I’ve been on five Goenka retreats, including four 10-day’s and one satipatthana sutta. It was helpful for sure. Quiet, comfortable conditions. Great Dhamma talks in the evening. Effective instruction for samatha.
But there are some dangers for the serious, attentive student.
1) Goenka’s specific instruction is to attend to the sensations arising in each part of the body, spending a second or two noting, say, the “touch of cloth” or the touch of air or the itch or the pain on a small square on the body and then moving to the next small square, systematically surveying the entire body, just observing the sensations with a mind to react to them with equanimity. With the hindrances thus calmed, concentration sharpens over the course of a few days, and mental phenomena such as a deep sense of peace, a sense of illumination, a sense of lightness or waves of bliss may arise. The technique trains the mind becomes to become alert to the bodily sensations, and often it can give rise to Goenka’s favored cluster of phenomena: the body takes on the impression of tingling all over, of being nothing more than a mass of bubbles; waves of energy pulsating through the body.
Before going to any Goenka retreats, I’d traveled twice to Thailand for extended retreats (2 weeks and 4 weeks), one-on-one with teachers in the Mahasi tradition. As with any intensive meditation practice, phenomena like a sense of peace, bliss, illumination, tingling, mass of bubbles, etc. can arise, especially in relatively inexperienced meditators. I was instructed that these were upakkilesa or imperfections of insight that I should not cling to but note them and return to the primary meditation subject. Nothing special. Just transient moments of consciousness with certain mundane characteristics to note and pass over.
By contrast, I thought Goenka treated the upakkilesa in a glorifying way, seemingly encouraging their arising and then implying (if not outright asserting) that they were higher insights, like udayabbayañana (knowledge of rise and fall) and bhangañana (knowledge of dissolution). But they are not. An object is very different from a penetrating understanding of an object. Udayabbayañana and bhangañana are very different from a conceptual or rational deduction: “Hmmm…my body feels like a mass of bubbles, therefore it must be anicca. And, wow! That’s bhangañana!”
No, insight doesn’t work that way. At all.
Goenka 10-day retreats are good for….well….a retreat from the buzz and hub-bub and stress of daily life, and a chance to practice meditation without distraction. It is easy to see how his instruction could be very encouraging and helpful for developing samatha, but his teaching also lends itself well to mistaking upakkilesa for pañña. That can pose a serious stumbling block for development of insight.
2) Goenka talks about vipassana as a “technique” rather than as “insight”. It seems like a trivial, pedantic distinction without a difference, but it’s not. Vipassana is insight about paramattha dhammas. Sitting cross-legged, eyes closed like a Buddha statue, and directing the mind to such and such object is not vipassana, regardless of the degree of samadhi attained or the depth of conceptual or theoretical knowledge about the tilakkhana or citta & cetasika that one brings to the cushion. It is not vipassana. It does not lead to vipassana.
Vipassana is a specific type of understanding. Taking it as a technique turns it into something *I* need to *do* to *make* insight arise. Having faith or dependence on any rite, ritual, practice, or technique as a recipe for insight is silabbataparamasa. Thinking you can direct the mind to make insight arise is sakayaditthi. Having doubts that paramattha dhammas are anatta & beyond control but are conjurable by will or technique is vicikiccha. The fetters are deep and strong. They don’t need to be further strengthened by misconstruing the language.