ANDREW COHEN: Joseph,
you seem to be someone who has given up the world to devote your life
to the practice of meditation and the pursuit of liberation, and also
to be a spiritual guide to others. You're not a monk, but compared to
most people here in the West, the life you live would be considered
to be monk-like indeed. Since you have devoted your life to the Buddha's
path of awakening, why didn't you become a monk?
I don't feel like I lead a particularly renunciate
life—I'm very engaged with the world. I am involved with various institutions
like the Insight Meditation Society, the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies,
and a new long-term retreat project, and I travel and teach. I also
live comfortably, so I want to dispel any illusions. I'm not really
living a renunciate life devoted to intensive meditation practice, even
though I take periods of time each year to do that.
AC: But compared to most other people, your life
monk-like. You live away from the world in a meditation center. You're
not now in a sexual relationship. And everything you're involved with
has to do with the propagation of the dharma and teaching meditation.
One of the reasons I never became a monk is that when I started
practicing I was in India, which is not a Buddhist country. Most of
my first teachers were laypeople, and even though I later had monks
as teachers, the lay model was the form that I grew up with. I did ordain
just very briefly, but I was never particularly pulled to the formality
of the monastic discipline.
AC: Had your initial teachers been monks, do you think you
might have ordained?
I might have if I had started practicing in Thailand or Burma.
Although I feel that this life as a layperson suits me, and in a way
it suits the time. I think a lot of the work that we've done over the
last twenty-five years was easier because we did it as laypeople.
AC: To become a Buddhist you have to "take refuge"
in the Triple Gem—the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The Buddha
is said to have been one who had gone beyond or transcended the world.
The dharma is the Buddha's teaching of liberation, a teaching that liberates
us from attachment to the world and that enables us to get off the wheel
of becoming. The
sangha is the community of our spiritual brothers
and sisters, those with whom we share a bond of mutual commitment to
enlightenment and the spiritual life. The relationship with the
stands in contrast to those relationships that are based upon worldly or
materialistic values. And just like the monks, the Buddha's householder
or lay disciples
also had to take refuge in the Triple Gem, even
though they remained immersed in the activities of the world. But because
they took refuge, their allegiance was no longer to the world or to
its materialistic values but was now to enlightenment, which means the
transcendence of or nonattachment to the world.
days, I know the definition of the Triple Gem is being reinterpreted
by some, like your old teammate Jack Kornfield, to be more inclusive,
so that now the worldly life can be seen as being a perfect vehicle
for spiritual practice just as the life of renunciation was seen as
the perfect context in the time of the Buddha. In his recent book
the Ecstasy, the Laundry, Kornfield says, "The sacrifices of
a family are like those of any demanding monastery, offering exactly
the same training in renunciation, patience, steadiness, and generosity."
But in an interview you gave two years ago you said, "One of my
teachers was once asked, Is it really necessary to renounce the world
in order to get liberated? He said, 'Well, even the Buddha had to renounce
the world!' And he had a few
paramis [previously developed spiritual
is it necessary to renounce the world in order to become liberated?
It's an important question, I think, because some new views in East-meets-West
dharma, like the one championed by Kornfield and also by Elizabeth Lesser,
The New American Spirituality, seem to use the Buddha's
personal example of renunciation of the world more as a
for nonattachment rather than thinking that his example need necessarily
have any literal implications. Was your teacher correct when he reminded
us that even the Buddha literally had to give up the world in order
to be free? And in your opinion, is Kornfield correct when he says that
family life offers exactly the same training that monastic life does?
I find it difficult to comment on family life very authoritatively
because I haven't been in it. In Buddhism, the path to liberation is
talked about in terms of stages of enlightenment, each one uprooting
different kinds of obstacles or defilements of the mind. And in the
Buddhist texts, there are many stories of people reaching very high
levels of awakening as householders. The people I know who have lived
the household life successfully have had a tremendously strong commitment
to making their life in the world their practice. We can say, "My
life is my practice," but whether it is
or not is for each
person to examine carefully. The householder path in some ways seems
to be more difficult than the path of a renunciate because there are
that many more distractions.
I think we all need to take a very honest look at what our spiritual
aspirations actually are. I don't think it's an either/or. It's possible
within the household life, but it takes very strong intention and commitment.
I had one teacher, a woman called Dipa ma, who was highly enlightened
and had unbelievable levels of concentration and samadhi
absorption]. Her development of wisdom, compassion, and the powers of
mind was extraordinary; she was an incredibly accomplished yogi. And
she was a householder. She had a daughter and a grandson and was living
the household life, but she did it in an amazing way.
AC: Do you agree with Kornfield's statement, "The sacrifices
of a family are like those of any demanding monastery, offering exactly
the same training in renunciation, patience, steadiness, and generosity"?
Family life has the potential to develop those qualities,
but I don't think it necessarily
does. Obviously, being a parent
requires tremendous sacrifice and gives the opportunity to develop love,
understanding, and patience—many of the paramis
. But I'm not
sure whether it actually develops deep, transforming wisdom into the
empty, selfless nature of things—it doesn't necessarily lead there
Otherwise, most of the world would be fully enlightened!
AC: Do you think that if someone had those aspirations for
enlightenment, it would be unlikely that they would choose to lead a
If the central aspiration of our life is liberation, different
people will play it out in different ways. And that will depend both
on the strength of the aspiration for liberation and on our karmic conditioning—our
individual tendencies or propensities. I could imagine getting into
a relationship with the hope
of not creating attachment. But
again, I think it takes a lot of honesty to cut through the inertia of
our patterns, to really see what our motives are, because both on the
dharma level and on the worldly level, we're carried along by different
energies and it's easy to miss what's really going on.
AC: So when your teacher said, "Well, even the Buddha
had to renounce the world!" what did he mean by that?
Well, to go to the other side of this argument, it's easy
to fall into the trap of thinking, as I said before, "Oh yes, my
life is my practice," but not to really do it because of the difficulty
and so end up undervaluing the importance of—if not becoming a lifelong
monk or nun—really
taking significant periods in one's life when
one does step back. There's a tremendous momentum to not
so one could miss the power and strength and clarity that come from
that kind of renunciation. That's one of the things that people value
about retreats. It's a time of stepping back, and that's very rare in
our culture. I think we do need to do that, and the higher our aspiration,
perhaps the more frequently we need to do it.
is the great experiment in dharma in the West. And I'm interested to
see whether we can create a form where people who have liberation as
the central aspiration in their lives can actualize that aspiration
without necessarily becoming a monk or a nun. We're in a beginning stage
of answering that question—maybe it is possible and maybe it's not.
AC: My next question carries right on from this. There is
no doubt that the majority of Westerners who become Buddhists or who
practice the Buddha's teachings on meditation and mindfulness are laypeople
who, while being fully immersed in the life of the world with its myriad
cares and concerns, express sincere interest in deepening their own
understanding about the nature and meaning of the human experience in
light of the Buddha's teachings. And yet, the Buddha himself was a renunciate
who said, "The household life is a dusty path full of hindrances,
while the ascetic life is like the open sky. It is not easy for a man
who lives at home to practice the holy life in all its fullness, in all
its purity, in all its bright perfection." He also said, "The
blue-necked peacock which flies through the air never approaches the
speed of the swan. Similarly, the householder can never resemble the
monk who is endowed with the qualities of the sage, who meditates, aloof,in
I'll ordain! I'll ordain! Where are the robes?
AC: (laughs) It's obviously true that we live in "more
enlightened" times, and in many ways it is difficult to compare
the cultural and historical circumstances of ancient India with the
modern West, and yet at the same time, attachment is attachment and
freedom is freedom, and the pitfalls and dangers of the spiritual path
have not changed one iota in the last 2,500 years. So, what I wanted
to ask you was: Have the Buddha's teachings, in their migration to and
assimilation by the modern, materialistic, narcissistic West, been watered
down in order to be palatable to those who would never dare to consider
the Buddha's teachings on renunciation seriously? Or was the Buddha
misguided and too extreme in his views for
We're in a very interesting situation in our culture now
as the teachings become more accessible to people who are not familiar
with them at all. It's a process. And unlike in Asian cultures, where
even if they don't practice renunciation, it's valued, here it's hardly
valued at all, so there's a spiritual learning curve. And over the last
twenty to twenty-five years of teaching, I've seen an increasing number
of people who would like to take it to the next step—to a deeper, fuller
level of renunciation. I think people are maturing into an understanding
of what renunciation means.
AC: So you're saying that we have to evolve to a place where
we can recognize that need and then begin to respond to it?
Yes, and it could take different forms, whether it's as laypeople
taking times of renunciation, or I could also imagine the growth of
a monastic sangha
. But I think that's where the depth is going
AC: The depth is going to come when people have given their
entire lives for the pursuit of liberation—is that what you mean?
Yes, and then finding the appropriate form for them to express
it. I think a significant element will always be at least periods of
time when renunciation is practiced. But there's also the question of
what renunciation really means. There's a famous example from the Buddhist
texts comparing a hermit living in a cave, who has renounced the world
but who is filled with desire, with somebody who is living in very luxurious
surroundings whose mind is free of desire. The outward form of renunciation
has to be in support of the inner. Without that, the outer doesn't mean
anything. We have to see what supports the renunciation of greed, hatred,
and delusion. What supports the renunciation of taking things to be
self? That, for me, is the crucial question and the crucial renunciation.
And that can be practiced in all circumstances. In recent years, my
practice has gotten simpler and simpler. It basically comes down to
one thing that the Buddha said: "Nothing whatsoever is to be clung
to as I or mine." That's it. That's the practice. That's where
the freedom is.
AC: I'd like to ask you about the relationship between meditation
and the transcendence of the world—the "world" here being
becoming. Can the practice of
meditation ever yield real depth and have the power to liberate if one
already given up the world of attachment and becoming
at least to some degree? In other words, if the practice of meditation
is not already grounded in the renunciation of the world, how could
that practice ever have the power to liberate us or enable us to transcend
I think one can approach freedom from two sides—freedom being
the mind that is not grasping at anything as being "I" or
"mine." One approach is focusing the mind on the objects of
experience and penetrating the illusion of solidity, and that effects
the letting go. We begin to see the insubstantiality of it all. Out
of the seeing of that, the mind begins to let go of grasping because
it sees there's nothing solid there to grasp at. Another approach is
actually getting a glimpse of the empty, open nature of mind that doesn't
cling, and having an immediate opening to that experience. I think,
traditionally, the two schools fight with each other: "This way
is better or quicker or higher." But at least my experience has
been that both are true and that there is a continual interweaving of
the two. There are very few people who can have a glimpse of this open,
nature and be done, be totally free, because the habit patterns are