Have you tried it? What did you like, what didn’t you like? Is it in line with the Buddhas teachings?
There is a Goenka center within driving distance of where I live. The “Code of Discipline” for retreats posted online is a little off-putting. I understand the intent to provide a distraction-free retreat environment, but the way the code is worded seems a bit “scoldy” to me. I have attended retreats at the Thai Wat closer to where I live. There are rules there as well, but frankly, the monks seem to convey an air of compassion that is somewhat lacking in the rather cold language on the “Code of Discipline” page at the Goenka retreat website. Of course, I haven’t attended any events at the Goenka center, so I have no first-hand knowledge of it. All I can say is that the online gateway is not exactly inviting.
They make you listen to a few hours or so a day of video and audio recordings of Goenka. He is quite a charismatic speaker, and tends to get a few laughs every time. I don’t really like the interpretation of the suttas he gives. The idea that pains in your body are the “psychic” remnants of past bad deeds / negative karma is actually more Jain than anything, and I think can lead to negative ideation about yourself which is not a very good way to grow in Dhamma. In the Goenka tradition it’s either his way or the highway, seriously, you can get exiled/banished from the retreat centers if it’s found out that you have practiced other meditation techniques — verrry cultic.
If you don’t let these points bother you too much, they are some of the nicest retreat centers and the fact that they enforce silence (what they mistakenly call “noble silence”) makes for some very peaceful surroundings and a very serious meditation schedule.
The Goenka tapes I listened to sometime back bugged me with their dhamma inaccuracies, and their translation of vedana as body sensations, and vedananupassana as the body scan method. The body scan is nowhere mentioned in that form in the EBTs. I think this is samatha and not Vipassana!
I haven’t tried it yet, but have heard from a LOT of people here in Montreal who tried it and loved it. Notably, none of them were deep in the dhamma, so for most it was an “immersion” experience where they did a serious meditation schedule for the first time. They say it was hard and painful but very enlightening.
The fact that it’s free (dana optional) makes it incredibly appealing and valuable here in Canada, where a similar 10-day retreat through the local “Insight” (IMS-style) organization (called: True North Insight) would cost at least $1000 Canadian, and then on top of that you’d have to pick how much dana to give to the instructor and manager, who aren’t paid outside that dana.
I love that people in addiction recovery, unemployed etc. who have the time to do a retreat, but not the money for an “Insight” one have the option of the Goenka center.
Like others I’m skeptical of the no-pain-no-gain mentality they apparently espouse, which strikes me as failing the “middle path” test
But yeah, if you give it away for free, maybe you need to be strict with the rules to make sure everyone takes it seriously. I’m not likely to pay $1000 for a silent retreat then start talking and annoying people, but if it was free, the threat of being kicked out completely would help keep me in line.
I attended my first retreat last October and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to do so much meditation in such a short time, as well as not having to talk at all, which was fantastic! The food was hearty, delicious, and vegetarian! Aside from all that, the people running the center, and many of the “old students” were a bit too self serious and solemn. I found myself craving more of the light hearted humor found in the recordings we watched once each evening, but the recorded meditation instructions were somewhat intrusive and exhaustive. On the 9th day, I was pain free and getting some deep concentration, and that was when Goenka gave a very long and highly detailed instruction, and I found myself becoming highly agitated because it just would not end, and all I wanted was to meditate peacefully. I see now that it was just my craving for tranquility which brought about the frustration and anger, but at the time, I very nearly made a scene and was cursing him under my breath. That was the hardest moment of all! Overall, I would recommend trying it once with an open mind, and give the technique a chance. It just might work for you. It didn’t for me, but I did get an intensive dose of meditation, and met many lovely people in doing so.
I attended one Goenka retreat, about 11 years ago, which at the time was the longest retreat I had done. I found it very helpful, though I didn’t pursue the approach. However, I do find that the body-scanning technique is really helpful in settling the body, and in standing parts of walking meditation.
Goenka has his own interpretation of some aspects Dhamma, but of course so many other modern teachers…
Ven Analayo has written about the U Ba Khin/Goenka approach:
He talks about practicing it here:
His guided Satipatthana meditation here:
is based on various sorts of body scanning. (not just for vedana). Note that there is an attached PDF explaining his approach.
There are other comments on meditation here:
I have taken and served on several Vipassana courses and they have all benefited me greatly. I understand that it might be too harsh for some people but if you manage to get through it, you can really get a lot of peace, that lasts for a few months even if you are a busy lay person.
Pros: it’s a great antidote for certain mental health problems and addiction, because you learn not to react to your thoughts and your unhealthy/unskillful behaviors will start to weaken. I’ve found it useful because I couldn’t meditate and these courses felt like boot camps where you will eventually learn how to sit for longer periods of time, despite your skills in meditation. Many non-Buddhist take Vipassana courses because keeping sila and getting rid of defilements is respectable by all religions. The evening videos are similar to Ajahn Brahm’s older videos with funny stories and guidance on meditation. It also allows lay people to live the life of a monastic for 10 days (attendance is free, your dana offerings are used for the organization of future courses). Serving on these courses and seeing people come out of their misery after 10 days is one of the happiest things I have done in my life.
Cons: it’s a school that does not teach jhanas and does not put much emphasis on the suttas besides Satipatthana and chanting.
The key pro is the contemplative environment and context they facilitate: noble silence by participants, selfless service by volunteers, balanced and compassive approach to food, gender segregation to minimise unnecessary challenges.
The key con relates to the rigid practice agenda, which is only one of the many different approaches to the development of right effort and right presence/mindfulness. I am not confident real right immersion or stillness is a concern to them and apparently some instructors will discourage those who encounter it naturally and in a way contrary to what they understand samadhi to be.
All in all, I have a deepest respect and gratitude for Goenkaji and hope to one day visit the massive global vipassana pagoda project he started in Mumbai.
Basically confirming what others said:
I think it’s a great context for much sitting, and I often end up recommending interested beginners to go simply because of the sheer hours of practice.
The teaching is questionable though (“Based on a true story”) and I would clearly prefer monastic settings over Goenka retreats, if available.
I find 10 days too long for normal folks with jobs and families. I don’t understand why there is no 7-day option for beginners retreats.
What I don’t like is that you end up dealing with a lot of pain, and as @SCMatt pointed out this is quite a Jain element in the retreats. Pain is okay, it’s good to reflect on it, but there is not too much merit in having pushed through pain military-style.
Personally for me the biggest torture are the audio tapes at the end of the sittings, ugh.
But again, I still recommend it often, because for someone who doesn’t have access to meditation monasteries and who, let’s face it, won’t go through extensive EBT studies, it’s still a quite good introduction with a decent teaching in a supportive environment. He just shouldn’t have sold it as the Buddha’s authentic teaching, that’s all.
How much do they cost?
Goenka vipassana retreats cost nothing. If you have a slot it is because previous donations were enough for that slot to be free for you:
How much does the course cost?
Each student who attends a Vipassana course is given this gift by a previous student.
There is no charge for either the teaching, or for room and board.
All Vipassana courses worldwide are run on a strictly voluntary donation basis.
At the end of your course, if you have benefited from the experience, you are welcome to donate for the coming course, according to your volition and your means.
Source: Vipassana as taught by S.N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin
By the end of the retreat you are free to make a donation in appreciation for the requisites provided, but in my experience I never saw anyone pressing anyone to do so.
I usually donate what I estimate are the costs related to food, utilities and asset depreciation related to my 10 days sojourn. I reckon anything between 50 and 100 USD would be more than sufficient in most locations!
This is another good aspect of Goenka vipassana retreats as a first experience to those interested in Dhamma.
It is free from the usual commodity fetishism involved in retreats which cost hundreds of dollars, sometimes gets you a bogus certificate, and are marketed on the basis of the fame accrued by tge sophists usually running retreats and selling Dhamma for profit!
I can totally confirm that from the two centers I’ve been in (Bangalore and Poland). I actually had to go to a table myself for a donation, nobody ‘made sure I got the message’. They did display the building and running costs at the Poland center, but it’s completely new and I fully agree that participants should have an idea that centers don’t fall off the sky but actually have to be financed and maintained.
At the end of my first Goenka retreat (around 2006) they still showed an advertisement for building the ‘Global Vipassana Pagoda’ which I found to be too much. It obviously cost a fortune and I don’t understand some Asian mentality to build just another stupa or pagoda or whatever for money that can be used for social or more effectively for meditation purposes. But okay, religion and money is a unholy connection anyway.
Haven’t tried Goenka myself so this is opinions, but intuitivly and by own experience with practice, being fierce and tough with one self is sometimes right medicine. Dana, like how much and so on is not unclear in a setting like this: One give so it really hurts!
Later one can experience that the dhukka of “giving to much” ceases …, and one can meditate on the arising of a cool feeling of friendly generosity in one’s mind is of more value to this heightened state of being, and is closer to a “noble mind” …
If you give it all you got in making a Pagoda - like being in a nice mind-state when doing the job - you end up falling in love with a spiritualized Pagoda in your being. And later you have a “Pagoda” in your being, a Pagoda you can sit by wherever you are, and in any dire situation.
My personal Pagoda to find my true noble value and rescue in. But off course, this could also be whatever building or small or little creation one follow’s trough, it’s all in my mind
Here is a pic from Lokuttara Vihara (Norway), and a Stupa in the making. A project that takes it’s time, and that’s fine by me
Of course I don’t mind small places. Symbolism has its place after all. But it’s a slippery slope nonetheless and the projects need strong oversight so that it doesn’t turn into a material fetish.
I find myself being same size in whatever kind of constructions.
“symbols” has become a skillful mean in the practice I have developed walking and stumbling. Maybe less of self, produce a state of mind and being, where there is "movement " - not many movements, but actually one single move in right direction
Thanks for the replies.
I just want to share an experience I had at a goenka retreat. On the 8th day of the retreat I developed tension and a bit or pain in the back of my neck. It was really intense like my neck was going to snap. It only happends when I do Vipassana. When I do straight anapana it doesn’t happen. Even when I am totally relaxed it still happens when I start scanning. I tried yesterday and it happened again.
I wish I would have learned a bit more about where the technique came from and why they interpret the satipatthana the way they do.
I had a similar issue with pain, on my back muscles. The instructor was kind and told me to change posture if too bad, etc.
However he suggested I tried investigating further. I remember I managed to break down the experience into physical pain and mental pain.
The physical pain I then managed to break down into tension, warmth and rigidity. I could see with my mind the specific muscle tense, warming up and occasionally hardening almost like knotting.
The mental pain I was able to see as linked to the aversion to those aspects of the physical experience. Curiously enough, it went away once I started getting really curious and interested about investigating further the many aspects of the physical pain I was becoming aware to.
I understand that to many of those doing Vipassana under that model this is how things should be working.
While I appreciate the value of having that investigative approach to the inevitable suffering linked to impermanence in our experience of a mind and body I now understand from EBTs that the real breakthrough only occurs in context of right immersion and stillness, right samadhi.
And, as per suttas like AN10.2 / AN11.2 , the sort of stilness that generates liberating insight is eventuated in a very different sort of causal chain, rooted in things like virtue-originated peace of heart, gladness and joy, etc. In other words, jhanas and even subtler levels of stillness
I am not sure Goenka Vipassana system acknowledges that, even in the more advanced sort of retreats and instructions.
Has anyone been exposed to the instructions given in the other longer retreats, only open to recurring attendants of the 10-days ones?
I just want to +1 this amazing text. It was very helpful to me just in general to understand the apparent gulf in how the first tetrad of the anapanasati sutta is understood by different individuals (e.g. the Bodhi and Sujato translations here on SC seem to have different takes mostly matching the debate covered in the essay).
The essay really helps to understand this “special” feature of the Goenka method (focusing on the whole body, not just the breath) as well as it’s relationship to varying historical understandings of what the anapanasati tretrads are supposed to refer to. Analayo is an amazingly clear and useful writer