Gil Fronsdal on Immanent and Naturalistic Buddhism

Gil Fronsdal is the author of The Issue at Hand: Essays in Mindfulness Practice and translator of The Book of Eights and The Dhammapada. He has trained in both the Zen and Theravada traditions and is the primary Buddhist teacher at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, CA. Following his newly-published essay in Richard K. Payne’s Secularizing Buddhism, Gil spoke with Vanessa at the The Dewdrop about what naturalism, religion and Buddhism in the West mean to him.

Gil Fronsdal

Vanessa Able: What is the difference between naturalistic and secular Buddhism?

Gil Fronsdal: I associate the word ‘secular’ as standing in opposition to religious or sacred. I have this very deep connection to Buddhism, in my heart, that I could say is an emotional connection that touches some of the deepest existential ways of being in the world that I understand. I feel like my connection to Buddhism is religious, and I wanted to come up with another term that would capture that better for me than ‘secular’. So, I thought o­f ‘naturalistic.’ My connection to Buddhism is not rooted in or dependent in any kind of way on what I would call the supernatural. I tend to avoid that part when I teach since I don’t find it really relevant.

VA: What do you mean by religious? What does that mean to you?

GF: I think it’s something that has a root in a place of deep emotionality. There is a sense of purity to it, or a sense of cleanness to it, a sense of freedom to it. And it’s an existential way of being in the world that’s coterminous with the world. This feeling that I have feels sacred and special because it is so existentially complete – it’s what provides meaning, purpose and value. I think of religious as something which addresses all the large and essential questions of a person’s life. It’s something that applies to the totality of a life, not just a compartment. This is the way of being in the world and conducting myself in the world that is rooted in something so special, so deep, with so much totality to it, I don’t know of any other expression to use but ‘religious’.

VA: Can you say something about your personal arc or your journey, and how you’ve come to arrive to this affinity with the idea of a naturalistic Buddhism?

GF: The thing first thing comes to mind is spending a lot of time on the water as a child in my hometown (in Norway). I remember waking up quietly one morning, and the surface of the water was completely still and quiet with the mountains around. I was feeling this sense of peace and expansiveness and fullness. Nothing else was needed. And there was no sense of the supernatural in this, though it felt sacred. Like being in church.

VA: There was no need of anything being other than what it was?

GF: Yes. And my place in that. I would have this feeling that I was insignificant, but not in a way that made me feel small or unimportant or something. Instead, it made me feel like, ‘I’m part of this. I’m nothing but I’m part of this. I’d feel okay to die like this.’

VA: What a starting point! To a lot of people that would sound like an endpoint.

GF: Well, in retrospect, I realize that. It’s a reference point. I think it’s why, when I discovered Buddhism, I took to it quite easily. I had a lot of challenges: with my psychology, my emotions, and all kinds of things. But there was something that tapped into that very quickly with the meditation and Buddhist practice. I was pulled into that world, and I wanted my whole life to be integrated into this very different way of being.

VA: Bhikkhu Bodhi’s essay in the Secularizing Buddhism collection names three approaches to Buddhism in the West: traditional, secular and immanent. He names you personally as being representative of the immanent approach. What’s your response to that?

GF: Well, after these, this book came out, I discovered that Bikhu Bodhi, had written a similar article in late 1980s. There he used the term, ‘naturalistic’. If he wants to call me an immanent Buddhist, that’s okay with me. But I think that it comes with associations for him, that I don’t associate with. Some of his critique of what he calls immanent Buddhism is a valid critique of forms of American Buddhism. The idea that some of it is self-serving is probably accurate. And I doubt whether that’s­­ inherent in immanent Buddhism. It’s human nature to be self-serving.

VA: He is promoting a more socially active style of Buddhism?

GF: I was invited to interview him recently for the book launch for a podcast series. I worked hard not to make any waves between us. We went down the road of socially engaged Buddhism and found we had a lot of commonality there. He was happy to talk about it and I think people were inspired by the interview. There was no sense of a conflict between immanent Buddhism and traditional, classical Buddhist groups, because I wasn’t interested in that conversation.

VA: Which parts of the critique of immanent Buddhism are valid?

GF: An example would be teachings in the West about acceptance. Many people teaching acceptance, and most of their audience, tend to be privileged people. It leads to too much acceptance of things that shouldn’t be accepted, including psychological attachments that people have. Teachers will say, ‘accept yourself, accept yourself for being as you are.’ If you’re angry all the time, you have to accept that you’re angry, and that’s the practice – accept you’re angry. What they don’t appreciate is that if you’re angry in a hostile way, that itself represents a non-acceptance of something. Accepting anger leaves a person angry, not really transformed or changed. So sometimes the acceptance practice seems to be catering to a kind of self-indulgence and self-preservation; self-comfort.

There’s a very wounded side of self in this culture. Even among privileged people there’s a lot of self-criticism; there’s a whole industry of self-help books that have to do with an inner critic, and all these people who feel so unsafe and who are demanding safety. There is a way of over-caring for people who are stuck in a certain mindset: rather than pulling the rug out from under them, we put bandages around them and prop them up. The self-esteem movement has turned out to be a disaster. Because people don’t have enough self-esteem, they feel they have to build up self-esteem, and this creates people who are more fragile and who feel they are deserving of being treated in certain ways. So in some Western Dharma teaching, the rhetoric seems to be supporting the existence of an unhealthy sense of self.

I suspect for Bikkhu Bodhi, he doesn’t want to see the ultimate goal of Buddhism be lost: the radical, transformative potential of Nibbana and enlightenment experience gets pushed aside too easily in some Western Buddhist circles. And then, people have no sense that that’s a possibility, no sense that you should work towards that. Because the practice is more about just accepting things as they are and dwelling mindfully in the present moment. That’s the goal. It’s a beautiful goal, one that I champion, but if that’s the only goal, then the ultimate goal is put aside. And if the ultimate goal is the only point, then there’s a lopsidedness there also.

VA: What is Nibbana?

GF: Bikkhu Bodhi has a very strong orientation towards a transcendental state, an ultimate reality that transcends the ordinary reality. And then there is the idea of Nibbana as radical absence. It’s simply the radical absence of greed, hate and delusion. It’s not a transcendental state, not a transcendental place of consciousness. I’m in that school.

I was going to define the word immanent in my own language, I would say that immanence is Buddhism whose ultimate goal is available here. It’s not someplace else. It’s not a place. It’s not a transcendental state. It’s not in the future. It’s not after death. It can be attained here. And it’s not supernatural. Another term I use that people might cringe at is psychology. That word seems limited, like it’s just therapy, but what I call psychology is the operation of the mind. There’s a shift and transformation in that operation that results from radical absence.

VA: It seems very simple. What I understand you saying is, as a teacher, this is all you need to teach with. As a practitioner, it’s all you need to practice with. There’s a whole world of Buddhist culture and history and philosophy that could be entered into. But where you are, and where you teach, these are the tools you choose. And there is an element of selection there.

GF: Always.

VA: But it works for you.

GF: That’s always going to be the case, right? Every teacher down through the centuries has done this to some degree. One of the critiques that I’ve heard for this kind of immanent Buddhism is that it doesn’t give enough motivation to practice all the way. And that only if you believe in rebirth, can you be motivated to really get off the wheel, and that if you’re going to die, and that’s the end, why even practice?

VA: So what’s your motivation?

GF: I’d be very happy to be reborn. That would be great! I’m so curious to see where all this is going. (laughs) I do believe that the motivation to practice and to go as far as we can exists within us. And even if I was, if I was going to die tomorrow, I wouldn’t just go watch Netflix. If I knew I was going to die tomorrow, I would go meditate. I would just throw myself into practice. I can’t think of a better way of spending my last 24 hours.

Gil’s essay on Naturalistic Buddhism appears in a new collections of works exploring perspectives on modern Buddhism compiled by Richard K. Payne called Secularizing Buddhism.

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