The historic synagogue at 6th and I Street near Chinatown was host Sunday night to Sharon Salzberg , renowned meditation teacher and NY Times best-selling author, and Krishna Das, often called the rock-star of the Western yoga scene for his captivating devotional chanting. Both have made significant contributions to the transmission of Indian spiritual traditions to the West by sharing their deep knowledge and experiences through music, meditation and teachings.
Sharon Salzberg started the evening by encouraging over a thousand people in the audience to "develop a mind so filled with love that it resembles space." Salzberg co-founded the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts over 30 years ago with Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield. The Center focuses on mindfulness meditation and methods of developing metta, a Pali term for "loving-kindness." Salzberg, like Krishna Das, has devoted years of her life to study and spiritual practice with great masters from India, Tibet, Burma and Thailand.
Krishna Das explains Salzberg's teachings deal directly with the root of Americans' deepest cause of suffering which are, "People's self-loathing and inability to love ourselves."
The night was an informal play between Salzberg's meditation instructions on loving-kindness, and Krishna Das chanting kirtan, a call-and-response of hymns that sing the praise of Hindu Gods and their loving qualities. Krishna Das plays a harmonium and is accompanied by a tabla player and cymbals. Kirtan is a part of the tradition of bhakti yoga, whereby the practitioners offer themselves completely to the practice of chanting. Yoga is the Sanskrit term for "union" where "bhakti" connotes love and devotion. Bhakti yoga is one of the branches of Indian yoga; other branches include asana practice of yogic postures and breathing.
It is believed that by chanting the names of Gods, one is evoking the pure aspect of love that is deep within each individual.
"You don't have to know what the words mean you are chanting if the chanting works," Krishna Das explains. "When we chant together we can be temporarily released from the prison of our own chain of thoughts."
And this is where the methods of Sharon Salzberg and Krishna Das merge. Although Salzberg's quiet, contemplative teachings on mindfulness appear to be in strong contrast with Krishna Das' kirtan, which often generates ecstatic dancing and emotions, both practices help harness the mind and focus one's awareness.
"While you are meditating, if your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the present moment," Sharon Salzberg instructed. Fifteen minutes later, just before launching into lively singing-chant of Sita Ram, Krishna Das reminded the enthusiastic crowd, "Chanting is a simple practice. When you notice you are thinking about something else during the chant, let go of the thought and come back home, to the chant, to that place where we are expressing our inner purity."
It is clear that some audience member's experience of the silence during the periods of meditation was enhanced by the energy created during the chanting; and during the chanting, their awareness, cultivated by the meditation, was directed towards the chanting.
"There was a kind of love and awareness that flowed out of them [Salzberg and Krishna Das] and into everyone," Sandy Joliet of Alexandria, Virginia said after the performance.
Salzberg and Krishna Das met in the early 1970s in Bodhgaya, India, where the Buddha attained enlightenment some 2,500 years ago while sitting under a bodhi tree. Their encounter with the venerated meditation master Kunnu Lama, a teacher to the Dalai Lama, literally sowed the seeds for their future activity of teaching methods of cultivating inner peace.
"We met this elderly saint and he gave us bodhi seeds from the tree the Buddha had sat under. They were considered most precious and he told us to eat them."
More than forty years on, Krishna Das and Sharon Salzberg are still cultivating those seeds of enlightenment and sharing them with others.
The event was one of the many adjacent evening events happening during the Dalai Lama's two week visit to the Kalachakra for World Peace Washington DC.