An Interview with Joseph Goldstein
Joseph Goldstein grew up in his family's
resort in the Catskill Mountains of New York and graduated from Columbia University,
where he majored in philosophy. Courses in Spinoza and Eastern Religion sparked
an interest in both metaphysics and spiritual inquiry. "I read the Bhagavad
Gita, and the whole notion of non-attachment-of acting without attachment to the
fruits of the action-just made sense to me." He went to Thailand with the
Peace Corps in 1965, met teachers of vipassana meditation in the Theravada tradition,
and spent most of the next eight years in Asia. In l975, he, along with Sharon
Salzberg and Jack Kornfield, cofounded the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), in
Barre, Massachusetts, one of the first vipassana residential retreat centers in
the country. In 1989 he also helped establish the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies.The
author of The Experience of Insight: A Simple and Direct Guide to Buddhist Meditation;
Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom; and co-author of Seeking the Heart
of Wisdom, Goldstein is now working on a new book, tentatively titled One Dharma.
He is also involved in planning the Forest Refuge, a retreat center adjacent to
IMS that will hold thirty to fifty people doing long-term intensive meditation
practice-a next step, he says, for dharma practitioners in the West.
drew you to Munindra, your first teacher?
One of the things that I'd been
looking for at Columbia, and not finding in philosophy, was a way to live life
wisely rather than just think about it. I wanted some way of making sense of all
the uncertainties I was feeling, a way of finding out who was behind the rush
of thoughts and emotions that I was taking to be myself. When I was in the Peace
Corps in Thailand, I began going to Buddhist study groups. One of the monks suggested
I try meditating. At first, I sat for just five minutes. But even in that short
time, I realized that this was what I had been looking for-a way to look inward
at my own mind.
Then, just a few weeks before the end of my Peace Corps stay,
I was sitting in a friend's garden and he was reading to me from The Tibetan Book
of the Great Liberation. At one point, when the text was speaking of the "unborn
nature of the mind," there was a sudden and spontaneous experience of the
mind opening to . . . zero. Immediately following, a phrase of wonderment kept
repeating in my mind-"There's no me, there's no me." This experience
shifted things radically. Of course, since then, feelings or thoughts of a sense
of self have arisen many times, but still, there is the knowing that even the
sense of self is selfless-that it's just another thought. At first, this new way
of viewing things was very disorienting because it was so unexpected and outside
any context of systematic practice. When I returned home, I tried to meditate
on my own but realized pretty quickly that I needed a teacher. That's when I decided
to go back to Asia, and I met Munindraji in Bodhgaya.
One of the first things
he said to me, and what really hooked me with its obvious truth, was, "If
you want to understand your mind, sit down and observe it." When I practiced
meditation with Munindra, there was no form, there was no ritual, there was nothing
to join, there was no cultural overlay. There wasn't even a meditation course.
He'd simply give teachings every day about meditation and then we'd go off on
our own to sit.
He didn't structure your time for you?
Not much. Essentially,
he told us just to spend the day sitting and walking. Munindraji's mantra in teaching
was: "Be simple and easy." He must have said that thousands of times:
"Be simple and easy; take things as they come; be simple and easy."
When I started intensive meditation practice with Munindra, I saw clearly
that I didn't have the foundation in practice for that previous experience of
emptiness. I had to start at the beginning and slowly develop some strength of
mindfulness and concentration. I was not one of these people who are naturally
concentrated. In the beginning I would sit, and an hour later I would get up,
having been lost in thought almost the whole hour. So I had to put in a lot of
hours to even begin to get a sense of what concentration was. One practice that
helped a lot in this development was an intensive period of lovingkindness meditation-metta,
in the Pali language. This served not only to strengthen the quality of lovingkindness-which
I felt needed a bit of work [laughs]-but also helped to develop stronger concentration
in the mindfulness practice.
You also studied with the vipassana master Goenka.
What influence did he have on you?
Goenkaji distilled most of the essential
teachings of Buddhism into a ten-day retreat, which was a very good structure
for introducing Western students to meditation practice. The courses were very
popular and they became the models for Sharon [Salzberg], Jack [Kornfield], and
myself when we began to teach in the United States. As a teacher, Goenkaji was
much more formal than Munindra. I remember how it felt so strange at first to
bow when Goenka entered the room. But I got to love bowing-it's just an expression
of faith and devotion and respect, and I do have enormous respect and appreciation
Did you leave Munindra to sit with Goenka?
No. Munindra was very
open-minded. When people wanted to study with other teachers, even non-Buddhist
teachers, Munindra would always say, "Go, explore, investigate. The Buddha
dharma doesn't suffer in comparison to anything."
You're part of a group
of American teachers who invited the Burmese teacher U Pandita Sayadaw to Barre.
How did he affect your practice?
U Pandita brought tremendous rigor to our
practice. He's a very demanding teacher, like a tough old Zen master. He wasn't
there to make us feel good or happy or comfortable. His teaching was all about
liberation, walking the path to some level of completion. He's a spiritual warrior
and he expected all of us to be warriors as well.
In l984 we asked him to
teach a three-month retreat at IMS and over the next eight or nine years I sat
with him in Burma, Nepal, Australia, as well as in this country. That first year
was especially tough. All the yogis (meditators) saw him for interviews six days
a week and had to tell him how many hours we sat, how many hours we walked. We
also had to describe very precisely what was happening in our meditation, without
any interpretation, judgment, or assessment. That way of reporting demanded a
great closeness of attention to what was actually going on. One of U Pandita's
great strengths was his ability to track our practice with amazing precision:
He'd know day-to-day, moment-to-moment where we were.
We also had to be able
to really surrender to him, to his style and his way. He was not at all interested
in debating with us. From the Burmese point of view, one of the great virtues
of a student is obedience. Now, that's not a highly valued virtue in America-
we're not so big on obedience [laughs]. But to really work well with him took
surrender and saying, "Okay, I'm not here to argue. I'm here to learn."
Do your students argue with you?
Sometimes. But I think I have a softer
approach than U Pandita. I teach more in Munindra's style. Munindraji was very
gentle and open. He didn't enforce a form, a discipline. But what I saw from working
with him is that, even though it may take a little longer, if we are sincere in
our efforts, self-discipline can come out of the practice itself, because it's
what we most want to be doing. In those early years with Munindra, for months
at a time he would be away and I would just be meditating by myself-I was so enthusiastic
and happy and grateful to have the opportunity to practice. The joy of this way
of dharma practice is the inspiration now for developing the new Forest Refuge.
But what form is best really depends on the person and the time-for some the
carrot, for some the stick. The Buddha talked about this. He gave an image of
training a horse. For some horses, just the shadow of the whip is enough; for
others a slight touch spurs them on; and others really need to be whacked, metaphorically
speaking [laughs]. When I began practicing with U Pandita, I think it was time
for that whack.
In recent years you've been studying with some Tibetan teachers.
What inspired that?
In the early nineties, our old friend Surya Das, whom
we knew from India, had come back from two three-year Tibetan retreats. He told
us about his practices and encouraged us to meet his teachers, particularly two
great dzogchen masters, Tulku Urgyen, who died recently, and Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche.
Surya Das had done some vipassana practice before his Tibetan retreats, so I think
he felt that we would also have a connection with the dzogchen teachings.
The connection is awareness and freeing the mind. In vipassana,
there's a great emphasis on the objects of awareness and being mindful of them.
We pay attention to the breath, to thoughts, to sensations, and notice their impermanent,
insubstantial nature. In dzogchen there's less emphasis on the object and more
on recognizing the empty nature of awareness and resting in that.
you mean by the "empty nature of awareness"?
In different traditions
this phrase might be explained in different ways. One way of understanding it
is that when one looks for awareness, there's nothing to find. It's invisible,
formless, groundless, and yet there is a cognizant capacity-there's knowing. In
dzogchen, this is the union of awareness and emptiness. The "pointing-out
instructions" that a qualified dzogchen master will give in a variety of
ways help the student to recognize this nature of their own mind.
awareness the same thing as mindfulness?
In the dzogchen tradition a distinction
is made between fabricated and unfabricated mindfulness. Fabricated mindfulness
is the conditioned state of mind that takes note of an object. Unfabricated mindfulness
is the nature of mind itself. We can use fabricated mindfulness to bring us back
to the recognition of the mind's empty, aware nature.
What was your experience
of Surya Das's teachers?
We went to Nepal and met Tulku Urgyen, a really wonderful
teacher. He was crystal clear and very generous in offering the essential teachings
of dzogchen. This was a little unusual, since often, in the Tibetan tradition,
you have to go through a much longer process of commitment to the teacher and
many preliminary practices. Around the same time, Surya Das also set up a two-month
retreat with Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche at Dai Bosatsu, the Zen monastery in upstate
New York. Khen Rinpoche exemplified the "crazy wisdom" aspect of practice-spontaneous,
unpredictable, and wonderfully humorous. There we were, in this beautiful, classical
Zen monastery, with Zen, vipassana, and Tibetan practitioners all learning from
a great dzogchen adept, each in our own style.
Two major things happened to
me at that retreat. One is that I really struggled with the differences between
vipassana and dzogchen. Because even though the dzogchen teachings, just like
vipassana, felt resonant with my experience, it was saying quite different things
about the nature of awareness and the mind.
What was the difference?
the Burmese system, liberation involves transcending awareness. In dzogchen, liberation
is recognizing that the nature of mind is awareness itself. These are two quite
different ways of expressing things. I spent a month of that retreat trying to
figure it out, trying to decide who was "right." I finally came to realize
that I could understand both systems as skillful means rather than as statements
of absolute truth.
Well, that was a huge relief. But, of course, then the
question arises, "Well, skillful means for what?" What I've come to
understand more deeply over the years-and what I think is supported by the teachings
in all of the Buddhist traditions-is that the liberated mind is the mind that
does not cling to anything. In one discourse the Buddha said, "Nothing whatsoever
is to be clung to as I or mine. Whoever has realized this has realized all the
All the different methods and metaphysical systems can be
seen as skillful means to accomplish the mind of no-clinging. This understanding
really freed me from attachments to metaphysical models that I didn't even know
I'd had. I'd been so completely immersed in the model of the Burmese teachings
that when I came into contact with a different model, it became a huge conflict.
I had just assumed that the particular way we speak of things was the truth, forgetting
that the words were just skillful means for experiencing the mind that doesn't
cling to anything. That's where the freedom is.
The other thing that was very
transformative was Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche's teachings on bodhicitta, the enlightened
heart/mind (in some Asian languages the word for heart and mind is the same).
He gave one talk on relative and absolute bodhicitta and something clicked in
a way that I had not understood before. Relative bodhicitta is the aspiration
to get enlightened in order to liberate all beings. Absolute bodhicitta is the
nature of the mind itself, that union of emptiness and awareness. What opened
me was seeing that relative bodhicitta-the Bodhisattva Vow-was the expression
of the absolute. Previously, I had understood the Bodhisattva Vow from the place
of someone doing something to liberate all. I could appreciate the Buddha's doing
it, but I could not imagine that I would ever have the capacity or the strength
or the perseverance to save all beings! So I put it aside as just a nice idea.
On this retreat, by seeing that relative bodhicitta was the expression of
the absolute, I could understand the Bodhisattva Vow in a way that made sense
to me personally. I understood that compassionate activity is the expression of
the wisdom-mind of selflessness. It wasn't me taking on all beings. The task is
just to get the self out of the way, and simply let the heart-mind of wisdom and
compassion express itself. Well, that was just wonderful.
From that retreat
on, I've been trying to bring more of the bodhicitta aspiration-may our practice
be for the benefit of all, may we awaken for the benefit of all-into the vipassana
Do you see it making a difference?
I feel it's made a really
big difference. In vipassana teachings there's the implicit understanding that
the practice will benefit not only oneself but others as well. In the bodhicitta
teachings, this is made explicit and becomes the very motivation for practice
as well as being its outcome. The bodhicitta aspiration makes the vipassana teachings
tremendously expansive, and emphasizes the compassionate aspect of emptiness.
So it's been very enriching for my own practice and teaching.
And you've resolved
the seeming conflict between the two traditions?
When I could bring all the
teachings back to the mind of no-clinging it felt like a great refuge. I don't
think any school of Buddhism would argue with that. There's no school that says,
"Cling." Liberation is about cutting, or dissolving, or letting go of,
or seeing through-choose your image-the attachment to anything. The description
of the mind of no-clinging may be different in the different schools, but the
experience of the mind of no- clinging is the same. How could it be different?
did you settle the contradiction between the Burmese and dzogchen notions of awareness?
You said the Burmese aims to transcend awareness into the "unconditioned,"
or "nirvana," which they would describe as the cessation of consciousness.
But in dzogchen, there's no possibility of transcending awareness since it's the
very nature of mind.
I've had intimations that perhaps at a certain point these
concepts of awareness and of transcending awareness are themselves no longer applicable:
The actual experience may be beyond that duality. On one level of experience what
may seem to be a conflict, on another level may be resolved through a deeper understanding.
have your teachers responded to this intermingling of traditions?
tradition there's a liberal-conservative spectrum. Some teachers emphasize preserving
the purity of a tradition, and others are more open and engaged with other perspectives.
I genuinely don't believe that one approach is right and one is wrong. They each
serve different types of people and temperaments, and each approach may also be
appropriate at different times in one's practice. There are dangers and strengths
What is the danger of openness?
Confusion. People can pick a little
of this and a little of that and not go deep. Or we can begin to pick and choose
what parts of the teachings we like or are comfortable with and discard the rest.
This could lead to diminishing of the power and scope of the teachings. But if
we integrate aspects of different traditions from a deep place of practice, then
the traditions can support each other and be wonderfully harmonious.
suggest that students be aware of awareness itself, of knowing. Yet you never
use the dzogchen word for awareness, "rigpa." Is it the same as bare
This is a good example of the potential for confusion, of bringing
terms from one tradition into another. Early on in my dzogchen practice I went
to see one of the great dzogchen masters, Dodrup Chen Rinpoche, and I asked him
some question about rigpa and nirvana: Are they the same? Are they different?
He said that it's very difficult to make these comparisons, because each system
may use the same words in different ways. Within the Tibetan tradition, the word
"nirvana" may be used very differently than the same word in the Theravadin
tradition. So care is needed.
There is an awareness in the dzogchen view that
is the nature of mind. It's completely free of identification with anything, free
from any fixation on an object. There's another aspect in dzogchen of knowing
where there is some level of identification with, or attachment to, something.
It could be attachment to some object of experience, or it could be a fixation
on awareness itself. But it's no longer just the naked face of awareness, the
innate wakefulness of the nature of mind.
One of the images used in some Tibetan
texts is that of water and ice. Water is used as an image for the awareness that
is the nature of mind (although as an image water is still too much of a thing).
Ice is the mind that's solidified in one way or another. Great care is needed
in distinguishing between water and ice, because sometimes what we thought was
water turns out to be slush-there's a little bit of ice in there. And yet at the
same time-and this is what's so interesting-the nature of ice is water. The nature
is the same, though it's not manifesting in the same way. This is another way
of saying that even the hindrances of mind like desire, fear, or doubt are themselves
essentially selfless and insubstantial.
In vipassana, with regard to bare
attention, in its purest, freest form, one could equate bare attention with this
mirror-like wisdom of the mind: It just simply knows. But bare attention can also
refer to an equanimous observer, someone who is being attentive. Well, if there's
a sense of an observer, no matter how subtle, it's ice, not water. So even with
a phrase like "bare attention" you would have to be precise about what
Why do you "never" use the word rigpa?
I have enormous
respect for the different lineages and traditions, and I don't at all consider
myself a dzogchen teacher. Some of the teachers I studied with particularly made
the point that rigpa is a term that's part of the context of the whole dzogchen
teaching, so to take it out of that context feels wrong.
I feel more comfortable
using the phrase "the nature of mind" as an expression of my own experience
and understanding. I like that because, first, it implies that it's not a thing;
it's the nature of the mind-it doesn't reify it. And it's poetic and deep and
inviting of exploration. It's just the nature of mind-it's not Tibetan or Burmese
How do you relate to aspects of dzogchen that seem to be at odds
with the liberal edge of vipassana? For instance, that what makes it possible
to enter the spacious mind of dzogchen is devotion to the guru.
is a major aspect of that tradition, and it's a tremendously effective way of
surrendering the sense of self and the sense of "I." It's a more refined
expression of what I was talking about before with U Pandita and the quality of
obedience. That's really what the obedience is about. In the act of surrender,
you let go of your ego struggle.
But within the Tibetan tradition, it's said
that rigpa-the union of emptiness and awareness-is the true guru. So on that absolute
level of understanding, guru devotion is the surrender to this experience of the
nature of mind itself. And on the relative level, there's the practice of guru
devotion where the guru is the embodied Buddha.
We can be limited by attachment
to either of these perspectives. The real maturing of practice, I think, is understanding
both the relative and absolute levels, understanding their differences and understanding
their union-exactly like water and ice. They're different on one level, and yet
they're the same. The relative is not different from the absolute. And yet each
has to be respected and practiced from its own side.
Over the years, your joy
in the dharma seems more and more apparent. What sums it up for me is a Tibetan
word you use about the dharma, "Emaho!"-"how amazing!"
the more I've gotten out of any particular metaphysical model, the more I have
this wonder at the nature of our minds, at the possibility of freedom in the very
middle of our suffering. It is truly amazing.
And yet for many people, these
models are immutable and unbridgeable.
Oh, there's tremendous sectarianism.
That's why I'm working on a book now tentatively called One Dharma. I am inspired
by my experience of how different traditions can come together in practice and
want to try to communicate that. Because I don't think there really is just one
approach. There are different facets of this great jewel of the dharma. At different
times, different aspects become relevant. But there's a way of holding them as
a unity. That's really exciting to me. I'm just now beginning to teach from this
place. And, for all the unresolved questions about the ultimate nature of the
fully enlightened mind, I use a surefire magic mantra-"Who knows?"
I would like to reiterate that I think there's enormous value in preserving each
tradition in its own purity, with its own integrity. And I think there's a way,
as well, of having them meet.
You've written about a few experiences that made
you think you'd gotten it! -enlightenment-and the point of the stories is that
there's always further letting go.
Absolutely. It feels to me that practice
is a process of ripening, like a fruit ripening on a tree. Chinul, an eleventh-century
Korean Zen master, described the path as "sudden awakening, gradual cultivation."
He gives value to those moments when we suddenly awaken to the nature of mind,
but then we need a gradual and further cultivation of wisdom and compassion.
a recent talk you said that the path to liberation "is a science as well
as an art-it's a path that's open to everyone."
It is. The path of awakening
is extremely well mapped, and it's mapped in different ways by different traditions.
At certain stages maps can be useful; they point out the way. But at other stages
they can be a big hindrance, because we often get caught up in interpretation
and judgment: "How far along am I?" "Am I there?" These thoughts
simply strengthen the sense of self, while the whole path is about dissolving
it. And particularly in our Western culture, which is so competitive and judgmental,
instead of adding more fuel to the fire of self-judgment-"Oh, where am I?
I'm not good enough"-we could see our entire spiritual journey as this wonderful
flowering of understanding. We just keep going; we just keep watering the Bodhi
tree of wisdom.
This article provided courtesy of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.