Note: This transcript has not been proofread, and therefore its accuracy is not guaranteed.
Wright: Sharon Salzberg is a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barrie, Massachusetts and of the Barrie Centre for Buddhist Studies. She is the author of "A Heart As Wide As The World," "Loving Kindness," and "Faith." I interviewed her in Barrie. Well first of all thanks for letting me intrude on the sanctity of the Insight Meditation Society here. You've written a book called "Faith" in which you contend that faith is possible in the modern world even if you don't believe in God and at the beginning of the book you talk about your childhood which would seem like a childhood that couldn't give rise to faith or even hope I mean it was some very bad things happened... when you were four I guess your father left, when you were nine your mother died and you know of witnessed her beginning to die and then she was rushed off in an ambulance, you never saw her again... your father return extensively to take care of you I guess but took an overdose of sleeping pills, was rushed off to an ... he lived but was institutionalized and that was the end of his role in your life. Ok. Now what I mean what was your state of mind and at this point you were an adolescent or you were about to enter adolescence at this point or?
Sharon Salzberg: When my father came back?
Wright: Yes. And then and then when he was when he vanished again for the last time kind of...
Sharon Salzberg: I was eleven at the time he came back. He was home for six weeks before he took the overdose of pills and went into a hospital. And my state of mind I guess which I tried to describe in my book could best be described as waiting. I felt like I was in advance, I was living in a cocoon in some way and that I didn't even know what I was waiting for, that wasn't clearly articulated in my mind but that's what I call faith was some kind of inner knowing which was very very faint but it was some sense of possibility it was some sense of of intuition really that that things could be very different and that instead of feeling so alone and cut off which is really the worst part of all of that suffering I mean it's true I had terrible things happen to me as many people do... probably looking back I'd say the worst part was the feeling of isolation and being cut off from the greater whole and somewhere in me I knew that I could be rejoin life in a way and have a greater sense of belonging.
Wright: So you had faith all along?
Sharon Salzberg: I'd say I had faith all along but as I said it was quite faint...
Sharon Salzberg: ... it was just a glimmer and that I think for many people if we look back at our lives before a cognitive understanding before a belief system maybe we find that we find that there was something there was some some sense some flicker really of light that guarded us.
Wright: Now subsequently you've kind of articulated the foundation of your faith or discovered a kind of framework for thinking about faith and you did that largely within a Buddhist tradition.
Sharon Salzberg: Yes.
Wright: You ... you went to Indian when you were fairly young. How old were you?
Sharon Salzberg: I was 18.
Wright: 18. Well.
Sharon Salzberg: Yes.
Wright: I guess that's a good time for to have a spiritual leader have a major impact on you.
Sharon Salzberg: Yes.
Wright: And that happened, I mean not right away kind of you wandering around but what were some of the the early step toward kind of a more mature faith or more complete faith?
Sharon Salzberg: Well I think that even when I was in college I went to college at the state university of New York at Buffalo and took an Asian philosophy course which had a Buddhism component. For one thing when I first heard about the Buddhist teaching and I heard about the four noble truths: the truth of suffering and life, the cause of suffering being clinging and ignorance, the possibility of the end of suffering and then the path leading to the end of suffering. In the beginning it was the first noble truth that really grabbed me so to speak. It was the fact that people were speaking openly about suffering because here I was coming from this background where it wasn't admitted it wasn't acknowledged and so that that very corrosive feeling of being alone was added on top of the actual pain and so my first encounter with the religious tradition I talked about suffering just opening and fully without hiding it without calling it something else.
Wright: So just the idea of suffering is actually to be expected until you really set out to attack it's causes.
Sharon Salzberg: Yes yes and that and that we all share it. It's part of what joins us not part of what separates so that in itself was the foundation of some kind of opening which is really the nature of faith this opening and connecting and moving forward rather than holding back or shrinking away. And then within Buddhism there ... Buddhism really I mean is almost in this (()) it's really just about a universal teaching that points to some of the truths of life that I think whatever religion or no religion one ascribes to you could resonate with those and the Buddha talked tremendously about how much everything is changing that what we consider to be static and inert oppressive if we really look at it, it's constantly changing. If we wake up in the morning and we are angry by noon we may not be and even if we look at that anger while it's there while it seems so solid we'll see strands of fear and loneliness and sadness and regret and anticipation and hope and so many things are actually making up what seems just one solid thing and once we see change then we have a sense of possibility. And so that really I think was the beginning of my leap of faith so to speak and going to India was a constant emphasis on how much everything is changing because within change there really is life itself.
Wright: Ok and this is fundamental to Buddhism is the impermanence of everything...
Sharon Salzberg: Yes yes yes.
Wright: People die ... everything passes away. Which a lot of people consider bad news... You you took it as a sign of hope...
Sharon Salzberg: Yes.
Wright: What are the other people getting wrong about it? Like me for instance.
Sharon Salzberg: Well I mean there is a bad new component I suppose you could say and that and that if we don't want to face that if we don't want to acknowledge that then there's huge suffering in life because we're constantly scrambling after things that won't sustain and won't be steadfast for us and so ultimately won't yield happiness but the good news component is also there which is that what we considered to be inevitable you know that we we need to be haunted by our past that we cannot change that we cannot find something moving something malleable even within a very painful situation I mean all of that lead to a pretense of hopelessness you know we feel stuck we don't need to feel stuck.
Wright: Ok. Now was from the beginning was meditation an important part of an important compliment to to these kinds of realizations?
Sharon Salzberg: Meditation was really my goal you know I I I appreciated the philosophical structure of the Buddhist teaching but I didn't really care, you know I didn't set out to become a Buddhist or call myself a Buddhist particularly I really wanted to learn how to meditate and that in some ways looking back of course in hindsight it's clearer than it was at the time... once I heard about the fourth noble, which in effect says there's a path to the end of suffering and that meditation which is the cultivation of our own inner strengths and clarity and realization was the essence of that then I just thought I have to go for it, that's what I really need.
Wright: Ok. And what did you discover through meditation per say or experience that helped you along in this kind of quest?
Sharon Salzberg: Well I found many things you know I found that... well the first thing I found of course is that my mind is completely scattered and fragmented and ...
Wright: In other words it was hard to meditate.
Sharon Salzberg: It was very hard to meditate. It was very very hard to meditate and but within meditation practice I think that one of the things that I like about meditation is that I find the profound truths come in little packages so for example if the kind of meditation you're doing is trying to focus on the feeling of the breath you're experience of the breath and you find that half a breath later you're lost in speculation about where you'll have lunch or something like that that the moment when you realize you've become distracted is actually the critical moment of meditation because that's the moment when we practice being able to begin again and being able to begin again in life you know having made a mistake having blurted out something that we regret having cut off somebody that we now wish we we'd open to we can always begin again and and so it's a huge transformation in one's life and we learn it a tiny little way we're thinking about lunch you let go without chastising yourself without trying to punish yourself you practice beginning again. So that's why meditation really is reflective of an art of living in a way.
Wright: So meditation is a metaphor first of all... kind of...
Sharon Salzberg: Yes yes.
Wright: And then what as you get better at it now I know Buddhists are very careful about the way they talk about meditation and if you say I have a goal in meditation or I want to succeed in meditation they'll slap you on the wrist and so on ... some Buddhists anyway... what's that?
Sharon Salzberg: Or hit you on the head with a stick...
Wright: Or hit you on the head with a stick... But if you'll forgive me for talking the way an outsider would talk, as you progress through meditation you you and I know enlightenment that is another term that has a technical meaning and you would probably not dare say I am enlightened in the strict sense of the word but as you moved...
Sharon Salzberg: Certainly not...
Wright: As you got more enlightened or closer to enlightenment, what kinds of experiences did you have?
Sharon Salzberg: I think even if you just use that one example of beginning again, you find every time you can do that more gracefully with greater compassion for yourself, much greater ease in forgiving yourself...
Wright: You mean during meditation?
Sharon Salzberg: Yes, during meditation and then ...
Wright: And then in life.
Sharon Salzberg: ... and then in life. You know using meditation just as it's almost like a fractal you know like here we are doing what is really replicated in all of our life and so you might find your much more concentrated but that might be something that comes and goes. You will find that you're much more aware, you're much kinder and that you have more patience and more connection. It's a greater sense of connection to all aspects of your own experience which ultimately means more connected to to others you know to all of life.
Wright: So, through all this you came to have something like faith... now there's a term in your book "bright faith" is that a Buddhist term or a translation of a poly word or something a word in the language of the Buddha?
Sharon Salzberg: Yes yes yes, it's a Buddhist term.
Wright: And and what does that mean?
Sharon Salzberg: Bright faith well faith in the context of Buddhist teaching I think is a wonderful model because what we some times think rather scornfully of as faith you know kind of idealization and suspending of intelligent examination and so on isn't really what the Buddhist teaching means by faith. Faith is considered a very nuanced process and it's a verb it means it means to offer one's heart, to give over one's heart, so it's an action it's not a commodity that we have or we don't have. The beginning of that is called bright faith when we're inspired we're moved we're touch by meeting somebody or reading scripture or being even in a sacred place where we feel suddenly a sense of expansiveness that we can be better we can be transformed people we can have these these qualities of love and compassion and so on so it's very exhilarating it's quite dazzling but it's considered very elementary in Buddhist teaching because it also leaves us very vulnerable you know we may be moved by one teacher one day and another teacher the next day and it's not grounded in our experience... bright faith can easily become blind faith if we get attached to that fantastic feeling ...
Wright: And at this point what would you say the faith is in? I mean people...
Sharon Salzberg: For me?
Wright: ... in some yes in some spiritual traditions, Christians they can finish that sentence easily. You say what is your faith in and they'll say my faith is in God. Buddhism is by in large not a theistic religion the the the consolation doesn't come from thinking there is a distinct entity out there watching over you. So what what what would you say your faith is in particularly at this stage?
Sharon Salzberg: At bright faith?
Wright: Yes, what is bright faith in?
Sharon Salzberg: I think it's a sense of possibility that's huge you know. Suddenly you have faith that your life can be completely different you know faith you can be better that you have faith in the power of love because really it's like falling in love... that's what bright faith means. You feel you feel so opened and so yielding to this possibility so it's a lot about faith in the dazzling property of falling in love.
Wright: Ok. And then as the process develops there's another phrase in your book, verified faith or verifying faith is that kind of the next step or am I ... is that two steps ahead...
Sharon Salzberg: No no that's the next step.
Wright: Ok good.
Sharon Salzberg: That's the next step which what I say in the book which I think is consonant with Buddhist teaching is that Dao and questioning is not the opposite of faith. I really define despair as the opposite of faith but Dao and questioning are when they're done correctly with right motivation as being essential components of faith and that's the movement from bright faith to verified faith there's only we don't just believe something because somebody says it and because it has a fantastic feeling associated with with believing it. We investigate, we test, we try things out for ourselves, we assess, we analyze, we question, we doubt and that's how we move from bright faith to verified faith
Wright: Ok so you you increasingly have kind of confidence in ... what is your confidence in at this point? Is it more than just kind of possibility in an open-ended way? Is it...
Sharon Salzberg: Yes, I mean I think...
Wright: What does your faith come to be in?
Sharon Salzberg: We have faith in at that point having tested it and tried it we might have faith in the ability of our minds to change. We might have faith in the ability or the power in letting go. We might have faith in the power of love but not externally derived. We have faith in your own capacity to love because we've seen that in this challenging circumstance through our own experience we see that oh yes that love can arise even though I am afraid you know love can come something ....
Wright: So you have to kind of turn yourself into someone whose worthy of your own faith in a certain sense.
Sharon Salzberg: Yes. Definitely. Definitely. Yes.
Wright: That's harder than just believing in God. Well...
Sharon Salzberg: Well I don't know.
Wright: You can argue either way. Different people have trouble with different things.
Sharon Salzberg: It's a challenge. It's Definitely... it's a demanding path. I mean, partly because I was so young when I went to India to study meditation and it was in a Buddhist context I thought well you know they're going to just tell me what to believe and I didn't care that much about that because what I was really concerned about was learning how to meditate and I was somewhat reassured too ... someone's just going to tell me what's true. And I thought, you know being so young, I though well that's great you know... much to my surprise I was told that faith within that context wasn't going to be enhanced by believing what I was told it was going to be enhanced by challenging everything I was told and testing it and seeing for myself what was true so the strongest component of all of that is some sense of faith in one's self, in one's ability to assess...
Wright: Ok. And the teaching is, you alluded to this earlier, that the source of suffering is attachment or clinging. What does that mean in people's everyday lives, how do people see that in their everyday lives?
Sharon Salzberg: I think fundamentally you see the source of suffering as being ignorance you know it's living out of harmony with how things are it's refusing to see the truth it's it's denying the truth it's being in defiance of the truth so one truth is that everything is changing... and if we get attached if we try to cling if we try to control someone you know because we don't want them to change or a certain situation because we can't bare to see it move then we're going to suffer. It's not that it's bad or evil or retched or you know or something like that but if we really look at our experience and we see that you know we cling to a sense of of who we should be or who we once were rather than discovering who we are now maybe with great delight that clinging causes tremendous suffering.
Wright: But attachment to people a lot of people would say is a good thing. You love your kids, you're attached to them and it's hard to separate those two things, loving them and being attached to them. I can see how if you weren't attached to people things like death would be easier to accept other people's deaths but attachment is most people would say in that context a good thing.
Sharon Salzberg: Yes I mean I think well it's hard also because all of this is always translation you know and so there's kind of precision of language and I think certainly love and bonding and commitment and overwhelming commitment even are very good things I think... would be a strange strange world with very robotic beings without that sense of connection and in some ways Buddhism and meditation even apart from Buddhism is all about connection. It's about connecting to ourselves. It's about connecting to others. Attachment is a very specific word or idea which has to do with a sense of trying to control, in fact the opposite of attachment which could be consider equanimity in the Buddhist text is almost always described by the image of the parent whose child is now an adult. So that they're leaving home and making their own decisions. The love is still there and the connection and the bond and the wanting them to be happy and probably frankly the wanting them to behave in a certain way. But the idea that we can make someone behave in a certain way, that we can force them to to choose certain options and not others. That's the sense of attachment and clearly that's the cause of suffering. So I use to read that all of the time in Buddhist texts that these parents who love their children who are now adults and let them go not shunning them not cutting them off but but with that kind of wisdom of saying I'm not in control of the unfolding of this person's life or choices and I use to look at that and say what nice families they had back in the Buddhist time you know everyone let their children go and yet stayed totally connected.
Wright: Now in your writing in particular I'd say there's a lot of emphasis on forgiving yourself, including as you've said during meditation for having thoughts that stray and so on, you're supposed to say that's ok... and you wrote a book called "Loving Kindness" which was about a kind of particular kind of meditation that is designed in part to cultivate to cultivate for starters a kind of love of yourself right? Now that that I found that kind of surprising because I had always taken the Buddha as having recognized that the main problem with people was not their failure to love themselves but their failure to love other people. And I know certainly in my own case I have a very high regard for myself. That's not the problem. It's it's compassion for other people not compassion for myself that is that's the hard thing. So how how how does that work that that that loving yourself ... why do you recommend it? I mean it seems like it comes pretty naturally to people.
Sharon Salzberg: Well I think it doesn't come that naturally to a lot of people. I think you're very fortunate actually if that's your experience.
Wright: Oh if you were me you'd love me too...
Sharon Salzberg: I'm sure that's true. I have no doubt. And this wasn't you know something I made up in our time in California this is actually the way it's been transmitted as the Buddha having taught...
Wright: So this is not... I mean that was my first suspicion that this was like a late 20th Century American self-indulgent add on to Buddhism. You deny this charge?
Sharon Salzberg: I deny that charge completely.
Wright: So you can find this in the in the ancient texts?
Sharon Salzberg: Yes yes.
Wright: And this type of meditation in particular, loving ....
Sharon Salzberg: Loving kindness?
Wright: Yes. The word the pre-translation word is "metta" ... meditation... not M-E-T-A but what is it?
Sharon Salzberg: M-E-T-T-A.
Wright: Ok. So that's that goes way back and even then it started with loving yourself.
Sharon Salzberg: Yes. That's what they say you know that's what the texts say that you begin the whole practice of loving kindness with yourself that that's the foundation and the Buddha said something like you can search the entire world for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself and you won't find that person anywhere... that you yourself deserve your own love and...
Wright: But everyone else is exactly as deserving, right?
Sharon Salzberg: That's right. That's right. But the beginning tends to be establishing the basis of loving care for one's self and from there we move outward to somebody that we're very grateful to somebody known as a benefactor and then friend and then neutral person and then difficult person and finally all being everywhere without exception but the love for one's self needs to be genuine and to be all inclusive you know not those parts just those parts of ourselves that we proudly present to the world but those parts of ourselves we're a little cut off from that are more hidden and those parts of ourselves that we're ashamed of or afraid of and to be able to hold all of that in the light of some care and compassion is the foundation they say for being able to extend that to others.
Wright: Ok but in another dimension of Buddhism is disciple in your day to day life not indulging your senses, not eating anything that would seem to be good to eat... and so on, right? I mean that's I mean Buddhist monks being the extreme case of being real really quite ascetic by our standards or any serious Buddhist that's supposed to be part of the game... now it seems to me if you're forgiving yourself for all your human impulses you're less likely to rain in your appetites.
Sharon Salzberg: Well I think it's interesting to take a look at at when discipline's most successful. You know and when it tends to be thwarted by you know either rebelliousness which arises or kind of blind submissiveness that can't last you know well we do it for a little while and then and then the impetus just fades you know what actually succeeds? I think that's that's an interesting investigation.
Wright: So you think...
Sharon Salzberg: I mean you know from the Buddha from the Buddha's perspective he taught what's known as the middle way which is neither self-indulgent nor overly ascetic. You know from our perspective the middle way can seem ...
Wright: Exactly because in those days ascetics were like just on the verge of death they were being so hard on themselves...
Sharon Salzberg: Yes. That's right...
Wright: ... what what he called the middle way is quite stringent by modern standards.
Sharon Salzberg: It can be yes.
Sharon Salzberg: Well it's simple you know and so that can seem stringent.
Wright: Yes. But you're contention that if I say it's ok that you want to eat Hostess Twinkies that's a part that's natural don't worry in the long run that will lead me to eat fewer of them ...
Sharon Salzberg: Well that's the first step you know...
Wright: The first step...
Sharon Salzberg: It's like it's ok you want to eat the Hostess Twinkies... that's natural rather than "I'm a horrible person because I have this thought" you know this desire which leads nowhere you know it just it it leads to a kind of stressed out state that probably has you grabbing the Hostess Twinkies sooner but if you start with some kind of compassion and further that compassion by not doing it then you kind of...
Wright: Wait. Further the compassion by not doing it...
Sharon Salzberg: Yes. Because you know that that it's you know you're going to feel sick or you're going to you know be awash in guilt but the first stage is not freaking out...
Wright: Oh so you recognize it in the long run you're being kind to yourself by not indulging.
Sharon Salzberg: Yes.
Wright: So if you really love yourself you'll think long term.
Sharon Salzberg: Yes. In fact the Buddha said something I found quite beautiful like something like if you truly loved yourself you'd never harm another because harming somebody else in effect is harming ourselves and so out of the greatest love and compassion we might even say self-interest you don't go around you know hurting other people because it will rebound.
Wright: Right. That leads to a question I've always had about karma which is a concept both in Buddhism and in Hinduism, right? Is the idea and the idea is kind of what goes around comes around of vice versa whatever it is... but the idea that if you're if you do bad things bad things come back to you if you do good things good things come back to you that's part of karma.
Sharon Salzberg: That's part of it yes.
Wright: Is the logic for it just that kind of practical logic that you know that you walk up and hit somebody they'll hit you back to the extent that you do good things to people they you know you play win win games with them and so on or there's also this more mystical dimension right that like even if nobody's watching what you're doing if you do a good think it's kind of stored up there as a credit that someday will will work to your advantage... are these... in Buddhist doctrine these are both happening there's kind of the obvious physical level of causality and then the more mystical ...
Sharon Salzberg: Yes I mean they're both and and karma is an interesting I thought someday I'd try to write a book on karma because it would be a huge challenge. It's a very subtle teaching. It's not what we think you know here in the West in terms of fate or being judged or ... it kind of implies a law of nature, like an ethical law of nature. And so the Buddha said that nobody can really understand karma logically it's not a rational thing in that you won't be able to think it through but but I think there's a sense that you know if you karma is based on one's intention or motivation the motivational set that inspires action and so if you if you deepen and cultivate and nurture certain kinds of motivation it almost becomes like a character trait and and the idea is that that illicits a response that that there are things that happen if you are very generous and you give then then you have a kind of confidence or fearlessness when you meet people and it's just is an energy that things come back to you... but it's not so simple you know that if you give you'll get rich you know...
Sharon Salzberg: ... things like that. It's not that simplistic.
Wright: OK. And it is karma is another manifestation of the idea that people are interconnected at some kind of deep level.
Sharon Salzberg: Definitely. Definitely.
Wright: In your book, in "Faith" I was kind of surprised in this context to see you suddenly start talking about modern physics at one point. What's the do you know the part of the book I'm talking about?
Sharon Salzberg: Yes.
Wright: Can you talk a little about that?
Sharon Salzberg: Well I think the part of Buddha's teaching where he emphasizes interconnectedness and how our actions ripple out that we do not live alone however alone we might feel and that we need to be responsive in a much more global sense because what we do matters what we care about matters I think you know as far as I understand that it's supported by a lot of modern science and and that the kind of mystical element or or the element that's so hard to talk about is finding a language through various scientific experiments and theories that are happening right now.
Wright: Yes well the the the part of physics you were talking about is this what is it Bell's theorem or something the which is ... particles are speeding away from each other but their fates are intertwined in a sense that if you measure one and in quantum physics measuring is a kind of forcing it to assume a finite state then the then the state the state of the other particle will kind of automatically align with the state that had just been imposed kind of on this one kind of particle and it'll happen faster than the speed of light. So it's it's instantaneous and and you can't in theory nothing can be communicated faster than the speed of light according to...
Sharon Salzberg: Right, so how does it know?
Wright: Right, so how does it know is the question. But you see this is well as what? I mean as opening what kinds of possibilities.
Sharon Salzberg: Well I think it's that sense of responsiveness that human to human or just any human being to all species on this planet we have to understand our interconnectedness I think we've reached a time historically where it's critical and that we see it as you know one example I use in the book was kind of the economic the ecological devastation of Tibet and how the deforestation of Tibet caused flooding in Bangladesh which effects the whole some people say the whole global climate and so there's there's a tremendous opportunity we have in our time and the necessity to wake up to a more fundamental truth which is that we're not living alone you know...
Sharon Salzberg: ... it really does matter and I think everything on every level science and economics and ecology that supports that is really essential to bring forth.
Wright: But this weird stuff from quantum physics about instantaneous action at a... spooky action at a distance as Einstein called it. In your mind that may be more than a metaphor right? In other words, that may account for seemingly it may mean that seemingly supernatural things are not supernatural in a sense.
Sharon Salzberg: I would imagine so.
Wright: I mean there's a weird kind of anecdote personal anecdote right at this part of the book about how you had had a concussion and you were in a car accident and suddenly a kind of vision of somebody whatever half way around the world...
Sharon Salzberg: Whom I had not yet met.
Wright: Oh, whom you had not yet met.
Sharon Salzberg: Yes. It's even spookier.
Wright: Oh and what so what were the details of this? The they were talking to someone or...
Sharon Salzberg: Yes I had been in a car accident and I was lying on the x-ray table in the emergency room in the hospital and I didn't know my name at that point and I was experiencing a lot of the almost classical Asian descriptions of the time of death although I have no I didn't think I was actually dying but it certainly you know looking back fits those descriptions of you know consciousness leaving your body and speeding through a tunnel and a lot of the images bombarding me and sounds and I was getting more and more frightened as that happened until I had a certain image of a friend of mine who at that time was in Burma practicing as a Buddhist monk and an Asian he was talking to and I heard a voice saying "Watch your breath." And I didn't know what "watch your breath" meant at that point because even though I had been practicing meditation for many years it was all gone in terms of my conscious understanding but the combination of that image which was very peaceful and the instruction to watch my breath kind of brought me back into the body. Years later I encountered the second figure, the Asian monk in the in the image who became my teacher but at the time of the image I had never seen even a photo of him. So...
Wright: And how did you know it was him I mean years later how did you?
Sharon Salzberg: Well I had that strange feeling of "we've met before" you know and and I do you know admit that this could all be my imagination you know...
Sharon Salzberg: ... that I had some Asian figure of a monk you know come at that time but you know I can't prove it was so and yet when I read experiments like the one about...
Sharon Salzberg: ... you know (()) depiction of Bell's Theorem I think oh well look at that you know the world is stranger than we imagined.
Wright: Yes. And and what about death? We've touch on this a little but what all religions handle the problem of death in one way or another. What's the both in the sense of recognizing that you'll die and in the sense of witnessing people you love die what does what is Buddhism bring to this?
Sharon Salzberg: Well I think that you know they say when the Buddha was a prince before he left home to learn how to meditate how to be free he lived this very pampered life until he saw at the age of 29 a sick person an old person a corpse and then a mendicant and seeing the the sick person the old person and the corpse his first question was: "Does that happen to everybody or does that just happen to like that guy across the park you know?" He was in his pleasure grove you know and and his charioteer who was with him said it happen to everybody and that was a huge you know wake up call for him you know ... they call them heavenly messengers in Buddhist teaching it was... it was what provoked him to leave the lap of luxury and to really try to explore deeper truths and and it's very hard for us to acknowledge those truths that that this is the nature of the body that we get old we get sick we will die it's true but but being inform by that leads to a better life you know...
Wright: What do you mean by being informed by that?
Sharon Salzberg: Well remembering that, reflecting on that not denying it not trying to pretend it's something...
Wright: But it seems like ...
Sharon Salzberg: ... things are...
Wright: Recognizing is for a lot of people the problem. I mean the problem of death is not that you don't realize it's going to happen it is the inevitability of death right I mean that it self most people don't find good news.
Sharon Salzberg: No I don't know I don't know that it is good news anyway you know but but I think most people find it so unnatural and horrific a thought that entire societies constructed to avoid having to think about that or recognize that... you know I was watching television somewhere after September 11th and the host was asking somebody on his show like "How do you get rid of that feeling that you might die any day?" And the person responding said I don't think you should try to get rid of that feeling. I think you should use that feeling you know use it don't don't get morbid about it but use it...
Wright: Use it to do what?
Sharon Salzberg: Use it to live your life in a better way, use it to actually experience what you're experiencing you know rather than get to the end however that comes whenever that comes and looking back and saying what was that you know...
Sharon Salzberg: You know use it to prioritize to to find your deepest values you know we can use that understanding...
Wright: Now I have to ask you about Nirvana ...
Sharon Salzberg: Ok.
Wright: ... because I find it so attractive. What what is it really? What...
Sharon Salzberg: Well every Buddhist tradition probably uses that word differently. In the tradition that I was largely trained in you know in Burma found in Burma and Thailand called the theravada tradition the word is used in two ways. One is actually those itty bitty moments when we are really mindful, we're really connected, we're not lost in delusion, we're not lost in grief, we're not lost in fear, those moments of mindfulness are kind of Nirvana kind of freedom. And then the kind of grander way the word is used is a sense of super mundane knowledge it's an experience... the words are very hard because words can't reach there but ... so experience isn't the right word but I'll say it anyway I don't have a better way of saying it... it's the experience of that which is beyond the mind and body that which is beyond change that which is beyond the normal kind of perception...
Wright: And to get to that kind of Nirvana is that something that's reserved for very few people in the whole history of the world is that like a Buddha level experience? No you're saying anyone any diligent Buddhist and meditator can actually achieve that kind of Nirvana.
Sharon Salzberg: Yes I mean the tradition will talk about stages you know you might get a glimpse of it you might get a deeper sense of it or somebody like the Buddha whom I presume is abiding in it you know had a very different depth of experience but in terms of having a glimpse of it or having one's life transfigured then yes it's not just reserved for the elect for the few and the means to it you might say the jumping off point to it is a state of perfect balance of mind and the means to perfect balance of mind is those moment by moment applications of mind and mindfulness and then you lose it completely and we're lost and confused and then we start again because we begin to build up more momentum toward balance.
Wright: Ok so anyone can...
Sharon Salzberg: Yes.
Wright: ... come to the Insight Meditation Society.... attain Nirvana you guarantee that in writing, right? They get their money back otherwise.
Sharon Salzberg: That's my leap of faith.
Wright: Yes. And is so is self-transcendence a fair word to use in describing part of the whole point of Buddhism?
Sharon Salzberg: It's not a common word but I think I understand what you mean and that it could. I mean basically what the Buddha said is what we normally consider our self which is a solid entity it's unyielding unchanging with us from the beginning showing us a good time helping us control the unfolding of events that never existed to begin with that that was a conceptual mistake so rather than thinking there there's this self inside you trying to batter and uproot and annihilate we're more trying to see how things actually are. So it's a gentler approach.
Wright: And that lead to what kind of once you've recognized that that leads to what kinds of things behaviourly in your life...
Sharon Salzberg: Yes.
Wright: ... in other words the self is not something you're trying to transcend strictly speaking, you're trying to recognize that in some sense it doesn't exist...
Sharon Salzberg: That's right...
Wright: There's a continuity and coherence of it it's kind of an illusion and then that recognition lead to what specifically?
Sharon Salzberg: Well I think it leads to the I don't know if the continuity and coherence is an illusion but the solidity and the permanence is an illusion...
Sharon Salzberg: ... and this kind of the self-existent nature of it not dependant on conditions that's an illusion so letting go of that or seeing through that illusion leads to that sense of interdependence so that just naturally it's like if you go next door to the Insight Meditation Society at our 20th anniversary some years ago we planted a tree in the garden and you can go look at the tree and just see it as a seemingly solid separate entity and that's true but there's another way of looking at the tree and having a sense of everything that is nourishing the tree in terms of the soil and everything that's affecting the nature of the soil and the quality of the air and the quality of the rain and you know everything that is happening globally that is affecting the quality of the rain and you get a sense of all the people who stewarded this plot of land that has affected the ultimate growth of the tree and you can because it's on the grounds of the Insight Meditation Society you can have a sense of the history of that organization and all of the people who've kept it going. So you can look at the tree and have a sense of that network of relationships and and connections that is also a level a truth and so the more we can see through the seemingly solid separate part the more we get to see that network of relationships and from that kind of vision then a certain kind of moral action comes naturally you know it's not studied and contrived like well I better you know not kill that person you know because I might get caught but but it seems the wrongness of it is much more apparent because you realize you're part of a whole.
Wright: Because that person is me..
Sharon Salzberg: Yes. Yes.
Wright: ... in essence. So the... so it's not so much the point isn't so much transcend the self which strictly speaking does not exist in Buddhism...
Sharon Salzberg: Right right.
Wright: ... but to transcend the perspective of one self.
Sharon Salzberg: Right right. That's right. Yes.
Wright: And that can really I mean can can someone really hope for that to become really their way of ... I mean I mean I mean a pervasive is it a realistic aspiration that if you pursue Buddhism and meditation diligently that comes to pervade your experience?
Sharon Salzberg: I think so I mean I think you know you don't get lost in a cloud of confusions like you know who you are and you know who your family is...
Wright: You can still catch a cab and stuff like that.
Sharon Salzberg: You can still catch a cab you know so far you know but but I think it's like you're not just limited to the one level you have the expansive of you as well which is really the basis of compassion in a much more global way and I think so you know we have models like the Dali Lama you know walking and talking and you know negotiating and doing things like that...
Wright: But even more kind of ordinary people moved discernibly along that path ...
Sharon Salzberg: Definitely.
Wright: Including you.
Sharon Salzberg: Including me. Yes I mean as long as we understand it's a path you know Definitely...
Wright: And ironically this winds up in some sense making you happier although part of it is believing that you don't exist in some highly technical sense but it actually you would contend it actually you will be happier by it.
Sharon Salzberg: Yes well it's all made me happier it all makes one happier right from the beginning when you know I said that very first moment when I heard suffering talked about in a more opened way and not so much my professors in college but once I got to India and I was working with meditation teachers we were talking about suffering right and left. I looked at them and I thought they're the happiest people I've ever seen and all they talk about is suffering. You know like all those evasions and denials were gone and they just said here's the truth of things let's deal with it.
Wright: Well it sounds good. Sign me up.
Sharon Salzberg: Alright.
Wright: Well thanks a lot.
Sharon Salzberg: It was great. Thank you.