Tricycle: In Europe we haven’t had the experience that you have had in America of teachers reaching considerable peaks of eminence both in the Buddhist world and, in some senses, the broader culture, and then falling rather dramatically from grace, in the wake of scandal. And I notice, as a European, that on the one hand you have a tradition of liberalism, in which more or less anything goes, and that gives you tremendous freedom, but it also gives you a tremendous sense of being empowered to do what you wish—and often at the cost of not paying great heed to some of the ethical issues. Now there is a sudden lurch back, and one finds a kind of puritanical moralism taking over. Some of the Buddhist organizations are trying to regulate everything, to impose and create rules and structures to control this. From a European perspective this is an American oddity, this intense preoccupation with a kind of self-punishing edge.
Salzberg: Maybe the “self-punishing edge” is the flavor of what’s informing American Buddhism. There’s a quality of self-hatred in the American psyche which perhaps does not exist in Europe. A couple of years ago at a conference in Dharamsala, I asked the Dalai Lama a question about self-hatred. He had no idea what I was talking about. He started asking questions as though I were describing something very extreme. He was just astonished to learn that so many Americans experience that feeling. He asked, “Is that some kind of nervous disorder?” But then other Europeans described finding people all over America talking about low self-esteem.
Sharon Salzberg is a founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and has been leading vipassana retreats since 1974. This interview took place in Barre in October, and was conducted for Tricycle by Contributing Editor Stephen Batchelor, who was a monk for ten years in the Tibetan and Korean Zen traditions of Buddhism. A translator, writer, and teacher, he now lives in Devon, England. Photographs by Fred Von Allmen.