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Lions Roar : January 2003
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2003 47 ‘neutral person’ part of the practice a lot. Because here’s this person that you don’t really know, you don’t have a story about them, you don’t know about their sorrows or their joys. But you pay attention to them every day, in effect, because you’re using them as an object of meditation, and wishing them well. And by virtue of the fact that you’re paying attention to somebody rather than overlooking them or ignoring them—suddenly there’s this real caring. Salzberg did loving-kindness practice for four years with U Pandita, and then he wanted her to stop. Metta is not the main practice, he said, mindfulness is: metta will do many things, but it won’t necessarily enhance your understanding of emptiness. “It’s not,” Salzberg says, “a liberating practice.” On retreat with U Pandita in Australia in the late eighties, then, Salzberg, who at this point thought she knew her mind, went back to mindfulness practice—and fell into a hole: feelings about her mother’s death she thought she’d worked through resurfaced. Miserable, she once again had to reweave the threads of connection from a lonely, desolate place. As a result, her compassion grew, first for herself, and then for everyone else. Many of her friends can describe the change. Joseph Goldstein says, “When Sharon was just starting out, she was quite an unusual yogi—it was clear that there was wisdom there. But her teaching abilities weren’t clear at that time. Now, though, she has the confidence, and is wonderfully articu- late, so the wisdom really shines through.” SALZBERG WAS RIDING in an elevator in a New York City hotel a few years ago, when she realized that she was carrying her very heavy suit- case in her arms. “I had the brilliant thought,” she says, “—‘ Why not put it down, and let the elevator carry it?’ ” That’s what it’s like for Salzberg, finally: every moment now there’s another chance to let go— not to strain to be something better, not to strive to get over anything, not to practice life in any kind of harsh, judgmental, demanding or controlling way—but to just let go, moment after moment after moment. And in that moment of letting go is kindness. “Even if I’m teaching people just to be with the breath,” she says, “I emphasize that the critical moment in the practice is the moment we realize we’ve been distracted. We have a phenomenal ability to begin again—when we’ve gone off somewhere, we can begin again. And in that moment of beginning again, we can be practicing loving-kindness and forgiveness and patience and letting go. That was always taught to me,” she says, “but I couldn’t hear it. So maybe my evolution has been my ability to hear those words.” In 1985, Salzberg and Goldstein were in Nepal together when someone asked them if they’d like to go meet the great Tibetan teacher Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. “ We were in Bodhnath, just hanging around,” Salzberg says, “and so we said, ‘Yeah, yeah,’ you know, and we went in and there he was in his state of half undress. He was eating lunch, or something like that. It was just the two of us and a translator and him, and he said, ‘Do you have anything you want to ask me?’ And we said, ‘No.’ ” Salzberg rocks backwards on the couch and laughs hard. “And he burst out laughing,” she says, “like, ‘You don’t know what you’re missing, you dunces!’ Six years later we were studying with Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche and would have done anything to be in a room with Khyentse Rinpoche to ask him questions.” Salzberg often tells these kind of self-deprecating stories, and you end up feeling great affection for her—she seems to have made as many mistakes as you, only she’s learned to laugh about them, tossing them off as teachings on how to give oneself a break. AROUND 1991, twenty years after her first trip to India—and two years after she’d grappled with the agony she felt at her mother’s death—Salzberg, still following the pretense of accident, “conceived an interest in Dzogchen”—a Vajrayana practice of the Nyingma school. “It’s hard to even describe this,” she says, “but it was like a kind of craving, a yearning that came up. Some friends came by—students of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s—and I said, ‘Can you teach me?’ and of course they couldn’t.” She laughs. “ ‘Can you tell me something about it?’ ” she remem- bers saying then, “ ‘No.’ ” She laughs again. “And then Surya came.” Salzberg asked Western Buddhist teacher Surya Das to give her some Dzogchen teachings, but he said it’d be better if he introduced Salzberg to his teachers. And that’s when she went to Nepal to meet Tulku Urgyen, and eventually to Paris where she met the late Nyoshul Khen, called “Khenpo” by his students. Salzberg “fell in love” with Khenpo. She felt devoted to him, but it was a different kind of devotion than the one she felt for her earlier teachers. With Goenka, Dipa Ma and U Pandita, Salzberg felt a kind of dependency—after all, they were teaching ➣ page 89