Sharon Salzberg is a founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and has been leading vipassana retreats since 1974. This interview took place in Barre in October, and was conducted for Tricycle by Contributing Editor Stephen Batchelor, who was a monk for ten years in the Tibetan and Korean Zen traditions of Buddhism. A translator, writer, and teacher, he now lives in Devon, England. Photographs by Fred Von Allmen.


 

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Tricycle: In Europe we haven’t had the experience that you have had in America of teachers reaching considerable peaks of eminence both in the Buddhist world and, in some senses, the broader culture, and then falling rather dramatically from grace, in the wake of scandal. And I notice, as a European, that on the one hand you have a tradition of liberalism, in which more or less anything goes, and that gives you tremendous freedom, but it also gives you a tremendous sense of being empowered to do what you wish—and often at the cost of not paying great heed to some of the ethical issues. Now there is a sudden lurch back, and one finds a kind of puritanical moralism taking over. Some of the Buddhist organizations are trying to regulate everything, to impose and create rules and structures to control this. From a European perspective this is an American oddity, this intense preoccupation with a kind of self-punishing edge.

Salzberg: Maybe the “self-punishing edge” is the flavor of what’s informing American Buddhism. There’s a quality of self-hatred in the American psyche which perhaps does not exist in Europe. A couple of years ago at a conference in Dharamsala, I asked the Dalai Lama a question about self-hatred. He had no idea what I was talking about. He started asking questions as though I were describing something very extreme. He was just astonished to learn that so many Americans experience that feeling. He asked, “Is that some kind of nervous disorder?” But then other Europeans described finding people all over America talking about low self-esteem.

Tricycle: Why would there be such a degree of self-hatred in American culture?

Salzberg: One could speculate about everything from child-rearing practices to the tremendous isolation to the heritage of guilt that so many labor under. What is compelling for us to look at is the specific implication of self-hatred in the context of an Asian teaching coming to the West. When people hear a message like “strive with diligence”—that has to be accompanied by a faith that one’s own striving has the potential to realize freedom, and not with a bleak prognosis of endless striving. You want to communicate that the Buddha’s teaching is about how all beings want to be happy. Sometimes there’s a sense in this culture that it’s embarrassing to feel that one deserves happiness, that it is not quite right. Sometimes it takes great effort to pull the mind away from all of the terrible mistakes and awful things one has said or done. This is almost palpable to those of us teaching dharma in this country. In the most extraordinary ways there will be self-judgment. Negative self-judgment. People feel very lonely.

Tricycle: Do Americans have a diminished sense of community because they have a diminished sense of history, of shared culture, of a shared religious heritage? In England or in France, there is an undeniable commonality in history and national identity that’s been built up over centuries and that gives people confidence, don’t you think? Perhaps even self-respect?

Salzberg: I think this goes back to what you said about Americans being extreme. We don’t know how to relate to a tradition very well. There is a tendency toward “succumbing” to it rather than “surrendering” so that we lose all sense of proportion or value, which is very different from the way it is in Asia. We reject being rooted in something.

Tricycle: That introduces another contrast between England and America, and that is the absence of an ordained sangha in America. In the Theravada tradition, preeminent likewise in the Chinese and Tibetan traditions, is the idea that the dharma is not actually established in a land until a resident community of ordained bhikkus is established by members of the mainstream society. From a traditionalist viewpoint this indicates the dharma has barely arrived in terms of the America culture. Would you agree with that?

Salzberg: A most extraordinary facet of the dharma in America is the demand on the part of laypeople that it be relevant; not just about living a good, comfortable, peaceful life, but that it really be a dharma of liberation, that it be accessible to laypeople, that they receive teachings of the same caliber as anybody else and that it must develop in a fully integrated way.

Tricycle: Is that strong enough to preserve the dharma?

Salzberg: When we first established the Insight Meditation Society, one mandate was the preservation of the dharma. In part, that was because Joseph Goldstein and I had spent time in Burma, a country threatened internally and externally. On one particular visit somebody took us to a place where they had donated a great deal of money to construct an area for stone slabs on which the entire Tripitaka (the original Buddhist canon) was being engraved. It was like a graveyard, stone slab after stone slab, with people etching out every word in order to preserve the dharma. On a deeper level the dharma is preserved only through the realization of beings. It’s not preserved as a body of knowledge but in the buddhahood of each realized being. Because America is relatively prosperous, there’s often a flippancy about preserving religion. We have not necessarily seen or acknowledged the desecration of a religion, or the annihilation of a people, or a massive political upheaval. There are people here devoted to dharma, but a sense of preservation is not the common consciousness.

Tricycle: In Europe there is a greater recollection of the precariousness of culture and of religion; and consequently, one values it more. But going back to the ordained sangha: two traditional qualities are celibacy and a renunciation of money or business affairs. Yet it’s precisely these two qualities, especially the former, that have been the downfall of many Buddhist teachers in the United States. Could that be one of the weaknesses of trying to establish the dharma in an essentially lay context—if we mean by “lay,” not celibate? And does that again point to the necessity, or the value at least, of trying to create an ordained sangha, with a sufficient degree of commitment to renounce sexual relationships and the luxuries that money buys? If there is not a group of people prepared to make that sacrifice—literally, to live in that kind of simplicity—and another group prepared to support the ordained does that reflect, on that one level, a lack of commitment?

Salzberg: No, not a lack of commitment, but rather it reflects trying to figure out what creates the integrity of a bhikku’s life—such as accountability, having nothing hidden. If it is a community, there’s the need to express one’s faults to the community. That is the basis of forgiveness. There are situations in this country, such as the predominance of lay teachers, that have not existed in the past. In our community the teachers have tried to create a code of ethical guidelines and a system of accountability for breaking a precept. It’s very difficult without that reference. In many cases, the problem has not only been the actions of teachers but the aura of silence, the fact that there’s no recourse, nowhere to go. It is very important to be open. The power relationship is so unequal in many communities that there is no way to ask questions.

Sharon Salzberg is a founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and has been leading vipassana retreats since 1974. This interview took place in Barre in October, and was conducted for Tricycle by Contributing Editor Stephen Batchelor, who was a monk for ten years in the Tibetan and Korean Zen traditions of Buddhism. A translator, writer, and teacher, he now lives in Devon, England. Photographs by Fred Von Allmen.


sharon2Tricycle: In these communities the models of power and authority have been more or less taken intact from Japanese or Tibetan culture, where the religious institutions are no longer governed according to the etiquette devised for the bhikku sangha. There are still fully ordained monks in the Tibetan traditions but, to be frank, that is not where the power lies, it lies within the tulku system, where spiritual authority is conferred at birth, and within the sectarian hierarchies based upon that system. Likewise in Japan, where the bhikku sangha has ceased to exist and again you have, more or less, a secular priesthood. It’s easy to blame the Asian models as being inappropriate to the West, but when you look deeper, you see that those models are perhaps inappropriate because they reflect a model of society in which an elite is allowed a degree of privilege, a degree of freedom from accountability that the majority is not.

Salzberg: I feel differently about it for different domains. One cannot teach the dharma by committee. We all teach to the best of our understanding—which is continually evolving and changing. Certainly we do not want to teach out of the desire to be liked and therefore say what is most appealing. There’s a quality of awe I feel toward my own teachers—where I really am in some way experiencing the merging of minds. There is that wisdom potential which is fulfilled and brought to life by the power of the teacher. But that is a different level from that of ethical standards. During the student uprising in Burma, when the soldiers entered a temple to roust out dissidents, they would take off their shoes yet hold onto their guns. They were showing respect to the Buddha, while overlooking the dharma. It’s essential to be accountable for our actions and not overlook the dharma in any domain.

Tricycle: How does your system of accountability work?

Salzberg: We established groups and selected people that students could talk to about things they felt uneasy about. It’s not that any given action could be deemed right or wrong so easily, but there must be some system in place where people can question.

Tricycle: Has this been tested?

Salzberg: People who serve on these committees may hear that a retreatant felt that the teacher was behaving inappropriately in some way, and then a member of the committee would call that teacher, talk about it, try to clarify the situation.

Tricycle: Do these committees have the authority or the power to actually disqualify a teacher from teaching if they feel that his or her behavior was unacceptable?

Salzberg: They would refer back to each board of directors, IMS on the East Coast and the Spirit Rock Center in California.

Tricycle: So they work as a kind of ethical sounding board for the board of directors by being an advisory rather than an executive committee. Have you actually faced a crisis where the system was tested to the utmost?

Salzberg: Not since it has been in place. (Laughs)

Tricycle: When teachers are aware of that, does it affect what they do?

Salzberg: Teachers aren’t like little children who need to know that they will be disciplined if they misbehave. Many of the things that have happened are so complex, and there’s confusion about role relationships. Sometimes people are just trying to break out of the teacher role and be human beings. And there’s not enough help dealing with transference and projection. Some people have very different views about the nature of a teacher/student relationship. What is important is that people not be isolated in either function—as a student or as a teacher. You know that we as a group of vipassana teachers have usually had this kind of peculiar quality of teaching together, two or three of us or more. We have a strong sangha of teachers here among us and there’s a certain level of accountability in that. It’s not one person sitting on top of a hierarchical complex with everybody else just waiting to submit.

Tricycle: Often people feel betrayed by a teacher because they had previously regarded that teacher as “enlightened.” How do we actually understand what it means for a teacher to be enlightened? Because of certain spiritual experiences, are they thereby no longer capable of ethical infringement? Or is whatever they do somehow a manifestation of their Buddha-nature?

Salzberg: Whatever anybody does is a manifestation of their Buddha-nature, but still we are capable of ethical infringement.

Tricycle: But the teacher holds the authority. In the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition it’s quite clearly stated that devotion to a teacher or guru requires training oneself to perceive whatever that teacher does as the enactment of enlightenment. How can this training ever be restyled for a system of accountability?

Salzberg: The Dalai Lama said at one point that one should really scrutinize a teacher very carefully, for at least five years, before trusting him or her.

Tricycle: That’s a worthy starting set of guidelines. But in practice it rarely, if ever, happens today in America. Many lamas fly in from Nepal or Bhutan, give initiations to hundreds of people who have met them briefly or never before, and they become disciples of these lamas who fly out two days later. This is a travesty of what the tradition itself maintains to be the appropriate behavior in forming such relationships.

Salzberg: Let’s come back to that issue of self-hatred or self-respect. Our experience suggests that however enlightened someone may be, there is no way of judging that from the outside. But it also suggests that however enlightened someone is doesn’t give them freedom from cultural conditioning, or a perfect political analysis of a situation. I mean, we’ve all had teachers who have given us gifts for which we could never express enough gratitude. At the same time, I don’t necessarily agree with their views on arranged marriages in India or the social situation in Burma. You could say we have different views instead of saying one is right and one is wrong. Then there are teachers who embody profound qualities such as fearlessness, or desirelessness, who may not have wisdom in other areas of life. Maybe it’s easier in the Theravada tradition where the teacher is known as a spiritual friend; there is a hierarchy in this tradition but it does not promote the vision of the consummate master who has accomplished all attainments.

Tricycle: Does that suggest that such a model of accountability cannot coexist with an Asian model of autocracy in which a teacher, a roshi, or a lama has final judgment?

Salzberg: It has to. The function of the teacher is to return their students to their own Buddha-nature, or to their highest potential. It’s not to have them revere you as a teacher, it’s to return them to what is already fundamentally theirs. I think there has to be a system of accountability and a clear set of ethical guidelines and that they can coexist with traditional systems.

Sharon Salzberg is a founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and has been leading vipassana retreats since 1974. This interview took place in Barre in October, and was conducted for Tricycle by Contributing Editor Stephen Batchelor, who was a monk for ten years in the Tibetan and Korean Zen traditions of Buddhism. A translator, writer, and teacher, he now lives in Devon, England. Photographs by Fred Von Allmen.


 

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Tricycle: So you’re calling for all Buddhist traditions to agree to a certain set of moral standards. Or at least for each community to have the openness and the courage to state precisely the acceptable terms of the student/teacher relationship.

Salzberg: I would hesitate to completely write off the possibility of a shared ethical standard, but obviously the vision of that relationship and the nature of transmission are different in different traditions. So let’s at least start with great openness. The Buddha said that wisdom, if not practiced, will wane, that we have to consider not just the reification of certain experiences and a holding onto them as trophies, but really the continual moment after moment living of the dharma—which is practiced no matter what we’ve experienced. Used properly, the function of lineages or teachers is to help us continue.

Tricycle: Perhaps part of the problem concerning this issue is a reductive attitude toward what spiritual life is all about—thinking of it as having certain breakthrough experiences confirmed, thereby defining one’s role in society, one’s role in the spiritual community, as the person who has been “enlightened.” And then fixating on that role, on that identity, to endorse one’s position in the community with a degree of authority that others lack. Perhaps then the challenge is to radically redefine how we assess spiritual maturity. Let’s say spiritual maturity is not the presence or absence of breakthrough experiences but rather the integration of all dimensions of one’s life—one’s ethical conduct, one’s livelihood, relationship to money, belongings, the use of resources, right through to one’s authenticity and integrity as a practitioner, a meditator. If we have that broader outlook as our guiding paradigm—rather than the notion of whether this person is enlightened or not, which is the rather trivial note to which this discussion is often reduced—then we’d be in a much better position to introduce the kind of accountability that you were talking about. Accountability would be to what extent your life is a reflection of the dharma, to what extent you are embodying the values that you preach. This would be a much more experimental and challenging ground for those traditions which were formerly autocratic to become democratized. I don’t mean that we simply take a vote as to who should do the teaching. There is within that framework the need to respect the lineages and transmission and so on, and to acknowledge the depth of a person’s spiritual understanding and maturity. But that does not mean transplanting Asian Buddhist structures, which in many instances are highly autocratic and by definition not open to accountability.

Salzberg: I think that is very true. When we first brought one of our teachers to the States, we asked him what he thought of the American dharma scene. We had started these different centers and were very proud of what had happened. He said that he thought it was wonderful but that sometimes American practitioners reminded him of people sitting in a boat rowing very strenuously, with great sincerity and effort, but refusing to untie the boat from the dock. He said we reminded him of that in our fixation on transcendental experiences to the neglect of a sweeping view of how we’re behaving day to day, how we’re speaking to our family members, how we’re taking care of one another, or whatever. That’s why I think it is tremendously important to continually open and expand our understanding of where freedom is and where the dharma lies.

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