Three and a half years ago Larry Rosenberg founded the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, a center designed to support practice in the city. Larry began his teaching career as a professor of social psychology at Harvard, Brandeis and the University of Chicago. During this period he studied Vedanta with Swami Chinmayananda, and was a student of both J. Krishnamurti and Vimala Thakar. Then, as a student of Korean Zen master Seung Sahn, he practiced in monasteries in Japan and Korea. For the past fifteen years he has studied vipassana in both America and Thailand. Larry reflects that, of his own teachers, the Thai masters Achaan Cha, Maha Boowa and Buddha Dasa have had the most influence on him. Based now at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Larry also teaches at the Insight Meditation Center in nearby Barre. Inquiring Mind talked with Larry about the role of a city meditation center and his approach as guiding teacher of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center. The following reflections were excerpted and edited by Barbara Gates from a conversation among Larry, Jack Kornfield and Wes Nisker.
Why Start a City Meditation Center?
I still like cities; that was one of the main reasons that I started a city center. Moreover, there are a lot of serious meditators living in cities who want to practice and who need teaching but are not able to do a lot of long-term sitting. As the sangha grew, there was an increasing need for city people coming off of intensive retreats to have some support for practice. Some sangha members expressed a feeling of isolation, being the “one meditator” at their school or job. At first I taught in churches and bookstores and people’s apartments. I taught in hospitals, and once at a law firm. I spoke to many people who felt they were drifting away from their old friends and way of life and were lonely. All of these concerns converged, and it became obvious that we needed a place where the people who were isolated could meet each other and also maintain continuity of practice between retreats.
An urban center like ours can make an enormous difference in supporting the daily sitting practice. Our center is like a sanctuary. Members can come over at any time. A beautiful Japanese-style fence and garden encloses the center and helps create a pocket of serenity in the midst of a hectic urban area. People come in and find a sitting meditation hall and walking meditation hall, both with flowers and gentle Buddha forms. They can go to a quiet dharma library that has a study table and comfortable chairs. Many people have found that without the center it’s very difficult for them to develop a regular sitting practice. Having a place where people can sit right in the middle of where they are working and living seems to be the main benefit.
Combining Retreats with Daily Life Practice
Most people need to combine their practice in daily life with some intensive practice. When we began the center, I emphasized mindfulness in daily life because I saw it as essential to the many people who were not going on long retreats. This emphasis at times “backfired,” and would be used to justify not sitting very much at all. So I started to encourage sitting a lot and going on retreats as much as possible. Then people would slacken off in their daily mindfulness. I was working on a difficult edge: trying to get across that it’s important to sustain mindfulness in daily life and to do intensive practice, not to set daily life and retreats in opposition.
In my own life I have been in the world a lot, and have found the learning that goes on in the world as valuable as the learning on retreats; I haven’t felt in any way that it’s inferior. Something about the presence of other people can rub up against you and produce responses that, perhaps, don’t turn up on retreat. But the depth of practice possible on retreats doesn’t seem likely in daily life. On retreats the prolonged silence, and not having so many demands put on you, allows for precision, to really see the teaching—impermanence, for example—in very refined ways. That’s hard to do in your daily life in the city when you are surrounded by many people and so much action. One of the most beautiful things that has come out of this center for me is seeing the fruitfulness of blending contemplative life and action in the world.
The Three Fires
We are now planning a long evening of presentations from yogis, all of whom are in “The Three Fires”— work, family and practice. Included will be a lawyer, architect, surgeon, graphic designer, meditation teacher, professor and computer scientist. All of them love the dharma, are thoroughly involved in their work, are very dedicated to their families, and all of them are growing. Of course, that’s what the evening is about. I’ll be the moderator and encourage the participants to explore what they’ve learned about dharma over the years—the hardships and the triumphs.
I think that the people who come to hear this discussion will learn that there needn’t be a dichotomy between being a serious meditator and getting involved in career and family life. They’ll see that there are some people who are very much like them, who have not made that split, and are doing fine. They will also learn that they may have to get up at 5:00 a.m. each morning in order to do it!
A Nine-Day Urban Retreat on Right Speech
What we call a “sandwich retreat” is a way of giving people the opportunity for intensive practice without having to go away and take nine or ten days out of their lives. A sandwich retreat spans two weekends, and includes the evenings which connect them. The weekends are much like any other intensive practice—sitting and walking, with interviews, from early morning until night. But during the week people live their regular lives during the day, return to the center in the evenings, and we focus on a theme. For the past number of years the theme has been right speech. After being given the Buddha’s teachings on right speech, people are encouraged to try, as much as possible, to pay attention to their verbal behavior during the day. When they come back to the center at night the very first thing we do, even before sitting, is try to explore what happened that day in their daily lives. Did they learn anything about speech, about their own habits?
Some people have exploded into all kinds of understandings through examining their lives in the context of these urban retreats. For instance, every year someone finds that they actually lie. Often this revelation is quite dramatic because it comes from an essentially good person who would not think of him or herself, or whom others would not think of, as a liar. This person will hear themself saying a blatant untruth to a friend or a relative. Then they become embarrassed, or go through all kinds of emotions, which often come up when they share their experience in the group. This then tends to lubricate the discussion, and other people become more open and more motivated to examine their own lives.
Also, at these retreats, I’ve encouraged people to study karma right up close through their speech—to note their intentions, what they say, and then to watch the impact on others. Some people begin to see how they create problematic situations through some harshness in their own speech or some manipulation. Often right in the moment of speaking they notice that they don’t feel good. Or they see that the impact on another person produces negative behavior, which becomes suffering. Through this kind of attention people begin to see the power of their own intentionality, as well as their own speech.
Here’s an example of the kind of incident that is reported. A person is sitting down at home to read a newspaper, and then someone he is living with approaches in a warm and friendly way, wanting to join him. The person reading the newspaper really wants to be left alone to read, and meets the sweetness on the part of “intruder” with snide or harsh speech. The other person is hurt by the response, and then, of course, defends herself. Soon the newspaper reader has not only lost the privacy and the quietude that he wanted, but he has an interpersonal disaster on his hands.
When a situation such as this was reported in our evening discussion we worked on compassion, and it had a very powerful effect. The person who reported the incident hadn’t, to that point, understood that there were other ways to look at his own privacy—which of course we all need—or that there might be other kinds of fulfillment in addition to that privacy. For instance, he might have experienced fulfillment in being compassionate to the other person, who was lonely and had the need for some company. When he came in touch with his compassion, the person who had shared the incident had a very deep emotional reaction, with a lot of crying. He began to envision a whole new line of possibility for himself in his daily relations.
Sometimes, on about the third day of observing their speech, people are just appalled to discover not necessarily blatant lies but how their speech always seems slightly off, slightly harsh or snide. No matter what they do, once they open their mouths, they’re wrong. Then we work with that. From a certain point of view, it’s true. But we discuss how it’s not perfection we’re looking for; it’s just being able to see what we can see—about our intentions, about what we say and how we say it, and about the consequences.
The crucial thing that I’ve learned on these retreats is the importance of accountability. If you suggest that people pay attention to certain things in daily life, you should have a forum—ideally close to the time that it’s happening—where they can share with you and tell you what happened.
Even with the reinforcement of that accountability, most people have difficulty paying attention to their speech; they only notice a few fragments during the day. People aren’t able to stay awake so much of the time. They’ll get a glimpse of how they relate to speech, and then not be mindful for long chunks of time. There’s a lot of emotional resistance to intervening with our own speech. It’s like trying to change our diet. Changing our speech opens us up to all kinds of deep emotions and understandings we may not feel ready to experience.
Techniques for Mindfulness in Daily Life
There are some simple techniques that we use to help people hear their speech. Just saying, “Be mindful of speech all day,” becomes too global; people lose track of it, because it’s too hard. But if I say, “Just intentionally decide that for the next five minutes you’re going to really be very alert,” and do that a few times during the day, people can do it.
For instance we can use the telephone in a creative way. Many of us spend a lot of time on the phone, so it is suggested that whenever the phone rings, one tries to be with the breath, and then forms the intention that no matter who’s on the other end, whether it’s your dearest friend or someone trying to sell you the Boston Globe, to try to be fully awake during that phone conversation. Or I might suggest that you form the intention right before you come in from work to really look at your child as she jumps into your arms; really listen to everything that she’s saying, and to what you’re saying.
Some people will use the breath in an ongoing way to help minimize forgetfulness and unnecessary thinking. The basic thrust is mindfulness, and the breath is in the background, helping you to nourish that mindfulness. The breath can help release us from the many small forms of bondage that are part of a typical day—the impatience experienced while waiting on a long line in the supermarket can be worked with, either by switching our attention from the unpleasant feelings to the breath, or by using the breath as an anchor as we examine these feelings directly. Another technique involves silently saying the Pali word buddho (“the one who knows”) with every breath. You can key it in: on the in-breath bud and on the out-breath dho. This can be used all day long to help keep mindfulness alive.
Teaching Metaphors from Daily Life
I’ve worked hard to find contemporary teaching metaphors to compliment the snakes, lotus flowers and chariots of ancient Asian agricultural societies. It is sometimes more vivid and helpful when we can draw upon images from our own culture. Comparisons drawn from the media can be helpful in clarifying points of the dharma for contemporary students. For example, the Buddha suggested that as part of the monks’ training they contemplate dead bodies in the cemetery. Nowadays, not many people go to autopsies or hang out in cemeteries watching all the different stages of the body’s decay. I accidentally stumbled upon a modern approach to this teaching. When you watch the old movies—and I see a fair number of them—you begin to see that everyone there—the director, the person who wrote the musical score, all the stars—are dead. If you’re seeing a film from the 1940s, all of the actors are in the prime of life and they’re running after each other with tremendous vitality, born of lust and aversion, of course. As you watch the film, if you contemplate on the fact that each and every one of those people is now dead, it can be very helpful. At first I suggested this as a joke, but it turns out that some people get real benefit from it. It is also helpful to see older actors like Jimmy Stewart in films when they were very young.
I’ve used an image from the media in attempting to convey the difference between nama (mind) and rupa (body), the physical sensations—for example, when you’re sitting in pain, and the stories that the mind makes up about the physical pain. It’s helpful early on in the practice to be able to discern the difference between those realms. And people sometimes just don’t get it. I’ve suggested that they imagine watching a basketball game on television. Visualize the basketball players on a nice, big screen. You hear the voice of somebody who’s paid to tell you what’s happening. Now, you could turn off the voice and continue to see what’s happening. But if you listen to the voice, you are also experiencing the way the commentator is coloring the game. If he’s for the home team, it’s one way; if he’s for the visiting team, it’s another. So you’re getting the commentator plus the actual game, and you usually don’t realize that. But if you periodically turn off the sound, then you’ll just see pure basketball. When you turn it back on, you’ll see basketball colored by the commentator. I use this analogy so that students can begin to see the relationship between nama and rupa, the way their own mind as commentator can color their experiences of bodily pain.
I’ve used another image from the media to talk about emptiness. I’m trying to convey that emptiness doesn’t mean that something is not there; it just means that it’s empty of inherent existence. For example, if you are watching a horror show on late night TV and there’s some monster on the screen, you might get incredibly frightened by it. If you could chop open that TV set there wouldn’t be a monster in there, but that doesn’t mean that nothing has happened. There’s no inherent monster, but there is a relative monster which you helped create. Your experience was dependent on certain conditions, and as a result you “made” a monster as well as the fluttering heart that goes with it.
Interviews for the Urban Setting
The interviewing that has developed in this urban situation, in addition to the usual concern for sitting practice, often probes into the application of dharma principles in daily life. The sense of accountability that comes from being asked about everyday events is a strong meditative factor. I ask them: “Were you really awake with your family this weekend?” “Any difficulty honoring the five precepts in your personal relationships?” “How are you handling the anger you have toward your boss?” If I never ask them about their daily lives, then I’m putting forward the message that their daily mindfulness is really inferior as a practice to the formal sitting. Since I keep saying that both are important, then I have found that I’ve got to back that up with inquiry.
There’s another form of interview that I’m still developing. Here at the center people often come to interviews right before or after work or school. They don’t have immediate sitting experience to examine, the way people do in the midst of a retreat. So unless we want to talk about sittings that might be at least a few days old, there isn’t anything fresh enough to work with. So I have devised an interview form that comes out of both my study with U Pandita Sayadaw and years of Zen practice. U Pandita asks the yogi to describe a few of that day’s sittings in great detail, and draws on this report for further instruction. Such a report is a historical reconstruction which can be quite illuminating. What I loved about some Zen interviews, especially with Sahn Sa Nim, was that the interview was often about what was happening right then in the interview room; the process between teacher and student was often part of the interview.
In the new form of interviews I have been giving at the center, the concern for precise, detailed reporting is combined with the vivid quality of the actual interview in a kind of meditative dialogue. The yogi meditates and is questioned about how the body, breath or mind is behaving in the present moment. With beginners the questions are designed to try to see if the meditation instructions are understood correctly. At first people usually can’t give very precise answers. I might say, “What’s happening with your breath?” And they might say, “You know, it’s coming in and going out.” Little by little, the yogis learn to produce very precise descriptions. Students tend to have increased samadhi power during these interviews because the questioning encourages them to be alert.
With people who have been practicing for a while I can bring out all kinds of points of dharma doctrine through what they report. Here’s an example: An old student comes in after work. First off, we’ll sit together and just settle down. And then I might say, “How’s the breath today?” And they’ll say, “Well, right now, it was very hectic. I was in traffic, and I’m all over the place; it’s hard to be with the breath.” After a while they’ll say, “The breath’s starting to calm down rather quickly.” I’ll ask a few more questions about whether the breath is long or short, pleasant or unpleasant, fine or coarse. We might sit some more. Then, suddenly the person reports that the breath has become very calm. By the way they report it, it’s apparent that they feel some pride. They say, “Oh! Now I feel very calm.” So I say, “Is there anything going on in the mind about having just experienced the calm?” And then what they see is that the “I” arose in that moment and claimed it: “I am very calm right now.” This is used as an opportunity to point out what I call “selfing.” I tell the yogis, “You see, this is going on all day. Something happens and it’s just happening, and the I appropriates it and makes it into a ‘self’ experience, and at that moment you’ve created the potential for a lot of suffering. And then that ‘selfing’ passes, right? And there are gaps where it isn’t there.” So certain aspects of anatta can be taught right in the moment, showing a student how suddenly “selfing” arose and claimed this particular very small event. The student feels it and can see it in the moment. Gradually, they get better at noticing it without help.
We’re Not All the Same
I find that I emphasize again and again that we’re not all the same. Some people are just naturally much more drawn to quiet sitting, and for them, it’s most creative to do a lot of intensive practice. There are others who are not as drawn to sitting. A lot of their growth may come from a very different proportion of sitting and action. It’s really one fluid thing: The developments on the cushion have their fruit in daily life; the benefits of work in daily life can be experienced on the cushion. And finally, the nondual approach is not about any particular posture; it’s not about any particular place. Every place is a perfect place to practice. And no matter what techniques people are using, whether they’re sitting a lot or whether they’re in daily life a lot, what’s important is whether they are becoming a bit more wise, a bit more compassionate. The real issue is whether they are freeing themselves from suffering.