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BOOK REVIEW: The Discourse Summaries by S.N. Goenka

Discourse SummariesDiscourse Summaries by S.N. Goenka
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page


I began reading the summaries before I attended the Vipassana meditation 10-day course. While most of one’s days are spent in meditation, each evening they play video-taped discourses by S.N. Goenka, with each running for an hour to an hour-and-a-half. As the title suggests, this book consists of edited transcripts of those talks. As the course is known for being challenging (approximately 10 hours/day in meditation, noble silence [no talking–or even acknowledging–anyone but the teacher and staff], and no distractions [no phones, no books, no journals, no i-Pods, etc.]), reading the discourses was a way to mentally prepare for the course. (Though I’d already read a book call “Equanimous Mind” by an individual who’d completed the course.)

Let me provide background for those unfamiliar with Vipassana meditation. It’s nominally a Theravadan Buddhist practice, but its religiosity is stripped to a minimum and it’s presented in a largely secular manner. That doesn’t mean that a scientifically-minded skeptic such as myself isn’t occasionally left scratching his head and thinking “that’s not right.” However, it’s repeatedly emphasized that one should take what is of value to oneself and leave the rest behind, and so while there are a few notions mentioned during the discourses that aren’t supported by evidence, one needn’t believe anything controversial to benefit from the practice. (e.g. Karma and reincarnation are mentioned, but if one doesn’t believe those are likely realities, it doesn’t change the effectiveness of the meditation.)

Moving on, Theravadan Buddhism is the branch that is most commonly practiced in Southeast Asia. (It’s sometimes called Hinayana, but—as I learned during a discourse—that’s considered a derogatory term by many Theravadans. “Hinayana” means “lesser vehicle” in contrast to Mahayana’s “greater vehicle,” and the implication is that it’s a path by which only a more select group can achieve enlightenment. One can readily see why this would be objectionable to Vipassana practitioners as they emphasize that the practice is available to everybody [one need not even identify as Buddhist] and that the practice is the heart of the path to enlightenment.) Vipassana meditation involves systematically scanning one’s body for sensations and acknowledging them without attaching positive or negative thoughts and labels to them. The idea is to train oneself to not mindlessly react to sensations, nor to mindlessly attach values to them.

There are eleven discourses, corresponding to the days over which one is at meditation center. However, the new information is mostly in the discourses from days one through nine. The last two discourses consist of a review and a discussion of to how to keep one’s practice going—should one choose to do so.

The discourses present two types of information. On one hand, they provide a primer on Buddhist philosophy regarding the path to enlightenment. For example, Goenka explains the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path. The Four Noble Truths describe human suffering, its causes, and the path to moving beyond this suffering. That path brings one to the Eight-fold Path which describes eight areas in which one must properly align one’s approach in order to eliminate said suffering.

On the other hand, the discourses provide information about the meditational practices and the logic that informs them. During the first few days of the course, one focuses on respiration and related sensations over a progressively smaller area around and on the nose. Then, on the fourth day, one gets into the Vipassana practice as mentioned above (scanning the body for sensation), but one practices several variations of this over the last few days of the course. It seems that one practices these different ways both because one becomes capable of more challenging approaches and because not everybody experiences the same types of sensations, and so some methods work better for some types of sensations than others. To give an example, on day one might scan one arm at a time, but then one shifts to scanning both arms simultaneously.

There are no graphics and the only ancillary matter consists of a list of Pali quotations as well as a Pali term glossary. (Pali is the language in which the Buddhist scriptures were originally written.) However, there was really no need for either graphics or notations.

I found these summaries were worth reading even having gone through the course and heard the discourses at the center. For one thing, there’s a good amount of information packed into the lectures. While it’s not hard to understand, there’s a high density of information content. For another, Goenka was a charming and humorous individual, so it’s not boring to watch the taped discourses even if one has previously read them.

I would definitely recommend reading the Discourse Summaries if one is considering taking the Vipassana course.

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  1. It is very cool to read

    On Tue, Dec 6, 2016 at 1:28 AM, Stories & Movement wrote:

    > B Gourley posted: “Discourse Summaries by S.N. Goenka My rating: 4 of 5 > stars Amazon page I began reading the summaries before I attended the > Vipassana meditation 10-day course. While most of one’s days are spent in > meditation, each evening they play video-” >

  2. Mike Evans says:

    Interesting: I’ve also seen the contrary view, that it would be better not to research the course too much in advance, but to allow it to unfold as you do it. I took a middle ground. I researched so that I knew what would be expected of me and what would be involved, but I deliberately avoided watching the discourses (which are available on the Internet) in advance. I think I was glad of the approach I took because it meant that the discourses were fresh and as they provide virtually the only stimulation during most of the course they were welcome, even though like you, I could not accept all of their content.

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