The California Vipassana Center (more formally known as ” Dhamma Mahavana”, or “Great Forest of Buddhist Teachings”) is a large meditation center in the wooded near Fresno, in central California. It is the place where I did my first intensive meditation retreat (in 1994), and I have sat two more there since then (in 1996 and 2003). The CVC is also the place where many of my friends have done their first (and only) meditation retreats. “To do a Vipassana” is a phrase that I hear fairly often, and it means to do a ten-day retreat at the CVC, or one of it’s affiliated meditation centers.
The CVC is part of a network of over 120 meditation centers around the world founded by Satya Narayan Goenka. Goenka was a wealthy, culturally conservative Burmese businessman of Indian ethnicity who suffered from debilitating headaches until he began a serious meditation practice under esteemed Burmese meditation master Sayagyi U Ba Khin. Soon after that, Goenka dedicated himself to spreading the message of Dharma around the world. It is now estimated that each year about 100,000 people take a course at one of the centers run by the organization that he founded.
Like all of S.N. Goenka’s worldwide network of meditation centers, the CVC offers constantly-scheduled ten-day meditation intensives. Many of these retreats are perfect for both beginners and advanced students, while a few of them are reserved for senior students only.
The context of a retreat there is many hours of sincere, diligent meditation practice, hour-after-hour and day-after-day. It’s a tight, intense container for participants, where genuine spiritual transformative challenge and growth is possible and even likely. The structure and guidelines are old-school, simple, firm, and clear, and they serve to provide a container in which we can go deep and uproot the deep impurities in our minds.
The basic retreat starts with three days of mediating on the respiration around the rings of the nostrils, as a means of focusing our awareness. Next comes seven days of “body sweeping”, systematically moving the awareness through the body, as a means of breaking up knots in our awareness and in our body’s free flow of energy. The final half day is spent in loving-kindness meditation, cultivating a wish for well being for all.
Over video and audio lectures, Goenka explains meditation techniques clearly, both the “what to do” and the “why to do it”. Goenka’s talks are uplifting, inspiring, deep, clarifying, and occasionally even hilarious. The video tape of his lecture towards the end of each evening is fun and watch-TV-ish; it’s a welcome break after an otherwise long, austere, challenging, go-deep-and-burn-off-impurities day of spiritual workout.
The organization has seemed to me to be trustworthy and ethical, committed to genuinely serving people’s growth. It’s a well-run organization, where the volunteer staff work to ensure that food is cooked and needs provided for so that meditators are freed to concentrate all day. And they live the spirit of charity and service by making the retreats, basically, available by donation – one pays what one can afford. It all adds up to a positive, heartfelt feeling for retreatants at the center.
The area where the center is located is hot in the Summer and cold in the Winter, but the buildings have air conditioning and heating. The accommodations at the center are spartan, basic, and look donated, yet they are clean and comfortable. The food is vegetarian and healthy. Dinner is offered to first time students, but returning meditators are expected to, like Buddhist monks, not eat after the middle of the day.
I do have some problems with retreats at the CVC, although they are relatively minor:
* Goenka, in video lectures, seems to repeatedly make the sectarian and fundamentalist claim that his lineage of Buddhism is the only true, deep, or actually liberating spiritual lineage, and that all others are mistaken, fallen, or deluded – a claim I disagree with.
* The “marching awareness through the body” technique that the retreats feature as the only truly valid method of meditation is actually just one of many useful mindfulness meditation techniques, and, although it is popular in both religious and secular mindfulness contexts, it is not one I feel inspired to practice or teach that much.
* Many insight meditation retreats offer teachers available for questions and practice reports, which can be especially helpful for beginners and for people on retreat while in emotional turmoil. Goenka retreats have junior teachers available for in-person personal support and questions late at the end of each night’s final sitting, a time when most retreatants are more than ready for sleep, and there is usually a line formed of others wanting to ask a question. So, access to these teachers may be less than optimal for some.
* The expectation at the CVC is that one will just sit in meditation most of the day, without any of the walking meditation that most other meditation centers also schedule in. I usually try to take sloowwwww walks from my cushion to the bathroom and back, but they also have a volunteer monitor who hustles you back to the hall if you dawdle too much. So, usually, for me at least, I have always had super-creaky, inflamed knees by the end of the ten days of sitting cross-legged (I have old knee injuries).
* I have not much enjoyed Goenka’s chanting/singing of ancient scripture, in the ancient language, on the audio tapes.
That list may make it sound like I have more hesitancy about these retreats than I do. In general, I feel that, when one is ready, meditation retreats are one of the mentally healthiest things a person can do, and I recommend the CVC as a great place to go for a retreat. The CVC is especially appropriate for a person if cost is an issue, or it they are looking for something structured, industrial-strength powerful, sincere, and clear. If you are willing to challenge yourself and sit a retreat there, I imagine you will be richly rewarded by experiences of insight, focus, and liberation.