Lay Residential Sangha

By  Bruce Kantner In about the Summer  1999 Mindfulness that Bell, my wife I wrote about the Sangha-ecovillage that my wife and I are working to start on our farm in southern New Hampshire. We propose to adopt a co-housing model combined with our nonprofit Geocommons center for interbeing studies. Our goal is to deepen our learning and practice of mindful, sustainable, compassionate living. We envision a community of 15-20 households that is intergenerational, diverse, interdenominational, and grounded in the Buddha's wisdom. Important founding guides are the mindfulness teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, practice examples from the Community of Mindful Living, and principles of ecological sustainability and Earth wisdom.

This founding work has gone slowly. We' ve tried different strategies to attract people, including a co-housing study circle that met biweekly for six months. At Thich Nhat Hanh's Ascutney Retreat last September, East and West Coast sponsors held a joint meeting for people interested in a lay residential Sangha. Over twenty people attended and expressed lively interest, but so far only two have kept in touch with us, and we still haven't formed a core group.

One lesson my wife and I have learned in this process is not to get discouraged. Just putting the idea of a residential lay Sangha out there nourishes the Earth community. It's my heart speaking to other hearts, even though I may get few direct responses or confirmations from others. Interbeing practice is at the core of my life's intention. Working on community, even mostly by myself, helps me remember that I am connected- that this funny, grand illusion of separate self is trying in many ways to expand its little, fearful boundaries.

Another lesson is that the lack of response from "out there" does not mean the world is not ready for this kind of intentional, mindful, sustainable community. It's even possible for me occasionally to slip into feeling like a victim-nobody wants to join "my" wonderful visionary effort! These signals remind me to turn to mindfulness and to embrace, calm, and release these feelings. Sometimes I can see that Sangha is already around me, not just in the gifts of spiritual books and retreats, but in my neighbors who are working to save wildlife habitats and support ethical, caring candidates for public office. Just this past week I suddenly became involved with a small group of dedicated townsfolk who have been working to mitigate damage by a Canadian logging company to a magnificent 400 acre forest not far from our village center. Now I'm helping tie this effort into a new, regional project to conserve several thousands  of acres from the unskilled development pressures of the Boston megalopolis. All of this is fundamentally about mindfulness and people who join in Sangha-like efforts to respond when the conditions are ripe. I see that I must become more ready for Sangha myself through cultivating mindfulness and preparing my own house.

A third lesson is one that I'm contemplating, but have not yet engaged in. In his booklet Sangha Practice, Jack Lawlor suggests that we don' t have to advertise or hold a meeting to start a Sangha. He says we might simply invite a few acquaintances to our home to share sitting mediation and conversation afterwards. I live in a rural setting where most of my closer friends over the years have been from outside the region. My Sangha is at Green Mountain Dharma Center, forty-five minutes away. The thought of inviting local folks over for meditation is a bit daunting. How would I deal with the Buddhist context? Could I explain it as stress reduction or a psycho-spiritual system for self-inquiry? What about Thay and the monastics? Would neighbors be afraid of what could appear to be a guru and his cult? Of course these questions apply even more strongly to a residential, lay Sangha that might evolve on this property one day.

This past week I attended two meetings with a skilled and sensitive land conservation organizer from Vermont. She stressed again and again the importance of inviting each neighbor over for muffins, coffee, and good conversation well before we held any public meetings on conservation issues. She urged us to meet each person with a completely open, fresh mind, holding no preconceptions from gossip or personal judgments. Her stories of success built on finding common ground were vivid and inspiring and reminded me of Thay's teaching on being peace.

My next steps in building community involve working more from the inside out. This also feels appropriate to the coming of winter. I'm reminded of the Christmas carol, People Look East: "Make your house fair as you are able, trim the hearth and set the table... Love the Guest is on the way." Subsequent verses refer to Love the Rose, Bird, Star, and Lord. If I'm ready in heart, mind, and home for the Guests, then I can happily invite them in for mindful conversation, sitting together, and enjoying muffins. These are seeds for our Sangha-ecovillage.

Bruce Kantner can be reached at Derbyshire FarmTemple, NH 03084, Tel: (603)654-2523, Email mev@tellink.net.

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