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Insight Meditation at 25

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The idea was almost too ridiculous to contemplate. Three twenty-something meditation teachers, who had spent most of their adult lives wandering around Asia, now stood in front of a 150-room, former Catholic monastery-complete with bowling alley-in the hills of central Massachusetts. They were debating whether to buy it.


The plan was to start a Buddhist retreat center. The prospect was intriguing, but overwhelming. They had no money, no income, and only a handful of students. As they struggled to make a decision that day in late 1975, the group went to explore the nearby town of Barre, 50 miles west of Boston. There, on the Common, they came upon a plaque emblazoned with the town motto: "Tranquil and alert." All doubts dissolved.

A quarter of a century later, the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) is the flagship of a movement that has brought mindfulness into the American mainstream. Its founders—Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield—are key architects of the rise of Buddhism in the West.

"They're my teachers and IMS is my Mecca," says Sylvia Boorstein, herself a well-known Buddhist teacher and author. She is not alone. Many of the leading names in American Buddhism have studied under the trio or completed an IMS retreat.

"Consciously be in the present moment and be in your body in the present moment," veteran IMS teacher Christina Feldman tells the crowd of about a hundred people who sit, eyes closed, legs crossed, on cushions in the main meditation hall. The room once served as the monastery chapel. After a pause, she continues softly: "Be conscious of the places where your body is in contact with the ground. Feel the sense of belonging where we are. Be present in this moment." Be present. Be mindful. It is the IMS mantra.

At the foundation of everything taught at IMS are three primary forms of meditation. Breath-focused shamatha meditation is designed to stabilize the mind. In vipassana, or insight meditation, the practitioner consciously explores the body and mind. Metta, or loving-kindness meditation, is meant to produce a generosity of heart. Periods of sitting meditation are interspersed with walking meditation sessions, when the wooded grounds of the imposing stone mansion are filled with people moving at what, to the uninitiated, seems an excruciatingly slow pace.

Mindfulness infuses every moment of an IMS retreat, from the breakfast hall to the shower stall. To facilitate concentration, participants in programs—whether a weekend, ten days or three months—maintain silence except during one of the periodic consultations with a teacher.

Thousands of people from around the world have taken IMS up on its invitation, in Feldman's words, "to be very awake, to be very aware, to be very conscious and have access to depths" of experience available to everyone. Most programs have been full since the mid-nineties. "We've been turning people away at the door," says executive director Edwin Kelly, with only slight exaggeration. Waiting lists are common and for some programs, such as the advanced three-month retreat, a lottery is used.

What is it that draws them? For a start there is the high profile of the IMS founders. Kornfield, Salzberg and Goldstein have become marquee names of American Buddhism and their books top the spiritual best-seller charts. When reporters from the mainstream media write about Buddhism, odds are one of those three will be among the first called. And exposure like a recent spread in O magazine, featuring a weekend of meditation at Oprah's house led by Salzberg, doesn't hurt either.

But Kornfield insists they are just the messengers. "I don't think it's us that's popular," he says from his home in Marin County, California, where he established a related center, Spirit Rock, in 1988. "I think it is the simplicity of the buddhadharma. We were just fortunate to receive teachings from masters in our lineage who expressed it in the simplest and most immediate ways. It makes it possible for people to relate to the teachings as relevant to their lives, and not as being esoteric or connected with a kind of mysterious or distant culture."

Certainly, the trappings of Buddhism are kept to a bare minimum at IMS. Teachers wear street clothes. A simple Buddha, flanked by flowers, sits at the front of the meditation hall. There are no altars filled with offerings, virtually no rituals, and in the walking meditation room, two of the windows still hold stained glass images of Christ, a reminder of the building's Catholic past and a subtle sign that meditators of all religions are welcome.

A 1993 survey of participants in IMS programs found that the majority came from a Catholic or Jewish background, but had distanced themselves from those roots. A recent follow-up revealed that many of today's participants have found their way back into organized religion. "While what's presented is grounded in Buddhist teachings, we certainly don't present meditation practice as being tied to some kind of dogma," says Salzberg. "Many Christians and Jews come and they don't feel the need to give up that to explore Buddhist meditation."

"IMS as an institution and the way we teach expresses and emphasizes the universal aspects of Buddhist teachings. So that makes it easy for people to come and get into the practice," Goldstein observes. "It's really an offering of the basic methods of Buddhism—of developing insight and wisdom—and many people respond to that."

Most people who have visited IMS or read books written by the founders would agree that a big part of the appeal is that all three were born in the U.S.A. "Many people went to Burma, but they also recognized that the Western teachers, through their own experience, were beginning to teach this practice in a way that was—I hate to use this word—more 'palatable' to Westerners," says executive director Edwin Kelly. "They were able to infuse it with a contemporary cultural understanding absent from the Asian experience."

Just as Buddhism took on the cultural trappings of the various Asian countries to which it migrated, a certain American accent was inevitable as it moved into the Massachusetts hills. "I don't think we made a conscious effort to Americanize the dharma," says Salzberg, who spent three and a half years studying in Asia. "This is our idiom. Metaphors of the West, the ways we talk, the examples we use, the living examples of the teachings through us, are necessarily Western."

Jack Kornfield emphatically rejects any notion that, by making the teachings accessible to non-Buddhists, they are in some way being diluted. "I don't see an evolution. What I see is the dharma finding a new language in English and in Western culture to express the same fundamental truths," says Kornfield, who went to Thailand in 1967 with the Peace Corps after requesting assignment to a Buddhist country. "My own teacher said that if I went back to the U.S. and taught, I could call it Christianity for all he cared," he recalls of the Burmese meditation master Achaan Chah. "He said what mattered was to teach people to be free."

Salzberg says that while she uses the term "enlightenment" less these days in favor of phrases like "freedom from suffering," or terms like "awakening," there is no change from the core message she first wrote about in her high school term papers. "I would hate to think I would ever not say something I thought was true because I was afraid I would drive people away," she insists.

Joseph Goldstein believes there is something else about the teaching at IMS that appeals to Americans in this age of self-exploration. It is the fact that vipassana practice, with its emphasis on systematic exploration of the inner self, offers parallels to Western psychology.

"It fits very well with our Western mode of investigation, of going in and understanding the mind," he says. "Buddhism is a way of understanding oneself on the deepest levels and Western psychology has been an effort in that direction as well." In fact, many of the teachers associated with IMS are psychologists or psychotherapists, including Kornfield, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology.

"I don't draw those kinds of lines," Kornfield replies when asked about the division between Buddhism and psychology. "The Buddha taught about suffering and the end of suffering, so when someone comes in and is suffering because of the circumstances of their life, I can't define one kind of suffering as being Buddhist and another not. The four noble truths and the teachings of loving-kindness and compassion always apply."

All the success seemed so unlikely back in 1975, as Goldstein, Salzberg and Kornfield contemplated purchasing the former monastery and its 80 acres of forests and fields. Goldstein and Kornfield had linked up at Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche's newly-created Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, where they began teaching in 1974. Salzberg, who had met Goldstein at the first retreat she attended, in 1971 in Bodhgaya, had turned up in Boulder when she returned to the States from Asia.

"Of the whole community of us, Joseph was the first to come home and get a job and an apartment, and we all moved in," she says with a laugh. The idea of the group buying the monastery came from a Catholic nun who attended a three-month retreat they had held in Maine. Up until then, most of their teaching outside Naropa had taken place in the living rooms of would-be meditators.

"We didn't even know what a mortgage was," recalls Salzberg, who was only 23 when IMS was founded. Even though the $150,000 price for the 80-acre site with its complex of buildings was a bargain, it was still a vast sum to three itinerant dharma teachers with no assets of their own. They managed to scrape up $50,000 from supporters, and the Church agreed to hold a mortgage for $50,000, leaving another $50,000 to be financed.

Ironically, they got the money because Buddhism was then such an unknown commodity. "There had recently been an article about the Maharishi and how rich he was," explains Salzberg, "and the bank thought we were some kind of substantial organization with a world network.

"People always say, 'You must have had so much courage and vision to see what Buddhism would mean to the West,'" Salzberg says. "But the answer is, no. A lot of our decisions look like they make sense in retrospect, but at the time..." she lets the thought trail off. "We were so young.

"We had long discussions about things like whether we should have the word metta over the door," she recalls. "We worried it might be too foreign."

One thing they agreed on early was that IMS would stay carefully focused on the vipassana practice taught by their Burmese and Thai teachers. "This was a conscious decision at a time when many of us were exploring our own practices in other traditions," Goldstein recalls. "We had a lengthy discussion and we felt that there would be a greater power and strength in the institute to keep its sense of purpose and mission clearly focused on one tradition."

That focus remains to this day. "There is a great consistency through those 25 years of teaching," observes Swiss dharma teacher Fred von Allmen, who attended Goldstein's first public dharma talk in Bodhgaya in 1973, which he gave at Mahasi Sayadaw's urging. "Though they learned from many different traditions and many different teachers, there has been a consistency in teaching the dharma in a simple but very clear way that has power.

Yet even as IMS has remained firmly focused on vipassana, its founders have continued their own spiritual explorations. For Goldstein and Salzberg, that has included Dzogchen retreats in recent years with the young Tibetan teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche. It is in this way, they believe, that Buddhism in America is being shaped—not in a conscious merging of traditions but in the subtle influence of interpretations that are, in many ways, crossing paths for the first time on these shores.

"I certainly don't draw on other methodologies," Salzberg says of her teaching. "But we all express the dharma through the amalgam of who we are. I have very profound relationships with teachers in the Tibetan tradition, and I am sure that comes through in my teaching."

The mahayana concepts of bodhichitta and compassion have found a central place in the teachings of Joseph Goldstein, though they are not usually associated with the Theravada school. This emergence of what he calls "one dharma" is the subject of his forthcoming book.

"The Buddha didn't teach Buddhism, much less Theravada or Tibetan," he observes. "He taught about the nature of the mind and how to understand it, and everything else came later. I really like going back to that basic way of understanding the mind."

Explosions recently shook the ground at IMS. Deep in the forest a half mile from the main IMS compound, workers were breaking ground on a new $8-million long-term retreat center. The Forest Refuge, as it is called, is the brainchild of Joseph Goldstein. He sees it as an answer to those who worry that the evolution of dharma in America threatens to produce a "Buddhism Lite," one that has stripped away the authenticity and left only a set of feel-good techniques.

"There is a danger of the teachings getting watered down, and that's one of the main motivations for the development of the Forest Refuge," he explains. "Because what will be the antidote to that is people who are very well-trained and very well-matured in their practice are then able to teach from that place." In the early days of IMS, the center received a letter addressed to the "Instant Meditation Society." The Forest Refuge, says Goldstein, is an antidote to the American quest for instant gratification.

"The idea that inspired me a lot in creating this was the enormous, rapid spread of dharma in the West," Goldstein explains. "I was considering what conditions would be necessary to create the same kind of enlightened masters that are in the East—the really great teachers, the enlightened beings. And it seemed that one of the critical pieces was a place where people could devote themselves to the practice for long periods of time."

The Refuge hides in the woods between IMS and the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, an academically focused teaching center spun off from IMS in 1989. The facility will have accommodations for 30 meditators, or yogis as IMS calls them, who may spend anywhere from a few months to a few years in silent retreat. "It's the archetype of going off to the mountaintop; that's the essence of the vision," says Goldstein, who spent most of his seven years of study in Asia at city monasteries in Burma, Thailand and India. He adds wistfully, "In some ways, this is what I would have liked my own practice environment to have been—clean and beautiful, simple and natural."

Sharon Salzberg says the very presence of the Forest Refuge, which is scheduled to open early in 2003, sends an important message. "Even if someone never gets to a long-term retreat center, the fact that it exists here changes the parameters of what we imagine, so you realize it's not just a weekend-a-year endeavor. It's good for our imagination to be stretched that way so we don't fall into the idea that dharma is a commodity we can buy a little of on Tuesday."

A quarter of a century of American dharma. The history of IMS has tracked the current wave of Buddhism in America from its modest beginnings to its current popularity.

"When we opened the doors, we were really excited if anyone showed up," Salzberg recalls. "If we had 35 people in a retreat, that was considered really great. The demographics were pretty much people like us, who had been to Asia to practice or who had gone to Naropa." Today, thanks in part to their pioneering efforts, Buddhist meditation can be found in corporate boardrooms, hospital corridors, prisons, and thousands of dharma centers large and small across North America.

"I think it's a great time for Buddhism in America because it feels like people's interest is genuine," says Kornfield. "Our materialistic, consumer society has led us to really look for a different kind of happiness, which is the happiness that comes through the transformation of the heart." And as that interest in the dharma has begun to mature, so, too, has IMS—much to the amazement of some of the participants.

"Somebody said, 'The thing that always surprises me is that IMS was begun and flourishes without any adult supervision," says Salzberg with a self-depreciating chuckle.

"We've matured," continues Kornfield, the only married member of the original group, who established Spirit Rock in order to explore a more family-oriented approach to the dharma. "We were very idealistic in the beginning in a beautiful way and there were a lot of fanciful ideas about enlightened retirement, rather than understanding that liberation is always now. In the beginning there was more emphasis on understanding the mind and less on the transformation of the heart. One of the most wonderful changes has been the very deep thread of loving-kindness and compassion practice that has come to be interwoven with all of our teachings."

"It feels like the development of the organization parallels the development and growth of a child," Goldstein observes. "When I look back to the beginning stages and the teenaged years, going though all the ups and downs, the growing pains—now we're in a really good place. It feels like the welcome fruit of many years of learning."

Still, it's all taken them by surprise. While Kornfield's passion for the teachings ignited a burning desire to share them, Salzberg and Goldstein never expected to find themselves looked upon as teachers. "I didn't really accept it. I ended up teaching because the Burmese teacher Dipa Ma told me to," Salzberg says. "I thought it was impossible, so for the first couple of years back until we started IMS, I thought it was temporary. Now, I look at myself as both a teacher and a student, and I think they're inextricably woven together. My service is as a teacher and the core of my life is being a dharma student."

Goldstein, meanwhile, looks forward to the day when he can take refuge in the forest retreat taking shape in the woods behind his home. "As a teacher, I have a long way to go," he says emphatically. "That's the harsh truth. That's why, for me, an essential part of teaching has been taking time each year to be on retreat. I was recently in a planetarium and it really conveyed the unimaginable immensity of the universe on a level that we generally don't think about. And I have that same feeling about the exploration of the mind and the journey to buddhahood—it's so vast and we're all just on the path. For me, the immensity of that journey is a source of inspiration."

As for Kornfield, he's not sure how they managed to get to the place they are today, but he is profoundly grateful. "It feels like we've really been led by what some might call magical, wonderful karma. It's just been a kind of grace. I don't know how it happened, but I feel really blessed to be part of it all."


Lawrence Pintak is a freelance writer living in Princeton, Massachusetts who writes regularly on Buddhism.

Insight Meditation at 25, Lawrence Pintak, Shambhala Sun, November 2001.

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