Edited by Sharon Salzberg, Foreward by Mirabai Bush
(Shambhala, $22)

Sharon Salzberg, the editor of this splendid collection of essays by Westerners on Eastern meditation, is one of the founders, in 1976, of The Insight Meditation Center (IMS), a retreat complex in Barre, Massachusetts. The Insight Meditation Society has become a focal point of a vibrant, specifically American version of Buddhist tradition. As Salzberg writes in one of her own contributions to the book, the founding of the center was practically a spontaneous event. Only a few weeks before, she had considered herself a mere novice Buddhist, an American expatriate studying meditation in Calcutta with an Asian teacher, Dipa Ma.

Salzberg decided to return to America for a short visit in early 1976, and as she said good-bye, she assured her teacher that she would soon be back. Dipa Ma informed her that this would not happen. "When you go to America," the teacher told her, "you'll start teaching meditation with Joseph"--a reference to Joseph Goldstein, an American friend of Salzberg who had similarly embraced Buddhism. Salzberg protested that she was in no way ready to teach meditation. Dipa Ma answered, "You can do anything you want. It's only your thinking you can't do it that can stop you."

Dipa Ma's prediction promptly came true. By Valentine's Day, Salzberg, Goldstein, and a third young American who had taken up Buddhism in Asia, Jack Kornfield, had moved into a rambling old estate in Barre, given it the name Insight Meditation Society, and begun leading retreats. They derived their group's name from "insight meditation" (vipassana), a spiritual practice of Theravada, the Buddhist tradition of Southeast Asia, that cultivates the clear observation of the mind and the body. The trio also specialized in a second Theravada practice, "loving-kindness" (metta), that cultivates the ability to love. Over the years, huge numbers of seekers and teachers began showing up at the IMS's massive front doors in Barre. In the process the society became a major center for the transmission of Buddhism from East to West.

Seventeen retreat leaders from IMS have contributed essays to this book, a rainbow of voices and approaches--from memoir to history to abstract analysis--that demonstrates conclusively that the teachings of the Buddha have taken root and flowered in contemporary America. The book is divided into three sections, each exploring one of the "three jewels" or "three refuges"--terms of art referring to the three highest goals of Buddhist spiritual practice: They are: the Buddha himself, dharma (the Way of the Buddha, or true morality), and sangha (the Buddhist monastic community).

In "The Buddha and the Lineage of Teachers," an introduction to the first section, Salzberg explains that the Buddha--and all of our teachers and spiritual friends--are living examples of our own possibilities. Salzberg views her own teacher, Dipa Ma, as a gentle spur and living reminder that wholeness and freedom and true compassion are possible. In another contribution, society co-founder Kornfield recalls that his own meditation master, Ajahn Chan, with whom he studied in a Thai forest, used a somewhat different approach: turning up the heat on his students. "If you were bored or restless, then he'd put you in a position where you would have more boredom or restlessness to deal with, and make you feel it," Kornfield writes. "He'd say, 'You simply feel it until you die.'"

In an essay on dharma titled "The Science and Art of Meditation" in the book's middle section, the society's third co-founder, Goldstein, explores the task of uncovering the truth by seeing our moment-to-moment experience clearly. The essay is a striking combination of intellectual clarity and sensitivity. We must be able to see our experiences with precision while they are taking place, but we must also practice the art of feeling and understanding "how we are relating to our experience." In this sense, he adds, "meditation is discovering the art of true relationships."

In the last section, on sangha, or community, the noted Buddhist writer Sylvia Boorstein offers good-humored and sensible real-life instances of spiritual transformation. Other exceptional essays come from Ajahn Sumehdo, Christopher Titmuss, Kamala Masters, and Gavin Harris, who writes of living with AIDS. Not every contribution is as exemplary as these, but as a whole the book shines with the vibrancy and beauty of writing that strives above all to tell the truth.

Voices of Insight is not only good literature and a major work of American Buddhism, but also expresses the generosity that has characterized the IMS and its founders from the beginning: All royalties will be donated to a fund for the care of the American spiritual pioneer Ram Dass, who is recovering from a stroke.

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