InterSangha Report

From August 9-11, 2012, over 60 Insight meditation teachers and sangha board members met at Insight Meditation Center (IMC), founded by Gil Fronsdal in Redwood City, CA.  Although some of the participants have experience in Zen or Tibetan traditions, they all focus on Vipassana meditation and loving kindness practices.  Most attendees were from California (San Francisco, Woodacre, Palm Springs, Berkeley, Sacramento, Santa Cruz, Nevada City, Modesto, Stockton, etc.), and they were joined by representatives from Colorado, Chicago, Tucson, Washington DC, Seattle, Minneapolis, and British Columbia, Canada.   Kathey Ferland from Austin and I represented Insight communities in Texas.

The largest sanghas that were represented have permanent housing, hundreds of members, a board of directors, and various committees of paid staff and volunteers, while the smallest sanghas gather informally in private homes or rental spaces.  Some communities are led by established guiding teachers, and others are peer led.

Our meetings were supported by dana, with generous contributions from members of the sangha, who offered free housing and transportation and cooked meals for the gathering.  By the end, most of the participants were inspired to make contributions to ICM and to a new retreat center in Scotts Valley, California.

A $2 million donation enabled ICM members to purchase and renovate a large home and extensive grounds that had served Alzheimer’s patients.

The Insight Retreat center is scheduled to open for its first meditation retreat in October of this year.  Retreats will be given freely, on a dana basis, with participants signing up for jobs such as shopping for food, cooking and cleaning.

Presiding over the meetings was Kim Allen, a member of ICM who helped to found the Buddhist Insight Network in 2011.  BIN links and disseminates news and ideas among communities practicing Insight meditation in the Western hemisphere.  Committed to promoting diversity in sanghas, BIN provides guidance for governance, ethics and reconciliation within and among dharma groups.  It aspires to offer financial and legal support to dharma teachers. With a new website, BIN volunteers are compiling an internet archive about the Insight movement, while continuing to publish a bi-annual newsletter.

After an InterSangha group meditation and introductions, Kim gave a Power Point presentation about the history of the Insight Meditation Movement in the West.  I’ll give you some highlights:

In the 1960s, Ruth Denison, a student of Burmese master U Ba Khin, started teaching the dharma in southern California.  Shortly afterwards, in 1974 Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein returned from practicing as monks in Asia and taught at Naropa University in Boulder.  Jack’s principle teachers were the Thai forest monk Ajahn Chah and the Burmese master Mahasi Sayadaw, whose dharma practice also inspired Joseph.  Joseph and Sharon Salzberg benefited from the teachings of Goenka and Dipa Ma in India and various Tibetan Rinpoches.

Back home in the USA, Jack, Jospeh and Sharon teamed up to offer American meditation students an eclectic, open-minded kind of Buddhist practice that was more focused on experience than on ritual.  They founded the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts in 1976, the first of many western Insight retreat centers.

Ruth Denison started Dhamma Dena Desert Vipassana Center in southern California 1977, and Christopher Titmuss and Christina Feldman founded Gaia House in England in 1983.  Jack opened Spirit Rock Meditation Center in northern California in 1987.  Sister Ayya Khema was the founding inspiration for Buddha Haus, first in Australia and then in Germany in 1989, and in 2003 Joseph founded the Forest Refuge in Massachusetts for prolonged retreats.  Last year these centers sponsored 200 retreats that were listed in Inquiring Mind, a donation-supported, semiannual journal dedicated to transmitting Buddhist dharma to the West.

By 2012, in addition to two generations of meditation teachers trained by the founding mentors, CDL programs had trained 300 Community Dharma Leaders, who assist experienced teachers or teach the dharma in regions that have no regular access to senior teachers. Spirit Rock initiated the first CDL program in 1997, and in 2000 launched the dedicated Dharma Practitioners Program for mature students who want to study and discuss what the Buddha taught.  DPP participants must have sat at least 50 days of residential retreats plus a practice for longer than five years.  In 2007 the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the Frederick P. Lenz Foundation for American Buddhism co-sponsored Spirit Rock’s “Path of Engagement” trainings.  Directed by Donald Rothberg, the program attracts engaged Buddhists who wish to embody their practice through social, political and ecological action.  They carry on the goals of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, which was established in 1978 to promote peace and compassionate social justice.  Its publication Turning Wheel documents projects in prisons, war zones, and hospices.

There are increasing opportunities for continuing education for western Buddhist practitioners. In Massachusetts, the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to exploring Buddhist thought and practice as a living tradition. Andrew Olendzki directs and teaches in the program.  The Sati Center for Buddhist Studies in Redwood City, CA offers a balance of scholarly research and serious meditation practice, as well as a Buddhist Chaplaincy training program.  Gil Fronsdal is one of the guiding teachers in the program.  In a more secular vein, Jon Kabat Zinn directs the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Aside from institutions offering retreats and trainings, there are many meditation community centers that host regular sitting groups: Cambridge Insight MC in Massachusetts (1985), Common Ground in Minneapolis (1993), Tara Brach’s Insight Meditation Community of Washington (IMCW) in D.C., IMC (2001), NY Insight (2003), Insight Santa Cruz (2006), Noah Levine’s Against the Stream in San Francisco (2008), Mountain Stream’s new center in Nevada City, CA (2010) founded by John Travis, who has led a sangha since 1986.   Howie Cohn has led San Francisco Mission Dharma for over 25 years, and he conducts retreats at our local Margaret Austin Center.  As of 2012, Inquiring Mind reported 180 sitting groups in North America.

After Kim’s overview, the InterSangha program included the following topics: areas of challenge and inspiration in managing sangha growth; ways to deepen practice; ideas for fostering mutual support of dharma teachers and mature students; characteristics of sanghas that have a guiding teacher; diversity in meditation communities; recruiting, organizing and appreciating sangha volunteers; insight meditation and secular mindfulness; and socially engaged Buddhism.

1. Regarding the management of growing sanghas, we discussed different successful formats for sitting groups: apart from long or short periods of silence for sitting, optional variables include Qigong or other forms of movement, an instruction period, a formal dharma talk or reading, and discussion.  Several teachers like our sangha’s model of inviting long-time meditators in the group to lead readings or dharma talks for newcomers.  Expanding sanghas differ about whether or not to schedule social events such as Kalyanamitra (Spiritual Friend) dinners, Dharma Friends outings or Mindfulness Dance improvisation evenings.  I mentioned Insight Meditation Houston’s “sister sangha” in Cholula, Mexico.  Some sanghas provide free meals and childcare or transportation for people who can’t otherwise attend sittings.  For working parents, other sanghas sponsor “sandwich retreats,” with meditation instructions given on a Sunday, and sittings scheduled from 7-9:00 am and 7-9:00 pm during the week, plus a full day on the following Saturday.

Expanding sanghas often embrace social causes.  My friend Andrea Castillo at ICM has been teaching a Spanish-speaking dharma group, and her audio recordings are being accessed by Hispanic inmates in local prisons. Candace from Sacramento Insight is working in Buddhist Pathways Prison Project, teaching meditation to inmates.

In large sanghas led by big-name teachers, one concern is that bureaucracy can squelch original ideas of newcomers and younger sangha members.  Another concern is how to set up a graceful succession process. At 65, Rodney Smith is pulling back as leader of Seattle Insight and choosing 4 CDL leaders to alternate giving dharma talks during this transition period. James Baraz, who has led the Berkeley sangha for 25 years, is traveling extensively to teach his “Awakening Joy” course.  During his absences sangha members have doubts about who should make decisions.  Their sangha has no bylaws, structure or formal governance.  Questions arise about expenditures and accountability and how to know when a group grows beyond its leader.

We discussed whether teaching and administration should be managed separately. At San Francisco Insight, Eugene Cash has returned to teaching after a serious bike accident.  Three sangha members who had completed Jack Kornfield’s teacher training program substituted for him during his recovery.  Now Eugene’s memory is affected, and he teaches with beginner’s mind, so the sangha is adjusting to changes in the guiding teacher.  IMCW representatives questioned whether a guiding teacher should serve on the board of the sangha.

Kathey Ferland spoke about the challenges of having no core teacher; her sangha in Austin has rich discussions about dharma readings, but newcomers feel lost.  She proposed having a separate class to give meditation instruction for those new to the dharma.

We all explored:

How inclusive and cohesive is our sangha?

Are we resistant to technology?

Is there an age gap in our sangha?

Is there an emphasis on individual practice or on service to the sangha or on social action?

Is a mission statement necessary to ensure purity of intention for the meditation community?

When is a sangha big enough to incorporate, apply for non-profit status as a religious organization, and establish a board?

2. The second day of InterSangha meetings started with the topic of deepening practice, in a Google downlink conversation with Gary Born and other London Insight sangha members. Their colleague Eric tuned in from Melbourne, Australia to report about Dharma Seed recordings of dharma talks by established meditation teachers.  He mentioned a successful Dharma Seed video course called “Work, Sex, Money, Dharma,” taught by a French teacher named Martin Aylward.

The London Insight team was interested in IMCW’s “Year of Living Mindfully” course taught by Jonathan Faust and IMC’s Inez Friedman on-line course called “Introduction to Buddhism.”  Practitioners without sanghas around the globe can participate in her daily e-mail reflections and Skype mentoring sessions. The team considered ways to cultivate deep practice for lay people while maintaining respect for monastic traditions, and liked hearing that monastics attend family retreats at Spirit Rock, so that children have a chance to interact with them.

3. The next InterSangha topic was how teachers and mature students can give one another mutual support.  Some teachers serve as mentors for advanced practitioners.  IMC teacher Andrea Fella says that when students ask her to teach a retreat, she recruits them to help as administrators or managers and to record her dharma talks.  IMCW sponsors a Meditation Teacher Training Institute to develop new teachers to assist the guiding teachers.

4.  A panel discussed the theme of diversity.  Harrison Blum of Cambridge Insight and BIN spoke about being a “White Ally” in sessions about Undoing Racism.  He mentioned “Visions,” a nationally based anti-racist organization that sponsors 4-day workshops.   Kirstin Barker of IMCW talked about being a lesbian and valuing her teacher Tara Brach’s support for affinity groups.  Kirstin’s intention is to have a diverse sangha—and not to follow what she calls the “upper middle way.”  She says that Dharma Punx teacher Larry Yang emphasizes the need for safety and belonging in separate retreats for affinity groups.  Arinna Weisman gives “Cultural Competency” training workshops to build understanding about diversity.

Andrea Castillo spoke about her Spanish-speaking dharma classes, serving people aged 25-65, from 7 countries.  She arrives early to greet each person personally with affectionate gestures, uses simple stories and poems in her dharma talks, and encourages lots of discussion.  Those who have barely completed high school have fruitful dialogues with those who hold doctoral degrees.  Andrea celebrates the richness of the Spanish language, to counteract participants’ shame about speaking a non-dominant language in our culture.  She has recruited interested Hispanic participants at medical clinics for low-income populations and in libraries where people come to use computers.  She finds that Metta practice transcends religious differences.

5. Another InterSangha topic was about volunteers in sanghas.  To prevent burnout, mentoring and providing “shadow” assistants help.  Sangha leaders recommended emphasizing the importance of service for the benefit of the sangha and recognize the talents of individual volunteers by publishing their photos, job descriptions, and testimonials about “Why I volunteered and what were the benefits.”

6. I attended a panel about secular mindfulness.  Leslie Tremaine from Insight Santa Cruz views MBSR as relevant dharma adapting to new environments.  It’s a way to address suffering with “optional Buddhism”—alleviating pain, in functional rehabilitation, county jails, “Stress reduction at Work,” lunchtime courses in small businesses, etc.

Leslie’s concern is how to promote Buddhism in the mainstream.

She says that MBSR forms an instant community.  It builds skills without assuming that something is broken.

The focus is on impermanence and universality of suffering—everyone is visited by sickness-so we don’t have to take illness personally.

MBRS teaches participants to let go of identifying with thoughts.

7. The final InterSangha topic was Socially Engaged Buddhism.

Ed Haertel from Insight South Bay led a discussion about an article by Bikkhu Bodhi titled “A Challenge to Buddhism,” which posits that solo meditation seems irresponsible when so much suffering abounds.  He criticizes Buddhists for falling behind the efforts of Christian and Jewish relief organizations.

Socially engaged Buddhism entails compassionate social action without polarization and addressing the roots of injustice that lie in greed, hatred and delusion.

The Buddhist Peace Fellowship cultivates deep listening, good will and interdependence across the political spectrum.

Ed asked, “Is Buddhism inherently politically liberal?”  Could we alienate conservative military personnel returning from service and seeking the benefits of meditation?

We discussed how to open our hearts to the world’s suffering and how to channel the anger, sorrow and fear that arise in response to witnessing injustice.

Joanna Macy suggests balancing three ways of practice: social engagement, organizational justice, and inner reflection.

I was impressed by Jeff Hardin, a doctor in Sacramento Insight sangha, who volunteers periodically in Cambodia under the auspices of an organization called Insight World Aid.

After three days of meetings, everyone in our mega-sangha felt inspired. Harrison Blum’s prayer stays with me: “May ease and a soft heart benefit all beings.”