The Suppression of Jhana at a Goenka Retreat
Originally written August 2001, last updated November, 2011
By the contemplative recluse monk Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)
(copyright 2001 & 2005 all rights reserved)
In the three decades that I have endeavored to follow the Nobel Eightfold Path I have attempted to attend at least one 10-day meditation retreat each year. In the summer of 2001 I decided I would try attending a ten-day Goenka retreat, mainly because they are free. I had been a full-time student with student loans and parent for several years consequently I did not have the money to pay for a costly meditation retreat plus traveling expenses to attend one at either Insight Meditation Society (IMS) or Spirit Rock.
That spring I logged onto the website for "Vipassana Meditation As Taught By S. N. Goenka" and found at that time that they had 6 North American centers, and the nearest one to me happened to be the California Vipassana Center, which is located just north of Fresno, and just outside of the little town of North Fork. The retreat center was a two-day drive from Tucson, where I lived. They had 28 retreats scheduled for that year. Since I was a student I selected a summer retreat from July 25 to August 2.
To attend a Goenka retreat I found that I had to log onto their website and fill out a rather elaborate form. The form consisted of a series of questions, which were mostly typical of any retreat application, such as name, address, phone number, next of kin, and was one on any prescription or non-prescription medication, which and how often. They also wanted to know if there was a history of mental illness. Finally, the questionnaire asked if one had attended a retreat before, and from whom and when, as well as what kind of meditation practice one had practiced and for how long. At the end of the form it said, "If you have not attended a retreat led by S.N. Goenka or one of his assistant teachers you will be considered a new student."
I had been introduced to Vipassana 26 years earlier in a ten-day meditation retreat that was led by Robert Hover, a student of U Ba Khin (the same man S.N. Goenka had studied from). In fact they were both "authorized" to teach the "U Ba Khin method" at the same time, and in the first 2 decades of their teaching they worked together to promote vipassana meditation. Thus to not recognize that I had already sat a ten-day vipassana meditation retreat led by Robert Hover, who was clearly a peer of S.N. Goenka's, seemed excessively narrow minded.
By that summer I had also attended about 30 meditation retreats from a number of other meditation teachers, including those trained at IMS. However, to attend their retreat I was told that, since I had not attended a retreat led by Mr. Goenka himself or any of his "assistant teachers," I would have to be considered an introductory student. This to me was a bit weird, but then religious organizations tend to be weird and dogmatic, and this was an example to me of how weird and how dogmatic a meditation center could be.
While I thought their decision to consider someone with 27 years of daily meditation practice and over 30 retreats a "new student" a bit extreme, I recognized acts of submission are central to many spiritual disciplines, and it is central to my practice as well, I was thus willing to accept this otherwise very incorrect definition of my status as a vipassana meditation practitioner. I said to myself, "Zen mind beginner's mind," and filled out the form and emailed it to them.
Their refusal to recognize the students of fellow teachers from the same tradition did seem worthy of concern. It seems they consider the members of their community (sangha) to include only the members within their organization. This policy of course is in grave error with respect to Buddhist dhamma (dharma).
The term 'sangha' originates from Sanskrit and it is typically translated as "the community of truth." In the broader context of the Sanskrit language and Vedic literature, the word 'sangha' is often used to refer to all people in search of union (yoga) with the sacred, not just Buddhists, let alone the tiny world of the students of a single teacher, such as S.N. Goenka.
When it came time to leave for the retreat I still had not heard whether I had been accepted or not to attend their retreat. I had sent a few enquiries and received a few replies back saying they had not yet made a decision. Without hearing a positive response from the staff of the California Vipassana Center by the time it was time to leave, I just decided to drive there and if they could not find a place for me then I planned to do a solo retreat in the Sierra Nevadas.
I drove at night, because it was the middle of the summer and I was driving through some of the hottest desert on Earth without air-conditioning. The drive through the desert was during the full moon thus it was beautiful. I stopped the van every 4 hours and took a nap or meditated in some remote and beautiful location, like Joshua Tree National Forest. I arrived in North Fork a day early with the intention of camping out for a day to recuperate from the long drive. I found just upslope from the California Vipassana Center were several forest service roads that led to numerous shaded campsites that afforded a cool place to rest even during the hot midday.
On the afternoon of the next day upon arriving at the California Vipassana Center, I was asked to fill out the same form I had filled out on the web. This redundancy seemed rather unnecessary, and combined with their apparent lack of decision making regarding my case in a timely manner seemed pretty unprofessional, but I complied without any resistance. After their lengthy form was once again filled out and signed, along with the release form signed for the second time as well, I handed it to their young retreat manager.
He said, "Hi my name is Mike. I will be the manager for this retreat. I'll escort you to your lodging. If you have anything to take to your campsite you must get it out of your vehicle now, because you wont be allowed to return to your vehicle after tonight."
At that point I was beginning to wonder if I was in the wilderness with a cult, because in 27 years of attending meditation retreats I had never been refused access to my car. It also seemed rather offensive to be treated like a criminal.
I said, "Excuse me? I wont be allowed access to my vehicle?"
He said, "Yes, we have had some unfortunate situations where people sneak back to their car to take drugs, or listen to music or read a book or practice their rosary."
I said, "Well, if you have a problem with drug addicts attending your retreats, then you aught to review your admission policies and marketing. Because I have been a member of numerous meditation centers in the Southwest, including California, where we only had a few incidents in 3 decades where drug consumption was ever a problem. And, people needing the consolation of their rosary in the middle of a retreat hardly sounds like a problem to me."
He said, "Mr. Goenka is very specific about giving vipassana a chance. People are often addicted to their religious practices, and we really need to have vipassana take place in an environment that is free of other religious beliefs."
I said, "Well, it is not a problem for me, but the policy sounds pretty dogmatic. Doesn't it to you?"
He shrugged his shoulders and said, "Those are the rules."
Since S.N. Goenka had a pretty good reputation I decided to comply with what seemed like a pretty excessive series of control issues that seemed to be mounting as time went by. I assumed that since this retreat was in California, they must have a lot of drug addicts and religious fanatics wanting to attend their retreats, most probably because they are free. As we say in America, "You get what you pay for."
Mike helped me load my gear onto one of the many large wheelbarrows conveniently stowed in the parking lot for the purpose of ferrying gear to the retreat residences. Then I followed him to my campsite pushing my gear in their cart down the winding path. I had to say the retreat center was in a beautiful location, because the path led through an oak-madrone forest that was strewn with large granite boulders and it was on the edge of the Sierra Nevadas, which towered over the center.
On the way to the campsite we passed a retreat hut with a particularly emaciated looking Theravadan monk sitting outside of it. Since already the air there was of a silent retreat, I did not want to breach that silence by giving the monk pranams (hands clasped together at the chest in respect and reverence), besides my hands were full. However, I happened to notice that the monk seemed to scowl at me as I passed by, probably because I did not bow to him.
I set up my camp on one of their convenient elevated wooden camping platforms that were situated under trees around a meadow, After making my site comfortable I headed to the meditation hall where the evening dhamma talk and meditation would take place. I saw that there was a tall fence around one whole side of the meditation hall and through the many cracks in the fence I could clearly see women, and since there were no women on my side of the fence, I realized that they were pretty serious about segregating the sexes.
When I got to the hall I found a large number of men waiting outside. Since this was a silent meditation retreat, and no one was speaking, so I did not bother to ask what was going on. I figured it would be made clear when the time was right.
It turned out that we were all required to remain outside of the hall while we waited to be called in one at a time. When my name was called I took my shoes off and placed them on a large shoe rack that lined one whole wall of the meditation hall, and entered the front door of the building. Upon entry I found I had entered into an anti-room where I was pointed in the direction of a large pile of pillows from which I was offered to choose any collection of pillows I felt I needed to support me in sitting on the floor in meditation. I had brought my own pillow that I had been meditating on every day for almost 20 years by then, so I proceeded into the meditation hall. I was pointed to a piece of paper on the carpeted floor with a number on it. I was told to remember the number and to only meditate at that spot. I arranged my pillow and blanket and looked around the room as people came in to be seated one at a time.
I noticed the man directly in front of me was about the same age as I, and by his gray streaked black hair and olive skin, appeared to be from Asia. His long dark hair was tied in a knot on the top of his head and he sat on the floor with impeccable posture and with no pillow for support. I was greatly impressed because even after 26 years of daily meditation practice I still needed a thin pillow to gain the correct rotation of the hips to get the right arch in the back and shoulders and the torso balanced properly upon the sacrum.
Looking around I noticed the hall had a high peaked roof with a ceiling that followed the contour of the roof and left the roof beams exposed. There were large ceiling fans that kept the air circulating in the room and high windows that could be opened to allow for air circulation. There were, however, no low windows to provide a view of the beautiful landscape just outside.
Down the middle of the hall there was a space left as a walkway between the men's area and the women's area that led from the rear of the hall to a very large dais at the front. The men sat on the left of the walkway and the women sat on the right. The women had their own entrance as well, which was on the right wall. No one spoke and those who had been seated were generally in meditation, so after getting a good look around I sat in meditation until the remainder of the 200 people who were attending this retreat could be seated.
Once everyone had been assigned a seat a tall slim man of about 40 with close-cut blond hair, and wearing gold wire rim bifocals entered the hall. He was accompanied by a woman about a foot shorter than he. They were both very Germanic looking. The man strode onto the grand dais like he was an emperor. The woman followed unassumingly and took her seat to his left. They sat on either side of the dividing line down the middle of the hall between the men's side and the women's side.
Shortly after a few grand gestures to load the night's videotape in the VCR our assistant teacher introduced himself as Klaus Nothnegal. He also introduced his wife, but I have forgotten her name. He sat with a ramrod posture and looked down upon us through his bifocals as he gave us a few basic instructions.
He said, "You will be expected to spend most of your time in meditation, when not in meditation you will be silent, because this is a silent retreat. You will be free to come and go as you please, but you must be present for the morning and evening dhamma talks, because that is when the instructions for this retreat are provided. You will be given three breaks a day, one for breakfast, one for lunch, which is the main meal, and one for an evening snack."
While Mr. Nothnegal spoke the gaunt Theravadan monk entered and took a seat on a separate and much smaller elevated platform to our left. And, he sat cross-legged with his eyes closed.
The evening dhamma talk was a 10-year old videotape of Mr. S.N. Goenka and his wife sitting on a very large and pretentious dais. In fact it appeared to be the same dais as was at the head of the hall.
In the videotape Mr. Goenka gave basic instructions in breath meditation (Anapanasati), and he happened to say, "Vipassana meditation is the most perfect meditation technique invented by the Buddha himself." This is of course not true. There are four basic discourses on meditation in the Discourses of the Buddha, not one of them uses the term "vipassana." To assert that the Buddha conflated the term "vipassana" with the practice of meditation and mindfulness is common Theravadan dogma, for which there is not a shred of canonical support. When the Buddha referred to the practice of meditation he called it "sati" not "vipassana."
If you have not read the Buddha's four discourses on meditation (Sati), I have recently rendered a few improvements in their translation. They are as follows:
Anapanasati Sutta (MN 118) Mindfulness of the breath
Kayagata-sati Sutta, MN 119 "Mindfulness of the Body"
Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10) the Four Paths of Mindfulness
Maha-satipatthana Sutta (DN 22) the Larger Discourse on the Four Paths of Mindfulness
After the hour-long discourse we took a break outside, then after about a ½ hour we were allowed to reenter to meditate for about an hour. The monk was present for the meditation and he rocked back and forth and groaned from time to time apparently in pleasure, but he really did not look like he was enjoying himself.
Often when I meditate I enter into a deep and very calm space. When I meditate my head bobs very slightly. That night was no exception, even with the distraction of the monk rocking, groaning and moaning, and the student in front of me with the great posture was lunging apparently due to sleepiness, however I was able to enter into a calm and tranquil mind easily. When my mind was still my head started to bob within minutes after starting to meditate.
I have used the vipassana close observation of the body to examine the phenomena of the bobbing head and the swaying torso that my body does during meditation. I have found the slight bobbing and swaying is simply an elastic response of the body to the pulsing of blood in the major arteries of the legs, torso and neck. After I began to teach meditation I found the phenomena is not unique to me, and seems to presage meditative absorption (jhana) in many people. Perhaps the monk's rocking is an indication of absorption, but his movements seemed too forced and appeared more as a pretension no as an autonomic reaction of his body. The yogi's lunging in front of me was clearly due to sloth and torpor, what the Buddha called "thina-middha" which is the fourth of the Five Hindrances.
After about an hour of meditation Mr, Nothnegal said we could go for the evening, and reminded us that there would be an early morning bell to wake us for the first meditation of the day. I felt I could sit for another hour, however, after the long drive and anticipating a lot of sitting ahead of me I decided to call it a night. I silently walked back to the men's compound with the other men, and thankfully went right off to sleep because it had been a long day. My sleep domain was hyper-real as it most often is.
Before dawn I became aware of the body and sat up on the sleeping platform to meditate. Around dawn the bell outside the meditation hall rang, so I got up and brushed my teeth and empty my bladder in the rustic men's latrine, then I walked up the hill to the meditation hall, The other men followed slowly and groggily behind.
After the hour-long morning meditation we were given a break to take the first meal of the day. The men's dining hall was a short walk from the meditation hall through a path that led through boulders, oaks and madrones. Breakfast consisted of oatmeal, stewed prunes, fresh apples and bananas, and a variety of breads. There were several large toasters for toasting the bread and butter, nut butters, and fruit preserves to spread on the bread. There was also an abundance of herb teas to brew a cup from.
The men's dining hall had many banquet tables and the roughly 100 men all filed in taking their shoes off before entering and silently got into line for food. As we finished we filed up to basins of soapy water to wash and rinse our own dishes, then we placed them to dry in large trays. We then left one at a time and put our shoes back on and silently wondered over to the meditation hall or to the bathrooms.
After breakfast we were allowed back into the meditation hall for the morning dharma talk, which was another taped discourse of Mr. Goenka speaking, his wife sat silently by his side. After the hour-long talk we were given a break outside, then we were allowed back in to the hall to sit for an hour.
At this retreat their seemed to be some restriction around the use of the meditation hall, which I was not accustomed to at other retreats. At every retreat I have been to the meditation hall is open 24 hours a day for the use of meditation. And, very often I am the last to leave and the first to arrive. But, at this retreat I sensed a definite restrictive control over when one could be in the hall and when not, so I only sat in the hall when it was clearly indicated I could do so.
During the next hour sit I noticed the Asian with impeccable posture who sat in front of me could not seem to stay awake again. Throughout the meditation he continuously lunged forward as he did the night before. Also, the gaunt Theravadan monk, who seemed to be there only as a token, rocked and moaned the whole time. However, I found it easy for me to ignore these distractions by simply closing my eyes and bringing my attention to my meditation object and letting the sensations of meditative absorption (jhana) come over me.
We sat in hour-long intervals until the noon meal break. After the midmorning break the monk did not join us. We took a 2-hour break for lunch, rest and showers. I found the noon meal was abundant and ranged from spaghetti to lasagna, to beans and rice and was always quite good and filling. I found the kitchen also accommodated vegans, which I am. The light evening meal was basically fruit cut into pieces and bread with nut butters and iced tea.
During the evening meditation sit the "old students" were brought up to kneel before the dais in groups of five for "interviews." Since I was a "new student" I sat in the rear of the hall so I could not hear what was being said. I just saw the nodding of heads as Mr. Nothnegal bent down benevolently to give personal instructions to the students who all sat on the floor far below the dais.
On the second morning of the retreat, during the breakfast break, I took a little too much stewed prune to sweeten the otherwise bland oatmeal. I found just as the morning dhamma talk had begun that my bowls were not going to wait another minute, so I got up and gingerly walked out. On my way to the door I noticed some motion at the front of the room, but I was intent upon making it to the toilet in time, so I did not pay it any attention. I walked briskly over to the men's latrine and arrived in the nick of time.
Shortly after I was seated on the toilet I heard someone enter the men's bathroom and a hand tried my stall door, but I had latched it. Since it was a silent retreat I said nothing, I figured whoever it was would just try one of the other doors, but instead I heard the individual go out of the building.
When I was finished with my emergency and washing my hands I walked out of the men's latrine and found Mike, the young retreat manager, waiting for me outside sitting on the step.
Mike stood up and said, "You are not allowed to miss the dhamma talks."
I said, "I am sure you people would not have appreciated a mess on the floor of the meditation hall, because I took too many stewed prunes today for breakfast. I am not accustomed to eating stewed prunes, so I was not sure how many to take. Next time I will stop at one serving spoon full."
He said nothing in response, so I started walking back to the hall. He walked closely behind me. I was now sure that I was indeed in the company of a serious cult when I could not even go to the toilet unaccompanied, and that there were only designated times in which one could respond to the call of nature.
I returned to the meditation hall about halfway through the dhamma talk. During this retreat I did not find SN Goneka's talks particularly insightful nor did they stray beyond the average of what is typical of any Theravadan Buddhist or Insight Meditation Society ten-day retreat. His discourses covered the basics of Buddhist philosophy, which included the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Precepts and the basic techniques of breath observation, as well as sitting, and walking meditation, moment-to-moment mindfulness and later on body-scanning, which is how Vipassana meditation is typically practiced within a Theravadan context. His talks did not cover meditative absorption (jhana) at all, even though the jhanas are a central theme in the Discourses of the Buddha.
During the evening meditation period the "new students" were brought forward to keel before the dais in groups of 5 for interrogation before Mr. Nothnegal. The women saw Mrs. Nothnegal at the far end of the dais. When I sat down kneeling before the dais I found it came up to my chest. Mr. Nothnegal questioned us regarding whether we were feeling sensations in our nostrils. I was the last he turned to.
He turned to me and gave me a grand and benevolent smile and said, "Are you feeling anything at all?" His tone seemed superior and to presumed that I did not feel anything.
I said, "Yes, I can feel the sensations of breath in and around the nostrils. Also once I've engaged myself in the observation of the breath it takes my mind a few minutes to become still. Once tranquility is established, and my concentration becomes focused a series of sensations follows soon after. There is primarily a general full-body vibrator sensation, which is concentrated in my hands, throat and forehead. These sensations are much more pronounced than the physical sensations of the breath, and they are accompanied by a very loud ringing in my ears, and there is a bright luminance in the visual field."
Mr. Nothnegal appeared to become very annoyed at me and said rather sharply, "Just ignore all of that."
With finding Mr. Nothnegal displeased with my honest report and feeling shamed in front of 200 contemplatives for apparently experiencing sensations that were not approved of I said nothing and returned to my seat head down when he excused us.
It is, however, hardly possible for me to ignore these sensations because they are far more pronounced than any of the physical sensations that I have, and it has been my understanding that Vipassana Meditation is about observing all of the sensations with equanimity, so why should I be ignoring some sensations and observing others? But, asking that question did not seem possible nor welcome.
The next day it seemed that Mr. Nothnegal was looking my way each time I opened my eyes after the meditation period. As the retreat progressed I found his continued scrutiny unnerving.
On about the fourth day of the retreat we were introduced to the U Ba Khin method of body scanning, which they called "Vipassana Meditation." The "U Ba Khin method" is basically observing the surface of the body for any sensations and beginning at the bottom of the body and working up, then turning around and heading back down and going back and forth endlessly all day long. It was the same method I had learned from Robert Hover in 1975.
During the first half of the retreat the weather had been as hot as it is in Tucson in the summer. And, it was almost unbearably hot in the meditation hall, where there was no air-conditioning. Fortunately I had brought a lot of light clothing, so I was prepared for the heat. But mid-retreat the temperature took a sudden downturn and had become quite cold, especially at night for which I was not so prepared for at my campsite. Knowing that it was not OK just to go to one's car to get a blanket and a sweater I approached Mike, the young retreat manager, and requested permission to go to my van to get warmer cloths.
He said, "I am sorry but you are not allowed access to your car."
I said, "Look it has gotten cold, I just want to get a blanket and a sweater for the night, I am not going to main-line heroine or chant a rosary."
He said, "I'll get you something."
Now I knew for sure I was not just in with a cult but a bunch of nut-jobs. I was about ready to just pack up my gear and drive out of there, but they had not attempted to violate my personal space only my freedom of movement, and since I felt the need of a ten-day meditation retreat I stayed on. Later that day Mike lent me a blanket and a sweater.
On the 6th day, during the evening interrogation of new students, Mr. Nothnegal asked me with his benevolent smile and superior attitude, "Are you feeling any sensations yet."
I said, "Yes, I can feel sensations all over my body. Also once I've engaged myself in the observation of the breath it takes my mind a few minutes to become still. Once tranquility is established, and my concentration becomes focused a series of sensations follows soon after. Other than the full-body awareness of the surface of my body and the internal organ functions, muscles, circulatory system and connective tissue, is primarily a general full-body vibrator sensation, which is concentrated in my hands, throat and forehead. These sensations are much more pronounced than the physical sensations of the breath and the body, and they are accompanied by a very loud ringing and a bright luminance."
Mr. Nothnegal appeared to become very annoyed with me again and said rather sharply, "I told you to just ignore all of that."
He turned to the others and said, "You may go." Then he turned to me and said, "Mr. Brooks, please wait."
He waited until the other students had left, then he said, "Mr. Brooks you should not rock or bob your head."
I said, "The bobbing and rocking seems to be purely an autonomic response of how deeply relaxed I am when I meditate. It appears to simply be an elastic response of the body to the pulsing of blood in the major arteries of the legs, torso and neck, when I am deeply relaxed, such as during meditation.
He said, "Then change your position."
His response did not seem to make any sense to me. How would changing my posture cause my head to stop bobbing? Also, the Asian with the great posture, who sat in front of me, was still lunging at every sit, and the gaunt Theravadan monk rocked, moaned and groaned the two times each day he sat with us, so I could not understand why Mr. Nothnegal was becoming obsessed with the mild bobbing of my head and rocking of my torso? It was at this point I was suspecting his motivation and the quality of his training.
By the next morning, which was the 7th day of the retreat, I found I could not meditate with the thought that Mr. Nothnegal was watching me to see if my head was bobbing, so I asked Mike for an interview during the noon interview sessions to see if we could resolve the apparent conflict that was arising, so that I could return to an undisturbed meditation practice.
At the 1 PM interview I found Mr. Nothnegal in the meditation hall sitting on the high dais. I knelt before him and explained the precise sequence of events that occurs during my meditations and the associated sensations, as stated previously. To this description he chose to negate my experience with some fragment of information that seemed to have come from something someone told him.
He said, "Those sensations are nothing more than access concentration. They are of little use here."
He also said in a very accusatory tone, "You have been practicing chakra meditation, which is not allowed here."
I said, "Excuse me please sir, I have not been practicing chakra meditation, nor have I in almost 3 decades. I have been practicing exactly what you have directed us to do, which is to observe the breath and the sensations of the body."
He dismissed me after that with a frown. I left the interview very dissatisfied. I spent the evening contemplating the sequence of events between Mr. Nothnegal and myself. By the next morning, which was the 8th day of the retreat, I concluded that Mr. Nothnegal was suffering from craving (tanh‡) the cause of suffering (dukkha), as well as narcissism (sakkaya-ditthi), dogmatically clinging to rules (silabbata-paramasa; s. upadana), and ill-will (vyapada), which are three of the five lower fetters; and conceit (mana) and ignorance (avija), two of the higher fetters; which explained his apparent unhappiness. I concluded he was therefore not qualified to comment on my practice.
That morning when I saw Mike the retreat manager, on the way to the meditation hall, I waved him to the side and said quietly to him, "I do not feel that Mr. Nothnegal is qualified to direct my practice. He seems to have become obsessed with my bobbing head. Is there any authority or committee that oversees Mr. Nothnegal's activities to whom I could appeal to for some help?
He said, "There is no authority or committee over the assistant teachers. The Goenka retreat centers are all grass-roots organizations run by volunteers."
I could not believe a retreat center did not have a board to review all policies and the actions of all their members. I was a board member of a vipassana center in Arizona that did not own a retreat center, but nonetheless we sure felt it was important to have a board to manage the organization.
Shortly after noon Mike came to my campsite, where I was resting in laying down meditation (Shivasana),
He asked, "Can you come to an interview with Mr. Nothnegal at 1PM today?"
I said, "Yes."
At the appointed time I found Mr. Nothnegal in the meditation hall sitting on the high dais. I kneeled before him.
He said, "The practice of the sweeping technique cannot be suspended at anytime, and the bobbing of the head and the rocking of the torso must be stopped because it is associated with highly emotional experiences that some week-minded people can have, which can cause them to become disturbed."
Feeling very invalidated by the his word choices I responded, "I have not come here to play mind-games and mental gymnastics with you Mr. Nothnegal. I have come here for enlightenment. I have been meditating every day for 26 years, and I have sat well over 30 retreats. I believe I have sufficient experience with meditation to know what I am going to encounter. The bobbing and rocking of this body is purely a product of the depth of relaxation that I experience when I meditate. If I have to make sure this body does not bob its head or rock it torso, then I wont be able to meditate."
Mr. Nothnegal said, "Then, you will have to stop meditating."
I said, "If I am not allowed to meditate then there does not seem to be any reason for me to remain here."
He said, "Then you can leave."
I realized at that moment that Mr. Nothnegal, and possibly Mr. Goenka as well, was unaware that the sweeping meditation technique is only a technique. True meditation, or samma-samadhi, is defined in the Maha-satipatthana Sutta (DN 22) and begins when the disturbances of the mind come to rest, and concentration is well focused, for which any meditation technique is used. Once the mind comes to rest I have found the technique can and should be relinquished. At this point the practitioner may enter into the various states of meditative absorption (jhana), which are most probably what, in Mr. Nothnegal's opinion, are the "highly emotional experiences that some week-minded people can have, which can cause them to become disturbed."
Realizing that Mr. Nothnegal was intractable in his dogmatic adherence to his beliefs that are not supportive of true meditation (samma-samadhi) and seeing that there was no grievance procedure open to me at that time, I simply got up without saying another word to him and walked out of the meditation hall and retrieved a cart in the parking lot and packed up all of my gear and thankfully left the compound.
What is most disturbing about my experience at the California Vipassana Center is the possibility that Mr. Goenka, or his teacher U Ba Khin, has actually constructed a meditation technique that is specifically designed to prevent the meditative absorption states (jhanas) from arising. It is, however, meditative absorption states (jhanas) that are the Buddha's very definition of the eighth fold of the Noble Eightfold Path and the clearly defined avenue through which one must pass to experience enlightenment (nibbana) within a Buddhist context, according to the Maha-satipatthana Sutta (DN 22). It is too devious a possibility for me to believe that a Buddhist meditation teacher, such as Mr. Goenka, would undermine the very essence of Buddhism, but it appears to be true.
Additionally, Mr. Goenka has been teaching meditation for over 3 decades, and as far as this contemplative knows, there is not one teacher in his tradition who teaches as an independent teacher. It is problematic to me if all of his students, who he has made "teachers," function as "assistant" teachers only. And, that these "assistant" teachers seem to basically function as nothing more than tape librarians at best, who endlessly play his warn out video and audiotapes. Where is there in the Goenka tradition empowerment for anyone other than Mr. Goenka?
It strikes me as odd that a meditation teacher, such as S.N. Goenka, has not been able to fully authorize even one teacher in the 3 decades that he has been teaching. Is this a flaw in his teaching method, that he can't produce even one fully qualified teacher in 3 decades of teaching? Or, is it a flaw in his personality that is preventing him from letting go of control? Does he have a craving for position and power? It can only be one of the three, because I have found there are ample students of diligence readily available for training, who after a few years of ardent practice will make fine teachers.
While there is no evidence that Mr. Goenka has been molesting children, seducing the wives of his disciples, diverting large sums of money into his pocket, or is drunken or drug addicted, there is nonetheless plenty of evidence to indicate that he has a weakness for power and authority, and since he is fairly over weight, we can also assume he has a touch of gluttony as well. Therefore one must keep in mind that VIPASSANA INTERNATIONAL is nothing more than a benign personality cult in service of the personality of Mr. Goenka. And, meditative absorption (jhana) is most certainly not welcome there.
Mr. S.N. Goenka and his narrow and dogmatic beliefs regarding Buddhism and meditation is an example of how common in Asia it is to find people claiming to be a Guru or a Dhammacaari (teacher of religious philosophy), who are wholly inadequate for the title as teachers of religious philosophy. While here we fully expect a minister or priest to have negotiated a seminary, where it is necessary for them to master the knowledge of the foundational literature of their religion. In Asia it is not common for people, even monks, to have read the Vedas (for a Hindu), or the Discourses of the Buddha (for a Buddhist).
Additionally in Asia you might be surprised to find that it is quite common for the wealthy, like S.N. Goenka, and the powerful, like U Ba Khin who was a minister in the Burmese government, can literally buy themselves a monastery, where the opulently wealthy can present themselves as religious philosophers and meditation masters, and the na•ve flock to these wealthy charlatans if they are fed.
Another area of concern for me in the SN Goenka organization was in the apparent lack of qualifications for Mr. Nothnegal, who could not lead a meditation retreat without it becoming an opportunity for him to express his arrogance and superiority. He also did not seem be particularly knowledgeable or capable with regard to contextualizing for the student the experiences of meditative absorption (jhana) that are likely to occur in a retreat environment.
An organization that allows a retreat leader to abuse his authority in the way that Mr. Klaus Nothnegal did, I do not believe is an organization with effective leadership. An organization that does not have an overview mechanism and grievance procedure for those attending retreats is most assuredly a very ineffective organization in deed.
While these amateur Goenka meditation retreat centers are clearly inadequately managed we really should ask whether they are a cult. What is common cult behavior is preventing people from having free access to their families and material possessions. Considering that silence, and denying access to cell phones and automobiles is standard procedure at a Goenka retreat, we can say that this is clear cult behavior. Cults also resort to specialized training that often undermines a person's normal decision making protocols, which was amply represented at this retreat in preventing me, or anyone else, from using the bathroom when they needed it. Also, it is common in cults to force the initiates through a series of submissive acts. Requiring each individual to kneel before either SN Goenka or his designated "assistant teachers" in front of a large body of people, such as 200 devotees, clearly constitutes the same kind of submissive behavior that is classic cult behavior.
Upon returning to Tucson I composed an early version of this article as a letter and I emailed it to every one of the North American Goenka centers. I received no letter of apology or even a reply. I also began to speak to others about their experiences attending SN Goenka retreats and I was told by more than one person that it is common practice upon completing a Goenka retreat to be required to sign a form in which one agrees not to meditate with anyone who has not completed an SN Goenka meditation retreat, and further one must also agree to only attend SN Goenka meditation retreats. This requirement clearly constitutes additional cult behavior.
cult n.1.a. A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader. b. The followers of such a religion or sect.2. A system or community of religious worship and ritual.3. The formal means of expressing religious reverence; religious ceremony and ritual.4. A usually nonscientific method or regimen claimed by its originator to have exclusive or exceptional power in curing a particular disease.5.a. Obsessive, especially faddish, devotion to or veneration for a person, principle, or thing. b. The object of such devotion.-American Heritage Dictionary-
I am sure I will never again sit another meditation retreat at an SN Goenka retreat center, because they are obviously amateurs at leading meditation retreats and clearly a cult. The teachings that were available also did not express an understanding of the teachings of the Buddha as expressed in the Discourses of the Buddha, nor were they especially insightful. Thus I cannot recommend attending a retreat at a SN Goenka retreat center either or one led by a SN Goenka assistant teacher.
For another point of view of the Goenka Cult
Jhanananda (Jeffrey S. Brooks)
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