In my nearly 20 years working at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, I’ve met and studied with many teachers, but just a handful of them have become special friends. One of these is Sylvia Boorstein, a longtime teacher of Buddhist wisdom and practice.
Last year, Sylvia, 73, decided to reduce her grueling schedule, which for almost 30 years has taken her to retreat centers nationwide—including Omega. In fact, since I’d first met her and studied with her in 2008, I was hoping to invite her to teach at Omega again and again.
Lamenting this loss, I asked Sylvia about doing a month-long online course with SpiritualityandPractice.com, whose two co-directors, Mary Ann and Frederic Brussat, I had met last year. I not only wanted to continue to work with Sylvia in some way; I also felt that, as one of the world’s most esteemed Buddhist teachers and a founding member of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Northern California, she still had a lot of wisdom to offer the world. Much to my delight, she welcomed the opportunity.
The result is Lovingkindness with Sylvia Boorstein, which will run March 15 – April 9, 2010 on SpiritualityandPractice.com. Sylvia told me she regards this online offering as a summation of her years of lovingkindness practice. In Pali, the language the Buddha used some 2,500 years ago, lovingkindness is called metta, a derivative of the word for “friend.” Sylvia said she likes to think of it as “a friendliness practice, the cultivation of a mind that is so saturated with good will that it responds uniformly to all situations with benevolence.”
Sylvia, SpiritualityandPractice.com, and I chose the lovingkindness practice for Sylvia’s first online program because of its universal appeal. “Although lovingkindness is considered a classical Buddhist practice, it is a universal practice whose goal is a peaceful mind and a benevolent heart,” Sylvia said. “Everyone wants peace.”
Offering this program online fulfills Sylvia’s wish to reach as many people as possible and from any religious tradition. “A big thing that interests me about an online retreat is the chance to not only reconnect with students I’ve taught over the years, but also to reach people I might not have reached in my entire life, including people of other traditions who might never go to a Buddhist retreat,” she said. “I want people all over the world to benefit from Buddhism’s profound and relevant teachings, and offering a course online seems like the perfect opportunity to do this.”
Boorstein has imparted much of her wisdom through popular books, including Happiness Is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life, The Buddhist Path of Kindness; Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There: A Mindfulness Retreat, and It’s Easier Than You Think: The Buddhist Way to Happiness. The hallmark of all her books and teachings has been their ability to make ancient Buddhist teachings contemporary and relevant in the modern world, and accessible to anyone.
Now she is tapping into the online world, which gives her new ways to interact with the hundreds of participants expected to enroll in the course, creating a learning experience books don’t offer. Through a series of emailed lessons, short audio meditations, three teleconferences, and an online Practice Circle or “virtual sangha,” Boorstein will teach people how to have abiding goodwill toward friends, family members, colleagues, people we see on the street and in stores, and even difficult people.
The Brussats are longtime fans of Sylvia’s books and include her in their website’s Living Spiritual Teachers Project. “We are delighted to be able to give Sylvia an online teaching venue and to give our visitors access to such a wonderful teacher,” Mary Ann said. “We are offering this retreat during Lent, Passover, and Easter because it is a perfect way to integrate the wisdom of a profound Buddhist practice into these holy days in the Christian and Jewish traditions, offering people a well-rounded and expansive view of a universal human desire to love and to love well.”