cross religions

A Day of Tea and Haiku

By Alexa Singer-Telles Like many Sanghas, we hold days of mindfulness in members’ homes to enjoy the traditional practices of mindful breathing, sitting, walking, and eating. Our days together were enriched early on as we began to experiment with bringing other creative activities into our days of mindfulness. These opportunities grew organically by inviting our Sangha members to share the fruits of their talents. Not only did we experience a variety of gardens to walk in, but we varied our mindful movements, celebrated rituals for special occasions, and experimented with art.

In a recent conversation with an Order of Interbeing member about creativity and practice, it was mentioned that Thay wrote that though there are 84,000 Dharma doors, we are given the task to invent new doors for our contemporary needs. This was an important reminder to me not to get stuck in the view that there is a rigid form, but rather to allow the form to be the fertile ground where mindfulness can grow in many ways. This invitation for creativity and bringing our gifts into the practice parallels my experience with Jewish Renewal, a recent movement in Judaism. In their philosophy, Jews who left the tradition to explore other spiritual paths are welcomed back into Judaism. This inclusiveness is contrary to other approaches which insist that you leave other ideas at the door; instead it encourages these returnees to weave the teachings and gifts they have received from other spiritual traditions into their practice. The phrase coined to describe these spiritual explorers is “hyphens,” to honor their eclectic heritage. Rather than preserving the purity of a religious tradition, this invitation allows a rich interweaving of experience to inform spiritual practice and hopefully deepen it. In this modern time, where many of us have come to Buddhism from another root religion and have explored other spiritual paths, it is inevitable that we come to this practice made up of non-Buddhist elements. Welcoming in these valuable elements honors the wisdom of our experience and enriches the life of our Sangha.

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One of the first opportunities for creative practice came when Rod, an artist in the Sangha, invited us to his home studio for a day of mindfulness. We sat in the warm spring sun on the deck and enjoyed sitting meditation and some body awareness exercises. Then we were each given a small ball of clay and invited to be present to its shaping. He explained the Japanese aesthetic, wabi sabi, “a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” He guided us in this unpretentious and simple approach, by encouraging the natural process to unfold. Our task was to breathe mindfully and feel the experience of molding clay into a small cup. Our eyes were closed to feel the sensations of form developing through our fingers.

Afterwards we placed the cups in the center of the circle to admire the uniqueness of each cup and share our experiences and insight. The next week, Rod brought our glazed cups to our weekly sit. They had transformed from plain gray clay into multi-colored, crackled raku cups. My cup sits on my altar to this day, a piece of imperfect art, pleasant to the eye, and holding memories from a wonderful day.

The pleasure our Sangha members derived from this art-making encouraged us to continue to offer creative expression to our group. Recently, one of our members volunteered to lead us in a Japanese tea ceremony during a day of mindfulness. Sandra had studied tea ceremony and was eager to share this special practice with us. The tea ceremony became the centerpiece of our day, and when our planning committee gathered, we had fun brainstorming ideas to enhance the experience of the tea ceremony. We designed a Japanese-style altar with such items as a parasol, a fan, a Buddha, and an ikebana flower arrangement. On the day of mindfulness, to our delight, one member brought a bonsai maple tree for the altar. These pieces made an interesting yet serene focal point for the room. To me the creation of an altar is like making an offering to the Buddha as well as giving a gift to the entire Sangha.

We usually include mindful movements as a way to remember to care for our bodies. At times we have added yoga stretching, body awareness exercises, and four elements breathing and movements from Sufi tradition. On this day our movement form was chi gong exercises in keeping with our Asian theme.

At the conclusion of our days together, we often share poetry, songs, and reflections. For this special Day of Tea, I suggested that everyone be invited to write a haiku (short poem) as a way to translate our awareness and experience into art. To give some background and preparation for haiku writing, I offered a brief teaching from the Japanese poet, Basho, one of the greatest contributors to the development and art of haiku. Basho’s teachings are very much in alignment with the practice of mindfulness and interbeing. His teachings guide the writer into an awareness of our deep connection with the natural world. He suggests that by immersing oneself in the impersonal life of nature, one can resolve deep dilemmas and attain perfect spiritual serenity (sabi). He found that the momentary identification of man with inanimate nature was also essential to the poetic creation. 1 Connecting with the natural world, especially during mindful practice, has brought me a direct experience of peace and tranquility many times. It was my hope that this exercise would be an opportunity for Sangha friends to experience this Dharma door of awareness.

The day was wonderful. The tea ceremony brought us into the serene beauty of the tradition and formality of drinking tea. We were given a bit of tea history and strict instructions, including how to pass the bowl, when to admire its beautiful hand-painted designs, and how many gulps to drink. One at a time, we were passed the freshly made bowl of tea, drinking it in three gulps, admiring the floral design of the bowl, and passing the cup back to the server. We listened silently to the stirring, passing, and gulping of the tea as it went around the circle. The tranquility of tea was palpable. My haiku expressed my sense of being transported back into the stream of ancestral tea drinkers.

Green tea stirs my heart, The ancient ones whispering Enjoy every drop!

A growing sense of awareness of our presence and interconnectedness with the natural world seemed to be captured in the haikus that were written that day. The poems, like our cups crafted many years ago, are tangible evidence of our experiences. They embody the sense of clarity that grows when we take the time to share a day of mindfulness. Here are some examples.

Hands stretch to heaven The sun is not far away Feet sink through the earth. Greg White, Mindful Clarity of the Heart

Damp concrete walkway Urges my bubbling sole To know its cool kiss Christine Singer

Six shoes in a row Where are the master’s feet now Joyful in the grass Sandra Relyea

Hot water pouring The cup of tea goes around Gulping the tea is magic Susane Grabiel

Butterfly on stone Wings opening and closing She’s breathing the sky Terry Helbick, True Original Land

As I reflect on this particular day of mindfulness through these poems, it is clear to me that the most important ingredient for a day of practice is the sincere presence and -willing participation of the Sangha members. The gifts of awareness that grow in us can be so beautifully expressed in art-making and other creative forms. Simply by welcoming and weaving into our practice the talents of our Sangha friends, the possibilities for creating beauty in mindfulness abound.

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Alexa Singer-Telles, Steady Friend of the Heart, is a member of the River Oak Sangha in Redding, California. A psychotherapist and artist, she is an aspirant to the Order of Interbeing.

  1. Ueda, Makoto, The Master Haiku Poet: Matsuo Basho. (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1982)

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Be Still

The Mindful Christian By Diane Strausser

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We all know the importance of words. Relationships are built with them. Our important teachers use words that help us structure our lives and we carry those words in our minds as we go about the business of living.

Despite the fact that I had been flirting with Buddhist practice for over twenty years, I had not devoted myself with any consistency. My practice finally began on a spring morning several years ago. I sat in a room of three hundred strangers who had gathered from all parts of the country to experience a day of mindfulness. A diminutive woman gazed out at us from the elevated stage with a very gentle smile on her face. She took her sweet time looking at us and eventually uttered the words, “Welcome, my dear friends.”

The world changed for me with those four simple words. I thought about the possibilities that existed as I considered the strangers in this room to be “dear friends.” What if I went home and thought about my neighbors as “dear friends”? And the grocery store clerk. And people I ran into in my small town. The casual people in my life. Extended family. What if I included the people who had disappointed me to also be “dear friends”? I thought about all of this in the flash of an instant after Anh-Huong Nguyen uttered those words. It was her first Dharma teaching to me. I’m not sure there will ever be a more powerful teaching in my life. I fell in love that morning with the practice of Applied Buddhism.

Teaching Not-Buddhism in a Catholic Church

I took that frame of reference with me when I gave my yearly Lenten presentation to a rural Ohio Catholic church. I am invited each year to speak about creating sacred relationships. My role as a relationship coach and therapist takes me to venues both secular and religious. As I considered what topics I might cover, I struggled with the potential difficulty in sharing the joy of my Buddhist practice with a conservative, Catholic population. My practice is my life and keeping it in the closet is not possible.

Once again, I heard the words of Anh-Huong. In teaching us about community building she reminded us about the importance of compassion. “If people are uncomfortable with a statue of the Buddha, take the statue away.” So, I took the statue away.

“Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) became the basis of my presentation to my seriously Catholic friends. I reframed my practice and used their Christian language to teach them how to create peace in their lives so that they could offer it to the world — just as we practice in Applied Buddhism. My focus that night would be as it always is: stopping, calming, and resting which lead to healing and transformation, the principles of the Buddha’s teachings.

That evening I sat in the sanctuary on a step just below the altar. Behind me was a wall of stained glass softly illuminated by the setting sun. Christ hung on a huge cross above me. The parish priest sat with his congregation in the pews facing me, and I began with the words, “Welcome, my dear friends.”

I picked up my singing bell, held it high on my fingertips and let it ring three times. I simply closed my eyes, breathed in and out three times and consciously set the tone for my presentation. My friends looked at me. Confusion filled their faces and I just smiled.

The first thing I taught that night was breath awareness.

Shhhhh,” I told them. I rang the bell. Hear the bell of God calling...

Now, pay attention to your breath, and as you breathe, think of these words…

Breathing in, I am aware of God calling. Breathing out, I give love.

We talked about the importance of being still enough to hear the voice of God.

Can you hear God’s voice as you wash the dishes?

How about when you’re driving, or waiting in line?

Can you hear God’s voice when somebody disappoints you and you struggle with a response?

The Gift of a Smile

We moved on to giving the gift of a smile.

One of the best ways to relax is to smile. When we smile, it is impossible to be upset. When we smile, our throat relaxes, our cheeks rise and our eyes lift. The muscles of our face send messages to the nerves at the base of our skull. Those nerves send relaxation messages to our brain. Our brain is happy because the signal is sent that communicates,“all-is-well” to the“fight-or-flight” centers. Oxytocin is released in our brain because we are wearing a smile. Oxytocin is the chemical released when a parent cuddles an infant or when lovers hold each other. Oxytocin is the medicine that God gave us to help create compassion and love.

Your smile is a miracle. Your smile has no negative side effects. Your smile is absolutely free. Your smile is a sacred gift to yourself and to others because that one little gesture helps you to make space for the presence of God.

Hear the bell of God calling. Breathing in, I smile to God. Breathing out, I smile to my sisters and brothers.

We sat there, looking at each other and smiling. The priest leaned back in the pew with his huge hands resting on top of a friar-like belly, glancing at his people, smiling at them and taking delight in our togetherness. He welcomed my words in front of his pulpit and his smile invited me to keep talking.

Sacred Touch

The practice of sacred hugging was my next topic.

Sharing a physical connection is a sacred act visible in all of God’s creatures. Watch puppies, or lions, or giraffes. Watch the touching that goes on in nature. We human beings are often unconscious about how we touch each other. Being awake, being conscious allows us the pleasure of sacred touch.

Consider offering a very special hug, a sacred hug to the people you love. A sacred hug is not the typical quick leaning into each other and offering a few limp pats on the back. A sacred hug is an act of love given with great tenderness and great generosity.

Follow this recipe for sacred hugging:

Stand facing the other person, making eye contact. Smile. Put your hands together over your heart. Bow to the divine presence of the Holy Spirit in them. Give them the gift of your smile. Take three breaths in and out. Open your arms and embrace the other. Take three breaths in and out while holding. Release. Put your hands together over your heart. Bow to the divine presence of the Holy Spirit in them. Say a silent prayer of gratitude for them in your life.

Think about offering a sacred hug to the important people in your life. Then, think about hugging more people. Smile.

The wonderful people of that congregation emptied the pews and spent time giving each other sacred hugs. The farmer hugged his wife and then the blond little girl across from him. The new father cuddled his infant and hugged his mother-in-law with one arm wrapped around her. The priest went from person to person holding them close to his huge body, breathing in and out. The women hugged each other. The men hugged each other. Smiling.

I watched the scene as I held my bell in my lap feeling the joy of this moment. I was deeply moved at the willingness of these quiet, self-contained folks to breathe, smile, and hug. Once again, I understood that no matter what we are or who we are, when the goal is peace we are all the Buddha, or Christ, or Krishna, or Yahweh.

Love Never Fails

No teaching is complete until we talk about loving-kindness. So I read one of the most powerful biblical scriptures:

“Love is patient, love is kind, and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

We were created by God to be an example of His love and we are challenged to be visible symbols of that divine love. Transformation is a vehicle that carries us to the Kingdom of God.

Our loving nature allows us to look deeply at our beloved and those around us. The peace in our heart gives us the ability to let go of our misperceptions. We look at others and know that there is deep suffering in them. We are able to be with them without blame, shame, or judgment. As we look deeply and begin to understand the nature of pain in those around us, we are able to be there with them in their place of suffering. We offer them our true presence with love and with kindness.

Loving-kindness is a gentle spirit that whispers healing into the lives of others. Loving-kindness transforms who we are in this very moment.

Hear the bell of God calling.

Breathing in, I feel loving-kindness. Breathing out, I give love.

As the evening came to an end, a few people hurried off to another meeting. Others came to me with their smile and a desire to hug me. The priest congratulated me and said, “You always teach us such new ways of looking at relationship.” I smiled to myself knowing that what I taught is more than two thousand years old.

My husband and I drove back to the city that night, winding through the quiet country landscape. I was reminded of some of the words in a Christian hymn.

Let there be peace on Earth. And let it begin with me… Brothers all are we Let me walk with my brothers

In perfect harmony. Let this be the moment now.

That night was a “burning bush” experience for me — a miracle. I shared the most amazing evening with a group of people in a small church in rural Ohio. Despite our differences, there were far more similarities and we were perfectly at ease with each other. I had the privilege of sharing the beauty of my practice. They were open and absorbed my words as they learned how to deepen their Christianity. They were in me and I was in them. Although the world didn’t notice us, I believe that we made things just a bit better for all of us with our smiles, hugs, and mutual breath.

Never once did I utter the “B” word. It just wasn’t the point.

Diane Strausser, Peaceful River of the Heart, practices with Bliss Run Sangha in Columbus, Ohio. She is a therapist, author, and a frequent speaker for both local and national conferences on people and relationships (www.successfulrelationships.com).

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Sangha Building Within Prison

By Nancy Lee Koschmann I have two Sanghas in my life. My home Sangha is a group of mostly working, middle-class people like myself who have discovered Thay’s writings or have attended retreats with him. My other Sangha is composed of inmates at a nearby men’s maximum security prison who have difficulty even acquiring Thay’s books.

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On Friday mornings I sit as a volunteer with the prison Sangha, hopefully providing support and encouragement to the inmates as well as the official leaders, a nun and her assistant from the Syracuse Zen Center. Recently we held two partial day sittings — the first in the history of the prison — during which the men who gave the Dharma talks spoke of the immeasurable comfort and strength they drew from our small but committed prison group. While my home Sangha plays a central role in my life, the prison Sangha has also become a place of deep motivation and supportive connectedness. It has offered me valuable Dharma lessons, companionable meditation, and regular guidance in mindfulness. If that is true for me, think how true it must be for my incarcerated Dharma brothers who have very little else in their lives.

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Thus I think a great deal about Sangha building in prison, wondering how to create a supportive Buddhist community within those tall, thick stone walls. One way, I believe, is to maintain contact with Sangha on the outside, but prison regulations make that very difficult. Those of us from the outside try to bring in materials from our home and affiliated groups: magazines, newsletters, and thoughtful writings. We have to get permission for any items we bring; in addition we must arrange several days in advance to have everything listed on a gate pass. We are in the process now of getting approval for several volunteers so that they can visit the Sangha as embodied proof that those on the outside care and know about the men. The process includes forms, background checks, fingerprinting, and a great deal of time.

The Nail That Sticks Up

While maintaining the strength of our little prison Sangha is crucial, equally important is the effort to reach out and include other inmates in our practice and our services. Prison regulations in New York declare that each inmate may designate only one religion and attend only one type of service. This is, of course, rather antithetical to the way Thay has taught us to think of the Dharma, but there seems no way around the rules at present. To change affiliation is to call attention to one’s self — not a good thing to do in a prison environment where, as the Japanese saying goes, the nail that sticks up gets hit on the head — so unless people are unusually motivated, they are unlikely to request a change. Inmates are allowed to attend a religious service as a guest three times, but for most people this is not enough exposure to determine whether or not they want to change affiliation and forgo the formal services of their root tradition.

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Last summer I decided to offer a course on Buddhism so that more inmates might have an opportunity to explore the ideas and practice of meditation. I offered a four-week course on “The Science and Practice of Meditation,” and while the men seemed to enjoy it and attended regularly, it was much too short to scratch the surface of either the science or the practice! This term I am doing a fourteen-week course, entitled “Introduction to Asian Meditation.” We are fortunate to have the official backing of both the Cornell Prison Education Program and Cornell University’s East Asia Program to help pay for books and photocopying. My local Sangha paid for the first course’s texts, Be Free Wherever You Are and The Heart of Understanding by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Twenty-one men joined the present class. Together we are reading about and discussing the benefits of meditation — mostly research reported in the Mind-Life Institute of the Dalai Lama. We will study the historical life and context of the Buddha and then move on to the teachings, including Thay’s Being Peace and several articles from the Mindfulness Bell. We meditate briefly at the beginning of class and then again for the last forty minutes or so, alternating guided meditation with walking meditation and silent meditation. The men are keeping a journal on their attempts to meditate on their own during the week. One man wrote in his journal this week, “I love this class. I haven’t figured out how to concentrate yet, but at least I know it is possible. When I leave class, I am calmer and happier than I’ve been for years.”

No Stone Walls

Will any of these men join our prison Sangha? I don’t know. But what I do know is this: the men in the Sangha are encouraged to know that there are others out there in the cell blocks who are at least exploring the same path. I remind my students often that this is a class about Buddhism, with some practical experience in meditation, but that it is not a class that aims to “convert” anyone. Meditation, I tell them, is part of all religious traditions and if they practice, they will learn more about themselves, about others, about compassion and how to handle destructive emotions and be free and peaceful wherever they are. The teachings are about a more skillful and peaceful way to live. Yes, I hope they come to our Sangha, at least to visit, but whether they do or not, I believe I am contributing to the real meaning of Sangha: a broad community of people walking the same path — whether we call ourselves Catholic or Sufi or Jew or Zen Buddhist, whether we are in prison or on the outside. In such a Sangha, there are no stone walls.

mb52-Sangha4Nancy Lee Koschmann, Opening the Path of the Heart, taught psychology and women’s studies for twenty-five years; she is now a life coach and volunteer who practices with Cedar Cabin Sangha in Ithaca, NY and ShoShin (Beginner’s Mind) Sangha at Auburn Correctional Facility, Auburn, NY.

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