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To Love Abundantly: Sharon Salzberg's Journey on the Path
How Sharon Salzberg found loving-kindness 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.