Northwest Dharma Association Talk

Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak to the Annual Gathering of the Northwest Dharma Association, which took place at Seattle University. It was a fascinating event, with participants from a wide spectrum of both traditional and non-traditional Buddhist groups around the Northwest. The theme was "Buddhist Practice & Social Transformation: Exploring the Connection Between the Practice of the Buddha's teachings & Their Impact On Society". I was especially impressed with powerful new initiatives to bring the fruits of dharma practice to young adults in this turbulent cultural moment. Sith Chaisurote, PhD, presented on the Peace Revolution Project, of which he is President, and Rachel Moriah Beals, leader of the Seattle Dharma Punx group. Both are part of a worldwide movement that is growing rapidly on the wings of social media and great cultural need. Peace Revolution is based in Thailand, and draws heavily on the Theravada tradition in conversation with emerging cultural forms. Dharma Punx was founded by Buddhist teacher Noah Levine, and "stands for an international crew of counterculture individuals willing to look within their own hearts and minds for a path through the fear and confusion that comes with being human. Wisdom, compassion, kindness, and generosity - aka freedom- is the alternative and we all have the ability to attain it." This group has a particularly strong draw on disaffected youth in the community. It is another good example of the dharma jumping the banks of traditional Buddhism, while still keeping the essence of dharma practice at the center.

In my talk I focused on my path to the dharma as typically American in its very quirkiness, and on my work teaching MBSR to vets at the VA Hospital in Seattle as typical of the movement in Western Buddhism outside traditional forms of practice, while still working to maintain the essence of those forms. Here is a summary of what I had to say:

"I grew up in a culture where Buddhism had no place at the table. Like many American Buddhists, I stumbled into the Dharma along new and unexpected pathways. I was raised Christian, became an evangelical Christian in high school, and a recovering evangelical in college, pulled always toward spiritual practice by the yearning that all humans have to connect with something much larger than ourselves. I followed that same yearning to Harvard Divinity School, and was ordained a minister in the United Church of Christ in the late '70's.

But during this time I also discovered the poetry of Gary Snyder, and the writings of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, both of which planted in me a deep affinity for the Buddha's teaching, and Zen in particular. My first Zen teacher was Fr. Bernard McVeigh, Abbot of a Trappist Monastery in Lafayette, OR. During the time I was working as a campus minister at the University of Oregon in Eugene, I took periodic contemplative retreats at the Lafayette monastery. It was a very un-Protestant thing to do, but I felt a deep letting go within myself whenever I went there. I became friends with Fr. Bernard, who invited me to join the monks in their daily Zen practice, which they had instituted alongside their daily Offices of Prayer. I later joined these monks in my first Zen retreat, or sesshin, with Robert Aitken Roshi, and that was it. I fell so in love with the practice that I put my Christian ministry on hold, and have never looked back.

In 1994 I took my first steps beyond Zen and into dharma teaching when I founded Inside Passages, and began leading wilderness meditation retreats in Alaska by sea kayak. These week-long journeys pulled Deep Ecological principles into the presentation of the dharma, and represented my attempt to link my environmental activism with the perspective of a practice-based life.  These trips were filled with non-Buddhists – clergy & rabbis, activists, healers and scholars who wanted to explore meditation practice without taking on the beliefs and forms of traditional Buddhism.  trips were filled with non-Buddhists – clergy & rabbis, activists, healers and scholars who wanted to explore meditation practice without necessarily taking on the beliefs and forms of traditional Buddhism.  I took another big step beyond Zen when Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR) came to Alaska to lead a retreat with me in 2003. Jon helped me hone my skills as a dharma teacher, and later introduced me to MBSR as a practice lineage. In collaboration with Dr. David Kearney(who I also met on one of my trips in Alaska), I now teach MBSR classes to vets with PTSD at the VA Hospital in Seattle.

My practice training still happens primarily within the Zen tradition, but my teaching lineage now happens almost entirely outside that traditional form. While this can seem like a contradiction in terms, it is actually the face of American Buddhism at this fascinating juncture in its development. The explosion of Mindfulness-Based programs, including a growing number that are based on the MBSR model – programs like Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for work with depression and depression relapse, and Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention for people struggling with addictions, all are based firmly on the Vipassana practice of Insight Meditation, while being stripped of most of the Buddhist scaffolding that would often be a deterrent for non-Buddhist participating in the programs. A growing number of other therapeutic approaches, like Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, or DBT, also utilize mindfulness as a tool in the path toward emotional self-regulation and healing.

During MBSR training sessions at the VA Hospital, I work with vets who would never darken the door of a conventional meditation center. Everyone who is not present in typical Buddhist sanghas in America is present in these MBSR classes – African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, fundamentalist Christians, right wing Republicans, high school dropouts, even vets living in homeless shelters – all are routinely represented in these groups, diligently practicing yoga and sitting meditation because they are desperate enough to try anything. Suffering, after all, is a powerful motivation for change.

Most of these vets don’t know that what they are learning is rooted in ancient Buddhist Vipassana and Metta practices, and it doesn’t matter that they don’t know. What matters is that they experience for themselves actual relief from their suffering by opening to the practice of non-doing in a systematic and disciplined way. By becoming more intimate with the workings of the mind around pain and resistance, in a non-judging way, they learn to take control of their own responses to physical and emotional pain through the tools of mindfulness.

And remarkably, many of them do embrace these tools, becoming serious meditators who would still never darken the door of a traditional Buddhist training center. And that’s fine by me. I have developed enormous respect for the courage, fortitude and inventiveness of these non-traditional practitioners of the dharma, and am continually inspired in turn to go deeper in my own practice because of their efforts. What began as an experiment in a very alien environment - the basement of the VA Hospital - has become part of my heart's home, and a joyous opportunity to serve. These vets have become an important part of my wider and ever growing community of practice."