Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

The Best of Inquiring Mind - Selections

25 Years of Dharma, Drama, and Uncommon Insight


Several streams of Theravada Buddhism arrived in the West in the 1960s and 70s, the main ones flowing from the monasteries and teaching schools of Burma, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. (Although Buddhism came westward earlier with Asian immigrant communities, it wasn’t until the midtwentieth century that it began to attract Western adherents in any significant numbers.) The Asian sources of the Theravada offered different flavors of Dharma, various styles and methods of exploration and realization. The lineages that had most impact in the West were those of Mahasi Sayadaw and Sayagyi U Ba Khin from Burma and the forest traditions of Ajahn Chah and Buddhadasa from Thailand. The journey begins here.

In the winter of 1970–71 in Bodhgaya, India, about forty people gathered for one of the first meditation retreats conducted by Satya Narayan Goenka, a student of U Ba Khin. In attendance were Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Daniel Goleman, and Ram Dass and his entourage, including Krishna Das, John Travis, and Wes Nisker, all of whom would eventually return to the West and bring the Dharma with them, becoming prominent meditation teachers and authors. Around the same time as the Goenka retreat, Jack Kornfield and the American monk Ajahn Sumedho (to be followed by many others, including the British monk Ajahn Amaro) were practicing Dharma in the monasteries of the Thai forest master Ajahn Chah. The westward movement of the “path of the elders” had begun in earnest.

In this section we chart this transmission by featuring interviews with seminal figures Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg (both of whom also studied with Anagarika Munindra and U Pandita of the Mahasi lineage), and an interview with S.N. Goenka, as well as remembrances of the beloved Indian teacher Dipa Ma. From the Thai Forest tradition we include an interview with Ajahn Amaro. Addressing the increasingly broad and diverse dissemination of Dharma in the West, Jon Kabat-Zinn discusses secular adaptations of mindfulness practices, and “Dharma punk” Noah Levine describes taking the teachings to his own newer generation of Western seekers. Jack Kornfield concludes with his reflections on a meeting between Western Dharma teachers and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, which reveals how the traditions of Asia are being challenged and adapted by this new breed of Buddhists.


1. Conversation with a Spiritual Friend: An Interview with Joseph Goldstein

Joseph Goldstein has been teaching the Dharma and vipassana meditation for almost thirty-five years. He is the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society and the Forest Refuge in Barre, Massachusetts, and he is the author of a number of books on Buddhism, including the classic The Experience of Insight and most recently A Heart Full of Peace. The fact that many Western teachers of Theravadan Dharma consider themselves to be his students is evidence of the esteem in which he is held. Joseph Goldstein has been featured in many issues of Inquiring Mind, but we felt that our first interview with him, conducted in December of 1983, best captures both his wisdom and personality. Since this interview was the front-page article in the premier issue of our journal, it has sentimental value for us as well.

Inquiring Mind: Please describe how you see your role as a teacher.

Joseph Goldstein: In the Theravada tradition, teachers are known as “spiritual friends,” which is quite different from the concept of guru either in the Hindu tradition or in some of the Mahayana schools of Buddhism. Within the Theravada tradition even the Buddha is spoken of as a spiritual friend in the sense that he only points out the way and that everybody has to do the work of purification themselves. I think that what happens between teacher and student is very complicated, and I don’t yet have a full understanding of the relationship. Somebody recently said that what he got from me most as a teacher, aside from meditation instructions, was a quality of faith. I wouldn’t conceptualize my function as being someone who inspires faith, but when he said that, it resonated. I do have unshakable faith in the Dharma and that must be a source of strength when people are struggling in their own practice.

IM: You also have a very natural, unassuming way in which you present the practice. In spite of your height, you don’t seem to place yourself in any way above the Sangha.

JG: I think part of that has to do with the feeling of still being very much on the path, without any illusions at all of having come to a place of completion. Every time I watch my mind, as with most people who watch their minds, I am reminded of the saying that self-knowledge is usually bad news. When one is sitting, in addition to the incredible purity of the Dharma field in which it’s happening, what one sees so clearly and so explicitly and without compromise is the junk of the mind, all the defilements that are still there.

IM: When you are teaching, what questions do you get asked the most?

JG: Well, the preface to the question that’s asked most is, “If there is no self, then. . .?” Fill in the blank. The idea of selflessness seems to be the hardest concept for people to understand.

IM: Do you think that difficulty is more characteristic of Westerners?

JG: It seems to be. In Buddhist cultures, the concept of selflessness is part of the cultural conditioning, whereas in the West it’s almost the opposite— the classic example being Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” which revolves around positing a sense of self and then trying to figure out what it is. One of the most wonderful things in teaching retreats is to see people begin to open to that understanding of selflessness. It’s tremendously liberating to begin to see that there’s nothing to protect and nothing to solve and that rather than necessarily working out our problems, we can stop identifying with them.

IM: What about the problem of immediate survival? It seems that a lot of Sangha members are becoming involved in social action, especially around the issue of nuclear war. Do you have any thoughts about people putting their energy into saving the planet from destruction?

JG: There are a few considerations that come to my mind. One has to do with the context of our activity in the world. From the Buddhist perspective we see a much bigger picture than this planet Earth. If saving the planet is seen as being the end of one’s endeavor, it seems very limiting to me. I think that if that activity were done within the framework of a larger context, for instance, the goal of alleviating suffering, then the cure would be deeper and the energy with which it was done would have a greater level of purity. Look at Gandhi. I think that a lot of his power came because he put the struggle in a much larger context. He wasn’t simply a politician trying to liberate India. There was always a dedication to something much higher, a commitment to what was true, and he was always checking everything against that truth. So his politics were really an expression of a very high Dharma.

IM: If compassion is the motivation, then perhaps the actions are also purified or have a deeper meaning.

JG: I would agree, but I don’t think there are any limitations to the manifestation of compassionate action. People often get stuck evaluating different kinds of action as being more or less compassionate. For example, going out and protesting against social injustice is often seen as being a more compassionate act than meditating in a cave in the Himalayas. From my perspective there isn’t one form that is better than another. It depends totally on the level of compassion in the mind. It doesn’t matter whether people sit in a cave or write poetry; they can be selling insurance, they can be protesting or doing anything. The state of mind and qualities of the heart are what truly count.

IM: Do you feel there is one type of economic or political system that is more compatible with the Dharma? Wouldn’t a compassionate society manifest as some variation of socialism or communalism?

JG: If the people in the society are compassionate, I don’t think the form would matter at all.

IM: But look at the current stage of corporate capitalism. Don’t you think that it fosters greed and competition?

JG: I see it the other way around, that greed fosters the system. Social organization arises out of levels of consciousness, and there’s no system that is going to work as long as there is greed and hatred in people’s minds. So that seems to me the place to do the work.

IM: So it’s about the “United States of Consciousness.” Perhaps all of society could be taught metta (lovingkindness) meditation.

JG: Good idea. However metta meditation by itself will not lead to liberation because it’s working on the level of relative truth in the sense of wishing all beings to be happy and free of suffering. The very concept of beings is a relative concept, so that’s the level which that particular meditation plugs into, and it’s wonderful because we live in that relative plane a lot. Lovingkindness meditation can make the mind very spacious and accepting and loving, but there’s another kind of love that’s a product of deep insight, and that is the kind of love you might feel for your hand. It’s not articulated; you don’t go around saying, “I love you, hand.” It’s simply a part of you, and so you relate to it in a very loving way.

IM: It’s the Gaia hypothesis, the oneness of the new physics, the Hindu saying “Thou art That.”

JG: Right. When we identify with being a small part of the whole, we create this very limited sense of self and imprison ourselves in that identification. When we let go of that identification, we become nothing—and being nothing, we become everything.

IM: And thereafter we love everything as ourselves. It sounds ecstatic.

JG: I have a sense that it’s very ordinary in the same way we relate to our hand is ordinary; it’s not ecstatic. Even appreciation of something is already an articulation. This state I’m talking about is a way of being that doesn’t need any particular articulation.

IM: Are there any unique historical or cultural conditions that lead to Dharma practice or the spread of Buddhism? Why do you think it has taken hold in the West at this time?

JG: My sense is that a powerful source for Dharma practice is some level of discomfort in society, but it’s not necessarily any particular kind of discomfort or suffering. For example, Soen Sa Nim, the Korean Zen master, has been going to Poland for the last few years, and he says that when he gives a talk thousands of people come. There’s some kind of suffering there creating intense interest in the Dharma. Meanwhile, our American culture, so open to new ideas, has created a tremendously fertile ground for Dharma. But in America, we’re experiencing another kind of suffering. I think one of the reasons that the Dharma is flourishing here is because we’ve experienced so much, and we have so much, yet we are still dissatisfied, still suffering. And that’s what the Buddha taught—suffering and the end of suffering.

From Volume 1, Number 1 (Spring 1984).


2. Master of the Dhamma: An Interview with S.N. Goenka

During the third century B.C.E., the teachings of the Buddha spread across the Indian subcontinent and into Southeast Asia under the auspices of the great Indian emperor Ashoka, also known as Dhammaraja, the King of Dhamma. According to legend, Ashoka’s chief Dhamma teacher sent two monks to Burma to offer the triple gem to the people there, and as he sent them off he made this prediction: the Dhamma would one day disappear from India and the rest of the world but would be preserved in its pure form in Burma, the Golden Land. The teacher also predicted that 2,500 years after the Buddha, the Dhamma would be transported from Burma back to India and from there it would spread throughout the world.

This prophecy is now being fulfilled to some degree through the work of S.N. Goenka, or Goenkaji, as he is affectionately known, one of the most influential Dhamma teachers in the world today. Goenka was born in 1923 into a wealthy Indian family living in Rangoon, Burma. As a young man he became very successful in business and at the same time began developing severe migraine headaches. Goenka traveled around the world searching in vain for treatments and cures until finally, back home in Rangoon, he began studying vipassana meditation with Saiyagi U Ba Khin. Eventually his headaches went away, but more than that, his life was transformed. Goenka became a devoted follower of the Buddha’s path.

In 1969, Goenka moved to India, where he began teaching vipassana, helping to bring this age-old meditation practice back to the land of its origin. Since then he has taught thousands of people and has established meditation centers in India, America, Europe, and Australia.

A three-hour train ride from the urban chaos of Bombay on a hill overlooking the rural Indian town of Igatpuri, Goenka built Dhammagiri, which serves as his main meditation center. Established in 1976, Dhammagiri features a large Burmese-style pagoda, a spacious meditation hall, and over 300 individual meditation cells where students can practice in isolation. The grounds are planted with flowers and fruit trees, the living quarters are comfortable, and the food is clean and nourishing. Inside Dhammagiri the purity is tangible.

This interview grew out of several conversations with Wes Nisker in December 1986.

S.N. Goenka: Purity is very important because what is going on at meditation retreats is nothing less than surgery on the mind. When you have surgery on your body, you go to the surgery theater, which is kept very pure. No contamination is allowed because a wound is being opened, and if some outside dirt gets in, it will cause infection. It is the same in this surgery of the mind.

Inquiring Mind: The meditation retreats at Dhammagiri include people from many nations and from a variety of religious and economic backgrounds. You tell them that you are not teaching Buddhism but simply the laws of nature.

SNG: Buddha’s pure teaching is nothing but the law of nature. The Buddha himself said that whether there is a Buddha in the world or no Buddha in the world, the law of nature remains. If you generate craving and aversion in the mind, you are bound to become miserable. If you want to come out of your misery, then get rid of craving and aversion. This is just the law of nature, and this law is applicable in every culture.

Even people who belong to sects that are totally opposed to Buddhism are now coming to take these vipassana meditation courses. For example, for twenty-five centuries in India the Jain community has been teaching that the Buddha’s path is wrong. The same with the Hindu community. I was born in a conservative Hindu family, and from childhood we were taught that even if you are going down a very narrow lane and a wild elephant is coming at you about to crush you, and you see an open door of a Buddhist temple on your right and an open door of a Jain temple on your left, it is better to get crushed by the elephant than to escape through those doors. But now there are a great many of these Hindus and Jains coming to the meditation courses. Once the practice is established, it is all just the law of nature. The law of nature does not give preference to a Christian or to a Hindu. If you place your hand on the fire, your hand will burn. It is so simple. This is the Dhamma. I have no belief in Buddhism. I believe only in Dhamma. For me Hinduism and Buddhism are both madness.

IM: When you are teaching the Dhamma, do you find that the Indian students are different from Westerners? And do you ever alter your teaching to accommodate people of different cultures?

SNG: The basic teaching remains the same and the meditation technique remains the same. But there are some differences. The Indians have more trouble with their philosophical beliefs, especially concerning the “soul.” One community believes that the soul is the size of the thumb. Another believes that it is the size of a persimmon seed. And there are so many different gods here in India, gods with two hands or four hands, gods of this shape or that color. So I tell the Indians that it is all right to believe in this kind of soul or that kind of soul, or this god or that god, but you still have to purify your mind. Otherwise you will remain miserable.

On the other hand, when I am teaching Indians, I don’t need to place so much emphasis on sila (morality). It is not that the people in India are full of sila, but at least they understand sila and it is very important to them. So I don’t need to talk too much against free sex or drugs. But in the West, I have to give more emphasis to those issues.

IM: Many spiritual teachers who have come to the West in the past few decades have been discredited or somehow mixed up in scandal involving sex, drugs, and money. Why do you think this is occurring so frequently?

SNG: Well, if some teacher goes to the West with the ambition to acquire material wealth, then this person has nothing to do with Dhamma. The meditation techniques can be kept pure, the Dhamma can be kept pure only if the teacher expects nothing in return, not even any fame or status. If there is any such craving in the mind of a teacher, then this person is not worthy of becoming a teacher. If a teacher is a monk, then he must beg for his food, and if the teacher is a householder, then he or she must have another means of livelihood. The teaching of Dhamma cannot be a means of livelihood.

Another problem for many teachers in the West is the great freedom of sex that exists there. But how can any vipassana teacher even think of passion toward his own students of the opposite sex? For vipassana teachers all female students are their daughters and all male students are their sons. Everyone who received the Dhamma from the Buddha was his child. If you are teaching Dhamma, that means you are giving people a new life, a new birth, and those people then become your children. If a teacher has sexual relations with a student, you will not have pure Dhamma.

IM: Do you feel that Westerners are more attached to the concept of self than the Indians?

SNG: If by self you mean a soul, then the Indians have a harder time with it. But when you talk of self as ego, then it is the same everywhere. In Burma, India, or America, people are mad with their ego. That is why the meditation technique is most important. The technique is to dissolve the ego.

IM: However it is undoubtedly more difficult for Westerners to accept some of the traditional Buddhist beliefs, such as the idea of rebirth. How does this affect their meditation practice?

SNG: A belief in rebirth is not important, but as you develop in vipassana, it will become clear to you by your own understanding. Anyway, to me this present life is much more important than a future life. Why worry about a future life? If you do something to better your present life, then your future life will automatically become better. But if you are doing something for a future life and it doesn’t help you in your present life, then to me it is useless.

IM: You teach a meditation practice that involves moving the mind through the body and focusing on physical sensations. This technique has become widely known as the “body scan,” and sometimes is called “sweeping.” What is the origin of this technique?

SNG: Buddha is the origin! (Laughs) Nobody else can be the origin. In the Satipatthana Sutta there are the words, “Sabbakaya-patisamvedi assasissamiti sikkhati. . . passasissamiti sikkhati.” (Feeling the whole body I shall breathe in. . . feeling the whole body I shall breathe out.) One should learn how to feel the entire body in one breath, breathing in and breathing out. Perhaps I am responsible for calling it “sweeping,” but this is the Buddha’s teaching.

The whole technique of the Buddha is to move you from the gross level of reality to the subtle. The apparent truths are always gross and solidified, full of illusions and delusions. The purpose of vipassana meditation is to penetrate the gross and go to the ultimate truth. The ultimate truth of mind and body is nothing but vibration, and that is what you are observing when you practice this technique.

IM: In this meditation practice, you do not give much emphasis to cittanupassana (observation of mind) or dhammanupassana (observation of mental contents). Is there a reason for this?

SNG: Observing thoughts is never taught by the Buddha. In the Satipatthana Sutta in the section on cittanupassana, the Buddha says, “Here a bhikkhu understands properly mind with craving as mind with craving.” Craving for what is not important. If you observe the thought, then you start rolling in its contents. So instead you simply observe that craving has started in the mind, and at the same time you feel the arising and passing away of sensations in the body. If you are equanimous with the sensations, then you are also equanimous with the craving, and in this way, layer after layer of that particular sankhara (reaction) in your mind will be erased automatically.

IM: It sounds like you are dealing here with a very deep, subconscious level of the mind.

SNG: Yes, and that is why this technique was developed by the Buddha. First he had tried eight jhanas (levels of absorption), which had purified his mind, but not to the depth. Deep inside there was what the Buddha called “sleeping impurities,” meaning that the roots of the impurities were still there. He realized that these could be taken out only through the practice of vipassana, through awareness of sensations.

Buddha understood that the unconscious mind is constantly in contact with the body sensations. So if we are going to purify the unconscious mind, we have to work with these sensations. If you forget the sensations of the body, then you are dealing only with the surface of the mind. The surface of your mind will become purified and you will benefit from that also, but those complexities lying deep below, the deep conditioning of the past, will remain unchanged.

IM: So you are training the mind not to react in a habitual way to any sensations that may arise.

SNG: Yes, exactly. Whatever external event happens will generate sensations in the body, and you will have trained your mind to be equanimous with those sensations. So you are at the roots. If the roots are healthy, then the tree will automatically be healthy. You need not worry. This is how it works.

From Volume 4, Number 1 (Summer 1987).


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© Inquiring Mind, The Best of Enquiring Mind (Wisdom Publications, 2008)

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