community outreach

A Net of Sangha Jewels

By Jack Lawlor mb51-ANet1

There is a famous metaphor in the Avatamsaka Sutra about the Jeweled Net of Indra, which likens the interdependent, interwoven nature of reality to a vast net of jewels in which each jewel is reflected in the other.

The Sanghas that have been inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings resemble the Jeweled Net of lndra. They too are vast, now extending throughout the world. They extend from the Tu Hieu Temple in Hue, Vietnam (our Root Temple where Thay at age sixteen began practicing and studying as a novice), to Plum Village in France, to affiliated monastic practice centers in China and Korea, to our Deer Park and Blue Cliff major practice centers in North America, to twenty-year old Sanghas comprised primarily of lay practitioners located throughout the world, and to the newest Sanghas just formed in a practitioner’s living room.

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Each of these jewels reflects the others. Although they may be separated by oceans, although their membership is comprised of practitioners from much different cultures, although some Sanghas are considerably older than others, they each reflect what’s shared in common: a deep reverence for mindfulness practice and a characteristically gentle but wholehearted aspiration to be mindful in everything we say and do — not only for our own benefit but for the benefit of all beings.

Stop, Be, Look, See

Early in his efforts to inspire the growth of the Dharma in the West, Thay asked lay practitioners to master just three things: sitting meditation, walking meditation, and the use of the breath poems known as gathas. The equanimity we nourish through the practice of conscious breathing in the form of sitting meditation, walking meditation, and daily gatha practice manifests not only in stress reduction, but also in enhanced understanding and insight, helping us know what to do and what not to do even in the most perplexing situations. Thay summarized mindfulness to North American practitioners in the late 1980s in a simple four-word breath poem: Stop, Be, Look, See.

We are so fortunate that Thay also impresses upon us the need to live in an ethical manner consistent with the Five Mindfulness Trainings, which in so many ways help us remain together as a healthy, happy community. Another great fortune is the emphasis Thay places on Sangha practice itself. When we practice meditation and mindfulness with others, we receive loving feedback through the shared practice of deep listening and appropriate speech, and our rough edges become smooth. Our spiritual practice grows, rather than become either the fond memory of a retreat we attended or a book we once enjoyed.

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With a modest degree of persistence, we soon learn how much easier it is to practice together than alone; how we contribute to a Sangha without the need to say very much because our presence is in and of itself a gift that supports and authenticates the practice of other Sangha members; how we are inherently social beings who need the interaction and support that may not be forthcoming from books and tapes; and how someone in our Sangha will likely have been down the same road we’re traveling and have the ability to listen to us and understand us.

We’ve all experienced tastes of the grace and ease that arise when we practice together as a Sangha rather than alone. We’ve all taken our place on our meditation cushions at home, observed that it is 7:00 a.m., done our best to sit through 35 minutes of sitting meditation, only to peek at our watch and find that it is 7:03! Yet when we sit together as a Sangha, we sit in a relaxed way free of such tension and anxiety, because we have the support of friends on the same step-by-step spiritual journey.

Spiritual Friends on the Path

It is now approximately six years since I helped Thay and our Sanghas throughout the world assemble the Parallax Press manual on Sangha building and practice entitled Friends on the Path. I have continuously marveled at the effectiveness of Sangha practice and come to realize why the Sangha — together with the Buddha and his teachings, the Dharma — are regarded as the Three Jewels in the Buddhist tradition shining so brightly within Indra’s net.

There is a beautiful term in the Pali language, kaylana mitta, that describes the kind of spiritual friend we can be to one another. I have seen assemblies of kaylana mitta do so many things quite well without the benefit of resources other than their friendship and their dedication to mindfulness practice. I have witnessed how local Sanghas develop consistency in individuals’ sitting and walking meditation practices to the point where they are deeply woven into each practitioner’s life. I have seen how Sangha practice encourages Sangha members who were alienated from their blood families and their children to reconcile. I have witnessed how Sanghas help Sangha members in time of need, and even serve as primary caregivers as a Sangha member approached death. It has been encouraging to see how our Buddhist faith community contributes to political dialogue by joining hands with other faith communities in efforts to stop war and prevent further ecological destruction.

Perhaps you, like me, have seen local Sanghas serve their communities in countless ways, including working with the homeless and raising funds for charitable causes both in North America and overseas. It is clear that our Sanghas and Sangha members serve in innumerable ways, without a lot of fanfare, setting examples in work places and in other social settings that have helped place the Dharma seed deep in the social fabric of the West.

Only twenty years ago, Thay opened our eyes to the possibility of Sangha practice at a time when a large Sangha would have been six or seven people sitting together in a dining room. Today, this Jeweled Net manifests in Sanghas and monastic practice centers throughout the world in which thousands of people participate. Yet all this has been accomplished in a surprisingly short period of time with no sense of hurry, in the spirit of one step, one breath. When I first met Thay twenty years ago near the busy baggage claim at O’Hare International Airport, and soon thereafter found myself following his example of practicing airport walking meditation toward my car, I realized instantly that this lineage would have its impact upon our world in no other way.

What lies ahead? Thay has predicted that the next Buddha may indeed be a Sangha. That prediction will manifest if each of us infuses our lives consistently with the most basic mindfulness practices based on conscious breathing, and if we keep doing so together with a light, loving touch, as kaylana mitta, friends on the path.

Jack Lawlor, True Direction, was ordained by Thay as a Dharma Teacher in 1992. Jack was a co-founder of Lakeside Buddha Sangha in Evanston, Illinois and practices extensively with Sanghas in the American Midwest.

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One View from the Cedar Cabin

By Nancy Stewart mb51-One1

The Cedar Cabin Sangha in Ithaca, New York came into being in 1999 following the Ascutney, Vermont retreat with Thay. In my Dharma discussion group I was introduced to four people from my community whom I had never met, two actually living right down the road! We organized a regular meditation practice, invited friends to join us, did occasional half-days of mindfulness. In the next couple of years we sponsored two well-received retreats for the general Ithaca community led by delightful Order of Interbeing monks (and we are still so grateful — you know who you are!). We thought all was well; and it was, but impermanence set in.

Sangha members began to come infrequently or dropped out — too busy, new jobs, time conflicts. We put out fliers, used our e-mail list, and got listed on the Sangha directory website. New members came enthusiastically — for a while, then left town or just stopped coming. For many months, regular attendance was down to two of us: Pamela and me. While everyone else had become less committed, Pamela and I began to realize just how helpful the practice was for us and we became more committed.

Week in, week out, we were there with rare exception. I dragged myself there many times when I didn’t feel like it and discovered I was always glad I had come. We were meeting in a friend’s cedar cabin heated by a wood stove. Freezing in winter, stifling in summer, it was difficult to find but had fabulous atmosphere — woodsy decorations, birds chirping, vegetable garden and long tall grass to walk in. We were attached to our cabin, but we knew we needed to let go of our attachment.

A Fortuitous Move

Pamela had the insightful idea of changing our meeting place to our local hospice, right near the cabin. Everyone in town knows where that is. In exchange for the space, and to create goodwill, musical Pamela began to do intermittent singing and dulcimer playing for the hospice patients and staff. We started a collection box (well, a green and red striped can) and the hospice was our first donation recipient.

Pamela journeyed toward the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings; with persistence and long-distance mentoring she became an OI member in 2007. Her mindful energy for keeping in touch with the wider Sangha, generous spirit, and calm tenacity have helped mentor new Sangha members along the way. And new members keep coming. Some come once, some for a while, and some have stayed long-term, but the difference is that now it is rarely just Pamela and me sitting together. And two more of us have started our own aspirant journeys.

Everyone’s favorite part of our weekly meditation (besides getting up for a walking meditation after a long sit!) is our herbal tea ceremony in silence, followed by Dharma discussion. When we share and listen from the heart about our meditation experience or our practice struggles, we deepen our human bonds and inspire one another.

Words of Wisdom

What would I say in a nutshell (or lotus blossom) about Sangha building? Show up even when you think you’re too busy — it will help your busy-ness and add to everyone else’s meditation energy. Be willing to lead meditation and let your mindfulness be a role model — you will help others on the path. Notice new members with love and compassion, and add them to your member listserv. Send a regular mindful message to your members. Choose a known and accessible location and keep a low-key visible presence in your community with fliers, newspaper articles, and online information. Hold a community event occasionally. Look for ways to give back to the community. Get help from the wider Sangha.

But in the end, it is probably not so important to enlarge your Sangha as it is to commit to regular practice — and along the way you will help yourself and others become more attuned to a miraculous way to live!

mb51-One2Nancy Stewart, Meaningful Flower of the Heart, is an aspirant to the Order of Interbeing and a founding member of the Cedar Cabin Sangha in Ithaca, NY. She is a semi-retired integrative family physician. Now that their three children are grown, she and her husband Ray Terepka live with their golden retriever, Bodhi, who reminds them to be in the present moment.

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Morning Sun Rising

By John Young mb51-Morning1

Five years ago Fern Dorresteyn and Michael Ciborski began a series of conversations with practitioners across the United States and around the world; listening, talking and imagining a life rooted in practice outside the structured container of the monastery. Having spent nearly a decade in Plum Village (also Deer Park and Maple Forest monasteries), first as lay people and then as monastics, they knew that practice would always be the foundation of their lives. And they knew that a life of practice is vitally nourished by living closely in spiritual community. Their aspiration is to creatively meet our fast-paced, stressed-out consumer society face to face with a clear, vital alternative.

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So began the journey that has led to the creation of Morning Sun, a small (but growing!) residential lay community and practice center in rural New Hampshire.

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In dreaming and living Morning Sun, we look for balance; allowing space for the organic development of our community, depending on who arrives into it, and also ensuring that there is a glittering diamond of clear intention rooted in practice that informs all we do. For those of us (like me, for example) who come from lives of planning, power, control, and strategy, this wise fluidity is a wonderful opportunity to embrace “don’t know mind.”

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As the seasons turn from winter to spring, we are growing into the next chapter of life in Morning Sun. We will soon close on the purchase of 240 acres of beautiful land and begin construction of the first two houses, a simple meditation hall, and a couple of cabins. We’ll plant our gardens, grow our vegetables, and open our hearts to practitioners who may wish to come and join their lives to ours in Morning Sun.

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The summer ahead will be a full one — both in terms of working on the land that will house our community and in terms of programming. We’ll offer our mindfulness adventure summer camp for children, teens, and parents for the third year in a row. We’ll offer half-days of mindfulness three times a month and one full day every month, we’ll collectively offer deep ecology/spirituality workshops based on Joanna Macy’s work and hope to hold a series of these throughout New England. And we’ll continue to navigate the local planning process so that we can move forward in preparing the land to welcome new practitioners.

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As the community grows, so will our efforts to be present with and serve the world. Clustered around a beautiful pond we will slowly build our center, where people can join in practice and learn about the bodhisattva way of life. Around our central campus, individual dwellings and co-housing will be built for residents and long term guests. Our intention is to offer diverse programming for individuals and families: helping them to slow down and touch the joy of simple living; transform anxiety, confusion and stress; and develop their capacity to work through the practice of mindfulness and sustainable living for the benefit and healing of society and the Earth.

As all of this unfolds we are delighted to be making new friends in the micro-region right around the Morning Sun land. It turns out that we are in one of those very special spots on the planet where people have been drawn to put down roots and build community in all kinds of different ways. The Orchard Hill community, school, and fantastic bakery is a just a couple of miles up the road. And a couple of miles in the other direction is the Sustainability Project, where we’ll be holding our camp this summer. And then there’s Mole Hill right across the road from our current practice house, where our neighbor Dennis holds evenings of theatre, music, and other festivities.

As we look out over the coming months and years we are filled with gratitude. So many conditions are coming together to support the vision we have been dreaming of for such a long time. We are blessed and so very happy to share the fruits of Morning Sun with all.

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John Young worked as a political adviser and activist in Canada until three years ago when he went to Plum Village for the first time. He then left his career, his home, and all his possessions to follow the path of practice. You can reach the folks at Morning Sun online at morningsunedcenter.org or by phone at (603) 357-2011.

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A Sangha With Heart

mb51-ASangha1By Jim Scott-Behrends, Natascha Bruckner, Miriam Goldberg Three practitioners express — in very different voices — appreciation for the Heart Sangha in Santa Cruz, California.

The Beauty of Our Practice

In the cool of the evening, mindful steps cross the wooden deck. On the porch of the Zendo a sign invites Noble Silence. Every Monday evening members of the Heart Sangha gather at the Zen Center of Santa Cruz. Coming from a diversity of backgrounds we find our common thread in practice inspired by the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh.

Thich Nhat Hanh has referred to Sangha building as the most important activity we can participate in. The Heart Sangha has made this proposition a priority by sharing a commitment to a sustainable practice rooted in emancipation and joy. As in architecture Sangha building relies on a strong foundation. We find this foundation in the Mindfulness Trainings and the basic principles of wisdom and compassion in our tradition.

According to Thay, “[t]he main purpose of a Sangha is to practice and support mindfulness, openness, and love. Organize in a way that is most enjoyable for everyone. You will never find a perfect Sangha. An imperfect Sangha is good enough. Rather than complaining too much about your Sangha, do your best to transform yourself into a good element of the Sangha. Accept the Sangha and build on it.”

The beauty of our practice is the generosity of spirit that is evident each time we meet. We are a family with a common purpose. With warmth, love and humor we pursue the way of awakening.

A recent experience in my life reinforced my gratitude for the Sangha. Last year my mother was having a string of medical issues after eighty-nine years of good health. Each time I drove to Southern California to visit her, the Heart Sangha was with me. Holding my mother’s hand and feeling the progressive weakness of her energy, I could feel the strength of the Sangha supporting me. When I returned and sat with the Sangha, my sadness was alleviated when it was held in the larger vessel of the Sangha body. I did not need to hold it within myself. In sharing stories of my Mom and her life of service to others I could feel the warmth and care of the Sangha. The unspoken power of their deep listening provided a space of healing for me. When my Mom died in November my Sangha brothers and sisters offered their true presence.

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Day by day, month by month, year by year we investigate and explore the breadth of our tradition. From the importance of mindfulness in our daily lives to our engagement in the wider world, we benefit from our Sangha practice. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “Whether practicing together as a family, a Sangha, or a nation, we have so many opportunities to grow in our capacity to understand and to love. Each moment and each day is an opportunity to begin anew, to open the door of our hearts, and to practice together for our own transformation and healing and for the transformation and healing of our families and our world.” Practicing together in this way we are discovering the path of living peacefully in the present moment and living joyfully together.

— Jim Scott-Behrends, True Recollection of  Compassion

Reaching Out from the Heart Sangha

Our Sangha reminds me of an octopus.

An octopus has many arms and hands, like Avalokiteshvara, whose hands each hold a unique tool to relieve suffering. Each person in our Sangha is like an arm reaching out from the Sangha body, from the heart.

One person volunteers at the food bank; one advocates for immigrants; one raises money to help children in Gaza; one organizes a Sangha beach cleanup. There are several psychotherapists, a farmer, a doctor, a T’ai Ch’i teacher, a Hospice caregiver, a counselor for veterans.

We come together on Monday evenings to rest in the heart of our practice. The heart is the circle where we sit in silence together, the circle we walk with mindful steps, the circle of our arms in hugging meditation. Like blood that circulates back to the heart, we are nourished and energized when we return to our center circle every week.

Strengthened by our return to the Heart Sangha, we extend out into the world again, putting mindfulness and compassion into action, building Sangha in our greater community with acts of kindness and love.

— Natascha Bruckner, Benevolent Respect of the Heart

Branches and Roots

The Heart Sangha is a gentle, loving gathering of people who prefer guiding principles to set forms. We all value the Mindfulness Trainings, loving kindness, spaciousness, and the joy of practice.

Over many many months, I have learned that Sangha building has become a profound inner exploration of inclusion, a dynamic practice of my willingness to release the deep belief in my isolation into the acknowledgment of interbeing. It calls me to explore and heal that which is below the surface, close to the roots. If I find myself fearing isolation, exclusion, comparisons, competition, it calls me to hold myself present in mindfulness to discover what in me is so frightened ... and how to receive that part and hold it in the light of deep understanding.

When I open with tender vulnerability and let myself receive the love and wisdom from Sangha, not blindly, but with the clear eyes and open heart born of mindfulness practice, and see the essential light, beauty, Buddha mind in each one of us, I know that we are all cherished. The tree of Sangha develops stronger roots.

Each person’s strong individuality strengthens the love and also offers challenges and richness to our commitment to safeguard the unique perspectives of each person present, and hold everyone within the tenderness of deep sharing. We stretch and drop down to hold the tension of daring to listen and include each other even when our opinions differ. It is a very special environment, cultivated by all of our efforts to receive each person deeply, and allow each one’s gifts to nourish us all.

We are encouraged by those who naturally build Sangha through tending the lush branches of the tree, extending, stretching and waving to many, and by those whose natural gesture is to drop inward towards the root. Together, we nourish the whole. Together, we gather under the tree, and smile. And that smile fills the universe.

— Miriam Goldberg True Recollection of Joy

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