SN Goenka retreats

Discussion of meditation in the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions.

SN Goenka retreats

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Fri Jan 25, 2013 8:41 pm

Wasn't quite sure where to put this...

This came up in another thread, and i'm interested in people's opinions, I would like to do a long retreat one day once its possible for me, and frankly well...the Goenka retreat is free, and nearby so...

The few people I know personally that have done Goenka's retreats seemed to get alot out of them, I have known a number of sort of "un affiliated" Buddhists, a number of non-religious folks, and a couple "affiliated" Buddhists who have done them and seemed to get alot out of the experience, I have no heard anything bad from any of the folks I actually know in real life.

However, I have read some really negative things about the retreats as well..not being able to use the bathroom, other techniques and practices being put down consistently, an undue focus on The One True Technique and other various questionable sounding stuff. Obviously Goenka makes his claims of legitimacy to any tradition, and demands that you only practice his techniques when there, that is ok..it comes with the territory. I understand that you can't do mantra, bring your malas or any of that and would be fine with just doing his Vipassanna method for the retreat. However, as I have actually already been a "non religious" type Buddhist in the past, I don't relish the idea of going to retreat where I have to listen to a bunch of bashing of the form of Buddhism that I now consider my home in favor of a "non religious" version or whatever.

I am wondering about stuff that crosses the line into indoctrination, again not something that would be unique to Goenka, just wondering how many people have experienced these sorts of things at a retreat, or if what I read is isolated.

Is it possible that the actual centers in question play a role? It's my understanding they are mostly run by local volunteers and I live in the Pacific Northwest where people are notoriously polite and non-confrontational, I could see that perhaps the center here might produce less undesirable interactions like this just be virtue of being here, where everyone is always afraid of offending everyone else ;)

So basically if anyone is willing to volunteer to share their experience, i'd be appreciative. I'm interested in particular in hearing from people who are "affiliated", especially those that might be Vajrayana or Mahayana practitioners in or near a tradition, was your experience at the SN Goenka retreat compatible and beneficial to your practice?
Last edited by Johnny Dangerous on Fri Jan 25, 2013 9:02 pm, edited 1 time in total.
"Just as a lotus does not grow out of a well-levelled soil but from the mire, in the same way the awakening mind
is not born in the hearts of disciples in whom the moisture of attachment has dried up. It grows instead in the hearts of ordinary sentient beings who possess in full the fetters of bondage." -Se Chilbu Choki Gyaltsen
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Re: SN Goenka retreats

Postby Sherab Dorje » Fri Jan 25, 2013 8:59 pm

Check out this thread over at our sister site too.
"When one is not in accord with the true view
Meditation and conduct become delusion,
One will not attain the real result
One will be like a blind man who has no eyes."
Naropa - Summary of the View from The Eight Doha Treasures
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Re: SN Goenka retreats

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Fri Jan 25, 2013 10:12 pm

Thanks Greg, i'll look through it.

Another question for those who have attended, since Goenka claims to not be teaching "religion", what exactly is the context of what is taught?

The one person who I have talked to in person that gave an unusual response about the experience seemed to be under the impression that Goenka style Vipassanna was purposed mainly as a "self help" body scan process to remove trauma, and equated this somehow with the larger goals of Buddhism. I'm sure this person is possibly mistaken, but is the body scan actually being taught as a way to remove trauma in a sort of modern self-help sense specifically, or is this something that people might just mistakenly pick up?
"Just as a lotus does not grow out of a well-levelled soil but from the mire, in the same way the awakening mind
is not born in the hearts of disciples in whom the moisture of attachment has dried up. It grows instead in the hearts of ordinary sentient beings who possess in full the fetters of bondage." -Se Chilbu Choki Gyaltsen
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Re: SN Goenka retreats

Postby lowlydog » Sat Jan 26, 2013 3:03 am

Johnny Dangerous wrote:Another question for those who have attended, since Goenka claims to not be teaching "religion", what exactly is the context of what is taught?


sila samadhi panna

johnny wrote:The one person who I have talked to in person that gave an unusual response about the experience seemed to be under the impression that Goenka style Vipassanna was purposed mainly as a "self help" body scan process to remove trauma, and equated this somehow with the larger goals of Buddhism. I'm sure this person is possibly mistaken, but is the body scan actually being taught as a way to remove trauma in a sort of modern self-help sense specifically, or is this something that people might just mistakenly pick up?


Go sit a course johnny, leave everything you know about dharma at home and follow the instructions and the schedule as best you can, it is a challenging course and you never know what you will be faced with, each course I've sat has been different. You will not be denied bathroom breaks, or given insufficient food, you will be provided with exactly what you need to ensure a solid meditative environment. At the end of the 10 days you will be free to make up your own mind about the technique. The body scanning technique is only part of the technique, and as you take courses geared towards old students the depth of this technique is expanded upon.
I don't think it matters which centre you take your course, the teachings will be identical.(hence the reason for the audio visual tapes)
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Re: SN Goenka retreats

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Sat Jan 26, 2013 3:24 am

I didn't realize the ten day courses were mandatory before you can do the shorter ones, I won't be able to do that for 16 years or so lol. Guess i'd better look elsewhere for now.
"Just as a lotus does not grow out of a well-levelled soil but from the mire, in the same way the awakening mind
is not born in the hearts of disciples in whom the moisture of attachment has dried up. It grows instead in the hearts of ordinary sentient beings who possess in full the fetters of bondage." -Se Chilbu Choki Gyaltsen
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Re: SN Goenka retreats

Postby Yudron » Sat Jan 26, 2013 3:50 am

Johnny Dangerous wrote:I didn't realize the ten day courses were mandatory before you can do the shorter ones, I won't be able to do that for 16 years or so lol. Guess i'd better look elsewhere for now.


They used to have a three day course for people starting out at the Massachusetts center.

They also used to not allow gays and lesbians to take their longer programs, although Goenka later denied that it happened. It did happen. That was about 18 years ago, though, and I'm sure they have ironed that out by now.
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Re: SN Goenka retreats

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Sat Jan 26, 2013 4:16 am

Yudron wrote:
Johnny Dangerous wrote:I didn't realize the ten day courses were mandatory before you can do the shorter ones, I won't be able to do that for 16 years or so lol. Guess i'd better look elsewhere for now.


They used to have a three day course for people starting out at the Massachusetts center.

They also used to not allow gays and lesbians to take their longer programs, although Goenka later denied that it happened. It did happen. That was about 18 years ago, though, and I'm sure they have ironed that out by now.


Wow, I would definitely not go if they still did that. If I recall the world 18 years ago correctly though, that sort of thing was more common across the board. Though it seems odd such a thing would ever come up at a meditation retreat...
"Just as a lotus does not grow out of a well-levelled soil but from the mire, in the same way the awakening mind
is not born in the hearts of disciples in whom the moisture of attachment has dried up. It grows instead in the hearts of ordinary sentient beings who possess in full the fetters of bondage." -Se Chilbu Choki Gyaltsen
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Re: SN Goenka retreats

Postby Yudron » Sat Jan 26, 2013 5:13 am

Johnny Dangerous wrote:
Yudron wrote:
Johnny Dangerous wrote:I didn't realize the ten day courses were mandatory before you can do the shorter ones, I won't be able to do that for 16 years or so lol. Guess i'd better look elsewhere for now.


They used to have a three day course for people starting out at the Massachusetts center.

They also used to not allow gays and lesbians to take their longer programs, although Goenka later denied that it happened. It did happen. That was about 18 years ago, though, and I'm sure they have ironed that out by now.


Wow, I would definitely not go if they still did that. If I recall the world 18 years ago correctly though, that sort of thing was more common across the board. Though it seems odd such a thing would ever come up at a meditation retreat...


It was out of date even then. If I remember right, the rationale was that men are kept separate from women, and they would need to have another facility to accommodate people who would be distracted by the same gender. But, haven't heard anything like that recently, so I'm sure they've figured out some way to work with that by now. You can google it and see the discussions and Goenka's evasive answers in the 2000 interview with Tricycle. They do offer a great service that has really changed many people's lives for the better.
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Re: SN Goenka retreats

Postby mikenz66 » Sat Jan 26, 2013 6:45 am

Hi Johnny,

I did a Goenka retreat in Hong Kong back in 2007, after a year or so of Theravada (Mahasi-style) practice that I first learned at a Thai Wat in New Zealand. I actually found the retreat, and the Dhamma talks (which covered noble truths, dependent origination, etc) and the chanting, to be basically standard Theravada, despite Goenka's comments about it not being Buddhism. In fact a couple of Israeli guys who were living in China and studying Tai Chi, commented at the end (on the last day you can start talking) that they didn't expect it to be so Buddhist!

Some things can be irritating. The chanting sounds odd if you're used to Thai style (like the Ajahn Chah Forest Monks). The rules can seem officious (that will vary a bit from place to place), but that can happen at any retreat situation, and it's a good opportunity to develop some equanimity about that sort of thing. I personally found it very valuable, and when I had difficulties the AT gave me helpful advice. They are tough, strict, silent, Theravada-style retreats, so, as with any such retreat, many people (including me) will have difficulties at times.

Unfortunately, I didn't save what I posted at E-Sangha at the time, which had a lot more details.

:anjali:
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Re: SN Goenka retreats

Postby Adamantine » Sat Jan 26, 2013 7:05 am

Yudron wrote:It was out of date even then. If I remember right, the rationale was that men are kept separate from women, and they would need to have another facility to accommodate people who would be distracted by the same gender. But, haven't heard anything like that recently, so I'm sure they've figured out some way to work with that by now. You can google it and see the discussions and Goenka's evasive answers in the 2000 interview with Tricycle. They do offer a great service that has really changed many people's lives for the better.


I do have a friend who sat one a while back and he was indeed distracted by other attractive men around. . . so there may be something to that. . . I don't think there is any special facility!
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Re: SN Goenka retreats

Postby Adamantine » Sat Jan 26, 2013 7:28 am

In my experience the "assistant" teacher who I interacted with was particularly dismissive and condescending towards vajrayana and any notion of a Guru figure or energy centers, etc. I did not appreciate that, and think it is probably related to the secondary tantric vow to not spend more than 7 days in the home of a shravaka. To quote from the Berzin Archives
The other secondary tantric vow that causes much confusion is not to stay more than seven days among shravakas. In this context, a shravaka is anyone who trivializes or makes fun of tantra. Staying for a long time among such persons discourages us from our path, especially if they are actively hostile toward our meditation practice. There is no fault, however, if we have no choice about whom we live with. It is therefore crucial in such situations – and when living in any nonsupportive and unsympathetic environment – to keep our tantric practices and beliefs totally private.


That said, I think if we are very stable in our practice and have deep faith in our Gurus and Guru Yoga then there may be no issue. It is true that being able to do a 10 day retreat for free is rare. The technique is also very useful. It will profoundly embed a deep realization of impermanence in your mind, and reduce habitual grasping and aversion. It can deepen your other practices through this, possibly. But don't let it replace your Vajrayana or Mahayana practices. (I think it's OK to focus on their technique for the ten days in the retreat, but not after that) In fact, you may have deeper experiences and insights doing the Goenka retreats than an average person specifically because of your Mahayan / Vajrayana practice. I would think it may be smart to check in with your Guru about it before you do it though..
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Re: SN Goenka retreats

Postby Yudron » Sat Jan 26, 2013 7:31 am

Adamantine wrote:
Yudron wrote:It was out of date even then. If I remember right, the rationale was that men are kept separate from women, and they would need to have another facility to accommodate people who would be distracted by the same gender. But, haven't heard anything like that recently, so I'm sure they've figured out some way to work with that by now. You can google it and see the discussions and Goenka's evasive answers in the 2000 interview with Tricycle. They do offer a great service that has really changed many people's lives for the better.


I do have a friend who sat one a while back and he was indeed distracted by other attractive men around. . . so there may be something to that. . . I don't think there is any special facility!


I think most of us have experienced something like that at group retreats, no matter how things are conducted or what our sexual orientation. The human mind is amazing!
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Re: SN Goenka retreats

Postby Sherab Dorje » Sat Jan 26, 2013 8:03 am

Don't know about the rest of you but I can be distracted by anything, anywhere, in company or alone!!!
:namaste:
"When one is not in accord with the true view
Meditation and conduct become delusion,
One will not attain the real result
One will be like a blind man who has no eyes."
Naropa - Summary of the View from The Eight Doha Treasures
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Re: SN Goenka retreats

Postby elfin » Sat Jan 26, 2013 9:05 am

I did a Goenka retreat in 2011.

The plus side obviously is that it is for free. And their teachers are quite accessible. If you wanted you could have an interview with one of them at least every second day. I've never seen anything like that at another place. I was accustomed to getting an interview once a week or one time during the whole 10 day retreat.

Now to the unfortunate things:
I didn't like that before each meditation session you have to listen to a Goenka tape. I found this rather distracting. Besides I was hoping for longer than the usual 45 minutes meditation sessions which didn't happen as sessions were always interrupted by the tape.

There was quite some bashing of other religions and other buddhist groups happening. I was surprised by the amount of intolerance and I don't remember having heard anything like that at other buddhist events. I found it quite unusual as buddhist places are usually enormously tolerant. I remember one person leaving the course ahead of time because of that.

As to the technique, it was already mentioned that they do this body scan type of meditation. That didn't do anything for me and I prefer other techniques. I found it interesting,though, to check it out and learn something new.

The course organisators are quite enthusiastic about you learning how to meditate (they treat everyone who hasn't done a Goenka retreat before as beginner even if you already have quite some meditation experience) and to get enlightened. For me there were two ways about it. Although I appreciated their good intentions I found them a bit intense at times in the sense of being intrusive. E.g. they always went to peoples' quarters to get them to the meditation hall if people didn't turn up in time. And although there are times where they allow you to meditate anywhere on the ground they supervise you doing that. During one of those "free" sessions I went to meditate lying on a bench which lead one of the organisators directly to me making me aware that meditating lying somewhere might lead to you drowsing off. I was aware of that before she told me, though and I wanted to experiment with that nevertheless. So there was quite some discussion about that I didn't appreciate as surprisingly I am used to being treated as an adult. :smile:
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Re: SN Goenka retreats

Postby Ben » Sat Jan 26, 2013 11:45 am

Greetings Johnny,

I have been a student of SN Goenka since 1985. I've had the opportunity to sit long courses here in Australia, India, New Zealand and Myanmar. I also had the opportunity to sit and serve with SN Goenka both in Australia and at the main centre, Dhammagiri in Igatpuri, India. I'm also a past-trust member and secretary for a meditation centre offering courses under the guidance of SN Goenka. I hope I can answer some of your questions. As I am busy as the admin over at http://www.dhammawheel.com , you are most welcome to contact me directly there for further information or clarification as I rarely have the time to make it to this fine site.

Johnny Dangerous wrote:This came up in another thread, and i'm interested in people's opinions, I would like to do a long retreat one day once its possible for me, and frankly well...the Goenka retreat is free, and nearby so...


Courses are run purely on a donation basis and everyone involved inc. assistant teachers to course servers are unpaid volunteers. Meditators can only give a donation on completion of a ten-day course and only if they have the right volition to do so. While there is some light encouragement to practice dana, no one is pressured to give.
I recently completed a satipatthana sutta course (an old student only course) and being recently unemployed, I could only give a small sum as dana. Having been a trust member I know the cost of courses (and per student), and what I could give was only a fraction of that amount.

The few people I know personally that have done Goenka's retreats seemed to get alot out of them, I have known a number of sort of "un affiliated" Buddhists, a number of non-religious folks, and a couple "affiliated" Buddhists who have done them and seemed to get alot out of the experience, I have no heard anything bad from any of the folks I actually know in real life.

That seems to be my experience as well. Most people get a lot out of it, but its not for everyone.

However, I have read some really negative things about the retreats as well..not being able to use the bathroom,

I would say that is a mischaracterization of what goes on. On Day IV, instructions for vipassana (vedananupassana) are given. There is a two hour session in the afternoon when the instructions are given that meditators are requested not to leave the meditation hall. On Day V, an additional instruction is given - during the three group sittings, one is requested to remain in the hall for the duration of the sit, not to move out of posture, to keep the eyes closed and to not open the hands. Its to help one to develop adhitthana. Most people, even very many old students have difficulty with the adhitthana sittings and ending up moving or opening their hands/eyes, but the important thing is to remain in the hall. Having served on many courses, I have followed students who have left the hall during these sittings and they are just gently requested to return. At any other meditation period - meditators can leave the hall to go to the bathroom, and there are breaks in the program through out the day, inc. before and after group sittings so that meditators can attend to the calls of nature.

other techniques and practices being put down consistently,

SN Goenka says repeatedly in discourses in the ten-day course that "we are not here to condemn other practices,...they have their own benefits..."

an undue focus on The One True Technique and other various questionable sounding stuff. Obviously Goenka makes his claims of legitimacy to any tradition, and demands that you only practice his techniques when there, that is ok..it comes with the territory. I understand that you can't do mantra, bring your malas or any of that and would be fine with just doing his Vipassanna method for the retreat.

Yes, SN Goenka is convinced of the efficacy of the practice, as was Sayagi U Ba Khin (his teacher), and others within the same lineage. Having practiced exclusively under his guidance for the better part of thirty years, I think there is something to it.

However, as I have actually already been a "non religious" type Buddhist in the past, I don't relish the idea of going to retreat where I have to listen to a bunch of bashing of the form of Buddhism that I now consider my home in favor of a "non religious" version or whatever.

If you were a non-religious Buddhist in the past, I think SN Goenka's approach will strike a chord with you. SN Goenka is famous for saying "I don't teach Buddhism", yet Burmese people consider what he teaches as garden variety Theravada.

I am wondering about stuff that crosses the line into indoctrination, again not something that would be unique to Goenka, just wondering how many people have experienced these sorts of things at a retreat, or if what I read is isolated.

Some people develop aversion to his style of chanting (pre-breakfast meditation sessions), and one person mentioned to me that his instructions during meditation periods is hypnotism. The man is a masterful communicator. My experience has been that the longer I have continued to practice, the more critical I have been of SN Goenka and whether the benefits I have received were the products of wishful thinking and perception than real. And the conclusion that I have come to, time and again, that it has been and continues to be profoundly beneficial.

Is it possible that the actual centers in question play a role? It's my understanding they are mostly run by local volunteers and I live in the Pacific Northwest where people are notoriously polite and non-confrontational, I could see that perhaps the center here might produce less undesirable interactions like this just be virtue of being here, where everyone is always afraid of offending everyone else ;)

In 2007, I did a 20-day course in NZ. One of my co-practitioners was a guy who was very involved with the Centre in North Falk. When in Myanmar I stayed in the same hotel and travelled with the senior teachers of the California Vipassana Centres, who inc. some of the ex-directors of Pariyatti, and the director of the US Prisons Program within the tradition. They were truely remarkable, inspiring and fun and we had a great time on the short yattra prior to my 30-day course in Mandalay.

So basically if anyone is willing to volunteer to share their experience, i'd be appreciative. I'm interested in particular in hearing from people who are "affiliated", especially those that might be Vajrayana or Mahayana practitioners in or near a tradition, was your experience at the SN Goenka retreat compatible and beneficial to your practice?

The best thing for you to do is to do a ten-day course and find out for yourself. During the course, you will be expected to suspend your current practice but afterwards - you are your own master and you can return to them. In fact, SN Goenka encourages students to try out different things but then having settled on an approach, to give it one's full devoted attention.
I wish you well, and if you or anyone else wish to follow up, please feel free to contact me at Dhamma Wheel, as it is unlikely I will be back during the life of this thread.
kind regards,

Ben
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Re: SN Goenka retreats

Postby chickenman » Tue Feb 05, 2013 7:50 pm

don't waste your time.
i went to one a few years ago, when i first got interested in buddhism. i was interested in theravada at that point in time, and it IS free, so i went. without going into a long-winded diatribe, i was creeped out by the whole experience. something screamed "wrong" right off the bat. the vibe was bad, sort of cult-like. all that was missing was a tall barbed-wire fence and guard towers. and as for the "teaching"... there was none.
the "teacher" did nothing but turn on and off the badly made 20-year old videos of goenka sweating, giving his talks and chanting. i met with the "teacher" only once. he came across as un-interested and a little too self-important. he gave the impression that i was wasteing his time by meeting with him, so i did not meet with him again.
the boot-camp style of the retreat was off-putting. i understood the "silent retreat" aspect and so the "no talking to fellow meditators" rules seemed reasonable, but you are told to not even look at anyone else, to ignore everyone, not to make eye contact or smile at anyone. the result of this was 25 guys all walking around with thier heads down like sad expressionless zombies, which, at least for me, was uncomfortable. forbidden to SMILE???? that's a little harsh.
i felt as if i was in a p.o.w. camp, always being watched by the staff. i developed some pretty bad constipation due to the food that was being served and then had to wait 2 days before someone on staff was given permission by the "teacher" to be give me something for it. it was a bad experience. i left after the 5th day because it was so uncomfortable and, well.... creepy.
it was not for me, and i would advise against it, but that is not to say you might find it rewarding.
if you do go, i hope you enjoy it.
"don't follow leaders" - b.dylan
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Re: SN Goenka retreats

Postby Johnny Dangerous » Tue Feb 05, 2013 11:30 pm

Were you seriously forbidden to smile?
"Just as a lotus does not grow out of a well-levelled soil but from the mire, in the same way the awakening mind
is not born in the hearts of disciples in whom the moisture of attachment has dried up. It grows instead in the hearts of ordinary sentient beings who possess in full the fetters of bondage." -Se Chilbu Choki Gyaltsen
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Re: SN Goenka retreats

Postby Wayfarer » Tue Feb 05, 2013 11:58 pm

I don't believe that critical account. I did one Goenka retreat, end of 2007. At the very beginning they say 'you realize this is a ten-day silent retreat, involves long hours of sitting and complete silence, do you think you can deal with that, if not you had better not start'. Sure they try and talk people out of leaving once you've started, but nobody is compelled to stay. It is a tough retreat to do, no question, but I have no criticisms at all of the organisation or the facilities. The staff were courteous throughout. The training is provided at no charge, and there is no attempt to proselytize or recruit. I don't think I will attend another of those retreats, because I am interested in Mahayana, which that teaching is not. But that is the main reason.

//edit// it is true that you are discouraged from making eye contact with others during the retreat, but I really didn't find that troublesome. What really bothered me was the hunger pains from not having an evening meal, and the intense difficulty of staying still for 1-hour stretches, 6 or 8 times a day. But it was difficult, because it was difficult, not because of the organization or the people.
Learn to do good, refrain from evil, purify the mind ~ this is the teaching of the Buddhas
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Re: SN Goenka retreats

Postby Son of Buddha » Wed Feb 06, 2013 2:48 am

Johnny Dangerous wrote:Were you seriously forbidden to smile?



This practice was instituted by the state of Alabama in a last ditch effort to help stop the violence in Donaldson prison.

It meet with around a 40% success rate(its worked wonders,the evidence couldnt be denied)

The problem is the State instituted this Buddhist meditation as a rebilitation practice(hence the christian groups threatened to sue due to claim that the state was itself sponsoring a religion)

Which in truth legally speaking they were correct,so the state closed down the program.

Then the state went to the opposite extreme,they acctually BANNED the Buddhist practice,making illegal for inmates to meet and practice Buddhism and meditation....

Which is itself also unconstitutional.

later the practice was reestablished in the prison again(you cant argue with a 40% success rate)

Look up Dhamma Brothers in Donaldson prison.personally I woild go on the retreat,if you dont like it or disagree then walk out.

Peace and love
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Re: SN Goenka retreats

Postby ball-of-string » Wed Feb 06, 2013 4:10 am

I've been on a couple of 10-day retreats, several 3-day and 1-day retreats in this tradition. That first 10-day retreat is single-handedly the best thing I've ever done for myself. Having said that, if I could have left after the 3rd or 6th days, I would have. (A friend drove me to the retreat center and dropped me off, and it was in a remote location, so leaving would have been impractical.) If I had left after the 3rd or 6th days, I would probably be saying very negative things about the retreat. Every thing makes sense by the end: the strict rules, the difficulties of the practice, there really is a purpose to it. If I had left before the end, it all would have seemed pointless.

I am always a little baffled when I read some of the negative commentary on the Internet boards about these retreats. Once upon a time I accidentally joined a cult centered around worshipping a particular guru. Whatever else one could say about Mr. Goenka, good-bad-or-ugly, I've never felt like I was being asked to worship him, nor did he claim any special status in the world of meditation teachers.
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