A person says, “I’m trapped in this room; I’m very unhappy.” I point to the door. The door is in their own mind. I tell people that the exit from their suffering is as close as their breath. It’s in the same place as the suffering.
In the fall of 1991, after years of having heard about meditation, thinking I wanted to study it, and trying to practice on my own, I descended a steep stairway into a dim, carpeted room at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to take a beginners class in Vipassana meditation. Imitating the people around me, I sat cross-legged on a cushion and waited. Soon a man came in, sat down, and began in a clear, quiet voice to give the deceptively simple instructions that would grow familiar to me over the next few years, and that always, every time I heard them, would sound slightly different.
Though I constantly felt I wasn’t able to follow those instructions and for months sat with a great deal of physical pain, meditating most often on the pint of ale I would have afterward at a neighborhood bar, something about the practice took hold of me. In those early weeks, I had faith not so much in the practice itself as in the very genuine person who was teaching it, Larry Rosenberg.
All meditation teachers have, to some extent, their own particular teaching, just as every individual’s practice is distinctly his or her own. After thirty years, the practice Rosenberg has come to teach is centered on the full awareness of breathing. Practitioners focus on the breath, not only during periods of formal sitting and walking meditation, but throughout the day. Actually, the breath is just a convenient object of attention to bring us back time and again to the present. It is a kind of meeting place, uniting body and mind. The aim is to train awareness on the breathing so that one can learn to be present with the full range of feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, with the limitless world within and without.
It is in the course of this practice that one arrives at the “insights” of Insight Meditation, which involves a very clear kind of seeing possible only when one is deeply present. In particular, one comes to understand that — in the Buddha’s teaching — all things are impermanent and lack an abiding self, and it is therefore useless to cling to them. By ceasing to cling we free ourselves from the suffering caused by our attachment to impermanent things — experiences, feelings, people — in an ever changing world. The point of the Buddha’s teaching is to give us this freedom, to put an end to our suffering.
A descendant of Russian Jews, Rosenberg grew up in Brooklyn, New York. His father was a taxi driver who spent his free time haunting the courts because he had always wanted to be a lawyer. Early in his career as a social psychologist, Rosenberg taught at Harvard. But in the midst of his success he found himself vaguely dissatisfied, plagued by a feeling that, like his father, he had not found his true work.
Although it would be hard to identify one single moment in Rosenberg’s life when everything changed for him, a likely candidate would be the Indian teacher J. Krishnamurti’s ten-day visit to Brandeis University in the sixties. People at Brandeis didn’t know quite what to make of Krishnamurti, but Rosenberg came to know the man personally, and spoke to him of his doubts about his vocation.
In one of his lectures at Brandeis, Krishnamurti criticized American higher education, saying it consisted of a useless amassing of information and did nothing for the inner person. This prompted an academic dean to stand up and say, “If that’s the way you feel, then what do you think is the future of higher education in this country?” Krishnamurti gave a long pause, and finally said, very quietly, “I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t think higher education has a future in this country.” After hearing that, Rosenberg knew he had to begin inner work.
“Krishnamurti was my first teacher, and he may be my last,” he says. Krishnamurti taught the extremely difficult “pathless path,” believing that all practices and ideologies are ultimately useless. Eventually, however, Rosenberg decided he needed a practice, and studied with teachers from India, Thailand, Burma, Korea, Japan, and Tibet — both in Asia and in the U.S. He was one of the early teachers involved with the Insight Meditation Society, founded twenty years ago in Barre, Massachusetts. Ten years ago, he founded the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, which he purposely located in an urban environment in order to make it a part of everyday life. Housed in a beautifully renovated building, the center is teeming with activity today, with two daily sittings, classes at various levels taught by a number of teachers, and frequent weekend retreats. It is noticeably busier now than when I attended classes there five years ago. Rosenberg lives on the third floor of the building with his wife, Galina.
When we met for this interview, he took me up to his apartment and showed me “a very important room in the house”: the walk-in closet where he meditates. It was lined with photographs of all his teachers, including Krishnamurti, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Soen Sunim, and Ajahn Buddhadasa, to name only the better known. A volume of Krishnamurti’s writings sat beside his cushion.
Guy: You’ve had a great many teachers. How can beginners find a teacher, and a path that’s right for them?
Rosenberg: In one of his Don Juan books, Carlos Castaneda asks, “How do you know what your path should be?” and Don Juan says, “Pick the path with heart.” Castaneda says, “Isn’t that more difficult?” And Don Juan says, “No, all the others are what’s difficult.” I’ve found that to be absolutely true.
I’ve always had an intense yearning to find the right work — especially having watched my father, who never had work that was fulfilling for him. I realized early on how devastating that can be, so I tried many different things, but each turned out to be a dead end, including law school, which couldn’t have been less appropriate. Being a college professor was very close. But I’ve always had almost an obsession not to waste my life, to find the right way of living. I’ve seen so much wrong living. That urge brought me to the spiritual path and carried me through a number of different traditions.
In the end, no path is going to fit you 100 percent. Making your way through different ones, using your innate wisdom and your awareness, is part of the practice. The standard that helped me decide was the original standard of the Buddha: “I teach only suffering and the end of suffering.” So ask yourself, “Is this way of life, this method, this teacher helping me to shed my suffering? Is my life becoming lighter? Am I becoming less self-centered?”
If you don’t know yourself — and I mean that on the most ordinary level of just your likes and dislikes — you’re going to trip up. All the long retreats and meditation techniques are wonderful and helpful, but if they’re at the expense of honesty — of really learning to face yourself and see how you live and how you create suffering for yourself and others — then I don’t have much faith in them. You may be highly focused and achieve calm, but if you can’t know yourself, something will sneak up on you and cause suffering.
Guy: Have you ever been in therapy?
Rosenberg: No. For a time, I had a bias against psychotherapy from when I taught in the psychiatry department at Harvard Medical School, where I found a concentration of very neurotic people; myself excluded, of course. I think I also was resistant to my own self-knowledge. I had to suffer a bit more, until there was no escaping the need to take a closer look at myself.
I do think that Buddhism would not have been as well received in this country if the psychotherapists hadn’t made a frontal assault on the culture first. The insights of Freud and his successors made it legitimate to look into yourself, examine your own mind, your own consciousness. Without that, Buddhism might have come, but the soil wouldn’t have been ready.
Guy: Sometimes I think that, while the vice of my parents’ generation was alcoholism, the vice of my generation is workaholism. In the sixties there was the promise that new technology would make life better and give us more leisure time, but somehow the opposite has happened: we have all the technology and nobody has any leisure time. What do you say to someone who insists, “I don’t have time to practice”?
Rosenberg: In return I might ask, “Do you have time to breathe?” We humans have this amazing ability: as we live out our life, we’re able to be aware of it at the same time. Vipassana meditation just strengthens that ability, so that more and more we begin to see how we actually live.
When someone tells me they’re too busy to do sitting meditation, it’s because the value of sitting silently with yourself hasn’t been established for them yet. People see it as a luxury item, so they try to fit it in after everything else. But if you stay with this path and it has any impact on you whatsoever, it becomes the other way around. Instead of trying to squeeze in your practice between other things, you start to value that period of time so much that you reexamine your way of living to see if you can make more room for it.
I don’t want to tell people how to live. I feel more comfortable encouraging them to examine how they live. As they start to pay attention, out of their own inherent wisdom they begin to let go of certain things and strengthen others. Then it’s coming, not from some program called “the Buddhist way of life,” but from the inside. I don’t have much faith in an externally imposed program.
I’m not against the guru-disciple relationship if it helps people get free. But that isn’t the model that I’ve worked with. In my tradition, Buddhas just point the way. You have to walk the path.
Guy: Many people feel that we are living in a dark age. With all the problems of crime, drugs, exploding population, and the environment, there’s tremendous pessimism. Do you feel that way, and how do such problems look from a Buddhist perspective?
Rosenberg: If you told me for a fact that the end was coming, I’d still keep doing what I’m doing. If you told me that life on earth was soon going to become paradise, I would still keep doing what I’m doing. I spend my time taking care of my piece of the darkness, using the approach of awareness and learning. I have to start with myself. If there is a dark age, it’s in me, too. I’m contributing to it with my own ignorance, my own stupidity, my own greed, hatred, and delusion. Putting my own house in order comes first.
Suppose you proved to me, as a scientific fact, that there’s no such thing as rebirth, that all this talk about karma and enlightenment is a big hoax, and that the Buddha never existed; it was all made up, a collective fantasy. I would still do what I’m doing. What alternative would I have — not to be aware? Greedily to grasp at as much as I could? I find the exploration of life an adventure, and what’s most exciting is the firsthand research, not endlessly relearning the Buddha’s words. As I understand it, his intention was to get me to read my own book. I haven’t found a more interesting way to live.
Guy: Out of some of the same spiritual yearnings you have discussed, my wife, Alma, has worked for social justice all her adult life. She’s worked in El Salvador and Nicaragua. She believes deeply in this work. The problem for her is that she gets swallowed up in it. How does one keep from being overwhelmed?
Rosenberg: We have to do something in this world, and certainly, in the Buddha’s teaching, it’s best if what you do is beneficial to humanity, rather than destructive. On its face, the fact that Alma has elected to serve is wonderful. But having known so many people who do the same, and having been one myself, I know that, all too often, good people are not free people.
It’s not that she shouldn’t have worked in El Salvador. But she has to start with El Alma. If Alma is using her social-justice work to avoid dealing with herself, then she’s avoiding the same issues everyone else is avoiding, only she’s doing it with more useful and kind activities. In a sense, she needs to serve two masters. One is helping suffering human beings — how could anyone in his or her right mind be against that? But can she, at the same time, use that to liberate herself? The beauty of our practice is that, at a certain point, it becomes just a way of living: whatever you’re doing, do it; but relate to it in such a way that you begin to see its effect on you.
Alma’s kind of work can still be egocentric. As long as you have notions, self-images, conclusions about yourself — about being a good person, a dedicated person, a humble, generous, compassionate person — you’re keeping the sense of “me and mine” alive. What we need is liberation from attachment to notions about ourselves, and it’s no different for Alma than for someone who works in corporate America.
If, in trying to help people who are disadvantaged and suffering, Alma doesn’t take care of herself, then what she will be doing finally is adding another casualty to the ones that already exist. Her ability to help will be limited, and she’ll find herself burned out, disillusioned, bitter.
Guy: In that context, I’d like to talk about the Buddhist value of right work. In this culture, many people can’t seem to find worthwhile work. What do you say to them?
Rosenberg: If you can’t find work you love, you have to find some way of loving the work you do. This is the test of our practice. You might think, “This isn’t right for me. What am I doing driving a cab when I want to be a novelist? What am I doing waiting tables when I want to be a doctor?” But the truth is you’re waiting tables, or you’re driving a cab day in and day out, and that’s your life. Are you going to live in a fantasy world of what might have been, which will separate you from your life, or can you let that go? Once you do, you’re still a cabdriver, but you’re adding to the quality of human existence.
My first Buddhist teacher was a Korean Zen master named Soen Sunim. He would often ask me, “Larry, what is your true job?” The answer: our true job is penetrating to truth. Just as Alma can do her political work and also have a deep inner life, so can a cabdriver. In the Korean tradition, there are even stories of women who were prostitutes, but also great bodhisattvas. The tradition says that, even in such an environment, teaching can go on. I think that’s what Soen Sunim meant by finding your true job. Anyone has that opportunity.
Guy: In the Buddhist tradition, there is a distinction between monastic and householder practice. Were you ever tempted by monastic life?
Rosenberg: I spent a year in robes in Korea and Japan, in the Zen tradition. I was not a monk, but my teacher got permission for me to do a very intensive practice usually reserved for monks and nuns.
I remember once, while on retreat in Japan, I was sitting in a zendo in my robes, surrounded by all kinds of bells and gongs and incense and customs, and I started laughing hysterically; I had to leave the zendo. What I’d realized was that nothing had changed. When I was a kid I’d loved my cowboy outfit, with its six-shooters and big cowboy hat. Then I’d graduated to my New York Yankees cap. Now I was doing Zen, and it was the same thing — just an adult version of dress up and pretend. They were making me into a Japanese person, when it was hard enough just being a Brooklyn Jew. I finished out my year, but I became much clearer: the core of the Buddha’s teaching is universal, but it comes in many cultural packages. I wasn’t interested in the packages.
If you look at it objectively, the monks have preserved the precious dharma teaching, but have also contributed to its corruption. The monastic form may be the optimum form by which to get free, but most monks don’t seem to get free, nor do they do much serious meditation. They’re caught up in study or ceremonies. For some, it just beats working in the rice paddies.
The monastic path is a magnificent strategy, but it is just one strategy for getting free. It is not absolute truth. It’s a form, a convention. No matter how much you romanticize it, there are still human beings in those robes. In Theravadan Buddhism, for example, the strategy is not to touch money or women — the monk can’t even be alone in the same room with a woman — and to eat only one meal a day. That’s one strategy. To make that into an absolute is foolishness. As lay people, we must touch money, most of us do have sex lives, and we eat regular meals. We must learn to use this energy wisely.
Guy: So you were never interested in becoming a monk?
Rosenberg: No. I have enjoyed and benefited from monastic practice, but have never wanted to become a monk. I am very drawn to living periodically as a hermit, but that’s as far as it goes.
I have seen lay practitioners become overly influenced by monastic values, and as a result devalue their relationships, their work, and their attitudes toward themselves. Typically, such a person would get wounded in life, often in a relationship. Or they might be disillusioned with business. So they go crawling off to a retreat. Daily life is the war zone; the retreat is the field hospital where they go to get fixed up.
At a certain point, though, my job is to help them go back into combat. Sometimes people use intensive practice as an escape, because it can last for months. As valuable as such practice is, it, too, is just a form. Some people really flower with it. Others wind up able to be happy only during intensive practice, when everything is contained, and they’re protected from aspects of themselves. They go back into the world just to earn enough money to pay for the next retreat. While they’re not on retreat, they talk about how wonderful the last retreat was and how they can’t wait for the next one. In the meantime, months of real life go by.
That was part of the reason for starting the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center. I felt we needed a center right in the middle of the insanity. When you’re doing intensive practice and leading the contemplative life, surrender to that 100 percent. But when you get back to the city, shed it, let go of it. Continue your sitting practice, of course, but jump into life, take on the challenges, examine how you actually live. Use the tools of the practice, but value daily life as something very precious. It is the only life we have! That’s what we try to do here at the center. We don’t suggest that raising a family or running a business is somehow inferior to being a monk. The fact is that we are laypersons; we need a practice that fully respects this.
Guy: So what can you say about relationship?
Rosenberg: Relationship itself has to become a practice. Every time we come into the presence of another person, we have a reaction that shows us where our ego is, what our attachments and fears are. It’s a very rich place to practice. So it doesn’t feel like a contradiction for me to be married and also to go away by myself for a month and meditate. When I leave the cushion and go into the kitchen, it’s one seamless web. There’s just life, finally.
The Jews, for example, don’t have a monastic tradition; all rabbis can marry. Not only that, they have esoteric teachings that you’re not eligible to receive until you’re something like forty-two years old and have at least two children. They say, “Unless you’ve bounced around in the world a little bit, how can we trust these teachings to you?” That makes a lot of sense. The Buddha settled on monastic life, which had a long tradition in India. But is that the only way a person can grow spiritually? I rather doubt it.
Guy: There’s a tradition of celibacy in Buddhism. But it seems that the question “What is right sexuality?” hasn’t been addressed.
Rosenberg: I’m not comfortable legislating sexuality, saying, for instance, “Everybody should get married.” But I can face the question “What is the responsible use of sexual energy?” I’m most comfortable using a very pragmatic standard. Both partners should know what they’re doing. They should be honest with each other. They should be sensitive to what it is they’re about to do. Clearly, if a child comes out of it, it’s a whole new ballgame. Buddhism is definitely prolife. No one wants to talk about that, for fear of getting associated with the far Right. I listen to my tradition, but I feel that as an individual I have a right to weigh it against other factors.
I use the word intimacy a lot. Intimacy of practice, expressed sexually, would be no different from the rest of what you do in life. Is there any separation between you and your partner? Separation occurs when we’re preoccupied with a business deal and just going through the motions, or maybe we’re thinking about another person, having a fantasy. So we’re with our partner, but not really. If both partners are willing to be mindful, to pay attention to what’s happening, not getting caught in images of self and other, then their sexual life together gets more creative, and hang-ups and aversions are worked out.
Guy: Right now, it seems that Buddhism is getting trendy. You’ve spoken in the past about the dangers of success for Buddhism.
Rosenberg: It’s a very real problem, one we’re already facing. In this culture, nothing fails like success! It’s a rare endeavor that can be successful and not destroy itself. Take psychotherapy. It had several generations of incredibly intense, committed, profound, and interesting practitioners. Then it “made it.” It broke through. And that success led to a proliferation of poorly trained and incompetent therapists, in addition to the many highly skilled practitioners. Or yoga, for example. I had some incredible hatha yoga teachers. Now it’s often leotard yoga. It’s about trimming your thighs, firming your abs, rounding out your butt. Can you imagine what the great yoga masters would have thought of that?
I see the same thing happening to Buddhism. The first generation of Western teachers, of which I am one, went to Asia and brought these teachings back. It was very hard work, but there was a certain romantic energy as well. We knew we had found a real gem, and we gave everything we had to it. We felt we were participating in a heroic journey with a very clear direction. What’s coming now, though, is money, sex, power, prestige, fame, the media, the easy life. The Buddha said that, in the end, the destruction of Buddhism would come from within. Being human, we could easily get sucked in and undermine that which is most precious to us.
Guy: Could you give a specific example?
Rosenberg: This actually happened. A guy came into an interview with me at the Insight Meditation Center and said, “I’ve done five days of stress reduction with Jon Kabat-Zinn. I’m a medical doctor. I’ve been a lung specialist for ten years. But I don’t want to do that anymore. I work at a hospital in New Jersey, and I want to open a new wing and start a stress-reduction clinic. What do you think of that?”
I said, “How many years of preparation did you have before becoming a lung specialist? Do you think the mind is less complicated than the lungs? Do you really feel that you understand your own mind? That you’re ready to work with other people’s minds?”
But I hear he’s done it.
Guy: Americans seem to want a guru, someone to be an authority. They want to come to that person for everything. How do you handle that?
Rosenberg: I’m not against the guru-disciple relationship if it helps people get free. But that isn’t the model that I’ve worked with. In my tradition, Buddhas just point the way. You have to walk the path. That’s what attracted me so much to Buddhism from day one: it’s a path of responsibility. I see myself as a gatekeeper, a doorman. A person says, “I’m trapped in this room; I’m very unhappy.” I point to the door. The door is in their own mind. I tell people that the exit from their suffering is as close as their breath. It’s in the same place as the suffering.
Here’s an interesting story to contemplate. There was a Japanese Zen master who passed all the koans — the Empty Gate koans, the Blue Cliff Record, all of them. Then his Zen community discovered that he had five secret lovers, and a scandal erupted. Each of the women did not know about the others. His wife didn’t know about all five. All of his Western monks quit. He refused to speak openly about it; he just played the role of Zen master.
He had passed all his koans, but he didn’t pass the sex koan. I found that incident very liberating, even though it was sad. The same has been true of other dharma masters. Amidst the challenges of a new cultural situation, their training in some ways was inadequate for living as a humane, wise, and compassionate person.
There’s a Zen master named Uchiyama Roshi. I once asked one of his monks, “How does Uchiyama Roshi handle the transmission; how does he make someone into a Zen master?” He said, “He doesn’t do that. He says Zen can’t be mastered.” I liked that. If anyone sets themselves up and says they’ve mastered life —
Guy: Hold on to your wallet.
Rosenberg: Right. There are some extraordinary people out there, people who are highly developed and highly refined. But are they done? Life goes on, and there are always challenges. So I’m respectful, but not overly impressed with outfits and pedigree. It all comes back to the same thing: there you are, a human being, on your own two feet; can you take care of yourself?
What gives me the most satisfaction is helping people finally realize that, in an ultimate sense, there’s no one to turn to, that all they need is inside of them — namely, their capacity to be self-aware and to learn. In some cases, I know I’ve done my job well when a person doesn’t show up anymore.
One time, a woman stood up and said to Krishnamurti, “You know, I’ve been coming to your talks for fifteen years, and I finally understand what you’ve been telling me.” He said, “What is that, madam?” And she said, “What you’ve been saying for the last fifteen years is that you cannot help me in any way whatsoever.” And he said, “Exactly.”
A different version of this interview will appear in Insight, a publication of the Insight Meditation Society, 1230 Pleasant Street, Barre, MA 01005, (508) 355-4378. The Cambridge Insight Meditation Center is located at 331 Broadway, Cambridge, MA 02139, (617) 441-9038. An extensive list of Rosenberg’s taped talks is available from the Dharma Seed Tape Library, P.O. Box 66, Wendell Depot, MA 01380.