We sent the following seven questions to six vipassana meditation teachers. (Ruth Denison’s schedule prevented her from taking part in the forum.) Each question will be followed by the answers of the five teachers, arranged for the sake of variety and readability.
What is the ultimate purpose of meditation? Do you agree with the traditional Theravada view that life is suffering? In your teaching do you emphasize the use of meditation as a means to enhance life, or primarily as a way to free beings from the cycle of rebirth? Please elaborate.
JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN: The ultimate purpose of meditation is expressed with great clarity in the Third Noble Truth of the Buddha’s teaching—coming to the end of suffering. We accomplish this in two ways: first, by purifying the mind of those qualities which cause suffering, such as greed and hatred, and second, by opening to the reality of the unconditioned. It is a mistake to separate that aspect of practice which enhances the quality of our lives from that which leads to freedom from the cycle of rebirth. What is a true enhancement of our lives is the growing depth of our awareness, insight, love and compassion. And it is just these qualities that prepare the ground for the fundamental and radical transformation of understanding that occurs when we realize nibbana, the unborn, which has the power to free beings from the samsaric rounds of rebirth.
What interests me about the question of whether life is suffering is the investigation of what it is that we call “life.” Here, a great care is needed because we can easily be caught in a net of views, sentiments and attachments to an abstraction or concept of life, and miss the deep reality of direct experience. When our attention is refined in meditation, we become aware of the incessantly changing quantum nature of all phenomena. This momentary arising and dissolution becomes a matter of direct personal experience, and it is on this level that we can begin to appreciate the truth of suffering (not that our lives are necessarily unpleasant or painful, although at times, and for many people, that may also be true), but in the experience of empty phenomena endlessly arising and passing, arising and passing, arising and passing, arising and passing, arising and passing, arising and passing, arising and passing, arising and passing.
The Buddha’s great discovery, and what we can all discover for ourselves, is the reality of that highest peace beyond the process of conditioned momentary experience.
JACK KORNFIELD: The ultimate purpose of meditation is nothing less than complete human freedom, freedom of mind, freedom of heart and freedom in action. This freedom does not mean simply that we can do anything that we want—it is a much deeper freedom. It is the end of grasping and identification with the whole sense of self.
Of course there is suffering in life . . . yet there is happiness too! But I don’t teach meditation to end the rounds of birth and death (nor to continue them), nor do I say that all existence is terrible suffering. Emphasizing this traditional view often leads people to aversion to the world and just increases their suffering. I am not interested in future lives but in freedom NOW, what the Buddha called the “sure heart’s release.” So I try to teach people to be aware of whatever aspect of life is actually in front of them and to learn to do so without getting caught by fear, aversion, desire or identification. I try to foster the freedom which comes from a deep realization of selflessness, and give equal attention to the whole process of learning to manifest this freedom in our body, our world, our relationships—to truly open the barriers of our heart.
CHRISTOPHER TITMUSS: Meditation has no ultimate purpose. The “meditator” may ascribe a purpose to meditation but meditation requires neither affirmation nor reason for its presence in life. The understanding of life as suffering is just one particular perception of the Theravada tradition. I do not use meditation to enhance life or to free beings from the cycle of rebirth. Meditation is seeing clearly—if in seeing, life is enhanced and the rebirth of unsatisfactoriness and suffering ceases, then, c’ est la vie.
SHARON SALZBERG: I see using meditation to enhance life and to free beings from the cycle of rebirth as being the same; it is, after all, the same process of seeing clearly, developing an integrated sense of morality and cultivating patience, strength and wisdom. I feel it is both my responsibility and my passion as a teacher to speak of ending the cycle of rebirth, since that is certainly the essential compound of the teachings of the Buddha. I fear if this aspect of the teaching is set aside by this generation of teachers in their transmission of the dharma to the West, then this essence may get lost altogether. These ideas are not familiar to our culture and way of thinking and, therefore, demand a powerful stretch of our assumptions about the solidity, protectedness and ultimate reality of conditional existence, or life as we conventionally know it.
With respect to the Theravada view that life is suffering, this is probably a mistranslation of the word dukkha, which is actually meant to impart a dreamlike, empty, unreliable quality. I do believe that impermanence, unreliability and emptiness characterize conditioned reality. Since the Four Noble Truths are held in common by all schools of Buddhism, dukkha is not a strictly Theravada teaching; rather unsatisfactoriness, and the possibility of “the sure heart’s release” from unsatisfactoriness, is a basic tenet of the Buddha’s teachings.
CHRISTINA FELDMAN: The essence of meditation is the end of suffering, is freedom. The world we live in holds suffering and conflict, but it also holds joy and harmony. The suffering of exploitation, violence, greed, anger and oppression that we see in our world are but expressions and reflections of individual suffering. It is our world. Freeing ourselves of suffering through understanding its causes inwardly empowers us to contribute to the end of suffering in the world. Our challenge in meditation is to learn, when closing our eyes, how to open our hearts and concern ourselves with the end of all suffering.
What do you teach about enlightenment? Have you ever had an enlightenment experience and if so, how has it affected you?
SHARON SALZBERG: I teach that enlightenment experiences exist; moments of powerful illumination about the way things are, after which, even if that vision is not always strong, it remains undeniable. I believe that it is possible for people to glimpse the unconditioned—that it is not only something that happened 2,500 years ago or for those who sit in caves in the Himalayas for twenty years.
Without trying to define particular experiences as one thing or another, I can say that I have had experiences in my practice which have made me feel like Alice going through the looking glass—as though I’ve seen the reality of my life from a particular perspective and then as though I were seeing it from an entirely different perspective, as though I were inside the mirror looking out. While these experiences have not eradicated all my personal difficulties or made me a perfect person, they seem to have unalterably affected the basic context out of which I live my life, act on my values and make choices.
CHRISTOPHER TITMUSS: What can “I” tell others about enlightenment? “I” have been fortunate enough not to label anything an enlightenment experience. “I” never will. Supposing “I” do, what difference will it make? Be free, free, free—rather than judging the countless varieties of short-lived experiences.
JACK KORNFIELD: Many Buddhist traditions teach about several stages of “enlightenment” which bring progressively greater freedom. If you ask, Have I ever experienced the first stream entry or had a cessation experience?, yes, it seems so. But actually this doesn’t happen to anybody because it is the profound absence of self. To touch “nirvana,” the unconditioned, in this way is not so uncommon. Most of the vipassana teachers in the West and a number of Western students have all had this experience. Some of them were changed in radical ways; their whole sense of life and reality was transformed. Others had very little effect from it. I am somewhere in the middle—it has brought greater detachment and a deep sense of no self, but many other things remained unchanged. Even those who had the most powerful experiences may be primarily touched by a new understanding. But their fears, neuroses, aggression and difficulty in the world with decisions, power, relationships and intimacy are still just as bad as ever—until consciousness is brought to these areas too. That’s why there is danger in making too big a deal about any experience in meditation. My ideal is to foster an integrated sense of practice—to lead students to the deepest meditation experiences and to continue to work to integrate and manifest this realization in all areas of their life. Not only in cessation is nirvana found, but here, in form, too, when the mind and heart are in perfect harmony.
CHRISTINA FELDMAN: Awakening to truth, reality, oneness, wholeness is the heart of spirituality. I do not feel this is an insight we gain or a state we achieve, nor do I feel that we become free or experience enlightenment. In the grace and silence of meditation we are touched by truth, it is an inner revelation, an inner awakening that transforms our vision of life and ourselves totally. In awakening to reality we can only wonder how we ever could have mistaken separation for reality. It is like awakening from a dream and there is no return to the trance of sleep.
JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN: What is called enlightenment is the experience of the unconditioned, the opening to that reality which is beyond the mind-body process. This moment has the power to uproot certain unwholesome qualities of mind, and so, not only do we experience the possibility of the highest peace, but also, a direction is set in our manifestation in the world. It is as if we are now in the gravitational field of the dharma and slowly it becomes integrated in all the aspects of our lives.
Questions may arise which cause doubt or skepticism about the value of this experience. Although for some people there is a dramatic moment of awakening, for others there may be a momentary glimpse of the unconditional reality without necessarily an understanding of its full significance. But even though it may be a slow and gradual germination, the seed of deep wisdom has been planted.
One difficulty which can arise is that people may become attached to a particular experience and thereby hinder the further development of their understanding. It is helpful to note that in the Buddha’s teaching one is a “learner” until there is the complete purification of mind. And so, even after the first momentary glimpse of nibbana, very much still remains to be done. Sometimes, either for ourselves or others, the presence of remaining defilements, hindrances or difficulties may cause a questioning of this enlightenment experience: “If someone is so enlightened why are they still behaving unskillfully?” Until the journey is completed, there will be many ups and downs, through an array of different mind states, emotions and actions. However, a fundamental direction has been set, and it becomes the basis of an unwavering faith and commitment to the path of awakening.
With regard to my own experience, I think that it is more skillful to express the dharma as I experience and understand it, rather than to announce any particular levels of realization. What I value is not an idea or concept of enlightenment, but rather to embody, as best I can, the clear and compassionate teaching of the Buddha.
What is your belief about the traditional Theravada teaching regarding karma, rein- carnation, and the heaven and hell realms?
CHRISTINA FELDMAN: I do not find it helpful to relate to karma, reincarnation, heaven and hell realms as being futuristic states or destinies. In our lives, on a moment-to-moment level, we experience that our causes have effects, that any stone dropped in a pool leaves ripples, that we influence the quality of our lives and our world on a moment-to-moment basis by the quality of our inner being. We find ourselves caught in an endless process of becoming this or that each time we are ensnared by clinging and identification. By this process we enter heaven and hell. The future is an extension of the present, the present of the past. Transformation and the cessation of these processes can only take place in this moment, through clarity and understanding. Why concern ourselves with the future when we have access to transformation now?
JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN: The teachings of karma, rebirth and different realms of existence are found in all the major traditions of Buddhism, and as far as anything can be ascribed historically, these seem to be genuine aspects of what the Buddha taught. Because these ideas are not part of our own cultural background, we might be tempted to dismiss them as being simply a cultural expression of the Buddha’s time. I believe this viewpoint diminishes greatly the range and depth of our dharma understanding.
It is not necessary that we accept uncritically these teachings of karma and rebirth if they remain outside of our experience or intuitive sense. On the other hand, we should not automatically disbelieve simply because they don’t fit within our conventional levels of understanding.
As meditation deepens, we begin to experience many aspects of the law of karma, of how our actions not only condition the present moment, but how they also contain the seeds of future results. These insights give us a more far reaching context for understanding the urgency and value of our own practice and foster the growth of compassion for the suffering of others.
CHRISTOPHER TITMUSS: Insight meditation is the jewel in the lotus of the Theravadan tradition. The rest is mostly religious entertainment.
Karma is the influence of the past in the present. Both insight meditation and intelligent Western therapies are effective tools for understanding these influences.
Reincarnation is a Hindu concept referring to a soul entity traveling in time from one sentient existence to another. Sentient life is comparable to countless waves on the ocean. The shape and size of the wave is influenced by underlying forces. The wave doesn’t have an independent self-existence nor a soul. See the appearance of the wave, its apparent relationship to the ocean and the primary nature of the wave and the ocean.
Heaven and hell is on earth, in the mind, and let us not be too quick to dismiss heavens and hells in other worlds, in other realms.
JACK KORNFIELD: Genuine practice focuses on truth which can be verified. Karma is immediate and our awareness allows us to observe how it works: What we do and think creates how the future will be for us. As Ruth Denison says, “We don’t get away with nothing.” As for heavens and hells and rebirth? When I was a practicing monk I never believed any of this—I was really a skeptic. Yet my practice worked very well anyway. That is because the truth of birth and death can be seen right here. Each moment we die and are reborn anew. Each moment creates the conditions for the next birth. Now, after years of practice and many powerful visions and experiences I believe in almost everything. I’ve seen that the mind can create anything. But this is still belief. Actually, heaven is here when the heart is contented—hell appears when we’re filled with hatred. We’ve got enough to do working with what’s in front of us. Why not stick to that?
SHARON SALZBERG: I don’t have any certain way of knowing, but my intuition tells me that the law of karma is true, and I recommend living as though it is true just in case. Recognizing that there is a relationship between our actions and consequences encourages us to pay more attention to the quality of our commitments and what we do with our bodies, speech and minds. This seems to be, in any event, a good way to live—committed to care and compassion, and being as conscious as possible, not merely lost in the circularity of life.
What is your attitude toward other schools of Buddhism or other styles of meditation practice? Is there a “Right View” or “Wrong View”? Please elaborate.
JACK KORNFIELD: I love all the schools of Buddhism. I studied with an enlightened master of Advaita Vedanta and I read delightedly of Sufism and the great Christian mystics. It’s clear that the wisest teachers in all these traditions teach of enlightenment and the unconditioned. There is one dharma and many vehicles. Wrong View is to confuse the raft with the destination. In its deepest sense, Right View has nothing to do with Buddhism or sect or technique of practice. Right View is the understanding that spiritual life is not a running away from the world, for it sees that here within our fathom-long body and mind is found suffering and its cause, is found ignorance and also the highest happiness. It is through the power of awareness (also expressed as surrender and non-doing and opening and self-remembering) of the body, heart and mind, that timeless and universal freedom can be found.
As for all the vehicles: “Greater vehicle, lesser vehicle, all vehicles will be towed at owner’s expense.”
JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN: Right Understanding is the very first step in the Noble Eightfold Path. One of the ways the great compassion of the Buddha manifested was in his care and concern to establish people in the right path of practice. Repeatedly, he urged people to consider the law of karma and to act in a way that would bring them happiness. Right understanding also includes the awareness of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and insubstantiality of conditioned phenomena. When this understanding develops out of our own practice and experience, it has the power to weaken grasping and attachment in the mind, and so becomes the source of a growing freedom.
There are paths which lead to happiness and those which lead to more suffering. Right View is the wisdom which can discriminate between the two. This wisdom is not the possession of any one tradition or technique. It is born from a careful and focused attention on what is fundamentally true in our experience.
CHRISTINA FELDMAN: I do not feel that any style of practice is suitable for all people at all times. We are privileged in having a variety of meditation styles available to us and in being able to draw upon their richness and inspiration. Exploring different styles of practice without prejudice and scatteredness can help dispel notions of there being an “only” way, a view which creates so much division and intolerance. A wrong view of practice, to me, is one which fosters clinging, conformity and a lack of inner trust. A right view of practice is one which encourages and supports individuals to look within themselves for understanding, to nurture their own resources of energy, trust and wisdom, and develop spiritual vision that addresses the reality and totality of who they are as people.
SHARON SALZBERG: I think there is a Right view and Wrong view; the Eightfold Path begins with the idea of Right Understanding and describes a comprehensive path (although not a particular technique) to freedom. I don’t consider it wise action to comment on the validity and depth of other schools of Buddhism or other styles of practice since I haven’t immersed myself in any of them and could only offer a superficial assessment at best. In addition, I think a comparative viewpoint seeking to validate one’s own style of practice by comparing it to others is a weak stance because the dharma can speak for itself. I would be, in my sense of things, fulfilling my responsibility by carefully reflecting and offering this tradition of meditation practice, not by trying to figure out, from the outside, what is going on in other systems.
CHRISTOPHER TITMUSS: Any school or practice which leads to the ending of eating of animals, to the expression of ethical action, clarity, insight, to depth of meditation, an unstoppable friendship toward all life and freedom deserves wholehearted support.
Any school or practice which leads to freedom from clinging to concepts, “self,” teachers, techniques, experiences and tradition is worthy of wholehearted support.
Do you include political action or social service issues as part of your teaching? Why or why not?
CHRISTOPHER TITMUSS: The world is in crisis. How can an awakened mind ignore this brutal fact? Compassion is not a feeling, but is direct, skillful action. Compassionate politics is the politics of protest.
The Buddha protested against caste, privileges, greed, profiteering, injustice and the exploitation of animals. He also frequently told kings, priests and the powerful about their responsibilities. So how can this poor dharma devotee ignore such an example?
The responsibility of dharma teachers is to stimulate a comprehensive view of life, while meditation teachers can concentrate on an aspect of life, albeit an important one.
SHARON SALZBERG: I don’t generally include these ideas as issues, but try to emphasize a sense of connectedness with all of life, not harming, generosity, service and lovingkindness. I hesitate to put forth a particular opinion on an issue as the dharmic one, since students may well have differing ideas and I do not believe a sense of coercion is helpful. In addition, as a student of history, I have been impressed by ebbs and flows and tides of change in the longerterm perspective on things—changing power groups, oppressors and oppressed switching roles, etc. Many ideas and actions do not stand the test of time. I regard the dharma as timeless, and alliance with its principles more fundamentally helpful to this planet than anything else.
CHRISTINA FELDMAN: In my teaching I stress that we need to be not just spiritually awake, but also awake in every area of our lives—socially, politically and in our relationships. I do not perceive spirituality as being a withdrawal from the world or a negation of the world, although this does not deny that most people find themselves benefiting from extended periods of formal retreat practice. Generosity, love and compassion are innate characteristics of inward awakening, and these qualities impel us to caring and sensitive action to alleviate suffering. Our world cries out for this action and is enriched by it, just as we are.
JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN: What is most important to me in presenting the teachings is to provide a framework for an experiential understanding of the dharma. An integral part of this journey of understanding is the awareness of the interconnectedness of all the elements of experience. What we do has an effect, not only on our own unfolding process but on other people and the world around us. And the more we open to deeper levels of practice, the greater is our appreciation of the oneness and commonality of experience. Although we may be conditioned very differently from one another according to our particular circumstances, the fundamental nature of our minds, hearts and bodies are all the same. When we see this, there arises a growing sense of responsibility for our lives and actions.
The question then arises as to how this understanding and sense of responsibility will manifest in the world. For some it may be involvement in direct political or social action. For others, it may be in artistic creativity, or in science, as an exploration of a deeper reality. It may manifest as going off to a cave in the Himalayas, or as caring for one’s family with greater sensitivity. There are many possibilities, and I don’t believe there is a hierarchy of value in these various expressions. So for me, the emphasis in teaching is on developing the underlying wisdom and compassion which encourages each person to express for themselves their deepest understanding of dharma in the way that is uniquely their own.
JACK KORNFIELD: Much of the world’s suffering is due to greed and prejudice and hatred in the human heart, but we cannot afford to ignore the world while we purify our heart. The truth is we do not exist separately. The insects in the Amazon jungle pollinate plants which create oxygen that we depend on to breathe. The whole sense of separate existence is false. When we understand this we “see that we are nothing, and being nothing we are everything.”
In the Theravada tradition people are taught to transcend the body and emotions. In your teaching, how do you work with the body, emotions and sexuality? Do you make any use of Western psychological techniques? Is sitting sufficient to achieve liberation for Westerners?
JACK KORNFIELD: A wise Zen student once said, “If you really want to know about a Zen master, talk to his wife.” By now it is obvious that for most Westerners even the deepest realizations in sitting are only a part of practice. Feelings, the body, relationships and sexuality have to be made conscious too. The Theravada teachings of mindfulness have been carefully preserved for us, but by old men in Asian monasteries in a culture which suppresses feelings and with a celibate life which dismisses and denigrates the body. We can receive these teachings with gratitude but we must apply all the foundations of mindfulness to what is here in our Western life, to body, speech, heart and mind. It is especially essential to learn to work with emotions in practice. There is great danger when practice continually suppresses emotions or is used to escape them. It’s when the mind gets split off from the heart and body that we create wars, devastate the environment and wreak havoc in our personal lives. I try to bring the strengths of Western therapy to this teaching. And I recommend that many students use therapy as a part of becoming more conscious.
Almost all the main American vipassana teachers are now (or recently have been) in therapy. There are whole big areas of attachment and fears where classical meditation has often not been so effective, areas dealing with difficult issues like grieving, intimate relations, worldly work, and sexuality. It is exciting to make this all a part of the practice. When seen correctly there is really no distinction between psychological and spiritual work. Good therapy and good meditation are simply ways to learn to love—to see the conditioned mind, to discover how we are attached, or fearful or identified and learn to truly free ourselves. That is all.
JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN: I believe it is quite incorrect to say that in the Theravada tradition people are taught to transcend the body and emotions. The purpose of practice is to understand the true nature of our experience, and this includes the awareness of the body, emotions, sexuality and relationships. All of these are aspects of our lives and so are part of our spiritual journey. The basic precepts of morality provide a foundation and guidelines for the exploration of these parts of ourselves. A great delicacy is required in balancing the opening and softening of mind—allowing ourselves to experience without self-judgment the full spectrum of what arises within us—while maintaining the insight which discriminates between what is conducive to our genuine happiness and what simply creates more discord and suffering. It is essential to care for the body and to open to the entire range of emotions and feelings and, at the same time, to realize that not every emotion or desire is skillful and need be acted upon.
There are many ways of working with the mind to achieve this fine balance of openness and discriminating wisdom, ranging from intensive meditation practice to various psychological techniques. Although at different times and with different people, one or another of these approaches will be helpful, I believe that a strong meditation practice is the cornerstone of a maturing spiritual development.
CHRISTINA FELDMAN: I do not emphasize transcending the body, sexuality and emotions in my teaching, only unhealthy and negative relationships to our bodies, sexuality and emotions. By negative relationships I refer not just to clinging, identification and narcissism but also selfdenial, suppression, control and self-negation. Our practice can be used to deny our inner experience, or it can stress the fertility of human experience as a vehicle for awakening. It all depends upon our approach. Sitting practice alone does not bring awakening. Honesty, inquiry and understanding are also important.
CHRISTOPHER TITMUSS: Not all schools of the Theravada tradition teach people to transcend the body and emotions. See the body as a vehicle for insight, as an expression of life, as energy, form, movement. See with care, sensitivity, receptivity—without clinging to a “me” or “mine.”
See the emotions as a vehicle . . .
See sexuality . . .
Yes, I use, when necessary, Western techniques but only for individuals; not group work. Whatever is occurring in the heartmind-body must be faced and dealt with both in the inter-view (not interview) and in the heart of the practice, namely sitting and watching, walking and watching.
Nothing whatsoever, including experiences, sitting in meditation or combining it with something else, is sufficient to achieve liberation. At best, meditation can enable the mind to bear this seemlingly extraordinary fact. By all means go on developing the mind, but please don’t deceive yourself (maya) that it makes any real difference to the pervasive truth. The mind has no self-nature, no self-existence. See the water. Be free, free, free.
SHARON SALZBERG: I think it is a misapprehension to say that in the Theravada traditions we are taught to transcend the body and emotions—most meditation techniques of this school center on observation of the body and different mental and emotional states. Both physical and mental phenomena are described as illusory, unreliable and offering far more pains than pleasure, but this is an understanding born out of personal awareness, not a dictum to transcend. Is waking up from a dream transcending the dream state, or is it entering a natural awakened state?
I think meditation is sufficient to achieve liberation for anyone, regardless of culture, race, sex, etc., if the mind of the person can come to the perfect balance needed—which takes patience, self-confidence, courage, faith, concentration and so many other qualities. Many people find psychological or healing techniques helpful, or even essential, to develop these qualities; some people find their support instead through the community within which they practice or their relationship with a particular teacher. I’m not trained in Western psychological techniques and don’t attempt to use them, aside from intuition and common sense.
In terms of the body, emotions and sexuality—I try to offer the meditation techniques as a way for people to concentrate and look within. I don’t consider it part of my role to tell people how to live their lives, apart from the basics (not creating suffering for oneself or others physically, sexually or verbally).
Do you perceive any differences in the perspectives and needs of male and female students? If so, what are they and how does this affect your teaching? What is your attitude toward retreats focused on women’s spirituality?
CHRISTINA FELDMAN: We do not enter the path of meditation as neuters; our feminine and masculine conditioning, our innate qualities of femininity and masculinity are all transferred to our spiritual paths. My experience in teaching is that there are differences between male and female students. Over the past few years Michele and I have been leading retreats focused upon women’s spirituality. The tenor of these retreats and the appreciative feedback we have received has made a profound impression upon me. It has become apparent to me that women need a space where they feel free to question their spiritual conditioning, to question whether the models and values they are presented with in traditional Buddhism address the totality of their being and aspirations and to explore and clarify a vision of spirituality and practice that is truly liberating for them. The trust and openness in these retreats is a joy to participate in.
JACK KORNFIELD: One of the biggest changes as Buddhism comes West will be the reintroduction of feminine consciousness. Asian Buddhism is mostly hierarchical, mental, monastic and otherworldly (all elements of logos, the masculine principle). In contrast, Western Buddhism is beginning to include integration, participation, emotions, to strengthen its concern for the heart, the body and the earth (all elements of eros, the feminine principle). Naturally the practices for men and women will have to reflect these differences too. While at deeper levels of samadhi these differences dissolve into momentary arisings and passings of the senses, much of the rest of our practice deals directly with our more relative conditioning. Women, even more than men, have to find ways to honor and not denigrate their bodies (the culture has already conditioned too much denial). Women’s practice demands a sensitivity to the earth, an honoring of feelings and of the uniqueness of being born with a womb. While self-acceptance is a big—and hard—part of everyone’s practice, women even more than men need to develop a sense of their strength and self-integrity, while they also open to the truth of non-self. Women’s retreats are an important way to support consciousness of this whole area of practice. There are also areas men need to discover. Let’s have men’s retreats too.
SHARON SALZBERG: Each individual student seems to have their own perspectives and needs—personal, cultural and karmic. It is the mandate for each one of us as students to hear the dharma with an open mind and heart, take what seems to us to be true, and test it through putting it into practice.
As a woman practitioner, my interest is in equal and, in fact, unlimited access to the body of the Buddha’s teaching, both practical and theoretical, with competent teachers and an appropriate environment. Like any other student, I feel the need to make the dharma my own. I think that intensive practice, besides being immensely rewarding, is a difficult, demanding journey into the unknown, and people need to feel trust, faith and safety to fully undertake such a journey. If for some women this means retreats with a focus on women’s spirituality, then I think that is something that can be offered.
JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN: There are certainly differences in the perspectives and needs of different students. I believe this has more to do with the particular conditioning of the individual than with differences of gender. The Buddha was a master of skillful means, responding to the heart and mind of each person according to their own backgrounds and evolution. My sense is that all teachers who wish for the welfare of their students will try, within their capabilities and understanding, to find the right approach for each person.
For some, this approach may involve issues and conditioning around being a woman or a man, and how this relates to one’s practice. For others, it may concern questions of self-confidence, trust, surrender, perseverance or any one of a wide range of attitudes and perspectives of mind.
Specifically, with regard to the questions of women’s spirituality, I greatly appreciate the growing consciousness of how language affects our understanding and practice, and the need to express the dharma in a way that fully embodies its universality. This requires an expression of the teaching which encompasses, in psychological viewpoint and language, the richness and wholeness of both the masculine and feminine principles. This can be done in a variety of ways, certainly including, for those who find it helpful, retreats devoted to women’s spirituality.
CHRISTOPHER TITMUSS: The only difference arising between a male and female meditator is when a woman is pregnant. On retreats I encourage a pregnant woman to direct metta (love) to the fetus or baby within. I totally support women’s retreats. I have benefited considerably from them. Long may they continue.
May all beings live in peace and harmony.