Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman
Love Your Enemies? (Really?)
Robert Thurman is the first American to be ordained a Tibetan Buddhist monk by the Dalai Lama. He is president of Tibet House U.S., and was a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University for 30 years. His many books include Inner Revolution and the book he co-wrote with Sharon Salzberg, Love Your Enemies. In 2021, he published Wisdom Is Bliss: Four Friendly Fun Facts That Can Change Your Life.
Sharon Salzberg is one of the original three young Americans who traveled to India in the 1960s and ‘70s and introduced Buddhist meditation into mainstream Western culture. She is a globally renowned meditation teacher and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Her books include Real Happiness, Lovingkindness, and most recently, Real Change: Mindfulness To Heal Ourselves and the World.
Transcript by Heather Wang
Krista Tippett, host: It’s a piece of deep, psychological acuity carried in our religious traditions that each of us is defined as much by who our enemies are and how we treat them as by who and what we love. Yet love of enemies right now feels as quaint and impractical, as countercultural and surely counterproductive, as at any time in my life. So this hour we are revisiting an On Being classic conversation with two American Buddhist leaders, Robert Thurman and Sharon Salzberg. Across a half-century conversation and friendship, they’ve investigated the rich and pragmatic mind science behind this virtue and practice: how to transmute the very real, very consequential, and consuming energy that anger and hatred are, as much as they are emotions; and why love in fact is the most rational and pragmatic of stances towards our enemies, and thus we must retrain the well-worn grooves in our psyches which tell us that love is weak and vengeance is strong.
Sharon Salzberg: The word “love” is so loaded. And our fear, of course, is that it means something very passive and complacent, and I’m going to let people hurt me, and I’m going to let them oppress other people, and I’m going to be a doormat. It’s very hard to see love as a force, as a power rather than as a weakness. But that is its reality.
Robert Thurman: The hopeful thing for some people, who like their anger — some people do like their anger — that energy, a strong, powerful energy, can be ridden in a different way and can be used to heal yourself.
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zöe Keating]
Robert Thurman was the first American to be ordained a Tibetan Buddhist monk by the Dalai Lama. Sharon Salzberg is one of the original circle of young Americans who traveled to India in the 1960s and 1970s and introduced Buddhism into mainstream Western culture. They’ve both written many books, but they co-wrote Love Your Enemies in 2013, and that’s when I spoke with them together.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zöe Keating]
What I want to focus on with you as we speak is this teaching and thinking you’re doing about enemies, in the broadest sense of how we approach that. But I’d like to start with just a little bit about whether there was a spiritual background to your childhood, and also whether in your earliest life — how language and a sense of enemies was present for you, spiritually or otherwise.
Salzberg: Well, that’s very interesting. I don’t know that there was a spiritual presence in my earliest life. There was certainly the presence of a lot of suffering and confusion. And out of that, I really reached for something that — and I actually did sense, always, not that it was given unto me, but I always had a sense there was something other, there was something bigger than the situations I found myself in.
And my childhood was marked by a lot of disruption, a lot of loss. My mother died when I was very young. And all of this was surrounded by a very strange kind of silence. No one would ever actually talk about anything. And so it was when I went to college and I first encountered the Buddha’s teaching in an Asian philosophy course, ironically, which I honestly think I chose just because it was on Tuesday or something — [laughs] I’m like, oh, I’ll do that one …
… that’s where I first heard the Buddha saying, there’s suffering in life. It’s not just you. You don’t have to feel aberrant and alone and weird. It’s a part of life, and you belong.
And that was an enormous opening for me. And then I heard that you can do something about that suffering — not the kind of suffering of circumstance; it doesn’t mean everything’s always going to be pleasant or it’s going to level off into this delightful place. But we can be different with everything. We can approach everything in a different way, with a full heart and with wisdom. And that possibility is what sent me off to India.
Tippett: And Bob, how about you? Was there a spiritual background to your childhood, and was there a sense or a vocabulary of enemies?
Thurman: Well, I’m not sure. I didn’t have quite such a dramatic situation as Sharon did. My parents survived, although they both died fairly young, 50s and 60s, which to me is fairly young [laughs] now. But my mother’s spiritual thing was Shakespeare. She felt Shakespeare was the Buddha. And my father did have a little bit mystical side in relation to some of the French and Italian and Spanish Catholic thinkers, but he was not a Catholic, and we weren’t church-going, particularly.
And I didn’t like God much. I liked Jesus; I thought he was very sweet, and his whole scene about every bird, and the lilies of the valley, and the Sermon on the Mount — I liked that. But then God was behind the scenes, there, sacrificing him and — I mean, I just thought that was weird. And I didn’t believe in his omnipotent creatorship at all, and that put me into a debate mode with the pastor in the place where I went to play basketball and sing, the brick church on Park Avenue.
But it was really the Buddha who really got to me, in the Tibetan form, when I finally found the Tibetans. That really did shape — although one funny thing, I wasn’t that into Tibet per se. I was really into India. But the thing is that the Indian Buddhists’ great revolution in the world, great manifestation in the world, is preserved in Tibet very powerfully, and lost in India. So that was, I think, why I was so captivated by the Tibetans, not to mention the Dalai Lama’s personality and so on.
Tippett: And how did the two of you come to be doing these workshops and teachings together, on this subject?
Is there a story there?
Thurman: I don’t know. How did it happen, Sharon? How did it happen?
Salzberg: Well, Bob and I are old friends. Bob, before he was at Columbia, was at Amherst College. And the center that I cofounded, the Insight Meditation Society, is in Barre, Massachusetts, which is about, say, 40, 45 minutes away from Amherst. And so I remember Bob living in this big yellow house — and these are the days when the Dalai Lama would come to visit and, as I’m told, wander around Bob’s house, opening up closet doors and saying things like, “Oh, very messy.”
Thurman: He did. “Untidy,” he said. “Untidy.”
Salzberg: And so we got to be friends. And then Bob came to New York City, Columbia, and eventually they established this gorgeous retreat center called Menla Mountain Center, in Phoenicia, New York, and we began teaching there together. And we began teaching this particular workshop together, because we come from two different strands of Buddhist tradition, and yet we enjoy — I think we both enjoy really exploring the relevance of these teachings to modern life, really, as we find it.
Tippett: Right. And I think what’s such an important starting point is this reality base that I so love in Buddhism, talking about something as painful and contentious as enemies and really starting with the fact that everything is always, constantly changing, even things that are good, and that in life there will be suffering and we will be harmed; and so that this is a reality, not something that you begin by wishing away — or, I mean, you have to work with it, right?
Salzberg: Well, I mean, think that’s exactly right, and we face it. We find inner enemies, we find outer enemies. We make things of life, like death or suffering, enemies. Life is complicated; it’s challenging; it’s wonderful — it’s all of that.
And sort of trying to pretend that that won’t happen — that we’re just going to be perfectly content all of the time and not face these challenges — is completely unreal. And I think it’s much more important, obviously, and much more powerful, to start with what’s real.
Thurman: Absolutely. I always like to say Buddhism is engaged realism, because they say that Buddha himself discovered the nature of reality — completely understood it, fully and totally, and also understood that other beings could do so, and also understood that only by such discovery can you find freedom from that suffering. “If you really know the reality, then you will be free of the suffering” was his real innovative teaching, which has lasted now for thousands of years. So realism, being realistic, is the key.
Tippett: And I do want to kind of go through the way you unfold this subject of enemies. So in a sense, all of this thinking about enemies circles back to inner work. But let’s start with the reality of outer enemies, as you say, those others who make our lives difficult. One of the things, Bob, that you’ve written is, “It is highly rational for us to love our enemies” — [laughs] which I think puts two things together, rationality and love of enemies, which is an interesting juxtaposition. What do you mean by that? What do you mean by that?
Thurman: Well, Jesus is the one who used that phrase …
Tippett: Yeah, but it’s the hardest teaching.
Thurman: … most prominently, in our memory, although Buddha used the same phrase, actually, in a slightly different phrasing. Buddha said that hatred will never come to an end by hatred; only love can overcome hatred, is what he said, although usually in that tradition — the Burmese, or Theravada tradition — the Buddhists have a midway station where they talk about hatred, and the next step is non-hatred, and then, once you got non-hatred going, you can move over toward love and compassion.
Tippett: I think that’s useful. I think that’s really useful.
Thurman: Yeah, yeah. It is. It is. They’re very psychologically astute about that sort of thing, I totally think.
But the reason why it’s rational in a Buddhist sense is that the Buddhist worldview is that we live in a much larger continuity than a single lifetime. We’ve all had infinite previous lifetimes, and we all will have infinite future lifetimes. And Mahayana Buddhists, I think, would argue, and maybe ultimately Theravada would agree, that that will be endless, also; the future.
And so even if you win one round in one life over one enemy, then you have become like that enemy by being violent, angry, whatever it may be, and then your rebirth will become something more appropriate to an inner state of anger and violence and hatred. And therefore, you’ll be more in conflict with your environment and with others. So, therefore, to love the enemy is highly rational from your own inner perspective, in that sense.
And actually, in the outer perspective, if you take the definition of love as wishing for the happiness of the beloved, which is the Buddhist definition of it, then if your enemy was really happy, he might get tired of bothering, he or she might get tired of bothering to be your enemy. Like, why bother chasing that guy? I’m having a groovy time over somewhere else. So in a way, it kind of makes sense to wish the enemy to be happy.
Tippett: I mean, it’s very — it is reasonable, when you put in that kind of framework. But something that I think about a lot is that — I think, say, in Christianity, this is often discussed as there’s the problem of evil, or “great enemies.” And even maybe in our culture, we tend to focus on these dramatic, drama-sized enemies, the bully or the catastrophic danger or the murderer.
But something that I’m aware of in real life, day to day, I think so much pain and suffering is caused by — I don’t know what I would even call — maybe the near, outer enemy; not the villain out there, but the people close to us, in workplaces or in families or in friendships. I don’t know. Sharon, I think I remember that in your early life — you said that your mother died — that you were in different foster families. And I mean, it’s like, people are vulnerable, and it’s those people who have a power, such a destructive power, to do damage in those circumstances. And that’s where I feel like, in the real life, as you say, Bob, in this lifetime, kind of the rubber meets the road. So I mean, where do these beautiful teachings start to speak there?
Salzberg: Well, actually, I wasn’t in foster families, but I was in different family configurations.
Tippett: Oh, OK. All right.
Salzberg: I tried to calculate it once, and I think I was in five different family configurations when I left for college at the age of 16.
Salzberg: But I think that’s so crucial. I want to say something about that middle place, learning to stop hating, apart from — because the word “love” is so loaded, and what does it mean? Our fear, of course, is that it means something very passive and complacent, and I’m going to let people hurt me, and I’m going to let them oppress other people. I’m going to be a doormat. And it’s a very nuanced and subtle quality. It’s very hard to see love as a force, as a power, rather than as a weakness, but that is its reality.
So that middle place is very compelling, whether it’s a colleague at work who’s sort of annoying, or it’s somebody who disappoints us, just in the neighborhood or our community, or it’s the villain, even — to have some recognition that the way we can be consumed by hatred, or even just an obsession — you know, that habit we can have of going over someone’s faults again and again and again; it’s the same list, but we’d like to go over it again a few more times — [laughs] and the way we give over so much of our energy to someone else in this kind of negative or destructive way.
And whether it’s a minor annoyance or a very grave injustice, there’s a way in which we want to be whole. And we don’t want to have lost so much of our life’s energy to someone else’s actions or problems. And we want that energy to return to us, and for us to be able to go on in a more creative, generative way. And that’s the process. That’s why people engage in this process.
Tippett: I mean, so what do you mean? Tell me the process. Describe that.
Salzberg: Well, I think first being aware of how it actually feels to be frightened, to be so angry, to be so consumed with somebody else — to be able to see those states; to be able to have a little more distance or space from the states.
Tippett: To just gain some self-awareness about the fact that you are going over and over that and letting it consume you in that way?
Salzberg: Yeah, exactly. And how it feels, because then we want to let go, out of the greatest compassion for ourselves, not because we’re trying to be a goody-goody or a certain kind of person or meet a kind of image of how we’re supposed to be or match someone else’s dictum for how we’re supposed to be, but, out of the greatest love and compassion for ourselves, we just don’t want to do that anymore.
[music: “Paral.lel” by Near the Parenthesis]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, rethinking love of enemies with two old friends and icons of American Buddhism, teacher Sharon Salzberg and scholar Robert Thurman.
[music: “Paral.lel” by Near the Parenthesis]
Bob, what are you thinking about this?
Thurman: Well, my — and why I’m thrilled to imply a link between Buddha and Jesus, which is mainstream in our culture, showing their commonality, is that Jesus’s own statement of “love thine enemies” is negated, really, by our modern materialistic psychology. In other words, the modern psychology says, oh, that’s unrealistic. Freud said, oh, that’s unrealistic; you have to be more normal. And so our sort of militaristic society’s working psychology is that you have to be ego competitive. You have to be aggressive. You have to do your thing — particularly with males, but I think in general, with everybody.
And Buddhism doesn’t want to interfere with the religious aspect in the West; it’s not trying to convert people to Buddhism. But it has a psychology, a kind of mind science, that is usable within whatever religious framework. And so I kind of — Jesus himself, because of the social circumstances in his culture, was only able to teach for four years. And the Buddha, poor guy, he had to slave away for 46 years after his enlightenment. [laughs] And so he had time to provide more practical methodologies to underlie these sort of high-moral-sounding slogans like “love your enemy.”
And there can be such a thing — now, the other thing, of course, that we haven’t mentioned yet, but both Sharon and I completely agree with: there is such a thing as tough love. Or in Tibetan, the Tibetans might prefer, maybe, the expression “fierce compassion.” And this is like where you don’t indulge another person in their evildoing or their nasty behavior, and sometimes you have to be forceful. But that forcefulness with them will have a different impact, and it will be subliminally sensed by them as coming from a different place, when it doesn’t have that extra bite, that extra sting of hatred and vindictiveness in it. It’s just forceful opposition to whatever negative things they are doing.
And so the psychology of “love your enemies” does not just mean, Come and trample us. Come kill me, my enemy. Oh yes, I want you to shoot me, or something. It means, I want you to be happy. I’m going to be happy no matter what, and it’s better — you’ll be more happy if you don’t kill me, actually. And I might be more happier if you don’t kill me, but I’m going to be happy whatever you do to me.
But on that basis, I might strongly — I might take your weapon away. I might be forceful — I’d try not to kill you, but I might be forced to do something forceful.
Tippett: I wonder, as the two of you live with these teachings, as exacting as that kind of life drama is, there’s also — it may be hardest of all to put these kinds of things into practice, say, in your most intimate relationships, right? Do you find that as you work with these teachings — and I know you both have longtime meditation practices — do you become more able to modulate your responses like that?
There you go.
Thurman: One thing I would say about — when Sharon and I — this gives me a chance to backtrack a little and tell about when Sharon and I got together, why I loved working with Sharon, and why I still love working with Sharon.
I was a little, in my Buddhist studies, on a different path. And in the Tibetan tradition, traditionally, they do not encourage people to meditate right away, actually. So they press you to learn things. And my original teacher, this wonderful old Mongolian gentleman named Geshe Wangyal, who was a Mongolian who’d been in Tibet for 35 years and was a good friend of the Dalai Lama and his relatives, he kept interrupting me when I would try to meditate. And I was having some kind of really good altered states. And the guy had like, radar, and he would show up and he would interrupt me — 3 in the morning, he’d come and knock on the door of my room and say, You’re not sleeping. Why are you wasting your time? What are you doing? Meditating? That’s a waste of time. Come have some yogurt in the kitchen — this kind of thing. He would tend to do that.
So then I became a scholar, of course, and a professor, etc. So I really envied Sharon and Jack and Joseph and those guys, who had this — they were professionally meditating. They could meditate all the time. And I think Sharon is more calm than I am, and more stabilized …
… and more enlightened, and so I like being around her. It makes me more calm and more stabilized, more in the moment — although meditation is so much in demand in our society now that they’re all becoming these terribly busy, meditating. And they’re doing a lot of their work on planes and trains and …
Tippett: It’s now competitive meditation. [laughs]
Thurman: [laughs] That’s right. But anyway, they are like that. So that’s what I wanted to bring up.
So then in my own case, about the anger thing, it was always a big problem for me in my life; I tended to have an explosive temper. So definitely, Buddhism has helped me, but I don’t claim to be enlightened, so I’m not saying that I’m totally, 100 percent cured, but like the Dalai Lama likes to say — he also loses his temper, he says. And he likes to say that, well, nowadays, it only lasts for a second, and he doesn’t hold the bitterness about it, and it sometimes, very often, it doesn’t last.
So I think I still have a harder time with it, but I’m still working on it, and I like being with Sharon because she encourages me to be more mindful and tries to interrupt the mechanism of the anger explosion, which then I have the danger of rationalizing and saying, Oh, it’s tough love, or fierce compassion. Actually, I’m just mad.
[music: “Never Stop” by Gonzales]
Tippett: After a short break, more with Robert Thurman and Sharon Salzberg.
[music: “Piccadilly” by Robert Grawi]
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, we are examining love of enemies as a rational and pragmatic move, an antidote to a consuming culture of anger that is not a way most of us want to live. We are learning from the wisdom, the mind science, and the long friendship between the American Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg and scholar Robert Thurman. He was the first American to be ordained in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition by the Dalai Lama.
So talking about dealing with outer enemies ultimately always leads back to inner work, doesn’t it?
Salzberg: Yeah, well, there’s that tremendous irony and poignancy of life, that we can’t look — even if we do see somebody’s wrong actions and malevolent speech or whatever is coming from a place of suffering, which we do believe it is, and even if we see that, even if we perceive that, the great poignancy of life is that you can’t look at somebody else and say, Poof! Your suffering’s gone; you’re a better person now.
We don’t have that kind of control. We don’t have that kind of dominance. And I usually say when I’m teaching, I think it would likely be a better world if I did, if any one of us did, but we don’t. And so we understand that, and we do what we can, obviously, to change conditions and be helpful, be restorative, work to try to make things different, but it’s not going to be in our hands, ultimately.
What we can mold much more successfully — although that is also not a case of, Poof! Now I’m better — but we can work with ourselves, with our own minds and hearts, and become really, actually transformed in a real way.
Tippett: So just how do you start, at the most basic level of talking about where that work begins?
Salzberg: Well, for me, it would begin with mindfulness. It would begin with what we were talking about earlier — just a sense of looking, because we actually don’t know. We know what we’ve been taught — that maybe vengefulness is good, that love is weak, whatever it might be — the assumptions we carry, the concepts. And we need to take a direct look at the entire range of our emotional landscape, to know for ourselves, is vulnerability always wrong? Is that kind of defensiveness always right?
What is the strength of anger? It does have energy, which is fantastic. It’s a great attribute. But look at that brittleness, look at that sense of tunnel vision. If you think about the last time you were really, really, really angry at yourself, it’s probably not also a time where you think, You know, I did that great thing that very same morning I said that really stupid thing. It’s like, that’s gone. Our whole sense of who we are and all that we will ever be just collapses around that stupid thing we said.
And so we look at the whole nature — the flavor, the texture — of all of these states, and we then use the mindfulness to really work with letting go, with what we feel is bringing us down and making our lives smaller and more filled with suffering, and enhancing and enriching those qualities that really bring us to the reality, which is that we’re all connected and that we need to care about one another and ourselves.
Thurman: That’s marvelous, marvelous.
Tippett: I think, physically as well as emotionally, we instinctively — I can certainly speak for myself in this — recoil from the reality of feeling vulnerable or afraid, right? And so we layer — I mean, anger gets layered on top of that, because it feels like a more powerful response. But then we stop being able to tell the difference ourselves, right? You stop knowing, “I’m scared.” You say, “I’m angry.”
Sharon, I know one thing that you’ve said in different ways at different times, and I just found this — these were words, I think, from another interview you gave as I was getting ready to talk to you again: “It’s one of life’s big mysteries to me,” you said, “that we don’t talk to each other about the most common things, like the fact that we wake up in the morning feeling confused and scared and full of self-doubt. The miracle is, when someone finally names it, that’s so liberating.”
And, I mean, really what you’re talking about is being honest. And it’s the most frightening thing, to admit that you’re afraid, but what a relief. What a relief, when we can do that.
Salzberg: Oh, absolutely. Well, it’s like me as a 15-year-old or 16-year-old — I guess I was maybe 16 or 17 at that point — in college, at that Asian philosophy course, to hear that the Buddha said right out loud: There’s suffering in life. Guess what? It’s not just you. It’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s not something to hide, or sort of seek others, who are suffering, to be hidden from you. It’s not like that. This is part of the nature of things.
And if we could just be open and truthful, as you say, and admit that, then we would find one another in that vulnerability, instead of feeling so cut off and so apart.
Tippett: Bob, what are you thinking?
Thurman: What am I thinking? [laughs]
Tippett: Yeah, as you’re listening to that. Do you want to add anything?
Thurman: What I was thinking was that there’s a word in Buddhism called “kleshas,” or “kleśa” in Pali, “kleshas” in Sanskrit, which comes from a verb root that means “to twist; something to be twisted.” And it’s translated “defilement” or “affliction,” by some people — I used to translate it “affliction.” But the best word for it, actually, is “addiction.” And so anger and obsession, lust, these things are said to be addictions.
And that immediately gets the point across. In other words, it’s something that people think is helping them, because it gives them a momentary relief from something else. But actually, it’s leading them into a worse and worse place, where they’re getting more and more dependent and less and less free. And so we’re …
Tippett: Dependent because the way you’re handling it is then all entangled with the other person?
Thurman: Right, and partly because you believe, when anger comes to you — meaning, in the form of an impulse that you have, internally: This is intolerable, That person did this, This is like something, is sort of the inner thought that comes — and it seems to come in a way that is undeniable. You have to act on it. It mobilizes your adrenalin, your solar plexus, your arms, your body. Heat flushes up into your face. It sort of goes along with a whole complex of things, and you just charge ahead or say something awful or whatever you do. Or you put away in your mind some nasty scheme that you’re going to implement later, if for some reason you can’t do it right away. So, in other words, it takes you over.
And that’s where mindfulness can interfere with that, by being aware of how your mind works and realizing that it’s just one impulse and it’s one voice within you, and there’s another questioning voice and an awareness voice that can say, Well, actually, would this be a good idea, to blow your top now?
I always like to say it’s like — otherwise you’re like a TV set that has one channel only, and no clicker.
Tippett: I don’t remember what that’s like. [laughs]
Thurman: So if you have the horror show rising up from your solar plexus, then you’re going to have a horror show, whereas you can click to the nature show, and you can watch the minnows frolicking in the lake in the summer. So I’m saying that we are very clickable, we’re very switchable, in our moods and minds.
And then the key is, the hopeful thing for some people, who like their anger — some people do like their anger. The hopeful thing is that that energy of heat — kind of like a heat. And actually, in Buddhist psychology, anger is connected to intelligence, to analytic and critical intelligence. And so that energy, a strong, powerful energy of heat force, can be ridden in a different way and can be used to heal yourself, can be used to develop inner strength and determination. And that is really something much to be ambitious for. That is a great, great goal.
Tippett: I think, also, that kind of transmutation is connected to this particular Buddhist notion of metta, lovingkindness, which holds not just some kind of compassion towards others, which can be hard to muster, but compassion towards oneself, which makes compassion —
Salzberg: Can be harder. [laughs]
Tippett: Can be hard, yeah. Can be harder, right. Can be harder, [laughs] but makes all kinds of things possible.
Thurman: But true compassion — one should not confuse compassion for oneself with self-indulgence. That’s the difficulty.
Salzberg: I mean, metta — that struck me so strongly, when I first began practicing metta, or lovingkindness. I was in Burma in 1985 when I first practiced it intensively in a structured way. And I always knew how it was done. I always knew that classically, you began with yourself, which I found kind of confusing, because I thought, well, surely, the higher path, the more spiritual way would be denying yourself, and some kind of self-abnegation, and then just focusing completely on others, and that would be the way.
But going back to what is “realistic” or not, they also say that metta, or lovingkindness, is a practice of generosity. It’s like generosity of the spirit. And the best kind of generosity comes from a sense of inner abundance, because if we feel depleted and overcome and exhausted and just burnt out, we’re not going to have the wherewithal inside, the sense of resourcefulness to care about anybody, even to notice them all that much.
It’s not only a kind of self-indulgence, but it’s a self-preoccupation that happens, when we feel so undone, so unworthy, so incapable of giving or whatever it might be, however it might manifest. And so I really do see that factor of lovingkindness for oneself is this tremendous sense of strength and resourcefulness in terms of connecting to others.
Tippett: And of softness with oneself making that possible, which — I don’t know, even when we’re trying to be altruistic or generous, we’re hard on ourselves, right? We push ourselves. And this is a different attitude.
Salzberg: Oh, it’s very different. I mean, I guess the one question that’s very interesting to reflect on is, how do I actually learn best? How do I change? How do I grow? Is it through that kind of belittling myself and berating myself and humiliating myself? Or is it through something else, some other quality like self-compassion, and recognizing the pain or unskillfulness of something I’ve done or said and having the energy to actually move on?
So where does that energy come from? It comes from not being stuck. And how do we get unstuck? In fact, it’s from forgiving ourselves and realizing, yeah, it happened. It was wrong. I’m going to go on now in a different way, because I’m capable of that. I am capable of change.
[music: “Your First Light My Eventide” by The Echelon Effect]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, today rethinking love of enemies with two old friends and icons of American Buddhism, teacher Sharon Salzberg and scholar Robert Thurman.
[music: “Your First Light My Eventide” by The Echelon Effect]
One of the disciplines, the spiritual disciplines that you describe towards living in this healthier way with the reality of our lives and of enemies in them, inside and without, is this notion, this discipline of looking for the good in others — and, I mean, which really, in our culture, we’re trained to, well, at a really basic level, to see what has gone wrong today as the news, right? That’s what we look at. That’s what our eyes and our attention is trained to see.
This notion of looking for the good in others, even and especially people who we may identify as enemies, and one of the principles of that that’s so liberating to think about, is that just as we are all changing every day, both on a cellular level and psychological level as we move through life, so are the people who it’s difficult for us to share the planet with.
Right? And so acknowledging that possibility in others, as well.
Salzberg: Well, that’s really true. I first was given that as a meditation instruction when I went to Burma in 1985 and I was doing that period of intensive lovingkindness practice. And one of the first suggestions my meditation teacher, Sayadaw U Pandita, gave to me was, think of different people you have different feelings for, different kind of relationships with, and see if you can find one good thing about them.
And my very first thought was, I’m not going to do that. I thought, that’s what stupid people do; they go around looking for the good in people. I don’t even like people who do that. I’m not going to do that.
But, as I usually tell the story, I was very far from home. I was in a Burmese monastery. And the nature of the teacher–student relationship in a very traditional culture like that is not one where the teacher suggests you do something and you say, I don’t feel like it. And so you do it.
So I did it, and it was so interesting, because of course, my fear had been that I was going to overlook the things that were really wrong, and I was going to become conflict-avoidant. And it wasn’t at all like that. I realized that if I just obsessed about everything that was wrong, one more time, it wasn’t onward-leading in any way. But if I could find one good thing about somebody, I actually felt a sense of connection to them or kinship with them so that I could directly and honestly look at what was difficult, but it was almost like from a different place, instead of across this huge gulf of separation.
And I even thought of somebody I really found incredibly obnoxious — I think in a very reasonable way; I think he was pretty obnoxious, not just to me. But I had this memory that came up in my mind of once having seen him do this incredibly gracious, kind thing for somebody else that we both know. And he did this act in the best possible way, so she didn’t feel condescended to or put down or pitied in any way. He just did it so beautifully.
So this memory came up in my mind, and then I thought, I don’t want to think about that.
It complicates things. It was easier when he was, like, all bad all the time.
But life is complicated. Relationships are complicated. We are complicated, too.
Tippett: I think this also gets at something else that really intrigues me in the way the two of you talk about our whole life with enemies and with suffering, and that is this very intriguing idea of healing our relationship with time, befriending time, and, in that way, also tapping into a spaciousness and a perspective. Could you talk a little bit more about that and how to — I mean, it’s such a wonderful idea. What do you offer in terms of teaching, in terms of helping people draw close to that idea as a reality?
Salzberg: It’s like the tyranny of time — I don’t have enough time. There’s never enough time. And whatever happened to my life? It’s passed by like a dream.
Thurman: It goes faster and faster, believe me, as you reach this eighth decade. Trust me.
Salzberg: Well, I’m not that much younger, really. [laughs] That was nice of you to say, but …
Tippett: But this notion of the infinite in each moment, and somehow …
Thurman: Oh, that’s great.
Tippett: Right, which is not a — it’s not something we learn anywhere in our lives now. And so how to apprehend that knowledge, how to really claim that knowledge?
Salzberg: Well, I think that there’s so much power we potentially have when we realize how our interpretation and our assumptions and our perception affects our experience, and that we don’t have to be mired in old ways of seeing that. We don’t have to feel stuck, even if we start out there.
That’s part of what happens through the meditative process, is that you realize you have a kind of flexibility around things. And it’s not, again, to be sort of in the realm of wishful thinking or being a goody-goody, but to realize: I don’t need to be stuck. If I’m in the habit of seeing, at the end of the day, looking back at the day and pretty well only remembering what went wrong, I can actually move my attention very consciously and intentionally to what went right — not to pretend that was the only thing that happened, but to kind of fill in the picture, to be more inclusive. And we can do that with time, as well.
Thurman: I very much admire the contemporary teacher Eckhart Tolle and how he — his concept of the “power of now” and all of that — and how he gets away from time, helps people do that, always leads them back to the present moment and unfolding the richness of the present moment. So then not only do you enjoy the richness of that moment, but if, in that moment, you can make something a tiny bit better — I mean, the color could be, instead of this drab beige, it could be a more, like, rich beige, a little more yellow tone — whatever tiny thing it is, you’re growing it for the infinite future. And that little infinite positive change — if you’re a little depressed or something, you’re sad about something in the past, then you do a little tiny change. You can live within that moment, and it can — so that that moment is connected to the infinite future. Then that’s a much richer moment.
It relates to what we call, in Buddhist philosophy and psychology, nondualist or nonduality, where each moment is, of course, contains all — like a hologram. Each moment contains all the other moments, infinitely. But also, each future moment contains this moment and all the past moments. And therefore, the richness also connects to goodwill, to love and compassion — it isn’t just an escape into a kind of null state.
Tippett: That’s wonderful.
Thurman: There is a positive sense of time. For example, Buddha had a vow as a bodhisattva. He would not achieve Nirvana or perfect blissfulness until all beings had achieved it. Then he achieved Nirvana, 2500 years ago, and what about us?
What did he do with us?
So, technically speaking, in order to not accuse Buddha of abandoning us in this flow of time filled with suffering, we have to somehow imagine that it’s possible that in that moment, he found our future liberation moment. And that’s in the Buddha’s story. That’s there in the Buddha’s story, how he saw everybody else’s future life and past life in the moment, just as he was attaining enlightenment. It says so in all the versions of his story. So it’s really nice.
Tippett: This makes me think of Einstein saying that our physical perception of time as a linear thing, of past, present, and future in some kind of — as an arrow — is a stubbornly persistent illusion, right?
Thurman: Exactly, exactly.
Tippett: But our five senses conspire in that illusion.
Thurman: Of course.
Tippett: Let me ask you this: here in the 21st century, so many people in the West, it really feels to me like there’s this critical mass of people exploring meditation, taking up meditation; yoga — just, I think, even in the last five years, it’s on every corner. Now, obviously, there’s a real variety in the quality of all of that. But there it is. It’s there, and so many people are finding something in it.
And I just want to ask the two of you about, let’s say, one of the most kind of counter-cultural pieces of the ethos of that, that when you sit there and do this inward work of breathing and planting yourself in something — that infinite goodness, or dedicating your hour of yoga to other people — that somehow, that act, what looks like a private act, does send something out into the world, does have an effect on the world. And I think that that’s a pretty mysterious idea. So I’m curious about how you would — how you understand that. Does that make sense?
Thurman: Do you want to say something?
Salzberg: Sure, I’ll try. Well, I think, of course, one of the main ways that we send a different kind of energy out into the world is through our own actions and as we make different choices and we speak differently to one another. We brought one of our teachers to America pretty soon after we had come back ourselves, this man named Manindra. And it was maybe a year or two after, and there was nothing compared to what’s happening now, but there were some groups of people interested in meditation, coming around as we went around the country. And we brought him around to see them, and we were kind of proud; like, isn’t it exciting? There were like 40 people in the country who were meditating or something like that, [laughs] and, Isn’t it wonderful?
And he said, Oh, it is wonderful, and there’s just this one thing. He said, Some of these people in the West remind me of people sitting in a rowboat, and with great sincerity and earnestness they’re rowing and rowing and rowing, but they refuse to untie the boat from the dock. He said, Sometimes I think people are mostly interested in these great, transcendent experiences and altered states of consciousness, but they’re not all that interested in how they speak to their neighbor or how they are with their children.
So the most profound transformation happens within us and then ripples out because of how we are. It’s like, we want spirituality in our lives, and we want peace.
Tippett: Right. It’s still who you are when you walk out of the room, you’re saying.
Salzberg: Right, right. But I do think, I mean, certainly — again, in a traditional culture like Burma, if you do metta, or lovingkindness practice, they will say: the most important transformation is within your own mind. And it’s an energy. It is like an energy, but it’s like a gift, that energy. It’s like, you can’t insist someone like your gift. You can’t insist that they put it on right away or say, That’s the best book I’ve ever been given, thank you. All we can do is extend it, and there are times when it can make for some changes.
Tippett: We need to finish. I feel like this has been just such a great, wide-ranging conversation. Is there anything either of you would want to add?
Thurman: I want Sharon to have the last word.
Salzberg: I feel like I should praise Bob after he lavishly praised me, and say I love being with Bob, [laughs] just as he says he loves being with me.
Thurman: Oh, well, that’s nice. Thank you, Sharon. That’s good. That’s really nice.
[music: “Bowen Island” by Kaki King]
Tippett: Robert Thurman and Sharon Salzberg co-wrote Love Your Enemies: How to Break the Anger Habit & Be a Whole Lot Happier. He is president of Tibet House U.S. and was a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University for 30 years. His many books include Inner Revolution. His newest work, published in 2021, is Wisdom Is Bliss: Four Friendly Fun Facts That Can Change Your Life.
Sharon Salzberg is cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Her many books include Lovingkindness and, most recently, Real Change: Mindfulness To Heal Ourselves and the World.
[music: “Bowen Island” by Kaki King]
The On Being Project is located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.
On Being is an independent, nonprofit production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by WNYC Studios. I created this show at American Public Media.
Our funding partners include:
The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org;
Kalliopeia Foundation, dedicated to reconnecting ecology, culture, and spirituality, supporting organizations and initiatives that uphold a sacred relationship with life on Earth. Learn more at kalliopeia.org;
The George Family Foundation, in support of The Civil Conversations Project;
The Osprey Foundation, a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives;
And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.
Books & Music
The On Being Project is an affiliate partner of Bookshop.org and Amazon.com. Any earnings we receive through these affiliate partnerships go into directly supporting The On Being Project.