Meditation Teacher

Sharon Salzberg believes in the power of kindness

Eastern religious thought wasn't exactly mainstream 30 years ago. How did you become involved in it?

I was at the University of Buffalo in 1970 studying religion, and I talked a teacher into allowing me to go to India as an independent study. Can you believe it? There was such freedom in those days! I'd studied Buddhism and thought I knew a great deal about it (laughs). That's very Western, that tendency to abstraction. As it turned out, of course, I had everything to learn. In India, I met my teacher, who came out of the Burmese Buddhist tradition. She belonged to a lineage that prizes heartfulness above faultlessness.

From upstate New York to India--that must have been quite a change.

I came from a family in which nothing was talked about. I lost my mother when I was 9, and my father became mentally ill when I was 11, and nothing was said! In India, I found myself in a culture in which everything is expressed; everything is right out in the open. And where you have all these very practical tools for cultivating happiness. People are very generous there. I loved it.

You've appeared a number of times with the Dalai Lama. Do you know him?

I wouldn't say that (laughs). I have been in his presence, and he is fabulous. I felt that he was just as interested in people, just as present, as you hear he is. And completely natural. You don't get any sense of, "Now it's Dalai Lama time!"

You're making dozens of appearances this year. Does all this travel and teaching interfere with your contemplative life?

Am I that busy? I keep thinking I'm slowing down (laughs). Well, sometimes it is difficult. The patience you learn meditating is very useful, though. I was stuck in the St. Louis airport for eight hours not long ago, and I must say that I was very grateful for my meditation practice that day (laughs).

Your latest book ...

Came out Sept. 1. It's about kindness.

That's a big topic for you.

Well, the first book, Lovingkindness, was a sort of manual--it was about how to do it. The new one is more about the power of kindness, the force of it.

And your next one?

I think will be about faith. I'm very interested in faith. However, my books are getting shorter and shorter (laughs). I'm interested in how mature faith is different from fundamentalism, which is like falling in love--you give up questioning for a feeling of belonging, of hopefulness. That bright faith gives you an escape from the ordinariness of your day, and helps you get through real difficulties in life. All that's awfully attractive, and I can see why people become afraid to ask questions--they might lose their access to the certainty they've found. There is another sort of faith that allows you to keep testing, keep thinking, but to cultivate it, you have to be willing to be uncertain. You have to be able to tolerate not having all the answers.

Do you think you'll ever retire?

We just celebrated (author and teacher) Jack Kornfield's 60th birthday, and we were trying to formulate an idea where we (Salzberg, Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein and other longtime friends and colleagues) could get out of the snow and still be together (laughs). We need to figure out how to get out of Massachusetts and to someplace like Tucson.

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