A Place of Refuge in This World

“A Buddhist community––a Sangha––is not something one is merely born into or chooses to join, but something one is challenged to create. A Sangha provides a matrix of communal support for people to realize their commitment to a common vision or concern.”   –– Stephen Batchelor

In September 2013, VIMS hosted an organizational workshop led by Maddie Klyne, a Dharma teacher and longtime administrator at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center. After a morning meditation time and a talk on sangha, twenty-five of us stayed to discuss our values and our ideas for future directions for VIMS. We shared in small and large groups. Maddie facilitated and helped us identify two main areas in which we wanted to develop as a community: 1) clarifying and growing our communications and organizational processes in ways that would more inclusively involve the whole sangha, and 2) developing a home of our own, a space where all our groups and retreats could take place and where we could realize and nurture ourselves as a culture of awakening. We all agreed both were of utmost importance, and it seemed we needed to begin with the first.

There has been much work and success in this effort to establish transparency and connectedness within the community. So much so that the Valley Insight teacher team and the advisory board feel that it is now time for us to look for a place of our own, and we turn to all of you, the sangha, for help in identifying what we need and locating a space. Please, if you have any ideas you want to share and/or if you’d like to be directly involved in this effort, let us know by emailing the Contact Us page of this website. Funding, of course, will be one issue. The board in its role of fiduciary responsibility feels we must have enough money for six month’s worth of rent to start with. We have some ideas on how to accomplish this; if you have any such ideas or can help with this, again, please let us know.

I had the good fortune recently to sit a ten-day retreat at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts. I had not been there since 2008. The facility has been greatly upgraded since that time. Though I was staying in a newly built dormitory, over the first days of the retreat, I gradually began to feel the underlying familiarity and stability of the place. I had practiced there a lot in the 1990s and early 2000s. As the retreat progressed, I became increasingly aware of the powerful influence of the buildings and grounds on the retreat and on my practice. It wasn’t just the deep wisdom of the teachings, the skill of the teachers, the diligence of the 99 other practitioners I was sitting with hour after hour, the gentle efficiency of the staff, and the good, wholesome food that were supporting me. There was something else––viscerally palpable––that was holding me and everyone else. It was the place itself. Undoubtedly the buildings, the trees, the pond, the sunsets and sunrises, the bird songs, the gardens, and even the gravel in the parking area were, in many ways, more steadily, quietly, and fully present in every moment than any of the rest of us. The experience deepened my felt sense of safety and connection, and the level of concentration in my mind.

Driven only by fear, do we go for refuge to many places––to hills, woods, groves, trees and shrines. Such, indeed, is no safe refuge; such is not the refuge supreme. Not by resorting to such a refuge is one released from all suffering. One who has gone for refuge to the Awakened Mind, the Teachings and Awakening Sangha, penetrates with transcendental wisdom the Four Noble Truths ––suffering (dukkha), the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the Noble Eightfold Path leading to the cessation of suffering. This indeed is the safe refuge, the refuge supreme. Having gone to such a refuge, one is released from all suffering.   —Buddha, Dhammapada  188-192.

This verse reminds us of the truth that a place of refuge in the world is at best a metaphor and skillful means. Like all such supports to our practice, it cannot be held onto as a solution in our quest for freedom from harmful habits of body, speech, and mind; but just as a community of like-minded people can help us, so too a place that houses us, one that we can care for and that can care for us over time, will support the sense of safety and connection we need to practice sincerely.

Though the original Buddhist sangha members were “homeless” and wandered over vast areas teaching as they went, the historic Buddha was given a number of such places of refuge in his early years of teaching. They were called viharas, which means “home” in the Pali language. The word in current usage usually refers to a monastery, or a place that houses monastics. It was in these places that large numbers of monks, nuns, and local village people gathered to hear the teachings and practice together. The first vihara was the Bamboo Grove in Rajgir, given by King Bimbisara. It was there that the Buddha met and ordained his most important disciples: Moggallana and Sariputta. Next, Anathapindika, a very important lay follower, gave him the Jeta Grove in Savatthi. There an actual vihara, or monastery, was built. The Buddha spent nineteen out of his forty-five Rains Retreats in residence there. It was the place he gave the majority of his teachings. (Note: There is one Rains Retreat of at least three months each year.)

Just over forty years ago, on Valentine’s Day, 1976, several large donors purchased what had been a training center for Catholic priests and gave it to the Insight Meditation Society. Within six months, retreats were being offered using the buildings already on site. Since that time, through the ever-growing interest and continued generosity of many, IMS has deepened and expanded its programs. It now includes the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies as well as the Forest Refuge. This place of refuge, which was born and continues to grow through acts of generosity, has played a tremendously important part in the lives of many thousands of people. Many of the VIMS Sangha members have benefitted immensely from the teachings offered––including me and our other teachers. It has been invaluable to the development of Buddhism and the creation of a culture of awakening in the West.

Though we are not looking to start a residential center, simply a place to house, stabilize, and deepen our nonresidential offerings, perhaps a Valley Insight vihara will also be a place of refuge in this world, one that supports the arising of a culture based on kindness and compassion in this world.

“Where Hearts and Minds Awaken.”   –– Sign at the New York Insight Meditation NonResidential Center
“The awakened mind is one that sees itself and realizes its capacity to change its own brain’s genetic inheritance and the world in which it resides.”   –– Daniel Siegel



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