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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
By BEATRICE BOLES
The very first time I crossed the threshold of FCM was on a Thursday evening for Extended Meditation. That was over three years ago, and I continue to be a “frequent flyer.” Extended Meditation, with or without an optional private interview with our teacher Fred, is one of the most precious to me of FCM’s many activities.
If I’m going to have a deep meditation at all during the week, it is likely to be here. Structure, silence, and the support of the teacher and the group give me the self-discipline I need to make my best effort. For me, it’s a mini-retreat.
As the saying goes, “Structure provides the container that holds the practice.” Two senior students generously facilitate to ensure that the evening runs smoothly. Time is controlled by bells, whose sonorous tones announce the start and end of seated and walking meditation periods. And for those members who choose to opt in, on some evenings the noise of a tinkling bell carries the invitation for a teacher interview.
Other than the bells, there is near-perfect silence. I love it that there’s no talking at all in the Meditation Hall during the two hours (except for a few short instructions from the bell master and a dedication of merit at the end). Once I’ve entered the hall, I’m committed. So I just relax, rest my mind, and resolve to go deeper.
If sometimes the length of the two 40-minute seated periods seems challenging, and if tension or pain arises in my body, I’ve learned that it’s best to just observe the sensations -- and they will transform. There are no outside distractions, nothing to think about or plan, and no words to formulate. As the sun sets, the light in the room silently changes.
All I have to do is sit, walk, and sit again. Bow. And leave, carrying the silence home.
On many evenings, after about 20 minutes, members are given the chance for an interview with Fred. (It’s completely optional.) For those of us who are reticent, it can be challenging to take the plunge when interview time is announced and to stand up to take a seat in the interview line. Once we’ve broken the ice and done it a few times, we develop more of a relationship with the teacher -- so it gets easier.
At the sound of the teacher’s summoning bell, when it’s my turn, I walk downstairs. Following the traditional formality of “dokusan,” I bow at the door of the little room, enter, close the door, and take a seat. Then we talk till he signals the end of the interview. He and I bow, he rings his small bell, and then I exit with a bow at the door. Returning to my seat upstairs, I usually feel lighter.
I find Fred very easy to talk to. He seems patiently accepting of wherever we are on our developmental path, even as he stirs us on and offers his great insight and encouragement.
My ideas about life sometimes differ from his, and when I’ve been confrontive, he’s handled my challenges cheerfully and respectfully. With Fred’s coaching I’m learning to release my grip on concepts and ideas, and this has been freeing.
Overall, these interviews have helped me to deepen my practice and become a better human being. Extended Meditation is an ongoing, rich opportunity on Thursday nights. I’m grateful for my mini-retreat.
A bow of gratitude to Beatrice Boles, Tampa Sangha member, for this thoughtful article.
By MARILYN WARLICK
Through the years with the FCM community, I have seen my relationship with selfless service develop as my meditation practice develops.
While from the outside, the “to do” lists appear the same, over the years the very same tasks have grown into a flowering of joyful efforts and from heartfelt gratitude now comes a desire to give.
Now this may seem a superficial statement.
How can computer work from home or making the drive to the meditation center for meetings, or selfless service on work days grow into flowers of joyful efforts? I find mindful experiences offer a cumulative effect of touching my practice and life deeply.
FCM selfless service, for me, began upon my arrival in Tampa from North Carolina in 2012 to help clean and remodel our newly purchased practice center. I had practiced with FCM for many years through distance membership and brief retreats. Now Sam and I were living on the grounds with the community 24/7!
Helping with this new beginning was exciting; however, I was also seeing familiar mental afflictions of “fitting in,” “getting it right,” or “seeming competent.” The second arrow, “but this is a mindfulness community, so I should not be having these afflictions rise?!” of course added to the energy of the doubts and anxious thoughts.
Developing a mindfulness practice within a community made a big difference for my life. This community of brothers and sisters were all aspiring to cultivate mindfulness energies and use practices such as working gathas and mindful breathing to nourish wellbeing for all of us, including myself. The joy that also arose in these first days and months was quite amazing.
So this mixture of joy and suffering in these early months was interesting, and I wanted to learn more.
For example, as I began to learn to invite the bell, I saw familiar afflictions rise -- my desire to be seen as competent and appreciated. But this time, this effort to learn a new skill was in the light of mindfulness and of a community supporting awareness. As a result, increasingly these afflictions were actually seen as “friends rising.” I could gaze with mindfulness and come to know these afflictions. In sharing our experiences as brothers and sisters, I could gaze in a much more friendly light of mindfulness upon these familiar companions in life.
As we all gave time and energies to cleaning, helping with various events at the new center, I had the opportunity to further learn. With any task, stopping, relaxing and calming were key, whether it was inviting the bell, or picking up trash left by the homeless neighbor who slept on the grounds last night. Mental afflictions arose and increasingly dissolved.
In the light of mindfulness, these afflictions while seemingly small or petty, actually had been a source of a great deal of suffering over the years. Now, in a mindfulness community, I could see the risings and learn to sit with and let go of these afflictions around work, acceptance of others, or self-criticisms.
As afflictions lost their energy, a rising of gratitude became present and generosity in giving service was energized. I could more clearly see and reflect upon the subtle mental chatter as the years rolled by. This was the chatter that, for decades, I had followed in my work, my relationships, my private time, this non-stop mental chatter.
Selfless service has helped me learn to be in the moment. The work gathas remind me to come back to just this moment. The brothers and sisters I spend time with enliven my heart and mind with joy as we share an intention to bring peace to ourselves and peace into our world. This common intention is like fuel in the body-mind to energize actions, try something new, make time in my life for one more task.
Earlier in life, taking on tasks would mean becoming so busy in the doing I would forget what I was doing or where I was. Now, selfless service is a welcome opportunity to come back to my breath and practice remembering what I am doing and where I am. I am in the present moment, a beautiful moment.
Marilyn Warlick is a member of the Tampa sangha, a retired mental health professional, founder of FCM's Death Cafe, and leads various workshops for FCM.
By DONA MENZ
Our teacher, Fred, spoke to a full house at Asheville Insight Meditation on the Sunday following our retreat at Southern Dharma in June. With little publicity, he drew a crowd of around 40 practitioners and those curious about the practice.
I invited friends and family after our sangha brother and OI mentor, Ken Lenington, let me know Fred would be speaking.
I am always curious to see people’s first impression of Fred. There is something pure and direct that happens, much like the Dharma itself.
When Fred discovered that his topic for the talk had not been publicized, he did what he does so well and invited the group to ask questions about their practice.
The first man wore a t-shirt with the name of the sangha and was clearly a dedicated practitioner. Fred spent a few minutes, maybe not more than five, and helped the man turn, look at his awareness and rest there. The man was clearly moved and had the experience, right there and then and … while I certainly cannot speak for him, it felt as though he shifted, that his practice had changed, his experience had changed. I felt my breath catch and my heart open.
I believe we have all witnessed this in one way or another when Fred works with someone in a group. But for some reason it hit me anew how vital and important this work is – for all of us – and how fortunate we are to have a realized teacher to so beautifully guide us on the path.
Questions followed and Fred did what he does so well -- answered with clarity and wisdom and no hint of indulgence. My friend chuckled after one exchange and leaned over to whisper, "I like him, he doesn’t take any crap." I laughed and nodded and felt a curiosity about my teacher, how he teaches like this is his last day or ours, like his hair is on fire, hoping you will have realization, so kindly stopping us in our immersion in obscurations and snapping his fingers with his words: wake up!
After the talk, other friends commented how much they had enjoyed it and friends who couldn’t make it asked when he would return. There is such a beautiful desire for the Dharma, but especially on this level. I have never met a teacher like Fred and I could sense from the room that many shared in this knowing.
But it was my brother whom I was most curious about. He and my sister-in-law, Carlan, our sangha member from Greenville, SC, attended. My brother is curious about many things but has never been drawn to practice. Afterwards, he said he had enjoyed it very much and commented that he liked that Fred didn’t give anyone the answer but let them find their own. Such a beautiful way to describe Fred’s wise style of sharing the Dharma. I join all of you who are in deep gratitude for our teacher Fred.
Dona Menz is a psychotherapist in Asheville and Hendersonville, NC, who works with clients suffering from trauma, depression, anxiety and addiction. She follows a spiritual perspective using mindfulness and meditation. She is in FCM's Dharma Transmission Program.
Bill MacMillen of the Tampa Sangha has signed up for a tour of India, "In the Steps of the Buddha - Saal Pilgrimage," November 9-22, 2019, and is advising FCM members and colleagues in the event a group might be formed. Please email Bill at email@example.com if you are interested.
The tour will visit Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment; Deer Park at Sarnath, where he gave his first teachings; his favorite meditation places such as Vulture Peak in Rajgir and the Jeta Grove at Sravasti (where he spent 24 rainy season retreats), and Kushinagar, where he passed away.
Also, it will visit Lumbini, where he was born, and the palace at Kapilavastu, where he spent his childhood, as well as monasteries, temples and shrines. The trip includes visits to homes of locals in cities and villages, and a walk to the Dungasiri Mountain (Mahakala Cave) where the Buddha practiced his austerities.
At each site, Shantum will tell stories of the Buddha’s life and give teachings to help us understand the Buddha as a human being, the drama of his life and the significance of what he taught. There will be time for daily sitting and walking meditation, regular discussions and contemplative time. The creation of a traveling sangha will be an important aspect of this trip, giving the journey a greater cohesiveness and building support for those seeking to deepen their practice.
The tour maximum is 35 participants, and the cost is $5,950, without air fare. The website (http://www.buddhapath.com/Saal.html) has detailed information.
Shantum, an ordained dharma teacher in the Zen Buddhist lineage of Thich Nhat Hanh, is the foremost expert on sites associated with the Buddha and has been leading pilgrimages since 1988. He has co-authored books such as Walking with the Buddha and been a consultant for films like BBC-Discovery’s Life of the Buddha and BBC-PBS’s The Story of India.
Don't Wait to Begin Preparations for This Summer's Hurricane Season
By EVELYN HASEMAN
The “storms of life” bring us life-changing events such as serious illness, physical injury, death of a loved one, the joy of birth, divorce, hurricanes and tornados -- only a few of the many events that may impact our lives.
The sangha offers us support with its collective energy of mindfulness, compassion and lovingkindness. Whenever we find ourselves in a difficult situation, our sangha friends are there for us. Community involvement and caring are components of our compassionate sangha culture.
Hurricane season can bring one of those “storms of life.” June is the start of hurrica
ne season. We hope all of our FCM Sangha practitioners will be prepared with a plan in place.
Determining where to go if a severe storm approaches is an important part of a plan. After exploring the requirements of sheltering with the Red Cross, we determined that our Practice Center (as with most facilities other than certain public schools built to a very specific code standard) does not qualify as a shelter. Since we will not be able to offer shelter to our members, this is the time to decide if you will stay home, stay with relatives or friends, or go to a hotel or a public shelter.
Most of us are familiar with a storm preparation list, but it is easy to get caught off guard and find ourselves looking for supplies when shelves are empty. You can ease your mind by preparing ahead of time. In addition to a place to go, you will need food, water, lanterns, batteries, medicines and other necessities listed on the national hurricane link, http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/hurricane/plan.shtml.
We recommend that you check the link now.
The beginning of hurricane season reminds us to think of others and how to offer assistance. When we find ourselves in a difficult situation, sangha friends can help us stay in the present moment. We can offer support by being present for each other. Whether it is a hurricane, tornado, or any kind of physical or mental suffering, we can offer our lovingkindness, compassion and mindfulness.
Evelyn Haseman, Sangha Welfare Lead and Tampa Sangha member, facilitates support of FCM members experiencing life-changing events. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By JAN KERNIS
In a 2018 wisdom intensive Dharma talk, our teacher, Fred, told us about resting in mindful awareness: "It is best to approach this as if you knew, learned and understood absolutely nothing."
The recent workshop, Buddhist Wisdom on Death and Dying," emphasized the "don't know mind" of which Fred spoke was the wise and compassionate approach to the process of death and dying -- both our own death and that of others. It was clear that the fundamental Buddhist teachings of mindful awareness that we learn and practice at FCM to eliminate our suffering in daily life are also those helping us at death.
What made this workshop valuable for me was the completeness of the offering: its supportive atmosphere, reflections and guided meditations, poetry, Dharma, practicality, references and opportunities for experience, healing and transformation.
The workshop had a guided meditation to help us look at how our priorities shifted as we saw our time of death become closer. Daily busy-ness and “to do” lists dropped away as death was imminent.
We reviewed some common aversions and anxieties of death and how Buddhist understandings can help us think about them. Much as we try, "magical" thinking that "death doesn't apply to me" is not reality. The Parable of the Mustard Seed was offered to shed light: Kisa Gotami, grieving the loss of her baby, learned from Buddha's skillful teaching as she went from house to house in search of a family untouched by death, that life ends for all living beings. The Five Remembrances and Nine Contemplations were shared and seen as part of daily practice to keep this awareness and presence fresh.
A reminder that “our attitude is our freedom” was offered to suggest to us to find meaning and purpose in being, no matter the circumstances. In view of the loss of control faced at death, what attitude can we cultivate now in preparation for our death and those of our loved ones? We learned that Buddhism advises us to go toward adversity, as in Lojong saying to use adversity as a path of transformation and awakening. As Thay says, "Hello, anger, my friend." We were shown how to use Tonglen, a Lojong practice, to help transform pain and afflictive emotions.
There were meditations that structured opportunities for us to look deeply beneath the surface of our “cultured” responses and to gently and safely reveal our fears and insights of death and dying. The dissolution of the story of fear of pain at death that I had been telling myself created space for compassion and understanding to flow to others. I was able to see how much suffering I had been causing myself, a reminder that deep openness of awareness to impermanence and death are the key features of life as well.
We were reminded that "we are going to the Mystery" and, with reference to Frank Ostaseski, founder of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, "This is not like an Agatha Christie mystery where we investigate and find out who did it in the end." While the mind thinks it's got it all together, be ready, it's going to be a surprise, and the best preparation is being able to be with awe and wonder, grow in confidence and trust of the process, and rest in mindful awareness.
The point was made that our practice has deep purpose in death as well as in life -- familiarizing us with our natural awareness, our "don't know mind," our presence in each moment. This familiarity mitigates the panic and fear at death (as it does in life). The reality is that we do not know how we will react. The whole is a mystery -- life and death -- and it is the practice of remembering to rest in our awareness and becoming familiar with this that enables us to be truly present with compassion and wisdom.
The profound Dharma teachings, the mystery of life and death that we are, as presented in this workshop, point to the essential Buddhist teachings on emptiness, the "don't know mind," resting in our awareness, that we have been cultivating in our daily practice and intensives at FCM. I left feeling at home, at greater ease with death, and with deep gratitude for this offering by our Dharma sister and brother Marilyn Warlick and Alex Lerner, with profound inspiration from our Dharma teacher Fred.
Jan Kernis, a member of the FCM Tampa Sangha, is a newly ordained member of the Order of Interbeing.
By ANDA PETERSON
Work with what you are.
If you are a fawn
stand still as wood
in a field of tall green grass
at the edge of a forest
your dark eyes wide open
flit and fly home
through the twilight.
your soft brown ears
upright will catch sounds
of wind through the pines.
If you are a field mouse
scurry, slipping between
If you are a human
see the fawn, the pines, the wildflowers
feel your breath as wind,
how your heart beats as
bird, mouse, fawn
then and only then
your tender work
By GABBY BETAGGLIO
Gabby Betagglio and Gerry Stinnett vacuum meditation cushions at a recent Selfless Service work day.
I wanted to be more involved in my Wake Up community, so when Bryan Hindert approached me about leading the Selfless Service aspect of Wake Up in the hopes of getting more people involved in doing altruistic work, I accepted his invitation.
On my end, I was motivated by the thought of being more involved in a community that I was growing to love and to become attached to. In other words, it felt a bit selfish -- rather than selfless -- for me at the time. Since then, I have learned that these feelings are normal. Altruism, selfless service, the act of giving is something that can be cultivated. Props to Bryan for that lesson.
Just because the motivation initially isn’t “I want to be of service to others” does not mean that it cannot eventually become that. So long as our intention is to be more altruistic, more grateful, more geared towards thinking of others rather than ourselves, practicing at events such as the work morning will cultivate that virtue inside of us. At least, that is what I have noticed for myself.
At first glance, I can’t say that I am ecstatic about thinking about others before myself. This is because I have personal goals, I am constantly feeling like there isn’t enough time to do what I want and the thought of giving my time on a Saturday morning definitely clashes with a lot of my motivations. But if I think about it…thinking about myself too much causes me suffering. It really does.
Of course, goals are important and I will continue to work towards reaching them. However, I have found that these work mornings help grow an essential quality that I wish for myself…an altruistic quality that will, among many other things, benefit my mind and nourish my life.
To talk a bit about the actual time spent at the selfless service mornings…let’s just say there is a curve. During the morning meditation and group powwow to decide the day’s jobs, I feel peaceful and grateful to be there, healthy, on a Saturday morning.
Then the work begins. It begins, and so does my mind. Thoughts about what else I could be doing pop up. Sometimes even anger! “Why am I here? I need ‘me’ time after the long week I had at work! This isn’t fair!” All sorts of thoughts… “I should be cleaning my own house. I should be doing the thing that I have been avoiding for months anyway…” All of this comes up as if on cue when the work begins.
I don’t have much to say about it except that the reality is that these work mornings last three hours and no more…and really, there is much more to be gained than there is to complain about.
So, I will say a bit about how, again, Bryan, suggested I deal with this yuckiness.
One way is by shifting my perception. Instead of hanging out in anxiety-world as described above, I, we, can think about how much others will benefit from the work that we are doing. How people will come to the beautiful center, beautiful in part because of our work, and maybe even transform their lives.
Another way is to shift the mind toward gratefulness. “I am so grateful to be here with my community. Not everyone has a loving community such as this. I am working, and so is everyone else around me. They care for me and want peace and happiness for me just as for themselves.”
So those are strategies that I have recently learned and I am looking forward to using at the next work morning I attend.
Going back to the curve, after the work finishes we have our closing circle. That is where all the gratefulness and bliss sets in. I truly enjoy this time, sharing about my experience with everyone else while sipping tea and enjoying some healthy snacks.
Here is where it’s obvious to see that we are not just working…we are doing much more that is of huge benefit to ourselves. The altruistic act of doing service is of benefit to ourselves. Just had to reiterate that, in case you, like me, need the reassurance. :)
Thanks to Wake Up member Gabby Betagglio for this thoughtful article!
Florida Community of Mindfulness, Tampa Center
6501 N. Nebraska Avenue
Tampa, FL 33604
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