2016-06-30
A genuine Western Buddhism is now being born, according to Joseph Goldstein, co-founder of Insight Meditation and one of America's most respected Buddhist teachers. The birth pangs include controversy and conflict--and fear that genuine teachings may vanish as traditions converge in a "dharma melting pot" of American practice. But Goldstein believes there is a potential for the essence of Buddhism to actually flourish in the West, particularly in the United States.

Goldstein recently talked with Beliefnet about his latest book, One Dharma.


Why is this movement, an emerging Western Buddhism, coming to light now?

Something unique is happening in the last 20 to 30 years, especially in America. So many different Buddhist traditions have come here and practitioners are interacting with each other in ways that haven't happened in 1,500 years. In Asia, the traditions are isolated from each other. If you go to Thailand and ask a Thai monk about Tibetan Buddhism, it's very unlikely he would know anything about it.

But with globalization such a factor in the world, isn't there any of that cross-fertilization happening in Asia?

Not as much as here. Here, people can practice with teachers in different traditions. So it goes beyond the study aspect. In a country like Burma, Thailand, or Tibet there are very few practitioners of the other traditions. But here, in a way, it's become like a great dharma melting pot and some very interesting questions arise from that.

Why is the United States a richer dharma melting pot than, say, Western Europe?

Well, this is also happening in Western Europe, but my sense is that the nature of American society is very fluid, very open, and not so tradition-bound. There is a lot of experimentation and inquiry that goes on here that is part of our culture, even more than in Western Europe.

What are the controversies that arise as a result of this weaving together of various strands of Buddhism?

The most basic question is, Is it a good idea? There's the fear, and I think it's a consideration worth having, about whether something gets lost if we do this. Does the integrity of a tradition get lost if you mix it with other traditions? Does it become a thin soup rather than an enriched soup?

What are some specific differences among the various strands?

The deepest philosophical issue is the one I mention in the book, and that is the nature of enlightenment and freedom. Is it something that transcends awareness? Is it a state beyond awareness? Or is pure awareness itself freedom? That's the nutshell question.

Some traditions say awareness itself is a conditioned phenomenon and that ultimate freedom goes beyond even that. The other traditions say pure awareness is freedom.

So the former is a little deeper than the latter?

Well, the proponents of the former think that. But the latter think the proponents of the former think the opposite. There are great masters in each tradition expressing these views. I respect all of them and value all of them--but they say different things.

What do you believe?

What I came to is that framing it in terms of who's right is the wrong question. That was the breakthrough for me. I began to see that all the teachings from all the traditions are best seen as skillful means for liberating the mind, rather than ultimate statements of truth. If you take them as ultimate statements of truth, then if there are differing views, one is right and one is wrong and one is higher and one is lower. But if you take them as skillful means, then the question is, What can I learn from this teaching? And I found that approach much more useful.

This all points to the limitation of concept. All these teachings are in words. Words are concepts and aren't the actual experience of truth itself. It's like the famous example of fingers pointing at the moon. There could be many different fingers pointing in many different directions. If we look at the fingers we could get into a big conflict about which finger is right. We will start examining which is fatter and which is thinner, which is shorter which is longer. But if we take the finger and think of it as a skillful means for experiencing the moon, then we can learn from all of them. So that was my resolution of the conflict.

The second level of resolution was a mantra I came to for myself. With regard to the nature of the fully enlightened mind, my mantra is: Who knows? It's like, maybe there are people who know, but I didn't know. So rather than just ascribing to some belief system, I use that mantra to keep an open mind. That "Who knows?" isn't a "Who knows?" of confusion. It's a "Who knows?" of openness.

How does this questioning play out on a pragmatic level? Does it mean Buddhists get into more arguments with each other in the West than the East?

Well, the learning method in the West is quite different from the East. In the West, there is a much greater questioning of authority. In the East, there is a greater acceptance of authority. Each side has a strength and a weakness. Neither is better than the other. The danger of simply accepting authority leads to blind belief. And we've seen in some religious communities that spiritual authorities who might not be fully enlightened do harmful things.

Such as?

Misuse of power, sexual improprieties. I'm not saying this is typical, but I'm saying it can happen and has happened, as it happens in every religious tradition. It's the nature of power, authority. So blind belief, unquestioning authority allows for that more.

On the other side, the danger of always questioning authority is that we might not surrender enough to a teaching and practice it to some level of completion in order to find out for ourselves if it's a value. This kind of skeptical doubt is obstructive.

So you've got differing personalities among Buddhists in America trying to figure out the best way?

Yes, and just as in politics there is a liberal to conservative spectrum, it's that same spectrum in spiritual endeavors.

Does it break down among immigrant versus convert lines?

There are two main divisions in Buddhism in America. One is called ethnic Buddhism-people from Asia who've settled here, such as the Thai, Burmese or Tibetan community who follow their own traditions. The other is Americans who may have gone to Asia and practiced there, come back, and started teaching in this country. Like me, and others like me. We're taking the teaching from Asia but we are not Asian, so very different things happen.

You write in the book about the Three Pillars at the heart of Western Buddhism? What are they?

One is mindfulness and the practice of mindfulness. If we're not mindful, then no insights are possible.

The second is compassion. And I think this is also a theme in all of the Buddhist schools. The Buddha was known as The Compassionate One.

The third is wisdom. That's enlightenment, which frees the mind.

One of the critics of your book said this period of Buddhism in America isn't special. It's no more or less "one dharma" than any other previous era of Buddhism. How do you respond?

Well, it's not a new Buddhism. People may have thought it would be and so they're disappointed. What I think is different is that there are people who are more open to taking elements from different traditions and weaving them together into their own practice. For example, I know many people, myself included, whose basic grounding was Theravada Buddhism, which is from Burma and Thailand. But in recent years they've also been studying Tibetan Buddhism and seeing that it's possible to take elements from both of these traditions and incorporate into one practice.

Can you give an example?

The mindfulness practice is very highly developed in the Theravada tradition. What's emphasized in the Tibetan school is the concept of bodhicitta-the aspiration to be awakened in order to benefit all others. That concept is in Theravada Buddhism, but it's not highlighted. Previously, I realized my practice would inevitably help others because I would be more kind and loving, but this put the motivation of helping others right at the beginning of the practice, not just a consequence. That was powerful for me and changed how I held my own practice.

I'm not suggesting that one is better than the other because this is all a matter of individual temperament, and what's important for each person at a particular time. It might be appropriate for people to stay within one tradition, and for other people for whom it could be helpful to learn from others.

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