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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, at fifty, 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.”
Originally published in the January 2003 Shambhala Sun magazine.
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