Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Meditation - Mahasi vs. Goenka

Vipassana (insight) is the meditative practice that led Buddha to enlightenment.  My take is that the basics were more or less retained over the years, but Buddhism became perhaps overly focused on jhanas and samatha (concentration) practice over the centuries.  In the time frame of 1850-1950 around Thailand and Burma, there was a lot of change and renovation in Buddhism and vipassana.  That period of experimentation settled out into perhaps two main camps of vipassana, Mahasi (mental noting of the sense doors) and Goenka (slow scanning of the body).

Goenka has spread a fairly secular form of vipassana worldwide.  With a veritable factory mindset, they provide a cheap and intense meditation retreat if you are willing to put up with their extensive level of control.  I recently came across a description of a first timer at a Goenka retreat, "The Quiet Hell of Extreme Meditation."

I was struck by the insanity of traveling to India for a retreat that could be had almost identically anywhere in the world, and as always, by the pain experienced.  Sitting on the floor is a remnant of a society that didn't have chairs.  We have chairs today.  If you're complaining about knee or back pain at a retreat nowadays, I have some sympathy, but mainly concern for your dogmatic views about sitting.  We need to get beyond the idea that there is something magic about sitting on the floor.

A comparison of Mahasi and Goenka:

Goenka Pros:  Slow body scanning is nonverbal and continuous, I like both of those characteristics.  I have a sense that for many verbal westerners, this may be a good entry into the meditative world and combined with the intense retreat setting may be one of the biggest generators of a big initial "awakening", the experience referred to as the Arising and Passing.  If you get one of those big experiences, you are more likely to keep going.

If you are hardcore enough, and advance from the 10 day retreat to the 20 day retreat to the 30 day retreat, apparently Goenka practice becomes a total body awareness - open awareness thing.

Goenka Cons:  The scanning is dogmatic movement, head to toe and back, so at least as initially defined it doesn't allow for jumping to areas that might need immediate attention.  (Although I believe the instructions eventually allow the attention to go to anywhere it is needed.)  The focus is only on the body, while there is tremendous insight value to be had from attending to emotions, mind states and thoughts.

Mahasi Pros:  Noting covers all possible experience and allows one to focus on what is predominate in consciousness at every moment.  Noting interrupts thought and begins to break up one's experience into the original building blocks.  Noting directly points out what Buddhists refer to as Dependent Origination, an important insight.

Mahasi Cons:  Mental noting is verbal, which may not be ideal, although it is kind of like taking the typical mind's strength and using it against itself.  On the other hand, simple noting doesn't seem to be quite analytical enough to disturb the "original mind".  Noting requires a bit of vocabulary and has a longer learning curve.  Beginners typically don't like it, preferring something like following the breath or a mantra.

It should be said that even many of the teachers who do not favor a hard core, once per second noting style like Mahasi, tend to acknowledge its relatively high rate of success at getting students to stream entry, 1st path.  Indeed, some have referred to the Mahasi Center in Burma as a stream entry factory.  I've never heard that said of IMS or Goenka, or anything, frankly.  I do hear about people having a big initial experience on a Goenka retreat, but I don't hear much about further progress.  This could be due to ignorance, one reason I recently posted a few things about stream entry.

Anything that one does to stay aware and present and relaxed is likely to help, and clearly people awaken with different methods.  My bias is to Mahasi, what can I say, it worked for me.


  1. Enjoyed some of your blog posts. I just finished my Mahasi retreat for 10 days. Did Goenka 6 months ago.

    I was surprise with the basic difference between these two styles.

    My question is: does mental noting in Mahasi actually making your mind full of thought replacing your other thoughts?

  2. Kind of. My view is that taking up a certain amount of mental bandwidth is part of it, maybe more so for people new to the practice. And that part can be intensified with Kenneth Folk's suggestion to double or triple up the notes by noting more than one category of experience at a time, say physical sensation plus feeling tone (i.e. tension - unpleasant). Or that part could also be dialed back with more sparse and basic noting if attention is stable and easy.

    I think of regular noting as not just substituting for more complex conceptual thought, but also important in interrupting the conditioned pattern of grasping at thoughts.

    The aspect that seems most useful to me is that of actually demonstrating or proving that one is aware and free every moment.

    To me there are at least two angles, one of interfering with the conditioned prejudice towards thought, the excessive attachment there, and simultaneously the affirmative action of biasing the attention back to (often) non-conceptual body sensations.

  3. "We need to get beyond the idea that there is something magic about sitting on the floor." So powerful an insight I do not want to ask anything further, but something in me moves to anyway. Wouldn't the person who does move beyond the idea of 'sitting magic' have to sit for some time to realize that for themselves? Is such a process good?

  4. My statement was that a specific posture of sitting has little to no relevance as regards training the mind. Sitting is sitting and meditation can happen in any position anyway. I don't particularly think it requires a lot of sitting to understand this, but I'm also referring to the letting go of dogma and cultural conditioning, which I guess is tough for some people. I may not be getting your meaning, but I think the process of simply seeing things as they are is a pretty good process :)

  5. Thank you for sharing that insight with me. I suspect the dogmatic approach of quantitative requisites to attain wisdom may be even tougher for teachers to let go of.

    Questions: Do you see such a dogma as ignoring the truth of those human beings who have attained sight of the truth in the previous life, or even life after life? Other than moving on to an existence we cannot comprehend, what are the enlightened beings suppose to do after enlightenment? Is it an opportunity to find the suffering and ignorant in places no monk or nun would go for fear of impurity and loss of their spiritual/social progress?

  6. Things get institutionalized and dogmatized, things get grasped at. I think a lot of that can be let go of, though. You lay your burden down as best you can, and you just live your life, going with the flow. It's all just happening, there is no roadmap. Lay your burden down and do what you do.