By Mitchell Ratner
In the spring of 1997, the Washington Mindfulness Community Order of Interbeing aspirants initiated mentoring by writing a letter of aspiration to our local Dharmacharyas, Anh-Huong and Thu Nguyen, and to the other four local Order members. Each aspirant was asked to choose a mentor from the current Order members.
Four women asked to be considered for Order membership. Each was already attending the bimonthly Mindfulness Trainings recitations that bring together Order members and others interested in learning more about the Order. The meetings provided an opportunity to formally recite the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, and also to eat and walk mindfully together and share our lives and concerns.
We all understood that the mentors hip period was open-ended--it would continue until the aspirant and mentor felt the aspirant was ready for ordination. The nature and goals of the mentoring were also open-to be worked out by the aspirant and mentor. What generally occurred was that mentor and aspirant met several times, mainly to talk about the aspirant's practice and motivation for seeking ordination, to answer questions about Order membership, and to explain responsibilities of and expectations for Order members. Other central focuses were the aspirant's ability to embody the practice in family and Sangha relationships; whether they could share from their hearts, receive and give emotional support, and resolve conflicts. Because the aspirants all had been actively involved with the Washington Mindfulness Community for one to four years and had attended many retreats with Thay and senior teachers, there was little need for mentors to assign readings or teach specific mindfulness practices.
A month before the Omega retreat, the Order members, including Anh-Huong and Thu, met to discuss the aspirants. At the very beginning of the meeting, the criteria for ordination came up--on what basis should we decide? A few minutes into the discussion, Anh-Huong picked up a nearby tomato, smelled it, and asked, "Is it ripe?" What made the question particularly interesting was that the tomato in question was a variety that was yellow with streaks of green when ripe. The tomato question ended the discussion of criteria.
We then considered each candidate. The mentor spoke of her history with the community, strengths, and in some cases, hesitations of the mentor or aspirant. Others asked questions and offered thoughts. Being ripe meant different things for different aspirants. In some cases, we focused on what they were already doing-some had for a long time already done everything expected of an Order member. In other cases, we focused on what support the Order of Interbeing community might offer the aspirant, how membership might strengthen their practice. Much of the discussion had to do with the ways the practice had entered the aspirants' lives and hearts. Was the aspirant really able to live the practice? What difficulties were they having?
After an hour of heartfelt, focused, and caring conversation, each of the four aspirants was either recommended for ordination or conditionally recommended, contingent on the clarification of some remaining issues. In general, we all felt that the process from beginning to end (especially the tomato) was very organic. It grew out of an intimate and harmonious Order of Interbeing community, the procedures were flexible enough to bend easily to changing conditions, and the focus stayed throughout on nurturing joy and equanimity in Order members and aspirants alike.
Mitchell Ratner, True Mirror of Wisdom, is an applied anthropologist, and conducts workshops on mindfulness and meaningful work.