Over thirty years ago, Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, and Jack Kornfield returned from South Asia to American shores bringing with them the ancient Buddhist meditation technique that was to become one of the most popular contemplative practices in the country. The first Western students of some of the most renowned Theravada teachers of their lifetime—Munindra-ji (1915-2003), Dipa Ma (1911-1989), Ajaan Chah (1918-1992), and others—Salzberg, Goldstein, and Kornfield separately, but almost simultaneously, learned the meditative practices of Vipassana, often translated as “insight meditation” or colloquially as “mindfulness practice.” Returning to America, they met in 1974 at the first session of Naropa Institute, catching the great wave of interest of a generation hungry for spiritual guidance. Although there were many who wanted to practice, institutions to support this rigorous mind-training practice, with its emphasis on residential retreats, were nonexistent. So in 1976, Salzberg, Goldstein, and Kornfield founded the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), in Barre, Massachusetts. A decade later, in 1986, Kornfield co-founded Spirit Rock Meditation Center, in Woodacre, California. IMS and Spirit Rock are now the largest and most active Vipassana centers in North America. This past spring, Tricycle editor James Shaheen traveled to Barre to take advantage of the rare opportunity to meet with all three teachers together, and to ask them about the past, present, and future of American dharma.

(Left) Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield, and Joseph Goldstein, 2004; © Denise Machado. (Right) Goldstein, Salzberg, and Kornfield, in the mid-seventies; Courtesy of IMS

Did it ever occur to the three of you that you’d still be teaching after thirty-plus years?

Joseph Goldstein: I never thought about it, although there was nothing else I really could do. [laughs]

What about you, Jack?

Jack Kornfield: You know, it just happened, and actually, that’s probably the best description of the entire process. Maybe the most gracious way you could put it is to say it was karmic.

Sharon, did you ever have any training in anything other than meditation practice?

Sharon Salzberg: I went to nursing school, although nothing came of it. I would echo Jack and Joseph. People say about our early teaching, “You must’ve been so brave,” or “You must’ve had such vision.” But it was more like, “Oh, let’s do this, let’s give it a try.” We took it one step at a time and it just happened.

JG: I think we really caught a wave of interest in this country, so it was largely a function of good timing.

You all went to Asia when you were very young. Did you have high hopes for enlightenment then? Do you have the same aspirations now?

JK: I don’t think I even knew what high aspirations were at that time. It was much more of an organic process. There were really two reasons I went to Asia: First, I’d read books about Zen and studied Buddhism at Dartmouth. In 1967 I asked the Peace Corps to send me to a Buddhist country so I could go and find a monastery, and ended up in Thailand. I had a deep spiritual longing, and there seemed to be something magical about finding a temple or a teacher. The other reason was that I was quite unhappy, and had experienced a lot of suffering in my life and in my family. I was just looking for some way to deal with my own suffering. The notion of aspiration in some grand way wasn’t there. I think it’s the same for a lot of seekers: You look at your own life and say, “There’s some potential for living in a wiser and more conscious way,” and you go looking for that. It wasn’t about enlightenment initially.

What about you, Joseph? Was there this notion that you could become enlightened?

JG: Yes, for me there was. I was also in the Peace Corps in Thailand from 1965-67. I later went back to Asia to look for a teacher because of an experience I’d had while I was in Thailand. A friend had been reading from a Tibetan text on the empty nature of the mind, and just by listening I suddenly understood things in a very different way. It was a powerful moment, and afterward, I wanted to learn a way of developing or deepening that understanding. So, yes, I definitely had an aspiration for awakening.

Sharon, what took you to Asia?

SS: You would call that faith. I was a student at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1970 and studied Asian philosophy. They had a study-abroad program. I asked to go to India to study Buddhist meditation and they accepted that, so I went. I wouldn’t say my aspiration had anything to do with enlightenment. I don’t know if I had a real concept of the word. It was more that I was drawn to the Buddhists’ very frank acknowledgment of the suffering in life, which I had certainly experienced some share of. Hearing it spoken about so openly was a tremendous freedom in itself. I liked the idea that Buddhism wasn’t just for special or talented people who could turn their minds around; the tools really existed for anybody, including me. That’s really what inspired me to go. I don’t even know that my early teachers spoke about enlightenment except as freedom from suffering or freedom from defilement.

The Indian meditation master Dipa Ma [see Tricycle, Spring 2004] was a teacher to all three of you, and I do get the impression that she insisted that enlightenment was certainly possible in this lifetime and that she spoke of it often. Do you avoid the topic?

JG: No, not at all. First, within the Vipassana tradition of Buddhism there are euphemisms for enlightenment. A phrase we heard a lot was “finishing the course,” which means finishing the course of all the stages of insight, leading to different stages of awakening or enlightenment. But why do we hesitate to discuss it? It’s because Western psychology is different from Asia’s. Here, self-judgment, self-doubt, and feelings of unworthiness are common psychological patterns. Their prevalence was very surprising to me when I came back to America and started teaching. In Asia, when people hear “finish a course,” they don’t internalize it; they don’t say, as they may here, “Oh, I’m a bad yogi because I haven’t gotten there yet.” In this country, that’s a very strong tendency. We don’t talk about effort in the way, for example, that our teacher Sayadaw U Pandita [Burmese meditation master (1921-)] did, or that Dipa Ma did. Because they were holding the fruit of realization, they were holding to a very high standard.

Have we lowered our standards?

JG: Well, I wonder whether we Western teachers lose something by not pushing the envelope. I’ve thought about this a lot in teaching: Do we really hold to the highest standard in our effort to accommodate the very real psychological issues that beset Westerners? It’s a bit of a dilemma. I’ve asked myself that a lot over all these years of teaching.

JK: We do talk about enlightenment, but not as much as our teachers did. It’s really important to do it. Even though it can play into the ambitions and judgments of students, it still gives people a sense of possibility, and people do experience enlightenment on our retreats.

SS: Let me just add two things. First, we use the term “stream entry” a lot. It is the moment on the path to awakening from which there’s no turning back. Putting it this way can help people understand enlightenment without seeing it so much as a consumer item, something they can “get.” Second, many students may already have tremendous insight into selflessness or impermanence, but there’s something unstable about their understanding. We try to guide students toward an opening to enlightenment so deep that they cannot turn back. So it’s not so much getting something they’ve never had before, but rather stabilizing an insight they’ve already attained.

How would you say your teaching styles differ from those of your own teachers?

SS: The idioms have changed, the metaphors, imagery, and what is emphasized have changed. We spend a lot of time assuring people that they are capable of growth and change. The techniques of meditation in Asia are embedded in a whole set of cultural values of faith and generosity and a lifelong relationship to a teacher. It’s not about just reading a book, or hearing a tape and adopting a mental exercise—that’s not what meditation is. It’s part of a much larger social context, and we don’t have that context here. I don’t think that our societal institutions have grown to a point where they can support internal exploration in a deep way. IMS and Spirit Rock are meant to provide that missing social and institutional context for the practices we learned. So we’ll see what happens, how it really translates here.

JK: I believe that if you come to IMS or Spirit Rock to do a two- or three-month course, the instructions and fundamental guidance that you would receive would not be very different from what you would get at a retreat center in Southeast Asia. And that’s a wonderful thing. There’s something so straightforward and essential about the practices of attention and mindfulness, of lovingkindness and compassion, and how one works with body and heart and mind – they’re really universal.

JG: One of the big changes is the degree to which, in teaching, we address the psychological and emotional issues of students. When we first came back [from Asia], my approach was very much “It’s all empty, and you don’t really need to go into it.” Over the years I’ve seen that while that approach might work for some, it’s not always the best response. Sometimes people do need to address very specifically their psychological and emotional issues. I think this is one of the contributions the West has made to the teaching of dharma.

But there is also a danger that we’ll lose something if we overemphasize these aspects and simply stay lost in our personal stories. I’m concerned that teaching will become more like therapy. The promise that the Buddha held out was far greater than anything Freud suggested was possible. The Buddha offered total liberation from suffering; he didn’t settle for what we consider “normal” or “well-adjusted”; those were his starting points. So I guess we’re all trying, in our own way, to get the balance right.

JK: I disagree with the way Joseph articulates things; maybe I disagree with the way he sees them. [all laugh] I sense a false dichotomy between what Joseph refers to as psychological issues on the one hand and emptiness on the other.

How so?

JK: We received teachings from a number of schools within our own Theravada tradition, and their approaches were different and included both an emphasis on emptiness and attention to psychological issues. On retreat with Mahasi Sayadaw [Burmese meditation master (1904-1982)] I would be told simply to acknowledge something and see the emptiness of it, of all phenomena arising and passing away. That leads to a deeper physical sense of emptiness. Ajaan Chah [Thai forest monk], a different kind of teacher, would sit in his monastery, and everyone from villagers to government officials would come to visit him. His main approach to dharma was not to ask about people’s formal meditation practice, but to ask, “Are you suffering? And what kind of suffering do you bring?” It might have been that your house burned down, or that you were in the middle of a divorce, or that you were feeling great guilt from something you’ve done in your past. Or it might have been that you felt trapped in a meaningless life. Ajaan Chah would listen to it all. He would work with that person to uncover the attachments that were causing that suffering. Through teaching meditation and awareness, he’d show them how to release that suffering. He made no distinction between whether it was a problem of an obsessive thought about enlightenment or a problem in a divorce or a problem that had happened with one’s parents or a problem that was happening because you were sitting and energy and concentration weren’t in balance. He saw them all as different forms of clinging. That’s a whole different way of looking at it.

What makes IMS and Spirit Rock unique, though, is that we don’t all agree and yet we work together in the same place. We use different language, and our approaches differ. Yet we all agree on the most fundamental principles quite firmly—suffering and freedom from it. I don’t know of any place in the world like it. The coming together of the different strands of the dharma is the West’s unique contribution to Buddhism.

But I encourage people who are really dedicated and serious in their dharma practice and training to go spend a period of time in Asia, in Thailand or Burma or another one of the Buddhist countries. There’s something about being immersed in the consciousness of a Buddhist culture that’s inspiring. That said, I think if someone comes on a long retreat at IMS or Spirit Rock, they get as good a training as they’re likely to get anywhere else—and without the diarrhea!

JG: Listening to all of this reminds me of something that we’ve commented on over many years: The three of us, and whoever else the team might be, actually make one teacher. We balance each other and bring different perspectives, which has been helpful.

JK: One of the great things about team teaching or having a collective community is that we really learn from one another. Another beautiful thing is that in our community, although we are teachers, we are still also students. This keeps our own dharma development opening and is a good message to those students who are behind us.

JG: Over the thirty years of our teaching, I think we got more tolerant of each other [all laugh]—not just the three of us but in the bigger dharma scene. There have been differences among us. In the last ten or fifteen years we’ve had a growing appreciation for what each of us does. All together, it kind of creates the jewel of the dharma. That’s been great.

What have the three of you found rewarding over the last thirty-plus years of teaching, and what sorts of disappointments or concerns do you have?

JG: There is an amazing kind of joy in dealing with people as they connect with the dharma as they deepen their practice. It is tremendously inspiring for our own practice and just for what’s happening in the culture. The biggest challenge has been figuring out the organizational stuff. There are a lot of ups and downs. We’re still very much in the process of figuring out how best to govern these institutions, which have grown far bigger than we’d ever imagined. Organizational support is essential in carrying out our mission, and when it hasn’t functioned well, it’s been a problem. But we’re fortunate to have such problems!

JK: In terms of the rewards, I remember meeting this man in the airport in Florida a couple of years ago. He comes up to me and says, “Is that you, Jack?”—this happens from time to time now. “Yes,” I answered. “Oh, I sat the three-month course in 1978. I’m so happy to see you. I haven’t been sitting much, but last year I had a heart attack, and when I was being wheeled into surgery, what mattered to me was that I had sat. What mattered in that moment was that I could come back to my body and my breath and the fear: I could find a place to be present for it. That was there for me when I was thinking that I was about to die.” He was very grateful for that. That’s gratifying.

Sharon?

SS: I have few regrets and am grateful for the past we’ve shared. I was just thinking of a Jack story. I’d been seeing Sayadaw U Pandita at IMS for two months and had become incredibly calm. A friend of mine was also sitting the retreat and had brought a refrigerator so that she could stock it with her own food. She put it in a hallway closet. One day, instead of going out to the dining room for lunch, I sat in my room and had a hard-boiled egg. I was mindfully eating it when the door flew open and there stood Jack, looking wild. “I’m looking for a sound,” he said. I thought he’d gone insane. So I asked, “What kind of sound, Jack?” “Well, it goes on and off, and on and off, like some kind of motor.” And I realized it was the refrigerator, so I said, “Come with me, I’ll take you to the sound.” So we went to the closet where the refrigerator was and wrapped it in sleeping bags. No more sound!

Are you always so relaxed around each other?

SS: Well, there have been good times and bad. But maybe we’re more relaxed nowadays because we have more confidence that the dharma will actually survive us. {all laugh}

One-On-One with Joseph Goldstein

© Denise Machado

What do you think you would have done if you hadn’t become a dharma teacher? I probably would have gone to graduate school in history or to law school. I had a vague interest in law as an undergraduate, but it really wasn’t a serious consideration.

Why a lawyer? I really enjoyed a class in constitutional law as an undergraduate. I like to dissect issues, my mind just works that way. I guess you could say I turned that analytical bent inward, toward my own mind. I like to see distinctions. It helps to create a clarity of understanding.

Can you give me an example? One of the things I talk about on retreat is seeing the difference between guilt and remorse. This theme developed when I was caught in a mind state and I didn’t quite understand what was going on. I was feeling guilt, and I could see that it was just an ego trip. Guilt is a lot about self, it’s a lot about “I”: “I’m so bad.” Feeling remorse is about taking responsibility, and includes elements of wisdom, of forgiveness. It’s not a self-centered response, like guilt. When I could unpack that, it opened things up for me; it was very freeing.

When you did that, did you speak with anyone about it, did you receive guidance?
No, I was on self retreat. It’s that quality of looking at what’s going on: What is this? What’s the hook in this? It’s that sort of investigation that best describes how my mind works, particularly in situations of suffering.

Do you ever doubt the course you’ve taken? No, never. It’s been such an amazing unfolding, and there’s nothing I’d rather be doing, except for maybe being on retreat myself. Doubt was never my hindrance.

What hindrances most plagued you then?
Early on it was restlessness. And desire. Those two.

How have they changed? They’ve become quieter. The restlessness, for instance, has become less obvious, less physical. Now it’s watching the movements of the mind as an expression of restlessness rather than that feeling of wanting to jump out of my skin. It’s a more subtle version of restlessness.

What about desire?
It was just, you know, the usual. The garden-variety desire we all know. It, too, has mostly become quieter, more subtle.

One-On-One with Jack Kornfield

© Denise Machado

Has it been a sacrifice to teach? Not at all. Teaching the dharma has been a privilege. Traveling, establishing IMS, Spirit Rock—it feels like my life has been carried by a stream of dharma. The first ten years on the road, I think we made an average of three or four thousand dollars a year, and we slept on living room floors and couches at friends’ houses, like dharma bums. But somehow the dharma brought us IMS, with its one hundred rooms and eighty acres. It brought us land from the Nature Conservancy for Spirit Rock. There’s a wonderful sense of being held by the dharma. Teaching’s the best job you could have, watching the joy of people discovering the dharma, watching them over the course of a ten-day retreat struggle with their bodies and minds, shedding layers of tension and fear, discovering freedom, and looking younger along the way.

Looking younger?
Yes, now that’s a good advertisement—it’s an anti-aging practice! People are glowing after retreats. Teaching is where I deepen my own spiritual life. It keeps me honest. When I speak about the dharma I immediately sense any distance between my life and the beauty of the teaching. It reawakens me to what’s possible, to liberation from suffering here and now.

You mention that suffering—particularly family difficulties—brought you to the dharma. Was your childhood difficult? Yes. My father was a violent and paranoid man. He beat my mother, and mistreated his children in terrible ways. When my father pulled up to the house after a day of work, we wouldn’t know whether he’d be Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. He was a brilliant scientist, but he had so much difficulty that he kept getting fired, or he would quit. There was often little money. We moved every year or so. I attended fourteen different schools. So when I heard about the Buddhist teachings on suffering and the end of suffering, certainly that was interesting.

Any thoughts about where you’re headed now? I’m turning sixty soon, and sometimes I think about what’s next. But my teacher Ajaan Chah used to be fond of using the phrase mai neh, which means “it’s uncertain.” He taught the wisdom of uncertainty. He’d just laugh and say, “Mai neh.” I have no idea what will happen. It all just seems to happen by itself; the growth of our community, the growth of the dharma here. We’re all just a part of an unfolding, we’re not the doers of it. In that way I see myself as responding, not creating, of being in the stream. There are things I love – the growing completion of Spirit Rock, mentoring young teachers, supporting diversity, and, in particular, watching the connection of the different traditions as they meet each other in this country. I’d like someday to see something like Nalanda University take off here. The best teachers and practitioners from all traditions getting together in one place. Naropa, of course, has been seminal, and I have been discussing that sort of future with others. We’ll see.

One-On-One with Sharon Salzberg

© Denise Machado

Do you have any regrets? Sometimes I feel the lack of scholarship in my teaching and think I should do something about it (despite several failed attempts to learn Pali), and I know I need to practice more. Teaching has taken up a lot of my time in the last thirty years, and so has working with the responsibilities of an organization. But I wouldn’t call having spent so much time teaching or in administration a deep regret, since I recognize how privileged I am to meet the people I do when they come to learn meditation. I’m grateful to be a part of their process and the process of establishing dharma in the West. The Insight Meditation Society has grown from our fly-by-night operation (“Do you think there’s any way we’ll still be here next year?” was a frequent question) to something a lot more established, with a board and staff that really run it. And I know anything is possible, so my life will continue to take different turns. Probably my strongest regret is not spending nearly enough time with my own teachers, whom I loved a lot, while they were still alive.

You’ve been spending a lot of your time in New York City and less time in Barre. Does this indicate a change of heart or a change in direction?
I started spending more time in New York City when I was writing my last book, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience. Even though you wouldn’t ordinarily imagine that leaving the peaceful countryside of Barre for the more energized and intense scene of New York would make sense as a choice of writing venue, it worked well for me. And then I found that I had created an entire life in New York City: deep friendships, inspiring work, creative pursuits. In terms of teaching, I have found myself particularly drawn to offering classes and daylong retreats, rather than focusing on longer, residential retreats as I previously had done. It has been fun for me to experiment with different forms in this way. I love teaching in Barre as well, and appreciate the power of the intensive retreat experience.

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