Framed by Buddhist prayers and sutras, words of love described the life and impact of Ruth Eppsteiner as the Florida Community of Mindfulness came together to say farewell to her earthly presence in her funeral service Sunday.
Our teacher Fred led the ceremony for his mother, who passed away at home in Naples on February 11 at the age of 102. The service included music and eulogies from family and sangha members.
Fred told the Sangha that the role of a Buddhist funeral is to support the deceased in their continuing journey of transition and to remind us of impermanence, reminding us to be mindful of its impact on our relationships.
Ruth's younger son, Rob, of Naples, remembered her as a mother whose life centered on love of family and who kept family and extended family members near all her life. He described a generous heart that could best be defined as "Give away your love!"
He said all three of her children were born into the Jewish faith but ended up practicing Buddhism, along with Ruth herself becoming Buddhist at age 80, causing Ruth to ask later in life, "What karma do we have?"
Rob Eppsteiner describes Ruth's deep love of family, while Fred's granddaughter, Metta,
"Her great teaching was don't waste time," he said. "Love your family and friends."
Ruth's youngest grandson, George Eppsteiner, spoke on behalf of her numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, recalling memories of her as a loving grandmother who provided warm cookies when he was young and plainspoken lessons in life even in his adult years.
Angie Parrish, speaking on behalf of her time with Ruth as well as for Sangha members who had submitted their comments, recalled the FCM pilgrimage with Fred to India in 2009, which Ruth had joined in spite of warnings from Fred that it was strenuous and that she might die there because of the difficult conditions and her age. Her response was "Sign me up!" Angie said the rest of the group got sick and had to push to keep up with Ruth.
"When we went to Naples, we would sit on the porch of her condo and talk about Dharma," Angie said. "She called Fred her teacher. She loved the Dharma and she loved the Naples Sangha very much."
Fred commented that "at age 102, she had lost everybody, her husband, her friends, yet she never changed. She just began attracting younger people. Her body aged, but her mind never aged."
He said he found notes from a Dharma talk given by Ruth that reflected thoughts that she had not discussed in her talk. One bit of self reflection said she hadn't seen outside her little circle of people she loved but that her practice caused her to begin to open up her love to all beings. Her Dharma talk, in which she talks about developing her practice after coming into Buddhism late in life, can be accessed by Clicking Here.
Ruth's Dharma name was Source of Boundless Love.
As had been requested by Ruth, the Sangha recited the Heart Sutra.
Courtney "CiCi" Claar sings "If I Loved You," a song from the Broadway musical Carousel.
Also requested by Ruth was "If I Loved You," the favorite song of her and her husband of 52 years, Larry, who predeceased her. It was sung by Courtney "CiCi" Claar of the Tampa Sangha.
Diana Fish of the St. Petersburg Sangha played cello for a silent meditation, and a group sang "Five Remembrances."
Singing "The Five Remembrances" from the balcony were, from left, Anne Louise Kracmer of Fort Myers, Charner Reese of Tampa, Molly Conlon of Tampa, Maria Teresa Jaureguizar of Tampa and Christopher Lee Nguyen of Fort Myers. They were accompanied by Rick Ferriss of Tampa on the guitar.
A reception, featuring a video of Ruth's life and loving relationships with family members, followed the service.
Elements of the service are included below:
CONTEMPLATION OF NO-COMING AND NO-GOING:
This body is not me.
I am not limited by this body.
I am life without boundaries.
I have never been born,
and I have never died.
Look at the ocean and the sky filled with stars,
manifestations from my wondrous True Mind.
Since before time, I have been free.
Birth and death are only doors through which we pass,
sacred thresholds on our journey.
Birth and death are a game of hide-and-seek.
So laugh with me,
hold my hand,
let us say good-bye,
say good-bye, to meet again soon.
We meet today.
We will meet again tomorrow.
We will meet at the source every moment.
We meet each other in all forms of life.
MINDFULNESS OF THE DECEASED:
Brothers and Sisters, it is time to bring to mind Ruth and to send the energy of loving kindness and compassion to her. Let us sit and enjoy our breathing for a moment, allowing Ruth to be present with us now.
Brothers and Sisters, please listen. The peace and joy of the entire world, including the worlds of the living and the dead, depend upon our own peace and joy in this moment. With all our heart and one-pointed mind, let us begin anew for the benefit of ourselves and our beloved ones.
It was a weekend of commitment and celebration with the combination of the annual transmission ceremonies of mindfulness trainings to 24 persons and the yearly retreat of the FCM Order of Interbeing (OI), where 12 new aspirants were announced.
The Tampa Meditation Hall was filled to overflowing for Sunday's transmission ceremonies. Photo by Alex Lerner
Led by our teacher Fred, commitments were made February 2 by 23 adults to the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) and the 5 Mindfulness Trainings and by one child who made the Two Promises.
Fred, far left, leads the transmission ceremonies for the Three Jewels, 5 Mindfulness Trainings and Two Promises at Sunday Sangha in Tampa.
One child, Leo Reiff, age 7, Fred's grandson, made the Two Promises during the ceremony. Above, he is assisted by his little sister, Metta.
Salima Grannon leads incense chant at Sunday Sangha in Tampa.
The transmission ceremonies ended the weekend OI retreat, at which members and aspirants also attended discussions on right speech/mindful communication/beginning anew, leadership, and recitation and discussion of the 14 Mindfulness Trainings. Fred led a discussion about the purpose of OI mentoring, the role of OI within FCM, readiness for ordination to OI and how to manage retreat/lazy time encouraged for members of the order. A tea ceremony in the Plum Village tradition held Saturday night featured poetry music and personal reflections.
Listening to a discussion about OI's purpose within FCM are, from left, Chris Lee Nguyen, Bryan Hindert, Fred, Angie Parrish, Scott Nissensohn, Raven Dreifus-Kofron and Nancy Natilson.
The Tampa Sangha listens as new OI aspirants introduce themselves and ask for support.
New OI aspirants for 2020 were introduced at Sunday Sangha before the Transmission Ceremonies began. Each of them stated their aspiration and asked for support of the Sangha.
OI aspirant Dragos Zanchi of Tampa asks for support of the Sangha on Sunday.
Photo by Alex Lerner
They are Raven Dreifus-Kofron of Brandon, Teresa Fernandez of Tampa, Misti Oxford-Pickeral of Gainesville, Patricia Lukacs of Tampa, Rob Mitchell of St. Petersburg, Scott Nissensohn of Tampa, Mary Robinson of Fort Myers, Margaret "Maggie" Tudor of Tampa, Chris Witrak of Tampa, Antonela Zanchi and Dragos Zanchi of Tampa. Absent but accepted into the OI aspirant program was Shana Smith of Gainesville.
OI members and aspirants joined in a discussion Saturday in Tampa.
Photo by Alex Lerner
By BILL MacMILLEN
Last month two other FCM members and I had the great opportunity to travel to India for a pilgrimage to a number of renowned Buddhist sites, including Lumbini, the site of the Buddha’s birth; Bodh Gaya, the site of the Buddha’s awakening and the legendary Bodhi Tree; Deer Park in Sarnath, the site of his first teaching, and Kushinagar, the site of his death, or paranirvana.
Our group, which included Diana Fish, Chris Gahles and me, had the great fortune of being led by Shantum Seth, an ordained teacher in Thich Nhat Hahn’s tradition, and an extremely knowledgeable conduit of both Buddhist and Indian history. Our path covered 14 days of touring and being with these sites and their history, as well as the cities and countryside of the Indian state of Bihar, the poorest and most populous state in India.
As Shantum said, there is an inner and an outer pilgrimage.
First, a description of the outer pilgrimage:
The pilgrimage was aptly titled, “In the Footsteps of the Buddha.” We literally were in the footsteps walked by the historical person, Siddartha, 2,600 years ago. That aspect alone was very powerful, realizing that this was the land where his birth, awakening, teachings and death occurred.
With Shantum providing both detailed accounts of the history of each site, as well as daily opportunities to meditate as a group at these sites, it made for a very integrated and rich experience, melding the intellectual and the spiritual aspects beautifully. Millennia old stupas and temples, rich with the history of the Dharma were found throughout the tour, each with their own unique details that Shantum described.
Chris Kahles, from left, Diana Fish, Jagdish (the logistics assistant for the pilgrimage), and Bill MacMillan at Nalanda, the famous 6th-11th Century site of advanced Buddhist teachings.
Other than the initial flight out of New Delhi and a return flight there, the transportation from site to site was by bus, and the opportunity to experience the countryside, cities and people was a teaching in and of itself. The level of poverty is severe, with families living along the roadside in what would be considered abject poverty in the United States, with little or no infrastructure support. Cows, goats and dogs abound, mixed with bicycles, tuk-tuks and motor scooters carrying 3 or 4 people at a time, often with women riding side-saddle and carrying a child, with horns blaring constantly.
Although India is an overwhelmingly Hindu country, the Buddhist pilgrimage sites are significant attractions and we found large crowds at most of them, with hosts of street vendors and beggars ever present and desperate. Bodh Gaya in particular, with the famous Bodhi tree and the Mahabodhi Temple, was a cacophony of sound as different Buddhist traditions chanted, often using amplified speakers.
Also in Bodh Gaya, we had a photo taken of us and Shantum with Basudev, a cobbler whom Fred befriended when he was in India in 1975. Basudev was begging in the streets at the tim
e; Fred bought him clothes and shoes and basically acted as his benefactor. Years later Fred encountered him again when he was working at his uncle's shoe shop. He is now the proprietor of that shop!
Shantum and Jagdish, Shantum's employee who assisted us, took us to the shop, where we presented Basudev with a gift from Fred after showing him a photo of Fred with Karuna (whom Basudev met around 2000 when Karuna was in college and studying in India) along with Metta and Leo, Karuna's children. Basudev smiled immediately upon seeing the photo -- a great moment!
The tour group watched the teeming scene along the ghats (steps) on the Ganges River at Varanasi.
We spent a fascinating morning in Varanasi, one of the holiest sites for Hindus, who come to ceremonially bathe as a ritual for a better life in the Ganges year-round, and also where loved ones are cremated along the river in funeral pyres. The ghats are the steps leading down to the river, which is lined with centuries-old buildings inhabited by both people and monkeys.
The walk through the streets to the ghats, even at 6:30 in the morning, had a street festival atmosphere – smells of street vendors cooking, cows meandering hear and there, music playing, teeming with people. After making it to the river, we hired a boat and watched the various unfoldings from the river, with an almost surrealistic feel to it all.
Bill, Diana and Chris, led by Shantum Seth, third from left, stopped at a Thai Buddhist temple in a rural area in India for dinner. Thai temples were selected as rest stops because of their restaurants and clean restrooms. In the rear are a Thai monk and nun from the temple.
A particularly meaningful time occurred for me toward the end of the pilgrimage at the Jetta Grove in Sravasti, the location where the Buddha’s itinerant sanghas often stayed during the rainy season and site of a large number of his teachings. Diana, Chris and I each renewed the Five Mindfulness Trainings in a ceremony Shantum conducted in the Plum Village tradition established by Thay. A number of the other members of the larger group with which we traveled also took the 5 Mindfulness Trainings for the first time.
We completed the pilgrimage with a drive to Lucknow and flight back to New Delhi and were fortunate to extend the trip one day to travel to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort before the 14-hour flight back to the States.
Yes, Shantum said it best: There is an inner and an outer pilgrimage, and the inner continues long after the return to one's home. It was a fascinating journey and one that I found has altered my views of life -- in ways I don’t understand yet.
Many thanks to Bill MacMillen of Tampa, Facilities Care Leader, for this wonderful article about the pilgrimage taken with two other FCM members to significant locations in the Buddha's life in India.
Here's a good recipe for Beginning Anew, thanks to a discovery by Susan Ghosh!
Prep time: 5 mins
Cook time: 10 mins
Total time: 15 mins
Smoky beans on garlic toast make a perfect vegan bruschetta. Delicious, healthy, inexpensive and packed with big flavors!
10 slices baguette or rustic bread, toasted
Heat 1 Tbsp of olive oil in a pan over a medium heat. Cook the chopped onion for about 3 minutes, until soft.
Add smoked paprika, beans, thyme and salt, stir well and cook for a further 8-10 minutes stirring occasionally. When they're done, smash half of the beans and add the rest of the oil.
In the meanwhile, toast your slices of bread in the oven or in a pan with a little of olive oil, cook for a few minutes until golden. This method adds more flavor.
Rub the toasted bread with fresh garlic, top with a spoon of smoky beans and some black olives (1 olive per slice of bread is fine) a pinch of chilli (optional) and a drizzle of olive oil or extra virgin olive oil.
By CHRIS WITRAK
Have you ever wondered what all those cool young adults you see at Sunday Sangha do at Wake Up? Well, you’re in luck because this article will give you a sneak peek into what this awesome group is about and how its members practice.
Wake Up Tampa Bay members, from left, Jerry Stinnett, Chris Witrak, Samantha Demmi, Brother Fulfillment, Jennica Robe and Ven Kat.
Thich Nhat Hanh created Wake Up so that young adults could have a community where they can practice mindfulness to nourish their own happiness and contribute to building a healthier and more compassionate society. Like the Plum Village tradition and Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings, Wake Up has spread across the globe with the Wake Up International website listing 114 Wake Up sanghas.
At FCM, Wake Up Tampa Bay is the primary space where young adults in their 20s and 30s can practice mindfulness among peers.
We begin a typical Wake Up meeting at 7 pm in the Meditation Hall and practice sitting and walking meditation, read an article or book written by Thich Nhat Hanh or another teacher such as Pema Chödrön, and practice deep sharing and deep listening. During deep sharing, whoever wishes to do so can share what resonated with him or her from the reading and share successes and struggles with his or her practice without fear of criticism or judgment.
When I first attended Wake Up over three years ago, I easily took to the group because everyone was very friendly and welcoming. I have met some of my closest friends at Wake Up. After attending for a few months, I also felt comfortable becoming more active within the group since everyone was open-minded and no one forced an agenda.
Both Wake Up Tampa Bay and the larger Wake Up community hold inclusiveness as an important value, and young adults from all religious and cultural backgrounds are welcome in the group.
Attending Wake Up helped me establish a regular sitting practice during my initial months and has helped maintain it. Now that I have been part of the Wake Up for several years, I also have the opportunity to practice by helping newer members establish their own practice by leading meditations.
Wake Up offers Dharma study groups as well for those interested in going deeper with their practice. After establishing a mindfulness practice, participating in the Dharma study groups helped me really begin to heal and transform my mind and also motivated me to become more involved at FCM and sign up for my first intensive.
Today, Wake Up Tampa Bay has a regular attendance of around 15 to 30 people, and a bunch of us have become active in the larger FCM community. If you haven’t had a chance to meet any of us, please introduce yourself! We would love to get to know you. Strengthening bonds within the larger FCM community is one of the best ways to help the Wake Up community strengthen and grow.
If you would like to read more about Wake Up, you can do so on the Wake Up International website by Clicking Here.
Thanks to Chris Witrak, a member of the Tampa Sangha and Wake Up Tampa Bay, for this informative article.
In reflecting on years of our practices, Sam and I noted a mysterious turning toward something, a sense of a commitment to a view. While not initially knowing what this view was, we realized our old way of living and seeing life was not how we wanted to live our lives. What was it we saw?
I did not know and yet kept moving toward something over the years.
Something, like a knowing that is deeper than the thinking mind -- a seeing deeper than the episodes of the day, a mystery about what this knowable “something else” is. What is it? I don’t know. Yet when I am still and quiet, there is something.
We recall as children a peace in nature away from relationships and events, a calm. Somehow knowing there is something else. What is it I have been recognizing in nature, in some people who had an inner peace? We would gravitate toward these places and people over the years, not knowing why.
And so we commit.
The teachers of this 2,600 years of practice and study have looked and seen the mind movements and developed guidance for us on how to develop in practicing training the mind, so that we can learn to live a life with more understanding and compassion.
The Lojong slogans are to help us recognize where we are in our aspiration to live a life of meaning in the midst of so much we may not yet know of this mysterious mind. The slogans help us learn to develop an intelligent interpretation of our experiences and see the way we use our thoughts and emotions in our lives. We begin to see that how we use experiences is always up to us -- whether we use them for betterment or for continuing old familiar habits. The Buddha offered us encouragement and wisdom teachings, and the teachers of Lojong slogans guide us with specific slogans, such as making a commitment to the mind training.
This making of a commitment is different than other commitments in our lives.
When the teachers guide us to commit, and recommit, it is not a commitment like we have made in the day-to-day usual world, of promises made and broken, then feel guilt.
This is a different relationship with commitment.
A deeper voice making a promise we hear, of a way knowing that may not always be apparent in our days of failures and distractions, afflictive emotions, entangled relationships. Somehow there is this knowing like we experience this evening sitting together, still, an experience of being with one another and a view of living.
As we sit with support of a guided meditation, supported by each others’ attention, we cultivate qualities of our natural mind, and we touch this experience of calm, of space. There is a knowing deeper than the thinking mind, a view beyond day-to-day events. Whatever is happening outside does not affect this mind.
Then with the Metta practice, we wish this wellbeing for not only for ourselves, but also for others. How amazing the experience of heartfelt wish for our happiness and for others, realizing the effect of our wishes result in experiencing a connecting, a oneness. A mystery. Of what is this experience of such wellness?
When we gain some space for a wider view, the mind trainings give us opportunity for a moment to stop and not blame ourselves or others. An opportunity to look at ourselves and commit not to continue rehashing old stories, for this moment, and this moment, and this moment. And so we seek out the teachings, we seek out teachers, we seek out other people to be with and soak up their peaceful stable minds.
To strengthen our resolve, a certain amount of commitment is an essential element, a commitment to resist the seductions of old tendencies. Time and time again to deliberately think about our commitment to our intentions and the mind trainings and reaffirm our determination to do something meaningful and purposeful with our lives.
With recommitting, we become more aware and attentive to our daily situation and notice how many opportunities we ignore while ensnared in personal dramas. When we commit to capitalize on situations as they arise we see most of them are capable of bearing fruit. And so we commit: Whatever happens in my daily life, I will use every opportunity to practice training the mind.
Our thanks to Marilyn Warlick for this article drawn from a Dharma talk given by herself and her husband Sam at the Naples Sangha in November. Sam, led by Fred, recently gave FCM's first Mind Seeking Way talk in Tampa.
By JUDE SMITH
My name is Julian (Jude) Smith, and I believe humanity is very young. I recently attended the first of our three non-residential retreats on a Friday and Saturday, Mindfulness of the Breath and Body.
This was my first retreat and the longest I have ever attempted to concentrate continually.
I had some caution as the retreat started but was energetic and confident that I would be able to make use of the whole time. I did make use of the whole event, but my caution was warranted. This was difficult!
We talk a lot about how awareness is the natural state of mind, and that we are simply returning to it, but we all must choose to practice that. When we live the way we do day to day, we adapt to the conditional nature of our daily tasks. If we practice mindfulness to help bring some clarity and context back into our awareness, although we are returning to the natural state of mind, it is a profound shift in experience. It takes work!
I got through that challenge with some compassion for myself. I let it be okay that I wasn’t as strong as I thought I could be.
I let the experience be what it was without needing it to be “better.” Lo and behold, that thought of “better” was the main distraction from the present moment. By doing my best to simply be present, after multiple sessions of sitting, I experienced a mental clarity that was finer than my usual state of mind.
The Buddha teaches in the sutras that when a person truly experiences the Dharma, the change in him or her is great and can occur quickly. While I haven’t even scratched the surface of where this practice can take me, I found it incredible how much can change with only a couple days of sincere effort.
The opportunity to practice for these extended sessions is an awesome one that shouldn’t be passed up. The stillness of the hall and the clarity of the teachings helped a great result take place for me, and I felt a sort of “aliveness” that I rarely felt before without intense adrenaline. Although in instances of great stress or excitement, I have felt a natural imperative to be conscious, the effortlessness of natural clarity born of calm and focus has a far stronger impact.
The constant reminder of the practice, second by second, reaffirmed with each breath, serves as a confirmation of that awareness. In this sort of clarity, life is not simply issuing a challenge to be awake but is expressing its very "awareness" through us in a way that is utterly stable. The phrase "sit like a mountain" comes to mind. How different from riding the gusts of the world's winds!
The goal of this practice is to end distraction and experience the true state of reality. This is very attainable. The nature of life is right here and now if we choose to observe it. It just takes a little practice to break our habit of running.
The world we live in is filled with running people. There are people running after rewards, mental or physical, which suggests they are incomplete. There are also people constantly running away from stress, which only provokes the experience of being unequipped to deal with an issue, or that the stress in question is simply at odds with a livable life.
If we can break this habit and embrace every moment as it is, then we can realize every event in life is natural and purposeful, and we can be really free.
So the chance to sit is a precious one, and I can’t emphasize enough what an opportunity it is to have a community that provides events like these. I encourage everyone to take part.
Our thanks to Jude of Winter Haven, a member of the Tampa Sangha, for sharing his insightful first retreat experience. He joined FCM in March of this year.
By SCOTT NISSENSOHN
What does it mean to be on retreat? To me it’s a letting go of anything and everything and immersing myself in the practice. The retreat was a special weekend of teachings with special friends in a special place. Sangha is always a special place, but spending 14 hours a day for three days during the nonresidential retreat on the Four Seals of Buddhism was truly special. For someone that has always felt out of place, Sangha is home.
I was hesitant about signing up for the retreat at first because it was nonresidential and I live about a half hour from Sangha and let’s face it, Nebraska Avenue is a far cry from the Franciscan Center and the Hillsborough River!!
My hesitation was alleviated within five minutes of arriving on Thursday night. Settling in at dinner with old friends, I felt the weight and stresses of the world lift away as we sat down to what would be our last talking meal for four days. Bryan Hindert, Carol Meyer and the other kitchen helpers outdid themselves with one incredible meal after another.
It was an interesting experience leaving Sangha in silence and heading home each evening. What if I ran I to my neighbors? Would they think me rude for not speaking? Waking up in time to make it to Sangha by 7:00 am was a challenge, and Friday morning I walked into the foyer just as Marilyn was ringing the bell -- what a letdown, starting the first day in the foyer while my sisters and brothers were chanting. Lesson learned: I would arrive much earlier the remaining days!!
The more I settled into retreat and the quieter my mind became, the more at peace I was with myself and the world. There is something magical about being on retreat at FCM; the love and the energy is just wonderful.
The highlight of the retreat for me was my interview with Fred. As I sat in the chair waiting for Fred to ring the bell, I kept thinking, “What am I going to ask?” “What incredible insight have I had that I can share?” As I sat and watched my thoughts, I decided I would go into the interview with no agenda and see where it went.
It amazes me how within 15 seconds Fred can be right at the core of whatever is going on in your world. With a couple of pointed questions and his wise guidance I came to the realization that I’m not living an engaged life, that due to previous pain and suffering, I had disengaged from life. I’ve done a lot of healing over the past few years but I still haven’t fully engaged in Sangha and aspects of my personal life.
Fred helped me to see that I excel at work, that I’m fully engaged and thriving there, so why can’t I carry that over to my personal life? Fear. Fear of rejection, fear of not being accepted, not fitting in. I made the commitment at that very moment that I would live an engaged life. I would be more present and engaged when at Sangha, with my kids and with my friends. Fred showed me there was nothing to be afraid of, that it was my “self” that was afraid and that I needed to let that go. How powerful and freeing!!
Another highlight of the retreat was the closing circle. Listening to my brothers and sisters share their experiences and what they would take home from the weekend was truly special. Everyone shared from deep within their hearts, new folks and elders sharing what they had learned and what they hoped to take with them.
Once Great Cloud is complete and we will be able to hold residential retreats in Tampa, retreats will be taken to a higher level. To be able to stay on the grounds and roll out of bed into the Meditation Hall will be magical. I’m looking forward to spending that first retreat with y’all.
Thanks to Scott Nissensohn of the Tampa Sangha for this insightful article and to Alex Lerner for panoramic photo in the Meditation Hall above.
By NED BELLAMY
In the six years since FCM members began sharing the Dharma with a few inmates in Florida state prisons, the Prison Dharma Program has grown from offering regular programs at one prison to now meeting with prisoners at four institutions.
It began in 2013 with Chris Gahles, who, with encouragement and guidance from Rick Ferriss, shared Dharma with a few inmates. Then, Alex Lerner and Nancy Cunningham visited a prison, followed by many others, who began to faithfully visit institutions on behalf of FCM and continued for many years.
Recently, Ned Bellamy of Clearwater has transitioned to replace Chris Gahles into the role of program leader and is implementing regularly scheduled bimonthly visits to each of the four prisons. In the weeks when no visits are scheduled, the prisoners have DVDs of Fred’s Dharma talks available to view and discuss.
Now, the program is ready for more volunteers. We are inviting FCM members to consider joining our current team of eight volunteers to help us continue to nourish the seeds that have taken root in these parched prison settings.
FCM volunteers travel once or twice a month to meet with small sanghas at Zephyrhills Correctional Institution (ZCI), Polk Correctional Institution (PCI) at Polk City, Sumner Correctional Institution (SCI) at Bushnell, and Charlotte Correctional Institution (CCI) at Punta Gorda. Each two-hour session in prison includes sitting and walking meditation, chanting, a Dharma talk by one of the FCM visitors, and an opportunity to share and listen deeply.
Because most of us are a little apprehensive about visiting a prison for the first time, all new volunteers are accompanied by more experienced FCM hands for two or three months. Beyond the gates, we cross well-landscaped interior grounds to meet in the chapel with perhaps three to seven Dharma brothers seated on cushions. It is surprising how quickly we feel welcomed and even at home.
The chaplain and his staff are usually working in their offices down the hall and other services are often held in adjoining rooms. Ideally, each FCM team includes two people, with at least one male. The addition of women as team members has been especially effective and is encouraged.
We are looking for volunteers who have been FCM members for at least two years, with a daily practice, and who have participated in some retreats or intensives. We invite you to contact any of our volunteers to learn more about the Prison Dharma Program or contact Ned Bellamy at email@example.com or 727-642-5900.
A deep bow to Ned Bellamy, head of FCM's Prison Dharma Program, for this article.
Perhaps you would be interested in volunteering to help the FCM Prison Dharma Program, but how could you know? Perhaps listening to the voices of a few of our prison sangha brothers and then some FCM volunteers will give you a better idea of the experience of working in the program.
“This week, our two least favorite guards totally tossed my cell again. I don’t even get mad any more. Things are just as they should be: the guards’ causes and conditions lead them to toss my cell. My causes and conditions lead me to put it back together again. At least until their next shift on Tuesday.”
“Because my job is inside cleaning our dorm, I can arrange to sit in formal meditation for a couple of hours every day and read a lot about the Dharma. I live like a monk since I joined the sangha.”
On Easter Sunday after a heavy rain, the sun was shining over a flock of sandhill cranes, the prison gardens, and the lush green courtyard. A long-time practitioner walking beside us said, “Yeah, it is beautiful. And you know what? For the last 20 years, every single morning here has been beautiful.”
A prisoner with a violent past quietly shared his new aspiration. “I want to continue to reduce my anger, bit by bit, so that when I die in here, one person in this whole prison might come to my service to say I was a good man.”
“I have 69 roommates, many with mental health problems, so coming together in our small sangha is literally a refuge. Supported by friends, the sound of the bell brings us all home to the present. I’m encouraged by the teachings that remind me of what is possible for us, even during our stay.”
“Before I was incarcerated, I tried to meditate once, but was so wired, I couldn’t sit still. My levels of stress and vigilance dramatically increased in the chaos of this prison, until I came to Buddhism and meditation. Now, when my surroundings feel the most overwhelming, I’m learning to go inside.”
“I’ve been in foster homes, jails and prisons for 45 years. I was hopeless when two Buddhist teachers began to visit us regularly. They were the very first people who had ever noticed, much less believed in me. Inspired by their practice and teachings, I turned my life around and have been a committed practitioner ever since.”
“Sixty days of solitary is really tough because in this prison, writing and reading material is forbidden. Then, the Chaplain agreed to bring me two Buddhist books. I re-read them many times, and began meditating. I think they saved my life.”
“I’m new in here and facing a 40-year sentence. I have only three tasks: attend to my AA meetings, to my court appeals, and to my Buddhist practice. Period.”
Chris: What could possibly be better than sitting in a small circle sharing the Dharma?
Susan: No way to tell any difference between us. Who’s teaching? Who’s learning? I always leave with some treasure.
Alex: It’s satisfying to help them learn that their last freedom is the attitude with which they meet their day.
Kevin: The ‘guys’ inspire me to practice, and their gratitude for having FCM members share the Dharma with them is palpable.
Kerri and Dan: To share our experience of the teachings requires diligence and focus in our own practice.
Ned: These walled compounds are constant reminders that my old habits and beliefs imprison me in barbed wire of my own making.
Brian: Their deep and rich practice in very difficult circumstances is moving and inspiring.
Thanks to Ned Bellamy, head of the Prison Dharma Program, for this article.
Florida Community of Mindfulness, Tampa Center
6501 N. Nebraska Avenue
Tampa, FL 33604
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St Petersburg Sangha