Skillful Means For Liberation

Joseph Goldstein speaks to Tricycle about his recent book, One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism.

What motivated you to write this book? Like many Westerners, I have practiced with different teachers in different traditions, which presented me with a dilemma. Often teachers I respected deeply would say opposite things about the nature of reality. That was the koan, if you will, and the book came about after a ten-year process of sitting with it.

How did you resolve it? When I stopped taking the teachings to be conflicting statements of absolute truth, I began to see them as skillful means for liberation. If you see the teachings as skillful means, then the fact that teachers are saying different things is not a problem.

Is One Dharma descriptive of Buddhism's development in the West? I think we can understand the book in three ways. First, it's a description of what is happening. People are studying with different teachers in different traditions, whatever we might think of that. Second, it's a description of how we can hold conflicting views in a unifying context of skillful means. A third aspect of the book is the distillation of what the three traditions actually have in common, which is a lot. When we focus on common values, we find that there are lots of ways of developing compassion, of developing mindfulness, and of developing wisdom.

In your book, there's an exhilarating sense of possibility, You use sources from many traditions, including Sufism, Christianity, different Buddhist schools, world literature. Is something more global taking place? Yes, although I think there are some cautions that are worth noting. First, when people explore Buddhist traditions outside of their own, it has to be done at the right time in one's practice. If we're jumping from one school to another and don't get adept at any one, it can lead to confusion. An exploration really has to be conducted on the basis of a mature understanding within one tradition; then, as we look at other Buddhist traditions, we have the wisdom to integrate the different approaches skillfully. Second, with respect to teachings from non-Buddhist traditions, I would caution against assuming that all paths are leading to the same place. They may be, and they may not be; we really need to look. For instance, if I understand teachings as skillful means, the next question has to be, skillful means for what? In Buddhist teachings, it's skillful means for liberating the clinging mind from suffering. Do other traditions lead to nonclinging at their roots, or don't they? A lot of care has CO be taken here; careful investigation is needed.

Do you expect controversy to develop around your book?
Most controversy comes from a sectarian view that puts one tradition above another. But I hope the book will stimulate discussion. I believe that the idea of an emerging Western Buddhism, in which different traditions have come into contact with one another for the first time in the laboratory of Western practice, is just at its beginning. This book is opening the door to a very extensive exploration. It's the beginning of a dialogue, not its conclusion.


Practicing Bodhicitta

An excerpt from One Dharma
By Joseph Goldstein

How can we actually practice the aspiration of bodhicitta, the motivation to awaken for the benefit of all beings? We can approach it from two sides. One side is highlighted in the Pali texts of Theravada Buddhism, where the Buddha emphasized that by truly taking care of ourselves, that is, by purifying our own minds and hearts, we naturally and inevitably take care of others. It is like two people being stuck in a muddy river bottom. If they try to help each other out of the muck, they may well both continue to founder. But if one of them first reaches solid ground, then he or she can easily help the other to safety.

We hear this basic principle in the safety guidelines of every airline. "If there is a sudden loss of cabin pressure, the oxygen masks will appear. Please put on your own mask first and then assist those around you." If we try to help others before we are able to, it can lead to difficulties for all. But as we purify our own hearts and minds we find the "solid ground of emptiness"; we automatically become less self-centered. As there is less greed, less fear, less ignorance in our minds, we naturally live with more kindness and compassion.

The Indian sage Shantideva, in his famous work, The Way of the Bodhisattva, expressed the second way we can develop bodhicitta. This approach develops compassionate action-the aspiration to benefit all beings-by the practice of putting others before oneself, by thinking of others as being more important than oneself. When we give more importance to others, the strength of self-concern diminishes. The Dalai Lama is a great devotee of Shantideva and is a shining example of the fruits of this practice.

Contained within Shantideva's great masterpiece are verses that encapsulate this aspect of bodhicitta.

 
For all those ailing in the world,
Until their every sickness has been healed,
May I myself become for them
The doctor, nurse, the medicine itself.

Raining down a flood of food and drink,
May I dispel the ills of thirst and famine.
And in the ages marked by scarcity and want,
May I myself appear as drink and sustenance.

For sentient beings, poor and destitute,
May I become a treasure ever-plentiful,
And lie before them closely in their reach,
A varied source of all that they might need.

My body, thus, and all my goods besides,
And all my merits gained and to be gained,
I give them all away withholding nothing
To bring about the benefit of beings.

Like the earth and the pervading elements,
Enduring like the sky itself endures,
For boundless multitudes of living being,
May I be their ground and sustenance.

Thus for everything that lives,
As far as are the limits of the sky,
May I provide their livelihood and nourishment
Until they pass beyond the bonds of suffering.


It's possible to read this and become inspired by its generosity of spirit; but we may also feel a little overwhelmed. Would we ever be able to fulfill such an aspiration, given that our motives are often mixed, or hidden, or a series of conflicting ones?

Some time ago I was on retreat and came across a story in the Buddhist texts that I thought a colleague of mine would like to have in a book she was writing. Of course, among dharma teachers, a new story is worth quite a lot, and we often vie to lay claim to one. Well, I came across this text, and my first thought was, "This will be a good story for my friend." But then, immediately following, came the thought, "No, I think I'll keep it for myself." Then, "No, I'll give it to her, and that way more stories will come back to me." Then I reflected, "That's just being selfish, it's better just to tell her what the story is. But maybe when I tell her I'll also mention everything I'm going through," feeling a little pride in my sacrifice and half-unconsciously wanting to put her in my debt. As my mind went through this run of thoughts and feelings, it made me wonder where in the midst of all this thinking was the purity of motivation simply to give? Then I realized that it was there, right in the first moment's thought to offer the story. And even though my mind entertained all these other thoughts and feelings and motives, I could always come back to that first moment of pure motivation. The postscript to all this is that when I finally showed my friend this story from the texts, she didn't even want to use it.

So when the jumble of our thoughts and feelings confuses us, when we feel we are unable to act from a totally clear heart, perhaps we can follow the Dalai Lama's lead when he said, "I cannot pretend to practice bodhicitta, but deep inside me I realize how valuable and beneficial it is. That is all."

Rather than solidifying and then pOlarizing these two approaches to bodhicitta, as happens in sectarian attachments, we can see them as two sides of the same principle, helping to balance out the dangers that may arise from each one by itself. If we overemphasize our own

purification at the expense of helping others, our spiritual journey might become narrow and self-absorbed. Likewise, if we always put others before ourselves, we may fall into patterns of confused codependence in which we ignore our own welfare simply to please others. So, from one side, we do the work of purifying ourselves, but with the motivation that it be for the welfare and benefit of all. And from the other side, even as we practice putting others before ourselves, we understand this as being part of our own path of purification. This unification is the path of One Dharma.

We plant this wonderful seed of relative bodhicitta, the kind heart, and slowly it will grow and mature into the guiding principle of our lives. Even at those times when we're not acting from this place of wisdom and compassion, bodhicitta can still be the reference point that reminds us of other choices. One Tibetan teaching sums up the power of this practice: "Let those who desire Buddhahood not train in many dharmas—but only one. Which one? Great compassion. Those with great compassion possess all the Buddha's teachings as if they were in the palm of their hand." ▼

From One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism, © by Joseph Goldstein, to be published by HarperSanFrancisco Publishers, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.

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