Message Boards Message Boards

Retreat Centers

Beginner to vipassana, is a retreat recommended?

I'm a beginner to vipassana meditation (about a month or so) and I'm wondering if it would be a good time for me to go to a monastery or to keep practicing on my own for a bit.

If a monastery is a good idea, does anyone have any to recommend? I live in Colorado, although I'm willing to drive/fly anywhere in the US. Outside the US is a bit more difficult but still doable.

Any and all advice is appreciated.

RE: Beginner to vipassana, is a retreat recommended?
Answer
12/10/13 9:34 AM as a reply to Travis Gene McKinstry.
Dear Travis,

Retreats are the most precious time in our lives. Definitely participate in as many as you can as a beginner.

Have you looked into Goenkaji's retreats at Dhamma.org?

They are free intensive 10-day Vipassana retreats. I would highly recommend the retreats. The centers in Central and Southern California are very nice.

RE: Beginner to vipassana, is a retreat recommended?
Answer
12/10/13 9:45 AM as a reply to Be Free Now.
Be Free Now:
Dear Travis,

Retreats are the most precious time in our lives. Definitely participate in as many as you can as a beginner.

Have you looked into Goenkaji's retreats at Dhamma.org?

They are free intensive 10-day Vipassana retreats. I would highly recommend the retreats. The centers in Central and Southern California are very nice.


Be Free Now,

Thanks for responding. I have looked into those and have been a bit indecisive about them. I've heard a lot of mixed reviews.

I imagine you've been on one? Would you mind detailing a bit about your experience? Where was meditation, the people there, the teachings, the actual technique, what you experienced using the technique, the food, the atmosphere etc.?

RE: Beginner to vipassana, is a retreat recommended?
Answer
12/10/13 10:30 AM as a reply to Travis Gene McKinstry.
Do a search and see what you think
google this -------> site:www.dharmaoverground.org Goenka
Lots of discussion...
Good luck,
~D

RE: Beginner to vipassana, is a retreat recommended?
Answer
12/10/13 6:18 PM as a reply to Travis Gene McKinstry.
Travis Gene McKinstry:


I imagine you've been on one? Would you mind detailing a bit about your experience? Where was meditation, the people there, the teachings, the actual technique, what you experienced using the technique, the food, the atmosphere etc.?


I've been on eight 10-day retreats and stayed at California Vipassana Center for a few months on two occassions. 10 days of silence in an environment in which everyone (most?) people are putting in great effort to meditate and purify the mind is unbeatable. You get free vegetarian food (quite good), free shelter, and a quiet environment (if you can go to a center with a pagoda, it's an added bonus) to learn a basic Vipassana technique. What can harm you?

I'm not going to go into details because there are many other reviews of Goenkaji's centers on the web. But if you have never been on any retreat before and are committed to the Buddha's teachings, a 10-day retreat will only bring benefit to your life. It's a good first step.

Everybody experiences different things at different times, so it is good not to expect to experience any particular state(s) before you go. You most likely will feel some pain, discomfort, anger, hatred, and general unpleasantness for the first few days (and beyond, perhaps), but you will also probably feel joy, freedom, love, peace, and a general lightness of being at other times. Have no fear. Step into the fire!

Be Happy!

RE: Beginner to vipassana, is a retreat recommended?
Answer
12/10/13 7:11 PM as a reply to Be Free Now.
Thank you very much for the reply.

Everybody experiences different things at different times, so it is good not to expect to experience any particular state(s) before you go. You most likely will feel some pain, discomfort, anger, hatred, and general unpleasantness for the first few days (and beyond, perhaps), but you will also probably feel joy, freedom, love, peace, and a general lightness of being at other times. Have no fear. Step into the fire!
[Emphasis mine].

This makes a lot of sense. Thank you for bringing that to my attention.

I hope your practice is going 'well'!

RE: Beginner to vipassana, is a retreat recommended?
Answer
12/28/13 6:29 AM as a reply to Be Free Now.
Travis Gene McKinstry:


You get free vegetarian food (quite good), free shelter, and a quiet environment (if you can go to a center with a pagoda, it's an added bonus) to learn a basic Vipassana technique. What can harm you?


This is quite simplistic. Many people (myself included) have had a less than ideal experience with Goenka's organisation, and a bad first retreat can definitely put one off meditation for life.
I don't like to badmouth people or organisations which are fundamentally doing charity work but there are a few reasons to think twice before joining a Goenka retreat, at least for people who have a certain type of personality.

RE: Beginner to vipassana, is a retreat recommended?
Answer
12/28/13 10:06 AM as a reply to Andrea B.
With all respect due to Goenka and his volunteers, for it is quite beautiful what they're doing, please elaborate emoticon

RE: Beginner to vipassana, is a retreat recommended?
Answer
1/1/14 7:43 AM as a reply to Travis Gene McKinstry.
From how I see it, most problems with the Goenka centres derive from the organisational compromises which are required to maintain uniformity and guarantee an identical product across so many "franchised” locations in so many countries. This means for example avoiding the emergence of charismatic (and maybe exploitative or psychopathic) teachers or centre managers who can build a personal power base and take things in their own direction; when you have hundreds of locations this is bound to happen and I am sure it's a problem they had to deal with more than once over the decades. It also means avoiding centres devolving into refuges for drug addicts (which they seem especially afraid of) or playgrounds for people to indulge in all the meaningless fluff that Western Buddhists are often fond of, with people going to the centre to "you know, like, get in touch with my inner self man" rather than actually doing the practice. These concerns have had a very visible impact in the way centres are run.

All types of organisations can be run well when the people who put their reputation at stake are the same people who end up running them; when things are done otherwise free-riders and exploitative types can have a field-day banking on other people's reputation for their own interests. So since Goenka had to put his face and attach his reputation to all the centres but could not run them all the only way to solve this problem was to create a highly bureaucratised organisation in which centre managers have virtually no discretion in decision-making, must make sure punctilious rules are respected and are (I believe) liable to be reported to the mothership by other staff members when they don't (I might be wrong about their organisational structure, these are conjectures based on how they seem to do things where I have been). This seems to explain the Stasi-like obsession with making sure nobody is never doing anything unexpected, like taking 30 minutes after lunch to do some yoga, using a piece of paper and a pen to scribble down an important note, meditating at unapproved times or in unapproved places, or going to the toilet during one of the three “important” daily sittings.

The emphasis on standardisation also means that all instruction is imparted by Goenka himself via audio and video tapes, something which made me feel like Lisa Simpson watching Troy McClure explain the water cycle in a VHS. Personal preferences over the technique aside (noting is simply better), Goenka is probably a pretty good teacher, but a tape doesn’t replace a real teacher and the so-called “assistant teachers” who run the show are probably even more constrained in terms of paedagogic autonomy and authority than centre managers. The ones I found at the two centres I frequented seemed to have been given a pretty rigid and limited flowchart on how to run interviews and on how to solve yogis' problems (“keep watching carefully” being the answer I heard given to just about all of them).

The problem of responsibility for who is teaching and what is being taught is solved traditionally through the establishment of lineages in which a famous and trusted monk can instruct and get to know and trust a number of students who will eventually receive his stamp of approval and then go on and do their own thing as teachers. This allegedly allows only for a pretty limited rate of expansion of centres throughout the years, since the establishment of a lineage requires time. Goenka on the other hand chose to “go Starbucks” and expand at high speed without empowering other teachers. I am not sure that the lineage system is in itself a hard constraint on expansion considering how Mahasi centres mushroomed in Burma rapidly after the country's independence (the chart below traces the rate of expansion of Mahasi centres in Burma between 1938 and 1980 - it isn’t exactly slow growth) although it is true that between 1948 and 1962 Mahasi had full access to the lavish political patronage of U Nu (Burma’s first Prime Minister), which kinda helps to speed things up (incidentally, Goenka’s technique also had the endorsement of a prominent Burmese politician, who introduced it to him).



In any case and to wrap up, all these constraints work together to produce an atmosphere which for a lot of people is quite infantilising, weird and somewhat cultish in its obsession with the observance of petty rules (“or else”) and with its mild personality cult towards a guy in a videotape.

RE: Beginner to vipassana, is a retreat recommended?
Answer
1/2/14 9:54 AM as a reply to Andrea B.
Thank you for replying and I respect your opinion completely Andrea.

I have heard this from many people. But with you post (which was highly logical) I would hope that people would expect this type of behavior and only go on this retreat if they are ready for the harsh conditions.
That isn't to say you didn't go when you weren't ready.
But the retreat is harsh and displays strange activity (like you stated, cultish behavior).


From my perspective, the dharma is priceless. The Buddha spoke about how one should never be charged to hear the dharma. Yet we see many examples in the real world of this happening. Goenka offers a retreat that is (in my opinion) in line with what the Buddha taught in terms of not charging.

I spoke to another yogi about people charging for the dharma, such as with books and whatnot (and it is expected some charge would be implemented to cover costs like publishing and whatnot but not for profit, at least it shouldn't be according to the Buddha), and here is what he said;

But let me tell you this small story. I once had a religious and spiritual journey from my country and visited my Sufi Sheikh in another country in a trip that lasted for 10 days. Do you know how much it cost me? I returned with extra money! The sheikh's disciples refused that i stay in a hotel and i stayed with a disciple at home (full board) and the sheikh insisted on giving me the airplane's ticket fare.
That's how real spiritual Masters operate. They give away their teachings and their money too.
I know some of them are ascetics and don't have money to help people, but as ascetics they refuse to take money adamantly (what use do they have for it as ascetics?). And if they can't give their teachings without taking money, they won't teach.
Now, these are the Masters I know and trust.


Now I know what it means to have any expectations on awakened individuals. We have seen how this backfires greatly right here on this website. When someone has an expectation on how one should act, if that person acts otherwise, lots of suffering occurs.
However, the Buddha was clear in that the dharma should not be charged for. Granted, one can get the teachings online for free. One could argue that one isn't get charged for the teachings (for they are available online for free) rather, the opinion of that teacher/yogi.

Many systems of meditation and retreats work off of donations from other people. It's a system that can and does work.

Too bad that one of the most wide-spread retreats acts more like a cult rather than a sangha.


Anyways, thanks again for your opinion emoticon

RE: Beginner to vipassana, is a retreat recommended?
Answer
1/3/14 3:31 AM as a reply to Travis Gene McKinstry.
Thanks for your contribution Travis; personally I don't think that "being free of charge" is an important precondition for teaching dharma – it's a choice which has upsides and downsides.

In an environment (such as that of Southeast Asia) in which Buddhism has a strong grip on culture and politics the dana system ensures that the teachings can't degenerate into a system where monks sell political prestige and salvation to those who are willing to fork out enough cheddar; there are enough mechanisms for that to happen in Burma as well, and none of them does the Burmese society much good.
It's the same reason why secrecy concerning accomplishments is necessary in Asia, where accomplished meditators are believed to have achieved metaphysical transformations, but doesn't make sense in the pragmatic dharma community, where even the highest levels of accomplishments can only be accompanied by a "good on ya mate". If charging a fee allows a competent teacher to make a career choice in which he can teach meditation rather than having to bring home a salary in some other way...I'm all for it.

I would like to specify also that I don't think that there is any 'bad faith' on the part of anyone in the Goenka organisation (or at least I have no reason to believe so); the problems I found are those that can be identified in any dense bureaucracy with an invisible leader who expresses his will through cassette tapes.

RE: Beginner to vipassana, is a retreat recommended?
Answer
1/3/14 10:59 AM as a reply to Andrea B.
Thank you for replying Andrea emoticon

If charging a fee allows a competent teacher to make a career choice in which he can teach meditation rather than having to bring home a salary in some other way...I'm all for it.


The issue I have with people living off of the teachings is that (especially in America) if the person in question hasn't made enough money to pay rent, food, etc. then they may attempt to appeal to more people so they can make these payments, which usually means watering down the teachings and implementing advertising strategies and business tactics to ensure continuity of business, which may, at times, mean delaying one's liberation in the name of more money.

Money has a way of corrupting people. Because awakened individuals are still human they are still at risk of being corrupted. I don't mind giving money to a teacher to make sure they have money to eat and live, but when they make it their primary means of living then it makes the money coming from it much more important rather than the quantity of people who become liberated.

Your point of the cassette tape and that cult-like behavior is well taken. I find it strange myself.
Dense bureaucracy is (in my experience) always a problem. Much like what is happening here in America!

With respect and metta,
Travis

RE: Beginner to vipassana, is a retreat recommended?
Answer
1/26/14 3:07 AM as a reply to Travis Gene McKinstry.
I accept the point that money has a corrupting influence, but I don't see why it should have an especially corrupting influence on the teaching of meditation, or why the exact same case couldn't be made for any other professional endeavour, from MDs to car mechanics and psychotherapists. Money has the power to corrupt but also to fluidify transactions which otherwise could not take place.

The only reason why I should think meditation should be different is that expertise in teaching vipassana is easily faked to lure the gullible, but those who intend to trick people into giving them money in return for smoke are doing it already anyway; I don't see many reasons to preserve this traditional rule among the well-intentioned.

RE: Beginner to vipassana, is a retreat recommended?
Answer
1/26/14 11:17 AM as a reply to Andrea B.
Andrea,
Thank you for your reply

Andrea B:
I accept the point that money has a corrupting influence, but I don't see why it should have an especially corrupting influence on the teaching of meditation, or why the exact same case couldn't be made for any other professional endeavour, from MDs to car mechanics and psychotherapists.


Not exactly an especially corrupting influence, just that it's possible regardless of whatever profession. The examples that you give; MD's, car mechanics, psychotherapists, these are all professions where corruption of money as happened as well.

I am not naive to think that corruption couldn't happen in the absence of money (i.e., power, fame, status, etc.), just that it's more likely.

All dogma aside, Buddha knew his stuff, so we can look past that. He said that the dharma is invaluable, can't have a price put on it. He was a monk, that's understood. But in his time he allowed no one to charge for the teaching, no one to pass on the teaching watered down or misconstrued in any way. Why is this?


I appreciate you continuing this debate with me.
With metta,
Travis

RE: Beginner to vipassana, is a retreat recommended?
Answer
1/26/14 10:32 AM as a reply to Travis Gene McKinstry.
If your survival is dependent upon the generosity of others it also can change a person's intentions. Kinda interesting to think about. I read somewhere that the reason for the rule against speaking to lay persons about attainments is that monks were using this to get more food than the other monks. It is interesting to read about the 212 rules that monks have and to consider that each one was made to keep monks from dong things that were less than skillful. The human condition has not changed much over the years. Even with rules there are always people who miss use the rules for their benefit. People use the right speech rule to try to silence others all the time...sigh...depressing
~D

RE: Beginner to vipassana, is a retreat recommended?
Answer
1/26/14 11:15 AM as a reply to Dream Walker.
If your survival is dependent upon the generosity of others it also can change a person's intentions. Kinda interesting to think about. I read somewhere that the reason for the rule against speaking to lay persons about attainments is that monks were using this to get more food than the other monks. It is interesting to read about the 212 rules that monks have and to consider that each one was made to keep monks from dong things that were less than skillful. The human condition has not changed much over the years. Even with rules there are always people who miss use the rules for their benefit. People use the right speech rule to try to silence others all the time...sigh...depressing
~D


Yes this is what I was trying to get at, I'm obviously not great at communication so if there was any confusion I apologize.

But I've read several books in psychology on this. Of course main stream psychology isn't too interested in meditation teachers and their relationships with their students, but it seemed as though almost every story we had read in psychology that had to do with why people choose this over that boiled down to a few things. One of them being people choose this or that in order to get more; more money, fame, exposure, etc.

Of course this kind of corruption happens everywhere, but it seems to happen more when money is involved and it is extremely unfortunate to see this happen in the meditation community, like you said D.

Even with rules there are always people who miss use the rules for their benefit. People use the right speech rule to try to silence others all the time...sigh...depressing


That's interesting… I guess I've never really seen this happen in real life (as far as I know) emoticon

RE: Beginner to vipassana, is a retreat recommended?
Answer
1/27/14 9:13 PM as a reply to Travis Gene McKinstry.
I haven't bee on a Goenka retreat, but to address the main question, I personally started meditating formally on a 9-day insight retreat at IMS and am happy I did.

RE: Beginner to vipassana, is a retreat recommended?
Answer
1/28/14 8:22 AM as a reply to Daniel M. Ingram.
I haven't bee on a Goenka retreat, but to address the main question, I personally started meditating formally on a 9-day insight retreat at IMS and am happy I did.


Thanks for the reply. I can see why….

I had read on another thread somewhere (I can't find it now) and I think you had mentioned something about more people reaching stream entry at a mahasi retreat rather than a 3 month retreat at IMS. Where are these mahasi retreats? Or where can I start searching? I've tried a number of combinations on Google, can't seem to find it.

RE: Beginner to vipassana, is a retreat recommended?
Answer
1/28/14 2:31 PM as a reply to Travis Gene McKinstry.
Travis Gene McKinstry:
Where are these mahasi retreats? Or where can I start searching? I've tried a number of combinations on Google, can't seem to find it.

try googling this and see what you find,

site:http://www.dharmaoverground.org mahasi retreat

RE: Beginner to vipassana, is a retreat recommended?
Answer
1/29/14 3:18 AM as a reply to Travis Gene McKinstry.
There are quite a few Mahasi centres in Thailand as well, although they are probably not well advertised or marked as Mahasi centres on their websites (assuming they have one). The level of teaching might be quite low, but the environment will be designed around the idea of getting the most out of that specific.

I have already done retreats twice at Wat Rampoeng near Chiang Mai (good environment/facilities/climate for a retreat; level of teaching low), but I know of other places in the area, as well as other centres in the city of Bangkok itself which do the same thing. The main benefits of doing a retreat in Thailand rather than Burma are 1) ease of access (no visa required up to 30 days) 2) low likelihood of getting sick by eating the local food 3) availability of adequate infrastructure everywhere in case something goes horribly wrong (catching dengue, malaria etc.)