According to one of my most beloved Baoji, service and devotion are two of the main paths to happiness and fulfillment. In the language of Baoism, a Baoji is someone who teaches you some of the ways to live a more fulfilling life. From both my own personal experience and the teachings of many other Baoji - she is obviously correct. However, I think it is also very important to point out that while both of these are well trod paths, that doesn't mean they are any less dangerous than some of the lesser-known dharma roads. I should specify here, I say dharma road - using the word dharma in the sense of a way of living that leads to an improved existence (and ultimately enlightenment but that is an entirely different tangle than we are on right now.) The word dharma has a fairly wide array of meanings in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism. I'm using it more in the sense of the Baoist word 'Rox' which simply means doing things that have a positive effect on self, others, planet, and/or entire universe.

Whew - that was a long winded way to say that choosing a path of devotion or a path of service (or a combination of the two) can be an effective way to bring yourself closer to happiness. Again, I need to put a word of caution and point out the bolded word above 'can'. It can also be a huge disaster because if you choose devotion or service to a TOX belief system or a TOX teacher or a TOX ideology - you are on the path to adharma and probably putting yourself and others near you closer to misery.

I must deviate from the narrative again (what narrative? this is just a deviation!) to say that in Baoism, TOX refers to actions or things that have a negative effect on self, others, planet, and/or entire universe. I didn't mean to even get into this trap of definition - but this is one of the big issues with spiritual subjects. The definitions can vary from culture to culture and even from person to person - which is why so many practices hearken back to the original language that teachings from great teachers came in - but there are problems with that as well, because language changes over time and sometimes teachers say one thing but mean another. It can all get very confusing - as, for example, the past several days when I was taking part in a service retreat where the Japanese teacher was discussing philosophy presented in English that came from Hindu where it had been translated from Burmese from which it was originally translated from the old Pali language. At times it felt like a jobabberlidnalidknankdallkdioadkoism of blandoanrodalresliodaldosoma, if you know what I mean.

Enough of that, I'll tell you of my experience and my observations and reflections from it. (I feel it's only fair to warn you though, that I am likely to fall back into the weeds before we are done...)

As I wrote previously, (link: I love Cults) I attended a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat late last year. The Vipassana organization makes these free by design and when you are done, you can donate money, time, or both so that they can continue doing that. I donated a little money at the end of my retreat, but I also wanted to donate some of my time, especially after speaking with my Baoji and hearing her extoll the virtues of service.

The main figure in Vipassana is Goenka-ji, and while he is fairly long dead, his words and image live on in video and audio recordings. The dead teacher spends some time in the 10-day retreat extolling the virtues of doing service too. The servers I spoke with at the retreat in 2023 all shared a sense of joy at the hard work they had done taking care of us. The money I donated didn't cover the cost of my food and bed so I did some math and determined that 3-5 days of service on my part would set the bill to where I had given a bit more than I had consumed - which is where I like to fall on the balance sheet of life. I know - that's an issue.

Off I went. First of all, I should clarify a few things - I volunteered based on wanting to fix the balance sheet and also wanting to experience the service side of things. I wasn't sure if there would be another Noble Vow of Silence, if there would be segregation of the sexes, what work I would be doing, if there would be students there, or anything more beyond the fact that I knew we would be meditating 3-5 hours each day. The work we were doing was setting up a 'gypsy camp' since Hawaii Vipassana doesn't have a permanent site. The one I attended in November was on Camp Waianae, rented from the 7th Day Adventist Church and this one was at Camp Pupukea, a sprawling Hawaiian jungle/forest camp that was rented from the Boy Scouts of America. Our job was to turn a Boy Scout Camp into a Vipassana Meditation Center ready for over 100 'students' to come for a 10-day course.

There were no students, we didn't have to take any particular vow, segregation of the sexes was only in terms of different tables to eat, different sections to meditate, and different 'camps' to sleep in - but we interacted while we did the work, coordinated with one another, and spoke with each other. There were between 14-20 people there at any given time with some coming and going just during the day to help as they could. Meditation was three hours per day required if you were staying there with one hour of optional in the morning and time for another hour if you wanted to find it. For me, four hours was fine. I used the other hour for a bit of extra sleep or showering but the rest of the time I was there, we were working hard.

In addition to bringing the level of cleanliness up, there was the work of setting up the kitchen, cooking for the group, cleaning that up, provisioning and getting supplies ready, turning the mess hall into a dharma hall - and where I spent the majority of my time - setting up masses of tents. Each student coming would get their own 3-4 person tent with a cot or mattress in it. This process was surprisingly complex since the previous camp had been dismantled during serious weather and very few of the tents had been put away with all of their required pieces.

Among the complete tents we found 5-10 with broken poles, ripped walls, or torn rain flys. When I attempted to repair or inventory the tents, the person who appointed themselves the lead said "We don't have time, just throw them aside." He was what we would have referred to as a pogue in the Marine Corps - someone who belonged in an office. Not setting up tents in the jungle. In fact, with a bit more organization - there would have been plenty of time but this was a truly anarchist committee process that involved redoing the same work several times because there was no plan and no effective leader.

Being new, I wasn't going to start bossing people around - but that was what was needed. In lieu of that, I repeatedly (and loudly) turned to the calmest and most organized among us so that others would do the same. He was a guy who had been in the organization for a long time but wasn't really a 'step up and tell people what to do guy' but eventually the whole group was looking to him to for direction. That mostly worked. We started to get things done. One of my frustrations was that I would start on a task that I could accomplish easily alone and rather than doing the same - the rudderless would come to 'help' me - which entailed me spending more time explaining what I was doing than it would have taken me to finish. Each time we got in a good rhythm, someone would come walking through with a gong because it was time to go eat or time to go meditate. I was reminded with my frustration of prayer time or 'inshallah' while living in Morocco and Turkey.

My new friend (leader of team tent pitchers) laughed when I expressed that "It's part of the design," he said "they want you to see that even when you put meditation first, the work still gets done."

That's a shitty design in my opinion. Get the work done. Then meditate, relax, eat, and talk story. It's not a Protestant work ethic on my part, it's that I understand the value of getting shit done and having nothing left to do. Too many people work hard and then get the next task assigned to them - not me, that's when I tell bosses to go suck it. Give me a task and an amount of time to do it - pay me for that time and task and we'll both be happy. Try to pay me less because I did the task faster than expected or try to tell me that I need to do more work with the extra time and that is the moment you find yourself short of the best employee you ever had. See, I told you we'd diverge again...

Anyway, this wasn't paid work so I guess it didn't matter but I definitely felt like I was working with hourly employees who didn't want to get the work done too quickly because there would just be more work to do. Mind you, I'm not saying they were shirking - there simply wasn't a solid organizational plan in place. I'm sure it really must be part of the plan. Everyone there though, they worked hard. Harder than I see most paid employees work.

The teacher (assistant teacher in the language of Vipassana because there is only one teacher - Goenka-ji) was a former snowboarder/surfer from Japan who travels the world doing 10, 20, 30, and 60-day retreats at different Vipassana centers. He'd just come from India and after Hawaii would go to South Africa. He's a very cool guy, filled with wisdom and didn't mind getting his hands dirty setting up tents with us. I was told that mostly AT's didn't do the kind of work he was joining us on. Obviously, he's all-in on Vipassana. I liked him - but, like so many others in the organization - he's pretty deep into what I call 'magical thinking' - things like chanting exactly two hours and ten minutes is the only path to nirvana or that you can only be reincarnated seven times and then you can't get to nirvana or that walking around the site with a blue tooth speaker playing a digital recording of a dead teacher of Goenka playing from his phone was somehow going to make the site more holy or into some sort of magical dharma-land.

This 'magical thinking' and what I see as the ongoing deification of Goenka are two of the biggest issues I have with Vipassana. Let me be really clear - Vipassana is a cult. There is money, there is an organization that controls that money, and there is a shit-ton of mind manipulation and control system ideology going on in Vipassana. I've touched on the magical thinking but the deification of Goenka is something else. You hear him when you meditate, you watch him at night, his image in the videos has been slightly enhanced to make it more angelic and glowy. AT's, organizers, and more experienced students speak of Goenka the same way they speak of the Buddha. They are building a path of devotion because not only is devotion a way that seekers can find meaning, it is also one hell of a control system. I don't trust devotion. Neither should you, at least not in my opinion. Why? Because humans are fallible and if you offer them sex, money, or power - mostly they will take it and utilize it selfishly. Goenka is dead, but that won't stop someone living from using devotion to him as a way to achieve sex, money, or power.

I'm certain that you won't find devotees of any kind who will agree with me on that take, but it's a process and it is happening. They have books that show his lineage, books that share his words, and a whole audio/video litany of the words of Goenka. As you delve deeper into Vipassana, you start to hear more and more about the hidden levels, the rigors required to reach those levels, and if you aren't caught up in it - more and more about the miracles of Goenka. An example I heard from my friend the AT - "When Goenka arrived in Canada, he saw a triple rainbow in front of his car and when he left there was another. His driver, my friend told me and he wrote about it."

This brings me to an annoyance of mine. When I was embracing hippie culture in the 90s in Oregon and Washington - one of the things that drove me from it was what I called 'hippier than thou'. This was a phenomenon where you'd be in a conversation with some hippie and you'd say something and they would sort of quiet shame you or humble brag to show how much of a better hippie they were than you were. Been to a dead show? They've been to three hundred. Got patchouli oil in your bag? They make their own. Got a cool tie die? Their's is on hemp fabric with natural die made from recycled shit. Whatever. Hippier than thou exists in every cult culture and it exists in Vipassana too - although usually it's more subtle than this example . I mentioned how much I enjoyed the rainbows and sunset beauty of the Waianae camp and asked a more experienced meditator who had been to this one "What is the 'wow' natural beauty of this camp?"

"When I come to Vipassana retreats, I only look inwards. The new students are always like 'wow, the nature' but I'm looking inside."

Absolute jackass of an answer. Since we'd heard about the supposed triple rainbow from the AT my answer was "I don't see the triple rainbows. I only look inside."

The hubris of his answer was such a huge turnoff to every aspect of anything else he might be practicing - that I can't even express it. It actually made me sad. Don't get me wrong, I liked the guy and I'm sure he knows his Buddhist philosophy well enough to quote me things in languages he doesn't speak. All the meditation in the world won't help you if you can't see an answer like that as coming straight from a weak ego.

The same goes for other explainers and robe wearers. Another guy (and he was young so I won't go into any details) reminded me of the very white dude I once knew who dove so deeply into Native American culture that he began wearing culturally appropriated clothing that he felt brought him closer to what he was embracing. We see it in Hawaii all the time, Haole dudes who try so hard to be local that they end up becoming cartoon versions of themselves - and never get the respect they are looking for by speaking pidgin and wearing the uncomfortable kind of rubbah slippahs.

Alright - full stop. Let's take a step back.

I had a nice time doing service before a Vipassana retreat. I liked all of the people I met (even the ones who I mentioned above.) I felt a very real and deep connection with most of them. These were good people. Kind people. People who are seeking something more than just wealth or the material trappings of this world. Everyone there was working for free so that others can take this journey, experiment with this path, and perhaps find a way to be happy in this life (or maybe the next one(s)). I felt joy at working hard, breaking a sweat, getting eaten alive by mosquitos, and doing hard labor without any promise of monetary reward. I enjoyed thinking about the men and women who would be meditating, having realizations, or dealing with hard truths in those tents, sitting in the meditation hall, or eating the food we put up from the kitchen we put together. I can definitely feel where a path of service can be a way to level up your overall experience of life. You don't have to be doing it for a religious organization - it can be individual. However, I did find that the group meditation with a cohort of folks that I was engaged in shared purpose with was powerful. I would guess that slaves singing together in the fields or worshipping together in ramshackle plantation cabins would also have that sort of bond - but magnified. I know as a Marine, there was that kind of bonding in terms of training and mission. I've done service with other organizations - cleaning streams and rivers, working to restore habitat, helping to feed and house the homeless, working to register voters and to set up empowering community organizations. Shared purpose, shared sweat, and shared vision are a powerful tool for happiness.

But you have to be really careful who and what you are working for.

I like Vipassana as a meditation technique. I like the Vipassana organization for giving people the opportunity without charge to experiment and learn this technique. I believe meditation itself is a powerful tool for self change and world change.

All of that being said - this is a dangerous cult. Not dangerous in the sense that they are going to go the way of Shining Path or Jim Jones, but dangerous in the sense that they are using powerful and not-so-obvious brain-washing techniques which are not only creating opportunities for service but also not-so-subtly encouraging devotion. They are utilizing subtle human control systems to promote specific behavior that is likely more beneficial to the power of the organization than to the power of the people who are practicing. Some, like my snowboarder friend, will likely find great benefit. I mean, hey, if you don't have a retirement plan - you can essentially travel from place to place all over the world taking Vipassana 10-day, 20-day, 30-day, and 60-day courses where they will feed you, house you, and make sure you have what you need to continue spreading the faith. Maybe you can even become an AT in which case they will pay for your flights.

However, there are many people who cannot handle that. I would venture to say that the majority of the people I have met in life are not capable of the 10-day course. Their minds and their souls will break - or - perhaps even worse - they will become mindless devotees, the walking dead of Vipassana - deifying Goenka, normalizing absurd magical thinking, and eventually - despising those who refuse to 'see the truth' of their way. This is brainwashing and while I think it's probable that most of us need a little light brainwashing now and then - this is too strong a dosage for me to wholeheartedly recommend to the masses.

As I told everyone who asked at this service session, I'm a spiritual tourist. Vipassana is not my path, but I found the silent retreat and the techniques taught in it to be useful. I'm glad to have taken the 10-day course and to have had the opportunity to put my accounting book in order by putting in several days of hard work so that others could do the same. To return to where I started this - my Baoji said that service and devotion are paths to a more fulfilling life. I believe that aspects of Vipassana can be helpful to some (those who are prepared and able to utilize it safely) to a more fulfilling existence. As for Goenka-ji, I honor and respect his teaching and the way he presented Vipassana. I include him among my personal Baoji and I'm grateful for his assistance (from beyond the grave on video and audio recordings) in helping me to more clearly see the dharma path.

A note for confused readers: I'm not condemning nor recommending Vipassana. It is a powerful technique being utilized by many to have a more fulfilling life. It is also an organization that is growing increasingly wealthy and powerful. That organization is being run by human beings who almost certainly have an agenda beyond just teaching the world a technique of happiness - or maybe not. All I'm saying is - do your own research, buyer beware, past results do not guarantee future returns, and before you sign up or head out to a course - make sure you understand what you are getting into and please - read up on critical thinking before joining any spiritual or religious organization - including Baoism.