Filed in Vipassana, Theravada

Sitting on the Fence

Sharon Salzberg

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In order to practice, we have to surrender, we have to take a risk. Otherwise what we’re doing is standing back in order to judge, in order to feel superior. Often the obstacle is fear: we don’t think we’ll ever succeed. And so we’d rather stand apart and be cynical, to feel protected in that way, not having to try.

One of the strongest experiences that I had of this happened somewhat early in my practice when I was living in India. The first teachers I sat with were all either Burmese or had been trained in Burma, so they had different approaches stylistically in terms of technique, but they were essentially the same. Then one day, somebody showed me a picture of a Tibetan lama. I was very taken with his face, and traveled all the way to the other end of India to start practicing with him. I very quickly became confused. Unable to decide between the two traditions, I would sit to meditate and mostly I would just think, “Should I do this or should I do that? Maybe this is faster, maybe that is better; well, I like these people better who do this practice, but then again, I don’t know them really well. I know the others really well and so, you know, maybe I should practice with them, they’re doing the best they can.”

I wasn’t really putting anything into practice. Having removed myself to a safe distance from the process, I’d just sit and think about practice. What was almost worse was that whenever I was with my Burmese teachers I would ask them what they thought about Tibetan practice, something they knew about mostly through centuries of a cultural divide. They’d spent their entire lifetime completely and intensively devoting themselves to the study and practice of the Burmese tradition, not Tibetan practice. And whenever I was with my Tibetan teachers, who were incomparable masters of the tools they were offering and the metaphysics they had immersed themselves in, I would ask them what they thought of Burmese practice. They also primarily knew about this other tradition from the other side of that great historical-cultural divide. I wasn’t really learning a lot from my practice since I wasn’t really practicing much. I was mostly just thinking about which practice to do. And I wasn’t learning nearly as much as I could from my teachers, because I insisted on asking them about the things they knew little about as opposed to the things they knew a huge amount about. Finally I said to myself, “Just do something. It doesn’t have to be a lifetime commitment, just do something for the sake of the doing, for the engagement, for the involvement.”

After much vacillation, I concluded, “Well, I’ll just do one form of practice for six months,” and that’s what got me into actually practicing. It’s not that one needs to do only one practice forever, and I certainly haven’t. But the quality of doubt I experienced early on is a good example of the quality of doubt that removes us, that keeps us stuck at a crossroads, unable to fully engage. We need to be able to utilize the positive energy of wondering, of wanting to know the truth for ourselves and working to do that, and not get lost in cynicism or endless speculation.

From a talk given at Insight Meditation Society, Barre, Massachusetts, February 2001.

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This relates to the person who walks with a cane do we respect him since he is elderly, and almost blind, or do we hope to pass him by since we feel we will be able to trust our better instincts.

leveysteven's picture

I think what I like most about Susan Salzburg's article is her honesty in her final critical examination of herself, where she comes to the realization that she was not practicing at all. This. seems to me, to be the product of what is called Vispisanna, or intuition, meditation. And, although, there is Sanskrit name given to this Theraveda meditation, it is none-the-less, true introspection, as we can see through her ability to inform herself of her "sitting on the fence". This means that it is human to "Know thyself" and simply foolish not to. My experience is that many fellow practioners have this issue and it is only clear to me, as idaleung1 points out, because I've been there. And to a degree, I'm still there, because complete "Refuge" in the 3 jewels has not yet happened to me. Perhaps, this is so because, whether we believe it or not, many take "Refuge" in the Sangha first, for comforts sake, and stay there far too long, while hemming and hawing over the Dharma, as Susan was really doing. And because of this, taking "Refuge" in the Buddha would not happen, at least until her "awakening" to her "sitting on the fence".

marginal person's picture

"Doubt everything. Find your own light". Gautama Buddha
I have no problem with doubters, it's the people who are certain who I avoid like the plague.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Shakyamuni was certain enough of his realization that he convinced many others of their own potential for enlightenment.

marginal person's picture

Paraphrasing:"Do not be satisfied with hearsay, or tradition, or legendary lore etc. When you know for yourselves these things are wholeome, blameless, etc, then you should practice and abide in them... ..." Gautama from Kalama Sutta
My take: Prove it to yourself. Don't believe it because I say it.

Dominic Gomez's picture

True. An open mind to give the practice of Buddhism a try is the first step in proving its efficacy.

mrwalker5's picture

Boy does this ever resonate for me!

wavekarma's picture

I like that you tell it like it is! Short and to the point. The truth.

beannyc's picture

Bingo! Thank You. ;-))

PapaDoc's picture

Sharon, you have named one of my issues of critically distancing myself, considering the "right" school within the family of Tibetan Buddhism. Good counsel in terms of deciding and committing. Thank you.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Thank goodness the internet is removing historical-cultural divisions. The Law is universal after all!

dixraile's picture

Thank you Sharon. I love your uncomplicated approach to teaching.

idaleung1's picture

Nothing like words from one "who has been there."

Julie Miller's picture

Sharon Salzburg takes such a practical & helpful approach with her teachings generally; this particular passage captures that "roll up your sleeves & get on with practicing" advice some of us prone to intellectualizing to the point of procrastination need to hear often.

Sukha's picture

Yes! Well said.