Sarah (Cowles) Doering, 92, of Amherst, Massachusetts, died peacefully at Hospice of the Fisher Home, in Amherst, on November 16, 2018, after a period of declining health.
A spiritual guide, meditation teacher, and philanthropist, Sarah played an instrumental role in helping Buddhism take root in the U.S. Through teaching, counsel, and financial support, she played a key role in strengthening – and, in some cases, founding – several flourishing Buddhist centers that have become a spiritual home to thousands of seekers. Thanks in part to her efforts, vipassana (Buddhist Insight meditation) has become an important element in contemporary American Buddhism.
Sarah (Cowles) Doering was born on August 11, 1926, in Des Moines, Iowa, the second of four children of John Cowles, Sr., and his wife Elizabeth (Bates). In the 1920’s, her 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 Gardner “Mike” Cowles, Jr. bought The Minneapolis Star, and in 1938, her father moved the family to Minneapolis so that he could manage the newspaper.
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 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
In 1944 Sarah graduated from The Master’s School (Dobbs Ferry, NY), and entered Smith College. The following year she enrolled in the University of Chicago, earning a Ph.B. degree in 1947. After a year of study at Radcliffe College, in 1948 she married John Marshall Bullitt, a Harvard University graduate student who eventually became Professor of English Literature at Harvard. In 1956, shortly after the birth of their fourth child, Sarah and John invited two refugees to live in their home: a couple that had fled Hungary after the Revolution. When John was appointed Master of the newest “house” on the Harvard campus, the family moved to Quincy House in 1959, where for the next seven years Sarah raised their four young children, entertained thousands of Harvard students, faculty, and staff, and welcomed guests of the University.
From 1963-1968 Sarah assisted in the admissions process at Radcliffe College, and from 1967-1971 she worked as Assistant to the President of Radcliffe.
After her first marriage ended, Sarah married William von Eggers Doering, a Professor of Chemistry at Harvard, in 1969. In the mid-1970’s, when Sarah was 50, the second phase of her life began. While caring for her husband’s aging father, who lived in their home, Sarah began to ask herself, “What is this life all about? And what am I, anyway? Am I Christian? Am I Buddhist?” That last question startled her, for she knew almost nothing about Buddhism. She decided to find out what divinity school could teach her.
Harvard Divinity School was located next door and had an opening for older students. Sarah enrolled in one course, signed up for another, and before long was immersed in studying the New Testament, which she could read for hours. Seeking a stronger sense of community, she transferred to Episcopal Divinity School (then in Cambridge, MA), where she continued her theological education, was examined in Greek and French, and in 1980 received a Master of Theological Studies degree.
Wanting above all to learn to pray, she briefly explored life as a nun, renting a house a short distance from Emery House, an Episcopal monastic community in West Newbury, MA, that was just starting to experiment with a “mixed” community of men and women. In the company of two monks from the Society of St. John the Evangelist and a nun from the Sisters of the Love of God, an Anglican religious community in England, Sarah helped to run the house and participated in the round of daily services.
After this brief experiment came to an end, she concluded that she was not called to religious life. She also yearned for more silence and stillness, and a more contemplative form of prayer. She asked Mother Jane, then the Superior of the Sisters of the Love of God, if she could recommend a book. Mother Jane suggested The Inner Eye of Love, by the Jesuit, William Johnston. Sarah used it for a book report during her last year in seminary, and was struck by a sentence that she didn’t understand: “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. I was walking in Harvard Square and on a lamppost someone had taped a sign, ‘Introductory Class in Vipassana, taught by Larry Rosenberg.’ As far as I know, that was the first sign on a lamppost that I’d ever read! I went to the first meeting of the 6-week course, and found myself so fascinated that I signed up all over again.”
The following year, she signed up for a 9-day silent retreat taught by Dr. Larry Rosenberg, a former college professor with years of training in Buddhist meditation in Asia. The retreat – held at Insight Meditation Society, a retreat center founded in 1975 and located on 200 acres of woods in Barre, Massachusetts – marked the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with IMS: before long, Sarah was sitting the annual 3-month silent retreat at IMS, a practice she maintained for about 17 years.
Sarah enrolled in all of Larry’s classes in Cambridge, joining him wherever he could scrounge a meeting place – an office loaned by an acupuncturist friend; a bookstore loaned by another friend; a local church; and his own apartment, which was so small that everyone had to practice walking meditation while standing in place.
Sarah decided to help him find a regular place to teach. At first they looked for a place to rent, but found nothing suitable. With Sarah’s 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. A non-residential urban center for the practice of vipassana meditation, CIMC has flourished for more than three decades and now has hundreds of members. Over the years, thousands of people have passed through its doors to learn and practice this ancient form of Buddhist meditation.
In the mid-1980’s Sarah also played an essential role in getting a vipassana center started on the other side of the country, enabling the purchase of a large parcel of undeveloped land in northern California. Spirit Rock is now a thriving residential retreat center that has hosted the Dalai Lama and whose teachers have included Thich Nhat Hanh, Ram Das, Huston Smith, and many other well-known Buddhist teachers.
Sarah’s generosity extended to more traditional centers of education. Interested in furthering education in Asian studies, especially Buddhist studies, she funded a full chair in Asian Studies at Smith College (the Jill Ker Conway Chair) 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 Roman Catholic priest and writer, Henri Nouwen. At her invitation, in 1995 Nouwen spent three months of his sabbatical living in her apartment while she was away for her annual silent retreat at IMS.
In the mid-1980’s Sarah established the Cambridge Mustard Seed Foundation, which focused on such inner-city issues as hunger, poverty, and homelessness. The foundation (now defunct) supported such pioneering efforts as a pilot program in a Cambridge public school to teach students about AIDS prevention.
In the late 1980’s, she helped to launch the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, a non-profit educational organization committed to integrating Buddhist scholarship with meditative wisdom. The study center, located on 90 acres of woodlands just a half-mile from IMS, soon built three forest cottages, and Sarah began living part-time in the one that was most remote.
Another gift to the Insight Meditation Society enabled construction of The Forest Refuge, a peaceful retreat facility for experienced vipassana 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, Sarah moved to one of its cottages and lived there for several years.
Sarah taught meditation at CIMC, IMS, and the Forest Refuge. She also served on the board of directors of IMS. For decades, she devoted her life to practicing the dharma, which she defined as “the living truth that is beyond words, beyond concepts.”
For eighteen years, Sarah lived in an in-law apartment in the home of her daughter Margaret Bullitt-Jonas and Margaret’s husband Robert Jonas, first in Watertown, MA, and then in Northampton, MA, where they moved in 2004. In 2012 Sarah became a resident of Applewood, a retirement community in Amherst, MA, where she formed many friendships and was active in the group, “Being Mortal,” which met regularly to discuss aging and death. True to her heritage of coming from a newspaper publishing family, she continued to be an avid reader of the daily papers, eagerly searching to understand what was happening in the world, and why. After President Trump was elected, she began meeting weekly with a group of civic-minded Applewood friends to write postcards speaking out to politicians.
Sarah served on the Board of Trustees of Radcliffe College, Planned Parenthood League of MA, Episcopal Divinity School, Insight Meditation Society, and the Massachusetts Chapter of American Red Cross.
Joseph Goldstein, a cofounder of IMS and one of its guiding teachers, remembers her warmly. “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. 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. The beautiful and transforming results of her long life will ripple outwards for generations to come, in ways both known and unknown, to countless seekers endeavoring to bring more wisdom and compassion to our world. Sarah was a remarkable human being, who inspired everyone who had the great good fortune of being in her presence.”
Sharon Salzberg, also a co-founder of IMS and a world-renowned meditation teacher, comments: “Sarah exemplified an unusual combination of dignity, wisdom, warm heartedness, and a tremendous amount of fun. She took a rare delight in simple pleasures, beautiful aesthetics, harmony between people, and more than anything, being of service. The Insight Meditation Society (including the Forest Refuge,) the Barre Center for Buddhist studies, Spirit Rock retreat center and the Cambridge Insight Meditation Society either took original life or new, transformed life as a result of Sarah’s generosity. Countless individuals had new opportunities because she cared. Sarah knew that large, magnanimous acts intersperse with immediate direct moments of kindness – listening to someone, encouraging them – to make up a life of compassion. She lived a life of compassion fully.”
Larry Rosenberg recalls Sarah Doering as “a true spiritual seeker. In my 45 years of teaching Buddhist meditation, 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.”
Her 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 her memory may be made to The Food Bank Farm of Western Massachusetts (PO Box 160, Hatfield, MA 01038).
Memorial services will be held at Grace Episcopal Church, in Amherst, MA, and Insight Meditation Society, in Barre, MA, at a later date.