Compassion A Way of
Being in the World
An Interview with Sharon Salzberg
By David N. Elkins
Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg argues that compassion, which comes from understanding the interconnectedness of all things, is a powerful force that can transform our own lives and make a difference in the world.
Sharon is the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and author of "A Heart as Wide as the World." A student of Buddhism for more than 20 years, she travels throughout the world teaching Buddhist practice to others.
Sharon is a warm, compassionate person who practices what she preaches, as I learned firsthand. Due to equipment failure, the first interview I did with Sharon did not record. Horrified to find the tape was blank, I called her back, apologized profusely, and asked if we could re-do the interview. She said, "These things happen," and graciously rescheduled. That simple act of compassion meant more to me than all the words she spoke in the interview, profound though they are. Compassion is not simply an intellectual idea. It's a way of being in the world.
David Elkins: In your book, "A Heart As Wide As the World," you wrote, "From my earliest days of Buddhist practice, I felt powerfully drawn to the possibility of finding a way of life that was peaceful and authentic. My own life at that time was characterized largely by fear and confusion. I felt separate from other people and from the world around me, and even oddly disconnected from my own experience." I suspect many of us can relate to those feelings. Tell me more about your personal journey.
Sharon Salzberg: I went to India when I was 18 while a college student. The school program offered the possibility of going to another culture as a cross-cultural consciousness study. The deeper reason that I went was because I felt unhappy and confused, not sure where I belonged in this world. I had an instinct that if I could learn how to practice meditation, and I was especially interested in the Buddhist tradition, I could come to greater peace and clarity. So when the opportunity arose, I completed an application saying I wanted to go to India and study Buddhism. It was accepted and off I went.
Elkins: So that was the beginning of your journey. For the last 20 years or so you have worked at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, correct?
Salzberg: Yes. When I went to India, I met Joseph Goldstein. Joseph and I came back in 1974 and began teaching at Naropa Institute which had just opened in Boulder, Colorado. I met Jack Kornfield there, and the three of us led Buddhist retreats in various places. After awhile, someone suggested we start a retreat center in this country. We looked at a number of places and finally settled on Barre, Massachusetts. We opened the doors of the Insight Meditation Society on Valentine's Day, 1976. Then in 1989 Joseph and I established the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies just down the road, which offers programs about the integration of Buddhist concepts into contemporary society, as well as the classical study of languages.
Elkins: Compassion is a central tenant of Buddhism. But what is compassion? Can you give me a working definition?
Salzberg: The traditional definition from Pali, the language of the original Buddhist text, is the trembling or quivering of the heart in response to pain or suffering. Some Buddhist schools say the teaching has two wings, like the wings of a bird, and they are wisdom and compassion. Compassion is something we develop concurrently with the development of wisdom. Compassion is the natural response of clear seeing or understanding.
Elkins: Why is compassion important? Why should we be concerned about developing it in our own lives?
Salzberg: Recently, I had this wonderful experience of seeing the Dalai Lama address 40,000 to 80,000 people the attendance estimates varied in Central Park in New York. There was a tremendous outpouring of people. The Dalai Lama said very beautifully that we've come to a time when the interconnected nature of the world is more readily apparent, and that we can't deny it. If you fight your neighbor, you are fighting yourself, and if you destroy your neighbor, you are destroying yourself. We are all linked, and compassion is the natural response of seeing that linkage. It is caring and concern rather than a feeling of separation into us and them. We now have an opportunity to see the interconnected nature of things as the environmental movement has made clear. Who knew, for example, that deforestation in a far-away place would affect us? But now we know that it does.
Elkins: So, compassion is the recognition of the interconnectedness of everything.
Salzberg: It is the result of that recognition. In traditional terms, the recognition itself is wisdom and the result of that recognition is compassion. When we come to have a different perspective, we respond differently. It is hard to act as though we are completely separate when we recognize that we are not completely separate.
Elkins: You mention in your book that sometimes when you teach others about compassion, they say, "If I develop qualities such as loving kindness and compassion, people will abuse and take advantage of me." How do you respond to that? Is compassion practical in the real world?
Salzberg: I do hear that a lot in response to meditations for the development of loving kindness and compassion. One person said, "I hate that meditation. It reminds me of a forced Valentine's Day where we are actually angry or fearful but cover these over with a veneer of love or compassion." Real compassion is not at all like that. It is a tremendous strength. Go back to the Buddha and his emphasis on the need for both compassion and wisdom. True compassion has wisdom in it. It is not just feeling sorry for somebody or being overcome or brokenhearted in the face of pain. Compassion is a movement of the heart, and it doesn't make us weak when it's balanced by wisdom. It is a powerful force.
Elkins: I think you're talking about the difference between authentic compassion and pseudo-compassion. In my work as a psychotherapist, I once had a client who talked constantly about Christian agape, or unconditional love, as the guiding principle of her life. She was in an abusive relationship with a man and was depressed. I tried to help her see the connection, but she would tell me, "If I can just love him enough, everything will work out." After three months she ended the therapy, and as far as I know, continued in the abusive relationship. Is there a tough side to compassion that would be able to deal with this kind of situation?
Salzberg: This comes back to the Buddhist teaching about action and the different components of action. From the Buddhist perspective you can divide an action into three parts. The first and most significant part is the intention underlying the action, the motivation from which it springs. Traditional Buddhism would say this is the karma. The karmic seed is in the intention; everything rests on the tip of motivation. When we talk about compassion and loving kindness, we're really talking about motivation. We're talking about the energetic field out of which we act and move. The second part is the skillfulness with which we act. For example, suppose you have a beautiful motivation of wanting to say something loving to somebody. Skillfulness might involve determining whether this is best said privately or shouted out across a crowded room. The third part is the immediate result or the result that we can see. For example, out of a beautiful motivation, you give someone a gift and you do it as skillfully as you can. But perhaps they have just received terrible news and they're not able to receive your gift wholeheartedly and they fail to thank you. This does not mean you have not acted well, it just means the conditions were beyond your control. There's a tremendous emphasis in Buddhist teachings on transforming your intention to come from a place of love and compassion, to increase the power of your skillfulness through paying attention, and learning how to let go of the immediate result with equanimity and peace. Now, going back to the abusive relationship you described, the most skillful thing to do might be to leave the relationship, but the motivation from within that leads one to do that can be compassion for oneself or compassion for the other. It does not have to be hatred or lack of understanding.
Elkins: It is easy to fool ourselves about the development of compassion. For example, I was originally trained as a Christian minister and I can remember certain parishioners who seemed kind and loving on the surface, but underneath they were filled with bigotry and hatred that sometimes came spewing out. I have also deluded myself at various times on the spiritual journey. How do we know the difference between real growth in compassion and this pseudo-spirituality that any of us can fall into?
Salzberg: From the perspective of the Buddhist teaching, one continually looks at one's motivation in order to be aware of it and honest about it. It is hard to look at our own problems, negativities, hatreds, fears, and to admit they are there. We tend to cut off these parts of ourselves, to push them away. Or we succumb to them at times. But there is a way of learning how to see these things in ourselves without taking them so to heart, so to speak. We can learn to say, "This is a habit of the mind or this is a conditioning of the mind and it doesn't feel good." The Buddha said, "I teach one thing and one thing only, that is suffering and the end of suffering." One can learn to see these forces that arise in our mind not in terms of right and wrong or good and evil, but as forces that lead to suffering or the end of it. For example, we can see that jealousy, envy, greed, and hatred lead to suffering. They are suffering. But rather than feel contempt and anguish and hatred of ourselves for having them arise, we can feel compassion for ourselves. In the same way, we can recognize that others who have these mind states are also filled with suffering, and we can have compassion for them too.
Elkins: You have had several teachers through the years who helped you on your spiritual journey. How important is the teacher in the development of compassion?
Salzberg: Good teachers are important. We need models, exemplars of what is possible for a human being, and we need to reflect on those examples and honor them. Some people say the Dalai Lama is their teacher even though they have never met him in person. Two of the main functions of a teacher are inspiration and reminder. It is one thing to admire somebody with great qualities from afar, and another thing to be inspired by the fact that we, too, can develop and embody those qualities.
Elkins: Meditation is an important part of Buddhist practice. You have practiced meditation for many years. What is it like to sit for hours, days, in meditation?
Salzberg: It is great. In my book, "A Heart As Wide As the World," I use the metaphor of going into an old attic room and turning on a light so that we can see everything. We see beautiful, extraordinary treasures and can hardly believe they exist in our own attic. We see dusty, neglected corners and realize we'd better clean them up. We see objects that are disconcerting and unpleasant that we thought we got rid of long ago.
Elkins: Suppose someone said, "I probably will never go to India or sit with a renowned teacher, but I am interested in learning about meditation and developing compassion." What could this person do? Where would he start?
Salzberg: Some of it depends on geography and some of it depends on how you learn best as an individual. Many books give practical guidance on learning to meditate, so if reading books is the way you learn, you can study at home. There are also sitting groups across the country where people come together and play tapes, support one another, and meditate together. There are retreat centers in various parts of the country. If you cannot do a three-month retreat, do a weekend, and get a grounding in the use of the different techniques of meditation. Joseph and I created a correspondence course in meditation, a set of tapes and a manual. When you purchase the course, you also receive a year's worth of correspondence with one of our senior students, who will answer your questions about meditation. So there are various opportunities for anyone who wishes to begin.
Elkins: Another topic that intrigues me is the relationship of compassion and transformation. As one grows in compassion, transformation occurs. But what changes? What is transformed on the journey to compassion?
Salzberg: Nyanaponika Thera was a renowned German monk and scholar who lived in Sri Lanka most of his life. One day, I was listening to a colleague of mine who quoted him. Embedded in the quote was the statement that compassion makes the narrow heart as wide as the world. That is what compassion does. It challenges our assumptions, our sense of self-limitation, worthlessness, of not having a place in the world, our feelings of loneliness and estrangement. These are narrow, constrictive states of mind. As we develop compassion, our hearts open.
Elkins: What is the relationship of compassion to "right action?"
Salzberg: As I pointed out earlier, from the Buddhist point of view, what makes any action right or not right is not only the skillfulness of the action, but primarily the energy with which it's done or the place within us from which it comes, the motivation. Right action is grounded in compassionate motivation. We develop compassion as an aspect of the reservoir of motivations with which we move through the world.
Elkins: Right now there are 75 million baby-boomers in the United States and many of us are noticing that our bodies are growing older. Our parents are dying and reminding us of our own mortality. What does Buddhism have to say about aging and death?
Salzberg: Buddhism teaches suffering and the end of suffering. It is said that the Buddha was a pampered prince in his early life until he left the palace at the age of 29. According to legend, he saw what are called the four heavenly messengers a sick person, an old person, a corpse, and a renunciate. Because he saw those first three as signs of suffering, he left the palace and began his spiritual journey to see what he might uncover about the nature of life. In our time, the cultural norm says you should never grow old, you shouldn't get sick, you should have everything under control, and if you're feeling badly, you should hide it. We have to defy such cultural norms or stand apart from them. As a spiritual person, as one who wishes to see things in a deeper way, you must step aside and challenge all of that conditioning. The truth is, the body has its own trajectory.
Elkins: Spirituality, including the development of compassion, is the only answer. It contains the key to our own journey through life.
Salzberg: Yes, there are no greater understandings than those that help us to find love, community, and a meaningful life.