A Report from the Buddhist Teacher’s Conference
The Last Twenty Two Hours
The Last Twenty Two Hours
A Guest Blog
Friday afternoon’s panel opened with thoughts on “The Mindful Society.” Although each of the panelists have a wealth of experience bringing mindfulness meditation to a range of communities unfortunately, aside from facts and short narratives, it was hard to gain a larger perspective or meaning. When it came time for audience comments, my hand shot up and I was the first to speak. I said, “My question is whether ‘The Mindful Society’ is being offered up as a vision for this gathering of Buddhist teachers, and if so, then I wonder whether we are mistaking the raft for the shore. In that regard, what about the Compassionate Society, the Wise Society, the Engaged Society, the Environmental Society, the Awakened Society – or, perhaps this is youthful idealism speaking here – the Enlightened Society. Thank you.” Other comments followed, but mostly these seemed to be promotional spots rather than substance.
Our small group discussion was a lively dialogue that produced two major thoughts. 1. That we Buddhist teachers are pouring all our energy simply into creating and maintaining our small centers and meditation groups, and we hardly have time, energy or money to help the downtrodden. We worked on a new model, which would be to partner with those who are already doing this kind of service work so much better: a local church, a community food bank, and so on. The partnership piggybacks on their expertise, giving them support and keeping our meditation community in connection with the local community. 2. That we could simply give up on trying to be Protestant Buddhists and instead hold the space of contemplation for those who are in service. That is, for those religions that have lost their contemplative lineage, we can bring that into their churches, synagogues, temples and so on, in a non-pushy way. While nourishing those who serve others by helping them work from a place of compassion and wisdom (rather than frustration or anger) is indirect, perhaps it still serves society as a whole just as well.
By then I was kind of fried so I bowed out a bit early and went to the dining hall where a group of senior women, a number of them monastics, were in discussion. They stopped me and told me that they were working directly with my question: are we confusing means with ends, and the lack of teaching ethics in mindfulness programs. That is, we can do lots of bad things mindfully! On a trip back to my room, I ran into some younger folks who decided to skip town and go for a swim at a local waterfall. We grabbed our shorts and headed out. Three of the young men were already there, having climbed to the top. Seeing three women, they started laughing and had to get someone to retrieve shorts for one of the fellows sitting at the top, buck-naked. We were soon joined by more fellows from the Against the Stream center in LA, and we got to see their beautiful, full-body tattoos, mostly Buddhas, dharma words, and related spiritual symbols. One of my Vajrayana friends commented that some might consider it a bit sacrilegious to put images of the Buddha on the body, but between us we agreed that the intention was that these fellows so loved the dharma that they wanted it to be no further than their own skin.
Several senior teachers came along in time, too, and one of them and I ended up chatting about the afternoon. He said that the comment before was spot on. We thought about the “routinization of charisma” (Max Weber) and whether the dharma was in a stage of routinization. I said that personally, having gone through the chaos and abuses of the 70s (my parents’ generation), I was grateful for the stability and ethics we have now, and that I thought it was the best time for the dharma because we have both the charisma of founders and the beginnings of the stabilizing effects of institutionalization. Would dharma, however, be so routinized 100 or more years from now that it would be kind of dead? I proposed that, as I learned from a young teacher Viveka Chen who practiced herself in the mountains of mainland China, in a canyon at Wu Tai Shan, the hermit monks in the mountains of China would, by then, have reached very deep levels of awakening and could reignite the flame of Dharma in the West. My senior friend also mentioned Mongolia: he felt the Buddhism of Tibet has suffered tremendous damage but that perhaps Mongolian Buddhism (Vajrayana) would bring great gifts to the Dharma on a global scale.
We headed out for pizza, enjoying the fabulous food here in New York, and although we tried – we really, truly tried – to talk about anything but dharma, we soon fell into a discussion about teaching. This time, we asked the question of whether one should teach from direct experience or whether one can teach things you don’t know directly but that the tradition says is true. We also debated whether teaching really meant becoming an ally with a student to help her or him find their own answer, or whether it was possible a teacher knows things a student doesn’t and would simply, well, teach.
The evening offered a No Talent Show, which turned out to be exactly the opposite. A Vietnam War – turned monk at one point – veteran played a type of flute or recorder that I hadn’t seen before that was thrillingly soft and beautiful. This was followed by one of the Dharma Punx youngins Pablo Das who sang heartfelt and well-crafted songs about practice and understanding in what I would say was a kind of Neil Young or James Taylor style. The highlight was Wes Nisker doing a stellar comedy routine, based on scientific discoveries of the universe and atomic physics that ended with real meaning. I thought, nothing can top this, hard act to follow, but leave it to the five monks and nuns and two lay teachers from the Order of Interbeing to blow us away. Our audience of 150+ divided into four parts: one chanted “Om mane padme hum”; another “Shalom, shanti” mine was the Arabic for the Islamic praise “God is great” [I might be remembering this incorrectly]; the fourth sang the Christian “Gloria in excelcis” [again, I think it might be another phrase]. Done together, with the right pitches and harmonies, we tore off the roof, MAN! The Buddha at the end of the long sanctuary presided with a smile of approval.
But the fun didn’t stop there. A young teacher Mark Coleman DJ’d dancing with cross-generational music. Young and old and all between, about 50 of us, all got groovy, sweaty, and happy for over an hour of non-stop dancing. Happy to see some of the very senior teachers dance away (one roshi is 75 and apparently he didn’t stop until the thing ended — I had gone to bed by then). I imagined them in their youth. But perhaps most wonderfully Ruth Denison, now 89 – yes, that is eighty-nine – joined us for quite a long time. It is perhaps more remarkable if you know that she was in a wheelchair, with a broken shoulder (thus wearing a cast), and using a hearing aide. Still, she and various others got her wheelchair dancing and we joined her hands, whirling with her. At one point, she led a line of us around the floor, dancing and jiving. One of the Dharma Punx started the electric slide, with a senior roshi doing his best to follow along. Two Interbeing nuns danced with pure joy. As someone observed, “Damn, Buddhists can DANCE!”
I had a terrible sleep because I just couldn’t stop remembering and thinking about all that I had heard and the people I met. I got up around 5:15 and joined the early birds in the lounge for tea-bag coffee and computing. But despite trying to type out thoughts, I kept getting interrupted, and wanting to be interrupted, by the people coming in. We just could not keep ourselves from talking yet more about teaching Buddhism. I had a gratifying conversation with a friend (now named Soryu Forall) I met at Williams College back in 1994, he a firstyear and I a sophomore. I had just started the Williams Meditation Society when this obnoxious guy started coming to learn meditation. Thinking back on it, I was such a terrible teacher and it’s a wonder that I didn’t turn him off to it. Hey, I was 19, and barely knew a thing about meditation except that I had practiced it with my parents and some at the Insight Meditation Society when I was 16 and 17. Once this newcomer challenged me about bowing and though I tried to give him good answers he remained unsatisfied. Eventually he ended up practicing for a year in Japan in a Rinzai monastery. He came back a humble and much less obnoxious fellow. He said, “Now I understand bowing. In fact, it’s ALL about bowing.” Anyway, by the time we met at the conference he had become a Theravada kind of teacher though with a Rinzai ordination. His orange and brown robes were very odd. I just had to ask him about it.
He admitted they were self-styled and that several Theravada monastics and one former monastic did not think it was appropriate. He had to agree with the point that the robes looked monastic-like but that he was in fact a lay person, and it wasn’t good to send the signal that he was celibate when in fact he was not (his shaved head didn’t help the cause). But he said he didn’t know what to do: he needed some way to indicate that he was a teacher. Then I realized, a ha, there is a solution to this dilemma. Why not get lay ordination in the International Order of Buddhist Ministers (IOBM), which is ecumenical, 501c3, and provides you with both a brown robe and a stole? I showed him the pictures of my ordination in this and my ministerial robe and stole. Yes, perfect! It seems we’ve solved his problem.
I went down to breakfast and just could not stop hugging people. Long hugs. Good hugs. Tears and bows. And I am not one to either hug or get misty eyed. I finally got some oatmeal and sat down with Susan Kaiser Greenland, author of The Mindful Child, a pioneer in bringing mindfulness meditation to children. One point worth mentioning, among several, is that she brings behavior or conduct into her work, pointing children to become mindful of the consequences of their speech and actions.
Just before going in the hall, I ran into Ken McLeod and I said, as I took his hands, “Mr. Nonconformity, that’s my new name for you.” In classic Ken style he responded quietly, “I don’t think of myself as either conformist or non-conformist.” I said, “That’s a classic non-conformist thing to say, because if you say you’re non-conformist then in fact you are just pushing against conformity, thereby conforming. Kind of like enlightenment: if you say you’re enlightened, then you’re not.” Then, I couldn’t help but ask, I said, “You know the passages in the canon in which the Buddha is praising himself, his enlightenment, that he’s the Tathagata and all that? Do you think he said that stuff about himself? I just can’t imagine an enlightened person saying that.” Ken said, “I think people sometimes read the canon as being the actual words of the Buddha, but they forget that this is a highly formulated and accreted scripture [sorry, these are more my words but he said something to this effect]. The standards here are set so enormously high that all one can do is let go.” (Ken is indicating that this is an effective teaching, since letting go is really awakening.)
The closing session began with a silent milling during which people could bow to each other in twos with whomever they encountered. I found myself doing a lot of hugs, and touching the tops of heads for bows. Unfortunately, Stephen Batchelor and I came down too fast and too close and bonked our heads rather hard! We then gathered in groups of 4 or 5 to discuss the question, “What is our learning edge (with either practice or as a teacher)?” My group of four other women had a rich and lively discussion. One teacher I only knew vaguely before is my age, 36, and she shared that for many years her colleagues were only older teachers. She admitted that she was more comfortable with these baby boomer teachers than with peers, but that coming to the Next Gen preconference showed her how important it was to be with teachers her age, even if she had many more years of teaching experience on the whole. It opened up something for her. Another older teacher talked about the need for more interpersonal practice, that is, practice in relationships (of all kinds). I heard this point many times from quite a few different seasoned teachers. Something to the effect of, cushion time is important, but practice can also deepen through our relationships with others. I feel there’s a new something emerging here, across lineages but more so for Zen and the vipassana folks, since the Vajrayana already has been doing this for some decades. A third teacher shared that the conference had been hugely helpful in relieving her aloneness, since her area doesn’t have a lot of dharma resources. A fourth teacher echoed this, and we agreed that something we all want to look at is teacher development, which ties back into the interpersonal practice theme. That is, once we become teacher and lose peer-to-peer relationships, does our development stall or become arrested in some way? And if so, how can we keep learning and growing? We talked about online conferencing and regional conferencing.
As for what I shared, it’s a bit personal but I hope you won’t mind. The day before I had gone to a meditation with Reggie Ray, which offered a type of meditation I’ve never done before. It was more, I guess, energy based, and I found myself fairly resistant to it with quite a bit of judgment. Those two things, resistance and judgment, are signals to me that there’s something good. In trying to understand this, what I saw was that I had been bypassing working with energy in practice. That is, I was gaining insight through mindfulness and also opening the heart through metta, as well as mindfulness, (the two are actually interconnected), but that by focusing on softening the heart I was bypassing connecting with energy or energetic systems. I saw clearly that I was doing this because part of energy is also sexual energy, and that I was afraid of sexual energy for a whole host of reasons. (One reason being that in Buddhist practice, at least in my lineage, we’re trying to root out desire, and desire for sex is certainly a big one – doh, the biggest one. But in writing this, I’m thinking maybe there’s a difference between desire and sexual energy.)
After this, folks had the opportunity to divide into four groups. One group was for the Vajrayana teachers. They had also had a group meeting the afternoon before. I am not sure what issues they’re processing, but I think it may have to do in part with figuring out the traditional place of the guru and whether and how that fits with Western styles of relationships. I sensed they’re undertaking a major revision on this, and I think it seems healthy and timely. I decided to attend the group on planning for the next conference. Anyone could come. About 30 came, the room was full. I swiftly appointed Viveka to be the facilitator before anyone else could get in. Her performance was perhaps one of the best demonstrations of effective facilitation that I think any of us had ever seen. In 17 minutes (we took a full 20 minutes for introductions), she managed to get clear decisions from us and form a planning team that satisfied all.
We came back to the main hall and formed a circle to thank all those involved. When it came time for the planning team to go up, I wasn’t sure if I should be included because I had worked mostly on the Next Gen segment, but they asked me to anyway. We received a thunderous and long applause and I found myself completely willing to absorb all the love and gratitude from such a group. We welcomed the very oldest among us and gave her a huge round of applause: Ruth Denison. She was tremendously pleased. We ended with chanting the three refuges. Quite honestly, hearing the wall of sound from all sides (because I was in the center of the circle by then) from about 200 dedicated Buddhist teachers moved me to tears. I don’t think I have ever chanted with that many Buddhists before, either. The dedication of merit was also very tender. We ended with a group photo, many more hugs and mingling, and lunch.
On the way back into New York City (for a flight back to North Carolina), I spent time talking with someone I knew vaguely from IMS but not well, one of the younger teachers. I decided to ask him the question about energy. He said, and I thought this was really spot on, that sexual energy is generated around opposites and that while it can give rise to tension it can also provide clarity and energy. Heart energy on the other hand is about opening and oneness, and as a result, it can give rise to a feeling of connection but on the downside it can be soupy, hazy. The two together, however, in a balanced way provide connection and clarity.
On the train, I sat next to the only Latino Buddhist teacher in attendance Shinzan Palma, a student of Joan Halifax’s and teacher at Upaya Zen Center in New Mexico. He’s 43. He told me about an unusual staffing system they (he) recently implemented in which the staff rotate positions. So, he’s currently the kitchen manager, as well as a teacher, but he can also be rotated into the front office in the months to come. The benefits of this rotational system are that it reduces territoriality and the tendency for control and power, and it also creates staff who are skilled in all areas. The downside, as a pointed out, is a loss of expertise, but it appears the pluses outweigh this minus.
I’m now on a plane nearing Durham and I have to admit I feel, even as I get close to home, I have also left home. I am feeling a bit of grief and loss, even though I also feel now more connected than ever before. I am also feeling completely rededicated and energized in teaching, and much less alone than before. I also feel entirely open to how, as a new teacher, I have so very much to learn in this skill and art, and that whatever ups and downs I have, it’s all expected and okay.
Many thanks to James for allowing me to share my notes on the last 22 hours of the conference. I really enjoyed hanging with Da Rev, our early morning rendezvous in the lounge, tapping on our laptops but more often chatting and exchanging notes on our rich time together.