A reader, Paul, has brought to my notice a video in which the speaker offers his critique of what Acharya GoenkaJi teaches. In this, I will attempt a rebuttal to the best of my ability. The video is here
Here begins my review
1. He says between 2:30 and 5:30, certain symptoms come up while meditating and he disagrees that these symptoms are somehow purifying. He goes on to say that they have no intrinsic significance and that all that needs to be actually perceived is impermanence.
My comment: I agree with the speaker. The symptoms themselves are not purifying. It is observing them with detachment, without reaction, without craving or aversion that is actually purifying. Acharya Goenka keeps repeating himself when he says that the sensations/symptoms have no significance in themselves. The significant thing is to observe them without reacting. So I am not sure where the conflict is here. This is not a criticism. He is saying exactly the same thing Acharya Goenka keeps saying. The speaker’s criticism seems to be regarding the way that the teachings “can” be misinterpreted. And he is right. The teaching is easy to misunderstand because it is so subtle while our minds are so gross. Yes, students misinterpret the teachings exactly as the speaker mentions it. I did so as well. This is because while GoenkaJi’s teachings are excellent, they are not perfect. Yes, GoenkaJi’s teachings are not perfect. GoenkaJi will be the first to admit it. Hell, even an Arahant’s teachings are not perfect. Webu Sayadaw (an arahant) admits as much in his discourses. Only a Buddha’s teachings can be perfect. Because the teachings of a non-Buddha cannot be perfect, they will always be misunderstood. That is the nature of things and not a valid criticism.
2. The next criticism starts at 11:40. He claims that the teachings could be more precise.
That is true. I agree. But please remember, English is not GoenkaJi’s first language. In fact he could not speak English till he was 45 or so. He still does a remarkable job, though. As a matter of fact, his discourses in Hindi are indeed more precise. Hindi is his first language. Thus, there is a lot less scope for misinterpretation there. Still he does a very Good job in English. The assistant teacher is there to actually clear any such misconceptions that might arise. As I said earlier, Perfection is possible only for the Blessed One.
3. At around 12:00 another criticism is that the class size is too big and that the instruction is a one size fits all and that there is no concept of personalized instruction. The speaker wishes that there was more individualized instruction
My comment: First, it is not fair to call it one size fits all. A more fair comment is that the one size that fits the most. The author later admits to the trade-off between personalized instruction and bringing the teaching to as many people as possible. The author thus answers his own question. But I still say the class size is not too big. If one reads the Pali Canon, one sees that the Buddha also gives short, simple, basic instructions to his students and they go off to the Forest to practice. They were then expected to understand the details and intricacies of the method by themselves. There was no spoon-feeding along every step. There was no constant running back to the Buddha to clear doubts. They were expected to apply their logical faculties to understand if they were violating any of the instructions of the Buddha. GoenkaJi teaches similarly. There are basic instructions regarding observation of breath, then sensation, then sweeping and very importantly not reacting, or craving or disliking or favoring one sensation over the other. Similarly we are expected to be able to fill in the blanks. And at any rate, one can keep running to the assistant teacher for help if one so desires. I have never heard of an assistant teacher admonishing any student for coming running to him all the time. But this is left to the student’s own initiative as to how often he wants to keep running to the teacher. You can’t force someone to learn so subtle a path. In this tradition a lot of importance is given to the meditator making his own mistakes and learning from them. But even if you keep running to the teacher for every small problem, no body will stop you or discourage you. So this is not a valid criticism as well. In the Pali Canon, one sees that the students usually meet the Buddha only twice. The first time to receive the instructions and a second time to announce that he is liberated. There were some who met him in between to express their frustration over their lack of progress or some who wanted to go back to the Lay life. But the Gist is that two meetings with the Buddha were all it took.
4. At around 15:00, it emerges that the speaker is familiar with the Maha-Satipatthana Sutta where the Buddha de-lineates four different objects of contemplation, viz. Anapana-Sati (Breath), Kayagati-Sati/kayanupassana(Body), Vedanupassana(Sensations), Cittanupassana (Mind), Dhammanupassana (mental contents). Of these Acharya Goenka focuses only on Anapana and Vedananupassana thus eliminating half of the Buddha’s teachings. The Author maintains that one must practice all 4 satipatthanas in order to get closer to reality. He alleges that just focusing on sensations does not do justice to the Buddha’s teachinsg, that it does not show us the whole reality. Thus he claims that GoenkaJi is not honoring the Buddha’s teachings.
My Comment: This brings a smile to my lips as what I used to believe was similar. First, The Buddha’s teachings regarding objects of contemplation are not limited to the Satipatthana Sutta. By some accounts there are over forty different ways to practice anapana alone. This fact is alluded to in The Ven. Websu Sayadaw’s (The Venerable Monk who admonished U Ba Khin to teach others) discourses. Ledi Sayadaw (the teacher of GoenkaJi’s teacher’s teacher) mentions some of these different ways to practice Anapana in his manual on Anapana-Sati called Anapana-Dipani. Of these forty different ways, GoenkaJi teaches only one. Why? By some accounts, the Buddha gave his disciples over 108 different objects of contemplation. Of these GoenkaJi teaches only 3 (One way to do anapana, vedananupassana and metta-bhavana). Why only three? Why not some more?
The best way to answer this question is by another question. The technical college I went to teaches over 15 different disciplines in Engineering alone. Why did I choose just one field, electrical Enineering. Why not also include Mechanical Engg., Aeronautical Engg., Chemical Engg, Computer Science, etc? After all the more the merrier, right? After all the extra disciplines will show me more of the reality of this world of Engineering right? No friends, more is not always merrier. Had I tried to master 10 other disciplines, I would still be in college and would never have gotten started in earning a living and supporting my family. I would still be living off my parents. Please remember, my object in college was to earn a living. Similarly my object in learning meditation is to come out of misery. One method will suffice. If I try to do several more, I will just keep rolling in misery, not making progress in any. Choose one path, maybe experiment a bit, but at some point you have to make a choice, a commitment and stick with it. Similarly, this tradition of Ledi Sayadaw teaches this method. If there is some other school that teaches another and it suits your temperament, GoenkaJi says Go for it. After all, it is not fair to ask Albert Einstein, “Why do you only teach Physics? Why not Chemistry as well?” It is the same as asking Acharya Goenka why do you not teach Cittanupassana as well.
Besides as any practicing Engineer worth his salt will tell you, Electrical Engineering is not all that different from Mechanical Engg. The basic principles are all the same. Infact, after having practiced pure Electrical Engineering for the last 8 years. I am now getting into Mechanical Engineering and to my pleasant surprise the two fields are not all that different. The Similarities are far more than the differences. Far more. Similarly, Cittanupassana, Vedananupassana, Kayanupassana, Dhammanupassana are not all the different. Just like Sila, Samadhi and Panna are not all that different. Panna is actually just Sila for the mind. They are just taught differently to make it easy to grasp.
Also please understand that while the Buddha might have taught 108 different objects of contemplation and over 40 different ways to practice Anapana, he did not teach them all to the same student. Sariputta was just given Dhammanupassana. The Buddha gave instructions according to the mental ability and situation and condition of the student. But Acharya Goenka will be the first to admit that he is no Buddha. He will be the first to admit that his capabilities are infinitesimal in comparison the Buddha’s. He can only teach one method. Just like Albert Einstein or Richard Feynman can only teach Physics. My dear Friends, the Buddha is the Peerless, un-excelled teacher of Men and the Gods. What he can do, nobody else can do. No Man, demon, Deva, Brahma, Gods, Angels can do what the Buddha can do. So to compare my Beloved teacher with the Buddha is most unfair, I say.
5. Around 18:00, The author claims that one must observe the conditionality. One must observe one’s intentions. This he says is not contemplated in GoenkaJi’s teachings.
My comment: This is an unfair accusation. Observing intentions and reactions among many others is a part of Dhammanupassana. Thus my previous comment applies. Finally, as I move my mind through my body, I am completely aware of my intentions. It is just that I do not make an effort to observe them or push them away. I note them and am aware. I talked to the Assistant teacher about this and he is in agreement with what I am doing. As earlier mentioned, observing the sensations brings us closer to awareness of the mind and the various associated Dhammas.
6. The author believes there is a better approach than the sweeping the body via the mind. A claim is made that Ruth Denison teaches a better method than forcing the mind to feel sensations.
I would not say there exists a better method. I would say there are other approaches. GoenkaJi gives very good reasons as to why he promotes sweeping in his discourses. Those reasons are beyond the scope of this post. But let it be known that there are advanced students of GoenkaJi who do not sweep all the time. Sweeping is only an aid. It is helpful but not necessary all the time. The important thing is the perception of impermanence.
Finally, nowhere in this method is the mind forced to feel sensations. You cannot force your mind to feel sensations. This is a misinterpretation of what GoenkaJi teaches.
I cannot comment on Ruth Denison’s method. She is GoenkaJi’s Dhamma Sister. She is far advanced than I am. So I will not comment on her teaching’s. If herr teaching’s works for you, go for it. As for me, I have found my teacher. The speaker’s criticisms seem reasonable on the surface, But a little reflection convinces me that they are not valid criticisms.