The practices offered during the retreat and the confidence and authenticity of the Roshi sparked in me a sense of life flowing as both form and formlessness."
~ Charlie Stewart, FCM Tampa Sangha Member
“Mindfulness of the body in the body” is the First Establishment of Mindfulness offered by the Buddha in the Satipatthana Sutta.
Mindfulness of the body is an entry level practice for beginning practitioners and a foundation practice for experienced practitioners for opening and sustaining each session of formal practice. In this retreat, the Roshi demonstrated to the participants, through very skillful guided meditations, how mindfulness of the body in the body can be a portal for mindful living, understanding Dharma teachings, and cultivating wisdom.
The Roshi began by guiding us to awareness of our two hands as objects of meditation with the key instruction being to feel our two hands simultaneously from the “inside” while setting aside ideas about the construction of our two hands that have been formulated by observation from the “outside.”
Taking us step by step into experiencing our hands, he led us into noticing the difference between the experience of our two hands and the anatomical view of our two hands. The “inside” experience is one of formlessness, while the anatomical view that has grown out of looking at our hands from the outside is that our two hands are made of concrete elements, such as fingers, hair, and bones.
Completing an exercise and listening to participants’ experiences of each meditation step, the Roshi would decide what to explore next. Taking us deeper into the experience of the body, based on the same foundation of deep awareness of our two hands, he led participants in practicing acceptance and gratitude for our bodies. He encouraged the participants to develop and hold the attitude toward the body as that of “our beloved.” He pointed out that because the body holds the imprints and summation of all our past experiences, embracing the body in this way heals all wounds from the past.
Always starting with the simultaneous awareness of the two hands, the Roshi continued to take us through the hands, the face, the eyes, and the world around us to experience the formlessness of each phenomenon. This he said is the formlessness (emptiness) that is the subject of the chant in the Heart Sutra. Form is emptiness (formlessness) and emptiness (formlessness) is form. Neither one is negated or eliminated by meditation, but meditation reveals and allows us to experience the formlessness and change our relationship of attachment and grasping with regard to the form.
Some participants shared experiences of feelings or views of the world that were reminiscent of experiences they had earlier in life, especially as children or young adults. The Roshi pointed out that since we are uncovering the clear reality of what we are and have been all along, such experiences from the past can be kinesthetic anchor points for what we are uncovering in the present and gives us confidence to look deeper.
The Roshi cautioned that the profound openings and insights that came from our experiences in this retreat would fade and be forgotten unless we intentionally cultivated and applied our insights in life off the cushion. He shared that in square dancing with his wife they had learned more than 200 different movements that could be performed in different combinations. These movements, which are the basis for a smooth and enjoyable performance, must be taken to dance floor and practiced continuously to retain them and to be proficient. So the participants of this workshop must continue to practice touching the formless to know it clearly and to reflect on how its presence changes our understanding and approach to the formed, i.e., the conditions of our body and the views, stories, and attitudes of our mind.
As I reflect on the personal impact of this retreat, I can feel something was stirred in my consciousness, the formulation of insight, but at this time it is not complete. As I write this, I see that insights come from the formless and their arising is known by a feeling. Conceptualization comes later. From past experience, I know that if I cling to the conceptualization of an insight, I stop the unfolding and get stuck. Holding an insight loosely and examining it by looking into the feeling, allows the insight to deepen and evolve.
The practices offered during the retreat and the confidence and authenticity of the Roshi sparked in me a sense of life flowing as both form and formlessness. Also the boundaries and barriers we experience in ourselves and in the world are constructed (imagined) and can be deconstructed.
For me, the Roshi’s teachings, guided meditations, and practices brought the ideas of Dharma into actual experience, such as the form and emptiness of the Heart Sutra. I can also sense more of an experiential understanding of the practices and the Dharma I studied with Fred in the recent wisdom intensive. (It must be noted that participants of all levels of meditation experience were getting insights about their lives and practice.)
The retreat confirmed for me the closeness and straightforward presence of truth that all of us can readily experience when we open and dissolve the boundaries of what we think is true. Compassion and connection are also experienced through the opening of these boundaries.
As the Roshi foretold, these exercises brought memories of past experiences when I was especially concentrated and open and could sense a deep connection with my surroundings and the people present. At these moments, I felt in perfect harmony with all that was happening, knew exactly what action was appropriate, and felt free to act. These moments were no accident, but at the same time they were not created by thinking about them or planning for them.
Finally, I will take away a renewed intention for continuous practice. Only continuous practice of these meditations, reflection on the insights, and action based on the insights will bring true healing and transformation. It all starts with “mindfulness of the body in the body.”
I bow with respect and gratitude to Roshi Hogen Bays.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Roshi Hogen Bays offered a retreat on March 1 and 2, 2019, for “open minded practitioners who are interested in exploring their identification with the body” and “stepping into the Great Mystery.” A group of 70 practitioners ranging in experience from beginners to those with many years of experience undertook the journey. The Roshi was a Dharma brother of our teacher Fred as they began their Dharma study together under Roshi Philip Kapleau at the Rochester Zen Center in 1968. Both left the Rochester Zen Center in 1975 to continue with Dharma study and practice on separate paths. In recent years Fred re-established contact with the Roshi and invited him to visit FCM and offer teachings. Roshi Hogen Bays is the co-abbot with his wife, Roshi Chozen Bays, of Great Vow Zen monastery near Portland, Oregon, and has been a leader in the Zen Community of Oregon since 1985.
In my 10-year relationship with my dear husband, I’ve spent maybe nine and a half years of it battling about the dishes. Having higher standards for tidiness, I would find myself time and again resentfully washing dishes, repeating phrases to myself like:
When I started coming to Selfless Service work mornings, I learned to watch my automatic reactions to cleaning and began to transform them. I brought awareness to my practiced negativity and was able to be with the work I was choosing to do. Noticing that I was choosing to do it for the benefit of my community, and was not being forced, I was able to generalize those patterns to my work at home:
I practiced in this way for several months at home, and it changed my life drastically:
I have deep gratitude for the opportunity to continue practicing at Selfless Service work mornings to reinforce these patterns and would recommend it to anyone. These mornings do not feel like a morning of chores. They feel like joyful mornings with community, caring for the Center and each other, and learning about ourselves through practicing mindfully.
Dana is a member of the FCM Tampa Sangha.
Beth Schroeder, Naples Sangha member, writes of her experience of the recent retreat and Sunday dharma talk at FCM by Ben Connelly, visiting teacher and priest at the Minneapolis Zen Center.
Ben Connelly, a Soto Zen priest, loves the unlikely word “cool.”
It’s a youthful, fun, easy-going word -- just like Ben. He brought this attitude to us as a guest teacher from the Minneapolis Zen Center as he taught the Dharma using the “Song of the Grass Hut Hermitage” poem as a template. He is also the author of the book, Inside The Grass Hut, which deeply explores the poem’s meaning, line by line, showing his love for the poem with careful analysis and discoveries that he shared.
We followed Ben in exploring how this little 1,300-year-old poem written by a monk living in a grass hut on a rock -- an impermanent dwelling in which “no one of importance” lived calmly and happily teaching the dharma to others -- could be so important in the 21st Century.
“Song of the Grass Hut Hermitage” dates back to around 700 and was written by Shitou, a monk who lived and taught dharma in a remote mountainous area of China. While other Buddhist teachers at the time lived in more comfortable large monasteries, Shitou chose to live in conformance with what he taught. At the time, people tended to be named after where they lived, so the name Shitou literally means “one who lives on the rock.”
Cool also is a word used to describe jazz. Ben, also a jazz musician, used music to help us understand how to listen, connect and be with what is. Music has many subtleties and layers to its meaning. Music/sound/vibration speaks to me almost as much as visual art. So it was a delight that one of the first things we did during the retreat was chant the entire text of “Song of the Grass Hut Hermitage.” We chanted it again several times during the retreat, following Ben’s resonant tones.
Read, let it sink in and then reflect, he told us. First, read the poem/song, letting the words wash over us, not striving to understand them. Next, allow the blended sound of our voices to penetrate our bodies, then read it both softly to ourselves and then allow one phrase to bubble up in our awareness. Then, we were asked to examine that phrase.
For me, words crystalized and feelings followed, allowing an easy connection to the ancient wisdom. It all became very fluid as he directed us to notice how it felt as the sound flowed through our body, mind and consciousness. “Remember to feel,” he reminded us. “Emotions are part of the experience.” He pointedly directed us to not leave anything out. “Let yourself be immersed in it,” he said.
Do you recognize the Four Foundations of MIndfulness? Here they are, as explained in an article in Lion’s Roar:
More than 2,600 years ago, the Buddha exhorted his senior bhikkhus, monks with the responsibility of passing his teachings on to others, to train their students in the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
“What four?” he was asked.
“Come, friends,” the Buddha answered. “Dwell contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending, unified, with concentrated one-pointed mind, in order to know the body as it really is. Dwell contemplating feeling in feelings… in order to know feelings as they really are. Dwell contemplating mind in mind… in order to know mind as it really is. Dwell contemplating dhamma in dhammas… in order to know dhammas as they really are.”
The brilliant way Sensai Ben led us into deep Dharma was inspiring. He said things like “Let go and loosen the thought,” helping me to cling less to the intellectual and engage my body, mind, feelings and consciousness more fully with the wisdom of the song. We came back to this theme many times during the retreat -- when chanting, when sitting, when eating, when doing anything -- let yourself be immersed in it, have a relationship with it, let yourself be steeped in the practice (like a tea bag steeping in a cup of water).
Today we live in a culture that leads us away from significant immersion. We are privileged, lucky and wise to have found a path that leads us to connection and liberation from the damage our culture can inflict.
Ben reminded us the very first night of the retreat to take care of our Buddhist lineage. To take care is a sacred action. By hearing these very words, and allowing them to merge with our being, we come back to this sacred path and the great line of Bodhisattvas who stepped onto it eons ago. Our actions bring the practice and lineage into this world and the evolution of how we will evolve as a species, as a world and as beings.
It is doubtful we will retreat as Shitou did -- more likely we will stay in the midst of it all. However we look at it, we are part of it. We are in it. When we practice for ourselves, we practice for others. We inter-are. We are part of Shitou now, we are part of the chant, we bring it to where we are with it in each step.
Awesome, yeah, and daunting. We have the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) as our vehicles. With the Sangha we can travel on a true path and support each other.
Ben brought us his warm, light, wise Dharma touch traveling from chilly Minnesota. We may only need to walk to the mailbox and say good morning to the post person to continue this great gift of Dharma he brought to us. But when we walk with the lineage in our hearts, we take the dharma transmission with us. Who knows what effect it will have, but it certainly deepened my understanding of how to practice the Dharma in my little hut off 3rd Street North in Naples.
It’s all cool, right, Ben? Hope you visit again soon.
Beth is a professional artist and art teacher whose paintings on silk scrolls grace the FCM Meditation Center in Tampa.
Thanks to Carol Green, Naples Sangha, for this article about the Winter retreat on mind training, written just before the beginning of the Spring Dharma Path Intensive studying mind training, or Lojong.
Our minds are going to think, no matter what we do. So why not use that amazing, mysterious capacity to build a wholesome, happy life, rather than an unhappy, uneasy, frazzled one? Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
That was the theme behind the winter FCM retreat led by our teacher Fred. He even named the four-day event “Mind Training: How To Use the Thinking Mind to Support Your Transformation (Rather Than Sabotaging It!).” Throughout the retreat, he drilled the challenge home: Become aware of what is in your mind and act on your ability to mindfully choose what your mind is thinking.
Truly radical stuff. You mean I can choose what my gnarly, swirling mess of a mind is thinking? But it has “a mind of its own…”
Right on, Brothers and Sisters! I can take the steering wheel of my mind. Whoa, this is a Big Deal!
Fred told us to learn the difference between reality and our thoughts about reality. We were sitting at 6:00 am in pre-dawn light of the Franciscan Center shivering in the chill when we could have been snoozing under a warm blanket and I forgot to put on my socks, and my feet were cold. This was my reality. If there was drama, it was our fabrication, he told us. (Yep, I dramatized it).
My Storehouse Consciousness thought this chilly sleepiness was real and projected barriers, blew up a big deluded balloon of a Self, and didn’t want to meditate. This Self was a Trickster, the Joker of King Arthur’s Court, the Kokopelli of the Navajo. Its role was to continue to create problems. It popped up at the most inopportune times. I looked this Self over. Not pretty.
This is why mind training is so important, Fred reminded us. When unwholesome, negative or distracted “stuff” arises, if we use mind training -- plus mindfulness and awareness -- we will see our thinking is distorted and can change our thoughts – and thus our emotions. If we are mindful, we can see the “stuff” when it is arising and make choices.
Mercifully, my mindfulness returned. I saw reality: It was simply 30 minutes before dawn beside the Hillsborough River and I was sitting in a room with 40 friends trying to wade through the morass of Self and Distortion and find Calm. The irony was that Calm was sitting right there on a peaceful morning.
Fred continued to spoon feed us with great love and deep patience, a nibble at a time. Do you want to “get” this? Or not? Turning to the Vitakkasanthana Sutta: Relaxation of Thoughts, he gave us five steps to train our minds. Fellow retreat attendee Dan Vantreese creatively came up with an anacronym – STAIRS:
ST – Substitute Thought: Substitute a wholesome thought for an unwholesome thought. If that isn’t enough, and doesn’t tame the unruly mind, go to the next step:
A – Analyze/examine: As yourself: What suffering will this thought bring me if I don’t change it? If that doesn’t work, go to the next step:
I -- Ignore/distract: Ignore or distract yourself from the thought. If that doesn’t work, continue to the next step:
R – Relax: Relax, calm yourself. Then go deeper and ask: What underlies this thought? If that doesn’t work, you must be really attached to this unwholesome thought. It’s time to get stern:
S – Stop it! Tell yourself you have had enough. Simply order yourself to “Stop it!” Stop thinking the unwholesome, negative thought that causes you to suffer.
And finally, Fred threw in one last helpful suggestion. As you consider the thought that is causing you to suffer, ask yourself: Are you sure? Is it (this thought) true?
The retreat was a wonderful preliminary to the Dharma Path Intensive beginning this week, “Living the Bodhisattva’s Life: The Seven Points of Mind Training (Lojong).”
FCM offers a Death And Dying Program, including end of life transition support. Under our Dharma teacher Fred Eppsteiner's oversight, a team of FCM members, who have previous experience in the area of death and dying, recently completed training to become death doulas.
FCM’s death doulas assist members who are dying or who are caring for a loved one who is dying. Through their mindful presence and experience with the process of dying, they offer support and helpful information through home visits, and upon request, guided meditations to calm and stabilize the mind of the dying person.
Thanks to Fran Reilly of the Naples sangha, a member who recently completed the program and now shares her experience of FCM’s death doula training.
When the idea of learning to become a death doula was first discussed with me, I had two reactions – excitement and intimidation. Yikes, what does that mean exactly and what would be expected of me?
I was both excited to have this opportunity to work with Fred and other team members to learn more and at the same time intimidated at the prospect of becoming a death doula. Trusting in my Buddhist practice and knowing that life is impermanent – that we all die at some point, never knowing when -- I decided to make the commitment.
Over the course of the past five months I have been part of a core team of 10 FCM members enrolled in death doula training. I knew from the outset we would be called upon to look closely at our capacity to face our own deaths and that of our loved ones. Of course that makes sense: If we haven’t faced our own fears, how could we have the stability and clarity and the ability to bring benefit, guidance and support to others? So, we have been sharing reading materials and other resources, discussing, learning from Fred and each other as we follow through with our commitments.
Early on we learned that our focus as a death doula would be to act as personal coach, a support and guide to help the dying person with their aspirations. We would learn to offer practices to reduce worry and fear and help the person stay grounded and as present as possible. We would not act as social workers or hospice personnel because there are many other services available in the community. Our core job would be to benefit the other person and family in their time of need. Clarifying our role helped me to have more focus and encouraged me to keep learning about the many practices that are offered in our tradition and avail myself of the wisdom teachings that are here for all of us.
The Buddhist perspective on death is one of transition. Fred helped us understand it is a journey. I appreciated the transition analogy because it is easy to understand from this perspective. There is a continuity of consciousness so our mind state at the moment of death and leading up to death is important. The body is dying and the mind, as a stream of consciousness, is entering the world beyond birth and death. We discussed and shared many of the sutras, chants and practices that can help create a wholesome mind state during the dying process.
Through these past five months I’ve come to appreciate all the resources we have through our community and each other. I am not the only one who is going to die, I am not the only one who is going to lose a love one — this is the reality of life! As I open my heart, willing to let go of self-centered fears and to become open to the spaciousness beyond, an ease permeates my being. I have also been inspired to focus on taking care of my own advanced directive, getting my mind clear regarding my own transition, and having the family discussions that are important for all of us. I realize it is an ongoing process, a lifetime journey, and I continue to learn each and every day.
We are fortunate to have so many heart-centered practices, meditations, chants, and books to support our learning. And most of all, I am grateful for my Sangha brothers and sisters who inspire me with their efforts and open hearts, and our teacher who inspires and guides us along the way.
I’d like to end with the words of Thich Nhat Hanh from his book No death, No Fear: “If we know how to practice and penetrate the reality of no birth and no death, if we realize that coming and going are just ideas, and if our presence is solid and peaceful, we can help the dying person. We can help the person not be scared and not to suffer much. We can help the person die peacefully. We can help ourselves live without fear and die peacefully. We can help ourselves to understand that there is no dying. To see that there is no death and there is no fear. There is only continuation.”
With gratitude to FMC member Ned Bellamy for this sharing
On the retreat grounds before dinner on our first day, I walked the labyrinth’s outer circumference. I didn’t take the time to proceed inward toward the center. But after the retreat, I thought of my movement around the outside of that circle a lot, after Fred challenged some of us to consider if our Buddhist practice was marked by “movement, but not progress.” That description seemed an apt, albeit uncomfortable, way to describe my own practice.
For five months prior to this retreat, I’d honored a personal commitment to increase my involvement with the sangha and to deepen my practice. But by the retreat’s end, I realized I still had not been doing enough to progress along this path. I was still looking “for an easier, softer way.” This weekend provided the time and space for me to finally examine some of my self-created obstacles.
First, although my practice had recently become my highest priority, my other interests, including some volunteering and research for a book, were eating into my formal meditation time. It seemed very clear now that to develop the concentration skills and habits of mindfulness I needed to progress, I must devote more time and attention to my practice than I had planned. I decided to relinquish indefinitely some of my other time-consuming pastimes.
Second, although I had been reading a lot of Buddhist literature, I felt stuck in my meditation practice. I was a little bored and not finding meditation very satisfying. I had begun to think I just didn’t have the meditative chops to do this right, or well enough. During the retreat, we spent many hours in guided meditation that reignited my curiosity about, and interest in, the contents of my mind. The result, so far, has been a lessening of my impatience, an increase in energy, and greater enjoyment of formal meditation.
Finally, I recalled that I never had an ongoing mentor or teacher in my personal, academic, or professional life. My resolute self-reliance reminded me of a grandchild insisting she could tie her shoes by “me self.” I acknowledged to Fred in a small group that I gave up trying to do this alone — and needed his help. Fred and I have since met and I’ve also asked a senior practitioner to help coach, encourage, and challenge me.
I was reminded of how much of meditation is about remembering. During formal meditation, of course, we remember to return to the object of meditation. In my case, the larger challenge occurs off the cushion: remembering to be mindful in the first place, remembering to slow down, and then to stop. Lately, I’ve focused on my drive times -- especially difficult occasions for me to remain present.
Fred, Angie, and Bryan reminded us during the retreat to protect our mindfulness practice from incursions of thoughts about the past and future. It was useful to notice that my most troubling future thoughts were about all four pairs of the eight worldly concerns — and not just one or two of them. Thoughts about gain or loss, or praise and blame, for example, were so potent because each pair was accompanied by both fear and hope.
Once I’d identified these recurring thoughts, I found these concerns easier to interdict at mindfulness’ gate, before they had a chance to get a running start.
The most far-reaching result of my retreat was the wake-up call to confront and close the gap between my stated aspiration for my practice — and the time I’d set aside to fulfill it. Rather than feel discouraged by this realization, I feel enthusiastic about embracing a more realistic view of the work ahead.
The other benefits of the retreat largely resulted from our many hours of guided and unguided meditation together. With a freshness that feels like “beginner’s mind,” the following fruitful changes to my practice have been unfolding:
Since the retreat, I am focusing more attention to my informal meditation. Every 15 minutes my phone invites the lovely sound of a new re-mindfulness bell. Walking the dog is more a more effective meditation practice now that I stand still to “turn on the mindfulness switch” before opening to choiceless awareness.
Also, my time spent driving has always been a challenge to my mindfulness, so my new oft-repeated private gatha to interrupt my thinking is: “Ned, where are you now? C’mon back.”
With gratitude to Patty Meyers for this sharing
Despite no professional connection to or background in the climate change issue, I’ve felt a strong calling to get involved. But with a lack of expertise and living on a small island near the tip of Florida, what real difference could I make upon this massive global issue?
But the reality of global warming was hitting too close to home to ignore. Our little island was one of the first and most impacted towns hit by Hurricane Irma. Two of our neighbors’ homes had to razed and we sustained over a foot of water in our garage. The ongoing toxic proliferation of both red and blue/green algae blooms has seen our beaches littered with dead marine life and the subsequent economic, environmental and health fall-out. So despite this lingering feeling of hopelessness and impotence, when the opportunity arose to be in San Francisco during the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS), I booked my flight.
The experience turned out to be far more rewarding and inspiring than I could have imagined. Through information gleaned from my sangha friends at the Florida Community of Mindfulness, I was introduced to GreenFaith, a global interfaith coalition of religious traditions sharing concern for the planet. I contacted them and they immediately put me to work making phone calls to various Bay Area religious organizations soliciting participation in the RISE UP for Climate, Justice and Jobs March. As a volunteer parade monitor, on a beautiful cool sunny morning, I escorted a spirited yet respectful 30,000 person-strong contingent down Market Street in a united show of concern and action. The week ended on a quieter more reverential tone with an all-day symposium entitled “Loving the Earth,” held at Spirit Rock in the pastoral hills of West Marin, a fitting finale to this life-affirming week.
In between, I attended numerous activities mainly organized through GreenFaith and Interfaith Power and Light. The official GCAS conference was reserved for high-ranking government officials, climate experts, policy wonks, businessmen and environmental advocacy groups but free affliliated events and seminars were happening all over the city. One in particular was an all-day forum entitled Women’s Assembly for Climate Justice, which highlighted the moving stories of tribal and indigenous women leaders and the tactics they are using to halt the takeover and destruction of their sacred lands primarily for fossil fuel extraction. There was focus throughout the conference on these proud bearers of traditional culture and wisdom who are leading the movement to reclaim Mother Earth's rightful place as provider and protector. One evening, there was a powerful multi-faith service at Grace Cathedral featuring a grand procession, uplifting music and thoughtful words from clergy representing all the major religions as well as emissaries from the Holy See and a livestream shout-out from H. H. Dalai Lama. The universal message was clear -- it is our duty as people of faith, as caring communities that respect and honor the sacredness of Planet Earth, to stand up, speak out and actively work for her survival.
I chose to participate in these faith-sponsored events because it’s become increasingly clear, that for me, any activism must be steeped in the grounding of mindfulness. It is only now, with my deepening practice and the inspiration of so many, do I feel prepared to face my fear and consciously turn towards it… to move beyond paralysis into a place, a space, of well… healing. Joanna Macy, Buddhist lioness and environmental activist, spoke of fear as only one side of a two-sided coin, the other being love. They are inseparable. By confronting one, I am touching the other. This can be my practice, my “living on the razor’s edge,” as Kristen Barker of One Earth Sangha likes to describe it.
As Buddhists, we believe that at the heart of every emotional, existential and environmental meltdown there is an opportunity for great transformation where anything and everything is possible. I was continually reminded how great insight can arise from great suffering -- not to actively create it, but to recognize and embrace it, understanding the opportunity it presents as a doorway to ultimate liberation. Christiana Figueres, past executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change, asked us to harness the rage and despair and “use the energy of pain to transform.”
Figueres, who became an adherent of Thich Nhat Hanh after turning to his teachings in the midst of an emotional breakdown while organizing the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, is quoted as saying “This had been a six-year marathon with no rest in between. I just really needed something to buttress me, and I don’t think that I would have had the inner stamina, the depth of optimism, the depth of commitment, the depth of inspiration if I had not been accompanied by the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh.”
This path of confronting climate change will take real courage and fortitude. I now realize there is a growing coalition of committed eco-warriors, teachers and sisters and brothers out there who will support me with encouragement, resources and wisdom. As Thay has stated, “It is possible that the next Buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next Buddha may take the form of a community, a community practicing understanding and loving kindness, a community practicing mindful living. And the practice can be carried out as a group, as a city, as a nation.”
This was the resounding message of my week… it will take a community, a powerful congregation of like-minded individuals to turn this tide. Not just the dedicated folks of Plum Village or Florida Community of Mindfulness or Marco Island or the US, but a global awakening, a slow but persistent shift of consciousness, a world Sangha… and, as our teacher Fred reminds us, the inner peace, strength and love that is required starts with me.
Source of Unceasing Commitment
Marco Island, FL
Florida Community of Mindfulness/Naples Sangha
Building A Unified Community: Connecting Wake Up and the Broader Sangha
With gratitude to Bryan Hindert 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 was a moment of connection across generations. I smiled.
At the end of a recent retreat with the Florida Community of Mindfulness (FCM), a sangha in the spirit of Thich Nhat Hanh based in Tampa, a fellow Wake Upper shared an insight during closing circle. He was surprised to learn that some practitioners older than forty were dealing with many of the same issues that challenged him and his Wake Up friends.
The seeds of aspiration to build a sangha where members of all generations could connect, learn from each other, and see they aren’t so different after all were beginning to bear fruit.
I began my own Dharma journey with FCM, an all-inclusive sangha. In 2013, my teacher, Fred Eppsteiner, the founder and Dharma teacher of FCM, encouraged me to find a way to help young adults who came to our practice center to connect with our community and to the Dharma.
In all honesty, I was not thrilled. I had been practicing with FCM for a few years and was quite happy being one of the only two or three really engaged young adults in the sangha. Although I had been making significant transformations in my life and had healed much of my own wounding and mental suffering through the practice, looking back, there was a whole area of life I was avoiding because of the pain it often brought me. Due to various causes in the past, I would go into a comparing, jealous, and self-critical mind-state when I was around other young adults. The idea of spearheading a group to invite more young people into our sangha felt counter-intuitive, to say the least.
Luckily, I had learned through practice that listening to my thoughts was risky business, and Fred had taught me that to grow in the practice we can’t be afraid to get uncomfortable. Thus, with Fred’s guidance, and a bit of a nudge, Wake Up Tampa Bay was born.
Before we had our Wake Up group, young adults would visit FCM, but they would usually come only once or twice, and then disappear. Once we started having a Wake Up meeting every other Friday night, when young people would come to the sangha, I or one of the other younger members would personally welcome them and invite them to our Wake Up group. It became clear that the ability to connect with people their own age was a key factor in whether young adults continued to come to sangha gatherings.
Over time, our Wake Up group grew from an initial three members to twenty to thirty participants, a thriving community of young adults supporting each other in living wholesome, mindful lives. In addition to our Friday evenings, we also began having our own Wake Up Days of Mindfulness, Wake Up Dharma study and practice groups, regular social activities, potlucks, nature walks, and many informal events.
In one sense, it seemed that FCM was becoming a more age-diverse sangha. In reality, however, two separate sanghas were beginning to emerge. In the early days of FCM, most of those who came to Wake Up Tampa Bay were also interested in participating in the activities of the broader sangha. However, as attendance grew, a shift began to happen. More and more, the young adults who came to Wake Up seemed satisfied with the peer support and did not seem particularly interested in attending gatherings of the broader sangha. Rather than being an extra support to younger members in our community, Wake Up had become, in a sense, an island unto itself.
While it was wonderful to know that a community of practitioners had developed that nourished and supported mindfulness practice in young adults, it seemed that both Wake Up and FCM were missing out on an important connection by this bifurcation of the sanghas. To me it seemed that our Wake Up community had much to gain from the wisdom and experience of the older, more seasoned practitioners, as well as an opportunity to deepen our practice through the many Dharma programs and the connection with a teacher that FCM offers. Likewise, FCM could benefit greatly from having the youthful energy of Wake Uppers join in their activities. It was also striking that our sangha, while professing to offer an alternative path to the unwholesome elements of our culture, was, in a certain sense, mirroring the division and separateness we often find between different age groups in society.
Thus, with Fred’s guidance, a few of us Wake Up organizers began a concerted effort to integrate the two divergent groups. While the first few years of Wake Up were aimed at creating a space where young people could come to heal, transform and support each other in mindfulness and meditation, these past few years have been more focused on integration into the larger FCM community. Our intention has been to create a unified, truly age-diverse sangha that offers both peer support for the Wake Up group and the experience of seasoned practitioners.
To foster this integration, many initiatives were experimented with, and much consistent encouragement, creativity, and patience have been needed. There are signs that the fruits of this effort are blossoming as more Wake Uppers are now participating in much that FCM offers. For instance, at our recent sangha picnic and at our last tea ceremony, we had about as many Wake Uppers as non-Wake Uppers in attendance. We also now have about thirty Wake Up-age participants who have become formal members of FCM. With close to 300 FCM members in total, this is still a small percentage, but we have come a long way from the original three young adult members. We are also beginning to see a good representation of Wake Uppers at our weekly Sunday sangha meditations and Dharma talks, and many are beginning to take part in more of the intensive Dharma programs that FCM offers, working with mentors, and taking advantage of having a Dharma teacher to guide them in their practice.
Perhaps most telling, this year we had two Wake Up members take on leadership roles within the larger FCM community. We in our Wake Up group are maturing in our practice and there seems to be a real thirst for deepening our study and engagement with the Dharma. Also, as more Wake Uppers are getting to know the older practitioners in a deeper way, there appears to be an eagerness to explore further ways of connecting with them.
Last February I had the opportunity to meet several other Wake Up Ambassadors at a Wake Up Care Taking Council Retreat at Deer Park Monastery. In our discussions during the retreat, I learned of the many ways that Wake Up sanghas are watering wholesome seeds in young adults and helping them to heal their suffering, cultivate joy, be of service to others, develop leadership skills, and begin their journey on the path of Dharma. What also became clear in our discussions was that the division that FCM had experienced between its Wake Up group and the broader sangha is the reality for most of the Plum Village sanghas in North America, rather than a special case of our Tampa Bay community. Although our experience in Tampa may be somewhat unique, since our Wake Up group was born out of our broader sangha, perhaps it may be helpful to share what we learned in the experience of integrating our two groups. I believe it is in the best interest for the entire Plum Village community to integrate these two sangha streams, and it takes consistent effort from both ends to make it happen.
For Wake Up organizers who would like their Wake Up groups to benefit from a connection with the broader Plum Village sanghas, I would suggest to begin by asking which of your Wake Up activities are key to meeting the needs particular to young people, and which do not necessarily need to be age specific. Our Wake Up organizers have taken several steps to cultivate a connection with the rest of FCM. We:
I encourage my fellow Wake Up organizers to consider the importance of integrating our Wake Up groups into the broader sangha for the health and well-being of the Plum Village community. Although the initial development of separate Wake Up groups has allowed the space for young adults to experiment and find their own connection to the practice and lineage, the broader sangha needs our energy, creativity, and excitement for the practice in order to continue beautifully into the future.
For practitioners from the broader Sangha who would like to support and connect with Wake Up groups, the following efforts have been fruitful in our community:
In general, I would also encourage all-age sanghas to understand the need of young adults to have space to support each other in the practice and experiment with how to bring the practice into their lives. I encourage giving young practitioners a chance to take on responsibility in the sangha and, when ready, to take on leadership roles. When young adults are given this opportunity, I believe they both step up to the occasion and take more ownership of the sangha.
From a personal perspective, these past five years of sangha building with Wake Up and FCM have helped me to untie many internal knots and heal emotional wounds I had developed around interacting with my peers. The act of doing something meaningful in my life while taking care of and transforming my suffering has allowed me to feel whole again. I now enjoy spending time with both younger and older people equally and have many Dharma friends of all ages. Through this experience, Fred has taught me to set aside my personal preference and to instead do what is most beneficial for the sangha, and what is most beneficial for beings. In putting aside my personal preference, I have also found a truer happiness and well-being than I could have ever found from staying in my comfort zone.
In the Dharma,
True Legendary Opening
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!
With gratitude to Andrew Rock for this sharing
This past week FCM members Carol Green, Nancy Natilson and Andrew Rock were among the 140 practitioners at the Earth Holders Retreat at Camp Courage on Clear Lake, Minnesota. The retreat was organized in fruitful and generous collaboration by the Earth Holder Community’s Caretaking Council, three local Minnesota Plum Village sanghas, and monastics from Deer Park Monastery. Four monks and four nuns from Deer Park led the retreat. It was inspiring and joyful to be with the monastics, each of whom manifested their practice and happiness in her or his own unique way of speaking, singing, walking, eating, and sitting.
As with other Plum Village retreats, we spent most of our days in mindful silence, beginning in the meditation hall with sitting meditation and chanting, and guided meditations, or sutra readings. We also had a Touching of the Earth and a reading of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Love Letter to Mother Earth. After breakfast we sang outdoors in a circle, followed by wonderful group meditation walks along the beautiful paths of Camp Courage, through cool green forests, along the lake and across wooden walkways over little streams. Each day my body and mind felt more peaceful and easy, each step on the earth truly a miracle.
The daily Dharma talks given by the monastics were a true continuation of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings and presence, delivered with clarity, wisdom and humor. In a talk on the Five Mindfulness Trainings, Brother Phap Ho spoke of how mindfulness helps us to make choices better aligned with our aspirations and to practice happiness and gratitude for the conditions we already have. If we want to address climate change and the suffering it brings, we can become more aware of the afflictive habit energies we still carry that lead to patterns of consumption that are toxic for us and for the world.
Each afternoon we met in small family groups for deep sharing and deep listening, each group facilitated by a monastic and named for a Minnesota river in keeping with the retreat’s theme, “Going as a River.” As in the retreat generally, groups were a mix of new and old practitioners, many from the Twin Cities area and the Midwest, and members of the Earth Holder Community that was founded in 2014 by lay and monastic members of the Plum Village community. We shared how our minds were gradually calming as we silently sat, walked and ate our tasty vegan meals in mindful community, and the happiness we felt as we became more attuned to the nature around and within us. We also shared about our challenges at home and in practice, our fears and even despair at the degradation of our environment and societal discourse.
As the days passed and our minds settled, we spoke more of how our practice of nurturing openness, peacefulness and compassion can contribute to our individual and collective engagement with the world in a way that is skillful and even joyful. And as the retreat progressed we saw that we were part of a kind, caring community, and that we were truly present for one another and for Mother Earth and all her children.
By the end of the retreat I felt that I had found peace with a question I had obsessively pondered and struggled with for the last few years: what does engaged Buddhism mean in the context of accelerating climate change and the suffering it brings? Is the practice of meditation and mindfulness sufficient, or should I – and other practitioners who wish to help heal Mother Earth and her children -- place equal emphasis on action?
I had understood intellectually that the answer, at least for me, is both meditation and action, that the practices of calming and opening, concentration and insight would organically lead to actions appropriate to the situation. I had heard our teacher Fred say that we could not hope to have a more peaceful world if we were not peaceful people, or a more just and kind world if we ourselves were angry and judgmental. But I nonetheless continued to resist, to feel uneasy about what I saw as an imbalance between practice in the meditation hall and action in the world.
Now I have finally realized and accepted that the real question is whether we can show up in life the way we want to, with equanimity, compassion and openness. As Fred recently said, “Life is where we practice, but the cushion is where we learn.” When we are truly present, we can see what is unfolding, and we will know how to be and what to do.
The 2018 Earth Holders Retreat ended with a beautiful and moving ceremony. Standing in a circle by the lake, the community was invited to each find a one or two word aspiration to take with us from the retreat. One by one around the circle, each of us shared our aspiration as we poured a bit of lake water from a pitcher into a big bowl. When we were finished, Brother Phap Ho carried the bowl down to the lake, and mindfully poured it in, to go as a river with the waters that would ultimately flow into the mighty Mississippi.
May our collective aspirations truly go as a river, carrying our practices of mindfulness and community, understanding and compassion, happiness and healing into our communities and our world.
True Collective Healing
Sept. 1, 2018
Florida Community of Mindfulness, Tampa Center
6501 N. Nebraska Avenue
Tampa, FL 33604
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