Several strands of history are woven into the quilt of American Buddhism. The lineage of secular vipassana that many of us practice has particular ties to the American subcultures of the past half century. It was birthed by some very serious monks, writers and scholars, both Asian and Western, but also by people who experimented with psychoactive drugs and bohemian lifestyles, and who had many different spiritual addresses before landing in the Theravada. We asked four senior teachers to tell a few personal stories that mark the beginnings of our collective history. While these stories by no means encompass the experience of all our readers, they will strike a chord of resonance, if not nostalgia, for many.
In the late sixties after traveling for months through India, my husband, Henry, and I had settled down in the Himalayan town of Almora. We thought this a place conducive to resting, renewing and deepening our spiritual practice by living a quiet and simple life. Our residence was part of a former missionary dwelling, outside the hustle-bustle of the village. Our household was expertly ordered by a very capable Indian cook and housekeeper, so we had lots of quiet, undisturbed time to do what we intended—to expand our skills in staying awake and observant of body and mind—building on what we had studied and practiced in Burma with Sayaji U Ba Khin.
Almora was a popular gathering place for sincere spiritual seekers, high-minded hippies, cosmic spiritual globetrotters, conventional pilgrims and refugees from India’s summer heat. We met many interesting people at the regular pujas, scheduled meditations and discussions offered by Lama Govinda and Li Gotami, about seven miles up the mountain. I enjoyed also the twenty-four-hour meditational gatherings organized by the local self-appointed gurus, who offered many and various ways to “touch the divine.” All of these were interesting, but I felt deep gratitude for my training in sensory awareness and my vipassana practice for the ability they gave me to establish with mindfulness a safe place within myself. At one point I did a little exploration in the realms of yoga and Indian classical dance, which added some sense of ease and relaxation to a rigorous schedule of meditation.
Every few weeks we would need to leave our hideout and go to Delhi for mail and supplies. On one of these trips we found the sad message that our friend Alan Watts had died. Henry and I reminisced about Alan and all the wonderful events we had shared with him, all the seminars, the deep discussions, the good times. I recalled how often, over the years, Alan and I had danced together at gatherings at my house in Hollywood. It was not ballroom dancing but simply movement to background music, which was usually classical or perhaps Indian chanting. We would do mudras and pose with arms raised or knees lowered, weaving in and out among the people sitting and talking. Those had been happy days, painful to recall.
In deep grief, I left the hotel to be alone with my sadness. I walked along the beautiful tree-lined streets of Delhi and through the park to visit with and feed the elephants, always a sweet and calming experience. I went next to the Sarasvati temple, one to which I was particularly attracted. It was a very old temple, open and ringed with columns. One walked up a long staircase, barefooted, on marvelous, cool marble floors. I sat down alone in this beautiful setting and became immediately absorbed with my lost friend, sending him wishes of well-being, an easy transition and a good incarnation. And in my mind I danced with Alan as I so often had.
When I opened my eyes, there were people sitting all around me, and the hall was rich with flowers. Then I heard drums and saw six or eight musicians creating a most stimulating and compelling rhythm. No one was speaking. There was only the music. At some point I completely tuned in to the sound. The music penetrated through me and I was music. I was movement. With no conscious purpose, I got up and started to dance. Body and mind became one, like water flowing into water. I became a sort of dancing Shiva, totally absorbed in the rhythm and the movement.
For at least an hour, perhaps more, I danced among the people and all over the hall. No one else was dancing. No one was watching except the musicians, who were gesturing a wordless encouragement for me to continue. At last I sat down, feeling wonderfully in harmony within, and in full contact with Alan. I began to feel flowers coming at me and over me, encircling me with wreaths and petals.
I have never known where that dancing came from. It has been a precious and mysterious memory, never understood and never forgotten. I danced in that temple with the spirit of my friend. Since that time I’ve tried to tap into that state again, but I have never been able to recapture it.
I came back to the United States from India in 1974 after spending a good part of seven years there, mostly in Bodhgaya at the Burmese Vihara, where I studied dharma with Munindraji. During the first few years it was a very quiet place—ten to twelve meditators felt like a crowd. Then, in the winter of 1970, S. N. Goenka held one of his very first retreats in Bodhgaya, and a large number of Westerners descended on the vihara. Although it felt a bit like an invasion at the time, that was when I first met Sharon Salzberg, Daniel Goleman, Ram Dass, Krishna Das and many others.
During the retreat, several of us were housed in a converted buffalo shed that had been partitioned into three small rooms, and Ram Dass was in the room next to mine. I would be in my room meditating and Ram Dass would be in the next room, sometimes meditating, but at other times talking and laughing with the many people who came to see him. Occasionally I would have to pound on the wall, saying, “Quiet in there!” But our shared wall turned out to be the beginning of a deep and long-lasting friendship.
When I returned to America, I traveled across the country and stopped in Boulder, Colorado, meeting some of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s people, who were organizing the first summer school of Naropa Institute. They asked me if I would teach a course in meditation, knowing that I’d just come back from all that time studying in India. When I met with Rinpoche to see if he approved, his only question to me was, “Do you have a daily practice?”
After arranging to teach a course in “Essential Buddhism”—a Theravada offering in a Vajrayana world—I continued on to San Francisco. While I was in the Bay Area I decided to call Ram Dass to reconnect with him; however, I called him on one of the days that he was keeping silence, so he was unable to meet with me. Sometime later, I was walking down a street in Berkeley and, really needing to go to the bathroom, I went into a restaurant to ask if I could use the men’s room. It seemed strange to me, especially after just coming from India, that they replied, “No, it’s only for customers.” I went into a second restaurant, and they said the same thing. I couldn’t quite believe that people would be so protective of their facilities.
Finally, I went into a third restaurant, and who was sitting there but Ram Dass. I think some deva must have been directing the show. After relieving myself, I joined him and we started talking about the upcoming summer session at Naropa. He invited me to teach the meditation section of his class on the Bhagavad Gita. Of course, Ram Dass was hugely popular by then. Be Here Now had come out a short time before, and he had over a thousand students coming to attend his lectures. So teaching those meditation sessions really introduced a lot of people to vipassana practice, and a kind of grassroots dharma movement began to evolve. People began setting up vipassana retreats, and in the first couple of years after Naropa we held meditation retreats in California, South Carolina, British Columbia, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Texas and other places that I can’t now recall. It was part of the great wave of Buddhist teaching starting in the West, and it’s strange how a couple of restaurants with a strict bathroom policy helped get it all rolling.
In February of 1976 we moved into the former Catholic monastery that became the Insight Meditation Society. I was only twenty-three years old, and Jack [Kornfield] and Joseph [Goldstein] weren’t too much older. People these days say, “Oh, you must have had such courage and such vision.” And I chuckle to myself, “No, somebody just suggested we start a meditation center, and we said, ‘That sounds like a good idea.’”
We had been traveling around the country and doing retreats in a very grassroots, almost haphazard way. We’d get a letter from somebody saying, “I can get together some friends and a cook. Would you like to teach a retreat?” And we’d go and teach a retreat, and then at the end of that retreat we never knew if there would be another retreat until the next letter came. After a while somebody suggested we start a center that would be a sacred site in this country, a place to hold the energy that gets generated when people practice together.
When we were first visiting the Catholic monastery, we went to have lunch in downtown Barre, Massachusetts, which is the classic New England village with a little plaza in the center. There on the town green we saw a monument engraved with the Barre town motto: “Tranquil and alert.” We took a look at that and said, “There’s an omen! Any town that has as a motto ‘Tranquil and alert’ should have a meditation center in it.” So we bought the place.
We were just doing the next thing that was in front of us. It wasn’t a grand scheme. But the Buddhadharma was taking hold in this country, and the center has proved to be very important to many, many people.
How far we’ve come can be illustrated by this story: The night before Joseph’s fiftieth birthday I was reading a mass-market murder mystery. The heroine, a policewoman, was interrogating a suspect. She said to him, “Where were you at such and such a time?” He replied, “I was meditating.” So I turned the page, and she said, “Oh, vipassana?” But he stated, “No, that’s too rigorous. I do Zen.” I leaped to my feet and ran to my window to see if Joseph’s light was still on so I could show him, “Look what’s happened!” But he was already asleep. This was a big part of my reflection on his fiftieth birthday: “Look what’s happened!”
In the early days when we were traveling around doing retreats, we once went to a huge yellow brick monastery in the Wisconsin countryside run by Franciscan monks wearing those wonderful robes with the rope belt. They really didn’t know what to make of us until one day the abbot watched people doing walking meditation. He came in beaming to the teacher’s room and said, “Oh, now I understand what you’re doing. It’s the same as on the TV show Kung Fu!” This was one of those places where, when we told them we were vegetarians, our first meal was literally a plate containing a few spoonfuls of frozen peas and some white bread.
I remember another retreat we did in an old Boy Scout camp in the hill country of Texas. We were living in these old bunkhouses, and the Texan staff was thinking we were mighty strange. Early one morning I was awakened by a knock on my cottage door, and the caretaker said, “Would you come take a look at this?” We went out, and there was a group of our yogis who were also followers of Bhagwan Rajneesh, who had discarded all their orange-colored clothes and were doing yoga naked in the Texas sun. That was a bit of a stretch for the cowboy staff.
I think it’s honest to say that in the beginning we really didn’t have a plan. We knew that dharma practice could radically transform the heart, but we didn’t have a clue as to how to best organize and present the teachings in this culture. For the first ten or fifteen years we used the traditional retreat model but experimented with different emphases to find the dharma that would be most helpful to people. Often we were influenced by the masters who came from Asia to visit and teach with us. There were the times when Taungpulu Sayadaw came to Insight Meditation Society, and we had yogis sleeping while sitting up, because that was Taungpulu’s practice. Ajahn Chah came and taught us to let go; U Pandita Sayadaw taught us great effort. The year Dipa Ma came practitioners were doing extremely long sittings waiting for the cessation of experience to arise and the great enlightenment to happen. One year the Dalai Lama and the Sixteenth Karmapa both came to visit IMS during the three-month retreat. Our beloved Dipa Ma was also there teaching, and I remember a wonderful moment when the Karmapa was giving a lecture on the Four Noble Truths. Dipa Ma was sitting next to me, and at one point she caught my eye and excitedly exclaimed, “Oh, he’s a Buddhist!” She had lived all of her life in India, and for many years she had seen the Tibetans around Bodhgaya, but she’d never actually heard what they were teaching in translation. Not until she was sitting in America did she realize that these Tibetan people were teaching the same basic Buddhadharma that she knew and loved.
We have made mistakes and learned a lot over the years. One of the most important things we all learned is how easily people in the West can transfer the culture’s ambition and striving into their meditation and can use the practice to judge themselves and increase their dissatisfaction. The biggest change in all our teaching is the spirit of metta and lovingkindness that has infiltrated and influenced all we do. Along with dedicated effort and developing concentration, we discovered we need to teach people to open their hearts, as well as quiet their minds.