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There's No Escape from the World

An interview with Joseph Goldstein
by Andrew Cohen


Joseph Goldstein

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?

JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN: 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 is 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.

JG: 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?

JG: 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 sangha 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.

These 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
After 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 qualities]!"

So, 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, author of
The New American Spirituality, seem to use the Buddha's personal example of renunciation of the world more as a metaphor 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?

JG: 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.

But 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 [meditative 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"?

JG: 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 family life?

JG: 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?

JG: 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 do it, 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 the jungle."

JG: 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 any time?

JG: 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?

JG: 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 to be.

AC: The depth is going to come when people have given their entire lives for the pursuit of liberation—is that what you mean?

JG: 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 defined as attachment and becoming. Can the practice of meditation ever yield real depth and have the power to liberate if one has not 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 the world?

JG: 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, empty, absolute nature and be done, be totally free, because the habit patterns are very strong.

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