Tricycle Q & A: Joseph Goldstein

Joseph Goldstein answers questions from Tricycle readers.


1. Justin asks, "I was taught vipassana by SN Goenka, but what is the difference between his style of vipassana and that of other theravada teachers? also what should I do with my mind during the vipassana? I cant seem to get my thoughts to quiet completely? Thanks Joseph"

Joseph answers: In Pali, the word "vipassana" literally means "seeing clearly", and there are many methods and techniques of vipassana meditation. In the Theravada tradition, all of these methods are based on the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha's discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. As we read through this Sutta (# 10 in the Middle Length Sayings), we find the Buddha giving many different kinds of instructions for the development of mindfulness. Some of these instructions are about mindfulness of the body, some about mindfulness of feelings, some about mind states, and some about the different categories of experience,such as the hindrances, the factors of enlightenment, etc. It is often useful to start with the body, because it is the most obvious and tangible aspect of our experience. In the method taught by S.N. Goenka, we feel the different sensations as we scan or "sweep" the body with our awareness. This sweeping is done in a systematic and careful way, with equanimity towards both pleasant and unpleasant sensations. Over time, the mindfulness and concentration become stronger and we feel more and more subtle sensations in the body. This sweeping method automatically makes us aware of the second foundation of mindfulness, namely feelings - the pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral aspects of the sensations. And we also begin to feel all of the different factors of mind as they are experienced through the body.

In some other methods of vipassana, the breath is used as the primary object, and the instruction is to notice/note any other arising experience. So from the anchor of the breath, we then look directly at different sensations as they arise, at thoughts and emotions as they appear in the mind, and finally at awareness itself. So for example, as we're with the breath and a thought arises, we would note, or simply notice, "thinking, thinking"; or if we feel different hindrances, we might note "anger, anger" or "sleepiness, sleepiness". Then when that object passes away, we return to the breath. Over time, we begin to notice with greater clarity and refinement the entire range of passing phenomena, and through this awareness of change the mind more easily lets go of clinging and attachment.

In yet other methods, there is no particular focus of attention - the instruction is simply to be aware of whatever is most predominant, whether it is bodily sensations or different mind objects. In this way of practice, there is a strong emphasis on investigation, as we look to understand the very nature of the experience. For example, what is a thought? What is the nature of fear or sadness, joy or love? How do these emotions feel in the body? What thoughts or images come along with them? We also investigate the attitude in the mind about what is arising. Is there desire or aversion toward the experience? Are we identifying with it (wrong view) or not?

The response to your question about what to do with the mind during vipassana practice will depend on what method you are practicing. If you are continuing with the method taught by Goenkaji, I think it would be recommended to stay with the sweeping, paying closer attention to the sensations in the body. If you are interested in experimenting with other techniques, you might try becoming mindful of the thought itself, acknowledging that it is there either with the note "thinking" or simply by being aware of the thought as the present moment object of mindfulness. We don't need to be in a struggle with thinking. It is a natural function of the mind. Our practice is not to stop thinking, but to be aware of thoughts as they arise so that we're not carried away by them. As Suzuki Roshi said, "Don't be bothered by your thoughts. Let them come and let them go."

2. Omergosum asks, "Buddhism's three cornerstones: no self, impermanence and suffering seem at best amoral and at worst nihilistic. I would appreciate if you could explain how the moral "ought" is derived in Buddhist ethics especially in view of emptiness as its foundation."

Joseph answers: In Buddhist understanding, impermanence, unsatisfactoriness due to this changing nature, and selflessness are the characteristics of all arising experience. The truth of change is obvious to us all (although we sometimes choose to ignore it). When we understand deeply the changing nature of phenomena, that whatever arises will also pass away, we then begin to see for ourselves that passing experience does not have the capacity to provide lasting fulfillment... precisely because it doesn't last. Selflessness, the realization that there is no one behind experience to whom it is all happening, is the characteristic that is most difficult to understand. But with continued wise attention, there is growing insight into the insubstantial nature of all phenomena. We see more deeply that what we call "self" is simply the recognizable pattern of mental and physical elements. "Self" is the designation for that pattern, but is not something that has intrinsic reality in and of itself. One example of this would be the term "rainbow". "Rainbow" is a designation for an appearance arising out of certain conditions of air and light and water, but there is no 'thing' that is the rainbow independent of those changing conditions.

Given these essential characteristics, the question arises, "What then is the basis of morality and ethics?" Although we can see that what we call self is simply a process of changing experience, as one teacher put it - "empty phenomena rolling on", this process is not happening randomly. There are laws governing the unfolding. For example, if we plant an apple seed, there is an on-going process whereby the seed, conditioned by the soil and sun and rain, germinates, and become a seedling, a sapling, and then a tree, with it's own fruit and seeds. The first seed was not carried along in this process, maintaining its own identity. Rather, it is all a process of becoming, each phase conditioning and becoming the next. But this process follows certain laws. There is a pattern to the unfolding. When we plant an apple seed, we don't get a mango tree.

The Buddha taught that one of the laws (not the only one) governing the unfolding of our lives is the law of karma. This says that the mental factor of volition has the power to bring about results, and that each of our volitional activities bears its own fruit. He went on to describe more specifically how this plays out: each act based on the wholesome roots of mind (generosity, love and wisdom) brings about pleasing, happy results, while those actions based on the unwholesome roots (greed, hatred and delusion) bring about suffering. In this way, Buddhist ethics is extremely pragmatic; it is understanding what leads to happiness and what leads to suffering. In many places in the teachings, the Buddha reminds us that we are the heirs of our own karma. In this context, he pointed out that if we truly cared for ourselves, we would never harm another.

Even though the process is ever-changing and empty of self, seeds are continually being sown that will eventually flower as the different experiences of our lives. Responsibility both to others and ourselves comes from understanding this law of cause and effect. The great Indian adept, Padmasambhava, expressed the importance of the union of emptiness and lawful appearance in a striking way. He said that although his vision and understanding of emptiness was as vast as the sky, his attention to the law of karma was as fine as a grain of barley flour. He urges us to do the same.

3. Siladanabhavana asks, "I've been meditating for the last 4 years, lately with a focus on Insight Meditation. Recently I was attacked by a co-worker, and am having difficulty in dealing with the anger I feel towards him. Right now, only physical activity works. What can I do ?"

Joseph answers: In a situation where we have been harmed, there are a few steps that can help us free the mind from unwholesome mind states. First, whenever possible, it's helpful to set appropriate boundaries to create a space of safety. In this case, it might be important to let your co-worker - or other people responsible for behavior in the workplace - know that certain actions are not ok. The second step is then recognizing and becoming mindful of what feelings are actually arising in the mind. Is there anger, fear, resentment, self-righteousness, unworthiness, etc? We need to recognize what is there and then investigate the nature of the emotions themselves. What is the nature of anger or fear? Here, we are not going over the story again and again; rather, we are studying the experience of the emotion through awareness. What does the emotion feel like in the body? How does it color the mind? Being clear about our feelings leads to the third step, which is the investigation of our attitudes about them. How are we relating to the different emotions? Is there an attitude of identification with them, or aversion towards them, or judgment about ourselves for having them? Are we justifying the emotions to ourselves: "I should feel angry. Look at what they did." When we're in the throes of some strong feeling - or even with more subtle experiences in the mind or body - simply asking the question, "What's the attitude in my mind about this experience?" can illuminate attitudes in the mind that we didn't even know were there.

Imagine a line with three points on it: point A, point B, and point C. Point A is the initial experience - your co-worker's attack. Point B is your reaction to that experience - anger. Mostly in our lives, we circle around Points A and B. We have an experience that conditions some emotional reaction, then we think more about the experience, which in turn, strengthens how we're feeling. Point C is when we shift perspectives and ask the question, "What's the attitude in my mind about the anger?". Or, we could ask the question in another way, "How am I getting hooked?". The interesting thing about this move from Point B to Point C, is that at C, the original situation ceases to play at center stage. It has nothing to do with how we're relating to the anger that has arisen. That is completely within the purview of our own minds. A difficult but ultimately freeing understanding is that no one makes us feel a certain way. How we feel is up to us. This turns out to be extremely empowering. We cannot control all the conditions around us, but we can master our minds. What I have found particularly useful about this approach is that besides freeing my own mind from states of suffering, it then makes possible a much easier and more open communication with the people involved in the difficult situation.

The Buddha gave clear and challenging teachings on this subject: "Bhikkhus, there are five courses of speech that others may use when they address you: their speech may be timely or untimely, true or untrue, gentle or harsh, connected with good or with harm, or spoken with a mind of lovingkindness or with a mind of inner hate. . . . Herein, Bhikkhus, you should train yourself thus: Our minds will remain unaffected, we shall utter no unskillful words, we shall abide compassionate for their welfare, with a mind of lovingkindness." (Middle Length Sayings #21) It's important to remember that when there is an unwholesome mind state arising in our minds, whatever the cause may be, we are the ones who are suffering. This doesn't mean that in the name of spiritual practice we pretend these emotions aren't there, or that we suppress them in some way. Rather, we recognize what is happening, have the discernment to see what is skillful and what is not, and then releasing those mind states that cause us suffering. Here we are practicing the Four Noble Truths right in the midst of our daily life situations.

Joseph Goldstein has been leading insight and lovingkindness meditation retreats worldwide since 1974. He is a cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, where he is one of the resident guiding teachers. In 1989, together with several other teachers and students of insight meditation, he helped establish the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. He is currently developing The Forest Refuge, a new center for long-term meditation practice.

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