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The Community as a Refuge

You Are Not Alone

Laughing with the tangerine in Chile, photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

This article shares about the supportive and enriching experience of the Chilean Community of Mindfulness, the Sangha Juntos como un río (Together Flowing Like a River), and the virtual Sangha Mudita (Joy) that arose during the pandemic in May 2020.

The Chilean Buddhist community is made up of different local Sanghas that met in person before the pandemic and now meet virtually; some are from different parts of the city of Santiago and others are from outside the city.

We have the aspiration to take the practice to every possible corner, especially in moments of uncertainty and world suffering. In 2014, a group of ten monastics from Plum Village came to Latin America to help us spread the teachings of our beloved teacher, Master Thich Nhat Hạnh. For the first time, the visit of a delegation from Plum Village to our country became a reality.

It was such an enriching experience to see a long-awaited dream come true, and it spurred the formation of other small Sanghas, which, little by little, sowed the seeds of the Dharma into the lives of many, many people. This simple beginning inspired me and many friends to try to sustain the practice in the
community and nourish our inspiration. Many people gave their unconditional support. It was a great learning process that inspired us to remember what unites us in practice, develop the will to walk hand in hand with the training, and learn how to build a Sangha together. Our biennial retreats were indispensable for fostering patience, loving speech, service skills, and beginning anew.

Caring for and sustaining the Sangha and daily practice have been a tremendous challenge for everyone, especially during these last two years. We have had to face events such as social injustice and the pandemic not only in our country but throughout the world. Fear and political division intensified with the acts of social injustice in October 2019. In the aftermath we tended to become polarized, hypervigilant, or isolated. We resumed the practices in the same month the human rights violations occurred in Chile and tried to create a safe, open, and warm space. We always feared that some sharing or opinion could create more division or suffering, but the need for all of us to be able to express what we felt in a way that was both authentic and respectful of each other was a precious practice.

Between ten and fifteen people attended the practices, and many times we were only a core group of four or five people. The gatherings were in person. We tried to make a space that was open, communal, and focused on a more conscious, compassionate, and inclusive Chile.

Monastics on Latin America tour, photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

There were people who came only once; others came on a more regular basis, but we let go of the expectation that people would commit to a weekly practice. That was also a challenge for us. So we began the practice with a welcome and then said, “The only requirement to be here is to breathe and be a human being.
You are welcome here. Let’s practice together.”

In early 2020, there was a hiatus, and shortly after we resumed the practices, the pandemic began. I think that all of March and April went by without our knowing what to do. Trying to understand what was happening with the pandemic, we did not even know how to continue; we did not know if the rest of the Sanghas continued to practice or if they would help or accompany us. Perplexed, I observed how isolation and fear increased in the face of uncertainty without the possibility of meeting. Our experience in practicing via Zoom was nonexistent. I felt very shocked by the number of people affected by COVID-19, afraid of infecting other people, and a little paralyzed. The need for emotional support was growing. It was necessary to resume the practice in community.

We invited everyone to a weekly virtual space every Wednesday. We began each practice by giving a warm welcome, thanking everyone for being present, making a dedication to the Three Jewels, and explaining in very simple words the practice in our Plum Village tradition. Then came a short practice of sitting
and mindful breathing. Our favorite part was watering our seeds of joy through song and music. Singing produced a sense of closeness and laughter as we dared to overcome the shyness of being on the screen. We always read a text from Thay. We closed with Dharma sharing, followed by a statement of gratitude and a final dedication that any benefits arising from the practice be multiplied for the benefit of other people who may need it. There are no words to describe everything that this weekly meeting has meant in my life and in my practice. May 2021 marks a year since our first virtual Sangha practice. Our physical distance has seemed at times to disappear, and the Sangha has emerged as
a great refuge from loneliness and fear.

A great personal support in this process include my Dharma teacher Rosa Serrano, my brothers and sisters from the Order of Interbeing—Ximena Villamizar and Andrés Proaño—my Sangha co-facilitator Gabriela, and my life partner Guille. They are wonderful beings who gave me unconditional support and the confidence to move forward.

They also encouraged me to gather local Sanghas to reconnect with one another and join forces in making a network of support as firm as the Earth. Since May 2020, the virtual Sangha has been meeting every Wednesday, and the people who attend regularly have decided to call it Sangha Mudita (Joy). As a sign for the way, Sangha Mudita inspires us to continue despite the difficulties of these times, sing so as not to forget that we can smile, and remember that good news exists. Without the trust in that space and the love and gradual commitment of the Sangha, this would not have happened. The Sangha is a true jewel. Without a pandemic, I think I would not have been able to gauge its immeasurable value.
And every Wednesday, I resume my commitment to the Sangha.

This network of the Chilean community strengthens slowly, little by little with patience, commitment, and love, like a little baby. In our first Spanish-language online retreat with Plum Village monastics this past spring, twenty Chilean practitioners took the Five Mindfulness Trainings. In these times where we all need everyone to take care of the Sangha, it can be the most important gesture of commitment to life.

Soledad Cano Valdivia, Verdadera Imagen de
Primavera (True Vision of Spring), is a psycho-
oncologist living in Chile. She has been practicing in Thay’s tradition since 2013, when she visited Plum Village for the first time. She received the
transmission of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings this year, and her Dharma name helps invite her heart to be a flower open to compassion.

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Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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