Larry Rosenberg is the founder of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center (CIMC) and a guiding teacher of Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts. His new book, Breath by Breath, was recently published by Shambhala. Born to Russian-Jewish immigrants in 1932, Rosenberg grew up in Brooklyn; his father, who had Marxist leanings, came from fourteen generations of rabbis, but thought “that only an idiot goes into religion.”
Rosenberg went to Brooklyn College, and received his Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Chicago. A highly coveted job in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School followed. But this turned out to be a “staggering” disappointment and he returned to the University of Chicago, where he began to experiment with hallucinogens. During a trip to Mexico in the 1960s, he met a cowboy turned holy man who told him, “Don’t waste your time with drugs; you should start meditating.”
Thirty-five years later, Rosenberg is sitting in a wing chair in CIMC, talking to Tricycle’s contributing editor Amy Gross about the evolution of his own practice.
Tricycle: Who was your first teacher?
Rosenberg: Krishnamurti. I met him in 1968 while I was teaching at Brandeis University. Brandeis had this program where they’d invite a person to give talks for a week. I didn’t know who Krishnamurti was, but fortunately for me, no one else did either so we started taking walks and talking. I’d never met anyone so awake. I’d never been listened to so totally and I found it quite unnerving at first. Then, as I got to know him, I just felt so at home with him. I told him that I was a professor, but the whole academic thing was dying out from under me. I’d been extremely ambitious—on fire to get a Ph.D. and a good job—but now I thought the old cliché “publish or perish” should really be “publish and perish.”
Before Krishnamurti I’d never verbalized how I felt because I didn’t have the confidence. What he did that was invaluable was, he confirmed my perception. He said, “Just go on teaching and start paying attention to yourself. Start noticing how you actually live.” That’s a phrase he’d say over and over—“how you actually live.”
Tricycle: Where did you go from there?
Rosenberg: I started doing everything. Krishnamurti. Vedanta. I was on my way to India for a Sanskrit-Vedanta training program when a friend of mine introduced me to Seung Sahn, a Zen Master from Korea. I went on a retreat, and after that, there was no reason to go to India. I thought, “Boy, I’ve accomplished more in four days of meditation than in all the years of talking about texts.”
Tricycle: How did you know what you were trying to accomplish?
Rosenberg: I’d had a taste on drugs of a pristine clarity and a feeling of tremendous joy and peace and love. And once or twice I had it doing a primitive kind of meditation, the best I could do based on books and what Krishnamurti had said.
And that was the beginning of the end of my academic career. What I’d learned at Harvard was that I was looking for happiness in the wrong place, because if I couldn’t be happy at Harvard, where could I? And finally, the last two years or so at Brandeis I knew that I had to drop out of the university and go into this full-time.
Tricycle: How did you live after you dropped out?
Rosenberg: For about a year-and-a-half I just crashed in different places, including Asia. Somehow I always had a place. For a while I lived at Seung Sahn’s center near Providence, Rhode Island, wore the robes, and studied with him. He was grooming me to teach and I traveled with him as his aide.
Tricycle: What was your practice then?
Rosenberg: Mostly koans. And after three or four years he suggested that I spend a year at his monastery in Korea, which I did.
Tricycle: What led you from Korean Zen to vipassana?
Rosenberg: After Korea, I went back to the Zen Center, where there was a huge amount of ritual—chanting twice a day, bowing, robes, a stylized way of eating, so many ceremonies it seemed we were celebrating something every other week.
Then my close friend Jon Kabat-Zinn—we’ve gone through all these things together for thirty-five years—went on a vipassana retreat, and he pretty much grabbed me and said, “Larry, I found what you’ve been looking for.” Because I’d always say, “If we could only get rid of all this ceremony, all this stuff.” But I said, “Look, Jon, Zen is fine for me; I just want to stay here.” He said, “If I have to tie you up and throw you into my pickup truck, I’m going to take you on the next retreat.” So for my birthday he gave me a present of a retreat—it was led by Jack Kornfield.
Tricycle: And was it just what you were looking for?
Rosenberg: It was love at first sight. The retreat was basically sit-and-walk until you’re blue in the face. Breathing was the main method, and making mental notes. There was no chanting. There was no special way to eat except mindfully. Oh my God, what a relief! I didn’t realize how much I didn’t want to carry around all that Asian form and custom and just be an American guy who wanted to do this stuff.
The heart of the whole thing is understanding. Not intellectual understanding, although that’s a way to begin. It’s deeply seeing into yourself. And that to me is different from concentration, which can of course facilitate such clear seeing. Many things help you with concentration, like chanting or bowing, so they can be useful parts of practice. But finally, there is no substitute for insightful seeing or for understanding how you create suffering for yourself; and in the process—in seeing into and through it—how to let go of it. It’s a life of awareness. That’s my passion. Now, there’s a school of Zen that emphasizes just-awareness of what is, and I could easily have gone in that direction. That’s Soto Zen, and a practice called shikan-taza—just sitting—and when that ripens, that to me is mature practice. It’s nothing. You sit and you’re just totally attentive to what’s there. What I teach, anapanasati, leads to that, to more and more simplicity until finally we don’t need techniques and methods, even the breath. [Anapanasati is where breathing is used as an exclusive object of attention to develop concentrated focus; then awareness grounded in the breathing is used to see clearly into the impermanent and empty nature of all formations. Letting go into freedom emerges into insight. —LR] I don’t impose it on people. I let them come to it naturally. But for me, I’ve always been much more drawn to just awareness of the way things are. Krishnamurti—whose teaching is a brilliant modern commentary on the fundamental teaching of mindfulness—started me that way, and I’ve always come back to it.
Tricycle: It’s a hard way to start, don’t you think?
Rosenberg: I won’t say it’s impossible, but yes, I agree, it’s a hard way to start.
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