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Goenka Vipassana Cult
Posted by: munko ()
Date: January 18, 2013 05:45PM

Hi folks, I did Vipassana intensively from age 18 for 6 years.
I did perhaps 20 ten day retreats and served on a similar number. I also sat a thirty day retreat. I lived within the movement and worked within the movement. I can honestly say that I really don't think Mr Goenka knows what he is doing.
He teaches the theory of reincarnation, of Buddha's purported speaking to Devas on first becoming "enlightened". There is no consideration given at all to textual criticism, no doubt whatsoever about the truth of words attributed to Buddha. For that matter there is no doubt expressed at all about the historicity of Buddha. At meditation centres, chanting and meditations are offered to beings who apparently live within trees to ask them to move before any tree is cut down to make way for the all important building work. Psychotic episodes in practitioners during courses are dismissed as just sankharas coming up and the possibility of them being caused by the technique or teaching is not considered. Suicides of old students although very tragic are thought of in vipassana terms, when an old student suicided off the Story Bridge in Brisbane, old students sometimes said things like - I hope he was equanimous with his sensations on the way down.

The gist of Mr Goenka's teachings are that there's something wrong with each one of us, deep sankharas, that will give rise to future rebirth, and to the illusion that reality is real. That's right, Mr Goenka teaches that everything is just millions of little kalapas arising and passing away trillions of times every millisecond, and that you can attune your mind with his technique, to feel them, and go beyond them, to experience the liberation of Nibbana within yourself. Nibbana? By this he means something beyond mind and matter, the deathless. Of course this idea is entirely subjective, unempirical, unfalsifiable. In short it's just polywaffle, pseudoscientific woo dressed up as science. No wonder Mr Goenka is so disappointed with the students who do 100 times the 10 day retreat and still get no benefit. He accuses them of "playing games of sensations". The truth is I think that many people get confused by Mr Goenka's teachings because they are by definition invited to and given the tools to conduct psychic surgery on their own minds. He literally informs the students that this is what they are doing, late in the course when he says they have come to this Dhamma hospital for this purpose.

Finally you won't find much criticism of the teachings online because most old students if they suffer harm find themselves unable to blame the technique or teachings, instead blaming themselves. Having started the process of psychic surgery and of course blunderingly cut up the whole psychology of oneself, one may feel that one has to continue with Vipassana to complete the job. It's as if proof of harm by the technique is proof that this technique indeed does deal with the subconscious mind and ergo must be the only technique available to fix it. In any case, the practitioner says, I was sane when I went to the Vipassana meditation centre, I'm not going to a psychologist now to deal with this new problem that incidentally has arisen only as a result of practising. It must be an old sankhara. I'll keep on practising. Even though I don't know what the technique really is, I'm sure that it's right.

It's thoughts like that which keep old students in line. Even if they leave practising the technique, they feel that they may wish to return some day and so don't want to burn the bridge. And they know that if they do return they'll have to fill in that autobiography section in the course registration form and answer the question, "have you ever suffered from any mental illness, anxiety, etc. ", and "have you practised any other meditation techniques since your last course, including vipassana with other teachers?"

The punishments may seem mild, but the invasion of the psyche of an ardent practitioner is almost absolute. In short if you don't want a strangers voice reverberating in your head, perhaps for a few decades or the rest of your life, steer clear of this tradition. It may be hard to have to work things out for yourself, but that's the only way to live a satisfied life.

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Re: Goenka Vipassana Cult
Posted by: VenusDarkly ()
Date: January 22, 2013 04:26PM

Hi, I hope it's not inappropriate - I can only comment as an outsider - but I know a guy who was in Goenka Vipassana for a good while - 15-20 years, and has recently defected with a good amount of disillusionment.

He has been researching more about Buddhism and meditation - and feels a little shortchanged by the Vipassana version/distortion. Feels he was misled. He also feels the Group-think side of it led him to live in way that wasn't really him, for instance marrying because he felt it was the right thing to do. The marriage ended a couple of years ago and when he divorced he was shunned by the group. He felt judged, and wondered how such a group could become so judgemental and claustrophobic. He felt the group dynamic had eclipsed the spiritual purpose of Vipassana, and that the group dynamic had overly influenced him.

From my observations of others, I've known meditators to come away from the retreats in an extremely fragmented state - verging on emotional breakdown, but as you say, they pass it off as samkharas, and they refuse to get proper help.

I've been pressured to go to retreats in spite of expressing zero interest, and been told I should because it would be good for me. The same people look down their noses at non Vipassanis, but I've seen them wig out worse than anyone else when facing challenging situations - hysterical shit. The sister of a meditator commented on how well the meditation was working for them whilst they were in full freak out, and of course that made them worse, lol. So, personally, I'm not convinced of the benefits.

At least the Goenka group isn't robbing, murdering and molesting, like some groups I know of, but as with all groups, it's best to stay critical, I think.

Good luck

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Re: Goenka Vipassana Cult
Posted by: munko ()
Date: January 22, 2013 07:44PM

Thanks Venus Darkly
I'm glad you've been able to see through to the real harm which has come to these people from doing Vipassana with - that is, under, Mr Goenka. Actually I've come to doubt whether an historical person called Gautama Buddha ever existed, let alone that all the words attributed to him were spoken by him, collected accurately and preserved for several centuries before being finally written down without any alteration at all. Such a course of events would be truly supernatural and is obviously unfactual. But Mr Goenka gives the greatest attention to words purportedly first uttered by Buddha (I believe he is supposed to have uttered these words to the devas (gods) who were accompany him and who presumably recorded the words) "Aneka jati samsara" - that is "Countless births I have taken in the world, ..."

To give you a taste of Mr Goenka's gushing devotion to the truth of words rightly or wrongly attributed to Buddha I'll quote from Mr Goenka's article "Witnessing the Truth" - SN Goenka, Vipassana Journal 2nd edition 1983, pages 46-49 Vipassana Research Institute; In which he states,
"With the taste of supreme liberation, the following words of ecstasy gushed forth from his mouth, the words contain great wisdom and express a beautiful sentiment Anekajati samsaram ... dukkha jati punappunam ... With the aid of these supernatural powers Siddhartha Gotama was able to see his past lives. He saw that he had been born countless times and after each birth he was continuously running towards his death. ... Who is it that gives me another life after each death? ... "Khinam Puranam, Navam Natthi Sambhavan - all the old 'sankharas' have been destroyed, no new 'sankharas' are bing made, this was the state of total liberation. This was the enlightment [sic] of that Boddhisatva; this was the ultimate victory of light over darkness; this was the victory of deathlessness over death: the victory of light over ignorance".

This is why Mr Goenka's teachings are to be seriously doubted. Even though he offhandedly remarks in day 8 or 9 discourse that, it's not necessary to believe in past or future lives, you believe in this life, there is suffering enough in this life. On the day 10 evening discourse, perhaps referring to this, he says that if anyone, like the ignorant child in his black stone story, will not accept the technique because of an aspect of it's theory which they don't agree with, well just accept the technique and leave out the theoretical component, later on when you realise that this is also good you will accept it.

That's how Mr Goenka "teaches" - that is, belittles, his students.

In relation to people coming off Vipassana courses with extremely damaged psychological states, I agree. I have seen it. I have seen the community mental health team called in to pick up the damaged person and take them to hospital. Notably, not all suicides of 'vipassana meditators' or former 'vipassana meditators', will be recorded as such. They will be recorded as a death of a real person with a real name, but the connection may not be made. I wonder how much the mental health wards of Australia and ultimately the families of the sufferers have had to pick up the pieces of the lives of those who have come apart during or as a result of Vipassana courses.

I note that the Goenka group does promote abstinence from alcohol and other intoxicants so there is likely to be some improvement in mental health by simple virtue of this fact of excluding alcoholism and drug addiction, plus there is self selection going on by excluding those who have nervous breakdowns, even if as a result of doing Vipassana. However I think if both ingroup and excluded persons were included the mental health of current and former practitioners would be worse than the general community. I've seen people persevere with Vipassana for decades in spite of visible distress.

The problem as I see it with Vipassana is that it starts with the student having to recite the words "I surrender myself completely to Buddha and my present teacher for proper guidance and protection". Of course the teacher is Mr Goenka and Buddha is ... if there ever was one, dead. (I think rumours of Buddha's deathlessness are greatly exagerated, but then rumours of his birth are too!.)

It's all downhill from there. The more seriously a person takes the technique, the more they identify with it. 'I am a meditator', or 'I will become liberated in this life or a future life', etc. When a person, especially a young and naieve person like I was comes along and rejects everything in one's own life up till that point, the technique, that is, Mr Goenka's instructions, promises, guidances, the technique itself, can really take over one's being. Perhaps I have to hit it this way instead, so you keep hammering, ardently, as instructed by Mr Goenka. You take more and more courses, try to live the celibate life since that's what he says is how you will live once advanced on the path of enlightenment (whatever that is). It really can make a mess of a person. Worse the person then thinks, 'oh my I really do have a lot of problems that this technique has exposed - I will practice harder and harder to deal with them'.
As the years go by in the technique, if you practice seriously, you can lose track of who you are, replacing yourself with an attempt to practice the technique correctly, with resulting psychological fragmentation. After all Mr Goenka says one aspect of the goal is selflessness - called in Pali language, Anutta.
Funny that it wasn't until I discovered humanism, skepticism, textual criticism, that I really woke up to the fact that Mr Goenka's teachings are deeply imbibed with an individual eschatology, how to obtain the deathless by way of liberation from past sankharas, thus bringing nibbana.
You won't find these words in the glossy brochures sent out to prospective students. They are deceived into thinking that it's all about this life. That is wrong. Mr Goenka's teachings are all about kamma. Past life kamma, future life kamma, present life kamma, liberation kamma. I looked in the Vipassana Journal and I was amazed how he actually talks about past and future lives, and states that the ultimate goal of Vipassana is to obtain the deathless = on page 29 in an article titled "Let us talk sense" he quotes Buddha who is purported to state
"Open are the gates of the deathless state to those with ears (who can hear) who renounce their lack of faith".

Mr Goenka seems to adhere uncritically to the proposition that all the words attributed to Buddha in the buddhist canon are actually by a person Gautama who called himself Buddha. Mr Goenka does not admit a hint of doubt that there existed a person called Gautama, who claimed enlightenment, who spoke to devas (gods) and humans and all of these words were recorded faithfully and accurately and set forth on paper without any alterations some centuries later.

The real truth is somewhat humbler, though more promising - there is no deathless state. There is only life, and then there is death. Those who are caught up in the Vipassana cult are wasting their lives seeking deathlessness on an individual and collective level.

Then there is proselytisation, Vipassana meditators feel obliged to prove to themselves the value of what they are doing by seeking to spread the gospel of deathlessness to the wider society and the world. Courses are given to prisoners in prison, to children who don't have the capacity to choose, and during the courses fills their minds with the doctrines of kamma from past lives, bhava sankharas - deep kammas called anusaya kilesa, sleeping defilements that give rise to future lives, and encourages the 'students' to pursue the eradication of these defilements ardently throughout the life. But for any serious meditators reading this, or people considering attending a course, they should really consider whether it's worth devoting one's life, or even a part of it, to the eradication of (non-existent) next life causing sleeping defilements. The garbled terminology indicates the psychological confusion which is part and parcel of this technique.

Mr Goenka gives priveleged positions and even courses for executives, i.e. company executives and government officials. You can see it on the websites where the course schedule indicates "executive course". This itself should give a serious meditator a real source of doubt. How can the Dhamma be universal if it is given preferentially to the rich? This necrous behaviour should really indicate to any meditator what the Goenka organisation is really about.

Sorry if this post went on a little bit but I'm slowly getting all this out of my system and I note that there are only a few cries in the internet wilderness about the dangers and risks of this technique and this teaching. I'd like to remedy that, and to repeat back a few of the really whacky articles written by Mr Goenka, which forms the basis of his teachings.

Further information
Readers may also wish to have a look at a more indepth article by Harmanjit Singh
and his great article
and a few

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Re: Goenka Vipassana Cult
Posted by: munko ()
Date: January 22, 2013 08:17PM

I'd like to add a further note about reincarnation being the root of Mr Goenka's teachings, and celibacy part of his solution to this supposed problem. Mr Goenka's Vipassana Research Institute gives a quote from Mr Goenka which sounds something like Monty Python's Anti-Sex League, straight from Mr Goenka:

A store-house of answers by S.N. Goenkaji
Vipassana Practice (clarifications requested from practicing Vipasana students)

28. My mind still remains immersed in sexual desire and as a result I am unable to maintain the continuity of practice. What can I do?

Fight this battle. Lust is something which keeps following you life after life and it is a very deep sankhara. Whenever sexual desire arises in the mind don't focus on the object of the lust. Just accept the fact of lust as lust. "At this moment my mind is full of lust." Accept this, and see what sensation you have. At that moment start observing whatever sensation predominates anywhere in the body, and keep understanding, "Anicca, anicca. This is not permanent, this is not permanent. This lust that has come is also not permanent; let me see how long it lasts." In this way the sexual desire becomes weaker and weaker and passes away.

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Re: Goenka Vipassana Cult
Posted by: VenusDarkly ()
Date: January 23, 2013 08:22AM

Good links, thanks.

Come to think of it, reports of psychotic episodes/freak outs at the retreats are pretty common. I was under the impression meditators receive some screening before retreats, but I don't know how this is done, and clearly, from what I've seen, it's inadequate.

There probably needs to be some more public awareness that meditation isn't always a benign experience, particularly these extended silence retreats. Personally, if I had 10 days to spare, I'd spend it in the surf.

About the historical vs the mythological Buddha - it's my understanding that the sayings of the historical Buddha, which are relatively scarce, were memorized faithfully by the early Buddhist community and transmitted orally via recitation for about 500 years or something until the advent of writing in India. This was not unusual, because the oral tradition in India was highly developed and also (allegedly) faithfully transmitted extremely lengthy poems like the Mahabharata.

Most 'sayings' of the Buddha we read or hear about today, including the Goenka version, are those of the mythological Buddha, generated for various reasons, but mostly to make Buddhism a bit more user friendly, or in some cases politically correct.

Sorry I don't have time to fact check on this or follow up, but for the very basics about Buddhist history, it's probably good for those interested to hit fairly solid academic studies like Peter Harvey's 'An Introduction to Buddhism' and Edward Conze's 'Buddhist Texts through the Ages' to put some of the latter day developments and sects into perspective.

I do remember having a bit of an odd confrontation with a Goenka apologist about Buddhist historical facts and how there was a tradition of Vipassana preceding her guru. She got rather emotional and very shrill after I contradicted her recruitment spiel, so I abandoned that conversation pretty quickly. She was very worked up. She is a psychologist by profession.

You write well munko and have clearly done your research, so I hope you find a community to discuss these issues with, because if people are spending years on this stuff, the pitfalls obviously need to be better understood.

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Re: Goenka Vipassana Cult
Posted by: cailean ()
Date: February 07, 2013 07:45AM

I was a Vipassana practicioner from '89-'11 and have a better than most grasp on the techniques' strengths and weaknesses as well as the organisation's politics.

I totally disagree with it's "bait and switch tactics" whereby a secular beginning (not counting the surrender ritual opening where Goenka asks you to put aside all rites and rituals for the period of the course) but within a very short time he's talking about Buddhism.

For me the one test of the technique was not the question of future and past lives but whether my everyday life was better - which it was. I stopped my
daily meditation when I finally accepted that I wasn't getting any further down the path and that just keeping the precepts made my life immeasurably better. I still haven't worked out yet whether Buddhism is just another 'ism' or the real truth. Parts of it ring true particularly the concept of past and future lives. Unlike Munko the idea of there being just the one lifetime runs against my belief in 'fairness' and how it's totally 'unfair' for a baby to die young with only one chance at life. The concept of karma seems far more equitable.

As far as Goenka running a cult he says repeatedly to try it for yourself and if you don't agree the exit is open 24/7

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Re: Goenka Vipassana Cult
Posted by: meditator ()
Date: February 11, 2013 01:21AM

I too spent a lot of time within Vipassana centres and sitting courses.
I came to realise more and more that I could not accept the central notion that the particular form of meditation practised by S.N.Goenka and supposedly by a long unbroken chain stretching back to Gautama buddha was in fact the very technique by which the buddha became fully enlightened and was in fact that only way that any being can ever become fully enlightened.
I met many lovely people in my time in the centres and believe that the the vipassana technique is beneficial (I still sit every day) but unfortunately there is an unintentional holier than thou attitude which pervades the organization regarding such things as sexuality and "intoxicants", the inevitable result of following such a dogmatic philosophy. I am sure mr. Goenka himself would not come across this way but there are many people involved in running the organization who appear incapable of any form of independent thinking whatsoever and who can only answer any question by saying "Goenkaji says blah blah blah". I understand that meditation and getting drunk, for example don't go hand in hand but to suggest that anyone who might drink a thimblefull of wine or have masturbated once would have not understood the technique and would have to practise with total abstinence for another two years before they were eligible to sit a longer course is another example of dogma in action.
Unlike one of the above posters I have stuck with the technique rather than a strict view of the five precepts. Not killing and stealing are pretty obvious, intoxicants are not so easy to define as some might think, improper sexual behaviour is highly subjective and defining lying, either by falsehood or ommission can also become murky when looked at critically.
I genuinely believe the Vipassana organization is a positive thing but it's claims of being entirely rational and scientific do not stand up to scrutiny and I can see problems in the future when Mr. Goenka has passed on, the more power hungry among the meditators try to steer the organization in their own particular direction and the problem of how long they can keep using the same old video discourse of a now deceased man becomes more and more pressing.

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Re: Goenka Vipassana Cult
Posted by: SmithRS ()
Date: February 22, 2013 02:59AM

I did the Vipassana 10-day last month, and found it to be an OK experience. I also did Lifespring back in the 80's so I have some background on what is or isn't a cult.

The main thing I was stuck with was what a solitary experience it is. There is nothing to join or make you feel like you are getting an "in-group" experience. They actively discourage the formation of social ties, even the brief temporary ones that are the hallmark of the LGAT's, or run-of-the-mill church going, there is no "crowd" to join, or to feel like you fit in with, or not.

I agree 100% with one thing - if you come in with trauma issues (i.e. PTSD, unresolved abuse, childhood trauma) it can be very destructive to just sit in a quiet room on your own and allow things to "bubble up" (and Goenka even uses that term at least once during his recorded instructions and discourses). I understand Vipassana is widely used in prisons, where people often have deep trauma to process, and there have been lots of success stories. I think this is great but I'm sure there are other stories that we never hear about.

Overall it's hard to find fault, and there's no agenda to sniff out. Goenka even makes a few good-natured jabs at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh during his discourses (which are all up on Youtube, no effort has been made to pull them down for proprietary reasons). The guy's not stupid, he understands how cults get formed and he gives himself a wide berth.

As far as the religious aspect, there were people at the 10-day who were obviously Buddhist in their normal lives, so nothing here is incompatible with that. To be honest it wasn't a big deal. It was like a well-designed piece of computer software - the interfaces and compatibility issues were carefully thought out ahead of time, if you take my meaning. You can "install" this without having to load the main program (i.e. take up Buddhism as a religious practice).

The main thing I walked away with was the idea that I could practice this and get value out of it. It's just like going to the gym, you either do it or you don't, in the end it's yourself you have to get right with. With all the current emphasis on mindfulness I'm sure we'll be hearing more about this. Their biggest problem seems to be high demand for their 10-days, the "free" model has economic limitations, hard to make it scale, centers can only be located where it's cheap to operate, the three centers in California are all in remote rural areas.

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Re: Goenka Vipassana Cult
Posted by: rrmoderator ()
Date: February 22, 2013 03:43AM



You don't seem to be very perceptive and/or are in major denial.

Lifespring training was horrible. The company hurt many people and was the defendant in at least 30 personal injury lawsuits filed by former participants in its training. Lifespring reportedly paid out millions in settlements and judgments before closing down.

See []

Your lack of critical thinking regarding Lifespring should cause anyone pause reading this thread concerning the credibility of your comments about Vipassana.

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Re: Goenka Vipassana Cult
Posted by: SmithRS ()
Date: February 22, 2013 04:01AM

I'm sorry, I read the rules of this forum before I posted and complied with them.

I thought this was an open forum to share experiences. In my case my personal experience was OK. It served me at a specific time in my life, I moved on, it was a long time ago.

If I am missing something here please let me know. You're taking a pretty aggressive moderation posture to call me out like this. Did I break any rules?

Thanks. I really am trying to be helpful here.

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