Problems with Goenka courses

This thread can bring up points on the Goenka techniques.

This is floating around, but I must say that Goenka helps many people with getting their foot inside the Buddhis dvāra.

I still recommend the courses even though they are flawed and encourage the non-mixing of other traditions, and the stripping down of the “religious” aspect of Buddhism. The benefits outweigh the problems.

What about the following Teachings of Goenka that contradicts the Theravada Fundamentals?

  • Sankharas (Kamma) get eliminated while meditation
  • Nibbana is a state where the meditator doesn’t feel any sensation from sense-organs
  • Higher-mind and Lower-mind (Id, ego and super-ego kind of explanation)

I’m still thinking …

Here’s something I wrote in a topic from six years ago:

The Goenka technique always insisted that they were not “Buddhist” but it was always clear that they base their teachings off some of the suttas in the Pali Canon, especially the 4 foundations of mindfulness suttas. Numerous people have reported bad things about the organization and their bad experiences at the retreats. I have always avoided critiquing them in the past because so many others have benefited from the teachings and technique and I saw it as a great tool for Dharma propagation. But now, people are dying and I think real changes need to be made to this organization in general. The pros and cons from my perspective:

Pros: Dharma propagation, people really benefiting from the meditation retreats, continuing the practice after finishing the retreats.

Cons: As noted in the Titmuss article plus:

  1. The teachers at the centers may not be fully qualified to teach and can’t handle the cases where there are mental health issues.
  2. The “assistant teachers” at the centers were never given a full teacher title, perhaps because they were not qualified.
  3. The initial course of 10 day retreats with 10 hours or more of meditation per day is too long for beginners; it should be shortened to 3 days or so.
  4. Apparently participants are not allowed to take any medications at the Goenka style retreats? This can potentially have devastating effects for those with health issues, both physical and/or mental. Taking medications (not beyond prescribed doses) should be allowed. The Buddha allowed his monks and nuns to take medicine.

Considering number 4 above, how do the meditation centers protect themselves form legal liability? I suppose they have them sign waivers?

There are many things wrong with Goenka. On the other hand there are many benefits.
It should also be taken into account that Goenka does promote the idea of some classical Myanmar style Buddhism with Ledi Sayadaw considered as the root teacher. It does also promote the idea of Kalapa as well. While there is rubbish at the door, it is a doorway that people can step over explore further. Many questions happen as people progress further and take further courses and the answers are often “discovered” to be incomplete. With Buddhism in the West being so corrupted with money and mixing of EBT and Mahayana and Tibetan, I still find it useful and recommend it to people I believe can physically handle it.

As for:

I don’t think they do this and you should call them to verify this before saying so. I think this is just a rumor or some people who are self-unprescribing their own medicines. This is the fault of Buddhist psychotherapy initiated by many of the IMS teachers. i remember that a diabetic yogi took a small snack to keep his blood sugar correctly.

I have asked before in the 90’s and the centers do not have liability insurance.
Someone did commit suicide while I was serving one time in the 90’s.

I have not gone to a course since the 90’s but I remember losing faith during the satipaṭṭhāna sutta where internally meant flesh and externally meant skin. Something did not seem right as well as the lack of jhāna teachings.

The centers are set up and they are teaching a lot of people. I have also had some monk-wanna-be’s choose to stay as lay people after the Goenka course, but that does not mean they would have ordain. Take it for what it is. I still recommend it to people.
Would you rather send someone to Amaravatti for a retreat?
What about Mahasi?
IMS or Spirit Rock LSD retreats?
Thich Nat Han retreats?
What about Tibetan centers that chare a $1-300 per day for teaching and extra for food an lodging.
So where do you send them? Pa-auk and Na-uyana are good, but have zero presence (for public residential retreats) in the West.

There are slim pickings and those who finish the Goenka course learn how to sit for long periods of time, learn dāna principles, quickly get introduced to some abhidhamma terms, suttas, dhammapāda stories and many other things. It is a bit like voting in the West. You usually end up voting for the lesser of two evils. On the other hand I have not voted as monk.

That is indeed strange.
This idea of eliminating kamma was an idea even before the Buddha.
There were jain monks who used to practice
for so long, standing or sitting very still. They had the idea
that as the painful feelings grew that by patiently enduring
them that this gradually erases kamma from the past.

So I do not think the idea that one could eradicate all old
“sankhara” is something we would find in the Tipitaka.
Which “sankhara”, from which life? But the result of kamma done one hundred
thousand aeons ago or longer can still appear in this life.
There must be an infinite number of ‘sankhara’. And how many
“sankhara” do we make in just one life?.

Rather it is wisdom and the eight fold path that eradicates the defilements…

One student of Goenka referred me to a talk where Goenka mentions the Udana to justify this idea that sitting “experiencing sankharas” is the path. In this Udana Nandavaggo
The Chapter (including the Discourse) about Nanda
3-1: Kammasuttaṁ (21)
The Discourse about Deeds

aññataro bhikkhu Bhagavato avidūre nisinno hoti,
a certain monk was sitting not far away from the Fortunate One,

pallaṅkaṁ ābhujitvā, ujuṁ kāyaṁ paṇidhāya,
and after folding his legs crosswise, and setting his body straight,

purāṇakammavipākajaṁ dukkhaṁ tibbaṁ kharaṁ kaṭukaṁ vedanaṁ,
° he was bearing painful, sharp, harsh, and bitter feelings, that had arisen as a result of
former (unwholesome) deeds,

adhivāsento sato sampajāno avihaññamāno.
mindfully, with full awareness, and without being troubled

But Goenka doesn’t mention that this was an arahat.
As it says in the Commentary:
.see Arahant Feeling Pain: The Udana and Commentary: chapter 3 Nanda (translation Peter Masefield)

It is said that he, a gentleman (and) a resident of Rajagaha, saw the fault with
samsara upon receiving a shock from the elder Moggallana,
went forth in the Teacher’s presence, cleansed the precepts,
took up, as his meditation subject, the four truths, and then, not
long afterwards reached arahantship after eagerly practising**

At a later stage there arose in him a grating affliction
he dwelled putting up with it by means of reviewing (same), for
there is known no mental dukkha on the part of those in whom
the asavas have been destroyed, although there is still bodily

. […] Bom as the ripening of ancient kamma
(puranakammavipakakajam) born as a result of being the ripening
of kamma formerly performed; or alternatively born within the
ripening of ancient kamma, within the collective that forms the
cycle of ripening made up of happiness and dukkha, through
being a part thereof. What is this ?—that which is painful. And
in indicating, by means of this “Born as the ripening of ancient
kamma”, that that affliction has kamma as its origination, he
rejects the possibility of its being born due to sudden attack from
without or seasonal change and so on.

That was painful (dukkham). that was impossible to be
tolerated by puthujjanas. [166] Sharp (tippam)'. acute; or
alternatively thick by way of their overpowering occurrence.
Grating(kharam): harsh. Stabbing(katukam): disagreeable. Putting
up with (adhivasento): staying on top of (upari vasento), enduring,
tolerating. Mindful, attentive (sato sampajano): possessing
mindfulness and attending by way of mindfulness and
attentiveness seizing upon that sensation.

From Ven. Candana’s talk:

However it should be said that among those many people who take his retreats it is possible some will awaken seeds from the past and start to investigate the teachings themselves.
So there are good people who go away and try to really learn what the Buddha taught

i don’t think it is that simple. It would be a Jain practice and the way of asceticism and enduring pain. I think that although it is a dukkha vedana practice, I think that what they try to teach is to see the pain (sensations) with wisdom, to see with the 3 characteristics and to break down (in their simple way) compactness. Nevertheless they do mention kalapa. So seeing the kalapa with 3 lakkhana might be what was implied, but perhaps misunderstood by yogis.

On the other hand, when bad results appear, that kamma does get used to some degree. However, it is pretty much uncountable and not a way to salvation nor should one intentionally invoke it. It is only the Path that leads to liberation.

I think the idea of the Goenka Practice is to practice the art of non-reaction and seeing with wisdom. In this way, trying to prevent the creation of new kamma. I think that was the gist of his teaching. I have not been to a course since the 2000 and earlier and while quite a few, the total was single digits.

One would need to be very clear first hand about the teachings or use a reference of the 10day course talks to talk about what they do. I myself, am “remembering” rather than looking it up. I wonder if people are speaking from hearsay or experience.?

Posted on dhammawheel

"Now here, at the link of sensation, one can break the chain. Previously, every sensation gave rise to a reaction of liking or disliking, which developed into great craving or aversion, great
misery. But now, instead of reacting to sensation, you are learning just to observe equanimously, understanding, “This will also change.” In this way sensation gives rise only to wisdom, to the
understanding of anicca. One stops the turning ofthe wheel of suffering and starts rotating it in the opposite direction, towards li beration.
Any moment in which one does not generate a new sankhara, one ofthe old ones will arise on the surface ofthe mind, and along with it a sensation will start within the body. If one remains equanimous, it passes away and another old reaction arises in its place. One continues to remain equanimous to physical sensations and the old sankhara continue to arise and pass away, one after another. If out of ignorance one reacts to sensations, then one multiplies the sankhara, multiplies one’s misery. But if one develops wisdom and does not react to sensations, then one after another the sankhara are eradicated, misery is eradicated.
The entire path is a way to come out of misery. By practising, you will find that you stop tying new knots, and that the old ones are automatically untied. Gradually you will progress towards a stage in which all sankhara leading to new birth, and therefore to new suffering, have been eradicated: the stage of total liberation, full enlightenment
To start the work, it is not necessary that one should first believe in past lives and future lives. In practising Vipassana, the present is

most important. Here in the present life, one keeps generating s a n k h a r a , keeps making oneself miserable. Here and now one must break this habit and start coming out of misery. If you practice, certainly a day will come when you will be able to say that you have eradicated all the old sankhara, have stopped generating any new ones, and so have freed yourself from all suffering.
To achieve this goal, you have to work yourself Therefore work hard during the remaining five days, to come out of your misery…"


Here’s a post I authored about 4 years ago:

This post is to share my personal impressions of Goenka’s teachings of vipassana and I make no claims of any personal attainments.

In 2004 I first heard of a retreat where you meditated in silence for 10 days and I instantly knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that sitting for an extended period of time alone with my mind, unable to turn away and run was the key to getting to the bottom of everything in my life. I also knew that it would take great courage and 100% devotion on my part. It was several years before I was finally able to gather the courage and determination to do it. I had never meditated before and knew absolutely nothing about the Buddha or Buddhism.

I was blown away by the retreat and it altered the course of my life. Just now I read the notes I made after the retreat. My main impressions about what Goenka was teaching was impermanence, training the mind to notice sensations and associated thoughts and accept them knowing change is inevitable, to train one’s awareness to be sharper, that thoughts are expressed in the body.

After the retreat I started meditating every day. But after a while I found it rather boring and I felt like I was forgetting or missing something. So about 18 months later I did another retreat. It was difficult and rewarding, but I came away thinking that there was more to mediation than was being presented.

I started searching for dharma talks and stumbled on Joseph Goldstein’s 47 part series on Analayo’s book on the Satipatthana sutta. I jumped in at his talks on the 5 aggregates of clinging and it was like a miner striking gold. Suddenly I found that there was a structure and a plan to Buddhism and meditation and the entire world of the Dhamma began to open up for me.

So how do I now regard the Goenka retreats? Mixed. Overall, I can’t deny that it introduces scores of people to a Buddhist meditation “technique” (as Goenka describes it) and that is a good thing.

However, I’ve met and noticed that many people who attend Goenka retreats tend to stay in that introductory mode of understanding and practice of Buddhism and never move on. Mention of The Four Noble Truths, Dependent Origination or any of the 37 Wings To Awakening is new and incomprehensible. Practice of breath meditation is delightful and bears fruit, however, Anapansati is sixteen steps, not one. At some point there needs to be exposure to more of the teachings of the Buddha. A very close friend of mine is a psychologist and he’s told me several times that he’s known many people who have done Goenka retreats and I’m the only person he knows who continued meditating long term after attending a retreat.

Also, Goenka’s emphasis on equanimity seems somehow like it’s putting the cart before the horse. Can one fulfill the Seven Factors of Awakening without even knowing that they exist or what they are?

There were some other things about the retreats that didn’t make sense to me until much later but I don’t want to come across here as being too critical. After all, I found Buddhism through Goenka. That said, I’m not sure I would recommend a Goenka retreat to most people, at least not without caveats or a pre-retreat briefing and a post-retreat debriefing.


@RobertK sadhu for posting. According to what I read, I think my statements were in fact correct and now verified.

Like I said before, some people move forward. I’m glad you got a foundation from the Goenka courses. As a monk, I meet those who have moved forward. I still recommend Goenka today. At the very least

  • People know how to sit longer,
  • People know the importance of meditation,
  • People learn the basics of anicca dukkha and anatta,
  • People get exposure to some abhidhamma principles,
  • People get exposed to Theravada teachings without any Mahayana
  • People understand the importance of 5 precepts and morality
  • People understand what 8 precepts are
  • People had a chance to experience a little bit of renunciation.
  • People get exposure to Dhammapada stories
  • People get exposure to suttas
  • People get exposure to a network of meditators
  • I could list many more benefits.

As for the original monk critiquing Goenka, I did not listen to the whole thing… actually just a small part of it. When he was criticizing Goenka a lay person for speaking about economics, I did not see any reason for it and stopped listening because I could tell it was highly biased and attacking in nature.

I am also familiar with this monk. One or two years ago, I asked him in a friendly way how many vassa he was. Normally this is an icebreaker between monks, especially senior to junior. He was quite timid and refused to tell me. So I dug deeper to his videos and could calculate his lay life period. (I think he deleted some of those now.) I didn’t appreciate his vibe. I’d like to know where he lives (A monastery or his own house?) and if he uses money. Where did he ordain, and who was his teacher? I think that would be important to know. I’d like to know who wrote the paypal-me information in his youtube About section.

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yes the venerable’s ideas about economics and politics were odd!

he also said>

In all of the Goenka places around the world you won’t find one Buddha image…

Personally I love paying respect at a Buddha image. But we should acknowledge that Buddha images only appeared hundreds of years after the Buddha’s passing. I don’t see the lack of statues as an issue…

He lived and died as a Hindu

I know he was a Hindu by birth but pretty sure he was a convinced Buddhist after meeting U ba Khin.

This link is to a series of letters that Nina van Gorkom wrote to a long time student of a different teacher from Goenka but who also followed the U Ba khin method.

some more bits from the video

In Myanmar Goenka would show respect to monastic sangha, making sure his photographers were there as he was doing so.
But when among his own people belittle the bhikkhus calling them unnecessary, redundant…

He left a ready-made set of replies for his Assistant teachers.
So someone asks a question and they will say “Guruji said this on day 7”, or just “practice more”.
Even a kindergarten teacher gives more responses than that.

So these new students begin to doubt themselves, thinking it is some problem internal to them.
It’s gaslighting.

some more extracts

He made a palatable, digestible and in some ways enjoyable homogenised version of Buddhism that appeals to the masses.

The Goenka organisation are always tracing his “lineage” to give it authenticity. They even refer to Webu Sayadaw.

The Buddha never taught this 10 day or 45 day group intense sitting

It [the retreats]is a highly unnatural environment

Although I (Candana) have participated in the courses in the past and associated with many old students I fail to see any Dhamma in them.
By the way now there is more access to the suttas so people are waking up to these things.

During retreats meditators are talked down to where there is this culture of just follow what is said.

So many students come out with even more strengthened ego

I think the idea that all old kamma can be eliminated by some practice has a long history. It is an idea that has many appeals.
If all I have to do is sit and experience calmly anything that arises, and that by doing so all the negative kamma from the past is been eliminated then who would not to it.

Direct insight into anicca comes about after the understanding of namarupa-pariccheda nana.
Simply because one can feel ‘equanimous’ to subtle sensations/vibrations on/in the body is no indication that this is a stage of vipassana.

I generally think his opinionated talk is rubbish and filled with hearsay and to call Goenka a Hindu is just as racist as calling Ven Buddhaghosa a Hindu. It is all rubbish. Goenka’s org ( has the Dhamma Wheel as their symbol and it looks like they have the 24 spoked wheel which is either the 24 qualities of triple gem or 24 paṭṭhānas. It is clear that they not only respect the Pāḷi but have taken great lengths to preserve it with the cscd from VRI. He clearly wants Buddha’s to not be in the halls because he wants to attract those from other religious beliefs who might feel offended. This is very true and they have various types of people from all faiths that come to his courses. I’m quite sure but not 100% sure they take triple refuge and 8 precepts in the very beginning of the course.
Update… this note here confirms this. (search for refuge).

They actually trace back the linage to Ledi Sayadaw who was a great monk and scholar. This can get people into Classical Theravada like no other introduction.

SN Goenka has built pagodas as well using the Myanmar style. He is clearly Buddhist and it should not be said otherwise. However, he probably wants to separate himself from blind religion and might not like that particular word. They have a protocol for visiting monks and they are respectful to them and they are allowed to come to the courses. However, I have not taken a course as a monk.

I think ven Candana criticisms are mostly rubbish…
These days, such polarized views often negative get a lot of contact. The fact that this has 17 responses shows this too. I recommend not to pay attention to this.

Agreed, he has done some great work in popularizing meditation to his credit. to the benefit of many beings. I think some of the critiques have merit tho. The cons Dhammawiki pointed out for instance.

Agreed. I disagree with much of what Goenka teaches, especially its emphasis on vipassana. One person i talked to said that the Buddha didnt enlighten when learning meditation with his first two teachers because his teachers taught samatha, whereas the Buddha enlightened through vipassana and vipassana is the only Buddhist meditation. I’m almost 100% sure he got that from Goenka if im remembering correctly. This is of course nonsense. You need both to enlighten, even if you are doing bare insight you need some mental training to handle it first. The idea that everyone can just jump into meditation or even “do vipassana” without any prior training is nonsense. Sure some people can, maybe Goenka could which is why he designed it that way, but some people cant. People at Goenka retreats have literally committed suicide because they tried to do vipassana with undeveloped concentration skills.

That said, my knowledge of Goenka is limited only to what people have told me and it does no show any kind of deception or unethical profiteering on the part of Goenka. i think Goenka was pretty good-willed generally. He did excellent work popularizing meditation, his retreats are mostly free which suggests no material motive. Goenka does have his own twist on the interpretation of Buddhism but i dont think thats too different from something like EBT, Secular Buddhists, Navayana Buddhists, etc. Everyone has thier own views and they think they are in the right. Whats the difference between Goenka thinking he alone has the right Buddhism and EBT thinking only texts they like are right? Or secular Buddhists who think 99.9% of Buddhists throughout history got it wrong and the Buddha really did teach rebirth and the various realms of existence as intricate metaphors for the current life and world.

I often show disdain for secular Buddhists, but i still think secular buddhism is beneficial because it motivates people to keep precepts and practice meditation. For some people, orthodox Buddhism just isnt appealing to them and the views of a secular Buddhist are still “more” right than a secular non-Buddhist. So i think Goenka is a positive thing for society overall even with some of their divergent teachings as they are one of the best accessible retreats out there. Sure other retreat centers are better, but how many are as accessible and widespread in the West as Goenka? Some sila and bhavana is still better than none, some understanding of the various teachings of the Buddha such as the three marks of existence, four noble truths, etc is better than nothing.

Ive also met quite a few people IRL who have been to Goenka centers/retreats and they generally all have positive things to say, the only negative things i see are on the Internet. That doesnt mean those negatives arent real, some things on the internet are real, and some are bogus. but that does suggest a lot more people get a positive experience with Goenka than negative ones. One of my best friends came to Buddhism after trying a Goenka retreat, she didnt end up being a Goenka follower, but after hearing him talk about the four noble truths she became more interested in Buddhism and searched for other Buddhist places to go to, and now she is firmly established in the 10 right views, follows precepts diligently, etc. all thanks to one Goenka retreat she tried which got her into digging more into Buddhism in the first place.

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