Joseph Goldstein is a cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and has been teaching vipassana retreats internationally since 1974. He is the author of The Experience of Insight, a book that has come to be considered a classic guide to meditation practice, and the coauthor, with Jack Kornfield, of Seeking the Heart of Wisdom. Joseph teaches with great clarity and conviction, and his students often talk of how the wisdom of the Buddha seems to flow through him. His dedication to the dhamma and the meditation practice, combined with his easy manner and humor, has made Joseph one of the most beloved of contemporary Western Buddhist teachers. The following interview was conducted by Jack Kornfield, with a little help from Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker.
Inquiring Mind: You have spoken a lot lately about your commitment to preserving what you believe to be the original teachings of the Buddha and the traditional beliefs and practices of the Theravada Buddhist lineage. Could you explain your concern for keeping this tradition alive?
Joseph Goldstein: I’m not so concerned with any labels or the cultural forms of the tradition, although I do appreciate the many ways they have evolved in Asian culture. Instead, what inspires me is the connection with the original teachings of the Buddha, with what, as far as we know, he actually taught during his lifetime. In the Pali Cannon, in these core teachings that have been defined as the Theravada tradition, there seems to be a very high level of consistency and a systematic development of wisdom, a definite path, that corresponds directly to my own practice and understanding. My great interest—really the passion for me—is in both trying to understand and experience these teachings in a deeper and deeper way, and in preserving an authentic transmission. What I would like to be doing, and what I hope I am doing, is teaching what the Buddha taught based on my own experience of it, rather than teaching my latest insight into life. While the latter may be interesting and perhaps even relevant, since we all are growing in many directions in our lives, having the larger reference point of the classical teachings and methods assures a connection with a time-honored and well-established path to liberation.
The Buddha once held up a handful of leaves and asked which was greater, the leaves in his hand or the leaves of all the trees in the forest. He said that just as all the leaves in the forest were much more numerous than the leaves in his hands, so too was all his knowledge compared to what he taught. But what he taught was just that which was necessary and sufficient for freeing the mind. There is so much to learn, and to know. We need to reflect on what is most important to us in our lives, and to stay focused on that aspiration, even as we broaden our knowledge of other things. Otherwise, we can lose ourselves in many interesting explorations and find that we have lost sight of our goal. I think this is true especially in Western culture where there is so much accessible to us. What I would most like to preserve and express is that precious handful of leaves.
IM: We understand you sometimes teach a class for the staff of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre called “The Undiluted Dhamma.” What do you consider the undiluted dhamma? What do you teach in that class?
JG: In teaching this “undiluted dhamma” I am trying to include ideas that don’t get talked about at length in the normal meditation retreats, such as the Buddhist cosmology, the planes of existence, the rounds of rebirth, the thirty-seven principles of enlightenment, and the possible kinds of happiness and suffering that are attendant on this vastness of vision. These teachings of the Buddha have greatly enhanced my practice, and I wanted to share this with others. They provide a large context for the meditation practice and can give a very powerful sense of urgency, meaning and direction to the practice and to our lives. It deepens our sense of path, and of what is possible for us to achieve. This is the groundwork for the class on the undiluted dhamma.
IM: Can you elaborate on how the Buddhist cosmology affects and informs your own practice and vision of the dhamma?
JG: I have a strong feeling about how brief our life is, and how quickly it passes. Sometimes it feels just like a long weekend. I have a long-range vision of things, a vision of our journey unfolding over lifetimes. This provides a special sense of both spaciousness and purpose, because there’s not the same compulsion or frenetic need to experience everything in this one lifetime. It becomes easier to prioritize what is of most value, and to give a focused energy to these areas.
The Buddhist cosmology also has tremendous implication for understanding what’s meant by “suffering,” the truth of dukkha, the endlessness of our wandering through these rounds of rebirths without ever coming to a place of rest or peace, and the huge potential for suffering that exists in that wandering until one is well-established in the path of dhamma.
In this context, the Buddha talked about the dhamma being an uplifting support, something which becomes a condition for our happiness and for our well-being. I think that because of the emphasis placed on understanding the truth of suffering, we often forget that what the Buddha actually taught was a path of happiness. He wanted to show people how to be genuinely happy in a lasting and meaningful way. And he saw that the transitory enjoyment of pleasure, while it gave some kind of happiness in our lives, is not the kind of happiness that has any deep meaning or lasting value. And so in the class on the “undiluted dhamma,” we talk about the dangers of the power of ignorance in the mind, and how ignorance leads us to do so many things in our lives that simply become the cause of our suffering, both in this life and, as the Buddha taught, in future lifetimes. Seeing the real dangers of ignorance in the mind can lead to this tremendous energy to overcome that ignorance, to realize that it is possible to do so.
IM: After the Buddha’s enlightenment, he exclaimed that he would never have to be born again. Is that the bottom line for you? Do you see the purpose of practice to get off the rebirth wheel, to never have to live again, and therefore never have to suffer again?
JG: I do think that’s the bottom line, but I also think that this position can be easily misunderstood. Basically, I think the question is not rightly put. The Buddha went beyond the concept of life to the direct experience of what life actually is. In so many of the suttas he talks about the five skandas, the five “heaps” of psychic and physical events. We may make up all kinds of images and concepts and stories of what life is about, but when it comes right down to experience, it’s just these five skandas arising and passing, arising and passing. From that perspective, we begin to understand that the process itself is unsatisfying. To reach the place where these processes, which are empty of substance, empty of self, come to an end is to open to an unconditioned reality, to nibbana. The profound realization in this is that there is no one who has taken birth, and therefore no one who will cease to take birth—just suffering and its end. This is the teaching of the Buddha.
IM: Does that mean that life is a mistake, something to get out of?
JG: [Laughs] Well, I don’t think it’s a mistake, in that it happens because of causes. The causes are desire and craving and ignorance. If we think of life as a mistake then we lose sight of the actual way it all unfolds. The other question is whether it’s wise to get out of it or not; I think the more skillful way of framing the question would be: “Isn’t it better to come out of ignorance, and then to see with the eye of wisdom what follows?”
IM: The Buddhist suttas talk a lot about heaven and hell realms. Do you personally believe in them?
JG: I do believe in them, although I think it’s appropriate to say that at this point it is mostly a belief, since I don’t have any personal experience of them. However, I did not begin my practice with those beliefs. I came from studying Western philosophy, and had no knowledge at all about these different realms. The belief, or the intuition about them, grew gradually. When I began exploring my own mind and everything it could create, I began to see the possibility of other realities, beyond the Western materialistic view. Then, as I grew more confident in the parts of the Buddha’s teachings that were verifiable in my own practice, my mind became more open to the other things he taught, even if they were still beyond my experience. And the Buddha spoke quite unequivocally about karma, rebirth and other planes of existence. I also began meeting people, some of our Asian teachers, who said very directly, from their experience, that these other realms do exist. They had experienced them, they’d seen them. It all became part of a supportive pattern. I’ve also met people who have had astounding recollections of past lives that could be verified. So all of these things together really opened my mind to the possibility that this world, this universe, is larger and more mysterious than we might normally imagine it to be.
IM: You’ve stated that a primary motivation for your teaching is to help people meet at least the first stage of enlightenment, called “stream entry,” so that they will not risk being reborn in lower realms. How does this work?
JG: According to the traditional teachings, one takes rebirth according to the process of karma that is operative at the time of death. It’s said that what completely assures a rebirth in one of the happy kinds of existence, as a human or higher being, is the experience of nibbana. This opening to the unconditioned uproots the identification with the concept of self. Although there are many defilements left in the mind, with still a lot of work left to do, the core belief that there’s some unchanging self has been uprooted from the mind. Because of the potential for rebirth into so many different kinds of existence, and the immensity of suffering that exists in some of these realms, I feel the greatest gift I can offer is to help create a situation where people can walk on a path that frees them completely from this danger. If we have strong confidence and effort, then the whole dhamma will unfold.
In our society and culture, there’s often an avoidance of the shadow side of things. How long have we avoided acknowledging the madness of nuclear armaments, the danger of toxic wastes and acid rain, and all the other serious environmental and social situations which are causes for great care and concern? It is only when we open to the reality of the danger that we can take the necessary steps to make our lives, our environment, our planet a place of safety. Likewise, people often don’t want to learn about the dangers of existence, and the possible dangers of rebirth. They want to think of life’s journey as being unidirectional, going inexorably to more love and light. This is not at all my understanding of what the Buddha taught, nor is it my experience. Just as in the psychology of the mind there’s a light side and a shadow side, in the spiritual world there are tremendously beneficent forces as well as real dangers and potentials for suffering. The Buddha talked of ten wholesome and ten unwholesome actions; actions which lead to suffering. The reality that we create individually and collectively has its origin in the mind. And so it is up to us to understand our minds, to understand what reality our actions are creating and to live with wise consideration.
IM: Among many respected Theravada masters, such as Mahasi Sayadaw, Buddhadasa, and Ajahn Chah, just to name a few, there are significant differences in how they view “stream entry,” what the experience is, and even who has attained it. How do you understand these different points of view on such an important place on the path?
JG: What’s important in the experience of stream entry is the fact that it uproots the belief in “I,” in the concept of some unchanging self to whom experience happens. Therefore, this uprooting of the belief in self becomes the measure of the experience. The Buddha emphasized again and again that the idea of some permanent unchanging self who is the owner of experience is “wrong view” and the cause of so much suffering. So, the uprooting of that concept of “self,” through training, is a tremendously liberating force in the mind. It transforms our understanding and frees the mind from certain unskillful tendencies. It establishes a certain basic level of moral integrity, which also becomes a measure of the validity of the experience. Even in the Buddha’s time, according to the texts, there were many contexts in which this stream entry might happen. The first is during intensive meditation, where it comes out of a whole progression of insight. It can also happen outside of intensive practice in some cases, if the seven factors of enlightenment are well developed and if the mind is resting in a sufficient level of concentration and mindfulness.
IM: Some vipassana teachers believe that Buddhism teaches that life has suffering. Others understand it to mean not just that life has suffering, but that it fundamentally is suffering. How do these two different perspectives arise?
JG: I think it has to do with confusion around the word suffering. When people hear that Buddhism teaches that “life is suffering,” the conventional connotation doesn’t always make sense, because there is a lot of joy in life, and fulfillment, and happiness, and beauty. And the Buddha was not in any way denying that; that is all part of our experience. Indeed, the Buddha gave many teachings about how to be happy in this life, how to fulfill one’s aspirations. He spoke often about the benefits of generosity and morality and meditation as being the causes of many kinds of blessings. So the word suffering often misleads people. I think in some way a better word is unsatisfying; this process of changing aggregates is ultimately unsatisfying precisely because it is continually changing, because at a very deep level there’s no rest, no reliability, even in the happiness.
The Buddha’s last words contain such a deep truth: “Subject to decay are all conditioned things. Strive on with heedfulness.” This is a call for us to examine what are our deepest values. What is the reference point for our lives? Is it something which itself is subject to decay, subject to change? Or can we align the meaning of our lives with the highest fulfillment, that which is beyond birth and death? This is the Buddha’s great offering: An understanding of what is possible and a path to realize it. I hope that this does not get lost in the transmission of Buddhism to the West. It is not a matter of finding the lowest common denominator of our understanding and preserving that because it is the consensus. In very many respects, genuine realization challenges the popular view.
The Buddha declared after his enlightenment, “O Housebuilder, you have now been seen, you will build no house (body and mind) again. . . . Attained is the unconditioned. Achieved is the end of craving.” Can we use the example of the Buddha’s enlightenment to seek that heart of wisdom which may be beyond our own current level of understanding?
IM: You say that the goal of practice is to become fully enlightened. Have you ever met anyone that you felt was fully enlightened?
JG: There’s really no way of knowing from the outside. There’s no sign that people wear, and so, at best, it’s an intuition or a hope. But I have met people who seemed pretty free of craving and desire, empty of self. There are also some people who will acknowledge that they’re not fully enlightened arahants, but who may be at various stages of enlightenment, and some of their qualities are very extraordinary—qualities of love and compassion and emptiness.
IM: With all the people in the world, why do you think there are so few who are fully enlightened?
JG: There may not be multitudes of fully enlightened beings because it takes such an extraordinary effort. We know how much of a struggle it is just to watch a few breaths. To actually come to the end of the journey takes an extremely courageous effort. And there probably are not that many people at any one time who have brought this to fulfillment. Although I can also imagine that there may be more than we know, people living peaceful and quiet lives. Another possible reason we may not see many enlightened people around is that as people purify themselves in practice there’s a very strong likelihood of rebirth in one of the higher realms, in the deva or the brahma realms. So people at the first stages of enlightenment, or even just well established in the practice, may take rebirth in a higher realm of existence and actually continue with the process from there. It is said there are brahma realms that are populated only by anagamis (nonreturners) and arahants.
IM: Do you believe that mindfulness practice is the only way to enlightenment, and that only Buddhists teach this practice?
JG: There is a phrase in the Satipattana Sutta that can be translated as “the only way,” or “the one way,” or “the direct way.” I really have no idea which of those meanings is most exactly representative of what the Buddha meant. I like the sense that mindfulness is the direct way, the straight way. But I could also imagine that it is the only way in the sense that enlightenment comes through the development of a very keen awareness, and without that awareness, the mind is not going to be able to free itself from all the habitual tendencies. I don’t think this means that there is just one particular technique that will lead to enlightenment. Even in the traditional Buddhist teachings there are many techniques of awareness; in Burma and Thailand there are many styles of vipassana practice. But all of these are simply different ways for developing the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
IM: What about the writings that say that only buddhas can teach the way to liberation, that other traditions and practices have a more limited expression?
JG: I really don’t know. What I’ve always appreciated about Buddhadhamma is the amazing depth, clarity and consistency of the teachings, systematically pointing out the path to liberation. I have not studied other traditions in any great depth, and don’t know whether such a complete and accessible system is to be found.
IM: In the suttas, the Buddha emphasized the monastic renunciate life, often indicating that it is a more direct way to reach enlightenment. Do you think this is true?
JG: My experience with monasticism is extremely limited, but it seems to me that the Buddha emphasized the renunciate life because it is probably the best way to go about getting enlightened. The monastery or forest is a place where one is unencumbered by worldly responsibilities, a place where one can devote full time to the development and to the refinement of sila (morality), and to the development of concentration and wisdom. It’s a setting where all of one’s energies are gathered for this single purpose. As we know, in the household life, there’s a lot to do and a lot to hold together. So, even though liberation may be the intention of our heart, it is difficult to make it the one-pointed focus of our lives.
IM: Why don’t you become a monk? Do you have a sense of why it is that you haven’t taken that path?
JG: It may be because in my early years of intensive practice I was in India studying with lay teachers outside of a monastic setting. I came to appreciate that lay people could also experience a real depth of practice and understanding. This was true in the Buddha’s time when there were many enlightened lay disciples, and it is true today. In many respects this way of practice was a good preparation for coming back to teach in the West, where there is not yet a strong monastic tradition but where for many people, there is a dedicated commitment to deep practice. Some people have a very strong affinity for the monk’s and nun’s way of life. Others do not have this powerful inclination. Part of our challenge as Western dhamma practitioners is to create situations where our highest aims in dhamma can be fulfilled.
There has been some recent interest in establishing monasteries of various traditions. U Pandita Sayadaw has expressed strong support for beginning a small monastery where he could train western monks and nuns in the tradition of Mahasi Sayadaw. Ajahn Sumedho has also expressed some interest in starting a branch monastery if the conditions are suitable.
This, along with the centers for lay practice and the establishment of an academic Center for Buddhist Studies in Barre, Massachussetts, all signify a real coming of age of the dhamma in the West. It will provide the opportunities for each of us to find the form and situation which is most appropriate at any particular time. So much can be accomplished through vision and effort.
IM: In the practice of dhamma, in the long run, do you see what we do here on earth—our families, relationships, work, achievements, service—is any of it very important? Or is it kind of a sideshow in a much bigger picture of birth and death?
JG: It is both. The content of our lives and the process of its unfolding cannot be separated. Having taken birth, we are all doing something. And that something, which is everything we do in our lives, is important precisely because it is part of a bigger picture. Our actions and choices bear fruit, for ourselves, for other people and for the world. Depending on our mind states, they become the source of either happiness or suffering. This means that in the busyness of our lives, it’s up to us to stay awake. What are we doing? Where are we going? Are we choosing our lives wisely? What to me seems most important is staying connected to the deepest meaning and largest context, with the possibilities not only of well-being in our lives, but also of opening to the highest peace, to what is beyond the cycle of birth and death. This is not simply of theoretical interest. With effort and understanding, we can accomplish this. The Buddha taught what is possible and we need to remember that it is.
IM: Do you think that people have to come to terms with their sexuality or their intimate relationships or their parents before they can progress on the path or get enlightened?
JG: To progress on the path we have to come to terms with whatever arises in each moment. This means learning to see as clearly as possible the nature of our bodies, our desires, our emotions, the nature of mind itself. Based on this clear seeing and understanding we then make different life choices, depending on our background and conditioning. Someone once asked H.H. Karmapa why he was celibate. His Holiness replied, “For the same reason that you’re not.” There are many ways to understand happiness, so many responses.
Similarly with questions of intimacy. No one form encompasses all the possibilities of openness and caring. Intimate moments happen when the mind is silent, at rest. It is then that we connect, whether it is with someone or in solitude.
At times it may be helpful to explore particular areas of our lives which may be problematic for us, whether it has to do with sexuality, relationships, childhood or whatever. We can investigate, and perhaps untangle, some of the neurotic conditioning in the mind so that we are more open and free in our choices.
We can also come to a place of genuine acceptance of just how we are, without feeling a need that the particular patterns have to be changed. I have felt value in both of these approaches. And in the last few years the combination of meditation practice and some psychological investigation has led me from the place of thinking that I had to fix myself, to a place of real acceptance of the whole package. This has created a great sense of spaciousness and ease. It’s allowed me the freedom to choose the priorities in my life and say, “This is what I value most, this is what I want to emphasize and work for,” recognizing that there are a lot of other areas that could also be worked on. But because there’s an acceptance of them as they are, they no longer are a compelling force in my life.
In some measure the extent of our personality and interpersonal concerns are a function of an affluent subculture with sufficient time and resources to engage in the various forms of psychological exploration. In many ways it is a luxury at this time and place. And although it can often be of great benefit, both in our practice and in our lives, I think it is helpful to remember that for thousands of years people have walked on paths of wisdom and compassion without addressing these particular concerns.
Just as certain factors in meditation can get out of balance and may need adjustment, there is also the danger of a kind of obsessive fascination with our own neuroses, and our lives may start to revolve around untangling these issues. There was an ancient king of Phrygia in Asia Minor named Gordius, who tied the famous Gordian knot. He prophesied that whoever could untie the knot would rule over Asia. So many people tried, unsuccessfully, to untangle it, until Alexander the Great came, and with one slice of his sword, cut it asunder. Sometimes we need to see a situation from a completely different perspective. If we can at least occasionally step out of our story and come to see the essential emptiness of self in all conditions, then even though particular patterns of conditioning remain, they cease to be a source of obsessive involvement.
IM: You put a lot of emphasis on people sitting at meditation retreats. Do you see these intensive retreats as the best way for most people to progress on the path?
JG: I do. Strong concentration is needed for the development of deep wisdom. This is hard to accomplish in our fast-paced lifestyle. I think the form of intensive retreats is very well suited to Western culture, because it gives us the chance to slow down, to live in the great beauty of silence, to realistically begin training the mind. The form I’m trying to evolve for myself is the integration of periods of long, intensive practice with periods of active engagement with other people—in my case in teaching, but it could be in any occupation.
IM: Why are those other periods necessary? If you really want to get fully enlightened, why wouldn’t you just sit, and keep sitting until you reach the final goal? Or why wouldn’t you suggest to somebody who was bent on enlightenment just to sit and to not stop until they got full enlightenment?
JG: If I felt the person were right for it and mature enough to do it, I would. I have a great love of that intensive retreat form and I’ve experienced tremendous benefit from it and the power that comes from it. So I’m not at all hesitant to encourage people to do that if the conditions are right and if they’re ready for it.
I also think that there are cycles. There comes a time when the energy for intensive sitting practice may be dissipated and it really is time to get more involved in some kind of work or study, and again, at some later date, to go back to intensive meditation. These are the cycles that I’m experimenting with in my own life, and I think that many of us are working out this balance.
There is also a great feeling of compassion and awe which comes from the sense of the immensity of these rounds of rebirths and the vastness of the Buddha’s vision. Feeling this, and seeing that there is a path out of the suffering, brings a strong desire to share it with others. This feeling is so well expressed by the Zen poet-monk Ryokan:
O, that my monk’s robe were wide enough
to gather up all the suffering people
in this floating world.
The practice is never for ourselves alone. Wisdom and compassion are the two great wings of the dhamma.