I would hate to think that I or my generation were the ones who lost the idea of enlightenment!
These are the words of Sharon Salzberg, talking about her commitment to classical Buddhism. Sharon began her spiritual quest young. In 1970, when she was eighteen, she left the University of Buffalo and went to India where she studied with a number of great teachers of Buddhism, including S.N. Goenka, Munindra and Dipa Ma from the Theravadan tradition and Kalu Rinpoche from the Tibetan tradition. When Sharon returned to the United States she began teaching with Joseph Goldstein and in 1975, along with Joseph and Jack Kornfield, she helped establish the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. In recent years the Burmese master U Pandita Sayadaw has become Sharon’s primary teacher and she has made several extended trips to Burma to study with him. U Pandita has inspired in Sharon a deep devotion to the classical Buddhist teachings; since studying with him Sharon’s approach, both as a yogi and as a teacher, has taken a new direction.
Wes Nisker, Barbara Gates, Mudita Nisker and Joseph Goldstein were present at the Inquiring Mind interview with Sharon. At the close of the interview, we teased Joseph and Sharon about their strong sense of traditional Buddhism. Sharon teased back, “We’re still fun, aren’t we?”
Inquiring Mind: Many women teachers today see themselves as pioneers in the women’s spirituality movement. In contrast, your passion is classical Buddhism and you don’t seem particularly identified with your gender as a woman teacher. Could you talk about this?
Sharon Salzberg: When I first started practicing, to differentiate between a man and a woman teacher would have been a very fine discrimination. I badly needed help. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was desperate for clarity. I needed a path and I needed a way of directing my effort. I’m talking about quite fundamental suffering. So the question of whether a teacher was a man or a woman was virtually irrelevant.
For many practitioners—including myself—the gender of a teacher remains the subtlest of distinctions. However, others find the idea of women’s spirituality and the inspiration of women teachers to be compelling. I think that’s great, because it also is available. I’ve never felt that teachers discriminated against me because I was a woman. In most places I’ve been I’ve had great access to, and powerful relationships with, my teachers. I didn’t feel I was shunted aside or given less than anyone else; mostly I was given more.
But I’ve never ordained. So I’ve had a somewhat peripheral acquaintance with the monastic order, and I haven’t suffered from the inequality that has evolved in many monastic situations. I know that in some Asian monasteries friends of mine have become nuns only to find themselves as cooks for monks. Some day I would like to ordain for a short period, perhaps on my next trip to Burma. I do feel that it’s sad that few opportunities exist in the Buddhist tradition to live as a woman renunciate with a strong sense of Sangha and a full monastic life. But I do think that those opportunities for women practitioners are growing. A recent trip I’ve taken to Amaravati in England showed me one very strong example of this.
IM: What are your thoughts on the adaptations of Buddhism to address the concerns of women?
SS: Very compelling events—such as the women’s movement—arise at different times in history. These “happen” to all beings, those directly involved and those far away. As Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “The Vietnam War didn’t just happen to the Vietnamese people; it happened to everyone.” In that sense AIDS is happening to everyone. The Women’s Movement “happened” and is “happening” to everyone. It is profound and it is important.
But there’s another level. The teachings of the Buddha go beyond birth and death; there’s nothing else that we have, except these spiritual teachings, which does that. People need to be very careful in bringing the Dhamma to the West. It is easy to be glib and say how the teachings will change as they always have in different countries. Yet the heart-essence of liberation, beyond birth and death, must not be lost or the Dhamma is no longer the Dhamma, the truth.
Every single one of us probably has our own ways we would like to change the teachings. We would like them to be more expressive of our conception of the feminine, or more austere, or more comfortable. We each develop our own relationship to the Dhamma, take from it what we find relevant and leave the rest. Nonetheless, it contains within it the path to the complete end of suffering, to the realization of the highest happiness.
Among students of the Dhamma there are continual debates over the relative importance of living life fully versus going beyond conditioned ways of living, finding harmony in the body versus opening to the unconditioned, seeking the feminine principle versus going beyond all concepts. While it may be valuable to explore both sides of each of these debates, we need a standard or criterion for this exploration. For me, this is the Dhamma as it has been passed down from the Buddha. It is important not to confuse a timeless teaching with a temporary balancing which feels essential today, but which we’ll let go of later.
IM: When you sat your first retreat with Goenka in 1970, did you see this teaching as the truth?
SS: Yes. I felt complete faith. I didn’t feel any doubt. But it was really hard for me to bring the teaching into practice. I had a lot of physical pain, a lot of mental torment. I couldn’t sit for five minutes; I was sweating and crying. And yet, even though my moment-to-moment experiences were often painful and I wasn’t sure I could be a good yogi, if somebody said to me, “Liberation is a possibility,” I knew that’s what I had to work for.
My major asset as a yogi was that I had no preconceptions; I was so young and I was very obedient. Somebody said, “Do this.” I’d say, “Okay.” I just surrendered completely without even thinking about it. There wasn’t a conflict in my mind, should I or shouldn’t I? I just did what people told me. While this could have had its dangers, it enabled me to commit myself wholeheartedly.
IM: How would you characterize Goenka as a teacher?
SS: Goenka was very technique-oriented. The burden of understanding was really on the student. In those days I don’t remember him answering a single question. People would ask him about manifestations of the Dhamma in their lives and he would say, “Go back and sit,” or “Just sit every day.” It was very streamlined. Goenka taught the “sweeping” technique—a moment to moment awareness of the sensations—without elaboration into a cosmology or a world view. That was very strong for me; I had to rely on myself, on my own experience in practice. It was very specific, but it was very deep.
Goenka’s an inspirational person. I have tremendous respect for him. I think for many of us at that time, he opened doors. that completely changed our lives. In India where so many of us were congregating, Goenka offered a unique opportunity to have the structured, supported meditative experience. Goenka started out teaching a course with fourteen or fifteen Westerners, and within a couple of months he had a hundred. A lot of other models were based on doing intensive study and only beginning to practice years into your training. Goenka introduced us to a disciplined way of exploring the mind. The discipline was your own in the sense that you did it; you performed it.
When I was strongly with Goenka, I didn’t even read any dhamma books. At that time, he did not encourage people to read or study, but rather to have a pure experience without anything to judge it by or a standard to live up to.
Then, when I was with Munindra I began to understand the breadth of knowledge that was possible through acquaintance with the Buddha’s teaching. I began to see how important it was to read and study the teachings. The Buddha also said that. He said that somebody who has studied as well as practiced can walk a very broad path.
For example, when I was simply sitting, and I was with Goenka, I didn’t realize that in the act of sweeping I was developing the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. Once I began to study more under Munindra, I had a much broader appreciation for what was actually going on.
IM: It sounds like a good progression, actually. You had the experiences and then you were told further what it was all about. In the beginning you weren’t preconditioned to look for certain things.
SS: Yes. In retrospect I appreciate that a lot.
IM: In recent years you have been a student of U Pandita Sayadaw of the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition. How would you describe your relationship with him?
SS: Working with U Pandita over the years has been like a magic show. He has an amazing understanding. Over and over again the level of his knowledge has awed me. Without his inspiration I don’t think I could do the kind of meticulous I practice I do now. I would not be motivated enough. It’s easy to kind of “mosey along” in your practice.
When the Sayadaw came to teach his first course in the United States I had never met him before. Once I met him the connection was strong and immediate. I watched myself rising to his demands. I might come into an interview walking very mindfully and meticulously, observing every single thing I was doing. I’d sit down and bow, in the same way, with delicacy and precision. Then the hair would fall in my face and I would whisk my head back. He might have been reading a magazine, but as soon as I whisked back my hair, he would look up and say, “Did you note that?” I would say, “No.” He would say, “Do you believe in what the Buddha taught, that uninterrupted mindfulness can really bring you to enlightenment?” I’d say, “Yes.” And he’d say, “Don’t you think it might be better to actually realize it rather than just believe in it? I’d say, “Yes.”
Then the next day I’d be even more careful. I would observe all of my actions precisely. But then I would go reach for my notebook to read my notes and he’d say, “Did you note that?” I’d say, “No.” And he’d say, “You move too fast. You’re just moving so fast.” He’d lament like he was grief-stricken.
Every day there was a new routine. I saw him as an incredible combination of formlessness and form. I felt like he could reach into my mind and play on that level in a really formless way, while at the same time relying on the precision of the form.
One day my mind was full of memories about a trip I had taken when I was in a relationship. On the day of the trip my boyfriend and I had argued. My mind, coincidentally, was also full of vivid images of ocean scenery. I went to my interview with U Pandita and described the ocean scenery I’d been seeing without describing the memories of the trip with my boyfriend. He asked me if I enjoyed it and I replied, “Yes. It’s like going on a vacation to see the ocean.” U Pandita said, “Oh, even going on a vacation can manifest dukkha. All the preparation and the arrangements and the packing can manifest as dukkha. And once you get there, if everything isn’t quite right, it is dukkha. Then even if you go with someone you feel quite close to, you may argue and it will be dukkha.”
Then he looked at me and asked, “Has that ever happened to you?”
There is a lot of magic for me in that relationship with U Pandita! He can be critical, demanding, encouraging and very funny. I can’t even begin to express how grateful I feel for the chance to study with him.
To some extent, the connection doesn’t seem to be a matter of choice. I felt connected to Sayadaw from the time I first saw him, and, in fact, I had a vision of him many years before I’d ever met him or even seen a picture of him. I was in the emergency ward of a hospital, with an intense concussion following an auto accident. I felt my consciousness lift out of my body and start to go through a tunnel, with a lot of light and alien images. I was quite frightened; I thought, ”I’m dying and I’m not ready.” Then I had a vision of Alan Clements as a monk talking to some foreign monks. This culminated in a vision of U Pandita. I thought, “Who is that? I don’t know him.” But I felt myself getting calmer and calmer, coming back into the body. In 1984, about six weeks into the first course I had with him, this vision all came back in a flash.
IM: U Pandita is in the Mahasi lineage. How would you describe the Mahasi school’s methodology?
SS: The Mahasi school teaches a very strong theoretical scriptural understanding as a foundation for a meticulous practice. Meditation students are taught to be with what is, without judgment, yet with careful and close attention. The mind rests on the predominant object, without searching for something else. This is very restful and peaceful. It is also very powerful because we look at what is happening directly, face to face, and continuously. Satipatthana means “to observe repeatedly,” with the mind covering the object, suffusing it, sinking into it—so it is not just a casual glance. If we do this, whole worlds can open up.
The interviewing approach in the Mahasi system supports this silent investigation. In interviews students describe their direct experiences in meditation, how their awareness as they sat related to those experiences, and how an experience changed, if it did, once awareness was directed towards it. A student might report, “Pain arose, I forgot to note it for a long time. Once I noted it I felt it as burning and twisting, and as I noted it, it grew stronger and more intense. Sadness arose, I noted it as sadness, I felt it as trembling, an ache in my chest, and remembered old memories. As I noted it, it gradually disappeared. Great peace and tranquility arose; I forgot to note these at all. I enjoyed them so much that I forgot to be mindful, eventually I got so spaced out I felt very dull, so I began noting again.”
In the model used by the Mahasi school the path is a progression of deepening insight into anicca (impermanence), dukkha (suffering) and anatta (selflessness), not necessarily in that order but ever-deepening understandings and intuitive openings into those three characteristics of existence.
Often people follow the progression of that model but they lack understanding of their experiences. I’ve seen this in my own practice while studying with U Pandita, and with students since. A person might mistake the opening into the truth of suffering as her own personal pain. She’ll experience the dukkha of life as regret about her past actions or doubt about her love relationship.
I think it’s truer to see the pain one experiences not only as one’s personal suffering, but as an insight into the nature of existence. Once a student has gained some momentum in mindfulness, she or he can understand experiences through the system which is being taught. The Mahasi school method teaches us to move from the particular to the universal, or to use the particular to reveal the universal. The particular serves as the conduit for the other levels held implicit within it.
IM: So there is very little emphasis placed on the psychological or content level of the mind.
SS: I don’t think it’s possible to avoid the content level altogether, but I think there are times in this system–not in the beginning when the content is all important–but when a student has a decent foundation in the practice he can see the content as an expression of something else.
For example, sometimes people experience great loneliness in their practice, and feel it quite personally as a yearning for home, for a job or for people they left behind when they came on retreat. Yet this loneliness may be an expression of a more universal feeling: the fundamental loneliness of the samsaric world where everything is changing and there is no place or person one can rely on—a longing for our one true home—the unconditioned, or Nibbana. This longing may appear in the mind as personal—a desire for safety and unchanging security in a relationship or career. If we continue to explore, we may discover the deepest, purest longing for freedom manifesting as personal longings which are more familiar.
IM: How has studying with U Pandita changed your understanding of the Dhamma?
SS: U Pandita has taught me an immense amount. First is a great respect for the body of knowledge passed on from the Buddha. His understanding is really subtle. When we were in Burma, he gave us a series of talks on the subject of the Satipatthana Sutta. He would take one word and he would talk all evening about the implications of that word in Pali. There’s a word in the Sutta which means “wisdom” or “sagacity”—sampajanna. U Pandita went through six definitions of the word in Pali: to know something in all its parts, to know it completely, to know it distinctly. . . . He just went on and on. Then at the end he said, “That seems to be why the Buddha chose this word instead of panna, which is ‘wisdom’ also.” I was awed by that degree of knowledge and the subtlety of his understanding of this word. There’s a Pali word that’s usually translated as effort. It turns out that ardency might actually be a better translation than “effort.” For some people the distinction between “effort” and “ardency” might be helpful because the word effort might connote strain or judgment, while ardency has a more positive connotation.
Lately I’ve started to dream in Pali. There’s a Pali word, nu, which means something like, “Well?” or “Is this not true?” This is exactly what the same word means in Yiddish!
IM: Can you see ways that study relates to, or changes, your experiences in practice?
SS: Sure. One of the things I like about the Mahasi Sayadaw school is that they integrate study with practice. For example, when I was sitting with U Pandita in Barre, I went through a period when I was feeling really dizzy. When I walked I held onto the walls because everything was swimming around. I thought to myself, “Oh, God, I need some protein fast or I’m going to die. Couldn’t someone send me a hardboiled egg?” When I went to my interview I was incredibly dizzy. I bowed and looked up, but then I had to look down again because the whole room was spinning. The first day I reported, ”I’m really dizzy.” The second day I said, “I’m really dizzy, there’s something wrong here.” Then the third day I was just saying, “I’ve got to stop. I’ve got to go to bed. This is horrible.”
U Pandita finally relented and said, “What happens in real life if you’re watching something move around and around really fast?” I said, “Well, I get dizzy.” He said, “That’s what’s happening. You’re seeing impermanence on a very fast level; your perception is at that level but your conscious understanding is not at that level yet. You don’t know that’s what you’re seeing, and that’s why you’re getting so dizzy.”
I thought to myself, “If my perception is picking up this rapidity of change, I should know it. I should be having insights, like ‘Oh, now that things are changing so fast you can’t hold onto anything.’” I wasn’t having those insights, so I didn’t believe him. However, in a day or two, when my conscious understanding caught up to the perception, I could see he was right.
Then later on when I was reading a book by Mahasi Sayadaw I found it right down there in black and white: People get giddy, people get dizzy. Mahasi Sayadaw’s books are quite available but I just wasn’t regularly using that model, and I hadn’t thought about the dizziness I was experiencing in the terms it describes. U Pandita has awed me over and over again in that level of knowledge, and for that reason I feel very safe practicing with him. I feel that there is very little that will happen to me that is outside of his scope of experience.
Working with U Pandita has also given me a great deal more confidence in myself. The Burmese teaching methods include a lot of challenges to the student. For instance, a teacher might ask a question in such a way that he implies that the wrong answer is correct. The student has to look within herself and proclaim what she knows for herself as true, without pretending just to please the teacher. It’s like the lion’s roar the Buddha described, a declaration of truth, deeply and personally known. But it is hard to be so honest as to say, “My experience seems to be the opposite of what you’re implying is desirable. Too bad; that’s my actual experience.”
Here’s an example. When I was doing intensive metta (lovingkindness meditation) under Sayadaw’s guidance, I had directed metta toward different categories of beings—myself, a benefactor, a beloved friend, someone I hardly knew and someone with whom I had difficulty. At the end of this time, U Pandita said to me, “Imagine you are in a forest, along with your benefactor, a friend, a neutral person and a difficult person. A bandit comes up and demands that you choose one person to be sacrificed which one will you choose?”
I looked deep into my heart and couldn’t feel any distinction between all those people, including myself. Finally I looked at U Pandita and said, “I couldn’t choose; they seem all the same to me.” Then he asked, “You wouldn’t sacrifice your enemy?” I said, “No, I couldn’t.” Then came the clincher. He said, “Don’t you think you should be able to sacrifice yourself to save the others?” He asked it as if more than anything else in the world he wanted me to say, “Yes, I’d sacrifice myself” A lot of conditioning rose up in me, an urge to please him, to be “right” and to win approval, but there was no way I could honestly say, “Yes,” so I said, “No, I just can’t see any difference between myself and any of these others.” He just nodded and I left. Later, I looked this up in the Visuddhi Maga and found that the answer I had given had been the appropriate one for doing intensive metta. In ways like this, I am continually forced to recognize what I know to be true, and to assert it no matter what. It’s been a great lesson!
IM: Some Westerners aren’t comfortable with the forms of traditional Buddhism, for example, bowing to the teacher. Do you have any difficulty bowing to U Pandita?
SS: No. In fact, I like bowing a lot. It is demanding. It demands everything of you. In California and Hawaii when I was assisting in the teaching and I wasn’t getting to sit, I was glad to get a chance to do a lot of bowing. I like the feeling of paying respect to the virtue of the monastic life. It’s hard enough to maintain five precepts in our personal lives. To me, bowing is a gesture of respect for people who are willing to commit to an even stricter level of morality.
Bowing also shows respect to the monastic order (the Sangha, in its narrow sense) for having preserved the teachings. Some 2,500 years later we have access to a pure tradition and many techniques that accurately reflect what the Buddha taught. Think of how unusual that is. If I said something to you and you left the room and said it to a friend in the hall and she repeated it to someone out in the street, five people later it would be almost unrecognizable. So it’s been an amazing undertaking for the Sangha to preserve the teachings.
As a teacher it’s crucial to me to preserve the Dhamma. The natural law of entropy dictates that things get very diffuse, spread out and thinned. It would be a tragedy to abet that process in my teaching. For instance, I can’t imagine teaching the mind-control aspect of the practice without the moral basis. And yet that’s what happens in a lot of programs which are trying to introduce people to a form of stress reduction or relaxation. The Dhamma can be lost in the translation.
IM: Programs that just teach a meditation technique really miss all three parts of the Triple Gem: the Dhamma, the Sangha and the Buddha.
SS: Yes. Taking refuge in the Buddha is a way of honoring the integrated body of knowledge passed down from him. There is room for personal expression within this body of knowledge. But it’s important to recognize that as we practice, our personal realizations carry on a living tradition begun by the Buddha. It’s a tradition; we don’t make it up!
It is also important to keep a balance between relative and absolute truth. On the absolute level, the Buddha is within all of us, within the Dhamma, within anyone’s awakening. On the relative level, he was a historical figure, the pathfinder who left us a legacy and a heritage that is immeasurably profound. It is easy to throw out the relative once the absolute is glimpsed, but I think that is a mistake. We can still respect the relative and act in a way that is appropriate to its forms, without forgetting the absolute.
In the U.S., as people see into a more ultimate or absolute reality, we often disparage or belittle the relative even if it is a vehicle for our arriving at this new sense of what is true. People are very fond of quoting the Buddha’s description of letting go of the raft once you’ve reached the other shore; not only do we have to be careful that we’re not letting go midstream but we also have to be careful to let go with immense respect. This is why we act respectfully toward Buddha images, even though the Buddha is within us all. This is why we honor certain forms even as we know their ultimate emptiness.
Also, there’s a devotional part of me and many other people who feel a great love for the Buddha. I feel protected by the sense that I teach in a lineage beginning with the Buddha and that I’m not just saying things that I’m making up. I feel there’s genuine protection and direction in that and I wouldn’t want to give it up.
IM: Sharon, you often talk about enlightenment. Is it your intention to get enlightened at some time?
SS: You mean truly enlightened? At times I think so. But I don’t know what it would take to become fully enlightened in this lifetime. Teaching is also important to me now.
IM: Do you think you make less progress towards realization through teaching than you did in intensive practice?
SS: I think they’re different, but they’re not exclusive of one another. I’ve learned as much about patience, about being balanced and equanimous, through teaching as I have in any practice. Teaching builds the paramis, or forces of purity. A person’s service in life and whole way of being, in terms of truthfulness and patience, creates the paramis.
But there is a singular focus, which especially involves concentration, that endows the renunciate life and intensive practice with its special gift. Concentration can allow us to see things on a completely different level than we do in our ordinary waking consciousness.
IM: Is some intensive practice a prerequisite for enlightenment? Could a householder who leads a good life and has only a daily practice become fully enlightened?
SS: Actually, I don’t really know. They certainly seemed to in the Buddha’s time. I do think a lot more can happen for us in daily practice than we give credit to. As I’ve said, concentration is essential for opening to different levels of reality. A precondition for the development of strong concentration is the development of the paramis. In their household lives people build paramis such as honesty, generosity and patience.
In Asia many people emphasize the development of the paramis. But sometimes they feel content to cultivate generosity and morality as householders, and to leave the meditation practice to the monks, or to a next lifetime. In contrast, one of the exciting things about practice in the West is that Westerners really want to accomplish as much as they can in their meditation right in this lifetime. But Westerners can be very impatient, not wanting to establish the preliminary foundation before leaping ahead into deep meditation. The practice of qualities like honesty and lovingkindness establishes an incredible foundation of brightness of mind and happiness which makes it much easier to concentrate and do the meditation. It’s really all of one piece—”a seamless garment.” At the same time that we are revitalizing the quest for freedom, we need to have patience. Mahasi Sayadaw said, “Patience is the highest austerity, the highest form of devotion.”
IM: One last question. As a teacher, what do you hope to leave as your legacy?
SS: My main concern is that there remain a context where the teachings are preserved. When teachers of Buddhism begin to adapt the Dhamma to fit their preferences, the main thing I fear is that something essential will get left out. Believe me, it’s easy to leave things out. Sometimes you think your students won’t like you, or they’ll be angry at you because you’ve said something they don’t like; you’re afraid that you’re going to lose them. It’s hard not to fiddle with essential teachings since they sometimes seem unpalatable. Yet the very teachings that you are tempted to change may be necessary to maintain the integrity of the system. I would hate to think that I, or my generation, were the ones who lost the idea of enlightenment because it brings a lot of uncomfortable questions, has a possible negative interpretation, or because people seeking enlightenment might become really goal-oriented and forget the present moment. The result would be that we’d have lost the heart of what the Buddha taught.