The Threads of the Past

Monday, December 28, 2015 - 7:10am

The Threads of the Past

I recently returned from Maui, where I co-taught a retreat with old friends Ram Dass, Krishna Das, and Mirabai Bush. I've known each of them since I first learned meditation in January 1971 in Bodhgaya, India. In other words, I've known each of them a lifetime, or the several lifetimes each of us have lived in the past 44 years.

At my first meditation retreat, Ram Dass was considered the patriarch, the elder. He'd been to India before, he'd been a Harvard professor (albeit fired for psychedelic experimentation), and while we were in that little town in India we received a copy of his seminal book Be Here Now for the first time, in its original box. Much later, I was shocked to realize he was only 38 at the time! Of course, I was only 18 but still — now 38 seems awfully young to be an elder!

Some years later, in 1974, Ram Dass was invited to teach a large class of about 1,000 people at the opening summer of Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. He invited my friend Joseph Goldstein, whom I had also met at my first retreat, to lead the meditation subgroup of the mega-class. I arrived back in the U.S. from my second trip studying meditation in India about halfway through the first summer session of Naropa.

A number of friends were just coming back to the U.S. then, and our joke in recounting it — though it was actually true — was that Joseph was the one of our immediate circle with a job and an apartment, so a number of us descended on Boulder. At one point there were about nine of us living in Joseph's one bedroom apartment. Sometimes he tells the story from his point of view and describes how he struggled with that (he's a very meticulous person, for one thing), until he gave up the thought that it was his apartment and thought of it as belonging to all of us. Our neighbor down the hall was Jack Kornfield, also teaching a class at Naropa. In a very real way, it was Ram Dass's invitation that brought the three of us together: Jack, Joseph, and me.

Ram Dass with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche on the opening night of The Naropa Institute in 1974.

(Naropa University.)

Following that summer we began to respond to invitations to lead retreats — sometimes two of us, at times all three of us. At the end of a retreat we actually never knew if there would be another retreat, until the next invitation arrived. These were the days, after all, when meditation was not nearly as popular or researched. If you were in a serious profession, you likely wouldn't disclose your hippie-ish pursuit, and, if you weren't studying Buddhism, it was extremely unlikely you'd ever think to use the word "mindfulness."

Often as we waited to see if another retreat would come together, we were sleeping in friends' guest rooms or on living room couches, arriving with most of our worldly possessions, which usually wasn't all that much but could still take up some room. One friend and frequent host, perhaps in an attempt to try to create some space for himself, offered us a house in Felton, California, which he had used a rental property. We moved in and opened a retreat center there. We offered the space for people to do personal retreats, and occasionally had a small group retreat as well. We called it Dhamma Vihara, Dwelling of Truth in Pali, the language of the original Buddhist texts.

One day someone came through to do a retreat there and said to us, "You know, you should really start a meditation center in this country, not just a house. I know the people who can help you, who can serve on your first board of directors and help you figure out a legal structure, how to find a property, etc. They are in Massachusetts." This comment set us on the path that pretty quickly led to establishing the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, which is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary.

As I write this, I just arrived at Felton a few hours ago. I came out to California from New York City to visit friends who recently moved to Felton from Los Angeles. I couldn't believe it when they told me where they were going. I haven't been here since the Dhamma Vihara house was the genesis of the Insight Meditation Society, which has served thousands. It's a little eerie to be back here, a lifetime later, and so soon after seeing Ram Dass.

The Buddha said:

"Life is like an echo, a rainbow, a bubble in a stream. It's like a flash of lightening in a summer's sky, a drop of dew on a blade of grass."

Everything happens, and it's evanescent — shimmering, here yet insubstantial, impactful and fragile, luminous and dissolving all at the same time.

Ram Dass, this town, and certainly the Insight Meditation Society, are some of the markers of my life as it arises and passes away, as it flows on and all inexorably changes. How can 40 years have gone by? Today, feeling the passage of time, life does indeed seem just like a dream.

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Sharon Salzberg

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears monthly.

She is a meditation teacher and the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She is the author of many books, including Love Your Enemies, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, and Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace.

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What an inspiration essay on the life of Sharon Salzberg.....a prominent meditation instructor and world renown Buddhist teacher. Her profound understanding of the Buddhist path and life is an inspiration to many. Thank you Sharon. Thank you!


Isn't it interesting that everyone named in this essay, other than Mirabai Bush and the Buddha, were born Jewish?

I too read BE HERE NOW in it's original box set form during my first psychedelic experience- changed my life.

Have read Be here now so many times can tell you the page where my favorite quotes. Even Grist for the mill takes you beyond the everday real thinking we all need !! Namaste

Sharon! I live in Felton!! And I was just in Maui with you and everyone... I am the one who hangs out near Barbara and Andrei Voinar!
How fun it would have been to run into you here in now my home town...have lived in Felton for 11 years now!
If you are still here, I would love to say hi!
The White Raven... hang out coffee house in downtown Felton is a lovely place to "run in to someone"
It was so much fun to be with you in Maui... I go every time now and wish you were going to be there in May, but will plan to be there in November ... Many, Many blessings and Love, Sita

Perhaps the greatest revolution of the 60's and 70's will be remembered as the infusion of the Dharma into the fabric of our country. Thank you (and your contemporaries) for trusting the web of life to weave something profound for all of us through your work.

I am so proud to be a part of this lineage. Through books and then in real life study, with Noah Levine, meeting many of my elders, such as Jack and yourself. Attending a Master's program at Naropa, leading the first Dharma Punx/Against the Stream Groups in Boulder at Naropa and also Shambhala. Thank you for choosing to stay on this path. It is not an easy one at times. Loving Kindness is a book I give to friends and recommend to clients often. Deep bows of gratitude.

May we all be safe and protected, May we be peaceful, May we live in love and compassion.

Wonderful memories, Sharon. Thanks so much for sharing them. Wow -- he was just 38? Really? Wow again. And here we all are -- or there we were, on Maui just a few weeks ago. Pranams to you, and much metta, from one of RD's Monkey clan.

Thank you Sharon for sharing a taste of your journey with your wonder-full companions along the way. We met at a retreat a few years ago at Garrison that you were teaching with Sylvia. I am grateful for your teachings, your generosity and kindness.

It was back in the day, then, mid 70's , living in Felton, then Boulder Creek, that i met my destiny. It came in the unique form of hot tubbing with Leonard Orr, Sondra Rey, Ken Keyes Jr, Richard , now Ram Das, looking for that Red Road, the Way, my Path. I was a solar student at Cabrillo and Santa Cruz. Thats when the dots started connecting. I was blessed with building the first solar showers for our hippie family building the Vasrapani Tibetan Institute in the mountains of Boulder Creek.We were legendary, creating history. Its been over 40 years, in my nowness, of Maharishi , Yogananda and Buddhist practices. Have i reached enlightenment? It took a long time to realize we already are Realized. I met you then too. I keep thinking you had a flower nickname. Such a tiny world. Bless our huge family.

So many of us were young, or youngish, in 1971, and although my circle of dharma friends is not identical to Sharon's I am repeatedly reminded of how many of the people I grew up with remain on the path of awakening, it all of its amazing forms, and of how much I treasure their perseverence and being. I know that when my wife and I went in the fall of 1971 went to see Trungpa Rinpoche speak at Jerry Granelli's rehearsal hall in the Mission district, we never imagined that we would still be students in the Shambhala tradition, but now I realize that so many streams in my life to that point had made that connection pretty much inevitable -- and incredibly fortunate!