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Fruits of the Seeds of Thay's Transmission

08 Oct 2018 7:06 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

With gratitude to Angie Parrish for this article, which was originally published in the Plum Village publication,  "the Mindfulness Bell." Please consider subscribing to the Mindfulness Bell to help support our greater Plum Village community. Visit www.mindfulnessbell.org/subscribe for more information and to subscribe.


It is summer 1994, Plum Village, France. Thay speaks the following words as he transmits the 'Lamp of Wisdom' to Fred Eppsteiner, giving him the Dharma name ‘True Energy’:


“Brother True Energy, this lamp has been transmitted to us by the Buddha himself and so many generations of teachers and ancestors. Now it’s been entrusted to you. Please practice in such a way and live your daily life in such a way that this lamp is kept alive, always shining. You have the duty to transmit it to your children and grandchildren in the blood family and in the spiritual family.”


Although Fred had been a student of Thay’s at this point for 20 years, it is with this ordination almost 25 years ago that Fred began to share the Dharma and create a sangha in Florida that would eventually become what is today the ‘Florida Community of Mindfulness.’


After the ceremony in France, Fred returned to his home in Naples, Florida, a community then untouched by the Buddha’s teachings, and began to slowly introduce the Dharma, initially through all-day introductory mindfulness workshops. Seeds were planted, and a small sangha began to blossom in Fred’s living room, meeting at first monthly, then bi-weekly, weekly and eventually twice a week.


Across Florida, others who had attended Thay’s retreats formed small sanghas and began to seek out Fred as a Dharma teacher, including individuals in Tampa Bay, Miami, and Daytona Beach. The Tampa sangha, of which I was an early member of, was fairly typical of these small groups, comprised mostly of newcomers to both mindfulness and Buddhism. At our weekly gatherings, we meditated and took turns leading discussions of books by Thay and other Buddhist teachers. Our enthusiasm was strong, although I smile when recalling how eclectic our ‘Dharma’ was in those early days; it was not unusual for our weekly discussion to sometimes meander away from the path of practice into an intellectual wasteland! Discovering Fred, an authentic Dharma teacher ordained by Thay, was just what we needed, and we began to make regular “Dharma Road Trips” to Naples for Days of Mindfulness and retreats, as did practitioners from other small sanghas across Florida.


By 2001, there were often 25-30 cars parked along Fred’s residential street in Naples for the weekly sangha gatherings in his living room. While he had happily “birthed” the sangha in his home, Fred realized that the group had matured to the point that it was time for them to take responsibility for the care of the sangha. After much discussion, they decided to incorporate as a not-for-profit religious organization and moved from Fred’s home to a rental space at a Naples yoga studio. Not everyone in the sangha was happy with this move;  Why leave the easy, comfortable space in Fred’s home and have to worry about leases, money, and finding others to step forward to care for the sangha? Nonetheless, the move was made and the sangha blossomed further as many new individuals found the more public space and profile to be very accessible and welcoming.


In addition to weekly meditation and talks, Fred began to bring all the Florida groups together spiritually in a common path of practice by offering “Intensive” Buddhist study/practice programs, typically lasting three to -six months at a time. We also grew to know our sangha brothers and sisters throughout the state by coming together frequently for Days of Mindfulness and retreats.


By 2005 our Tampa living rooms were becoming very cramped. At the same time, Fred was increasing his teaching time in Tampa but with the proviso that we needed to move out of our living rooms and find a public meeting space. So we took what felt like a huge step and rented space in a local yoga studio for two hours each Thursday evening. Once again, there were a number of people who were more comfortable with the living room group, but we realized that our vision of sharing the Dharma and reducing suffering in the world called on us to step out of our comfort zones. The Tampa sangha continued to grow, as individuals seeking an alternative to their stressful and often unsatisfying “worldly” lives found us, primarily through word of mouth.


Fred’s move to Tampa in 2006 brought a much greater quality and consistency of Dharma teachings, and within a couple of years we began to look at expanding our offerings to create more doorways for those seeking change. How could we best serve this growing appetite for the Dharma? Should we offer more classes? More opportunities for meditation? More opportunities to connect as community?


Fred and a core group of about 25 members met to explore possibilities in 2010. Should we add more hours to our weekly rental arrangement? Should we rent our own space full time? We wereIt was 2010, deep into the recession and its resulting low real estate prices, and a member ventured, “Now is the time to buy a building.” Some reacted with shock and fear, some with excitement and enthusiasm., in response! What if we were able to own our own space?: What would we do with it? How would we pay for it?


With Fred offering vision and support, this core group decided to explore the purchase of a “home” for FCM. Paramount to embarking on this exploration was having an established, cohesive, and growing core group of members. Some of these core group members were newly retired or approaching retirement, and were committed to offering significant “selfless service” to support the establishment of our new center. We canvassed the larger sangha and discovered that there appeared to be strong financial support for the purchase of our own building.


With enthusiasm and perhaps some initial naivety, we began to look at properties, soon learning about the many City of Tampa code requirements for parking, occupancy, and other use factors. High prices and limited parking quickly re-directed our search away from our original target locations. One day a member who had been volunteering at a rundown and mostly abandoned church in a very poor area of town called Fred to ask that he come look at the property, which included three buildings and over 7,000 square feet of usable space. It might be available for a very low price! We visited the property, with many of us taken aback by the seriously neglected state of the buildings and overgrown grounds, as well as by the very visible “‘street business”’ that was occurring nearby. Could it be possible to make this property, in this neighborhood, into a home for FCM? Once again, Fred helped us to imagine what might be possible, and where better, he asked, than on this street of obvious suffering to create a haven of Dharma refuge and beauty?


On August 1, 2012 we closed on the purchase of our new home! Having successfully raised 100% of the funds needed to purchase it and complete the first phase of rehab, we embarked with much joyful effort on painting, plumbing, window replacement, wiring, floor refinishing, altar creation and much, much more, finding our meditation seats amidst the dust and slowly creating a beautiful home and garden for the sangha. We began to more deeply understand the meaning of ‘selfless service’ and community as we created avenues for caring for our grounds and facilities and serving our sangha through various programs.


We realized that it was easy to look like Buddhas when we came together in rented space for two hours each week. Being together much more frequently to clean the bathrooms, work in the kitchen and gardens, and otherwise serve the sangha taught us how to bring our practice more deeply into relationships, let go of our egos, and to begin anew when on occasion our speech and actions may have been unskillful. As more members embraced the practice of service to others, our Order of Interbeing sangha also grew and today numbers just over 50 ordinees and aspirants.


As we settled in, we found that having a physical ‘home’ gave us great flexibility for offering more meditation programs and Dharma teachings, classes, spiritual friends groups, a Wake-up group, family and teen programs, and more. We now also offer three concurrent Intensives for practitioners at different experience levels.


We have also found that people are very hungry for community, and that the warm and welcoming attitude of our members draws in many individuals who wish to spend meaningful time with like-minded individuals in a community that practices the way of harmony and awareness. Fred has always emphasized the importance of community, and we are very deliberate about how we engage, mentor and otherwise care for our members. We now have nearly 300 members, while many non-members also attending many our various programs.


While we have historically held three retreats a year at a nearby Catholic center, demand for the transformative experience of retreat has continued to increase, and we realized that having a residential capacity at our Tampa center would be very beneficial. Once again, Fred’s vision and leadership helped guide the Board through an exploration of the possibility of replacing our small and aging caretaker’s cottage with a new 4,000 square-foot residential building. After a lengthy petition to the City Council, our plans to construct ‘Great Cloud Refuge’ were approved and funds were raised to make this vision a reality! When completed in early 2019, we will be able to offer six to 12 retreats per year, for groups of 24-42 people.


Fred never set off to build a large community and a Dharma center, but simply took to heart his teacher Thay’s instruction to transmit the Dharma. His great wisdom, skillfulness as a teacher, and compassion for all have attracted and benefited so many beings, and the members of the Florida Community of Mindfulness are honored and deeply grateful to be on this path of transformation and service with him. We are also grateful to the other centers and Buddhist practitioners who have shared their wisdom and experience with us, and will happily share what we have learned with those who might benefit from our experience, as well. 


P.S: As instructed by Thay, Fred has brought the practice to his children and grandchildren and his 100-one hundred year- old mother, Ruth, the matriarch of our community!


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