Sixty-five Community Dharma Leaders and sangha board members met for the 8th InterSangha reunion at Spirit Rock Meditation Center from April 2-5. The theme was “Dharma, Secular Mindfulness and Science: Convergences and Collisions.” Tonight I will share some highlights of this enriching gathering.
As we punctuated lectures and discussion with silent breakfasts and sits and with Qigong or yoga, the quality of speaking and listening reflected decades of practice of everyone in attendance. The beauty of 400 acres of wildlife reserve around us created a harmonious space for our work.
The head of the board of the Buddhist Insight Network (known as BIN), Matthew Brensilver, from Against the Stream Insight Meditation sangha in Oakland, CA, initiated the conference. He gave an overview of “Mindfulness, Dharma and the Secular InterSangha 2017,” noting that the Dharma is being changed by modern scientific and cultural shifts. Matthew mentioned modern trends: the science of “Neural Buddhism”; the widely read book The Mindful Nation by Tim Ryan, a U.S. congressman from Ohio; “Mindful Nation, U.K.,” which involves integrating mindfulness into the United Kingdom’s workplaces, and health, education and criminal justice systems; and the incorporation of meditation into Integrative Medicine programs at hospitals like M.D. Anderson.
Matthew noted dangers in some secular mindfulness settings: “McMindfulness”—profiting from marketable meditation techniques and seeking customer satisfaction with Dharma products—“reduce stress, sleep better, be happier, etc.”; financial incentives for training as meditation teachers (following the model of yoga instructors); deemphasizing ethics (Sila) and the precepts; and minimizing renunciation and the Buddha’s role as a monk.
Recently Jon Kabat-Zinn, who created a 6-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program to help people with chronic pain, responded to critiques of secular mindfulness by asserting, “The M in MBSR is a very big M. My goal is to bring the Buddha Dharma into mainstream culture.” Jon Kabat-Zinn claims to follow the Buddha’s central teaching about liberation from suffering. Matthew imagines that cross-fertilization and dialogues among traditional Dharma teachers and secular mindfulness instructors will disseminate Buddhist principles and make the Dharma more accessible.
Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain and Hardwiring Happiness, spoke about the theme of “Dharma and Science.” He reviewed the Buddha’s principle teaching about suffering and its end and the subsequent teaching that there is no solid self—but simply 5 ever-changing aggregates: form, feelings (or vedana: pleasant, unpleasant or neutral), perceptions, mental activity, and consciousness.
Noting the origins of biological evolution 3 and ½ billion years ago and the origins of neurological evolution 600 million years ago, Rick stated, “Our suffering is embedded in biological evolution.” He joked that although rocks and animals without a nervous system don’t suffer, “jellyfish began vedana by swimming towards what’s pleasant and away from what’s unpleasant!”
Rick distinguishes between neurologically driven craving (tanha), which leads to suffering, and wholesome desire (chanda). Craving entails fear, greed and ill will, as well as a sense of something missing or out of balance. Our Theravada Buddhist Vipassana practice focuses on insight and learning to be with the craving of mind and body without reactivity.
Rick outlined three basic human, neurologically wired needs—for safety, satisfaction, and social connection. We tend to react by avoiding unpleasant feelings that signal a lack of safety and lead to suffering fear and impotence. We tend to react by approaching pleasant feelings that signal satisfaction and lead to suffering frustration as they end. And we tend to react by attaching to social connections, which can lead to either joy or the suffering of heartache.
Through meditation, we can condition ourselves to move from the reactivity of craving to the equanimity of contentment, peace and love. We can learn to meet our need for safety by being vigilant without worry—noting what’s unpleasant without aversion and what’s pleasant without clinging. Rick wonders if a 4th vedana is evolving in human consciousness—the heart-fullness that results in harmonious social connections. He says, “We human beings have no choice about our neurological system and our human needs. We do have a choice about our attitudes.”
According to Rick, 1/3 of our inner resources are inherited, and 2/3 can be acquired, which gives us great opportunities for learning new patterns and habits.
We can develop inner resources by practicing the Buddha’s 7 Factors of Awakening (mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity), the 6 Paramis or Perfections (generosity, virtue, patience, energy, concentration, and wisdom), and the Brahma Viharas (Metta or loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity).
Rick recommends a fundamental neuropsychology of learning in order to develop a basic core sense of wellbeing. Through self-care, self-compassion, and self-appreciation, we can give love wholeheartedly. Practicing multiple moments of calming ourselves, expressing gratitude, and receiving love allows us to experience safety, satisfaction and connection. Rick suggests, “Slow down, pay attention, and give generously.” He quips, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
It is not enough, however, to connect with healthy experiences. Rick warns that we must also consolidate our lessons through repeated cultivation in order to transform fleeting neural and emotional states into durable traits. By registering thousands of moments of beneficial ways of meeting our needs for safety, satisfaction and connection, we feel full inside, we are less triggered by craving, and thus less likely to suffer.
My Mexican friend and colleague, Andrea Castillo, gave a moving presentation on the theme of “The Dharma and Cultural Competence with Latino Practitioners.” At Gil Fronsdal’s Insight Meditation Center, she has been teaching a group of Latinos the Dharma in Spanish for the past five years. The Center displays a banner reading “Todos son Bienvenidos.” This year Andrea co-led a retreat focused on experiences of being an immigrant in the USA—the pain of leaving one’s homeland, the shock of acculturation, and the attempt to integrate cultures and to create a new life. I hope to share her insights and poignant stories in another talk.
The InterSangha keynote address was delivered by Gil Fronsdal, founding Dharma teacher at Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, director of a yearlong Buddhist Chaplaincy program, and co-teacher with Joseph Goldstein and others in a new Dharma teacher-training program at IMC and IMS in Barre, MA. Gil talked about Sati or Mindfulness. His main point is that, due to different cultural views and traditions, Buddhism is not a single religion or philosophy. (Thanissaro Bhikhu recently changed the 6th edition title of Richard Robinsons’ classic college textbook The Buddhist Religion to read The Buddhist Religions.) Gil pointed out that the Buddha was a rational man who emphasized direct personal experience over rites, rituals, and supernatural theories about rebirth. The sutta teachings are more secular than religious.
For the most part, Buddhism has been disseminated in the West by white, American males who have been wealthy Democrats. In the early 1970s at Insight Meditation Center, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Sharon Salzberg favored a lay Buddhist secular approach with few rituals and little mention of rebirth. Exiled Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh has promoted a pragmatic form of “Engaged Buddhism,” and Tai Tsu in Taiwan founded a modern movement called Chinese Humanistic Buddhism, which focuses on lay teaching, service work, and rational discourse about suttas.
Referring to the “Upper Middle Way,” Gil listed some conditions that lead to a secularized form of Buddhism in western culture: enough affluence to devote time to practice, sufficient education for in-depth studies, and individualism, which makes it challenging for westerners to live harmoniously in monastic communities.
Gil stated that western culture has neither appropriated nor disrespected Eastern forms of Buddhism, and that historically Buddhist practitioners have shifted between the secular and religious poles. Traditional, religious monastics keep the Dharma tradition alive through times of secularization. To characterize the bulk of current western Dharma teaching, Gil has updated Stephen Batchelor’s term “Secular Buddhism,” to “Natural Buddhism.”
Gil proposed that mindfulness and deep inquiry help Buddhist practitioners face shadow material of anger, complacency, and resistance to renunciation. Regarding wise priorities, he asked, “Do we fit life into our practice or fit practice into our life?” In One Dharma, Joseph Goldstein reminds us that radical non-clinging is a common goal for all Buddhists. Gil added that a wise, healthy acceptance of reality does not mean to condone injustice or causing unnecessary suffering.
The InterSangha conference ended with a panel discussion of the topic “Dharma in the Age of Trump.” Panelists [Mary Stancavage from Against the Stream, Nisha Shah from Spirit Rock, Stacy McClendon from Common Ground, and Melissa Crosby from East Bay Insight] discussed our call to turn towards suffering without withdrawing into Buddhist passivity or spiritual bypassing. (“I’ll go on a 4-year retreat until Trump is out of office!”) As a nation of Hungry Ghosts, we deal with constant Internet input and agitation without nourishment. Self-care is essential.
The panelists reminded us that injustice, bigotry, and hate language did not start with Trump. We must wake up to our own inner ignorance, hatred and fear. Dharma practitioners can infuse wise speech and action with wisdom and compassion. Wise speech means speaking up even when it is difficult. Each of us can start where we are, sensing the support of the precepts. We know that generosity, love and clear intention transcend greed, hatred and delusion. We can get educated about what actions are feasible, letting go of results, and doing what is possible to promote the health and welfare of all beings. We can notice if anyone in our sangha seems invisible or targeted by intolerant policies. As Joanna Macy says, “To change systems, we must change ourselves.”