How did Sharon Salzberg find loving-kindness — and in the darkest of times?
By Trish Deitch Rohrer
In 1971, a few days before eighteen-year-old Sharon Salzberg was meant to leave for India on an independent study project from State University at Buffalo where she was a student, she heard Tibetan meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was giving a talk in town, and she went to see him. After his talk, Trungpa Rinpoche asked for written questions, and Salzberg, who’d never meditated before, had one. “I wrote out, ‘I’m leaving for India in a few days to study meditation,’” Salzberg remembers. “‘Could you suggest where I might go?’” Hers happened to be one of the questions that Trungpa Rinpoche picked out of the large pile which had accumulated in front of him. “He read it out loud,” she says, “and he was silent for a moment. And then he said, ‘I think you had perhaps best follow the pretense of accident.’”
Salzberg laughs now, sitting on her couch on a bright fall morning in Barre, Massachusetts. She lives just through the woods from the Insight Meditation Society’s retreat center, which she co-founded in 1976 with Jack Kornfield-now the founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center-and Joseph Goldstein, who lives next door to Salzberg on the property adjacent to IMS. Salzberg continues, “Trungpa Rinpoche gave me no map, no guidebook, no set of directions, no ‘Hey! My friend the lama is waiting to teach you on some mountaintop!’ There was nothing. And so I went to India, just like that.”
When asked if she knew what Chögyam Trungpa meant by “follow the pretense of accident,” she says, “No! It made no sense to me whatsoever! I thought, What does that mean?! But of course it’s exactly what unfolded. One thing led to another.”
When Salzberg was four, her father left her mother. When she was nine, her mother started hemorrhaging on the couch one night when only the two of them were home, and, though the little girl managed to call an ambulance before her mother bled to death, she died two weeks later. That night on the couch was the last time Salzberg saw her. A couple of years after that, Salzberg’s father-not the glamorous fellow she’d always imagined him-came to live with Salzberg and her grandmother, and six weeks later tried to kill himself with an overdose of pills. Eleven-year-old Sharon stood outside on the sidewalk as he was taken off in a stretcher to a psychiatric hospital. He never returned.
No one talked-ever-about any of what was happening to Salzberg: about all that profound loss and its attendant grief, shame, confusion and self-hatred. Maybe they did in whispers, but they stopped when she came into the room. So a consequence of the events of her childhood was that Salzberg felt left out of the flow of life. “Things were good for other people,” she says, “but not for me.”
About five years ago Salzberg, who had written two well- received books about Buddhism and was a teacher and inspiration to thousands of people, felt compelled to write a book about faith. Not many, however, were interested in supporting the project. Faith?! What does faith-a concept associated with theism-have to do with Buddhism? Still, Salzberg proceeded with her plan: she had a story to tell about faith in the context of her thirty-year experience as a Buddhist, and there was no way she could stop herself from doing it.
At sixteen Salzberg moved from Manhattan, where she lived with her grandmother, to Buffalo, and at seventeen, in an Asian studies class there, she heard the Buddha’s teachings for the first time.
“Here, finally,” she says, “was the Buddha saying what I longed for somebody to acknowledge: that there is suffering that exists.” Salzberg also heard the Buddha saying that no one is left out-not even Sharon Salzberg-of the possibility for the cessation of suffering. Something, in that moment, “ignited” in her.
“The Buddha’s vision of the possibility of what freedom could look like was…” Salzberg looks out the window, and says, “…tremendous.”
And so the sophomore in college, having it in her mind that Buddhist meditation was the one thing that could free her from her suffering, put together the independent study project to India, and following the pretense of accident as best she could, she set off to find a teacher.
In Salzberg’s kitchen at dinnertime, six friends are sitting around a long country table yakking away about not much, laughing, eating two kinds of ice cream and apple pie and expensive chocolates after a large meal of leftovers liberated from the industrial-sized, stainless steel refrigerators at IMS, where a handful of people are doing silent retreats.
Salzberg, though, is sitting in a chair just away from the table, in the corner, watching. Or maybe not watching-maybe she’s just being there-listening, kind of smiling, occasionally saying a few words and then falling silent again.
If you were angry, you might think she was angry; if you were sad, you might think she was sad; if you were lonely or bored or tired or scared or feeling above it all or deeply, deeply depressed or very happy, you might think she was that. Which means that Salzberg, doing nothing but quietly being there, is doing her work well: she’s being what Ram Dass says she is: a kalyanamitra, a “special friend,” a mirror that shows you-if you care to take a look on a dark Saturday night-your mind.
“This is not a drama queen,” says Michele Bohana, director of the Institute of Asian Democracy in Washington, D.C. “She has tremendous compassion, she’s extremely generous, she is a fabulous teacher, she has total commitment to the dharma, she’s extremely humble and there’s nothing fancy-schmancy about her-she’s very down to earth.” Bohana laughs. “Us American women?” she says, “We’re all very hyper. We’re all very, ‘Deadline, deadline, can’t talk now, call me back!’ Right? Well, she’s, ‘Gotta go practice.’ Quite the difference.”
Sunanda Markus, a consultant for Mirabai Bush’s Center for Contemplative Mind and Society, says, “She’s one of those people whose love of the dharma rings throughout every cell of her body. And she has an understanding that the dharma is really what has import. And that’s why she’s here. And why she went to India when she was eighteen. You might think I’m completely nuts,” Markus says, “but I actually believe that she has done many lifetimes of practice and is an incredibly evolved person.”
In Faith, Salzberg tells the story of arriving in Bodh-gaya in ‘71 and sitting next to a monk under the Bodhi tree where the Buddha was enlightened. The monk turned out to be one of the Dalai Lama’s teachers, Khunu Rinpoche.
“As I sat next to Khunu Rinpoche,” she writes, “I sensed deep within me the possibility of rising above the circumstances of my childhood, of defining myself by something other than my family’s painful struggles and its hardened tone of defeat. I recalled the resignation in my father’s eyes at the constraints that governed his life. The boundary of his autonomy was the decision about where to have lunch if someone took him out of the hospital on a pass. With a surge of conviction, I thought, But I am here, and I can learn to be truly free. I felt as if nothing and no one could take away the joy of that prospect.”
Salzberg traveled around India for a while in 1971, but couldn’t find anyone to teach her how to meditate. Finally, at a yoga conference she’d stumbled upon, she heard about a ten-day retreat in Bodh-gaya, led by a S.N. Goenka of Burma, who had started doing Vipassana meditation to cure his migraines. It was at this first retreat that Salzberg met a group of people who would become her longtime colleagues and friends: Joseph Goldstein, Ram Dass, Daniel Goleman, Mirabai Bush and Krishna Das.
“I had a great sense of discovery,” she says, “and homecoming and rightness at being there. As difficult as it was to do-I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t sit still, and a lot of uncomfortable feelings started to surface-I loved it. It was like falling in love. And, in a way, I’ve never veered from that. I do different practices or I approach the dharma in a different way, but that feeling hasn’t faded.
“I was working against so much unhappiness,” she says of her early practice, “trying to come out of it, that it was all me-me-me, all the way.” She laughs. “Perhaps it would have been healing to be able to reach out to help others, but I didn’t have it in me, even though I tried practicing generosity a lot.”
Salzberg stayed in India for a year and a half that trip, remaining in Bodh-gaya to do additional retreats with Goenka, and then moving on to meet and study with Tibetan teachers Kalu Rinpoche and the 16th Karmapa, Rigpe Dorje. But there was something in the simplicity of the Theravadan tradition of mindfulness practice that Salzberg was drawn back to. She was drawn back to Vipassana meditation, and a practice that Goenka introduced only at the end of Salzberg’s first retreat: metta-loving-kindness practice.
One thing that makes Salzberg different from many other Western students who sat at the feet of great Indian, Tibetan and Southeast Asian Buddhist teachers in the early 1970′s and brought what they taught back home, is that Salzberg embodies a very particular piece of the dharma puzzle. She stresses one thing: that in order to be free from suffering-and therefore to be able to give abundantly to others-one must endeavor to love oneself abundantly. Even for people whose lives have been less painful than Salzberg’s, the Buddha’s teachings on loving-kindness work to connect a person to their own heart and the hearts of all other beings without exception.
The day Salzberg sat under the Bodhi tree, she made a vow to herself: she vowed to learn to love as the Buddha loved. “Loving as the Buddha loved of course meant being able to love oneself as well,” she says in her living room. “It’s not really a question of, ‘May all sentient beings be free from suffering,’” she laughs, “‘-except for me.’ It has to include oneself.” The question was how to do that.
Salzberg met two female teachers in India during that first trip who became examples to her of people who had transformed their misfortune into abundant generosity and love. The first teacher was Dipa Ma, a tiny Indian housewife living with her daughter in the slums of Calcutta. Dipa Ma had gotten so sick she nearly died of grief after losing her husband and two of her three children. According to Salzberg, when someone told Dipa Ma that meditation might save her life, she crawled-because that’s the best she could do-up the steps of the meditation center to receive instruction. Salzberg related to this story-to the way Dipa Ma used her pain as motivation to liberate herself, and then to liberate others who suffer. The intensity of Dipa Ma’s motivation, Salzberg understood, was the key.
“Dipa Ma modeled the ability to transform one’s suffering-even immense suffering-into loving compassion.” Salzberg looks at you impishly-”I always knew I wanted to be that kind of person when I grew up.”
Then Salzberg tells the story of meeting a friend of Dipa Ma’s-another female Indian teacher whose father-in-law had forbidden her to meditate. “I asked her, ‘How did you accomplish what you needed to accomplish to be a teacher?’ and she said, ‘I was very mindful when I stirred the rice.’” Salzberg looks at you with soft green eyes, raises her eyebrows and smiles. She says, “I think we have the ability to seize that possibility for ourselves, and we don’t do it.”
Salzberg came back to the States in 1974, finished school, and-because Dipa Ma told her to, saying that Salzberg “really understood suffering”-she helped Joseph Goldstein teach a class in meditation at the Naropa Institute, which had just opened its doors in Boulder, Colorado. Though Salzberg was practicing, and now beginning to teach-and even starting to lead retreats-she was still incredibly hard on herself, full of self-judgment, “straining,” she says, all the time to change herself, be better, get somewhere with her practice. Ram Dass says of Salzberg in those years, “She was quite lost.”
Ram Dass agrees, however, with others who say that Salzberg must have built up stores of merit in other lifetimes, because, though lost, straining, self-critical and at first all for herself, she worked diligently to stay on a difficult path that would eventually have a huge impact on a lot of people. When she was only 23, she and Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein, joining with a group of friends, bought, with very little money, an old building from the Catholic Diocese, and started the now well-respected and very successful Insight Meditation Society.
It wasn’t until 1984 that Salzberg and Goldstein met Sayadaw U Pandita, the Theravadan teacher from Burma who would turn Salzberg’s life around once again. U Pandita had a reputation for being very, very difficult.
“Oh, boy-he was a tough guy,” says Ram Dass, who met U Pandita in Burma during an early retreat with Salzberg and Goldstein. Ram Dass laughs. “I was happy to leave there. I felt like I escaped.” Ram Dass says it was at this time, 1985, that Salzberg started doing metta intensively. “I watched her change,” he says. “She went from being in her mind, to being very soft, loving, sensual, actually. Because she was coming into herself.”
Between 1985 and 1991, U Pandita worked with Salzberg on two practices: mindfulness practice and loving-kindness practice. Though she’d been meditating for fourteen years, and had been at IMS for nine, it was a new beginning.
“I was seeing him six days a week when on intensive retreat,” Salzberg says, “and I’d go in for an interview, and describe something, and he’d say, ‘Well, in the beginning it can be like that,’ and I’d think, ‘I’m not a beginner!’” She laughs. “And I’d come in the next day and describe something completely different and he’d say, ‘Oh, in the beginning it can be like that.’ You know?!” Salzberg says, and, feigning infuriation, looks at you, “‘I’m not a beginner!’ And it went on that way for a very long time,” she says, “until I got it: It’s good to be a beginner. It’s good not to have all these ideas-‘I shouldn’t experience this, I should be doing more of that.’ It’s good to just see what’s there, to say, ‘Wow! Look at that!’”
One of the resident teachers at IMS, Amy Schmidt, is laughing about Salzberg. She’s remembering the time U Pandita came to IMS and made Salzberg slow down her mindfulness meditation to such a snail’s pace that sometimes she had to leave the shrine room two hours before lunch, in order to make it the fifty or so steps to the kitchen in time for the meal.
Salzberg rolls her eyes when she talks about this. “And there was Joseph,” she says, “walking around at his normal pace. I thought, ‘Why isn’t anybody doing this correctly but me?’”
U Pandita, though, obviously had something in mind for Salzberg. Again, he had her come in six days a week for interviews. The idea was that she would write down something she noticed about one meditation period per day, and one walking meditation.
“I’d go in there,” Salzberg says, “and before I could read my notes to describe my sitting and my walking, he’d say, ‘What did you experience when you washed your face?’ Which was nothing, because I hadn’t paid the least bit of attention to that.” Salzberg shakes her head. “And that was my interview. So I’d leave and I’d sit and walk and wash my face as mindfully as I could-I’d feel my hands in the water, and the water on my face-and I’d go in the next day and he’d say, ‘Tell me everything you noticed when you drank your cup of tea.’ Which was nothing.” Salzberg smiles, remembering.
Sometimes Salzberg would come into the room and bow to U Pandita and her hair would fall in her face and she’d brush it away with her hand and he’d say, “Did you note that?” “And I’d say, ‘No,’ and I wouldn’t get to read my sitting and walking notes that day either.” Salzberg called this experience the “torment of continuity,” but after a while she understood something more: where before she’d thought that meditation was what took place inside the shrine room, now she began to see that there was no difference between meditation and non-meditation. “We all have a tendency,” she says, “to think the real stuff happens in the meditation hall, and that if you’re drinking a cup of tea in the dining room and you get lost in a fantasy, the thing to do is throw the cup in the dishwasher and run back into the meditation hall to regroup. Well, that tendency for me was gone.
“The phrase that kept coming up in my mind during that retreat,” she says, “was from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, in which Suzuki Roshi says something like, ‘We practice not to attain buddhanature, but to express it.’ Finally I could just say, ‘O.K., I’m just expressing this right now, and right now, and right now.”
You walk with Salzberg through the woods from her house to IMS, and she just walks, hands in coat pockets, eyes on the ground. You take a stroll with her on a country road nearby, past horses, trees and a pond, and she just strolls. She’s not unfriendly-she tells stories and answers questions and smiles and laughs a lot-but she’s not busy building herself up, or entertaining you. The only thing you can do around her is let go of all expectation that something has to happen, that you have to be someone, that she has to respond as someone else.
In loving-kindness practice, a practitioner begins with him or herself, wishing four things: may I be free from danger, may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I live with ease. The practitioner then moves on to wish a “benefactor”-someone who has cared for them-the same four things. Then they make those aspirations for a good friend, then a neutral person-a person they normally ignore, like the counter person at the dry cleaner-then a difficult person, and then all beings without exception. If one were doing a metta retreat, one would do this practice using the same people over and over again.
“We tend to associate love or loving-kindness with a feeling or emotion,” Salzberg says, “but I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s something deeper-it’s really about being able to connect rather than exclude.”
Salzberg tells the story of the time when Joseph Goldstein went to see the 16th Karmapa in Sikkim. “He said that the Karmapa greeted his arrival as though it was just about the most important thing that had ever happened in his life. Which one guesses it was really not. And he did that not through great pomp and circumstance, but through an absolute fullness and completeness of attention. The presence Joseph felt was the feeling of being completely loved.”
Salzberg goes on: “And when Joseph told me this story, I felt quite regretful about all the encounters that I have where I’m kind of half there and half thinking about the next person I need to talk to, or the phone call I need to make. So the first thing is that gathering of energy-when I feel like my energy is somewhere else, I go…” here Salzberg looks at you gently, but with full attention. “Here we are,” she says.
Salzberg does not seem like the mushy type. She is not, as she puts it, “sweet and feeble-minded,” qualities people often think of when they hear the word “love.” When she is there with you, she is simply there, with no pretension, no elaboration, no show. When you e-mail her, she e-mails you right back. When you call her-and she gets dozens of calls a day-she returns the call.
Talking about loving-kindness practice, she says, “I really like the ‘neutral person’ part of the practice a lot. Because here’s this person that you don’t really know, you don’t have a story about them, you don’t know about their sorrows or their joys. But you pay attention to them every day, in effect, because you’re using them as an object of meditation, and wishing them well. And by virtue of the fact that you’re paying attention to somebody rather than overlooking them or ignoring them-suddenly there’s this real caring.
“A lot of the really charming stories of loving-kindness practice at IMS come out of that phase. People will be sitting and sitting and sitting and they’ll have a neutral person who’s also a meditator on retreat and they’ll say, ‘I don’t feel anything. I’m not doing this right. I’m not good at this.’ And one day I’ll get a note saying, ‘My neutral person didn’t show up at breakfast-could you please go up and check on them?’” Salzberg laughs. “You know? Like, ‘Yeah, right-your neutral person wants me banging on their door.’” Salzberg laughs again.
Salzberg did loving-kindness practice for four years with U Pandita, and then he wanted her to stop. Metta is not the main practice, he said, mindfulness is: metta will do many things, but it won’t necessarily enhance your understanding of emptiness. “It’s not,” Salzberg says, “a liberating practice.”
On retreat with U Pandita in Australia in the late eighties, then, Salzberg, who at this point thought she knew her mind, went back to mindfulness practice-and fell into a hole: feelings about her mother’s death she thought she’d worked through resurfaced. Miserable, she once again had to reweave the threads of connection from a lonely, desolate place. As a result, her compassion grew, first for herself, and then for everyone else.
Many of her friends can describe the change. Joseph Goldstein says, “When Sharon was just starting out, she was quite an unusual yogi-it was clear that there was wisdom there. But her teaching abilities weren’t clear at that time. Now, though, she has the confidence, and is wonderfully articulate, so the wisdom really shines through.”
Salzberg was riding in an elevator in a New York City hotel a few years ago, when she realized that she was carrying her very heavy suitcase in her arms. “I had the brilliant thought,” she says, “-‘Why not put it down, and let the elevator carry it?’” That’s what it’s like for Salzberg, finally: every moment now there’s another chance to let go-not to strain to be something better, not to strive to get over anything, not to practice life in any kind of harsh, judgmental, demanding or controlling way-but to just let go, moment after moment after moment. And in that moment of letting go is kindness.
“Even if I’m teaching people just to be with the breath,” she says, “my emphasis is that the critical moment in the practice is the moment we realize we’ve been distracted. We have a phenomenal ability to begin again-when we’ve gone off somewhere, we can begin again. And in that moment of beginning again, we can be practicing loving-kindness and forgiveness and patience and letting go. That was always taught to me,” she says, “but I couldn’t hear it. So maybe my evolution has been my ability to hear those words.”
In 1985, Salzberg and Goldstein were in Nepal together, when someone asked them if they’d like to go meet the great Tibetan teacher Dilgo Khentsye Rinpoche. “We were in Bodhnath, just hanging around,” Salzberg says, “and so we said, ‘Yeah, yeah,’ you know, and we kind of went in and there he was in his state of half undress. He was eating lunch, or something like that. It was just the two of us and a translator and him, and he said, ‘Do you have anything you want to ask me?’ And we said, ‘No.’” Salzberg rocks backwards on the couch and laughs hard. “And he burst out laughing,” she says, “like, ‘You don’t know what you’re missing, you dunces!’ Six years later we were studying with Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche and would have done anything to be in a room with Khentsye Rinpoche to ask him questions.”
Salzberg often tells these kind of self-deprecating stories, and you end up feeling great affection for her-she seems to have made as many mistakes as you, only she’s learned to laugh about them, tossing them off as teachings on how to give oneself a break.
Around 1991, twenty years after her first trip to India-and two years after she’d grappled, again, with the agony she felt at her mother’s death-Salzberg, still following the pretense of accident, “conceived an interest in Dzogchen”-the Tibetan Vajrayana practice of the Nyingma school. “It’s hard to even describe this,” she says, “but it was like a kind of craving, a yearning that came up. Some friends came by-students of Dilgo Khentsye Rinpoche’s-and I said, ‘Can you teach me?’ and of course they couldn’t.” She laughs. “‘Can you tell me something about it?’” she remembers saying then, “‘No.’” She laughs again. “And then Surya came.”
Salzberg asked Western Buddhist teacher Surya Das to give her some Dzogchen teachings, but he said it’d be better if he introduced Salzberg to his teachers. And that’s when she went to Nepal to meet Tulku Urgyen,and eventually to Paris where she met the late Nyoshul Khen, called “Khenpo” by his students.
Salzberg “fell in love” with Khenpo. She felt devoted to him, but it was a different kind of devotion than the one she felt for her earlier teachers. With Goenka, Dipa Ma and U Pandita, Salzberg felt a kind of dependency-after all, they were teaching very fundamental things, baby steps to being fully human. But Nyoshul Khen, up until his death in 2000, kept turning Salzberg’s attention to something she was overlooking-not his buddhanature, but hers.
“I had a different experience with him,” Salzberg says, “because I was a much more mature being at that point. I’d always been very devoted to my teachers. But with them the ground of my own self-respect was not that strong yet.”
In the last few months of Nyoshul Khen’s life, Salzberg kept looking to him as the person with the answers, with the strength, with the great love and wisdom. And he kept pointing her to herself for those things. “It turns out,” she says, “we look at the Buddha to see ourselves. And we look at ourselves, not to see ourselves as separate and more wonderful than anybody else.” She laughs. “But we look at ourselves and basically see everybody.”
Finally, after over thirty years of intense practice, of traveling all over the world and studying with what she calls an “ever-changing pantheon of teachers,” Salzberg allowed her teacher to show her what she’d vowed to learn under the Bodhi tree: faith in herself, and in her ability to love.
“From the point of view of the Buddhist teaching,” she says, “we all have that capacity to love. No experience of suffering, of loneliness or of unlovability we may have gone through or may yet go through can ever destroy that capacity. And that faith is the bedrock of loving-kindness. It’s faith in one’s buddhanature, in one’s awareness and the potential to love. It’s faith in an interconnected universe.”
Salzberg doesn’t think, at all, that this is the end of her path.
“I have definitely remade my life,” she says. “I’ve re-parented myself with my teachers, and I’ve found a home in the dharma, and have an amazing community of friends. I have practiced. But like any person, I’m not completely free. I do have faith, though, that any of us can be.”
Trish Deitch Rohrer is the former Executive Editor of Shambhala Sun.
Originally published in our January 2003 issue.