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November 8, 2007

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Gil Fronsdal on Tricycle Q&A
Tricycle Q & A: Gil Fronsdal

Gil Fronsdal answers questions from Tricycle readers.

Read Tricycle Q & A Answers from B. Alan Wallace, Gehlek Rimpoche, Lama Surya Das, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Daniel Goleman, Mark Epstein, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, and Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara.

1. deegy asks: What do you think of the marches of the Burmese monks against the military leadership of Burma? What role do monastics have in social issues and what role can the larger international Buddhist community play to support them?

Dear Deegy,

It is my deepest hope that Buddhist practice, teachings and practitioners can be actively helpful in addressing the great suffering and injustice in this world. I am inspired by the monks and nuns marching in Burma. From what I have seen, most of them have shown a dedication to non-violence and loving-kindness. They have also shown tremendous courage; I am sure many of them realize that they are risking their lives.

I am not well enough informed about Burma to know how effective these marches can be or whether there may be better ways of changing the atrocious political and social conditions in that country. Since political activity has been so thoroughly squashed in Burma, I do know that monastics make up the most significant social and political force in the country outside of the military.

More generally, there is controversy within monastic communities about whether it is appropriate for monks and nuns to be politically involved. I support those who are drawn to practice Buddhism through directly confronting injustice.

One of my Buddhist teachers claimed that the Buddha taught the value of meditation, and that Gandhi’s contribution to Buddhism was to teach that it mattered where you meditated. While it can be appropriate to meditate away from social struggle and suffering, it can also be appropriate and maybe even necessary to practice at the heart of the strife, such as walking down the streets of Rangoon chanting verses of loving-kindness. Buddhist social action must be dedicated to non-violence, respect for the opposition, and compassion. It also must include practicing with liberation as a focus. This means that one must be working on releasing one’s clinging, even clinging to life.

I am very grateful to the Burmese people for the time I spent training in a Burmese monastery. It is heartbreaking to see these good people suffering so much. I think that the international Buddhist community can first of all inform itself of what is happening in Burma. It can petition corporations and governments to stop supporting the military government. It can also support some of the organizations that are making a difference such as the Foundation for the People of Burma and the The Buddhist Peace Fellowship website is a good resource.

2. justin asks: In the Mahayana schools, such as Zen, emptiness, or the realization of emptiness seems to be an important part of the path, less so in the Theravada tradition, am I mistaken? And having trained in both traditions how do you reconcile the two?

Dear Justin:

Emptiness is as important in the Theravada tradition as it is in the Mahayana. From the earliest times, Theravada Buddhism has viewed emptiness as one of the important doors to liberation. Two key Theravada sutras are devoted to emptiness: the Greater Discourse on Emptiness and the Lesser Discourse on Emptiness.

When I was practicing in Burma, I gave a copy of the Heart Sutra to my Theravada meditation teacher. Ignoring the opening and closing, he was happy with the emptiness teaching in the core of the text. He gave a profound dharma talk on the Heart Sutra,saying that this insight is what Vipassana practice aims at.

Over the centuries, emptiness came to have a range of meanings within Buddhism. The greatest change in meaning was in the Mahayana tradition where some quite diverse teachings on emptiness emerged. Even so, the great Indian philosophers of the Mahayana wrote that the standard understanding of emptiness within the Mahayana and within the earlier Buddhist traditions is the same. It is not emptiness which differentiates these traditions.

Though emptiness is important in the Theravada tradition, it is usually not taught as often as in the Mahayana. This might lead some to assume it is absent. One reason it is not taught as often is that emptiness is seen as a liberating insight rather then a philosophical view one needs to understand intellectually. Theravada’s gradual approach to awakening , includes extensive teachings on the functioning of the mind and the foundational practices that allow for the deep penetrative insight into emptiness. Emptiness is sometimes not taught until the student is ready for it.

Another reason Theravada contains fewer teachings on emptiness is that this is not always labeled “emptiness.” For example, Theravada will teach that all things are insubstantial and without essence without calling this an emptiness teaching, even though it is. The frequency with which the Mahayana talks about emptiness is probably matched by the frequency with which the Theravada teaches impermanence and not-self; in practice, both traditions are often pointing to the same thing in these teachings.

A final reason may be that the goal of Theravada practice is not emptiness. The goal is liberation. Emptiness is a means to liberation. While liberation comes with a deep understanding of emptiness, emptiness is secondary to Awakening.

One aspect of Zen teachings on emptiness that I valued during my practice in Burma was its tendency to pull the rug from under the views and positions I tried to take. I found this a great help practicing both Zen and Theravada.

3. Snowpea asks: I am confused by the notion of skillfulness as it relates to thoughts and emotions. Some people seem to be naturally happy – but why do the rest of us need to work so hard in order to “skillfully” deal with our emotions and try and be happy?

Dear Snowpea,

Thank you for your question. Happiness and skillfulness are important issues. I don’t know why some find the path to happiness easy while for others it is long and strenuous. Perhaps some are happy because of their neurology, or upbringing, or years of meditation practice.

But it seems to me that sometimes those for whom practice is most difficult eventually become the most spiritually mature and liberated. Maybe the difficulty helps to mature them.

Rather than comparing oneself to others or to some ideal, I find that Buddhist practice works best (is most skillful) if we start with accepting our own condition. This doesn’t mean we accept that this is how we will always be; it means that we stop struggling against how we are now.

Next, it can be helpful and realistic to understand our unhappiness and how it connects to our thoughts, beliefs, feelings, reactions and attitudes As long as thoughts and emotions are the causes for our unhappiness we will need to understand them better to learn how to be free of them. So that we can understood them sufficiently to avoid problems in the future, it is important not to be in a rush to get rid of these thoughts and emotions,.

The solution could also include making a number of changes in one’s life: entering psychotherapy, alleviating sources of stress, getting more sleep, resolving longstanding interpersonal conflicts, or getting involved in helping others.

I have found mindfulness practice to be extremely useful. Not only does mindfulness help me understand thoughts and emotions, it helps to reduce their influence. It leads to an awareness that is independent from what is known.

Buddhist meditation practice has two main purposes: 1) to bring us greater insight and understanding and 2) to create the inner stability and well-being needed to let go of our clinging. To work skillfully with thoughts and emotions, we need some modicum of insight and stability. If we are too caught up in thinking and feeling, trying to do anything about them can lead to further entanglement. Meditation practice is one way to break the entanglement.

Stable and reliable happiness does not come from having the right thoughts, feelings, experiences or conditions in the world. Real happiness comes from deep letting go. One of the great delights of Buddhist practice is to discover that, with enough letting go, one can be happy for no reason.

Gil Fronsdal is the primary teacher for the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California. He also teaches at Spirit Rock Meditation Center where he is part of its Teachers Collective. He is a husband and a father of two boys.

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