issue 23 Summer 04
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Free association

Vipassana teacher Joseph Goldstein spoke to Bodhipaksa about his discovery of Dzogchen and the value of drawing inspiration from a number of Buddhist traditions.

At the end of a winding track behind the Insight Meditation Society's retreat centre, a bungalow door opens and Joseph Goldstein greets me. Tall, slim and elegant, with an intelligent face and a spark of humour in his eyes, his distinguished looks suggest that a receding hairline may not be such a bad thing. His apartment is spacious and open-plan, with views over New England woodland. There's no clutter and not a misplaced object to be seen. I can't help wondering if perhaps Goldstein really lives somewhere else, or has a team of cleaners to straighten up after him. Maybe he really is that mindful.

'So remind me,' he asks, looking a little nervous, 'What are we doing today?' I've come to talk with him about his latest book, One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism, and explore what it means to practise within more than one Buddhist tradition. For Goldstein has been on a journey of the spirit - a journey which may have implications for all western Buddhists.

Just over 10 years ago Goldstein had been immersed in Theravadin Buddhism, mainly of the Burmese variety, for two decades. In 1975, along with Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield, he founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, in order to teach Theravadin-style meditation; and he went on to write several highly-regarded books. Then Goldstein started practising Tibetan dzogchen meditation - the 'Great Perfection', regarded by some as the apogee of the Tibetan Tantric path. So how does a teacher thoroughly immersed in Theravadin Buddhism also come to practise Tantra? What has he learnt from this cross-cultural experience? And what can we, in turn, learn from him?

Goldstein first became interested in Buddhism as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand in 1965. He had a strong desire to understand his life, had studied philosophy, and at first his interest was predominantly intellectual. After he had asked many, many questions, a monk finally suggested he try meditating. At that point something clicked, and Goldstein discovered that 'the possibility of a systematic inner journey was tremendously exciting'. That journey turned out to be 'the most important and rewarding' thing in his life.

The path he had embarked upon was the Theravadin tradition of vipassana, a word that means 'seeing clearly', which emphasises mindfulness, concentration and the ability to see our experience nakedly and directly. Practitioners learn to observe the flow of experience - pain, pleasure, sadness, joy, love, grief, anger - and mindfully see those experiences, just as they are, without grasping or pushing them away, letting go of the tendency to proliferate suffering through blame and judgement. For example, rather than see the pain in her knee as a sign that she's not cut out for meditation and should leave the retreat (thoughts that pile suffering upon suffering), a vipassana meditator learns simply to observe the experience, noting its qualities, such as 'burning', 'throbbing', 'pulsing', 'energy', while letting go of any unhelpful thoughts that arise.

In this way the practitioner learns to see things as they really are. Eventually this mindful perspective blossoms into bodhi, or spiritual awakening, as the practitioner gains an experiential understanding of the impermanent, insubstantial, and unsatisfactory nature of life. However, vipassana emphasises not just meditation, but a whole approach to life that includes the traditional five ethical precepts and the Noble Eightfold Path. It's an entire path, complete in itself, tried and tested over 2,500 years.

Goldstein patiently followed this path, becoming one of the most respected vipassana teachers in the West until, one day in the early nineties, he received an invitation. An old friend from India, Lama Surya Das, who had just finished two three-year retreats in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, invited Goldstein, Salzberg, and a few others to meet some of his teachers. This seemed like a good idea and they met the dzogchen master, Tulku Urgyen Rimpoche. Later Surya Das organised a retreat in the US for another of his great teachers, Nyoshul Khen Rimpoche, whom Goldstein was also to meet. Goldstein started to practise within both traditions and this affected not only his meditation practice but also his views of the Dharma.

Dzogchen is, to put it mildly, hard to describe. As Keith Dowman says, its traditional exposition is 'highly abstract and abstruse', and it can only be practised under the guidance of an experienced teacher. The dzogchen vision is that the nature of reality is the nature of mind itself, which is called Rigpa, a natural state of being in which the mind makes no distinctions or judgements. According to Dudjom Rimpoche, 'Rigpa is naked awareness of the holistic here and now [which] cannot be produced or developed, and on the other hand it cannot be stopped or extinguished'. This primordial, non-dual awareness is not affected by our unenlightened thoughts and emotions, no matter how unskilful they may seem. So dzogchen meditation involves seeing the inherent emptiness of mind and experiencing the freedom and spontaneity of Rigpa. One does this by mindfully observing one's thoughts and emotions, and 'tracing them back to the source'.

At first, the two approaches - Theravadin vipassana and Tantric dzogchen - struck Goldstein as compatible. Things became more challenging - and ultimately spiritually productive - when he tried to hold two wholly different viewpoints about the nature of meditation and the mind. 'If you were simply to read or hear the teachings you might think they were two completely different practices, with different means and goals,' Goldstein says. 'One of the metaphysical differences, which for me was a sort of koan, had to do with dzogchen seeing freedom as pure awareness or 'empty awareness'. From the Burmese point of view, though, freedom transcends awareness. They understand awareness itself as still being a conditioned phenomenon. So this was my metaphysical dilemma: 'Does ultimate freedom transcend awareness, or is awareness itself the very nature of freedom?'.'

How does one deal with such different perspectives? Is awareness a conditioned phenomenon to be transcended (as Burmese vipassana teaches) or is awareness the very nature of reality itself? The resolution came, for Goldstein, in two steps. 'First I realised with respect to the nature of the fully Enlightened mind, that I really didn't know. I knew the Burmese said this and the Tibetans said that, but who knew which was right? So I developed a mantra: 'Who knows?' That was very freeing because it was not the 'Who knows?' of confusion. It was the 'Who knows?' of an open mind.'

Letting go of the desire to know who was right and approaching his practice with an open mind was liberating. Goldstein began to let go of attachments to long-held views. Then came the second step. 'If each of these metaphysical views are seen as 'skilful means' (ways of developing the mind of no-clinging), then it doesn't matter that they say different things. The question became, 'How does each view and practice help free my mind from clinging?' Then there was no inner conflict. Although the two views seem contradictory on one level, they are not contradictory on the level of skilful means.'

Goldstein's dilemmas about practising two forms of Buddhist meditation with different metaphysical underpinnings fell away. And for some years he has been 'interweaving the vipassana and dzogchen perspectives through the practice of compassion and non-clinging'. The crucial leap was to see Buddhist teachings not as ultimate truths about the nature of reality, but simply as practices that help us to see Reality itself.

The tension between two sets of views enabled Goldstein to see his tendency to cling to views per se. Without that tension it may have taken longer to reach the same realisation. That's not the only advantage of practising more than one tradition. 'There are both strengths and dangers in each tradition. I think it's possible, when they are held rightly, that the strengths of one can balance the potential pitfalls of the other.' He reminds me that in his book One Dharma he describes the two approaches of vipassana and dzogchen as 'building from below' and 'swooping from above'. 'Dzogchen is 'swooping from above' because it goes straight to the nature of mind and awareness. 'Building from below' is how I describe vipassana practice, where we're connecting directly with the nitty-gritty of our experience.'

A problem that can arise in vipassana meditation, he says, is that practitioners can get caught up in, even attached to, their suffering as they work through the inner dramas that unfold in meditation. For such people 'learning about the inherent purity of mind, that it's already here and we don't have to look for it outside of ourselves, can be really freeing'. However, some dzogchen practitioners may be stuck with struggling with the hindrances, and might benefit from the vipassana approach of looking directly at their difficulties with mindfulness. So for some people at least, the two practices can 'balance each other beautifully'.

Practising dzogchen has also helped Goldstein to hold goals more lightly. Burmese vipassana, he says, is clearly delineated in stages, and practice unfolds through different stages of insight, culminating in the stages of Enlightenment. 'In one sense it provides a tremendous clarity. There's a path to walk and you follow it. But that can also set up expectations. [Practice] can become goal-oriented, meaning that rather than simply holding the inspiration of a goal - which I think is valuable - one becomes filled with expectation, and this filters into the practice.' Dzogchen, with its idea that the mind is already pure, counterbalances this tendency, letting the Dharma unfold and allowing 'a settling back instead of a reaching out'.

So Goldstein believes there are definite advantages to practising in two traditions. But can it be confusing as well? 'There are potential confusions, so I think it's helpful to become clear and stable in one tradition and to gain some real understanding of the Dharma. Then exploring other traditions is not a problem, because there's a reference point of understanding. If people jump from one tradition to another without first establishing themselves, it can get confusing, and perhaps not go very deep.'

Goldstein emphasises that he is not advocating that people practise in more than one tradition; he doesn't think it's necessary. 'Each tradition has its own integrity, and people have got Enlightened following those traditions. For many, just staying with one tradition is precisely the way to do it.' But he thinks it's inevitable that more people will follow more than one tradition as westerners explore multiple strands of the Buddhist tradition.

'Whatever way you are proceeding (within one tradition or a number), the guidance of skilful teachers is really helpful. Because it's easy to get stuck and not even realise it. This has happened many times to me. So, having somebody guiding keeps you moving along.' He also suggests that you don't ask a Zen teacher for guidance on your Tibetan practice and vice versa. 'It's best to consult a teacher on what they have devoted their lives to. But the tendency not to do that is amazing!'

When I ask Goldstein where he thinks this is all going, he cautions that we won't be around to see. 'If a native Buddhism is emerging in the West, as it did in China, Japan or Tibet, we probably won't know for a few hundred years. We're just at the very beginning.'

But might there be a 'convergent evolution' of Buddhist traditions in the West as they discover what they have in common and resolve seemingly conflicting teachings? 'My conjecture is that each Buddhist tradition will continue with its own integrity. But there will also emerge a group of people - and it could be fairly large - who, while grounded in one tradition, have practised in many, and so in their individual practices they hold some kind of synthesis. I think that group will exist along with the sanghas of a more traditional type.'

This process has already begun, and teachers from the Insight Meditation Movement are in the forefront of change. Pick up a book by Goldstein or Salzberg and you encounter teachings from Zen, Theravada, and Tibetan Buddhism, as well as from western thinkers and Islam.

Goldstein is sceptical that he has been a 'midwife' to non-sectarian Buddhism, and sees his role more modestly. 'Many of us are testing the waters, saying, 'ok, does this synthesis of practices make sense, is it helpful, and where is it unhelpful?'. Underneath all traditions, it comes back to the nature of our minds. Everything else is a construct. Tibetan Buddhism is a construct, Burmese Buddhism is a construct. It all comes down to how the mind creates suffering and how it can be freed.' Personally, I think Goldstein is doing a little more than 'testing the waters'. But ask me again in 200 years.

As I prepare to leave, I mention that I'm interested in attending one of his retreats. I've been tentatively exploring vipassana meditation through books and tapes, and the differences between that form of meditation and what I've been doing for the past 20 years have produced a creative tension of my own from which I'm learning a lot. But the one thing I haven't yet done is to practise vipassana with a live teacher. He tells me about a couple of retreats, and suggests I book a place. It looks like I'm going to be another of those Buddhists practising multiple forms of meditation. Somehow this seems a fitting end to our conversation. Perhaps it's not an end, but just a pause.