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A Broader Church

by Gil Fronsdal
Interview from Dharma Life – Winter 2001

Gil Fronsdal is an innovative teacher in the insight meditation movement. Vishvapani met him in Palo Alto, California, where students are forming a network of friendship around him.

Dharma Life: How did you come to Vipassana?
Gil Fronsdal: I took up Zen practice in the early 70s. I was ordained as a Zen priest at the San Francisco Zen Center, and spent some years at Tassajara Monastery, even receiving ‘Dharma transmission’. I visited Japan for a year, and when I needed a new visa I went to Bangkok. I asked the nearest meditation monastery to teach me. It was a Vipassana monastery and I just joined in. It took to weeks to get my visa, so my first Vipassana retreat was to weeks long – which was enough to catch my attention. I touched a stillness and silence inside me at a depth I had never accessed in Zen, and I felt an almost biological urge to touch it again. Later I returned to South-east Asia, and spent about a year and a half doing intensive meditation.

DL: What did you value in Vipassana that you hadn’t found in Zen?
GF: Firstly I appreciated being on a long retreat. The longest Zen retreat was seven days, so the concentration I built up was much stronger. I also found it valuable to apply mindfulness to the full range of my experience. In Zen I discovered ‘presence’ but I hadn’t learnt to bring that to bear on my emotional life. My Zen teachers never talked about how to work with anger, for example. In Vipassana everything is included and I needed that to develop concentration. I did an eight-month retreat in Burma, basically in silence.
But then I wanted to work with western teachers who spoke English, so I returned to the US, and visited the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. I met Jack Kornfield, and in 1989 I joined his four-year teacher-training programme. Since Jack started that course in 1985 there have been four intakes. which have produced new generations of teachers, and I am one of those.

DL: How did you come to establish the Palo Alto community?
GF: When I was training with Jack, one of the ‘homework assignments’ was to lead a small sitting group. At the same time I started a doctorate at Stanford University and I was invited to teach the Palo Alto sitting group. Every Monday I gave a talk, and slowly the group grew. After two years it moved to a bigger room, and it quickly expanded. We split up and had a second group for newer people on Thursday evenings, and then a third group on Sunday mornings. Now there are several hundred people involved.

I offer one-day sittings most months, weekend retreats, and to or 12-day retreats. Periodically I offer introductory courses. We have just bought our own building, an old church which we have renamed the Palo Alto Insight Meditation Center, and that is transforming our community. So what started as my homework when training as a retreat teacher has become my main focus. I meet people individually for interviews, but my guideline is that outside of a retreat setting 1 don’t see people individually more than once a month. More often and it becomes something like therapy. which could breed a dependency that doesn’t seem right for a Dharma teacher.

DL: Why haven’t you followed the more typical route for Insight Meditation teachers of becoming a retreat teacher?
GF: My training at Zen Center meant that I appreciated the importance of a teacher’s being rooted in a community so that connections could build with people at many different levels of their lives. It is also important for the community to be connected to a teacher and to each other. I wanted to foster a sense of shared responsibility. Spiritual life is not just personal, it also grows in the responsibility you take for the life around you.
Whenever there is a task to be done I offer people the opportunity to volunteer. Last year we counted 5o volunteers. Many activities have developed from within the group. A discussion group meets once a week, there is a yoga class, pot-lucks and picnics, Buddhist bowling nights, game nights, and people meeting to see a movie. A strong sense of community is growing through these activities.

DL: What significance does this community have for the Insight Meditation Movement more broadly?
GF: In the early years of the movement the focus was almost exclusively on retreats. The people who had been in Asia were young and had little experience of community. They were inspired to teach the depth of practice that happens on long, intensive, silent retreats. There was a growing demand so they travelled around the country, established IMS, and so on. Some of these teachers were individualistic, solitary types, and not interested in community. But there were problems. Some people would get concentrated and happy on retreat, but when they left they would fall apart and crave going back on retreat where they could gel it all together again. This was not healthy. Since the mid-1980s, the new teachers have been leaching people in local settings and talking about practice in daily life. But the Insight Meditation Movement still has a strong individualistic streak, and many teachers have that, too. They like their independence, and travelling around leading retreats keeps that nicely. Even at Spirit Rock la retreat centre in northern California) – where Sangha is at least talked about – there is little opportunity to get to know others. The teachers are usually not available other than on retreats. But if you just see people on retreat you see only a narrow aspect of them. And if Dharma is supposed to meet people fully it helps if the community can witness the whole of that life. Dharma is much more than personal change.

So we are pioneering here in Palo Alto, and similar things are happening in other cities. I don’t know what we are evolving into. I am averse to using the term ‘church’, but realistically we are fulfilling many of the functions that churches once did. There is a wide range of involvement, from people who just show up once to people who are giving up their jobs, thinking how to live simply and cheaply. Some go to Asia to practice, go on retreats in America, live a much more intense Dharma life.

DL: Do present-day students still need to travel to Asia to supplement what they learn in the US?
GF: Students starting to practice nowadays don’t need to go to Asia, but there is still great value in doing so – when they are ready. I have seen quite a few Dharma disasters when people have visited Asian Buddhist teachers prematurely. For example, Burmese family structure is patriarchal, and this was how the monastery I stayed in was organized. The Abbot was the father, he told you what to do, and the expectation was that if he said it you did it. If the Abbot told Burmese students: ‘follow your breath’, they just followed it. But with Americans issues came up – about performance, expectation, and recognition – related to difficulties with their own fathers. The Asian teachers didn’t have a clue what was going on. Western teachers understand what students have to wrestle with because they’ve had to face such issues themselves.

DL: Are your efforts to develop a community in Palo Alto reflected in the rest of the Insight Meditation Movement?
GF: At Spirit Rock we have a teachers’ collective, but there is no single leader. We make decisions as a group, meet four times a year, and sometimes go on retreat together. We emphasize group process, give each other feedback, and this group is becoming a strong community of close friends. That offers a model for the wider community of students.

Slowly the importance of community is emerging. But our interest in community is different from the monastic emphasis. You could say it is community without the renunciation.

DL: That seems a particular issue here in Silicon Valley, which is an affluent area. How do people square the Buddhist emphasis on simplicity and renunciation with such wealth?

GF: Recently when I gave a talk about contentment, someone told me, “That message is not going to be popular in corporate America”. The contented employee is not going to compete for the company, and the contented consumer won’t buy the goods. SO what we are doing is somewhat subversive. It goes against materialistic values, particularly the 60-80 hour working weeks people put in.
When people ask me individually, if it seems appropriate I advise them, “If you can afford it and it makes sense, maybe you can work part-time.” Some people have taken early retirement to focus on Dharma practice. But I don’t make a big deal of that subversiveness. I try to make the teaching available to anyone who wants to come, and sometimes what we offer is definitely “Buddhism-lite.” I don’t force values on people, but sometimes commitment to Dharma practice develops spontaneously.

DL: The Insight Meditation Movement has grown from the monastically-based traditions of South-East Asia. Why has it developed into a secular and lay-oriented community?
GF: Some of the main early teachers studied in India, and they didn’t fully enter the monastic world because they were able to practice intensively as lay people. ‘These early teachers had a deep but narrow approach to Buddhism. They wanted to go for Enlightenment and threw themselves into a narrow, deep retreat experience. Then they came back to America as lay people to offer that to others. Those who returned as monastics felt their monasticism got in the way and that they would be more effective teachers if they disrobed. Renunciation doesn’t sit naturally with American culture. We want to have it all. The rationale for living a celibate life wasn’t convincing and people felt that sexual relationships, rather than a distraction, could be a practice in themselves.

DL: How has the lay character of Californian Buddhism been affected by the arrival of western Theravadin monks?
GF: The connection is growing quickly. Among the teachers at Spirit Rock there is great interest in establishing strong relationships with the monks. A number of the teachers spent time as monastics, and want to support people still doing that. It also offers an example of full commitment to the Dharma, which inspires many of us. And the monks bring a little more of the devotional aspect, which leavens the ‘Protestant Buddhism’ we have had until now.

Ajahn Amaro was on the Board of Directors of Spirit Rock for a number of years, and he is also in the Teachers’ Council. His openness has drawn people from afar to practice with him in his monastery in Northern California; and he has been invited to lead retreats at Spirit Rock. As teachers express appreciation and respect for the monastics, it affects the students and some students have oriented themselves more to the monastic community because they are inspired by their example.

DL: The Insight Meditation Movement has offered its teaching in a secular context. Is it continuing to move away from its Buddhist roots, or is it returning to them?
GF: The Insight Meditation Movement brought to the US a particular practice of Vipassana meditation and shed much of the wider religious life that had been its context in Asia. Now people realize that a meditation practice is not enough; you need a context. So we are rediscovering elements of Theravadin tradition that were left behind. I don’t expect the major centers to drift further away from Buddhism -just the reverse. But some groups run by newer teachers may not be influenced by these trends, and might well move away from Buddhism altogether.

The Buddhism we are discovering is not just Theravada, though. For instance, there has been a big Tibetan influence, and most American Vipassana teachers feel a deep, heartfelt response to the Bodhisattva vows of Mahayana Buddhism (making a commitment to compassion]. Every two years I do a Refuge Ceremony [making a commitment to the Buddhist path] for community members. We do a course of study together, then meet on a full-moon evening, usually outdoors, and I lead a ritual of going for Refuge to the Three Jewels. It has proved important for people to have a concrete expression for their commitment.

With our own building we can increase the ritualistic elements. But we are careful that these events don’t impinge on our regular schedule because many people are turned off by them. I think elements of devotion and ritual will be necessary in the Insight Meditation Movement more broadly, and this is happening in small ways in many places. Things are coming full-circle. You could say we are reinventing the wheel.