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.
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