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There's No Escape From the World


27 Aug 2003
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There's No Escape from the World
An interview with Joseph Goldstein by Andrew Cohen


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.

This 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.

AC: It seems that in Buddhism in general, and especially in the Theravada school, which is considered to be the school most closely aligned with the Buddha's original teachings, the transcendence of the world is a foundational theme of the teaching. Yet, we live in a time when many influential voices in the spiritual world are passionately pointing out what they consider to be the dangers of this kind of view, saying that it's patriarchal, hierarchical, anti-earth, anti-body, anti-sexuality and inherently anti-feminine. Noted biologist and philosopher Rupert Sheldrake said in an interview with What Is Enlightenment?:

One can view the whole of creation as a terrible mistake, as nothing but a series of endless, futile cycles of becoming and birth and death and rebirth and redeath and so on, going on and on forever. Then the only answer is a kind of vertical takeoff into a realm of timeless being where you just forget all this and leave it behind you. When I was living in India I found that . . . some of the Theravada Buddhists take that view. Their whole aimis to detach themselves entirely from this world of becoming and undergo a vertical takeoff of individual salvation.

And influential spiritual writer and self-described "gay mystic" Andrew Harvey states in his book The Return of the Mother:

The life-denying, body-denying, and anti-feminine tendencies of both traditional Theravada, and to a lesser extent, traditional Mahayana Buddhism, are disturbing. Many schools of Buddhism teach that one cannot attain enlightenment in a woman's body; the best a woman can do, if she's very lucky, is to serve the monks. Very early on in the development of Buddhism, male monks separated from society and were seen as superior to it. The entire purpose of incarnation was seen as liberation from samsara. There is an extremism, a fear of nature, and a repressed hysteria in this which Mahayana Buddhism, especially in its vision of divine service and the ideal of the bodhisattva, tried to correct. But even in the Mahayana, women are still drastically undervalued; the Tibetan word for woman literally means "lesser birth." Heroic emphasis on enlightenment can lead to a separation from this life and its active responsibilities and a radical undervaluing of the sacred wisdom of ordinary human life. . . . We can no longer afford this flight into transcendence because it is part of the reason why no one has intervened to stop the ruin and devastation of nature.

So Joseph, do you agree with Sheldrake and Harvey? Is it true that the Buddha's emphasis on transcending the world is inadvertently destructive, divisive, and life-denying?

JG: I've had experiences on retreat of being in a place of tremendous peace and calm and connectedness, and yet from the outside it may look withdrawn, indifferent, or uncaring. There's a huge danger of projection about individual practitioners and about whole traditions. And so I think it's very important not to be caught in these kinds of sweeping generalizations, disconnected from the actual experience of people practicing in these traditions, because their experience practicing may be completely different from what it looks like to somebody on the outside. It's so easy to get caught up in judgments about other people, about other traditions, from the filter of our own bias and projection and viewpoint. That having been said, I think this question really revolves around what transcendence means. People use that word in many different ways, and from my perspective a lot of what was contained in your question comes fromI'll be bold and saya limited idea of transcendence or a different idea than I have of it. One meaning of transcendence is having consciousness abide in some other realm, disconnected from the earth, where one is just kind of blissed out. But I think that's not what the Buddha's talking about at all, and it's not what the practice of Theravada Buddhism is about or any other Buddhist tradition that I know of. The real transcendence, to my way of understanding, is much simpler. It's the transcendence of the sense of self, which is created through identification with various aspects of our experience, taking them to be self. It's the realization of emptiness of self. I think that real transcendence is a function of wisdom, not a function of some altered state or getting to some other realm. The expression of that can then take many forms. It can take the form of tremendous engagement with the world. It could take the form of living in a cave in the Himalayas. I don't believe there's a hierarchy of compassionate action. When the Buddha in his many past lives was off in a cave someplace practicing, from the context of any one lifetime, that could have looked world-denying. From the context of that being part of his path to Buddhahood and all the compassionate activity that flowed out of that Buddhahood, in terms of the enlightenment of us all, you can't say his time in the cave is world-denying. But when we take just a snapshot picture of a person's experience or path, you get a very distorted view of the larger picture.

AC: I think these quotes are pointing to the belief that the world is identical to samsara, the endless rounds of birth, death, and rebirth, and how in Buddhist philosophy and specifically in Theravada Buddhism, the whole idea is to "lift-off," to free oneself from this endless cycle of becoming.

JG: Would one say that the Buddha, after his enlightenment, was dwelling in samsara?

AC: Well, he definitely didn't live in the world.

JG: No, he did live in the worldhe walked on the earth.

AC: He was walking on the earth, but the world that he lived in was a world of his own creation, surrounded by his own monks. He wasn't living a worldly life.

JG: But that distinction to me is not the salient point. One could live as a monk, as a renunciate, and be totally engaged in alleviating the suffering of the world, as the Buddha was. He was not withdrawn. He wasn't off by himself, disengaged from the world. He was totally engaged within a certain form, and the fact that he could do that from a place of freedom rather than from a place of bondage is the key point. Spiritual practice, even in the most orthodox traditions, is about freeing the mind from attachment. It's not indifference. It's not pulling back. It's how we relate in the world. Do we relate from a place of freedom or from a place of non-freedom?

AC: So do you disagree with Harvey's criticism?

JG: Completely. Historically, there are a lot of cultural overlays, and a lot of the gender issues are, I believe, more about the culture than about the dharma, because clearly in the Buddha's time and up to the present there have been many fully enlightened women.

AC: So you're saying that you completely disagree with this interpretation of Theravada Buddhism, which holds that the goal of liberation is to "get out" of the world. Is this a wrong understanding of the Buddha's teaching?

JG: Again, it depends. What does it mean when the term "world" is used? Do you mean the world of American consumer society? Do you mean the world of living as a human being, walking on the planet? I don't think there's ever an escape from the world as long as we are alive. The goal is freedom from attachment. It's being free from the thirst of desireit's not nonexistence. In fact, the Buddha said that craving for nonexistence is just another form of craving predicated on the notion of self.

AC: But some people would interpret that as meaning the destruction of the world from a certain point of view. Because if we took the "thirst of desire" away, it could mean such an absolute disengagement that the whole world would fall to pieces.

JG: I don't see it as disengagement. I see it as the difference between nonattachment and detachment. Detachment implies a withdrawal or a pulling back, maybe even an indifference. I don't see the Buddha's path as being detachment. I see it as nonattachment being completely present without clinging. And in that, for me, is the union of emptiness and compassion. So there is the possibility of being totally engaged, but without clinging to anything.

AC: That would be the miraculous position of enlightenment.

JG: Yes. And different people will express that enlightenment, and also see the path to it, in different ways. There may be periods when one does need seclusion from the world in the way that is being suggested. But that's a slice of a much longer journey.

AC: Unlike Buddhism, in Judaism and Islam, specifically Sufism, not only are renunciation and transcendence of the world along the lines of what the Buddha taught discouraged, but sometimes they are harshly criticized as going against the fundamental tenets at the core of their religious doctrine. Sheikh Tosun Bayrak of the Halveti-Jerrahi order of Sufis said in an interview for this issue of WIE,

Renunciation is a sin. Renunciation means that I am thirsty, and he, Allah, is offering me a glass of water and I say, "No thank you." That's a sin! . . . It's arrogance in the extreme, this renunciation business. This isn't just my opinion; this is the opinion of the Sufis. You should take whatever it is that you receive, and you should put it to good use. If you don't want it, give it to somebody who needs it! I have, praise to Allah, enough money. But if he gave me a million dollars today, I'm not going to refuse it. I'm going to take it and I'm going to give it to the ones who need it and keep some for myself too. I'll buy myself a new car instead of an old one, and maybe a $150 pair of shoes. That would be the day!

So there is no going to the monasteries, no climbing up the Himalayas. . . . You have to go out into the world and participate. For example, my own teacher, Sheikh Muzaffer, loved to eat, loved good food. And he had a young wife, whom he loved very much. He used to say, "Money there should be a lot in your pocket, but none in your heart."

And also for the Jews, fully engaging with the world and life is seen as the fulfillment of the religious calling. In fact, they say it is only through wholeheartedly living the commandments that the spiritual potential of the human race can become manifest. Jewish scholar David Ariel writes,

When we become the master of our own lives and enjoy all that the world offers, we have brought out the divinity within us. When we help another person to ascend the ladder, we finish the work of creation. When we help bring out the human potential of each individual, we have brought God into the world. God stands in need of us because only we can perfect the world.

Even though I know that, particularly in Mahayana Buddhism, the bodhisattva ideal of vowing to liberate all sentient beings before oneself is a core element of the teachings, still that salvation of others before oneself refers specifically to their liberation from the bonds of samsara, not, as these Middle Eastern religions emphasize, to the spiritualization of the world itself. So how do you, as a prominent Buddhist teacher, respond to the accusations of our Middle Eastern brothers that your religion not only inhibits the fulfillment of the potential spiritualization of the world through man but actually encourages the abdication of our responsibility for it?

JG: I think that discussion is happening on the wrong level because that's looking at the formwhether one is living in the palace or living in a cave, whether one is in relationship or not in relationship. I don't think those are the fundamental questions. I think the fundamental question is: Who is it that's fulfilling the desire or renouncing that desire?

AC: But the only thing is, you're a Buddhist! So don't you want to respond at all to this question, as a Buddhist? I just wanted you to comment a little bit on the world renouncer's teachings on transcendence of the world.

JG: In a way, I'm living more like a Sufi than a Buddhist monk. But again, I don't see the form as being the essence of the realization. For example, if you go to the movies, you get totally caught up in the story of the movie. And it could be the movie of a monk in a cave or it could be the movie of somebody enjoying life fully, but then you look up and see the beam of light going through the theater and landing on the screen, and you realize nothing is happening! There's nothing happening on the screen. It's all an appearance. I think that if we get too caught up in which appearance is the right appearance or which appearance is more spiritual, it completely misses the point that freedom is not about which movie is playing; it's in the mind being free of clinging, whatever the form.

AC: Indeed, that's the ultimate answer to all these questions, and, of course, after that there is nothing to say. But the reason I am asking these questions is that Sufis also have teachings of nonattachment. And if we look at classical Buddhism, there's obviously a big emphasis on renouncing the world and becoming a monk. And I'm sure traditional Buddhist monks feel strongly about their path. But in Sufism, they say, "No, doing that is basically denying Allah or God," and they feel strongly about that! So going into these questions helps to illuminate the issue. Many people these days use the answer that you've just given as a way to avoid having to come to terms with how attached we really are. And the fact is, most peopleas I'm sure you know, you're a teacherare deeply, profoundly attached, and so on a more relative level these issues become really important.

JG: I was at a Buddhist-Christian conference at Gethsemane some years ago talking about different spiritual traditions. And the Dalai Lama said repeatedly, "You know, my way is right for me. Your way may be right for you." It's totally respectful of the possibility that people employ different skillful means at different times. I don't see the point in making sweeping generalizations like, "Yes, the Sufi celebration of life is the way!" or, "No, Buddhist renunciation is the way." It really has to do with

AC: What's actually happening inside the individual.

JG: Exactly. And just as we said, somebody could live an outwardly renunciate life and be filled with desire. But equally, somebody could be living a totally engaged life, filled with desire. And so it always comes back to what really is happening. And that's where a teacher can be very helpful, because sometimes it is hard to see for oneself. As we know, it's very easy to get entangled.

AC: Okay, so one last try

JG: To get me to have an opinion?

AC: Yes, right!

JG: "Those guys are no good!"

AC: (laughs) I have one last question. I think it can be said that for most people who are participating in the East-meets-West spiritual explosion that is occurring with ever-greater speed these days, both Gautama the Buddha and Ramana Maharshi, one of the most respected Vedantins of the modern era, stand out as peerless examples of full-blown enlightenment. And yet, interestingly enough, with regard to this question of the right relationship to the world for the spiritual aspirant, their teachings diverged dramatically.

The Buddha, the world renouncer, encouraged those who were most sincere to leave the world and follow him in order to live the holy life, free from the cares and concerns of the householder life. Yet Ramana Maharshi discouraged his disciples from leaving the household life in pursuit of greater spiritual focus and intensity. In fact, he discouraged any outward acts of renunciation and instead encouraged the aspirant to look within and find the cause of ignorance and suffering within the self. Indeed, many of his growing number of devotees today say that the desire to renounce is an expression of ego, the very part of the self that we want to liberate ourselves from if we want to be free. Of course, the Buddha laid great stress on the need for renunciation, detachment, diligence, and restraint as the very foundation on which liberating insight can occur. Why do you think that the approaches of these two spiritual luminaries differed so widely? And why do you think that the Buddha encouraged his disciples to leave the world while Ramana encouraged them to stay where they were?

JG: In a way, there's a very simple answer to this question, which is: I really don't have any idea!

AC: Fair enough.

JG: But again, it really goes back to what renunciation means. As you were summarizing Ramana's teachingencouraging his disciples to look in and to see where the attachments are and to let go of themI see that as not very different from what the Buddha did. He saw renunciation as a way of creating skillful conditions to do exactly what Ramana was saying to do. So, again, I wouldn't make this huge division.

AC: It's an important question, though, because many people easily get fixed ideas about what enlightenment is. At least with these two men, most agree that whatever it is, these guys are bona fide examples of it. So, even though the Buddha did have lay disciples who were enlightened, he obviously put an emphasis on leaving the world, whereas Ramana really did not. And the Buddha got into a lot of trouble for all these guys running off and leaving their familiesrunning away from their worldly responsibilities in order to live the holy life. He created quite a stir and a lot of people were upset. So it begs the question: Why did he do it?

JG: It is leaving the lay life for one of greater simplicity, not for some self-centered motive, but for most, it is to develop a deeper wisdom and compassion that can truly help the world. I think there's also a growing appreciation in our own culture for the value of simplicity and for disengaging from the treadmill, even for short times. Living in the India of Ramana Maharshi, and I know this from my own time in India, was a pretty simple, quiet life. And although I'm not totally living that way now, it's very appealing to me. So when I think of the simple life of monks and nuns, in the way the Buddha taught, it seems delightful.

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