equanimously. What you see when you get there… never goes farther than the most basic and universally known of Buddhist doctrines — the three marks of existence.
There are, in fact, only three main things which make Goenka’s particular approach to teaching really unique.
  • The courses are free.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. This means that way, way, way more people will go to them than the competition.
  • They actually make you sit down and meditate
Imagine a fitness programme where they take you for ten days and make you run ten laps around a track, then do a hundred push-ups and then a hundred sit-ups, on a loop, for ten hours a day. By the end of it… you’d be physically fit. Is it because those laps around that specific track are fucking magic? No. It’s because they actually make you do it. Other fitness programmes don’t sequester you and force you to do it. So, other fitness programmes don’t get the same results. That being said, other fitness programmes don’t usually end up with a bunch of brainwashed drones running the same ten laps around the same track for ten days in a row again and again and again… forever… but… whatever.
  • They emphasize bodily sensations
The U Ba Khin–Goenka tradition has exactly one key innovation — one element of their teaching and practice that is relatively unique to them. It is unique from any other strand of Burmese modernism and the wider Vipassana movement. It is, as best I can tell, fairly unique in Buddhist history. They emphasize the heck out of the physicality of vedanā. That the pleasant and unpleasant sensations which lead to your patterns of reaction are physical sensations that affect your actual, physical body. That’s an astonishingly good call, which tends to get criminally under-emphasized in the traditionally mind-body-dualistic trend of Indian and European thought. Because even if you don’t buy their theory of mind, it is, in practice, much, much easier to notice that your chest is tightening than that the general tone and direction of your thoughts is trending towards anger or anxiety. And, noticing that, one can start to arrest the pattern of blind reactions.
But those three points aside, there is nothing — nothing — to the core technique which is unique to Goenka and his way of teaching. And everything he says to obfuscate that fact is either a misdirection or, very often, a straight-up lie.  That being said, there are things Goenka does that other New Burmese Method or Mindfulness teachers do not do. And it’s those that I’ll discuss in the next section.

II. He points you down a path that leads you not to liberation, but back to him

OK. So let’s say Goenka were actually a teacher of vipassana. He might sit you down and make you focus on something until you developed an elementary level of samādhi — mental clarity, calm, concentration. And then he’d establish mindfulness (sati) — telling you to observe different aspects of your experience, like your breath, or bodily sensations, or emotional states. And then he might give you a few pointers as to how to gain insight into the nature of existence (vipassana). He could introduce you to the basic Buddhist notions of the three marks of existence, for example. So far, so good. But then again… nearly anyone could do that. As he himself says in his discourses: the ten-day course is just the “kindergarten” of vipassana. Just the shallows of the great ocean of insight. So you’d keep at these things. But sooner or later, you’d notice that you’re not fully enlightened. You still experience suffering. You act in ways you’d rather not. And you don’t fully understand how and why all this happens the way it does. And so you’d come to him with questions. Elementary school questions, middle school questions, high school questions, undergraduate questions, post-graduate questions… And, as a guide to liberation, who knows the path ahead, he could explain these things to you; suggest new ways of looking at it; gauge where you are, where you want to get to, how you take on board input… and come up with the right thing to say, which will induce you to go in the right direction. This is what the historical Buddha did. And nothing about Goenka’s words or actions leads me to believe he would be capable of this, to virtually any degree. And so he has to misdirect you, to stop this from happening, and showing him up as a charlatan and a fraud. What’s more — such an approach would be useless for marketing purposes. Because if he taught you how to do it, and you came to understand it… then you could just go off and do it yourself. And you could even teach it to other people, using different language and different teaching methods (you know… like the Buddha did). And so, he doesn’t do that. What he does instead is establish the following model:
  • Step 1: Meditation means going round and round your body, doing body scans for the rest of your life. As you get better at this… well, you can scan your body with a finer-tooth comb. And then you keep doing it.
  • Step 2: Every so often, come back to the meditation centre… and do the exact same course you did the first time.
  • Step 3: There’s not really a Step 3. Just repeat Steps 1 and 2.
In this model, there is no development, no further progress, no liberation. It’s just a tight loop with his face and his voice and his exact words at the centre. And so, most of the unique elements of his teaching are designed to get you to buy into this model, rather than lead you to greater insight. I’ve boiled these elements down to two main points.

II.1. Developing awareness = more subtle sensations

Goenka devotes a huge chunk of the ten days to develop the following narrative:
When you first start observing your bodily sensations, you notice “gross, solidified” sensations. That is, basically, normal sensations. Pain, muscle tightness, heat, cold, pressure. You also have “blind spots”, where you don’t particularly feel anything on that part of the body. But, if you keep on observing your bodily sensations, and keep narrowing down your field of observation (from the whole arm at once… to the whole forearm at once… to a few inches of the forearm at once), you start to experience “subtle” sensations. Tingling. Buzzing. Glowing. Something like an electric current. Basically, stuff that isn’t there in everyday life. And if you keep going at it, the gross, solidified sensations and blind spots start to disappear. And you begin to feel subtle sensations uniformly, all across the body. OK. Now, get this. The path to full enlightenment is to keep doing this until you constantly feel this uniform field of subtle sensations, and to be constantly aware of it, at all times. At that point, you keep sweeping up and down the body… until your awareness becomes so acute that you start to feel the subatomic particles of your body. When you get to the point of feeling the subatomic particles of your body, you are now directly experiencing how they arise and pass away instantly — popping up in one location and then winking out of existence, only to pop up somewhere else. Once you directly experience the quantum field, you literally observe impermanence. You no longer perceive objects as permanent — literally and directly. As such, you no longer have any objects you can attach yourself to. You literally do not perceive them. As a result, you are liberated from attachment. You are actually incapable of it. There is nothing in your field of awareness you can attach yourself to. You are fully enlightened. You are now a Buddha.
OK. So. First off. This is absolute insanity. But let’s put that aside for the moment. The important point is that what he has done is take you away from the path of insight and understanding, and led you onto a path that will stretch on forever.
Let’s say you went to Goenka to learn mathematics. You want to understand maths at a deeper and deeper and deeper level. And Goenka says “OK. Before I can teach you to understand mathematics, I first have to teach you numbers. The first number is 1. The second is 2. But actually there are lots of numbers between 1 and 2. So go sit over there until you find all the numbers between 1 and 2.” You will be there forever. There are infinite numbers between 1 and 2. And knowing them all has basically nothing to do with understanding mathematics. But it does take a long time. And it can be quite addictive, if you start to get into it. Just so: there will never be an end to the subtlety of the bodily sensations you can experience. The more you sit there and do it, the more the neural network responsible for monitoring physical sensations will expand. And it can keep expanding, keep expanding, keep expanding. Keep dedicating more and more neurons to the task… keep making more and more complex inter-connections between those neurons. So you’ll just sit there for the rest of your life, until you are, essentially, on a constant, high dose of LSD, experiencing a raging wildfire of sensation. And he will never have to do anything again, except keep telling you to scan your body until you reach the fucking quarks. It’s like putting you on a treadmill, dangling a carrot in front of it, and telling you to keep running til you catch it. So, that’s Part I of his Closed-Circle Path to Liberation. One quick note before we move on, though. Despite the generally disparaging tone I’ve fallen into… I’m not actually against doing any of this. In fact, I’m increasingly of the opinion that this is one of the best things you can do with your time. For one thing, you don’t even need a partner or a equipment to practice it, so there are no external circumstances which would get in the way. For another, you will almost certainly feel amazing all the time. For a third, the body is, at minimum, super super super super super important. And, at maximum, it’s the one and only thing you have. So spending all your time getting intimate with it is a pretty safe bet. So, to be clear: I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with doing this. All I’m trying to do is point out how it’s used as an intrinsic part of Goenka’s propaganda machine. The same way that building roads and holding parades on them where people congregate and play music and have fun is a great thing… but parades can still be used to manipulate you by totalitarian regimes.

II. 2. Developing equanimity = rote repetition

Goenka establishes a parallel narrative of the Path to Liberation, which interacts with the first in a few interesting ways. The story goes thus:
The state of ignorance (avidya) and the constant cycle of suffering (samsara) is the result of the deeply-ingrained habit pattern of the mind to crave pleasant sensations and be averse to unpleasant sensations. Every time you feel a pleasant sensation, and desire it, you create a sankhara. From that point on, you want it more, and are frustrated when you don’t get it, or can’t keep hold of it (which will eventually happen, because things are impermanent). Every time you feel an unpleasant sensation, and desire to stop feeling it, you create a sankhara. From that point on, you are frustrated when it comes again, and you can’t get rid of it (which will eventually happen, because things are impermanent). So. The way out of this is to stop this habit pattern of craving and aversion. And this is how you do that. You scan your body, on the lookout for sensations. When you find a pleasant one… you resolutely refuse to crave it. And when you find an unpleasant one… you resolutely refuse to be averse to it. You keep doing this… keep doing this… until you reverse the conditioning.
OK. So this next bit may be a little bit of a stretch. But I think the kernel of insight here is potentially very important. He is not saying “examine your field of sensations, and maintain a general attitude of equanimity. As you keep doing this, day by day, this attitude will become more natural to you, until it permeates your life.” He is saying “examine your field of sensations… and at each thing you find, one by one, maintain your equanimity. Each time you notice something, first assess whether it is pleasant or unpleasant. If it is pleasant, exert an active effort not to react with craving. If it is unpleasant, exert an active effort not to react with aversion. Once that has been accomplished, move on. At the next thing you notice, repeat the process. It is the rote repetition of this process which will eventually lead you out of unhappiness.” He is saying that the way to reverse your underlying disposition to crave and be averse is to avoid doing that, on a micro scale, until you brute-force yourself into a different disposition. Like turning around a landlocked aircraft carrier by pushing at one end of it, one millimeter at a time… I’ll give an example to illustrate the point. Suppose someone says: “Always tell the truth. If you keep doing that, you’ll change your general disposition — the trend of your speech. It’ll become a habit, and thus be very easy.” Great. Now suppose someone says: “Every time you are about to open your mouth, rehearse what you are going to say. Assess whether it is the truth or a lie. If it is a lie, stop, and then tell the truth instead. If it is the truth, proceed. It is by paying conscious attention to every single moment of speech that you will gradually re-wire yourself to tell the truth.” He’s suggesting you manually reroute each moment of experience, one by one. Rather than adopt a general approach to your experience. It’s like trying to divert a river by dipping a bucket into it and tossing the contents to the side, one bucket at a time. Rather than digging a new channel and putting up a dam — doing something so that the river flows a different direction on its own, without active effort or intervention. Or it’s like trying to cut down a tree by snapping off each leaf and branch individually, rather than pulling it up by its roots. I hope that’s clear.
Alright. So here’s how this traps you.

First point.

Just like the last one, this is, in my opinion, an endless path. You will never get to a point where you don’t desire pleasant sensations and not desire unpleasant sensations. Pretty much by definition. What you can do is increase your detachment, your equanimity. You can care less and less about it, through calming yourself down. And you can certainly diminish your disappointment when the pleasant goes away and the unpleasant arises, through understanding. But you can keep doing that forever. Just like there are infinite numbers between 1 and 2, there are infinitely many numbers between 1 and 0. You’ll never reach Absolute 0. You’ll just keep getting asymptotically closer, and closer, and closer… until you die. But that’s just my guess, and constitutes a departure from Buddhist tradition. So we won’t linger on it.

Second point.

Basically, he’s fucking with you. He spends all this time and all this effort building up this myth of Subtle Sensations as the Path to Liberation… and then punishes you for seeking them out. “These tingles are the best things in the world. But you’re not allowed to like them! …but they’re the best thing in the world. Hey! You’re not allowed to like them. …….have I ever told you how great they are? They’re really great. They’re actually the best. But…..hey! Is that you liking them? Bad boy! Bad!” It’s like dangling a doggie treat in front of a dog, and striking it every time it tries to have a lick.

Third point.

Basically……. he’s still fucking with you. Let’s say you didn’t buy that these Subtle Sensations are so amazing when he told you to. Well, you almost certainly will now, via reverse psychology. Cus the more someone tells you NOT to crave something… the more you’ll crave it. (And then we cycle back to the previous point, where he smacks you for craving it.) So, the first time he put this forward, I was like: “Cool. Fair point. I mean, I didn’t come here to feel a pleasant tingling up my butt. There are definitely quicker ways to do that. But, fair enough. Some people might indeed be here cus they can’t afford the drugs or dildos. So yeah, Goenka — you tell ’em!” And then, the fifty-seventh time he put this forward, I was like: “…oh. He’s doing the ‘Don’t think of a pink elephant…. don’t think of a pink elephant!’ trick. The one thing that accomplishes is making us think of a pink elephant. I see that every time the tingles disappear from a part of the body, I’m now disappointed. I wasn’t disappointed on Day 4. I wasn’t disappointed on Day 5. But now it’s starting to get to me. He’s definitely, definitely fucking with us.”

Fourth point.

Basically… he’s still fucking with you. As with so many things, he’s super vague about this point, so it’s hard to pin him down on it exactly. But he definitely says dozens and dozens of things which all imply that the gross, solidified sensations are the result of past aversion. So, if at some point you stop feeling uniform subtle sensations, and instead feel a pain in your knee, or the feeling of pressure where you’re sitting on your cushion… it’s because at some point, you generated a negative sankhara of aversion. So, firstly, this makes you feel guilty for feeling pain or mundane sensations. But secondly, it leads you on this feedback loop between the two things he has you doing forever. Unless you literally sit all day body-scanning, you will eventually return back to normal and not feel constant tingles. At which point, it’s not just that you failed on the first thing (you’re not body-scanning enough), it’s that you failed at the second thing (you must have been reacting negatively to unpleasant sensations without noticing!). It’s as if he gave you two sandpits and told you to make two cubes of dry sand. You won’t be able to — you’ll just keep picking up sand and pouring it on top, and it will keep sliding off sideways. But then he tells you that when the first pile of sand slips down, it’s because you didn’t stack the second pile of sand well enough. So you get into a more frantic feedback loop, where the success of one task is dependent on the other.
But anyway. None of that is the main point, in my opinion. The main point is that it makes you depressed as fuck. I’m not saying “it will make you sad”, or “it will make you unhappy”. I’m saying it will make you depressed. That it will make you get stuck in a cycle of sadness and unhappiness. (And then you’ll reach for salvation from this depression… in the very thing that made you depressed. In other words, it’s a classic example of addiction.) There’s the obvious argument for this — namely, that you’re telling people to stop enjoying things. Which is asceticism. Which is, famously, not Buddhism. That’s why it’s called the Middle Way — between asceticism and just doing whatever the hell you want. At which point, you rock out the usual quotes about sukha and piti — wholesome mental joy, and wholesome physical pleasure, where the Buddha says things like:
‘Know how to assess different kinds of pleasure. Knowing this, pursue inner bliss.’ (…) This is called the pleasure of renunciation, the pleasure of seclusion, the pleasure of peace, the pleasure of awakening. Such pleasure should be cultivated and developed, and should not be feared, I say. ‘Know how to assess different kinds of pleasure. Knowing this, pursue inner bliss.’ That’s what I said, and this is why I said it.

Araṇavibhaṅga Sutta, MN.III.230-236 (Sujato translation)

But, whatever. That’s veering into substantive critique — something I have a genuine, fundamental disagreement about with Goenka, not just a way I think he’s messing up something we both agree is good. The more important argument is this.
Giving people a dynamic, creative task is the surest way to make them happy in the long term. Give them a goal, give them resources and guidance, but go ahead and let them determine how to get there themselves. And each time they repeat the task, give them room to express their skill — let them do it differently each time; let them improve upon the last one. For example, tell them to make a table. At first it will be confusing and difficult, and the table will be crude. But it’s a satisfying task. Eventually you’ll get someone who’s really in the zone while they work, and you’ll get increasingly more beautiful tables out of them. By contrast: The surest way to make people depressed is to give them a repetitive, linear, unvarying task without a clear goal. Like standing on an assembly line and doing one, small action, again and again and again and again…

If you give people the notion that they are improving the skill of Calm Observation — that they’re getting better and better at observing their experience without reacting to it — then they’re much more likely to be happy.

However. If you give them the notion that what they’re doing is rewiring their reaction patterns, one by one, for each part of the body, at an increasingly minute scale… then they’re much more likely to be unhappy.

So here’s another example. Imagine you wanted to improve someone’s speed and balance. Option 1 Give them a goal. Tell them to run to that tree over there without falling over. Then maybe tell them to dribble a ball with their feet or hands while they’re at it. Then maybe install a hoop or a net at the other end, and tell them to score. You’ll soon get them playing sport for life, very happily running along with great agility. Option 2 Tell them they are going to run an arbitrarily long distance — to just keep running until some vague point in the distant future. And then tell them no one has been recognized to have reached this vague point in millennia. So, unless they’re better at this than Goenka, and his teacher, and his teacher’s teacher… they’re going to be doing this their whole life, up until they die. So, in other words, tell them to just keep running forever. And then tell them to pay attention to each step. When they step with the left foot, make sure you don’t fall over to your left. When you step with your right foot, make sure you don’t fall over to your right. And then tell them that the Way ahead — the road to balance and being really good at moving around — consists in repeating that same exact action, again and again and again. This does not sound like a very sensible way to trace out the road to enlightenment. What it sounds like to me is a recipe for people to get discouraged. At this point, remember the way Goenka’s retreats fit into the structure of society. They’re geared towards lay people who live in the social structure of late capitalism. People whose lives are constructed so as to distract them in every way possible from serious and sustained meditation or solitary contemplation. People whose mental health and self-esteem are being systematically eroded like in no other point in human history. Because before, all the people in power needed to maintain and increase their power was for you to stay where you were, not bother them, and maybe pay taxes once a year. Now, the way to increase your power if you’re powerful is to get people to buy your things or pay attention to you. So everything is designed to grab your attention and keep hold of it and stop you from going off and doing something entirely by yourself. OK. So now, give someone in such a society a method that will be likely to discourage them. What do you think will happen? Most probably, they’ll get discouraged, and fail to keep up the practice. At this point, remember that Goenka has been telling you, at least once an hour — sometimes two or three times an hour — that continuity is the secret of success. That you must be diligent and ardent, patient and persistent. That the whole core of the technique is putting in the hours, manually shifting yourself into enlightenment, one physical sensation at a time. That when you stop doing that, you start sliding backwards — so that for every day you fail to bring down your debt, your debt gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger… What do you think will happen? You’ll feel guilty and ashamed for getting discouraged. So you’ll try again. And because the technique gets you discouraged, you fail, and feel more guilty, etc.
What do you think will happen when you add all these things together? Well. Where is the one, single place in the world these people will think of to get away from their distracting, spiritually eroding daily life? That’s right. A Goenka retreat. It’s the only place they know, after all. So you go there… and suddenly it’s all easy again. So easy… when you’re removed from all your daily distractions. When there’s someone telling you exactly what to do, holding your hand through the process in the same old, familiar way which you remember being so life-changing the first time you felt it… Rinse. Wash. Repeat. And, of course, what if you do get the hang of it? (And if you keep going to these, it’s bound to happen eventually.) What if you do get into the groove of it? Get to the point where your mind immediately starts to systematically dissect and sweep through your body, in order, out of habit, every time you sit down? Without any real difficulty? If you develop the general disposition of equanimity, where it’s there quite effortlessly for anything you encounter in your body sweeps? Well, then mission accomplished. You’re now a true believer in Goenka’s system — even though it’s really you that learned to navigate your consciousness skilfully, based on his vague prompting. You’ll probably keep going to the retreats wholeheartedly, taking advantage of the golden opportunity to practise. Even better for Goenka.
OK. So that’s my slapdash attempt to describe the core mechanism of what Goenka’s doing.
  1. Establish mindfulness. [Nice.]
  2. Pretend it’s your exclusive trademark. [Huh?]
  3. Add manipulative, addictive mechanisms. [….yuck.]
He then does a few other things to reinforce the core mechanism and establish his power over you. …one quick point before we continue, though. This will give away the big punchline to the whole piece, but I think it’s important to mention it now. I’m not necessarily suggesting that Goenka is doing any of this on purpose, or even that he’s aware of what he’s doing. That’s between him and his maker. Everything I’m describing is perfectly understandable as: “There are thousands of meditation teachers, each doing their own thing, which they all genuinely believe in… and the one whose thing just so happens to have the most manipulative and addictive elements will gain more followers and resources.” But I’ll elaborate on this point in the next post. For now, let’s move on.

III. Nipping criticism in the bud

The thing Goenka probably spends the most time doing is spinning a narrative which is designed to take the place of any alternative narratives which would lead you away from him and his courses, and stick tight to you so that it will be very hard to alter or remove. And then he hammers this narrative in again and again and again. After ten days, this is now your narrative. And when people make critical remarks, there is no slot in your narrative for them — you can’t properly take them in and process them. Not only is there no room for them — the place where they would have gone has been reinforced again and again to make sure anything that comes there bounces off. Again, I couldn’t take notes while I was in there. But here are a few representative samples that he repeated so much I’ll probably be able to quote them verbatim two decades from now.

III.1. “Non-sectarian”

He never, ever, ever stops banging on about how rational, how scientific, how NOOON-SEEEEC-TAAAAAAA-RIAAANNNNN… this wonderful technique is, this wonderful dhamma… What he’s doing here is very simple. Well, firstly, he’s playing to exactly what secular people in post-industrial societies in the late 20th Century want to hear. The fashionable orthodoxy is “no religion; no ideology; no dogma. Just simple, practical, technocratic utility-maximization.” But more to the point, he’s labelling every other group out there a sect… whereas his group is the only one that’s not a sect. Every other teaching is partial, only his teaching is universal. And, of course, almost every time he says this, he says this about the Buddha, rather than himself (never mind it’s his totally unique and idiosyncratic interpretation of the Buddha, shared by no one else ever). Which is just him being sneaky. He does all this, despite his strand of the Vipassana movement being the single most sectarian, closed-minded, One-True-Way-ist, and dogmatic religious group I have ever personally experienced. And one of the main ways it got to be that way is through his constant, hypnotic insistence on his non-sectarianism. Once that idea is established, someone says something you disagree with, and the story you start telling yourself is “See how attached they are to their dogma? Because they’re so attached to these particular ideas, they’ll never be universal. They’ll only appeal to their closed circle of followers, who share the same attachments and ideas. Thank Goenka that my group isn’t attached to any single figure or set of ideas and is universally acknowledged as the truth.” So that’s step one.

III.2. “How can they have anything against sīla? Against samadhi? Against paññā?”

Very early on, he presents the Noble Eightfold Path in its threefold division into:
  • Sīla (morality)
  • Samādhi (as he terms it, “mastery of the mind”)
  • Paññā (wisdom).
And then, every day, he tells one story or another about how some mean evil people came to the Buddha because they were ignorant and consumed with hate and tried to get one over on him… only to find that they could not! Because, after all… what he taught was Sīla! Morality! And who could have anything against morality? And he taught Samādhi! Mastery of the mind! And who could have anything against that? And then Paññā! Wisdom! Who could have anything against wisdom? And so these silly, deluded people saw the error of their ways and signed up to one of the Buddha’s ten day courses so he could teach them this wonderful and strictly patented technique. Well, just try telling George W. Bush he’s a war criminal.

“But I stand for freedom! Do you have something against freedom? I stand for justice! You can’t tell me you’re against justice?! I stand for democracy! Are you saying you’re against democracy?!!”

“Umm… well, no. It’s just that I don’t agree with the way you’re doing it… and most of what you’re doing doesn’t really have anything to do with those things at all…”

“Nonsense! You’re just ignorant and full of anger because you haven’t tasted the glory of this wonderful American patriotism…”

Or if you don’t like that example, try Xi Jinping.

“But I’m for a people-centric approach for the public interest! Are you against the people and the public interest?! I’m for the rule of law! Are you an anarchist?! Do you want murderers running around the street, killing your family and friends? My manifesto states that improving people’s livelihood and well-being is the primary goal of development. Are you are horrible greedy person who’s against improving people’s livelihood and well-being?!!!”

It’s the oldest trick in the book. Very few are the leaders who claim to be here to spread evil, confusion, and ignorance. So then, having identified themselves with these good qualities, anyone who criticizes them must be evil, confused, and ignorant.

III.3. “Your *own* experience”

This one’s the real jewel in the crown. It’s so totally shameless that it makes my head spin. Goenka will not go twenty minutes without repeating the fact that every other tradition will have you accepting things because God said so, or because such-and-such a saintly person said so. Whereas the Buddha — and, by extension, him — only asks you to observe your own experience, and only accept what you have witnessed yourself. But, of course, everyone else is wrong in how they observe their own experience. And it’s impossible to point out the right way in an open conversation… like the Buddha did in every single recorded discourse. No — you have to come and take a 10-day course. Only then will you know how to observe your own experience the right way. This is a little bit like saying “The world is essentially black.” “But I don’t see it as black…” “That’s because you’re doing it the wrong way. Here, come to our ten-day course. And swear to stay the whole way through. OK. Now stare at the sun for ten hours a day. Now what do you see?” “Yeah… everything is totally black… I… I can’t see anything…” “You see?! The system works!” OK, I’m being a little glib. But the main point I’m making is the that the way you look at something determines what you see. Take a historical question. Then ask a political economist why it happened. And ask a sociologist why it happened. And ask a psychologist why it happened. And ask a behavioural biologist why it happened. And ask a physicist why it happened. You’ll get a different answer in each case. The physicist will give you a physical answer, the psychologist a psychological one, etc. Just so: examine your experience from the perspective of Goenka’s McBuddhism, and you’ll get a rather shallow understanding of your changing phenomenal field as impermanent and impersonal and prone to the misery of clinging and aversion. Look at it from a Hindu perspective, and you’ll see Pure Being, Consciousness, and Bliss. In other words, exactly the opposite (at least, at face value). So what you see and how you see it is deeply influenced by how you look at it. And indoctrinating you into looking at it a certain way is the main point of these courses.
Quick anecdote. In my early days at university, we were assigned to do a group project. When we met up to prepare it, each of us had brought a rough outline and plan of the presentation. And so the question became which of these outlines to use. The field quickly narrowed down to me and this girl. I didn’t really like her outline. We debated it a bit, and in the end, I pointed out that I had brought my laptop, which had my outline saved on it, so, all other things being equal, we might as well use that. And so, even though she was perfectly free to suggest any changes she might want, the end product came to look pretty much exactly as I had originally laid out. I was immediately aware of what had occurred, and felt quite guilty about it, which is why I still remember it so vividly. And what I observed was that a huge amount of power lies in the hands of the person who sets the original terms, who lays down the template that future developments are added to. Once that has been set, it is extremely difficult to change course — because that would require uprooting everything, as everything which comes subsequently depends on that initial structure. So, the presentation came out looking like I had set out, NOT because my structure was necessarily the best one, but because I had brought it on my laptop, and we made edits to my outline. If she had brought her laptop, and I had suggested edits, the end product would have looked more like her plan. And so, that’s mainly what the course does. It sets out a way for you to look at your experience: a certain procedure, and a certain interpretetive lens. He’ll constantly harp on about taking these ten days to “give the technique a fair trial”. But what it really does, in effect, is entrench it as a habit. If you spend ten hours a day repeating it for ten days straight, that will be just enough time for it to have sunk in deep enough that you’ve gotten really used to it. It will take real effort to change — especially if you didn’t have a prior, similar habit to fall back on. But, of course, with Goenka insisting constantly that this is all your idea, your insights, your experience, you don’t really notice this happening. What’s more, this insistence sets it up so that you never come to him with further questions. Any and all inquiries beyond which shoulder to start with will be met with “don’t ask me, you have to find out for yourself; you have to practice as I tell you to, more and more, forever.” It’s a good thing that what he has you doing is (apart from the stuff in section II.) so generic. Otherwise, this would all be much more disturbing. Though, of course, if it were any less generic, then the whole gimmick wouldn’t work; these things rely on mass appeal. These are just three of the dozens of rhetorical strategies he employs over the course of the ten days. I could go on here ad nauseam, but we’ve just ticked over 10,000 words… so I’ll move on and try to bring this to a close.

IV. Exploiting accidental association

The next element of cultiness is a really important one. It’s something I am probably going to be explaining, in different ways, for as long as I’m still ticking. OK. Here goes.

Two things happen to us at once. And so, the mind forms a connection between them. And so, when we remember one, we will tend to remember the other. And the way we feel towards one, we will tend to feel towards the other.

This is the process of accidental association. Most of our experience is explained by this. When we were young, we heard a certain kind of music. It was followed by feelings of great happiness. So now, when we hear that music, we will think of being young and very happy. But other people listened to a different kind of music when they were young, and felt happy after listening to it. So they keep playing that. And so we’re confused. Why are they playing those noises? Because we don’t have a positive association with them, and they do, we react differently to the same input. And because we don’t understand how our minds work, we act out of ignorance, and look down on those people, or get into arguments about which band is better. To a certain extent, this is inevitable. It’s just the way the mind works. But it’s something we have to become aware of if our goal is liberation from the cycle of misery. And it’s also this which explains most organized religion. So, let’s take three people. Each of them is going through a rough period in their lives. Each of them goes to a quiet place and does the same thing. They fall to the floor, burst into tears, and inwardly declare:
That’s it… I give up… I’m too tired to keep on trying… If things go badly, they go badly… If things get better, they get better… I’m done trying to force the issue… I surrender myself entirely… Let whatever happens, happen… I’ll take whatever comes.
Except the first person did this in front of a picture of Jesus, and the second did it in front of a statue of a Bodhisattva, and the third did it in front of a poster of their favourite rock star. Well, you see what’ll happen. They will take the inner motion of renunciation to inevitable forces which we cannot change, and they’ll associate it with the single external object which was there at the time. And so one will become a devout Christian, the other a Buddhist, and the other a Marilyn Manson fanboy. And, in the future, whenever anyone says something against Jesus or Christianity, by association, the first person will take it as something said against their internal motion of renunciation. Just so, with the second, for Buddhism. And so, with the third, for goth rock.
OK. So what Goenka does is try to get himself as front and centre as possible in your vision when you are going through these kinds of moments. Thus, you associate your inner journey of self-discovery as much as possible with his arbitrary sequence of steps and catchphrases, and his person in particular. So whenever you make progress in your life, and continue to discover things about yourself, you associate that with him. And whenever someone criticizes him, you act as if they criticized your self-improvements. How does he do this? Well, in every way he can. I’ll just hit the highlights. Every single session, he starts with five minutes of him singing and ends with five minutes of him singing. He always sings the same set of tunes, so that by halfway through the course, you are repeating them in your head, in his voice, for hours and hours. Oh yeah. And it’s twenty minutes at the end of the morning session. Just to get you started on the right foot each day. He does the same thing with his instructions. The whole course is built around the repetition of these short, catchy phrases, delivered again, and again, and again, until they’re so deep in your head you’d need a team of wreck divers to take them out… part by part… piece by piece… patiently and persistently… And the clincher is the evening talks. You’ve come to the end of another day. You’re exhausted, dispirited, discouraged. And on comes jolly Uncle Goenka, to do the same set he’s honed from years and years of courses until it’s a perfectly well-oiled machine. He says, again and again, that they’re only there to explain the technique, not to be mere intellectual entertainment. If that’s the case, I think he did a very poor job. What they excel at doing is precisely entertaining you. It’s the only thing like that in the day, and it’s perfectly designed to encourage you, to pick you up, to be the place of relief and solace in a challenging world. …and what does that add up to, by the end of the course? The association of his face and voice with feelings of relief and safety and encouragement. Which, again, serves the purpose of entangling himself with your own quest for enlightenment.
Another little parable, to sum up what we’ve covered so far. Imagine a cooking instructor who runs the following scheme. He goes to your house for free. He takes out a pile of stickers, each of which has different words, but all of which prominently feature his beaming smile. He puts these stickers on your refrigerator, your oven, your hob, your kitchen knife… And your refrigerator, he labels “Goenka’s Magic Coolness Box”. And your oven is “Goenka’s Magic Hot Box.” And your hob is “Goenka’s Little Fire Blossoms”. And your knife is “Goenka’s Sharpy Cut Slicer”… Then he tells you to take things in and out of your fridge for two days. Then to cook them in your oven or on your hob for eight days. And he gives you a big jar of Special Goenka Spice to sprinkle on top of your food. Then he gets an assistant teacher to stand there and make sure you do it.
At the end of the day, all he’s done is just relabel a bunch of faculties you already had at your disposal, but just didn’t have an immediate prompting or setting to develop by yourself. In this example, the fridge-oven-hob-etc. are the basic qualities of consciousness which are conducive to meditation and a holy life. Morality, calm, insight, equanimity, etc. And the big jar of spice is his nonsense about subtle sensations and quarks and understanding impermanence and whatnot. So the main gimmick is:
  • take a bunch of faculties which are universal, and which you already have latent within you
  • relabel them
  • get you to associate them with him.
And then he sprinkles a bunch of nonsense to confuse you as to what is essential and what isn’t, so that you don’t figure out what he’s done, and extricate these crucial qualities from his framework. So now, every time you use the qualities you’ve actually had in you all along, you think it’s all thanks to Goenka. And when other people refer to basically the same things, you won’t recognize it. You’ll only ever think of your refrigerator as “Goenka’s Magic Coolness Box”. And you’ll only be capable of holding a conversation if the other person calls it the same thing. If they talk about what they learned from keeping a journal, you won’t recognize that as vipassana — because vipassana, to you, means sitting in these rows listening to Goenka singing and looking at your body buzzing, not writing about your day. Because you fail to recognize that these are just the things you happen to be doing to engage the process of introspection. And if people cook the same dish, but don’t add the special spice, you won’t recognize it as the same. You’ll think they’re doing it wrong. If they meditate, but don’t do body scans, or don’t talk about maintaining equanimity case-by-case in the way Goenka does, you’ll think they’re doing something else. Because Goenka has prevented you from developing an objective, adaptable understanding of your mind, and then systematically exploited the process of accidental association to get you to understand yourself through him.

V. Stockholm Syndrome, and moving from hate to love

OK. So. Here’s how I’m going to try to set about explaining this one. You know how, when a friendship or romantic relationship goes sour, you end up hating the person you once loved way more intensely than someone you never loved in the first place? And you know the effect of the “zealotry of the converted” — that once you change your mind about something, and start loving what you used to hate, it comes with a kind of devotion usually not present in someone who loved it from the start? Well, the 10-day course milks this effect for all its worth. This “hate-to-love-multiplier-effect” is the quickest way I can think to describe the mechanism that lies behind things like Stockholm Syndrome, where hostages start to identify, and then develop deep attachment to, their captors. It’s also the thing behind the abusive boyfriend dynamic, and why it’s so insidious and tough to extricate yourself from. It’s the “hurt me, be nice to me” tension at the core of S&M. The core memory of this, in my own case, came at a Queens of the Stone Ages concert. The whole experience could be summed up as two hours of this guy staring at you and going:
Hey honey, I love you… but don’t fuck with me, I’ll cut you… Ah, come on babydoll, don’t look at me that way, you know I love you… but don’t fuck with me OK, I’m crazy, I don’t know what the fuck I’ll do… Ahhh, come on, you didn’t think I’d do anything mean to you, did you…………or would I? Nah, of course I wouldn’t, I love you…….. but I’m out of control… Nah, it’s cool, I’m sober now… oh shit the voices are starting up again…
Makes for a real good concert. But that’s a situation where you’re actively paying someone to take you for a ride. You’re consciously asking them to manipulate you, to suspend your disbelief. You enter a social contract for him to play with your emotions – make you feel vulnerable and exposed and hit you with maximal emotive force. A meditation retreat, designed to teach you the skills to manage your existence… is something a little different. It’s also the thing stand-up comics do, when they purposely lose the audience, push things too far, say things that cross the line, and aren’t really funny, just abrasive… and then bring it back. You laugh all the harder, from the slingshot effect of having stopped enjoying it for a while. And basically, Goenka plays the same game. Except with him, it’s more like:
Work, work. Work diligently, ardently, patiently and persistently… OK, now take rest, take rest… Work work work…! OK, now rest, rest… Gosh, look at you, your mind’s a mess, you’re weak, you can’t focus… but it’s OK, I understand, I’ll help you… But only if you work! OK, you’ve done good — now sit down and I’ll tell you an amusing little story as a treat…
This push-and-pull is something he’s playing on consistently in an active way. But the main way it operates is more of a fundamental undercurrent.

It is inevitable, in the first few days, that you’ll engender frustration and doubt towards the person who’s making you do all these initially unpleasant things.

But once you get used to them and start to turn the corner, you’ll go entirely the other way.

And all the force of that frustration and doubt will become force of attachment and devotion. Without him having to say or do a thing.

This is something that’s built into the very structure of the experience. The mind will have to go through an adjustment period. It is experiencing an abrupt change: from activity to inactivity; from sensory stimulation to sensory deprivation. During this period, it will necessarily generate thoughts which push against what you are doing. And the more difficult you find it, the more exaggerated those thoughts will become. And, if you’re not used to this kind of experience, you will generate sankharas at this stage. You will take these thoughts seriously. You will not only have these thoughts, you will start validating them, believing them. And then, once you turn the corner, you’ll be ashamed of them. You’ll feel like such a fool. And who was it who so calmly insisted you should keep at it…? Oh, right. The guy you had been cursing out. Wow. He is so wise. He knew all along. How silly of you to get angry at him, to doubt him. Clearly he knew what I was thinking, and yet kept on going, taking my ire, for my own good. What a saintly person… So you end up loving him twice as much as you would have, and much more unshakeably… because he arranges things so that you get angry at him first. This kind of process is virtually guaranteed to happen. Because the whole course is built around learning to observe your thought patterns, see their tendency to engender negativity and make excuses, observe how miserable it’s making you, and then letting these thought processes go. As such, the process of the course is one of (in common parlance) “cutting down your ego”… at which point, Goenka puts his own ego in its place. So that when you leave, you leave with just as much of a misplaced sense that you understand what’s going on. The only difference is that, instead of thinking that you get what’s going on — that you’re the smartest person in the world — you think that Goenka gets what’s going on.

And because you’ve now identified with Goenka, and have taken refuge in the Three Jewels and are now a member of the Vipassana family, then you still get to feel good about yourself. You still get to be important. Because you’ve seen the truth of Vipassana, and are practising this Wonderful Technique… and everyone who doesn’t is such a sad, deluded person. So full of anger and spite… just like you used to be.

To a certain extent, this is inevitable. Anyone working as a doctor, or a teacher, or coach, or any role with authority over someone, where you’re doing something initially unpleasant that will (hopefully) be for the person’s own good in the long run, knows that this is something that will happen. The difference lies in how much you encourage it. And Goenka encourages it a lot. But here’s the most important point. Up until now, the thoughts I’ve been talking about are things like:
  • “Ow, my legs hurt, fuck this guy.”
  • “Ugh, I just wanna get out of here, this technique is bullshit.”
  • “I just wanna check my phone, or read a book, or talk to someone… and I can’t do it… these guys are sadists. They’re getting off on hurting me. They’re horrible.”
Once you’ve gone through this kind of thing, you’ll be used to these, and it won’t be a challenge to stay cool through them (plus, they’ll appear less and less). But there’s another kind of thought that’s a little different. Thoughts like:
OK, no, so, I’m cool with the whole legs hurting and no talking and no books etc. But… this guy is being really manipulative. He actually is. He’s giving an extremely deceptive account of Buddhist history. He’s using pretty hardcore brainwashing tactics. This set-up shares a lot of characteristics with scams and Ponzi schemes. And he’s garnering the respect and devotion of hundreds of thousands of people through these tactics, all while presenting a saintly image. That’s really twisted.
These thoughts will probably bug you on a much deeper level than the first. And so, when you turn the corner, and start examining your sankharas — how deeply you’re reacting to the negative sensations brought about by your thoughts — these will be the first to go. What I’m saying is that the course, by its very structure, serves to eliminate critical, analytic thought about its operating procedure. Because those critical thoughts will cause you great tension, great misery, great agony. And there’s almost no way you’re going to survive ten days with them. You’ll go insane. Something has got to give. And, unless you quit the course, it will probably be the critical thoughts that have to go.
There is only one way to get through it without getting rid of the criticisms. And that is… to notice these things… and articulate these thoughts… and watch your mind work out the ramifications… WITHOUT generating a trace of anger or resentment or ill will. Just observing your surroundings objectively, dispassionately… then observing the thoughts that arise from that observation objectively, dispassionately… And this is almost impossible. It’s like trying to thread a needle. To run through a narrow and winding corridor without ever bumping against the sides. The whole course is built around isolating you from the things that cause you misery. That way, you think of someone who has made you angry, and you feel unpleasant sensations… and you notice that they’re not actually there. They’re just in your head. And so you can begin to settle down and not react to the thought of them, in a perfectly safe, isolated environment. So that when you return and run into them in real life, you’re much more calm. But then, imagine if you were sitting there on the course, trying to do this… except the person who made you angry is standing right there in front of you. Talking to you. Doing the thing that pissed you off. At some point, you’ll snap. You need to be away from them for a while so that you can gain sufficient internal distance from your anger… and then be able to interact with them calmly. So if the person making you angry is the person giving the course… well… good luck trying not to bite at the bait. Cus it will present itself to you on a silver platter every minute. Which is why you will almost never see someone criticizing this kind of course. Either they feel uncomfortable with it from the outset, and wouldn’t go — at which point, they can easily be accused of flingin’ shit without even trying it out. Or they go to the course, and leave, and can easily be accused of being weak, or not getting the full picture. Or they go, and stay, and get really angry, and give up on their anger, and the mindset that engendered it. How likely do you think it is that someone will go, and stay, and think these things, and not get angry, and then explain them? They will always be in a minority compared to the other categories. And so, through this selection bias, things like this end up seeming like they have universal acclaim.


So those are the main mechanisms by which the Goenka courses, on top of actually teaching meditation, also exploit human psychology to get you to view the institution and its figurehead in a uniformly positive light, lead to a feedback loop of indoctrination, and to induce you to spread the message in a way that will help the institution to maintain and expand itself. And the proof of all this is, as they say, in the pudding.
  • Course format
The format these courses follow is unheard of. I cannot think of a single other example of an institution so rigidly tied to the person and teaching of one man. It is not only unique in Buddhist history (other than the veneration of Gautama himself)… it’s fairly unique in world history, at this scale. It actually boggles my mind. It’s so blatant that it’s actually almost easy to miss. But take a step back for a moment and think of it. Hundreds of centres around the world; over a hundred thousand students yearly. All repeating the exact same syllables in the same order, without variation, without evolution, without interpretation, without question… ostensibly forever. Name one institution that works this way. Not even Scientology is so sclerotic. There are only two explanations for this. Either SN Goenka is a uniquely enlightened person and gifted teacher, above all other figures in human history, and that one course he recorded in New York in 1991 is the single, optimal sequence of sounds and images for any human to experience under any circumstances. Or there is something else in the nature of the courses that leads to this outcome. There is something about the way he does things that makes it so that the institution takes the form it does. Something about the way he spreads his message that makes it so uniquely fixated on him and his specific way of doing things.
  • Assistant teachers
The format of the courses aside, another tell-tale sign is the assistant teachers. Every single person who recommended the courses to me shared a single criticism:
Goenka was such a great teacher… but I found the assistants weren’t very helpful. Whenever I asked them anything, they just repeated what Goenka had said, verbatim.
What that means is that Goenka is not a great teacher. If you are incapable of getting your best, most senior students to be as good at something as you are, then you are not a teacher — you are a charlatan. If all your students can do is repeat what you said, word-for-word, and redirect questions back to you, and never develop their own interpretation or move beyond your way of doing things, then you have failed as a teacher. You have failed to develop their own insight, failed to develop their own understanding; you have only succeeded in making them dependent on you. And the mechanisms which lead to dependence are essentially the opposite to the mechanisms that lead to liberation. An institution that exhibits such universal signs of dependency is an institution built around mechanisms of control.
  • The normal students
The same thing that’s true of the assistant teachers is true, to a lesser extent, of the normal students who’ve been on the course. If you haven’t been on one of the courses yet, but are considering it, you’ll almost certainly recognize this point. You’re excited about the idea of someone taking you by the hand and finally guiding you through the proper way to meditate, which you’ve found so frustrating to get a hang of until now. And it seems to have had a very good effect on the people who are recommending it to you. But… still. There’s just something that makes you a little uncomfortable. Something a little off about the way they’re talking about it. They seem so keen about it, and yet can’t explain what it is, how it works, and why it’s valuable. They just insist you have to go on it yourself. And they do so in a way that makes you feel unable to respond. It’s like, once they start on it, they’re on a roll, their eyes take on a stubborn glint, and you get the sense you can’t really say anything about it without getting into an argument. Well, that slightly creepy tinge is the result of the mechanisms I’ve explained above. That kind of edge is what you’ll get when people have been manipulated in those ways. And hopefully now you can start to get some sense as to why you’ve gotten this uncanny feeling. On the one hand, Vipassana sounds like the best thing ever. On the other, something seems off. How can both these things happen at once? Well, this is my best attempt at articulating my underlying understanding as to why that is. Hopefully you’ve found some of these ideas useful.
…thank you very much for having read through all that. At this point, it will probably sound like these Vipassana courses are horrible, and the last thing you want to do is attend. But that’s really, really not the conclusion I want to come to. I just wanted to provide some context and perspective on them, so that you don’t come out of it with a narrow, one-sided understanding. And, taking all relevant perspectives into account, my opinion is that these courses are basically net positive, with a few unsavoury elements mixed in. I’ll explain why in my final post on the subject. I wouldn’t necessarily counsel someone against going – though I would recommend trying different Insight Meditation retreats rather than just returning for another Goenka 10-day.

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8 thoughts on “Why Goenka’s Vipassana is so culty

  1. Anna

    Fantastic article! Thank you for posting this and for the time and effort that you have put into this. I can imagine how long this must have taken you as this is such a delicate subject. Wonderfully written!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anon

    Just Googled criticisms of Goenka’s course and yours was by far the most thoughtful, articulate critique. Thank you so much for putting all of this time and effort into your blog post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Anon Ex-Goenkist

    I am no longer involved in the organization that goes by Dhamma or practicing Goenka’s technique after attending over 20 courses and meditating thousands of hours using his method of ‘Vipassana’, all within about 3 years. I had criticisms similar to the ones in this article early on in my exploration and investigation of this sect. This is the most well rounded take on Goenka’s doctrine that I have read. And I agree, it is not all bad. There are some benefits to the technique but, the structure of the meditation courses is designed to indoctrinate and addict people to the pleasant sensations that result. Goenka says you should feel the technique is working with every completed course, as if there is a metric for enlightenment and equanimity.. 2 NOT-Things. The technique that is taught only involves bodily sensations.. Yet Goenka says the sensations are not a measure of your progress (equanimity/enlightenment). It is groundless nonsense. When I became a volunteer, what they call a ‘server’ for the organization, more was revealed to me about what their true intentions are – not purely enlightenment but to gain prestige and I suspect political influence. Consider, individuals or groups that prioritize enlightenment may not care about having the first search result for ‘meditation retreat’ on google, or boast the number of people that have learned under them, or ensure that you commit to their tradition for the rest of your life if you wish to advance in skill level. Certain language is used to keep you in an echo chamber of dogma; They will allow you to destroy your health and once you become a liability they will remove you; Very little is done for the longevity of full time workers. There may be inadequate, shared living conditions. Insufficient pay, we are talking well below the poverty line, no health care is provided; They will use their ‘Selfless Service’ principle to guilt you into following orders; Very little opportunity for debate, suppression of free thought; Capitalization on the hysterical relief of the retreat goers by collecting donations on the final day of courses, when everyone is allowed to speak again; Secrecy on what goes on in the longer courses and in meetings amongst Teachers and Assistant Teachers ~ Things I have heard from seniors of the organization are: An interesting spin on the technique in the long courses, where you start to focus on the solar plexus. Also, Goenka and U Ba Khin performing exorcisms on supposedly possessed students back in the early days of the tradition. I wish I were making these things up. If I can remember the statistics… I think 1 in 5 students who complete a course will attend their second course within 2 years, 3% of students will go on to volunteer, which they can only do after completing their first course. I don’t think there are any statistics on this, but.. I would guess less than 1% of students will gain the credentials to participate in long courses and become ATs or Teachers. Most of the people that begin to play a significant role in the organization will already be thoroughly indoctrinated and will not leave to tell of the inner-workings that go on. On a spectrum of healthy functioning systems with checks and balances, to absolute cults, I think it is at least more of a cult than it is not a cult.

    Great article and I hope this helps

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much for this insightful and thoughtful comment.

      Settling on the solar plexus is a fantastic resource, I have found! It is a very still and stable font of light and energy which can be allowed to course through all the rest of the body. Ajaan Lee Dhammadaro recommends it in his breath meditation instructions.


  4. Ang

    Fantastic article! I just left a course after day 1 with zero regret. After that first Dhamma talk, so many red flags were raised to me and I’m only thankful that I always listen to my gut. I can see how brainwashing and manipulative this course would be, they almost had me at first too! I saw the fear in some of the other participants’ eyes too and all I can hope is that them noticing me leaving, empowers them to trust their guts and leave too.
    Thank you for writing this. It was very validating, and you put into words so many thoughts/discomforts I had without really knowing why it felt so wrong. I hope this organization gets exposed on a grand scale, it pains me to know that the rest of my group and people all over the world continue to enter these courses.


  5. Anon 2

    Hi David,

    As a “survivor” of 21 years in the Goenka tradition/cult (25-30 courses including long courses & having lived at a center for a couple of years giving service). I really appreciated the deep, introspective and insightful dive you did here. Most of the critiques of Goenka online amount to little more than “I didn’t like my first course” and a perhaps correct (but limited insight) into problematic aspects of the tradition.

    There is really no aspect of your critique that I disagree with in anyway- in fact as a spiritual seeker who has broadened well beyond the very limited faux-Buddhist narrative of Goenka – I found your blog to be almost biographical.

    I was deeply involved in the Goenka cult & very much experienced the brainwashing, limited conditional perspectives, and complete inability to question any aspect of duration.

    I would just add if you further points that I personally notice from deep involvement:
    *The tradition also has a strong hierarchy whilst simultaneously denying a hierarchical structure: new student, old student, old student sitting at the front of the hall, children’s teacher, assistant teacher (AT), senior AT & teacher ( generally the head of a center or group of centers).
    *If, as an old student, you engage in another Buddhist practice they essentially take punitive action of rebranding you as a new student (no matter how many courses you’ve done) & sit you at the back of the hall (because you’re clearly ignorant). In this way, the organization is able to avoid fostering any environment where you can ask critical questions, express doubt, question the fundamental assumptions of the technique – which is why I would also describe it as a “cult”. (Not to mention the accompanying social judgement that would come from fellow Goenka peers for having stepped outside of the tradition).
    *The technique is – I would argue – quite dangerous because it is good at getting you to the insight stage called “Knowledge of Dissolution” (Bhunga) but absolutely terrible ( impossible?) at getting students past Knowledge of equanimity stage (which proceeds Nibanna) because in equanimity, you have to completely let go of any type of technique in order to proceed further. The result is that a student will be forever locked in the Dukkah nanas (aka a dark night Yogi) with no instruction on how to get out of that stage. This is almost worse than if you hadn’t begun practice in the first place.
    *Knowledge of equanimity cannot be reached by simply “being equanimous”, it is a specific insight stage which arises as an epiphenomenon (philosophy term or a secondary by-product of practicing Vipassana effectively). One cannot “be equanimous” any more than one can “be the eighth Jhana” – it’s a quality that arises when conditions are right & has nohing to do with personal will. The idea that one can will themselves into equanimity by telling themselves to do so is nonsensical. (That said, learning to accept whatever mental state or sensation arises does help you proceed on the path but should not be conflated with the specific stage of Knowledge of equanimity).
    * Finally, I recommend Goenka students have a look at the Visuddhimagga (section: what is the path and what is not path, paragraph 96) which states:
    “There is no heap or store of an unarisen mentality- materiality (existing) prior to its arising. When it arises, it is not come from any store, and when it ceases, it doesn’t go in any direction. There is nowhere any depository in the way of a heap or store or hoard of what has ceased.”
    From my best understanding – it seems to directly contradict the idea of a store of sankara’s (formations) that must be “burnt” away one by one. In other words, Goenka does not seem to properly understand the fundamental philosophy behind Karmic formations.

    Great article anyway!


  6. Hieronymus

    Wow, how different these experiences can be.

    I did a 10-day vipassana before covid. It was a valuable experience to me. But yes, I did sense the cult-like vibes. But I went in with a self-discovery purpose, am strong-willed, am a critical thinker. Some of your criticisms are very valid for sure, but I feel like some are interpretation rather than fact.

    Yes, I noticed the pseudoscience but I filtered that out in my head. I also didn’t have the impression that Goenka said that his way is the only way, more like that secular meditation in general was the way. To me it didn’t feel like feeling “electric buzzing” in the body was the purpose of the body scanning, it was more about not being distracted by an itch in body part 2 while I was focusing on body part 1. This allowed me to be less distracted by bodily sensations in general.

    And yeah of course the “subatomic” stuff is bullshit, if you just keep focussing chances are you’ll feel subtle sensory hallucinations (result of trying to sense with very low signal-to-noise ratio), or you’ll just feel blood flow through your body. But I don’t think he ever suggested that this would make you enlightened? Otherwise yes there is a bunch of pseudoscience in vipassana but I didn’t think it was too bad.

    Depending on your “assistant teacher” your experience may vary I believe. And yeah, the fact that it may be hard to leave is a bit worrisome (especially for ppl who are afraid to push and say they REALLY want to leave). Moreover, I heard that the Hindi version of the recordings includes some homophobic stuff and if that’s true then that’s really bad obviously (haven’t been able to verify this).

    So yeah there’s culty stuff in there but I do feel like it’s mostly benign. No-one really profits off vipassana, and setting up something that has a slightly viral effect may be necessary to make sure the institution continues to exist. I get that he wants to use recordings because teachers may turn it into an actual cult. Some of them aren’t as wholesome as they should be. This didn’t happen in my case, I did vipassana in Nepal. I currently feel like vipassana and Goenka are a bit quirky. I understand the criticisms and think they’re probably valid. Not taking things too literally and realizing this is not a science, is important. He did emphasize he thought a lot of the religious aspects of Buddhism are weird, like walking in circles around religious objects, so in a way it felt to me like he wanted people to be critical of how they interpret the Buddha’s teachings.

    I agree with your conclusion of vipassana being net-positive despite its flaws, I believe vipassana can be a good experience. The 10-day course was great for me, but I wouldn’t do it again. May do a 3-day version sometime in the future. Because it’s easier than finding something which isn’t ridden with pseudoscience. Otherwise, I don’t feel like I’m pointed back to Goenka at all. Did my vipassana 5 years ago.

    One thing you may want to wonder is if vipassana could exist at all without these cult-like elements, which make vipassana as a whole a bit more viral. Without this element vipassana may have been long gone already. I do wonder how long these centers can run solely on recordings though…


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