the fundies are everywhere

Yes, even in the yoga and meditation worlds.

After my last post about not being allowed to attend a vipassana retreat in the strict Goenka style, one of my long-time readers and supporters, Kevin, sent me this email. I loved what he had to say and he gave me permission to to reprint it.

“I was sorry to hear about your recent encounter with Goenka fundamentalist fervor. I appreciate the fact that that community provides retreats all over the world on a dana basis, but Goenka-ji’s virulent fundamentalism and complete misunderstanding of the history of Buddhism generally and Theravada in particular make him about as good an ambassador and spokesperson for Buddhism as Jerry Falwell is for Christianity (I’m not exaggerating).

As an Indian who “found religion” in Burma he has the fervor only converts can have, and he’s certainly expressed his contempt for Hinduism, yoga of any sort and all other forms of Buddhism many times. It’s clear much of his defensiveness come from the fact that he clearly knows at some level that the particular form of Buddhism he practices and teaches was invented out of whole cloth less than 100 years ago, and has nothing to do with the way meditation is taught in the broader Theravada tradition, let alone the Tibetan or Zen traditions.

The thing is, there is no such thing in the suttas as “vipassana” meditation. Vipassana is insight that arises out of calm abiding (samatha/shamatha) meditation – i.e. anapanasati, or mindfulness of breathing. “Mindfulness” or sati means one thing only: keeping the attention focused on the object of meditation. The superb and well-regarded teacher Thanissaro Bhikku defines this very clearly in the article I’ve attached (from Insight Journal).

Now what’s taught at Spirit Rock is a hybrid of Burmese-style instructions coming from Mahasi Sayadaw and his successors (with Goenka being an offshoot of that) and the Thai forest tradition as represented by Ajahn Chah, which teaches and practices samatha and vipassana the way it is presented in the suttas. The Tibetan tradition preserves the original progression as well: you learn calm abiding (shamatha) and do that for a long time, until the mind is stabilized enough for vipashyana (with Dzogchen and Mahamudra being the ultimate such practices).

The Burmese aberration happened because meditation practice altogether had been lost in Burma by the middle half of the 20th century. The whole tradition had become completely scholastic. The philosophical perspective and techniques they came up with are based on the abhidhamma, with its theory of mind-moments, and in particular on the Visuddhimagga. To put it another way, what Goenka presents as the definitive and original teachings of the Buddha is a lineage-less aberration invented out of whole cloth by scholars who at least had the good sense they needed to learn hot to meditate.

Jack Kornfield goes into huge challenges they had trying to integrate contradictory teachings in his recent article on the history of Spirit Rock, which I’ve also attached.

As someone who really loves the Theravada tradition but who came to it after years of practicing in the Tibetan tradition it kind of drove me crazy to see the total lack of clarity about what is and isn’t mindfulness and how concentration practice differs from insight. I finally got to the root of the problem when I read the fantastic book A History of Mindfulness: How Insight bested Concentration by Sujato Bhikku (who, intellect-wise, is the Ken Wilber of Theravada Buddhism). I think anyone who teaches dharma should be required to read this book, which can be downloaded here:

The fact that Goenka’s clueless staff person said you can’t practice mindfulness on one of their “vipassana” retreats just floors me. What a bunch of Moonies! Well, it’s their huge loss since you are knee-deep in the middle of the transformative yoga and meditation practice that the Buddha himself lived.”

After his email I told Kevin that I just love it all. I am “officially” Buddhist since I’ve taken both the Five and the Eight Precepts in ceremonies, but I love Kali Ma. The shakti blasts that hit me in certain temples in India are too much for me to ignore. I am not going to choose ONLY ONE WAY, I don’t see why I should. It’s all good in my book. I’ve been in the Dalai Lama’s as well as Gelek Rimpoche’s teachings which are Mahayana Buddhism and I study with a Sri Lankan Theravadan Buddhist monk, but sometimes when I sit Kali’s mantra reverberates loudly inside. I certainly don’t feel “confused” as was implied by the vipassana fundie. I feel peace.

“The winds of grace are always blowing, but you have to raise the sail.” — Ramakrishna

This was Kevin’s response:

Alan Wallace…has become my favorite meditation teacher over the past few years. In person I find him even clearer than Tibetan teachers I love such as Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche and others. One really cool thing about Alan is during his 14 years as a monk he not only did Goenka retreats but also studied with a Sri Lankan master for the better part of a year, doing classic breath meditation the way the Buddha taught. There’s a fantastic contemporary teacher names Leigh Brasington (great web site too: who specializes in teaching samatha and jhana in the old way, and he is the dharma heir to the wonderful Ayya Khemma, who also got all her training in Sri Lanka. My point is in connecting with your Sri Lankan teacher – and of course Bhante Gunaratana is another great example – you are connecting with the oldest strains of Theravada there are, unadulterated for the most part with the stuff they came up with in Burma in the 1950’s (though there are Goenka and Mahasi places even in Sri Lanka now).

I’m with you 100% on being open to anything that liberates. Yes I am a Buddhist, but to me that means (as I say when I do the refuge every day) “I take refuge in the teachings and practices that lead to lasting freedom and happiness.”

Patanjali, Sri Krishnamacharya and his successors, Shankaracharya and Ramani Maharishi, Sri Nisardatta Maharaj and countless liberated beings from various traditions throughout the motherland of India are just as much a part of that refuge for me as Lord Buddha – and I don’t think he would have wanted it any other way.”

Neither do I.

(correction: Goenka-ji was born in Burma to Indian (and Hindu) parents. The comment about the fervor of converts still applies.)

I’ve been kicked out of better places than this

OK, I really wasn’t kicked out. I just wasn’t let in.

In 2006 I did my first 10 day silent vipassana retreat here that is in the strict Goenka tradition. A requirement of the Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training that I did at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California was that one had to sit a 5 day or longer vipassana retreat.

The vipassana retreat was my first long silent retreat and it was the hardest thing I have ever done but the most transformative. I went through 6 days of hell, but on the 7th was reborn, so to speak. I ended up loving my experience. In fact, if I had my own yoga teacher training program a vipassana retreat would be one of the requirements for certification, that’s how important I think it is. If you want my piece of paper you would have to sit in silence 10 hours a day for 10 days, no excuses.

I’ve always wanted to return. When I came back from India I felt the need to sit intensely like that and desired the structure of the retreat, don’t ask me why. I wanted to do a three day retreat instead of a 10 day so I applied for a sit in August. If you go to the Illinois website you can see what the lengthy application is all about. They ask you lots of questions about your practice, if you have done any other meditation styles, if you teach any other meditation styles, plus the usual questions about your mental health since strict vipassana is a very intense practice. After writing the application you are then called for a telephone interview.

So being the good yogini that I am I was honest. You know, that whole satya thing. I wrote about my retreats and training at Spirit Rock, who the teachers were, that I am a yoga teacher, that I incorporate meditation in my classes, and that I teach mindfulness meditation.

A very nice woman called to interview me and she was very impressed with my application commenting on everything I have done. She said I could do the retreat as long as I understood not to “mix” my mindfulness meditation with the vipassana practice. I said that I totally understood that and she said I could go on the retreat.

She called me yesterday with the bad news: I could not attend the retreat. Instead of becoming angry or disappointed, feelings of amusement arose. I REALLY wanted to do this retreat (and some of you might think I’m nuts for REALLY wanting to sit 10 hours a day), but for some reason I thought it was hilarious. Maybe it was the woman’s voice. Ginger had the stereotypical voice of a grandmother that you might hear in cartoons. It was classic and precious. How could I get angry at her and besides, what would be the point? She was just following Goenka’s rules. Don’t kill the messenger.

She told me that she looked at my website and was very impressed with my “accomplishments” in yoga teaching and that I trained at Spirit Rock and go to India to study yoga. But I don’t consider myself “special”, I just do what I do. I thought, so just because I’ve done the training that I’ve done, that means I can’t do a 3 day vipassana retreat, something that I really want to do? I mean, I don’t know very many people who would subject themselves to a strict vipassana retreat. In fact, most yogis I know would probably prefer to hang upside down over a fire. WHAT DO YOU MEAN I CAN’T GO?!?

I tried not to chuckle. Ginger sounded so sincere in her compliments about my yoga and meditation practices, how could I dare laugh? She said it was BECAUSE I teach mindfulness meditation that I can’t go. She said that Goenka was very strict about the mixing of any other practice with vipassana (which I already knew) and her supervisor was afraid that I would mix everything up and get “confused” (and go nuts — the teachers are afraid people will freak out because vipassana is an intense practice.) Please stay home she told me.

The bottom line is that one has to make a choice. It’s either a strict vipassana practice or the highway. None of this take one from column A and one from column B. I told Ginger, yeah, but the roots of mindfulness meditation are in vipassana. “Yes, dear, we know,” she said, “but unless you make a choice of what practice you want to do, you can never come back here. Go to Barre instead.” Goenka, via Ginger, banished me to the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts. I hung my head. Oh, the shame of it all.

Damn it. I’m banned from every vipassana center in the known and unknown Universe! Sigh. I was really looking forward to all those kriya nightmares ridding me of my samskaras. Mara won’t be visiting me in my dreams now.

So much for honesty is the best policy. If I had said nothing about everything I have done since my first retreat, I would have gotten in. I should have kept my mouth shut.

Well, you know what, Goenka? According to your rules, one is not supposed to do any yoga on a vipassana retreat. But listen up, dude — you know that 4 AM wake up call to sit? I blew that off every day and DID MY YOGA IN MY ROOM!! Yeah, that’s right, I broke the rules!

Gee…ya think they found out about that?

addthis_pub = ‘yogagal60510’;

do you want enlightenment with that?

Mass Producing Meditators

In this episode of Buddhist Geeks, Vince talks with Theo Horesh and Duff McDuffee, two SN Goenka practitioners. They discuss the effects of what can be called the mass production of meditators. They also explore the differences in using a single technique or multiple techniques for realization.

You can listen to Part 1 in my post here.

Theo and Duff raise some good questions in this interview. I thought it was interesting when they compared Goenka’s approach to that of a fast food franchise or Henry Ford’s production line. The interviewer compared the vipassana technique to what he heard Bikram say about how he styled his yoga on the McDonald’s model of fast food production.

While I’m not a vipassana junkie, I believe that a committed yoga teacher who is walking the spiritual path, regardless of tradition, should do at least one vipassana retreat. You will explore places of yourself that you have never explored before! I have only done one 10 day retreat, but I plan to do at least one retreat a year, even if it is only a three day one.

In October I am starting Spirit Rock’s Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation training. I am committed to this program until 2009. I am very excited because this training is the first of its kind, a ground-breaking program that incorporates classical yoga and Buddhism. From the website:

…an experiential grounding in an integrated yoga and vipassana practice that can nourish practitioners in their daily lives; a solid understanding of the entwined history, philosophy, and techniques of both yoga and Buddhism; and the foundational skills and understanding necessary to practice yoga–and for teachers to teach it–in a way that embodies and facilitates a deep understanding of core Buddhist principles such as mindfulness, lovingkindness, compassion, equanimity, and the interdependence of all life.

According to the website, “a good portion of the retreats will be spent in silence, following a full schedule of seated and walking meditation. The daily schedule will also include approximately 2.5 to 3 hours of yoga asana and pranayama.” Can’t wait!

What is so exciting about this program is the chance to study with the “biggies” of the Western Buddhist and yoga world such as Jack Kornfield, Phillip Moffit, Tias Little, Stephen Cope, Judith Lassater, Jill Satterfield, and even Dr. Dean Ornish, among others.

This is the type of program that I have been looking for as long as I’ve been a student/teacher, and when I read about it, I jumped on it immediately, no hesitation. I am honored and grateful to be accepted into this training.


10 days with the walking wounded

Entrepregurus and the Meditation Factory

“In this episode [of Buddhist Geeks] Vince interviews Theo Horesh and Duff McDuffee, two S.N. Goenka practitioners. They discuss the techniques of the Goenka tradition and how one might see it as a meditation factory. In the next episode, they discuss the power of the Goenka approach and possible criticisms of the practice.”

my post about my own vipassana meditation experience in January will follow soon…it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and also one of the most transformational…

in the meantime, enjoy the interview….and the one dude does a right-on impersonation of Goenka! Scary!

to be continued….