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Q & A: Sharon Salzberg

Insight meditation teacher and author Sharon Salzberg answers the top ten questions from Tricycle readers.


1. I'm a new dharma student. Could u please explain the concept of EMPTINESS in plain, simple English?

One way is to see emptiness as insubstantiality or essencelessness or transparency. Internal and external experiences arise and pass away with no unchanging entity at the core of anything or anyone, no little being inside of us pulling the strings, receiving sensory impressions, deciding on a reaction, and then expressing it. In this world of incessant change there is no enduring entity we can lay claim to and call "I" or "me" or "mine" Our lives are a continually changing process of our bodies and minds in interaction with the ever changing elements around them.

Emptiness doesn't mean that nothing happens. . . actually, everything happens. As translated sometimes from Tibetan teachings, emptiness means "nothing exists from its own side" meaning, no one and no thing exists in isolation, or comes into being apart from conditions and connections and relationships and influences that form it.

The basis of the Buddha's psychological teaching is that to look in the face of impermanence, insubstantiality, lack of substance, and lack of solidity doesn't mean that things are meaningless, that they're haphazard, that they're disconnected. In fact, if we really see emptiness or insubstantiality we see interconnection. We're not any longer standing apart, and so we're not so habitually afraid.

Sometimes, to convey how everything can arise but have no inherent, unchanging substance, the Buddhist teachings use images, like "life is like a dream, like an echo, like a rainbow, like a drop of dew on a blade of grass, like a flash of lightening in a summer's sky." It all happens, and it is all so ephemeral. That's emptiness.

2. To meditate is to still the mind. what i'm wondering is this: can you truly meditate while DOING something? my mind is only quiet when i play piano. am i meditating when i play music? do you have to sit and do nothing to meditate effectively?

I see meditation (in the sense of mindfulness meditation), as about relating in a transformed way to our experience. The stillness isn't so much a quiet state where there are no thoughts arising, but a way of relating to whatever comes up, including thoughts, without grasping and aversion. In that framework, there could be tons of thoughts and sensory impressions arising, but we could be free in the face of them, and that would be considered good meditation. As one of my teachers, Tsoknyi Rinpoche once said, 'it's not the thoughts that are the problem, it is the glue."

The Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah put it this way: "As you practice, your mind will get quieter and quieter, like a still forest pool. Many wonderful and rare animals come to drink at this pool, but you will be still. This is the happiness of the Buddha." I've always liked that image because of the line "many wonderful and rare animals come to drink at the pool, "Everything happens, but we are different with it.

With this sense of meditation, because we can be mindful of anything…sounds and sights and thoughts and feelings and physical sensations…we don't have to sit and do nothing in order to meditate. The key is in the relationship to all that come sour way.

Sitting and doing nothing is also good, as is playing music, as you describe it. The force of concentration enters in, and allows us access to many different kinds of experiences. But mindfulness is independent of a particular experience, and so can support us whatever is happening.

3. I am taking the 28 day meditation challenge. Can any form of meditation be conducted while driving to and from work?

For many daily activities we emphasize mindfulness of the body. Since you have to have an open awareness of seeing and hearing etc in order to drive safely, it is more in the nature of a light awareness on touch sensation. It is not a tight focus, or an exclusive focus, but a regular return to the chosen object, like the feeling of your hands on the steering wheel. There is also lots of opportunity to notice mind states, like agitation, impatience, anger, compassion, joy. The touch sensation gives us an anchor, and allows us to see these mind states arise and pass away without getting lost in them.

4. I recently lost my 21-yr-old son. While I can understand that attachment is the root of suffering, I cannot fathom how a mother cannot be "attached" to her child. Attachments to possessions are one thing, but what about attachments to loved ones?

I'm sorry to hear of your loss. A friend whose adult son recently died told me that her Zen teacher said to her, "You'll never get over it." Which I rather liked as a comment. Not that she was being doomed to acute anguish forever, but that the gravity of what had happened was being honored, and the insistence we can ourselves have on feeling a certain way, like having equanimity about something, was being confronted.

My own teacher, Dipama, suffered the loss of 2 children and her husband. She was overcome with sorrow until a doctor in Burma told her she would die of a broken heart unless she learned to meditate. She emerged from that time as a tremendously loving, compassionate person, so much so it changed my life, and many others', to meet her.

I do think the word attachment in Buddhist teaching is used differently than we use it in a Western sense. I think in the teachings it is used as a grasping relationship, essentially one where we try to be in control, of something or someone. There is often plenty of that in personal relationships as well, but it is different than bonding, nurturing, committing, etc.

I know someone whose (barely) adult child was just sentenced to prison. Of course it is devastating, but at the same time I've watched her adjust to the idea that he has his own path, that she can be there for him but not decide for him how he'll behave, that as much as she wishes happiness and peace for him, she can't control his choices. It has taken a lot of courage for her to be there fully for him and also let go… it has been a lesson for me in distinguishing love and attachment. So it is really in that sense that the word is used.

And on a different note, because in Buddhism there is a belief in rebirth, it is also felt that connections aren't necessarily severed at physical death. And it is felt that one's own goodheartedness is the strongest conduit for maintaining that connection. That is why, when one does something towards the good, like an act of generosity, or kindness, or meditation, we share the merit of that act with others, including those who have died. I don't know if this fits with your belief system at all, but it is something that has meant a lot to me personally.

5. Is there a conflict between the intention for acceptance of what is, and the intention to help alleviate suffering in the world. How do your resolve this (apparent) conflict? What advice would you give to those that are inclined toward social action?

Acceptance is really the term for right relationship to what we are observing. If we are in denial, if we look the other way, if we are afraid, or if we are overcome by anger at what we are seeing, it can distort our perception. Then our reaction is reflexive, or limited, or incomplete…more a way of dealing with our bad feeling than a way to deal with the situation. Acceptance doesn't mean complacency or passivity or indifference. If we take it as mindfulness, or being fully with what is happening without the distortion of bias, it helps us enormously in discerning what might be a skillful response. There is almost a progression - awareness, acceptance, connection, response.

Awareness and acceptance leading to clear seeing also allows us to look deeply inside a situation. Many years ago Sulak Sivaraksa, a Thai social activist, came to visit the Insight Meditation Society in Barre. At one point he was talking about the tragedy of the sex trade of children in Thailand, and he said, "If you really want to affect the sex trade, look at things like agricultural policies." In other words, look deeper to the causes of poverty, not just at the effect.

I think the big challenge we face now is to find a means of social action that isn't based on self and other, or us and them. My models are people like the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma. That is an awesome task, but may be the revolution that we need to really make for sustained change.

6. I have been studying dharma for two years in a NKT (New Kadampa Tradition) setting in a town with few if any other opportunities for practice. I am very conflicted about this because of the Dorje Shugden controversy and what the Dalai Lama has said about this.

Since the controversy is happening in a tradition I am not a part of, I don't have so much specific to say. I am not sure, from what the Dalai Lama has said, if he is asking people doing that specific practice to not do initiations with him, or those studying in that school in general. I believe it is the specific practice. I would urge you to find out as much as possible. Of course, in the end you have to look at your experience along with the fruits of that exploration to make up your mind. The bottom line for each of us is dedication to lessening greed hatred and delusion in our minds, and developing love, compassion and wisdom. You have to see what your personal experience is. It also seems to me that others participating in this forum are having similar experiences, and you may find collective support and wisdom with one another.

7. I am finding the process of letting go painful and difficult. Any suggestions on how to work through the process with clarity and skillfulness.

I assume you mean letting go in a life situation, such as not getting what we want, or not being able to decide how another person will behave, or feeling betrayed by our bodies or generally having to acknowledge we are not in control. That process often is painful and difficult. In a way, our meditation practice is all practice for life, and it is those skills of letting go we are cultivating. So a dedicated period of practice each day is a great support.

Part of the translation into life comes from working moment to moment -- not trying to let go for all time, in all ways, but right now, in this moment. And then this one.

Part of the skill may come from using a concept like balance, rather than letting go. I think of trying to have a more balanced relationship to what I am experiencing, whether it is something lovely or a state of loss. Letting go might have associations of getting rid of a feeling, or not caring, or being beyond us. A balanced relationship to what is acknowledges any feeling, without resenting it or hating ourselves for it, and also without letting it overcome and define us. It is what we practice when we practice mindfulness.

8. To practicing loving kindness meditation I found some phrases that resonate with me. "May I live in love. May I live in compassion. May I live in joy. May I live in equaminity". These phrases work for me. Am I changing metta meditation?

The 4 Brahma Viharas (lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity) are very related and support one another. In a way, by using the phrases you chose you are making their connection explicit rather than implicit. When I teach metta, I suggest one variation of the classical phrases (May I be safe, be happy, be healthy, live with ease) but emphasize that these are all translations, and that the phrases need to be big enough, or general enough, that they can be an offering to ourselves in an enduring way, not just for today, and can be offered to others, eventually to all beings. It's good if you find the phrases meaningful, so there isn't that struggle as you practice. I think your phrases are fine.

9. I understand emptiness (I think). What is reborn in reincarnation if we have no soul..nothing that is self? Who's karma is being wiped out (for good or for bad)?

When I was studying Buddhism in college, in 1970, there was a question on an exam that was very similar to the one you ask. In fact, in the Questions of King Milinda, a Buddhist text dated to approximately 100 BCE, the question comes up as King Milinda, seeking clarity, asks Bhante Nagasena a number of things.

"If a man were to light a lamp, could it give light throughout the whole night?"

"Yes, it could."

"Is now the flame which burns in the first watch of the night the same as the one which burns in the second?"

"It is not the same."

"Or is the flame which burns in the second watch the same as the one which burns in the last one?"

"It is not the same."

"Do we then take it that there is one lamp in the first watch of the night, another in the second, and another again in the third?"

"No, it is just because of the light of the lamp shines throughout the night."

"Give me another simile!"

"Milk, once the milking is done, turns after sometimes into curds; from curds it turns into fresh butter; and from fresh butter into ghee. Would it now be correct to say that the milk is the same thing as the curds, or the fresh butter, or the ghee?"

"No, it would not. But they have been produced because of it."

Basically, the teachings say there is a continuity of process without an unchanging substance forwarding along. If we were to look back at ourselves at age 7, we could take note of the fact that every cell in our bodies has died and been reborn countless times, our minds and emotions and feelings have come and gone and come and gone…there is no "thing" that is the same. Yet there is continuity to the process. Physical death, at the end of this life, is very similar, except that this body goes and consciousness links to a new. Perhaps it is only our western conditioning that views death as something so totally different and alien from what happens in life, from age 7 until now, or form moment to moment.

10. I was a vegetarian for years. I have severe RA (Rheumatoid Arthritis) and was advised by acupuncturists and western physician to eat meat protein. I decided to eat free-range organic chicken. It makes a huge difference in my health, strength. What do I do about the first precept?

The issue of eating meat is very complicated anyway. The specific instructions the Buddha gave were for the order of monks and nuns, who were going out for alms each day. He didn't want them to refuse the offerings of meat that might be made, unless they saw, heard or suspected the meat had been killed just for them. How that translates to lay life, in a society where we can go to the supermarket and get meat nicely wrapped and that is available whether we go in or not, is interpreted in various ways by every single person as they think about what to have for dinner.. Some people feel that eating meat is not the same as killing, and point strongly to the Buddha's emphasis on intention as the moral compass. They certainly served meat in the meditation center I practiced in while in Burma. Others feel that by eating meat they are participating in a whole system of treatment of animals that is just wrong.

In making these kinds of decisions, the basis of illumination begins with examining your intention. In your situation, I think a lot of clarity will come directly from that.


Source: Tricycle, March 2007, www.tricycle.com 

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