Learning Together

By Candace Cassin Last fall, the Hopping Tree Sangha completed a year-long Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings Study Group. Our group was not limited to Order aspirants. We asked that participants be members in the western Massachusetts Sangha, have received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and commit to attend all sessions. To foster continuity, safety, and depth of discussion, the group was "closed" after forming.

Several considerations led us to invite all Sangha members, not only Order aspirants. Our primary focus was on living the practice, not on the goal of ordination. The Trainings are a relevant and rich guide for life, whether one is formally ordained or not. Clarity about the desire for ordination evolved as we studied. In addition, we did not want to create an "in-group" and an "out-group" based on ordination. Finally, we recognized that ordination is not guaranteed, and the final decision is not made locally. Eight people participated in the first group. All were involved in the practice and the Sangha for at least five years. Most had been on retreats with Thay. One was an Order member and one was ordained shortly after we began. We structured the meetings as shared learning, reflecting our confidence (and experience) that the collective wisdom of the group will express itself and grow if all have equal opportunity to share. Most of all, we wanted our study to be practice, not simply be about practice.

We met two hours every three weeks. The intervening weeks allowed us to integrate new insights and understandings about the mindfulness training discussed and to prepare through reading and practice of the upcoming training. We met in homes, and began and ended on time. No one was designated facilitator. One person invited the bell and one person kept time. The format was: 1) Brief check-in; 2) Reading the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings; 3) Reading the designated mindfulness training and commentary in Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelinesfor Engaged Buddhism; 4) Discussion of the Mindfulness Training; and 5) Final checkin and closing meditation.

We agreed that sharing should be grounded in experience rather than intellectual abstractions or theoretical reflections. Each person joined their palms in a lotus and bowed before and after speaking. This practice and the use of the mindfulness bell slowed the pace of discussion and helped us practice deep listening and mindful speaking. Three members of our study group were ordained into the Order at the Omega retreat with Thay in October 1997. Three chose not to pursue ordination. Two of the three who did not feel drawn to ordination created a ceremony "to commit to the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings in their hearts." All members of the study group feel deeply committed to the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. Each chose the vehicle to express that commitment that felt most true.

The support and wisdom of the Sangha on this path of practice has been a true joy. In all aspects of practice, our shared struggles, clarity, and deep listening have strengthened us in making the practice real in daily life.

Candace Cassin, True Precious Land, wrote this article with input from members of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings Study Group.

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