Joseph Goldstein. Photo by Stephanie Zollshan.

Joseph Goldstein: It’s Not Either-Or

In this conversation with Buddhadharma, the Insight Meditation Society cofounder applies the “harmonized understanding” approach championed in his book One Dharma to the idea of buddhanature. In the end, it’s not about who’s right or wrong about it. It’s about what leads us to less clinging.

By Joseph Goldstein

Joseph Goldstein. Photo by Stephanie Zollshan.

Buddhadharma: Thanks for talking with us, Joseph. We’re hoping you might talk about buddhanature from your unique perspective as a Buddhist primarily trained in Theravada, but then in other modes, too.

Joseph Goldstein: It’s not a term that I’ve come across a lot in early Buddhist teachings; it seems to come about more in Mahayana and in Vajrayana. And so it would be helpful to find a common definition that would make sense in terms of early Buddhism. Basically, the Pali texts talk about the enlightened mind, free of defilements. That would, I think, be a good cross-tradition term.

In One Dharma, you list some of the names for the ultimate freedom that buddhanature represents: the unconditioned, dharmakaya, the unborn, pure heart, mind essence, nature of mind, ultimate bodhi­citta, nirvana.

Some of those terms are used more often in the later traditions. I think a popular understanding of some of the later traditions is that we’re already enlightened, and we simply have to realize it. That might imply that it’s more accessible than it actually is. Whether we phrase it in terms of “we’re already enlightened and we just need to realize it,” or “we’re not yet enlightened and we have to get there,” the task is formidable.

There’s something I want to read, from Chinul, Korean Zen master of the eleventh century. He’s great. There’s a collection of his teachings called Tracing Back the Radiance, compiled and translated by Robert E. Buswell Jr. I really love Chinul’s way of framing it in a way that encompasses both sides. The term he uses is “sudden awakening, gradual cultivation,” and this paragraph really summarizes everything I’m trying to say:

Although we have awakened to original nature, beginningless habit energies are extremely difficult to remove suddenly. Hindrances are formidable and habits are deeply ingrained. So how could you neglect gradual cultivation simply because of one moment of awakening? After awakening, you must be constantly on your guard. If deluded thoughts suddenly appear, do not follow after them. Then and only then will your practice reach completion.

That is very on-point, isn’t it?

Completely on-point. And Chinul follows this with an equally important reminder: “Although you must cultivate further, you have already awakened suddenly to the fact that deluded thoughts are originally void and the mind’s nature is originally pure.”

He’s acknowledging the power of the moment of awakening while still emphasizing the need for the ongoing cultivation of the practice. And I think this is the important balance for me in talking about buddhanature. Because I see, especially in the West, many people may have had moments of genuine realization, where they really do touch into buddhanature, but it can then become a rationale for not paying attention to the defilements that are still there.

In a “spiritual bypassing” sort of way?

Yes. And this is why some teachers get into trouble. They may have had an actual realization, but then: “Oh, well, I’ve realized buddha-nature and everything I do follows from that.” This is the main theme of what I wanted to talk about. I like Chinul because he acknowledges both sides—that these moments of sudden awakening are possible, and yet habit energies are extremely difficult to remove suddenly. Hindrances are formidable and habits are deeply ingrained.

That does all seem to be true!

[Laughs] Yes. I think these two ways of talking about it—the early Buddhist notion that we’re not enlightened but we work toward it, or that we’re already enlightened and we just have to realize it—should be taken as statements as skillful means, rather than as statements of truth. In One Dharma, when I was struggling with trying to reconcile the different views, the thing that helped me the most was a phrase I used: “metaphysics as skillful means.”

Might you unpack that phrase?

In most Theravada traditions, early Buddhist traditions, nibbana/nirvana is said to transcend awareness; awareness itself is a conditioned phenomenon. But many Mahayana and Tibetan traditions speak of an unconditioned awareness. I think the Thai tradition also leans in that direction. So this was the big dilemma for me. Is the final goal to transcend awareness, or is it to realize an unconditioned awareness? These are two very different metaphysical views. And great enlightened masters in each of the traditions, speaking from their experience, were offering these two alternatives. I really struggled with this. Here’s poor Joseph, trying to clarify his life’s work and where it’s going, and great masters from different traditions saying opposite things. I was in a two-month Dzogchen retreat when this dilemma came to a head. It was like a koan. Finally, I realized that I was asking the wrong question. It wasn’t a question of who was right. “Metaphysics as skillful means” means not to see each of those positions as statements of truth, but as skillful means for not clinging. Because in my understanding and practice in several traditions, to me, that is the essence of the free mind: the mind that’s not clinging to anything as I or mine.

So for me, the test of different teachings is simple: does it result in no clinging or not? If they’re seen as skillful means for not clinging, it doesn’t matter if they’re positing different metaphysical views.

I want to read something else, from the book Mount Analogue, by René Daumal. He uses the climbing of a mountain as the metaphor for spiritual realization; it’s another take on what I’ve been saying:

Keep your eye fixed on the way to the top, but don’t forget to look right in front of you. The last step depends on the first. Don’t think you’ve arrived just because you see the summit. Watch your footing. Be sure of the next step. But don’t let that distract you from the highest goal. The first step depends on the last.

So, that’s just another way of saying it: it’s not either/or. They’re both part of the whole picture.

What you’re saying about keeping open to multiple possibilities, all being valuable at the same time, that’s really as Buddhist a view as I can imagine having.

Yes. Not only [are] different views valuable, different views are in a way necessary for each other because each one is a corrective to the potential pitfalls of the other. And so if people think, “Oh, I’m already enlightened. It’s all done,” then the advice is to watch the step right in front of you because you’re going to trip over a rock. But on the other hand, if you’re so concerned with not tripping over the rock, you can lose sight of where you’re going. It’s the vision of the top, or even a glimpse of it that motivates you to keep going. So the last step depends on the first, and the first step depends on the last.

At one time I was on a retreat with Sayadaw U Pandita. He was a very demanding teacher, immersed in classical Theravada teachings. And in his style of Vipassana, there’s quite a bit of emphasis, whether spoken or not, about progress and the different stages of insight. Because it has the potential to become very goal-oriented, we have to learn how to practice with that rigor, but without getting caught by unhealthy striving.

At one point in the retreat, I found myself pushing too hard, caught by the wanting mind. But in a particular moment, as I was doing walking meditation and saw myself in striving mode, I just said to myself, “already aware,” which is more of the Dzogchen flavor. “There’s nothing to do. Already aware.” It was amazing how just that phrase completely balanced everything else. Because then I was able to continue in Vipassana mode, but with the relaxation of nonstriving. So this is another example of each having its own value, and each helping to address the potential problems of the other. It’s not that one is right and one is wrong.

Would you go so far as to say that the antidote for each is only the other?

No, I think there are many ways. And the teachings are filled with antidotes to various problems. One of the virtues of long practice over many years is that we each create our own toolbox of skillful means. I have so many antidotes for different things that just came out of my own practice. Some are more Dzogchen-oriented, some are more Theravada-oriented. But I think that’s a helpful way of understanding how each approach can help free us.

You seem to be always investigating, trying to uncover common ground.

There is only one dharma. We may not see the unity of it all, all the time. But it’s not like there are two dharmas out there.

How has your understanding of the nature of mind changed or evolved since you first were a monk?

First, just to clarify something: really, my practice was as a layperson. My time as a monk was very brief. One way it’s evolved—I think I mentioned this in One Dharma, actually—I was young, had just gotten into the Buddhist teachings, not done much in terms of practice, and was just at the end of my Peace Corps stay in Thailand. Somebody was reading from a Tibetan text. It was a poor translation of a powerful text. I don’t know if you are familiar with the old [Walter] Evans-Wentz books. It turns out he wasn’t a very accurate translator. However, this book, at that time, was called the Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, and the actual text (I’ve since seen the more accurate ones), was very powerful. It’s a direct pointing to the nature of the mind from the Tibetan perspective.

A friend was reading it to me, so I was just listening. My mind got very concentrated, and something really powerful happened. An opening to, you could say, emptiness, or the selfless nature of everything, or the experience of zero. But this was before I had really done any intensive practice. So it was very discombobulating. It was as if I had suddenly been turned inside out, but without a particular framework to hold it all. So I left the Peace Corps, came back to the States, but then realized that I had to find a teacher.

So I went back and traveled around India. And what was so interesting is after meeting different teachers, I ended up in Bodh Gaya with Munindra-ji (Anagarika Shri Munindra), my first teacher, who was teaching Burmese Vipassana. And my feeling at that time was that that practice was the perfect expression of what I experienced through listening to the Tibetan text. I think that was the seed in me of One Dharma. Not that I was thinking in those terms. I was twenty-three years old. I didn’t know anything. After that experience, I felt that Vipassana was exactly what I was looking for. I felt completely at home.

So, fast-forward twenty years, over which time I had really devoted myself to that practice. Coming back to the West, a lot of my friends had studied with great Tibetan lamas, and so I got introduced to other Tibetan teachings and to Dzogchen teachings more formally. I was young and trying to sort everything out. At one point, I realized that some of the teachings were quite different, and it was then that I began to explore everything I talked about in One Dharma, particularly, metaphysics as skillful means.

One other major change, which I think happens at least with some people as they age, is that I’m a lot less certain about things now than I was twenty years ago.

Sounds great to me.

In earlier years, I remember getting into these intense dharma debates, totally convinced that I was right and that my view was the right view, and passionately arguing it and believing it. One of my favorite mantras these days is, “Who knows?” When I’m fully enlightened, maybe then I can say I know. But until then, it seems best to keep an open mind.

In this regard, I have a new definition of enlightenment.


“Lightening up.” We could think of the path as the process of lightening up, from the more superficial levels to the most profound levels. Because basically lightening up means letting go of all self-reference. Which, of course, is no easy task.

But presumably worth it?

Clearly, I’m much happier now than I was then. Then, when I knew everything!

[Laughter] That’s great, to put down the having-to-know everything.

Absolutely. And believing that you do.

I’ll leave you with one last note. I think this sums up everything we’ve been talking about, from a Zen perspective. This is one of [Kwan Um School of Zen founder] Seung Sahn Sunim’s phrases, which I quote a lot. He said, “There’s no right and no wrong, but right is right and wrong is wrong.”

On one level, everything is already empty. So on that level, one could say, you know, we’re already enlightened because self is an illusion in the first place. It’s not really there. No right and no wrong. It’s all just empty phenomena. And, at the same time, right is right and wrong is wrong. And that’s the same point as in Mount Analogue. We need both understandings to move forward in a balanced way.

Joseph Goldstein

Joseph Goldstein

Joseph Goldstein is a cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, where he is one of the resident guiding teachers. He is the author of several books, including One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism.