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How to Become a Student: Interview with Sharon Salzberg

by Patrick Groneman

Interested in going deeper with your spiritual practice?  This week Sharon Salzberg illuminates the mentorship dynamic in the Theravada Buddhist and Insight Meditation communities.  Sharon is one of the Interdependence Project's three "lineage mentors", co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), as well as author of the best-selling book Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation available from Workman Publishing.

Last week I began an interview with Acharya Eric Spiegel of the Shambhala Buddhist tradition, which you can read here (to be continued next week).  Previously, I explored an American form of Zen practice that pulls from both the Soto and Rinzai schools with Roshi Enkyo O'Hara of the Village Zendo.  It was right on, and you can check it out here.

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Interview with Sharon Salzberg

Q: Is there a formal process of becoming a student in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition?  

Sharon Salzberg: A teacher in the Theravadan tradition is known as a kalyana mitta, or spiritual friend. Since the time of the Buddha the teachings have been transmitted through friendship, heart to heart. There is no formal process of becoming a student – in Asia, of course, often one was associated with a particular monastery or teacher through family history, geographic proximity, or long acquaintance. Of course, if you asked a monastic Theravadan it could be different.

These days several of the methods of cultivating mindfulness and lovingkindness once commonly preserved in and presented through the vehicle of the Theravadan tradition are being offered in diverse secular contexts -- schools, businesses, hospitals, prisons, museums, and many more. In these contexts, becoming a student might be as simple as learning a meditation method from someone, without necessarily implying an ongoing relationship.

Q: You are one of the co-founders of the Insight Meditation Sociey (IMS) in Barre, MA.  Does IMS have any formal student program?

Sharon:  We don’t really. People come for retreats of various lengths – 2 - 3 days, 7 - 9 days – all the way to three months and beyond. During the retreats a very strong bond often develops between a teacher and a student, one that may well continue past the retreat. We have programs for dedicated practitioners, combining study and practice, which tend to deepen that bond. And in many places, there are local centers and teachers that foster close communities, and students have the opportunity to bring real life situations to the teacher for counsel, and to the community for support. These local teachers reside in a large number of places in the US, and around the world.

Q: What is the role of mentorship then in the IMS community?  If a student wants to develop a clear sense of direction in practice, with whom do they consult?

Sharon: There are several ways of having a mentor. In these local communities for sure, and in various programs where more experienced practitioners can work with a teacher quite outside of the retreat context. The Barre Center for Buddhist Studies administers one, Spirit Rock meditation center has several. I and other teachers are beginning to explore using the internet and distance learning to have real, meaningful relationships with students that aren’t bound to geography!

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Sharon Salzberg is cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts and one of America’s leading spiritual teachers and authors.  She has played a crucial role in bringing Asian meditation practices to the West, and currently serves a lineage mentor to the Interdependence Project.  You can get more info about Sharon's books and see her teaching schedule on her website.

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