Is Vipassana a cult?
In a word: no. But you can maybe be excused for wondering.
Vipassana meditation courses are often taught as 10-day silent retreats with a strict code of conduct. Among other things, you're asked to surrender your car keys, cell phone, iPod, reading materials, writing materials, and any valuables (including your cash); commit to remaining in a confined area for ten days (and hey! your car and the parking lot are 100% off-limits); and to abstain from verbal and non-verbal communication with staff members and other meditators. It's scary enough to commit to some amorphous and difficult spiritual journey. When you add physical and social isolation to the mix...who can blame a person for wondering?
I'll confess: I was a bit concerned before my first course. I'd done a bunch of research and hadn't found even a whiff of cultishness, but still...I was a little worried, and my mom was really worried, which made me more worried.
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The technique taught in the ten-courses was brought from Burma by S.N. Goenka. This book provides a nice overview of the Vipassana meditation technique and philosophy by one of Goenka's students.
So I made back-up plans. My course was at the Dhamma Dhara Meditation Center in rural Massachusetts, and, since I didn't have a car, I took a train in from New York State and then prevailed on an old friend to drive me thirty miles or so into the countryside. I took careful mental notes as we approached our destination, plotting out a two-mile emergency escape hike from the meditation center to the nearest payphone. I had a secret stash of money and a written list of important phone numbers, in case I needed to call for rescue and couldn't get my cell phone back. And I had multiple friends and family members standing by...just in case.
None of this was necessary, of course. Vipassana turns out to be a delightfully open-minded non-religion. It has Buddhist underpinnings, of course, but you're free to ignore those, if you wish. Vipassana, more than anything, is a practice -- a mediation practice that is designed to train your mind to perceive clearly.
And this was, for me, the super-cool thing about my first course. It was such hard work, but I could actually feel my brain learning to operate differently. And not in a scary brain-washed kind of way, but in sharp-and-acute kind of way. With a nice overlay of emotional calm.
As it turns out, part of the way that you get to have that calm and clear feeling is by stripping away all your usual distractions. Like talking. And reading. And your cell phone.
For a lot of people, the no-talking rule seems the craziest and most difficult. I actually kind of like it, though. At the best of times, I need a lot of alone time. And in a situation like this, where you're eating and sleeping and sitting with others all the time, not having to construct and navigate social relationships with all those people helps mitigate that fact that you're living in awful close proximity to a bunch of strangers.
And not being able to interact directly with people helps illustrate the degree to which our normal reactions to people are all about us. In three courses, I have each time developed some kind of fascination with one person and some intense aversion to someone else. For no good reason. I usually work through it before the silence is lifted--but in every case, the person I irrationally disliked has sought me out afterward and made a connection. (And, does it go without saying that they always turn out to be lovely people?) If I got nothing else out the 10-day course, this alone would be extremely valuable: the realization that who I like and dislike has very little to do with the other person and everything to do with me.
So, as it turns out, I really like the silent aspect of the Vipassana course. For me, the last day of the course, when the rule of silence gets lifted, is hugely stressful. Most other people seems to gleefully throw themselves into conversation after conversation--but I tend to want to sit quietly off by myself somewhere.
I have much more trouble with the rule about not reading or writing. But, as with the silence, there are good reasons for it. Reading takes me out of myself in a way that it's diametrically opposed to the kind of mental attention that Vipassana is meant to develop. And since Vipassana is all about perceiving (but not reacting to!) bodily sensation, writing about that experience adds a layer of analytic distance that the meditation practice is trying to circumvent.
The scary Vipassana rules--no cell phone, no access to your car, no leaving the premises--are all in place because spending ten days paying minute attention to your breath and bodily sensations is crazy hard, and somewhere around day two or three, pretty much everyone is desperate to escape. Somehow. Anyhow. Dhamma Dhara doesn't have locks on any of its doors, so the ostensible reason for locking up your car keys, phone, and wallet is to prevent anyone from being tempted to steal. But, as much as anything, they're protecting you from yourself. There are a moments (for everyone I would imagine) when, if you could leave, you would. When, if you could call home, you would. When, if you could read or write or listen to music, you would.
Now depending on your perspective, an institutional attempt to protect competent adults from either themselves or the pernicious influence of the outside world might sound like the very definition of a cult. Here's why Vipassana is still not cult-like: When you attend a ten-day course, you are, in effect, asking to be instructed in a particular method of meditation. In return, your instructors will ask that, for at ten-day period, you adhere to a set of practices that have been found to facilitate the learning of this method. You accept those strictures willingly (or without coercion, anyway) and multiple times--when you apply for the course, when you first arrive, and immediately before instruction commences. For ten days, you agree to do what they say and see what you think. If you find it effective, great. If you don't, then on day eleven, you're free to go on your merry way.
So, if something about the idea of ten-day course attracts you, I would urge you to go for it. Make an escape and rescue plan if it'll make you feel better, but don't let fear prevent you from experiencing something amazing.