This week on the Wisdom podcast we spoke with Sharon Salzberg, a renowned figure in the American Buddhist and mindfulness community. Sharon first encountered Buddhism in college, where the Buddha’s teaching of suffering spoke deeply to her and led her to begin her Buddhist path. About to leave for India to further explore Buddhism, she encountered Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and he gave her some advice for her journey.
In India, she went on her first meditation retreat: one of the historic ten-day retreats with S.N. Goenka. It was on this retreat that she met Joseph Goldstein and Ram Dass. She describes the exciting and meaningful experience of being on that retreat, and the impact it had on her. One of the most influential parts of the retreat was Goenka’s emphasis on equanimity.
Sharon reflects on faith as a part of Buddhist practice, and the importance of having an intelligent faith in one’s teacher. She also shares her thoughts on the wisdom of doubt, and doubt as an integral part of faith. She also shares what was the most inspiring to her as she was practicing in India in those early days, including knowing the teacher Dipa Ma.
After coming back to the U.S., Sharon started teaching with Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, and together they founded the Insight Meditation Society. She tells us what it was like to be 23 years old and founding the one of the first major vipassana meditation centers in the United States. She reflects on similarities and differences between people who came to IMS when it started in the 1970s and people coming today. She also shares her thoughts on the way that science and meditation practices are now coming together to provide new insight into the human experience.
In this episode of the Wisdom Podcast, we meet Tibetan Buddhist teacher and translator Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen Rinpoche, Great Abbot of the Drikung Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. He tells us about the region where he was born in Tibet in 1946, what Tibet was like at that time, and his memories of fleeing from the country soon after the Dalai Lama left. We hear about the time he spent as a young man in India studying Buddhist philosophy and other subjects at the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, and he tells us about his first trips to Bodhgaya. He also reflects on his experience studying with Khunu Lama Rinpoche, focusing on two classic works by Gampopa: The Jewel Ornament of Liberation and The Precious Garland of the Excellent Path. After more than nine years of studying, in 1978 Rinpoche went into a three-year retreat under the guidance of the master Khyunga Rinpoche. He describes the conditions of this retreat in the mountains of Ladakh and goes on to reflect on the importance of balancing study and practice. Rinpoche then teaches us about the Drikung Kagyu lineage, sharing stories about its origin from masters like Gampopa, Milarepa, and founder Jigten Sumgon.
Christina Feldman is a guiding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society and co-founder of Gaia House in England. She has been teaching insight meditation retreats since 1976 and has recently been involved in the dialogue between cognitive therapies and Buddhist practice.
This interview took place at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Christina begins by telling us about the retreat she was teaching at the time, which was specifically for people teaching mindfulness in the workplace—such as in social work and the justice system. Christina then talks about the first use of the word “mindfulness” as a translation for the Pali term sati, and reflects on the more nuanced meanings of sati that are sometimes missed when using mindfulness. She then shares the English term that she thinks better reflects the meaning of sati.
Christina shares with us how we can take the present moment as an object for meditation. She also explores how being in the present moment is a means of “stripping away of the extras,” and what it really means to practice that. We learn how to approach the present moment with a more inclusive and investigative attitude, and why this can lead to a much more profound experience of what the present truly is.
We then hear Christina’s thoughts on bhavana, or cultivation. She addresses the many kinds of cultivation we do in our lives and minds, and how powerful it can be to take on a more engaged and aware exploration of what we’re cultivating.
Christina dives into the translation of dukkha, and the limitations of the well-known teaching that “life is suffering.” She then identifies perhaps the most important thing we need to do in relation to our suffering. She reflects on how a sense of disappointment or a promise broken is such an essential part of the human experience, and how Buddhist practice can engage with and transform those feelings.
She also shares what her own practice looks like when she is going through troubling or difficult times and speaks of the importance of guarding the mind when we’re struggling. Christina underscores how concentration practice can be used as an excuse for escapism, and shares how renunciation has a near enemy, disassociation.
Finally Christina tells the story of how she came to Buddhism, including how she began practicing Tibetan Buddhism as a student of the Dalai Lama, Geshe Rabten, and Ling Rinpoche before meeting S. N. Goenka and transitioning to the Theravada lineage. She also tells us about Bodhi College, her teaching project with Stephen Batchelor and others.
In this episode of the Wisdom Podcast, we hear stories and teachings from Joseph Goldstein, one of the most well-known Buddhist teachers in the United States. Joseph Goldstein has been teaching meditation for 40 years and founded the Insight Meditation Society in 1976 with Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield, a center that has since introduced thousands of people to meditation. He also has recently begun teaching meditation to, and with, ABC News anchor Dan Harris.
Joseph first tells us how he came across Buddhism at age 21 while in the PeaceCorps in Thailand. He describes his first meditation experience and what about that made him want to keep meditating. He also tells us about the book that influenced his early practices and reflects on whether he could tell at that time whether he was pioneering into uncharted waters for a Westerner.
We hear what Joseph’s early practice looked like and what inspired him to spend more time practicing in Asia. He shares experiences and stories from traveling in India in his early 20s, including meeting his first teacher, Anagarika Shri Munindra, who had been studying with Mahasi Sayadaw. We hear how Joseph was so powerfully drawn to meditation, despite the fact that it was not at all easy for him at first.
We hear how in the fall of 1970, renowned teacher S. N. Goenka came to Bodhgaya and Joseph began to practice body-scanning meditation with him. Joseph highlights the difference between mindfulness practice and concentration practices, and then goes on to share his experience being a student of beloved teacher Dipa Ma.
In 1974, Joseph returned to the United States and was invited by Ram Dass to teach with him and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche at the first summer session of the Naropa Institute. This led Joseph to be invited to lead retreats all around the country, and shortly afterward, he joined Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield in founding the Insight Meditation Society. Joseph tells of IMS’s early days and what teaching alongside Trungpa Rinpoche was like.
He also tells of his experience practicing with Tibetan teachers Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche and Nyoshul Khenpo Rinpoche, underscoring the contrasts between the various practices he’s done. He shares with us a profound teaching he received from Nyoshul Khenpo Rinpoche on compassion and emptiness.
Finally, Joseph shares the realizations that set his mind at rest when he was struggling with some of the central philosophies and teachings of Buddhism, and offers his thoughts on how the Dharma has taken root in Western culture.
In this episode of the Wisdom Podcast, we meet Theravada Buddhist teacher Shaila Catherine, author of Wisdom Wide and Deep and Focused and Fearless. Shaila was introduced to transcendental meditation in high school, and then later entered the path of Theravada Buddhism. She shares the difficulties she encountered on her first meditation retreat as well as what she encountered on that retreat that inspired her to continue practicing. She then shares how she spent a decade practicing in India, studying with meditation masters including H. W. L. Poonja (Poonjaji). She shares what it was like to study with Poonjaji and the phenomenal mind-to-mind connection he had with students. Shaila then reflects on how important the “ordinary” is as a part of spiritual practice. She also tells us about how she began going on longer retreats, during which time she began exploring the jhana states. We hear about the powerful and useful application of jhana practice, and how it enhances insight meditation and brings stability to the mind—as well as some common misunderstandings some people have about jhana practice. Host Daniel Aitken and Shaila then discuss how a practitioner can move from using the breath as the anchor to using mental states as an anchor through the “precise technology” of jhana practice. They also discuss how to use the breath as a focus for concentration. Shaila then describes in depth the first jhana and how it can be used for insight meditation, and how concentration practice illuminates the causes of suffering. Shaila also reflects on the difference between conceptually understanding impermanence, and really understanding it on a deeper level. She also shares her thoughts on the conditions needed to enter the jhanas, and whether we can access the jhanas in the midst of our busy lives, rather than simply on long retreats.