By Richard Brady in May 1997
Twenty-six Order members from across the U.S. gathered February 15-17 at the Ralston White Center in the San Francisco Bay Area. During the weekend, we enjoyed sitting meditation, walking amidst the redwoods, group sharing, and delicious, mindful meals. The joyful feeling of being with sisters and brothers at this time in the evolution of our Order suffused the event. Because of the Order's growth during the past several years (almost 250 members now in North America), and Thay's focus on training the growing number of monks and nuns, we felt the timeliness of efforts such as this gathering and last September's Plum Village conference to organize the Order.
Jack Lawlor and Lyn Fine began with reflections on the Order and last fall's conference. They talked about the diversity of members and Sanghas. Jack asked, "What does an Order member look like?" and directed us to the Order's charter, Sister Chan Khong's Learnillg True Love, and the writings of Alfred Hassler for some answers. Lyn suggested that we cannot really know what we look like, and, in the words of Paolo Freire, "We make the road by walking."
We discussed local Sangha involvement in social action. Many of us and members of our Sanghas do social service work as our livelihood. A few groups have been involved in prison work, supporting Vietnamese and Cambodian relief efforts, and working in soup kitchens . Sanghas provide a place for us to maintain our equanimity in the midst of this work. Nevertheless, one participant asked whether outsiders would see the work of the Order as "engaged." Bringing Thay's teachings to many emotionally wounded people is also an important form of engagement. As more people become aware of Thay's teachings, we are increasingly asked to share and interpret mindfulness practices and teachings. Several participants stressed the importance of offering mindfulness practices to receptive children and young adults. The Community of Mindful Living, with its small staff and limited financial resources, could especially benefit from the service Sanghas could provide. Jerry Braza suggested creating a "Dharma Corps" of volunteers who would ass is the CML staff (see Announcements, page 35). One person suggested that Sanghas or individuals be guest editors for issues of The Mindfulness Bell. Another asked for more articles addressing topics related to Sangha practice, participation, and decision making.
Another topic was preparation of Order aspirants for ordination. In the past, there have been times when local Sangha members expressed their desire to be ordained shortly before one of Thay's visits. This put local Order members in an awkward position and pointed out the need for clarity and good communication about the process. Different Sanghas carry out the preparation process in different ways. In the San Francisco Bay Area, aspirants meet monthly with Order members to study selected practices and teachings. In the Chicago area, Jack Lawlor mentors several aspirants. One person suggested that the one-year preparation period could be seen as an opportunity for deepening rather than as a barrier. Recommendations for revising the Charter's provisions about the ordination process were made at the September conference (see Mindfulness Bell # 18). Jack welcomes comments about these recommendations.
The new version of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings was another topic. Members described their rich words as facets of a jewel, reflecting the light of mindfulness practice from different angles. Many felt they had not yet had enough time to fully realize the benefits of the revisions, but saw that both versions shared a common core of mindfulness. One participant described how his Sangha alternated between reading the old and new versions, using one to deepen the understanding of the other. At the end of the September conference, Thay welcomed responses to the new language. Some Sangha members have expressed an initial sense of discomfort with the word "Trainings," feeling it has a hierarchical tone. The phrase, "Fourteen Mindfulness Practices," was suggested as a substitute. Regardless of the wording, we agreed that Sangha elders (ordained or not) have a role to play in helping younger Sangha members develop their practice.
Smaller groups discussed consensus decision-making, transforming conflicts, and designing inclusive Sangha programs for non-participating partners and children. There were also presentations on family practice, maintaining warmth and tolerance in Sanghas, and engaged Buddhism.
We discussed how to incorporate Plum Village practices and forms into our Sanghas in a way that supports all our members, both those who find support in form and those who are refugees from too rigid a form. Inviting the bell, bowing, walking meditation, and other practices provide a constant, familiar environment that facilitates mindfulness for many . In one Sangha, new people are trained as bell master to reduce the sense of hierarchy. Instruction is given with a light touch, tolerant toward the little mistakes everyone makes when learning this practice. The Beginning Anew practice is a strong way to promote healing, but only a few Sanghas use it due to the regular presence of visitors and newcomers.
Arnold Kotler spoke about progress in establishing a national center. Thay has asked Dharma teachers Arnie Kotler, Anh Huong Nguyen, Wendy Johnson, Jack Lawlor, Therese Fitzgerald, and Lyn Fine to comprise the Program and Practice Committee of the center. With support from Pritam Singh and his development company, attention is now focused on finding a property in northern Virginia.
Everyone agreed it would be valuable to have regular North American Order of Interbeing gatherings, perhaps every six months. One person was concerned that frequent Order meetings might detract from local Sanghas and create a sense of separateness from the Extended Community. Another expressed the feeling, " let a thousand flowers bloom." Penelope Thompson (3 10-392-1796), Linda Parker (713-880-3130), and Richard Brady (30 1-270-3923) will investigate the possibility of future gatherings, including one after Thay's September retreat in Santa Barbara. Please contact them with your interest. Susan Murphy (415-969-3452), who helped to coordinate this meeting, is also a resource for those interested in planning similar events.