Author Topic: rational comparison between Goenka scanning and Mahasi noting  (Read 13298 times)


rational comparison between Goenka scanning and Mahasi noting
« on: August 30, 2012, 12:16:38 AM »

This is my debut 'starting post' so first of all hello & metta to everyone.  :)

I would like to start a debate about comparisons regarding
  • practise
  • experiences with
  • outcomes
from long-term use of the two most commonly taught and practised Burmese Vipassana techniques i.e.
  • U Ba Khin/Goenka anapana + body scan
  • Mahasi abdomen observation + noting
It's probably worth saying in advance that I am not asking to hear about isolated scary retreat experiences unless they have something to say about the technique itself, whether or not you consider Goenka and/or his organisation to be an evil cult or any other venting of spleens.  I would like us to focus on positive or at least useable aspects of the techniques only and their particular flavours, pros & cons.

My reason for doing this is I want to decide one or other technique and stick with it, as this seems to be the overwhelming recommendation from teachers from all traditions and makes sense to me also.  I hope that this will be useful to other practitioners who I am sure also make such decisions at some point.

To start the ball rolling then,  my experience of U Ba Khin/Goenka has been very positive so far.  I had many years of Yoga meditation behind be, as well as some quite strong mystical experiences in my late teens so I had access to 'other internal realms' to a certain extent.  I was however quite shocked when on the very first afternoon of being exposed to Vipassana (day 4) I spent the last 20 minutes of the long session in a very intense, Kundalini-like, (some call it A&P peak I think) experience that left me shivering, exhausted, surprised, with a big grin on my face and yet slightly nervous regarding the intensity.  ???  The Asst Teacher was of no help in 'decoding' this or the following experiences (my only complaint about the retreat really, everything else very professional if a little strict & dogmatic).  The next day and from them onwards I experienced my body clearly dissolving and was both concerned & amused as I had nothing left to scan!  :-\  The next few days were spent experimenting with and refining the scanning & 'equanimous awareness' experience, and by the end of the retreat I was pretty drained both emotionally & physically from the effort and minimal sleep, but also:
  • my eyes had been opened about a number of pending personal issues that had been troubling me, some of which literally evaporated
  • I was experiencing a profound calmness
  • I had an extra awareness of the 'aliveness' of nature
  • my understanding of anicca as the vibratory energy underlying the mind/matter interface was very clear
  • I had experienced (and continue to) either pain relief or actual healing of a long-term shoulder injury which required full reconstruction 10 years ago and has been a constant source of stiffness and tension ever since - simply by observing the 'congestion' in the flow of subtle vibrations in that area
Though I had my own misgivings about attitude & a little too much dogma/chanting at the retreat centre itself, I certainly had a determination to continue and have been since.  There have been further intense experiences since of a slightly different flavour but usually involving complete body dissolution. I realise that 'intensity' is not the relevant measure here but it seems to be one marker on the road, especially if you take the Progress of Insight map seriously.  Also my perspective continues to stay positive and calm despite some problems which are currently in my life.

However, I am not someone to take things as gospel without finding out for myself (as Gautama himself advised) and so when I was made aware of the Mahasi style I decided to investigate.  The received wisdom that I have gathered about this is that:
  • because you are free to experience all the sense doors it is 'more complete' and closer to the suttas description of satipatthana than Goenka and therefore more effective; though see Appendix A of the Hart book 'Art of Living' and here  for Goenkas rationale about the vedana approach.  (I wonder if some of the critics have considered these?)
  • perhaps because of the above, experienced practitioners are said to prefer it and there are quotes somewhere which go along the lines of "XYZ centre changed from body scanning to Mahasi noting and got an increase in the number of stream-enterers" - though I have never seen concrete evidence of this
  • it might be my imagination but it appears that long-term Mahasi people are more vocal about their technique and perhaps more focused on their attainments than Goenka people?
So my experience (less than Goenka, perhaps 2-3 weeks) has been the following.  It puts me in a different internal state than Goenka in general, though with some similarities in the sense that one senses vibratory qualities, energy flows and shifts in perception.  I have not felt the same physical pain relief that body scanning provides. I found, and continue to find, that the noting 'clutters' the mind even when carried out gently.  I have realised that I can focus much better on the abdomen movement by not noting 'rising' and 'falling' and this helps the deeper states emerge - though it is possible to lose focus more easily.  It is easier to observe 'intellectually' when emotional or mental states occur, but the body awareness is not as clear or at least more 'scattered'. I have experimented with very short simple notes, standard ones (e.g. 'hearing', 'feeling', touching') and longer more descriptive ones that Kenneth Folk suggests somewhere.  For me, the standard ones work best but I am probably happier without any noting at all!  I feel less anxious, but perhaps also a little less observant, when I just use awareness of distractions rather than noting.  I'm also a little unclear about the actuality of noting - Mahasi himself seems to suggest a quick note and move back to primary without getting involved at all in the distraction but others appear to suggest some investigation, particularly with respect to emotional states or thoughts that arise.  In general, it is a more jerky and unsettling experience, sometimes a little irritating, but one thing that it does appear to highlight is anatta or non-self.  You can enter states where this is very clear. It seems somehow more 'detached' than body scanning which always retains a connected quality somehow, even when the physical body itself has dissolved.

So that's probably enough for the moment.  Interested to see if the experience of people here indicate that one is superior to the other, if they are just different (perhaps suiting different characters and/or at different times), whether they should be mixed/hybridised or one should be chosen and focused on, whether one or other is more suitable for lay/everyday use and any other relevant issues in terms of long-term usage.




  • Bill
  • Member
  • Everything rises and everything falls away
    • Breath and Satipatthana
    • mindfully observing
Re: rational comparison between Goenka scanning and Mahasi noting
« Reply #1 on: August 30, 2012, 02:51:48 AM »
Hi Michael and welcome!  :)
I can talk about the Mahasi method, however I never did Goenka.  It seems as though you had some insights that almost every one sees within the first few weeks of mahasi method...  The I like it and the I don't like it mind!  The wanting craving mind..  The next time you are not liking the noting process try noting "disliking, disliking" and really see the disliking mind.. You also  noticed the way the mind likes to try and control whats going on.. Like when you say you feel scattered in your head, thats the mind wanting things to be other then what they are...  I think you should definitely continue the noting practice if you continue studying the mahasi method...Dont drop it!  Start noting "judging" "aversion" "wanting" etc..  Anything thats comes up..  it sounds like your doubting the method, in that case note "doubting,doubting"..  Insights are happening
Nothing in this world is to be clung to as I, me, or mine...


  • The Marvellous Omannobazong!!!
  • Member
  • love is the key
    • Vipassana (Goenka), Freestyle, Family, God
Re: rational comparison between Goenka scanning and Mahasi noting
« Reply #2 on: August 30, 2012, 07:06:49 AM »

I would like us to focus on positive or at least useable aspects of the techniques only and their particular flavours, pros & cons.

My reason for doing this is I want to decide one or other technique and stick with it, as this seems to be the overwhelming recommendation from teachers from all traditions and makes sense to me also.  I hope that this will be useful to other practitioners who I am sure also make such decisions at some point.

Hei Michael,

while it is possible to discuss pros and cons, one should always be aware that this will remain an intellectual exercise. Reading about certain phenomena will rather not help in taking the right decision (=picking the "right" tradition) ... knowing the arguments will never replace the actual experience. Especially since two people may get very different experiences from practicing the same meditation. So, I don't want to disencourage any discussion. But for a truthful decision there is only one way:
Try this for a while, then try that for a while (as you did). Then decide with your heart, not with the brain.

imo none of those techniques is superior to the others. They are different tools designed to deal with specific conditions of the human mind.

 :), Stefan


Re: rational comparison between Goenka scanning and Mahasi noting
« Reply #3 on: August 30, 2012, 10:53:53 AM »

Thanks for that.  I see your point, however I think the 'cluttered' feeling is because one section of 'the mind' (the 'observer' and the part that is recognising and coming up with relevant labels) is observing another part of 'the mind'.  This feels paradoxical somehow, or perhaps even a little schizophrenic.  Anyway - I will take your advice and see what happens.


Yes I suspect you are right but I am still interested in the experiences of others in terms of putting us all on some sort of map.  I agree that too much focus on these things can/will become a significant barrier to progress with what really matters.


Re: rational comparison between Goenka scanning and Mahasi noting
« Reply #4 on: August 30, 2012, 06:49:24 PM »
   hey hopper,
   I've only practiced noting as a technique when I first began meditating, and at that time I was strictly practicing anapanasati (and didn't even know it was called that). This technique noting hearing, hearing, hearing, or pain, pain, pain  etc... was a great help at keeping the hindranses at bay, but I found myself eventually becoming overpowered by intensified solidified sensations. This technique seemed to keep pushing the pain into the background until it eventually would overpower me and I would break posture.
      When I began practicing vedananupassana(goenka method) as the principal object, I began probing into the pain and began to see it break up. I saw that these intensified solidified sensations were at the surface and as concentration strengethened my mind sharpened and could penetrate into these sensations, and see them break up into pulsing, stretching, tingling, etc.... and eventually just very fast moving wavelets and bubbles. This is wisdom, the experiental knowledge that there is nothing permanent(anicca), this body is just sub-atomic particles nothing to cling to. This wisdom, when applied knows there is nothing to fear(aversion) from these solidified sensations, also it knows there is nothing to crave from these very pleasant subtle fast moving sensations. They are always there, just like your breath all you have to do is develope the ability to feel them.
      Watching sensations as they naturally crop up, and remaining equanimous towards them is how we burn through our past stock of sankharas. Watch anxiety as a sensation in the stomach as it arises(solidified) and passes away(subtle), and with experience eventually you will be unaffected, its ability to overpower you will diminish and your suffering will decrease. At the same time you will also simutaneously be observing thoughts, as the stomach started to experience unpleasant sensations there were unpleasant thoughts , as the stomach started feeling pleasant sensations there were pleasant thoughts, this is the habit pattern of the mind we must break.
      Practicing with sensations, paying attention to these natural bodily sensations, we begin to see them as no big deal, and they lose their grip, they become quite boring as we see them for what they really are. Our mind and body once like a tightly wound spring begins to unwind naturally and we feel more peaceful and begin to generate metta to all living beings

      Anyway this is how I interpret goenka's technique and as I stated I have very little formal experience with mahasi vipassana but having read the mans teachings I am pretty convinced he was close if not at the end of this noble path.  :angel:

      Billymac629 I would love a more detailed explanation of the Mahasi method and how it leads to insight.

      hopper you seem to be progressing quite well with vedananupassana, remember experiencing subtle sensations is just a tool. We still have to use it to dig the well and quench our thirst.  You seem to have this tool and you've already started digging ::)

metta :) 


Re: rational comparison between Goenka scanning and Mahasi noting
« Reply #5 on: August 31, 2012, 11:38:04 AM »

Your understanding of the technique is very close to mine - I guess we are both well-behaved and attentive students of the Goenka "brainwashing camp" (<-irony) :angel:

So are you happy with your progress?  Have you been to any of the longer/more advanced courses and, if so, are any other instructions given?  I remember towards the end of the 10-day course Goenkaji started a progression of moving 'into' the body from the surface, then through the body en masse in different directions (both of which I had already been doing for a couple of days already, as it happens) and then once or twice "moving the attention up the centre of the spine" which seemed to produce slight Kundalini tingles as well as a clear rush of 'dissolution' radiating from the spine throughout the body.

The condensed notes taken from the Goenka 7-day Satipatthana course which examines the relevant sutta in some detail, and for which you are required to have done 3x 10-day courses, gives this advice "Having started with natural breath, you learn to reach the important station of feeling sensations in the whole body in one breath: from top to bottom as you breathe out, from bottom to top as you breathe in"

Some excerpts from the Q & A section of the document might be of interest in this discussion:

Q: The Buddha’s teaching seems to imply a sweeping movement of the attention related to the breath. What then is the origin and importance of working part by part in this practice?

A: When the Buddha says sabba-kāya-paṭisaṃvedī assasissāmī’ti sikkhati, "sikkhati" means "learns." Elsewhere pajānāti ("he understands properly") is used. You have to learn to sweep the whole body with one breath, and this learning is—observing part by part, allowing its solidity to dissolve, until the whole body is dissolved and you can sweep the entire mass. Then again you go part by part because even though the whole body seems opened up, there might be small unknown areas. You learn (sikkhati) to reach the stage of bhanga-ñāṇa.

Q: The Sutta outlines four observations and numerous practices, yet you teach only respiration and sensation on the body. There is no ranking of practices by order of importance. Why not also teach all practices such as walking meditation and noting ideas?

A: There are different traditions, and the Buddha, an enlightened person, also gave different initial objects to different people according to their background, capacity and inclination. However, as they proceeded, the stations were the same.
This living tradition comes from the initial practice of respiration, from which the meditator goes on to experience sensation, and thus arising and passing. Awareness of respiration and sensation together will lead to the final goal. It is not prohibited to try something else, but if you are progressing here, trying elsewhere just out of curiosity will waste your time. If you already feel sensation everywhere and now somewhere else you try observing walking—each foot moving up and down, but without sensation—your faculty of feeling sensation at a subtle level will get blunted. Reverting again to this technique you won’t be able to feel sensations at that depth. Of course there are people with very gross, rough types of mind for whom subtle respiration is very difficult, and walking may suit them better.
It is also difficult to feel subtle breath in a small area. If you are already feeling it clearly and then you try to feel it with your hand on the stomach—which is such a crude technique—you are regressing. The Buddha intends you to move from oḷāriko to sukhuma—from the gross to the subtle. If at a certain stage something gross arises from the depths, it can’t be helped; but just out of curiosity you cannot afford to start intentionally working with a gross object, such as the first sentences of another technique, forgetting all about the subtle reality of the station you had already reached. If another technique suits you better, stick to it and reach the final goal: but time is essential. Don’t waste your precious life running here and there.

Q: Is it true that the interpretation of vedanā most distinguishes our form of Vipassana from others in the Buddhist tradition? And how do the others define vedanā, if not as physical sensations?

A: Yes. Other traditions take vedanā only as feelings of the mind. We don’t condemn others and it is true that vedanā is one of the four aggregates of the mind. We have to explain rather than just translate because some words used by the Buddha had already been explained previously by him. For instance, sampajañña had been explained as the feeling of sensations arising and passing. Also, many words today are either lost or carry totally different meanings, so that we have to go to the Tipiṭaka to find the Buddha’s original definition of them. The Buddha had explained that sukha and dukkha vedanā referred to the body, and he used somanassa and domanassa to refer to the mind. In vedanānupassanā he doesn’t use somanassa and domanassa, but sukha and dukkha vedanā, so we have to work with sensations on the body.

Q. You mentioned noting various mental states arising. How should you deal with, say, anger or fantasy?

A. Noting anger, fear, passion, ego or any kind of impurity does not mean mentally reciting them. Noting may help you concentrate and understand somewhat, but sampajañña is missing. Just accept the mental content, that your mind is with, say, anger—sadosaṃ vā cittaṃ pajānāti—and observe any predominant sensation, with the understanding of arising and passing. Any sensation at that time will be connected to the anger.

His definition of sampajañña (the thing which he constantly returns to as the centre of the practise) is this:

sampajañña — constant thorough understanding of impermanence

Any information from people who have experienced the longer/'more advanced' Goenka or other U Ba Khin courses would be appreciated and I think would help to advance & clarify this discussion.


Re: rational comparison between Goenka scanning and Mahasi noting
« Reply #6 on: August 31, 2012, 05:42:44 PM »
  hey hopper,
  I can honestly say that I am happier now than ever in my life. I have purged a great deal of my destructive addictions and enjoy living a much simpler life. I feel comfortable calling this progress.
  I have sat the sati course, the teaching of the technique remains the same but there is less formal instruction, more time to meditate in solitude. there is also less student checking. The discourses are different, goenka breaks down the satipatthana sutta and explains how this technique fits the instructions given by the buddha he also explains as in the Q&A's you provided the difference in people when beginning meditation. Some find it difficult focusing their attention on the small area above the upper lip and below the nostrils, feeling the subtlest touch of breath. For these people the buddha perscribed the rise and fall of the belly, this is a much larger area and the sensations are gross and easier to experience. I believe Mahasi taught to farmers and I'm sure they were practicing outside, if you have ever tried to meditate outside with wind hitting your face you will know that it is even harder to feel the subtle breath, I believe this is where his technique thrived as the practicing farmers could sucessfully follow these instructions. Goenka does not teach this technique as he is working with the bare natural breath indoors, but he allows one strong hard breath if the meditator is having these difficulties.
   Goenka also talks of people in the buddhas time who were completely absorbed with themselves connected with their bodies totally identified with their material forms, for these people he perscribed observing decomposing bodies in the different stages of decomposition. Seeing this the students would lose their attatchment to their forms enough to begin practicing. No witchcraft or voodoo just plain common sense.
    In the sati course much more emphasis is placed on the continuation of practice and strict observation of the precepts. In ones first 10 day retreat many breaks are given, many times to "take rest", as an old student these breaks are minimised and one is encouraged to work longer, in the sati course you are continually asked to work 24/7 right up to the point when you drop into deep sleep, not always in the seated posture but in any posture you find yourself in. He goes on to explain as in the sutta that you must develope mindfulness with sampajanna for min. 7days for liberation to occur. He describes this as a shutting down of the sense doors, a cessation of the senses.
    Goenka talks about concentration and how focusing your attention on a smaller object ie; nostrils as opposed to belly will strengthen your concentration, again this just seems like common sense, the smaller the object the more powerful the microscope you need to see it. I can also see how noting ones thoughts(Mahasi style) would start to slow the thought process down to the point where one would see each thought as a seperate entity and be able to see things  clearer.  Again, both solid techniques.
    I think most people just want the quick fix with lifes problems, they want to attend a meditation retreat and have someone else do all the work. They want Goenka or Mahasi to show them the easy fix, and when they get there and the quiet solitude practice of meditation begins and your left alone with your thoughts and all those wonderful sensations they create, they begin to see how painful this life is and of course they don't like it! :'( So they want their cigarettes or weed, their book, their cocktails, their snacks, their T.V, an advil a tylenol anything even a scrap peice of paper and a pen, anything to distract their mind and put them back to sleep. but these things are strickly forbidden and unfortunately those who are not prepared to work leave. Most stay however and give their respective techniques a chance and a time comes when they feel blissful and they think, Ah! this is working I'm getting this fidgured out, and they cling to this bliss but it is short lived and soon the pain is back and they don't like it! So, unfortunately some more people leave. Back and forth, back and forth, pleasure then pain pleasure then pain. This is what we keep doing, we never see the root of the problem. We run from this technique to that technique, from this guru to that guru, this organised religion to that organised religion, or we hunker down in one specific technique with one specific guru and we think I'm so smart I found the real truth, and we are so confident and pleased with ourselves. Then someone comes and says our guru, technique or religion is wrong and we don't like it! and we feel more pain and we don't like it! so we share our pain with others and create misery all around us. We haven't learned a thing, and we keep being reborn in the lower realms.
     When I was looking into the Goenka retreats I thought, I want to sit these longer courses, 20day, 30day, so on. I felt it very unfair , but having sat a few courses, I see that it is a gradual process full of traps, and the AT's at a Goenka centre want to ensure the students do not get stuck in these traps. This is why they use the graduated process, they can get to know you. Plus, it takes time to build a strong practice, a practice that will benifit from longer courses. I'm sure I would survive a 20day but would I be able to work to get the benifit.


Re: rational comparison between Goenka scanning and Mahasi noting
« Reply #7 on: August 31, 2012, 05:51:39 PM »

Thanks for that, it all makes good sense to me. Glad you are getting good perspectives out of your practice and progressing on the path.



Re: rational comparison between Goenka scanning and Mahasi noting
« Reply #8 on: September 04, 2012, 06:56:10 PM »

In response to my request for more information on the advanced U Ba Khin/Goenka instructions, Nikolai on the DhO site pointed me at this link, which is helpful.

I am wondering whether the long-term U Ba Khin/Goenka practitioners here might like to collaborate on a short 'manual' for the technique itself rather than the surrounding Buddhist philosophical support. From beginners ('access concentration' via anapana) - through intermediate (body scanning part-by-part; then achieving some free flow; then moving up and down the spine; then bhanga-nana) - to advanced ('whole body' breathing in and out, perhaps via 'heart chakra'; awareness of mental constructs?).

It would basically be a more thorough coverage of the above sentence, with the stages and methodology shown clearly as well as the important background target of being aware of the 3 characteristics, particularly Anicca.

Anyone want to help with this?


Re: rational comparison between Goenka scanning and Mahasi noting
« Reply #9 on: March 18, 2013, 12:00:11 PM »
Thanks for this very interesting rational comparison. Since I’m still looking for my method this kind of exchange is of great use to me. I’m with mahasi noting and I’ll be doing a goenka’s class in a few months. I have several comments on what you and others have written.

About noting and cluttering

I have a different view point of the cluttering that may come with the noting as you described.
From what I understood and my experience noting serves three purposes.

-   Helps Stop the mental chattering

-   Points towards what is important to note (e.g., if a plane passes by noting plane is ‘incorrect’ because it has nothing to do with you, you have to note ‘hearing’)

-   Helps reminding yourself (i.e., take the habit) to be mindful of all of these phenomena as soon as possible.

But what is important is the mindfulness, not the noting in itself. When you increase your attention you may abandon the noting. For instance, the ‘rising-falling’ of the abdomen doesn’t need to be noted once your attention sticks to it permanently and for long periods of time. I’m not inventing this, the teacher of the meditation (a Burmese monk) told me. Now, whenever you feel difficulties to concentrate, you can go back to the noting to get better focus.
With the ‘getting back’ to the main object, the monk that helped in my retreat made very clear that you have to take for primary object whatever is predominant. So if the thought or feeling or painful sensation is more predominant than the abdomen, take it as primary object until it fades away.

And even though mahasi’s noting and goenka’s scanning are two different methods that may be adequate for different persons I still like to provide some advantage-disadvantage, maybe it can be useful to (and pleasant to our analytical minds).

First, an experiences monk’s wisdom developed from his practice and knowledge of the theory is beyond comparison with the wisdom and knowledge of incomparable to very good instructors I have met.

Second, I really like the fact that your attention does not only go to the body sensations but also to feelings and thoughts. It’s very nice to start to experience all secondary objects (any thought, pains, etc.) as distinct entities that have a beginning and an end.

Third, in our daily life, I think it is easier to become mindful of what you do and feel. You can start noting even when you’re not meditating and thus be more in the present time. 

Fourth, mahasi’s noting is complemented by a walking meditation which is I like very much. It channels what has been brought out by the sitting meditation and helps ease all of the strong emotions, etc. It also enhances concentration.

Goenka’s scanning excites me a lot because I want to able to work with my body energies (i.e.,chi), activate the kundalini and stuff like that.

All the best,



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