Joseph Goldstein is cofounder and guiding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society and the Forest Refuge, a new project for longterm practice. His book One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism was published in June, 2002 by HarperSanFrancisco.
Inquiring Mind: What led you to write your new book, One Dharma?
Joseph Goldstein: The motivation came from my experience of studying with teachers in various Buddhist traditions, in different practice lineages within Theravada, and in Zen and Tibetan traditions as well. I found that the teachings and teachers were saying very different and often opposing things about the nature of mind or the nature of awareness and freedom. So I was confronted with the issue of what to do when my most respected teachers were saying different things about that which is most important to me.
My first response was the question, Who’s right? But that raised the thought that if one is right, then another must be wrong. I tormented myself for quite a while over this. Eventually, I realized that my thinking mind would never resolve the questions of ultimate truth, so I let go of trying to figure them out on the intellectual level. A mantra arose in my mind, which I use now both in my practice and in teaching: Who knows? What is the nature of the Buddha’s awakening? Who knows? And until we’re a Buddha, we won’t know. Once I accepted that, instead of feeling confused, I felt as though I had let go of a lot of attachments. I felt truly open to hearing all the different teachings.
I then began to realize—and this is central to what I’m trying to express in the book—that all the teachings are better seen as skillful means than as statements of ultimate truth. If we take the teachings as statements of truth, then opposing ideas will inevitably lead to conflict. We can see quite easily how sectarian views form the basis of so much conflict in the world today. But, if we see the teachings as skillful means for liberating the mind, then we can take what is of value from a wide range of teachings even when they say different things. Our criteria need be only whether the teachings will help us to liberate the mind.
That raises another question: What does it mean to liberate the mind? In my practice of the different traditions, I find that it all comes down to developing a mind that does not cling to anything. I am reminded of one famous teaching of the Buddha: “Nothing whatsoever is to be clung to as I or mine. Whoever hears this has heard all the teachings, whoever practices it has practiced all the teachings, whoever realizes it has realized all the teachings.” What emerges in the end is a tremendous simplicity.
IM: Couldn’t a particular view or teaching have a powerful effect on someone’s approach to liberating the mind? For instance, one school of Zen claims that we are already enlightened and that when we sit in meditation we are expressing our enlightenment, while another school states that we are not yet enlightened and sit in order to attain that state.
JG: I’ve seen two basic approaches to practice. One is called “swooping from above,” the sense that we are already enlightened and are sitting to express it or to realize it. I call the other approach “building from below,” where we start from a recognition of our suffering, with an effort to relieve that suffering. There are strengths and weaknesses to each approach. If somebody is caught in a lot of suffering, it will probably not be too helpful to suggest that they rest in their essential purity. They need to develop a very clear mindfulness of what is arising in the moment and work with those difficulties. On the other side, the danger of the building-from-below approach is that people can get fixated on their suffering, and struggling with it will further solidify a sense of self. For them, at the right time, to hear a teaching about the essential purity of mind might be just enough to open them up to the transparency of self. The right teaching or skillful means really depends on what each individual needs.
IM: The subtitle of your book is “The Emerging Western Buddhism,” and you talk about how fortunate we are to have all of these different streams of Buddhadharma arriving on our shores. Could there be a danger in having too much to pick and choose from, too many skillful means?
JG: Having an abundance of methods enables us to find a way that fits our temperament and propensities. But it is really important as practitioners to follow one method of practice that suits us and to follow it to some depth of understanding. At some point, it is both possible and helpful to study in different traditions, but if we do that too soon, it just creates a lot of confusion. People can become dilettantes, practicing a little of this and a little of that and not really gaining any depth. However, once we have some real grounding in one practice, then we can integrate the other teachings into this foundation.
IM: How would one know when the time has come to try some other methods or teachings?
JG: We can know, first of all, from our own experience. When we are getting confused or full of doubt about our practice, it may not be the time to mix in other teachings. Another way we can know is through the guidance of a teacher. Many students have asked me if they should do another practice, and my advice always depends on their level of practice and whether it is appropriate for them at that time or not.
IM: At what stage are we in the development of a truly Western Buddhism?
JG: When asked what Western Buddhism will look like, one Asian teacher said, “We’ll know in a couple of hundred years.” Although it’s in the very beginning stages, we already see people practicing in different traditions. People often list as their teachers Burmese sayadaws, Tibetan or Zen masters, Thai ajahns, and Western teachers in various lineages. And if that diversity is grounded in the stability and depth of one practice, it can be tremendously helpful. I also want to say that for some people, staying with one method all the way is exactly right. One approach isn’t better or worse than another. It is all a question of skillful means. If a method develops non-clinging, then it is a path to the liberated mind. I believe that the emerging Western Buddhism will have precisely that quality of pragmatism that is so characteristic of our culture.
IM: Would you say that your own practice is an example of the emerging Western Buddhism, of “one dharma”?
JG: When people ask me now what I practice—is it vipassana or dzogchen?—I say that it is “not-clinging.” The practice has become that simple: not-clinging, and then moments of recognizing clinging, and then not-clinging, and so on. The particular method of doing that practice may be constantly changing: sometimes it will feel appropriate to stabilize the mind on the breath; at other times it will feel right to rest in a more open, empty awareness; sometimes it will feel right to open up the energy of the body through the sweeping technique. The practice is guided intuitively, and it’s seamless, totally seamless.
When I was trying to distill the essentials of Buddhadharma from my own practice, it came down to mindfulness in one form or another as the method, compassion as the manifestation of the dharma, and wisdom as the essence. These three qualities—mindfulness, compassion and wisdom—seem to be the necessary elements. These three make up the ocean of dharma, and all of the traditions are rivers flowing into it. Different traditions might emphasize one or another of these elements, but together they weave the one dharma of liberation.