Dharma Siblings

By Paul Williams I n late February, John Balaam, Caleb Cushing, Terry Helbick, and I met with our mentor Therese Fitzgerald for a few days of Order of Interbeing aspirant training and a retreat with the larger Sangha in northern California. My training time began with a visit to CML/Parallax Press' modest headquarters which resulted in my writing letters to prisoners who had requested books or correspondence. I suspect most 01 aspirants, like me, want to be of service in a meaningful way, however clumsily.

That evening, we attended Arnie Kotler's talk on the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and the Trainings recitation at the weekly Community of Mindful Living Sangha meeting. The discussion afterward helped me get in touch with my feelings about the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings as a vision Thay had in the midst of war, of a set of simple, universal values people might reasonably agree to live by to help relieve suffering .. .if a handful of us start living this way, the whole world could shift.

The next morning I picked up Caleb, and we drove to Saratoga, talking happily all the way, new friends discovering common interests and experiences. That drive, getting to know Caleb and starting to experience the solidity and immediacy of this new community in which I'm taking refuge, is one of my treasured memories of these OI Aspirant Training Days. Indeed, one of my breakthroughs the next two days-letting go of hard feelings I'd had towards a Sangha member-began with Caleb's sympathetic listening as we drove south on Highway 880.

At Camp Swig, we gathered in a cabin called The Lodge, sharing our aspirations to receive the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and become Order members. Somewhere along the line, John, Caleb, and I discovered we each had just had or were about to have our 50th birthdays. Because we were all born in 1948, year of the rat or mouse, it seemed to me that our theme song should be "Three Mindful Mice. See how they stop!"

The great value of the OI aspirant training days was the resulting sense of connectedness and stability. What is "bonding" after all but a tangible experience of interbeing? As I met and spent time with other aspirants, it became clear that being a member of the Order of Interbeing is about Sangha-building and -supporting. The Mindfulness Trainings do not include a vow to build communities; that interest seems to arise naturally from being part of a Sangha and wanting this kind of nourishing refuge to continue for ourselves and others. In the course of the gathering and the retreat, I found a wonderfully renewed energy for my practice and an ever-increasing respect for the value of Sangha. "When two or more are gathered in My name"which is to say, in mindfulness-stuff happens. Wow.

This "Dharma brother," "Dharma-sister" talk isn't just romanticization. Three or more of my experiences fall into this category. John was cheerful and stoic about being a novice bellmaster and making inevitable mistakes in front of a Sangha of 60 mostly-strangers. My heart was with him the whole time, because "there but for the grace of God go I," and because I know it's my nature to be nervous in such situations and feel compelled to redeem myself with (impossible) perfection. Just exchanging glances with John all weekend made it easy for me to imagine myself in his socks. It was like he let me experience the training through him, without risking humiliation or whatever other suffering my mind might create. Thanks, John. You did a great job. And even my low-key responsibilities for bells at three morning meals were a real assistance to me. Thanks, Therese, for your particularly gentle way of letting me know, near the end of my first breakfast duty, that I needed to wake the bell before inviting it. So, that's one "Dharmasibling" experience, John and me being bell cadets at the same retreat.

Another was when the three mindful mice met with Terry in the Lodge to touch base with her as a fellowaspirant, after she arrived. Therese had suggested we ask her to share her aspirations with us per the "Opening Statements and Questions" in our mentorship outline, as we had done earlier with each other. Terry had written her comments. We had all engaged in such writing tasks through our monthly aspirant letters to our mentor. I was particularly affected by this opportunity to hear Terry read from her spiritual journal.

One more Dharma-sibling incident occurred after a Dharma discussion session where three separate extraordinarily un-victim-y bodhisattvas shared with us their experiences: one woman recently helped her husband prepare for his death from AIDS, and had to learn to stop seeing their daughter as "a child who will have lost her father"; another guy told how only the practice had allowed him to survive since his young wife died; and a seemingly very young Sangha member spoke of his relief in being able to see his dying daughter as a bodhisattva after he read about Thay calling a flower in his garden a bodhisattva. As Bob Dylan once said, "It's all right, Ma, it's life and life only." What an extraordinary lesson we all had in impermanence and the Four Noble Truths (especially the path which leads to cessation of suffering) that afternoon! A few minutes after the session ended, I encountered John Balaam as I came out of a men's room, and told him I'd burst into tears sitting in the bathroom. He gave me a big hug. We understood each other. And that's how it felt all week, without words, amongst all of us aspirants and most of us fellowretreatants. A lot of positive seeds were planted in our collective store consciousness in these OI aspirant training sessions at Camp Swig.

Order aspirant Paul Williams, Joyful Peace of the Source, is the author of 25 books including Das Energi and Bob Dylan Performing Artist He and his wife practice in San Diego, California.

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