As different Buddhist traditions take root in the West, is it possible
to find an essential teaching that supports them all? In an adaptation
from a talk given at Tricycle's recent Conference on Practice and Inquiry, Joseph Goldstein searches for the "One Dharma" of liberation.
This is a unique time in the history of Buddhism. Different Buddhist
traditions are meeting and interacting with one another here in the
West, often for the first time in centuries. Just as the dharma spread
from India through many countries in Asia, each one finding its own
voice, here, too, we're seeing the emergence of a Western Buddhism,
something that is unique to our own time and culture.
The defining characteristic of this emerging Western Buddhism is a
basic pragmatism, rather than an adherence to some philosophical system
or sectarian viewpoint. What most characterizes the One Dharma of the
West is an allegiance to a very simple question: What works? What works
to free the mind from suffering? What works to accomplish the heart of
compassion? What works to awaken us from the dream states of our
As Western Buddhist practitioners, we've been brought up to question
and investigate, and this exploration can become a great strength of
our dharma practice. The different teachings that are coming together
and interacting here in the West are being tested and challenged by
each other. We're hearing different teachings, we're reflecting on
them, and we're practicing them and testing them in our own lives, in
our own meditation experience. Many of us are practicing in several of
these different traditions. It's not uncommon for people to list as
their various teachers Tibetan Rinpoches, Chinese, Korean, or Japanese
Zen masters, Thai ajaans, Burmese sayadaws, and Western teachers of
every school. We may have various opinions about whether or not this
mixing is a good idea, but it is what is happening. And so our
challenge is to understand it and craft it in such a way that it
becomes a vehicle for awakening.
As these ancient traditions meet, pressing questions emerge. Is the
melting pot approach simply creating a big mess? Or is something new
emerging that will revitalize dharma practice for us all? How much of
our spiritual practice and discipline is embedded in cultural overlays
from the East that are neither relevant nor helpful to us in our
Western society? And on the other hand, do we sometimes water down, or
even leave behind, the essence of the teachings simply because they
take us beyond our Western physical or psychological comfort zone? How
much can we pare away or alter before we start missing the point of it
Other questions, too, more personal and immediate, arose as I began
my exploration of different traditions: What do you do when two of your
most respected and beloved teachers say opposite things about that
which is most important to you? What to do when you come to a fork in
the road and both signposts seem to be pointing in the right direction?
As I struggled with these dilemmas, one question began to emerge: Is
there One Dharma of liberation, One Dharma of freedom, that embraces
all the viewpoints, even apparently contradictory ones?
In considering this question—Is there One Dharma underlying the
various teachings and schools?—the first step for all of us is a
willingness to let go of sectarian viewpoints. If we hold on to the
idea that our way is the best, the highest, the fastest, the truest, it
becomes impossible to consider a One Dharma of freedom. David Brinkley
wrote a book with a wonderful title that captures the irony of the
sectarian stance. The title of the book is: Everyone Is Entitled to My Opinion. And often we go through life with just that bias.
For many years I studied in the Theravada tradition, practicing
vipassana meditation in India and Burma. Then, ten years ago, I also
began some practice and study of Tibetan dzogchen meditation, with two
very great dzogchen masters, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche and Nyoshul Khen
Rinpoche. They were wonderful beings and tremendously inspiring. But
especially in that first year, as I was beginning this new practice, I
was tormented by the comparing mind. Some Theravada teachings seemed
quite different from the Tibetan teachings I was hearing. I was caught
in the dilemma of trying to judge which was right, and then wondering
how I could know? I went back and forth. Some Zen literature describes
koan practice as swallowing a red hot iron ball that you can neither
expel nor digest, and that's what this dilemma felt like to me.
After a month of intense questioning—Who's right? Which teachings are
true?—my mind came to a sudden resolution, providing the framework for
understanding the possibility of One Dharma. It was the understanding
that all the teachings, all the words, all the sutras, are skillful
means for liberating the mind, rather than statements of absolute truth.
When we take words to be statements of ultimate truth, then
differences of opinion will inevitably result in conflict. This is
where ideological wars come from, and we see in the history of the
world an endless amount of suffering because of it. But if we see the
words and the teachings as different skillful means for liberating the
mind, then they all become part of a great dharma feast. How can I use
this teaching to free my mind? How can I use this to open my heart?
All the Buddhist traditions converge in one understanding of what
liberates the mind. It is summed up very succinctly in one teaching of
the Buddha: "Nothing whatsoever is to be clung to as 'I' or 'mine.'
Whoever has heard this has heard all the teachings. Whoever practices
this has practiced all the teachings. Whoever realizes this has realized
all the teachings." Nothing whatsoever is to be clung to as "I" or
"mine." Non-clinging can be understood on two levels. The first level
is non-clinging as a non-sectarian instruction for practice. What to
do? Don't cling. There's no Buddhist school that says, "Cling." How to
practice in the world? Don't cling. It hardly matters what form we
build around that. We can not-cling in a Tibetan house, we can not-cling
in a Zen house, we can not-cling in a Theravada house. The essence of
One Dharma is the same. But non-clinging is not only an instruction of
practice. On the second level, it is also a description of the awakened
mind. If we want to know what enlightenment is like, what awakening is
like, we can practice the mind of non-clinging, non-fixation,
nonattachment to anything at all. It's the mind of open groundlessness.
So how can we practice this? How do we practice the mind of
non-clinging? Clearly, the more quickly we recognize where we do cling,
the more quickly we can relax the mind into that space of openness, of
ease, of freedom. And the Buddha was very helpful in pointing out where
we do cling, just in case we're missing it. The first arena of
clinging is the obvious one: we cling to pleasant experience. We like
what's pleasant. We like pleasant sights and sounds and tastes,
pleasant sensations in the body, pleasant feelings. We like pleasant
meditative states. There's no problem with the pleasantness of them;
it's part of our life experience. The problem is that we often devote
our life energy to the getting, sustaining, accumulation, and repeating
of these pleasant experiences. It's as if our life revolves around
getting one more hit of pleasantness. But, as we all know, these
pleasant experiences don't last, so they don't really have the capacity
to bring us happiness, to bring us completion, to bring us
fulfillment. We're always seeking more—that's samsara, the endless
wheel of becoming, fueled by wanting. The force of desire is not just a
trivial habit; the habit of wanting what's pleasant is rooted so
deeply in our conditioning.
At one point I had been practicing in India for quite some time, and
as can happen in times of long-term, intensive meditation, my mind had
become very open, clear, and shining; my body was open, the energy
flowing. It was the kind of sitting where you think you will get
enlightened any minute. I was happily in that state, sitting away,
waiting for the big moment...and then the tea bell rang. What was
served for tea in the evening was a cup of tea and a very small banana.
So I'm sitting in this glorious state and the tea bell rings. What is
my first thought? "I need my banana." And, sure enough, I got up from
my "enlightenment-in-the-next-moment sitting" and went for the momentary
Even someone as remarkable as His Holiness the Dalai Lama speaks of
the strong force of desire in the mind. He told one story at a
conference in Los Angeles. Every day on the way to the conference, he
was driven down a street with shops selling the newest technological
toys. As you know, he has a great interest in the latest technologies.
On the last day of the conference, he recounted what had been going on
in his mind as he was being driven past these stores. He said that by
the end of the week he found himself wanting some of these things,
although he didn't even know what they were.
Again, it's not that there's a problem with having pleasant
experience—it's just part of our lives. But when we make it the focal
point of our lives, it becomes the basis for tremendous frustration,
because it can never fulfill its promise for happiness. At the time of
death, what meaning will all the various pleasant experiences have?
What really will be of value at that time? What will be of most value is
the ability of the mind to not hold on, to not grasp, to not cling.
But we can't wait until the time of death to accomplish this. We need to
practice it now.
The second arena of clinging that the Buddha pointed out is one that
has tremendous consequences both in our own lives and in the world.
This is the attachment we have to our views and opinions about things.
We're very attached to our own points of view. We're attached to being
right. What's so amazing is that we're often attached to our opinions
regarding things we know nothing about. But that does not seem to
weaken our attachment.
One example of this attachment to view—and the possibility of
relinquishing it—happened when I was teaching at Naropa Institute in
Boulder, Colorado, in the first years after it opened. His Holiness
Dudjom Rinpoche was due to speak, and there was a poster announcing the
talk. Dudjom Rinpoche was the head of the Nyingmapa lineage of Tibetan
Buddhism and revered as a great enlightened being. It said on the
poster that Rinpoche was the incarnation of Shariputra, who was one of
the two chief disciples of the Buddha.
From the Theravada point of view, when you're fully enlightened you
don't take rebirth. As I had been steeped in these teachings, I was
sure that Shariputra, second only to the Buddha himself in wisdom,
certainly didn't come back. But then I saw this poster about Dudjom
Rinpoche, incarnation of Shariputra. My mind went on tilt. How to hold
this contradiction? In a moment of inspiration I suddenly realized that
I had no idea whether or not Dudjom Rinpoche was the incarnation of
Shariputra. I really didn't know. And it was such a relief to realize
that because I didn't know, I didn't have to have an opinion about it.
We don't know a lot. We don't know much more than we know. And it's a
relief to let go of our attachment to views, our attachment to
opinions, especially about things we don't know. A new mantra began to
form in my mind: "Who knows?" This not-knowing is not a quality of
bewilderment, it's not a quality of confusion. It actually is like a
breath of fresh air, an openness of mind. Not knowing is simply holding
an open mind regarding these very interesting questions to which we
might not yet have answers.
Of course, even more difficult is letting go of our attachment to
things we think we do know. Even when our opinion is based on some
experience, it's still limited. When we don't hold on to our viewpoints
quite so tightly, it allows for the possibility of seeing from other
perspectives. We might actually learn something from someone else. One
of the great Japanese Zen masters, Bankei, had a wonderful line in his
teachings. He said, "Don't side with yourself." This is a good reminder
to keep an open mind. This is part of our practice.
The last attachment and clinging that I want to mention is the one
that is the most deeply rooted, the most difficult to see through and
understand—that is the attachment we have to the concept of, or belief
in, self. Seeing through this illusion of self is the heart of the One
Dharma of liberation. Every Buddhist tradition will talk of this,
because it is this insight, this understanding, which is ultimately
liberating; it is the seeing through the illusion, the concept, the
belief, the idea of a self-center. But selflessness is also the most
puzzling aspect of the Buddha's teachings. If there's no self, who's
sitting here? Who gets angry? Who falls in love? Unlike many other
aspects of the teachings, selflessness is not easily accessible to our
normal level of understanding. It takes a disciplined practice to
investigate and explore the deepest nature of this mind/body process.
One image might help us understand the meaning of selflessness.
Think back to the last time you saw a rainbow. You look up at the sky,
see this beautiful rainbow, and feel the momentary joy that comes from
that experience of beauty. But is there something in and of itself that
is the rainbow? Or, is the rainbow an appearance arising out of
the coming together of different conditions? There is air, moisture,
and light arranged in a certain way, and out of those conditions a
rainbow appears. But there's no substantial thing-ness to the rainbow:
it's simply an appearance arising out of conditions.
Self, Joseph, each one of us, is like the rainbow. There is, indeed,
an appearance of self, and on that level of appearance, self exists.
Just like it is true that we have the experience of what we call
rainbow. On the relative level, we do relate to one another as
individuals. So it's not to deny the appearance of self, but to realize
that it is only an appearance. When we go beyond, or see through, or
begin to understand the conditions that are giving rise to the
appearance, then we come to taste the profound teachings of the Buddha
on emptiness. Emptiness does not mean that things aren't there; it
means that they do not have some self-existing nature independent of
conditions. When we see this in our experience, we begin to understand
the selflessness of this whole life process. And the deeper the wisdom
of selflessness, the more love and compassion flow freely. A Sri Lankan
monk summed up the great value of realizing emptiness when he said,
"No self, no problem."
More than 2,500 years ago, the Buddha set in motion this great wheel
of the dharma. It has rolled across continents and oceans and has
touched the lives of countless beings. The dharma has been expressed in
so many different culrures, each with its own language and idiom,
expressing skillful means for liberating the heart and mind from
grasping. Nothing whatsoever is to be clung to as "I" or "mine." This
is the One Dharma of liberation, and all the teachings, all the words,
point to that freedom.
I'd like to close with some words of my teacher, Nyoshul Khen
Rinpoche. He said, "I would like to pass on one little bit of advice I
give to everyone: Relax. Just relax. Be nice to each other. As you go
through your life, simply be kind to people. Try to help them rather
than hurt them. Try to get along with them, rather than fall out with
Joseph Goldstein is co-founder of the Insight Meditation
Society (lMS) in Barre, Massachusetts, and the Barre Center for
Buddhist Studies. His most recent project is developing the Forest
Refuge, a retreat center for long-term meditation practice adjacent to
IMS. He is currently at work on a new book entitled One Dharma.