TheLoneRider
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Meditation

Goenka and the Theravada Forest Monastery Vipassana Traditions Dec 25, 2018

Goenka and the Theravada Forest Monastery Vipassana Traditions

Location: Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

NOTE: this is by no means a definitive or exhaustive juxtaposition of the two traditions. This is just my personal observation/opinion given my practice and experience with both.

S.N. Goenka Vipassana
I've done 9 courses (5 sits and 4 serves) with the S.N. Goenka Vipassana centers, more technically tagged as Vipassana in the Sayagyi U Ba Khin tradition as taught by S.N. Goenka. There are many traditions in Vipassana but I would imagine that the most popular now is the Goenka tradition. Before, I could register for a sit within a week's notice. Now, you need to book almost a year in advance. Before, I would meet very few Vipassana meditators that it would warrant a hug. But now, specially in Rishikesh and Dharamsala, nearly every traveler I met has done a course.

Wat Tam Wua Forest Monastery
It was not until my last 2 days in DaNang, Vietnam when I met Sasha, a Russian tea master and meditator, who talked about his wonderful experience at Wat Tam Wua Forest Monastery. It got me excited so I flew to Thailand to attend a 10-day sit. It is Vipassana but in the Theravada Forest Monastery tradition. It would be my first and I was curious.

Goenka and the Theravada Forest Monastery Vipassana Traditions

Why are There Many Different Traditions in Vipassana?
Even though Goenka and Theravada Forest Monastery Vipassana traditions are both anchored from Buddha's own teachings, they differ marginally in interpretation and practice. Why? We have to understand that Buddha's words were in Pali, an ancient language spoken during his time, 2500 years ago. Most of the language has languished over time. The surviving words may have a different use and meaning now. Thus, same words, but different interpretation.

Pasta Analogy
One analogy I could think of is preparing a pasta dish. You start of with the same ingredients (same words by Buddha) with the intent of ultimately making Pasta Putanesca (enlightenment as Buddha's goal) with different chefs doing the same dish (different traditions). Every chef would be using exactly the same ingredients but prepare the dish in their own way. Some may use more of one ingredient, one chef might use a different cooking chronology in dispensing the ingredients, one chef might cook at a different temperature, etc. So many possible variations here. But in the end, they all serve Pasta Putanesca.

Play by Play Comparison

  1. Religion vs Non-sectarian - Wat Tam Wua is entrenched in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. While they welcome anyone from any faith, this could be a barrier for people of different religions to subscribe to. The Goenka tradition is by design, not associated with Buddhism, even though Buddha's words and teachings are used. It is simply packaged as a meditation technique - no religion, no god, no rites, no rituals. It openly declares the practice as non-sectarian and universal. This approach makes it more accessible to people of other faith. This is also perhaps the reason why it has become so popular (apart from the reason that it actually works).
  2. Course Teacher - Wat Tam Wua is conducted live by the monks with the Abbott as the figure head. Goenka tradition is set in a fixed format conducted by Goenka himself in a video tape (Goenka has already passed on) with a live assistant teacher facilitating the course and answering questions. One advantage of this is that a hundred years from now, in any part of the world, the Goenka tradition will still be taught exactly as it is done today.
  3. Noble Silence - Noble Silence is encouraged, but optional at Wat Tam Wua. In the Goenka tradition, Noble Silence is strictly observed at all times - no talking, no eye contact, no phone, no laptops, no books, no writing. Your constant and only companion is your mind.
  4. Gender Segregation - Wat Tam Wua participants, men and women are free to talk and even share dining tables. A goodbye hug is even tolerated. However, sleeping quarters and meditation seating are strictly gender-segregated. In the Goenka tradition, gender segregation is strictly observed at all times.
  5. Length of Stay - at Wat Tam Wua, participants can stay a minimum of 2 nights, maximum of 10 nights. So you constantly see fresh arrivals and new departures. This also means the program cannot shift into the advance level for the benefit of new arrivals - thus, it remains introductory. In the Goenka tradition, you have to finish the 10 days and no one is admitted when the course has started. This also means the course is progressive. The current day is a progression from the previous day's lessons and activities.
  6. Meditation Format - Wat Tam Wua practices a walking meditation followed by sitting meditation and then lying down meditation. Goenka tradition only practices seated meditation
  7. Chanting - at Wat Tam Wua, chanting is done by everyone and an important part of the practice. In the Goenka tradition, only Goenka does the chanting in a taped audio recording while the sitters continue their meditation
  8. Free Time - there is more free time and leisurely activities at Wat Tam Wua. Participants can talk, walk around the compound, stop by the convenience store within the grounds. The general atmosphere is laid-back. Course managers are lenient and tolerant. In the Goenka tradition, a walking break is allowed during the eating breaks. The rest of the time is either meditating in the room or in the Dhamma Hall. It has a strictly regimented no-nonsense feel.

Hard Core Goenka?
Often, I hear from the participants that they chose the Wat Tam Wua tradition of Vipassana over Goenka's because Goenka's is 'hard-core'. It was never said or expressed, but it was inferred somehow that it's the same Vipassana anyway, so why suffer the Goenka way. Although I could understand the sentiment, I would say it is misplaced.

Goenka's tradition goes beyond the introductory phase and progresses into the more intense surgical operation of the mind at the root level to exorcise all negativity at the source...not just at the surface level. This is serious business. Like a soldier who needs to train for combat, the soldier has to endure hard training to prepare him adequately for battle. If Goenka's method is hard-core, it's because it needs to be in order to competently face the challenges ahead - and trust me, the challenges are formidable. It's not easy.

And honestly, I don't see anything hardcore about observing noble silence for 10 days, an hour of strong-determination sit and complete gender segregation. Sure, it is difficult, but far from hard core. Hard-core is when they ask you to kneel on mung beans while meditating for an hour without moving!

Ending Thoughts
Is one tradition better than the other? Perhaps it is a wrong question to ask. I don't see the Wat Tam Wua or Goenka as a choice between two traditions. I see them complementing each other. They both have their rightful place. In my humble opinion, it would be ideal to start with Wat Tam Wua as an introduction to Vipassana Meditation. But because it's not progressive, it's best to follow it up with the Goenka tradition where it's a regimented progressive process that gets you deeper in the practice. Compared to Wat Tam Wua, the Goenka tradition is definitely more difficult for good reason. The results speak for themselves.

May all beings be happy!

--- TheLoneRider
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Reader Comments:

Jim WardJim
(Dec 28, 2018) Wonderful insights, as always.

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Next stop: Arahattamagga Arahattaphala - the path to Aranhantship


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Mae Hong Son (city), Thailand

important places in Mae Hong Son IMPORTANT PLACES

Mae Hong Son Mae Hong Son
Mae Sariang District Mae Sariang District
Pai Pai
Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery
Chiang Mai Chiang Mai

Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery Blogs

  1. 20 Days of Monastic Life at Wat Pa Tam Wua...Goodbye and Thank You Dec 12, 2018 - Jan 1, 2019
  2. Peoplescape at the Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery Dec 12 - Jan , 2019
  3. Arahattamagga Arahattaphala - the path to Aranhantship Dec 30, 2018
  4. Goenka and the Theravada Forest Monastery Vipassana Traditions Dec 25, 2018
  5. The Knower Dec 24, 2018
  6. 10-Day Meditation at Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery Dec 9, 2018

Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery Information

Bangkok to Wat Tam Wua Forest Monastery by Bus
  1. go to Mo Chit Bus Terminal near Chatuchak. Bus #509, #9 and #157 go there
  2. at the ground level, go to Ticket Counter #13, #14 or #15 - Sombat Tour counter
  3. schedule and pay for your bus ticket
    Bangkok to Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery
    1 Destination/Origin: Mae Sariang. Take the bus that passes through Chiang Mai/Pai.
  4. upon boarding, explain to the driver to drop you off Wat Tam Wua Monastery, otherwise, you might end up in Mae Hong Son town which is 30 minutes further out. Best to show him a written instruction in Thai.
  5. from the main road, it's a one kilometer walk to the monastery
FYI / Tips
  1. even though the Wat Pa Tam Wua website states that you need the abbott's permission to stay, you can just go straight there without any prior booking or registration.
  2. accommodation, food (no dinner), blankets, pillow, white shirts/pants and floor mattress will be provided at no charge. Donations are accepted.
  3. BEWARE: by the entrance to the monastic compound is a convenience store. It is not run by the monastery. The vendor offers Mae Hong Son/Pai tours without any quotation and charges exorbitant fees in the end. He also tells people that part of the fee goes to the monastery - this is not true. He has been reprimanded already but still, he continues his shady business.
  4. floor mattress on hard bed provides no cushioning. If this is a problem to get good sleep, you can bring an inflatable camping mattress (usually 1-inch cushioning and not too bulky to bring)

About Mae Hong Son

FYI / Tips
  1. Mae Hong Son Airport has flights to Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Chiang Rai, Mae Sot, Hanoi (Vietnam), Laos (Luang Prabang, Mandalay, Naypaytiaw, Vientiane) and Yangon (Myanmar)
Climate Chart Climate Chart for Mae Hong Son

Travel Tips for Thailand

How to Get a 60-Day Thai Tourist Visa and then Extend by another 30 Days

    60-Day Thai Tourist Visa

    NOTE: There is no need to go back to your country to get the Thai tourist visa. Any major city with a Thai Embassy will do. Apparently there is also no need to have an invitation from a Thai establishment to justify the visa.

  1. Bring the following to the Thai embassy:
    a) proof of money (bank statement will suffice)
    b) flight booking to Thailand
    c) onward flight back to your country from Thailand
    d) filled-in tourist visa form
    e) 2 passport pictures
    f) hotel booking in Thailand (they didn't ask me for this but better be safe)
    g) passport with at least 6 months validity
  2. After handing over all the documents, they will ask you to come pick your passport with the visa the following day from 4 to 5pm. That's it!
  3. NOTE: after 2 successful attempts, I was already questioned the 3rd time.

    30-Day Extension

    NOTE: When your 60-day visa is close to expiry and you want to extend your stay. No need to leave Thailand.

  1. bring the following to the Immigration Office:
    a) passport (make sure your Tourist Visa hasn't expired yet)
    b) Baht 1900
    c) photocopy of your passport + visa duration date stamp + TM6 card (white immigration card) and sign all the copies
    d) completed TM7 visa extension form (available at the Immigration Office)
    e) one 4cmx6cm passport picture
  2. submit the above to the Front Desk. They will give you a stub with your number on it. Take a seat and wait for your number to be called
  3. when your number is called, your picture will be taken. Then go back to your seat. They will call you again.
  4. when they call you again, they'll give you your passport with your extended visa. That's it!
  5. when there are no lines, the whole process can take only 10 minutes
General Travel Tips
  1. arrive early - in case there is a snag (visa snag, documentation snag, transport ticket snag, etc.), you will have ample time to troubleshoot the problem if you arrive early (to the airport, to the bus terminal, etc.)
  2. put detailed itinerary on the Calendar apps of your smart-phone according to timelines - this is where you do all your thinking and planning. Once written down, you don't have to think anymore while you are on the journey...you just follow the steps. This frees your mind for something else that might happen while you are already en route
  3. avoiding scams - as a general rule, I ignore the touts or anyone I don't know who call out to me. The calling comes in many forms - "Hi! Where are you from?", "Excuse me! Excuse me!", "Where are you going?". I don't look them in the eye and I remain non-verbal with them. If you reply to them, you just gave them an 'in' to hound you. In order not to look rude, I smile and wave the 'not interested' hand to them, without looking at them.
  4. power bank - hand-carry your power bank. Do not check it in. You can be called in when you are already inside the plane to go all the way to the loading dock so you can personally remove the power bank...and chances are, you'll have to surrender it to them. And you might delay the plane departure!

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