Vipassana Meditation Center Discrimination

Submitted by admin on Tue, 09/21/2004 - 00:02

Vipassana Meditation
Center Discrimination


Posted on Sep 21, 04

Freedom Center Raises Concern About Discrimination at Vipassana Meditation Retreat Center

For years the Vipassana Meditation Center of Shelburne Falls Massachusetts (led by S. N. Goenka) has offered very popular meditation retreats on a donation basis, and we are appreciative of the Center's valuable services to the community. However, until recently the Vipassana Center and the international network of Centers of which it is a part had an explicit policy to exclude anyone labeled with a severe mental illness posted on its website. While the notice and policy were changed after complaints, the Vipassana Center still asks for and collects detailed information about psychiatric diagnosis and history as part of its application criteria.

Freedom Center, a Pioneer Valley advocacy and support group for people labeled with mental illness, has been contacted by several people who feel hurt and shamed by this policy. If the Vipassana Center were a private employer or public facility, its policy would be illegal under the Americans With Disability Act (ADA). The ADA allows asking neutral questions about a person's capacity to meet a required task, but not questions about a disability itself, medications, hospital history, or making assumptions about a person's capacity on the basis of a disability. (While the ADA exempts religious organizations and churches from its provisions, Freedom Center is currently researching the applicability of Massachusetts anti-discrimination laws, which are more restrictive.)

With its current policy the Vipassana Center is perpetuating stereotypes about people labeled with mental illnesses, such as that we all have impaired judgement or that we cannot meditate safely. Sometimes applicants simply hide their psychiatric history on the application to avoid stigmatization by the Center, which puts them in a degrading position. Many people labeled with severe psychiatric disabilities such as schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, and bipolar disorder have not only completed challenging meditation retreats, but discovered that their so-called “illness” is actually intimately connected to spirituality and that meditation is a valuable recovery tool.

We certainly understand the importance of adequately screening applicants for the challenges of a disciplined meditation retreat. We believe however that the Vipassana Center can find neutral, non-discriminatory questions to ask applicants that focus on what a person can do, not assumptions about who they are. Many other Buddhist meditation retreats around the US, such as Karme Choling and the Insight Meditation Society In Vermont, comply with the ADA and do not ask intrusive and discriminatory questions. Why can't the Vipassana Center follow their example?

We hope the Vipassana Meditation Center will educate itself about the Americans With Disabilities Act, the mental health recovery movement, and the painful history of misunderstanding and mistreatment of people labeled with mental illnesses. Consistent with its goals of compassion and loving kindness, the Vipassana Meditation Center at Shelburne Falls and Centers internationally should act promptly to change this hurtful policy.

Please politely contact the Center with your concerns at, call (413) 625-2160, fax (413) 625-2170, or send a letter to Vipassana Meditation Center, Dhamma Dhara 386 Colrain-Shelburne Road Shelburne, MA 01370. Also please write Letters to the Editor (Greenfield Recorder is and help spread the word about this issue.

Sign our petition online! Go to
Spread the word and tell other people to sign up as well.

Here is the text of a Letter to the Editor Will Hall sent to the Greenfield Recorder:

To The Editor,

As a meditator for 9 years who is also diagnosed with schizophrenia, I know firsthand how helpful meditation can be for recovery and mental well-being. That's why it is so disappointing to learn that the Vipassana Meditation Center of Shelburne Falls Massachusetts and around the world (led by S. N. Goenka) asks detailed questions about psychiatric diagnosis as criteria for its admissions application.

This policy is a discriminatory throwback to past stereotypes of the mentally ill as incapable and dangerous, and would be a clear violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act if religious organizations were not exempt. Many other meditation retreats, such as Karme Choling and Insight Meditation Society in Vermont do just fine without asking invasive questions that violate participants' privacy. Why can't the Vipassana Meditation Center join them?

Freedom Center, a self-help and advocacy group I work with in Northampton, MA, is calling on everyone to contact the Vipassana Center and ask for a change in policy and an apology to people with psychiatric diagnoses. Discrimination is not consistent with compassion and loving kindness; the Americans With Disabilities Act is. Their email is


Will Hall
Freedom Center Co-Founder

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