November 27, 2018

Sarah Doering: Beloved IMS Teacher, Friend and Benefactor—1926-2018

By John Spalding

Sarah Doering, a spiritual guide, meditation teacher, dear friend to many in the IMS community and major benefactor of the Insight Meditation Society, died peacefully at Hospice of the Fisher Home, in Amherst, MA, on November 16, 2018. She was 92.

Through her teaching, counsel and financial support, Doering played a vital role in helping Buddhism flourish in the West. The Insight Meditation Society (including the Forest Refuge,) the Barre Center for Buddhist studies, Spirit Rock and Cambridge Insight Meditation Center either took original life or new, transformed life as a result of Sarah’s generosity. Over the years, these centers have been able to offer retreats and life-transforming opportunities to tens of thousands of people from around the world.

“Sarah exemplified an unusual combination of dignity, wisdom and warm heartedness,” said Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of IMS. “She took a rare delight in simple pleasures, beautiful aesthetics, harmony between people, and more than anything, being of service. Sarah knew that large, magnanimous acts interspersed with immediate direct moments of kindness—listening to someone, encouraging them—make up a life of compassion. She lived a life of compassion fully.”

Sarah Doering, portrait by Sarah Belchetz-Swenson.

Born Sarah Cowles on August 11, 1926, in Des Moines, Iowa, Doering was the second of four children of John Cowles, Sr., and his wife, Elizabeth. In the 1920s, Doering’s father became vice president, general manager and associate publisher of the Des Moines morning and evening newspapers. In 1935, her paternal grandfather, father and uncle bought The Minneapolis Star, and in 1938, her father moved the family to Minneapolis so he could manage the paper. Her mother was active in women’s rights and civil rights, helped found the first branch of Planned Parenthood in Iowa and was a lifetime member of the NAACP.

After graduating with a Ph.B. from the University of Chicago in 1947, Doering studied for a year at Radcliffe College before marrying John Marshall Bullitt, a graduate student who became a professor of English literature at Harvard. The couple had four children, whom they raised for many years in Harvard’s Quincy House, where John served as House Master, entertaining thousands of Harvard students, faculty, staff and guests of the university. After this marriage ended, Sarah married William von Eggers Doering, a professor of chemistry at Harvard, in 1969.

A new chapter in Doering’s life began in the mid-1970s, after she turned 50. While caring for her husband’s aging father, who lived in their home, she began to wonder, “What is this life all about? And what am I, anyway? Am I Christian? Am I Buddhist?” The last question startled her, for she knew little about Buddhism.

She decided to pursue answers at Harvard Divinity School, located next door to her home on Francis Avenue in Cambridge. She enrolled in one course, signed up for another, and before long was immersed in studying the New Testament. Seeking a stronger sense of community, she transferred to Episcopal Divinity School, then in Cambridge, where she received a Master of Theological Studies degree in 1980.

During her last year in seminary, a line she read in The Inner Eye of Love, a book by the Jesuit William Johnston, stuck with her: “The practice of vipassana helps one to discern the will of God.”

“I remembered that sentence in 1981, the year after I graduated from EDS,” Doering later said, recalling her introduction to vipassana, or insight, meditation. “I was walking in Harvard Square and on a lamppost someone had taped a sign, ‘Introductory Class in Vipassana, taught by Larry Rosenberg.’ I went to the first meeting of the six-week course, and found myself so fascinated that I signed up [for the course] again.”

The following year, she registered for a nine-day silent retreat taught by Rosenberg at Insight Meditation Society, marking the beginning of a profound and enduring relationship with IMS, its founders, teachers and extended community. Before long, Doering was sitting IMS’s annual Three-Month Retreat, which she sat for some 17 years.

In Cambridge, she continued to take Rosenberg’s courses, which were held wherever they could find space—an acupuncturist’s office, a bookstore, a church and Rosenberg’s own apartment, which was so small that participants had to practice walking meditation standing in place.

Doering decided to help the group secure a regular meeting spot. With her support, they eventually bought a run-down, single-family house in Cambridge. After extensive renovation, the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center opened its doors in 1985. In the mid-1980s, Doering’s contributions enabled the purchase of a vast parcel of undeveloped land in northern California that became the home of Spirit Rock. The same decade, she helped to fund the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, a non-profit educational organization committed to integrating Buddhist scholarship with meditative wisdom.

Doering, with IMS’s Joseph Goldstein.

Another gift to IMS enabled construction of the Forest Refuge, a retreat facility for experienced meditators who devote themselves to sustained, long-term practice for periods of up to a year or more. When the Forest Refuge opened in 2003, Doering moved into one of its cottages and lived there for several years. She taught meditation at the Retreat Center, the Forest Refuge and Cambridge Insight. She also served on IMS’s board of directors.

Doering’s generosity extended to more traditional centers of education. Interested in promoting Asian studies, particularly Buddhist studies, she funded a full chair in Asian Studies at Smith College and a full chair in Tibetan studies at Columbia University. She was also a generous supporter of her two alma maters, Episcopal Divinity School and Harvard Divinity School, funding half a chair at HDS, whose first occupant was the Roman Catholic priest and author Henri Nouwen. Although keenly interested in the welfare of the organizations she supported, she left them free to chart their own course.

“With her characteristic grace, modesty, and generosity, Sarah was one of the great benefactors in the spread of Buddhist meditation and teachings from Asia to the West,” said Joseph Goldstein, co-founder of IMS. “As a dear friend, a profoundly wise meditator, a compassionate and skilled meditation teacher, and a magnanimous supporter of both individuals and institutions, Sarah’s contributions will continue to be a blessing for so many.”

Doering, left, at the blessing of IMS’s Forest Refuge in 2003, with Winnie Nazarko and Joseph Goldstein.

“She was a remarkable human being,” Goldstein added, “who inspired everyone who had the great good fortune of being in her presence.”

Larry Rosenberg recalls Doering as “a true spiritual seeker.”

“In my 45 years of teaching Buddhist meditation,” Rosenberg said, “she stands out as someone who really grasped the profundity of the teaching and who actually lived it, including during the last days before she died.”

Doering’s survivors include Elizabeth Bullitt and her husband Allan H. Friedman of Durham, NC, Margaret Bullitt-Jonas and her husband Robert A. Jonas of Northampton, MA, Sarah Bullitt of Belfast, ME, and John Bullitt and his partner Jane Yudelman of Steuben, ME. She is also survived by a brother, Russell Cowles of Naples, FL, and by seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. She was predeceased by her sister Morley (Cowles) Ballantine in 2009, and by her brother John Cowles, Jr. in 2012.

Gifts in Sarah Doering’s memory may be made to The Food Bank Farm of Western Massachusetts,in Hatfield, MA.

Memorial services will be held on June 8,  2019 at Grace Episcopal Church, in Amherst, MA, and on June 9, 2019 at IMS.