After studying philosophy as an undergraduate at Columbia University, Joseph Goldstein joined the Peace Corps in 1965 to spend two years in Thailand; it was there that he took an interest in Buddhism and began to explore meditation practice. Later, in India, he studied with some of the last century’s most noted Theravada masters, including Anagarika Munindra (1914–2003); Munindraji’s student Dipa Ma (1911–1989); and S. N. Goenka (1924–2013). In 1976, with Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield, Goldstein cofounded the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), in Barre, Massachusetts. IMS is now one of the largest and most influential Buddhist meditation retreat centers in the West.

Although he teaches strictly within the Theravada tradition, Goldstein also studied with the Tibetan teachers Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche and Tsoknyi Rinpoche. The differing and sometimes contradictory viewpoints he encountered led him to seek a common thread across all Buddhist traditions, an exploration he later articulated in his bestselling work One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism (Harper San Francisco, 2002).

The author of numerous other books, Goldstein most recently published Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening (Sounds True, 2014). On the occasion of IMS’s 40th anniversary, Goldstein, now one of Western Buddhism’s best-known and most respected meditation teachers, sat down with Tricycle’s editor and publisher, James Shaheen, to reflect on 50 years of practice and over four decades of teaching.

This year marks the Insight Meditation Society’s 40th anniversary. What’s it like looking back? It’s pretty amazing to see how the whole expression of dharma in the West has flourished over these past 40 or 50 years. When we first came back from Asia and started teaching, in the mid-’70s, people hardly knew what meditation was. Many people thought it was a pretty weird thing to do. And now, in one form or another, meditation has become mainstream. So that’s quite astonishing. When we started IMS we really had no idea about how to build or run an organization. And so there was a big learning curve. As my colleague Sharon Salzberg commented, for the first 20 years or so IMS was run without any adult supervision. There were many ups and downs, but somehow, with the help of many people, 40 years later we’re really in a good place.

When you started there were just these young people coming back from India and Burma and Thailand who were simply practicing. There was no institution to speak of; it was an experiment. With the inevitable institutionalization, was anything lost? Some chaos was lost. [Laughs.] From my perspective, the centers have been successful in serving as a container for the dharma. Right now, we have 96 people sitting at our annual three-month retreat, about half for the whole three months and half for six weeks. It’s quite remarkable and inspiring to sit and look out at the hall filled with so many people sitting in silence, deepening their understanding of their minds.

In an interview in Tricycle over two decades ago, when asked about the prospects of true dharma in the West, you answered, “That’s a real question. I wonder how much connection there will be to an authentic lineage of awakening in another 20 years.” So how are we doing? Let’s take a look in another 20 years—or in 500. [Laughs.] Actually, I think this is a good time to revisit that question, especially given the popularization of mindfulness meditation. I think an important question is, are we preserving the depth of the teaching even as its breadth expands? That’s a question that should be asked repeatedly over the years. And I think so far we’re doing pretty well. There are enough places where people can devote themselves to the depth of the practice. IMS’s Forest Refuge, our retreat center in Massachusetts, is a good example of that. An important part of this is continuing to have connections to our Asian lineages, which also helps preserve the depth of teachings.

“It would be sad,” you said in that same interview, “if, in the course of the transmission from East to West, we lost the very essence of what dharma is all about, which is awakening, not simply feeling better.” Absolutely. I would just repeat the same thing again now. But it has to be seen in the context of the value of mindfulness and meditation spreading widely in the culture. To whatever extent the spread of mindfulness in its various forms is helping people, it is a good thing. And, at the same time, are we also preserving the possibility for people to really practice for awakening?

I want to ask a question about your most recent book, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening. As you say, mindfulness is everywhere now and many people who are practicing it have little notion of the tradition it comes from. In fact, at one point I remember hearing you say, “Mindfulness is not a virgin birth.” Can the book be looked at in part as a correction to that misconception? I think so. One of the reasons I wanted to call the book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening—which in one sense is a rather prosaic title—is that in some way I wanted to recapture the word and connect it to its deeper meaning and potential. In one way, the book is really a modern commentary on the Buddha’s teaching on mindfulness in the Satipatthana Sutta, the discourse on the foundations of mindfulness. And so it really does point to the depth of where mindfulness practice can lead, and that was very much in my mind in terms of what I wanted to do.

Would you say that the popular adaptation of mindfulness practice differs significantly from traditional vipassana [insight meditation] practice? This is a multilayered question. First, it’s important to understand that when you say mindfulness, you’re talking about a strategy of attention. It’s really learning how to pay attention in a certain way. Even in the broad dissemination of mindfulness teachings, there can be a wide range of understanding of that strategy. Some of these teachings may be approaching mindfulness but are not necessarily actual mindfulness.

“It’s very easy to confuse recognition of what’s happening in the moment with mindfulness of what’s happening.”

Can you give an example? Here is a very simple example of a distinction that is important to make: It’s very easy to confuse recognition of what’s happening in the moment with mindfulness of what’s happening. I found this coming up very much in my own practice. I had to learn that difference. It’s very possible to recognize, for example, a mind state of anger or fear or desire or whatever. We recognize that it’s there; but the recognition itself does not imply that we’re being mindful of it, although we can misunderstand it to mean that: Yes, if I recognize it, it means I’m being mindful. But actually we may be looking at something through a filter: “I like it; I don’t like it; I want to get rid of it,” and so forth. If that filter is there, then we’re not really being mindful of what we’re recognizing.

So there’s that piece. As to whether mindfulness and vipassana are synonymous—well, not exactly. Because mindfulness is a way of paying attention. The significant point—which is sometimes made explicit in the popularization of mindfulness, and perhaps sometimes not—is what we actually learn from being mindful. The first step is to become mindful. And then, as we practice it, what are we actually learning? We start doing vipassana in the practice of mindfulness only when we begin gaining insight into impermanence and unsatisfactoriness and selflessness—the three characteristics. That’s when vipassana actually starts happening. That’s when the wisdom component is beginning to be realized. That’s where meditative insight begins.

I’d like to ask about an earlier book, and your thinking on it now, over a decade later. One Dharma in many ways was your response to our exposure in the West to a number of Buddhist traditions. They often appear to us to be contradictory. Sometimes the traditions are so different in their claims that we may wonder whether they really do have the same end in mind. I think the most helpful way to treat that question is not so much in terms of metaphysical beliefs—the kind of metaphysical constructs that people put on experience—because they are going to be very different depending on the particular tradition. For me, the more salient question is, what is accomplished through whatever practice we are doing? When the Buddha was asked, “What is nibbana?” in one sutta he replied, “It’s the mind free of greed and free of hatred and free of delusion.” I appreciate that way of understanding, because it is very pragmatic. Regardless of what practice we may be doing, we can always look into our minds and see whether or not those forces are slowly diminishing and, in the end, being uprooted. So that seems very nonsectarian and not limited to any one particular metaphysical description.

And of course, there are those who believe all religious traditions have the same end in mind. I can’t really speak for other traditions, particularly non-Buddhist traditions. But can we really look to see whether the unwholesome, the unskillful states of mind—those that cause suffering to ourselves or others—are being attenuated? If so, I think we can say, yes, this is a useful practice regardless of what the metaphysical construct is. But if people are practicing and there’s more attachment—it might be an attachment to views, to opinions—then whatever our beliefs are about it, we’re overlooking something important about its effect. We certainly see the possibility of attachment to views in all the traditions. One could almost call it a perversion of the traditions. It’s what often becomes rampant sectarianism.

The celebrated religions scholar Karen Armstrong has said that pluralism is the single biggest influence in changing how we will experience and think about religious life going forward. And I wonder if One Dharma was your way of understanding and coming to terms with the challenge of religious pluralism. Absent pluralism, you wouldn’t have bothered. Well, pluralism is our situation. We are being exposed to a wide range of teachings, with great masters often saying conflicting things: for example, some hold that there is a pure, unconditioned awareness and that our practice is to abide in that. Others would say that awareness is itself a conditioned state. So the question is: How can I hold any particular view or different conflicting ones? Does the way I hold them foster confusion and sectarian attachment or genuine inquiry? These moments of uncertainty can be useful if we can learn to look into our own minds and see what we can learn from them.

As another example, many years ago I came across a poster announcing a talk by the great Tibetan Dzogchen master Dudjom Rinpoche, which said that he was the incarnation of Sariputta, the chief disciple of the Buddha. But in the Theravada tradition, fully enlightened beings are not reborn. Although that seemed so clear to me, I also knew that Rinpoche was considered a great, enlightened being. So—what to do? The great lesson for me was to finally realize that I really didn’t know. I mean, I had an opinion, but it wasn’t an opinion based on any direct experience whatsoever. And so it was tremendously freeing to realize that I didn’t have to have an opinion about things I knew nothing about. And it became very interesting for me to also observe that lots of other people seem to have opinions, often strongly held, about things they also know nothing about. [Laughs.] I came to value the openness of not knowing. This is not the not-knowing of confusion, but rather the not-knowing of a mind willing to consider alternatives, even seemingly contradictory ones. This was not an insignificant thing. I could finally let go of tormenting myself with the question, who’s right?, and come to see each teaching as a skillful means. The meaningful question then becomes, does this help to free the mind from suffering, from greed and hatred and ignorance?

“I could finally let go of tormenting myself with the question, who’s right?, and come to see each teaching as a skillful means.”

So it’s not clear that all Buddhist traditions have the same end in mind? This ties into the freedom in my own mind from the compulsion to have opinions about questions like this. Are these different traditions going to the same place or not? Who knows? For myself, I developed a little mantra that serves me well: “Don’t draw conclusions.” From where I’m sitting, I don’t yet know, and I don’t feel a need to have an opinion or a conclusion about it. The more important question is not are they going to the same place or not? but what are they accomplishing now? Which goes back to what I was saying before: Are they freeing the mind from attachment? Are they freeing the mind from greed?

Still the metaphysical construct can feel important at times. People of all traditions practice mindfulness now. Yet Christians, while practicing mindfulness, may have an experience of God or an eternal soul—really, the opposite of nonself; for Hindus there may be an experience of oneness. To the extent that the practice frees the mind, it’s valuable. But the freeing of the mind from attachment happens on many and often subtle levels. At least within the context of the Buddha’s teachings, a subtle kind of attachment—and sometimes not so subtle—is attachment to the view of a substantial self. So we might free ourselves of a lot of things, different kinds of greed or aversion. That’s all for the good. But are we still getting caught up in a “self-view” in one way or another? And here’s where we just need to assess our own practice in whatever tradition we’re in: is the mind getting free of attachment and identification? And yet—and this goes back to the pluralism—I’m presenting nonattachment and non-identification and non-clinging as the hallmark of awakening or freedom. It may be that other traditions don’t view that in the same way. Maybe others think attachment to something higher is good. So right there we would see a big difference.

Religious studies scholar Huston Smith said that should the implications of that pluralism really dawn on someone, it’s an experience that breaks upon you. The way, say, you tormented yourself. Yet you’ve come to some resolution. Can you say a few things about your exposure to Dzogchen teachings and how they inform your style of teaching? I don’t teach Dzogchen, but it certainly has been an influence in my practice. For example, I was doing a retreat with the Burmese vipassana master Sayadaw U Pandita. I was sitting a retreat at the Forest Refuge with him and—as can sometimes happen in that style of practice—I got caught in a kind of striving mode. Sayadaw U Pandita emphasizes a lot of “heroic effort,” which at that time was generally very good for my practice. A little bit of a kick in the pants! But it’s a rigorous practice, and at times I noticed a kind of inner tension, an inner striving. As I noticed that, a Dzogchen-like phrase came to mind: “It’s already here” or “already aware.” It’s not something to get. So just that phrase allowed me to settle back into doing classical vipassana practice, balanced out a little bit more from that other perspective.

And that’s not something that your Theravada teachers would have ever told you. I think it would depend on the teacher, though a phrase like “already aware” would not be their usual way of expressing it. But I see all of these expressions as skillful means.

They might have mentioned the attitude with which you regarded your striving. That is a classical aspect of vipassana teachings, namely, it’s not what’s happening that’s important; what’s important is how we’re relating to experience. That’s the key, and one that most teachers would give importance to. In more recent years, Sayadaw U Tejaniya, another Burmese meditation master who has become quite popular in the West, has specifically emphasized this a lot in his teachings. He will speak often of checking the attitude in your mind: “Whatever’s going on, check your attitude.” And I found that to be very helpful, even in very subtle ways. As a simple example of this, at one time in particular I remember I was just sitting, feeling my breath. So very simple. Ordinary. Nothing special going on. And then I asked that question, “Well, what’s the attitude in the mind?” And if you had asked me if there was a particular attitude in my mind before that question occurred to me, I would have said, “No, I’m just feeling my breath.” But what was so interesting was that just in the moment of asking the question “What’s the attitude?” I could feel my mind release a kind of wanting that I hadn’t even known was there. It was a subtle wanting, wanting concentration, perhaps, or wanting a little more calm, or wanting something from my breathing practice. But I wouldn’t have noticed it had I not asked the question. It wasn’t that I got or was even looking for a conceptual answer. It’s not that I asked the question for an answer. The very asking of the question was enough to release the mind from the wanting. So it’s very helpful, on both grosser and subtler levels, to ask, okay, what’s the attitude of my mind in this moment, with this experience? Maybe it’s something that’s been going on for days. Or it could be within one breath.

I often hear people draw a distinction between “retreat” and “real life.” As someone who has devoted a good part of his life in retreat, or creating a place for people to enter into long-term retreat, how would you respond to this distinction? Slightly tongue in cheek, I would say that really retreat is real life and non-retreat isn’t. It’s more likely on retreat that we’re living in awareness of what’s happening—more so than when we’re busy in the world. So in that sense we are connected with the reality of what’s going on more on retreat, and in our busy lives in the world we’re more often caught up in the stories and in the movies of our minds, which in a certain sense is not the real world; it’s just the world of our mental projections. That’s the more superficial response. The fuller response, I think, is that in a very basic way it’s a false distinction. The mind-body process is working all the time, whatever we’re doing. It doesn’t stop when we’re on retreat and start again when we’re out in the world, or the reverse. It’s the same process going on all the time. The real question, whether we’re on retreat or out in the world, is: Are we aware of this mind-body process or not? Are we being mindful of what’s happening or not?

And yet one is being cared for by others, who work to maintain the conditions for retreat. It’s what we heard in school: “When you get out in the real world. . . .” It’s true that the retreat environment provides tremendous support for developing the various factors of awakening—qualities such as mindfulness, concentration, equanimity, investigation, and others. So in this sense, it’s not the “real world” of all our responsibilities and engagements. And that’s the great gift that retreats provide us in the midst of our busy lives. But it’s also important to realize that in our active engagement with the world, there’s nobody who’s not also being sustained by the web of interrelationship. Thich Nhat Hanh writes beautifully about this web of what he calls “interbeing.” Although the support that we get on retreat may be more obvious, support for our lives is happening all the time. So in this regard I don’t see any essential difference. Some forms are more supportive for paying attention, but the whole point of it is to develop the skill of attentiveness, so that there’s not as much of a distinction between being on retreat and off retreat. Because it’s just our minds. Our minds, or we might say our heart-minds, are what we’re all working on whatever situation we find ourselves in.

That being said, I have always had a great love for periods of silent, intensive meditation, whether at some meditation center or monastery or at home; these practice periods provide times of respite from the busyness of our lives and the opportunity to deepen all those qualities of mind that lead onward to a fuller freedom. One of the qualities that has sustained my practice over these many years is a tremendous interest in, even fascination with, the nature of mind. What is this experience we call mind? What is mind as a phenomenon? What actually is awareness or consciousness? This is such a powerful arena of investigation. And what thoughts and emotions influence and color this mind? We can see that our whole life, our whole world, in one way or another is a manifestation of mind. From one perspective, we could say that what’s going on in the world is a galactic battle of mental factors. There’s greed and desire and fear and love and compassion and mindfulness, and they’re all playing themselves out in this vast sphere of empty awareness. For me, it’s completely fascinating to see in this mind both the potential for huge suffering and the potential for enlightenment, awakening, and all kinds of happiness. And to see that this is one’s own life. It’s one’s own mind. It’s not out there. This is what’s actually happening.

But “out there” can’t be ignored. Most of the suffering in the world is happening because of manifestations of people’s minds. But normally it’s not seen in that way. We are focused, and rightfully so, on the actual events and what we can do about them. But it’s also helpful to see where it’s all coming from. When we look deeply, it’s not hard to see that so much of the suffering in the world comes from greed and fear and hatred. These are the primal forces in the mind that create so many situations of social injustice and environmental degradation. The great power of the Buddha’s teachings is that he points out the very roots of suffering and how we can weaken and uproot them.

Sometimes people wonder about Buddhist practitioners and social action and engagement. Being engaged on the very pragmatic and immediate level of response is essential, and at the same time we can remember that someone working to uproot the very forces that create suffering is as engaged in social action as anybody on the front lines. Think of the bodhisattva, perhaps spending lifetimes living as a renunciate before the great energy of his enlightenment flowered in the world. Twenty-six hundred years later we are still benefiting from his wisdom and compassion. These two perspectives are not at all opposite to one another: both are engaged in the alleviation of suffering.

But the root of it all is the mind, and so I think we don’t want to lose that understanding, because the more deeply we understand the root causes of suffering, the more effective we will be—on all levels—at alleviating it.

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