Resting with Our Experience:
A daylong retreat with Ajahn Jayanto
by Karen Summer
Valley Insight held its first in-person daylong retreat in two-and-a-half years on a gorgeous Saturday, September 17, 2022. The retreat was led by one of our most popular visiting teachers, a brown-robed Theravadan monk, Ajahn Jayanto, who is co-founder and co-abbot of Temple Forest Monastery in Temple, New Hampshire. (forestmonastery.org). We gathered in the newly renovated home of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, a beautiful light-filled space in the Upper Valley in Norwich, Vermont.
Our teacher’s calm, lighthearted presence quieted our minds. Possibilities for peace and insight were enhanced by the day’s rhythm of brief instructions, sitting meditation, walking meditation, another period of pithy verbal instruction followed by silent sitting meditation. The pattern repeated throughout the day.
What were some of his instructions? Most important, he said, was for us to give attention to our continuity of awareness, the quality of our presence. He suggested that we not create a particular mental state, but simply observe our experience in the present moment without judging. Could we, he asked, stay with an experience without getting drawn into it? If we stay open to and curious about a painful inner experience, we can see how we create our own suffering. This insight, he offered, leads to cooling off, letting go.
He reminded us that if we want to act with a balanced response to the great problems facing the world today, we need to take care of our own minds.
The last question of the day was, “How does one put down the burden of self?” Among his final words were the suggestion that we do this by “being space and not the content…. Being with something you don’t want to be with and learning how to be the space around it.”
Our grateful thanks to Ajahn Jayanto for his teachings and for making the time to be with us on the 17th.
We extend special thanks also for help making this day such a success to Deb Steele, retreat manager, Ellen Hollyday, registrar, and sangha members Peg Meyer, Michael Stoner, Adam Knowlton-Young, and Barbara Woodard.
Prison Prayer Flags
Valley Insight’s Buddhist Studies and Practice sangha in the New Hampshire Correctional Facility for Men in Berlin has been meeting monthly for over nineteen years — with an eighteen-month hiatus during the pandemic. Since the reopening of the prison to volunteers in October of 2021, attendance at the meetings has been low. We have been limited to one-and-a-half-hour sessions. We have been allowed to meet only with a limited population of men in each session, based on which floor their housing units are located on. This has meant that we’ve been offering two different, smaller-than-usual meetings each month. Starting in August, we will again be allowed to have just one three-hour meeting, with men from the whole population able to attend. We are thinking that this more familiar format will allow the group to grow in population again towards the eight-to-twelve pre-pandemic normal. It definitely will allow the practice to be more open, spacious, and longer for all those involved.
For fifteen years or more, we have celebrated the Asian Buddhist New Years in the Berlin prison in January or February with a prayer flag ritual. We get permission to bring in actual flags, which are pre-printed with prayers/aspirations for the well-being of all — verses of metta, compassion, joy, and equanimity. The men are then invited to add their own aspirations to share with the world by writing on the flags with permanent markers. We then take the flags and their hopes and wishes out into the world of boundless space and hang them up in the wind — from the front of the barn at 14 Green Street in Lebanon, one of our dharma hall practice venues. We were able to do this again this year, but because of the intense cold in February and March, they didn’t get hung. Then, time continued to pass … as it tends to do. The good news is that they got hung this month, and now their messages are at last blowing in the wind — “radiating kindness over the entire world”!
Here are some of the words, the men wrote on the flags this year: Love; Calm; Know Dukkha; Agency; Action-wise; I am enough; Harmony; Understanding (with a drawn heart); Freedom; Clear seeing; Sympathy; Growth.
What words might you add to this list of prayers for the world?
Some of you may have received little strings of paper prayer flags. They often come in the mail from one of the groups asking for funds to support the Tibetan people. Because we learned that prayer flags are on the list of what self-identified Buddhist prisoners can have, we brought some of these to the prison and asked the authorities if the men who would want a set might have one for their cells. The warden’s commission met on this question in late July and has authorized its use for the men. If you happen to have some of these unopened, we would be grateful if you would send the packages, unopened, to Valley Insight, PO Box 634, Lebanon, NH 03766, for our prison sangha inmates. Thank you.
May all beings be at ease, whatever living beings there may be — omitting none.
Claudia Brandenburg Stepping Down from Support Sangha
Claudia Brandenburg, after many years of dedicated work for Support Sangha, has decided to step back as a point person for the committee. The two point people for Support Sangha in the future will be Connie OLeary at 603-667-8820 and Shideko Terai at 603-252-7898. Other members of the team are Kate Shaeffer, Mindy Schorr and Terry Cioffredi, any of whom are willing to field questions, concerns and requests. Our meetings are held as the need arises. After many bureaucratic formalities, Mary Boyle has officially returned to her birth name, Shideko Terai.
Racial Justice / White Awareness / Racial Affinity Group
Since the early 2000s, Valley Insight has had a sangha-wide commitment to inclusion and diversity. (Please see our diversity policy on our website’s home page.) For many years, we’ve offered classes, retreats, and programs on how White people can become more racially aware. In 2018, we hosted African American Dharma teacher Ruth King’s public talk, based on her book Mindful of Race. Her talk led to the formation of two study groups.
Mindful of Racial Equality (MoRE): In 2019, a few people from these study groups went on to form a racial affinity group within the sangha. In 2020, our group expanded and took part in Ruth King’s Mindful of Race yearlong international training cohort. This group development program created an intentional space with members of the same race so that we could understand our racial conditioning and its impact. By studying Ruth’s book, listening to her talks, and following her agenda each month, we consciously progressed through three stages of group development: Inclusion, Control, and Belonging.
When the year with Ruth ended, our group, named MoRE, agreed to continue meeting monthly to keep studying and sharing the lifelong process of understanding racial conditioning and its impact. As we proceed, we also seek new ways to act from our growth, both personally and as a group, in our sangha and in the larger community.
Since 2019, we’ve worked with the City of Lebanon, New Hampshire, and the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire to organize a public reading on July 4th of Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” We are also researching opportunities to publicize local Black residents’ contributions to our history, and we are considering other ways to increase awareness of both the positive and negative aspects of racial conditioning. For those who may wish to form a sangha-based racial affinity group, MoRE can offer information and support. For more information, contact Carol Rougvie [email: firstname.lastname@example.org].
To read about Ruth King’s personal journey confronting racism from a foundation of Buddhist principles and practices, see her article in YES! Magazine: A Journey from Rage to Mindfulness.
State of the Sangha, 2021
By Michael Stoner
President, Valley Insight Board of Directors
Gratitude: deep gratitude.
As I reflect on the state of our sangha in 2021, the feeling of gratitude emerges again and again.
It’s difficult to believe that we are entering the third year of the pandemic. For a brief moment, in June, it seemed as if life would return to some semblance of normal. In fact, the teachers and board of Valley Insight began preparing to hold in-person sits again and to create a “hybrid” model that would also incorporate those attending sits and other events via our online Dharma Hall.
Then the Delta variant of COVID emerged and our plans changed. This happened again in December. We were considering how to open things up when Omicron emerged and the Upper Valley became a COVID hotspot once again. While a limited number of people are invited to join the Thursday sit in person, only a few have taken advantage of this option. Most people still attend our sits and events through our online Dharma Hall.
We offered three daylong retreats in the past year: one in the early part of the year with Manny Mansbach; the second in October, led by Jan Surrey and Marsha Lawson; and the third in December, led by Doreen. All were held in our online Dharma Hall. We were looking forward to hosting Ajahn Jayanto again in September, but canceled the retreat because it was planned as in-person event, and we believed that it was imprudent to hold it as the onslaught of the Delta variant was emerging.
We’ve also developed other ways in which our sangha members can connect with one another. Doreen continues to lead a group in chanting the refuges and precepts each weekday morning. In May, Valley Insight held a full-sangha online celebration of Vesak. In addition, sangha members have read and discussed several books over the course of the year—and recently watched and discussed a film.
A group of committed social activists within our sangha has been meeting regularly to consider ways to support each other in the varied actions in which members of this group participate. Our Prison Sangha program started up again this fall when the facility in Berlin, New Hampshire, re-opened to visitors after being closed to the public for 18 months.
Through all of this, our sangha has proved to be resilient: there are certainly many Dharma lessons to be learned in our responses to the pandemic. Speaking for myself, it’s required a lot of patience, and I’m incredibly grateful for my practice as we navigate this strange and stressful time.
Most nonprofits put together an “annual report” at the end of the year, sharing highlights from the year and providing a snapshot of the fiscal health of the organization. In reviewing Valley Insight’s 2021 year, I’m reminded that I’m grateful for many gifts from many people. And I recall that the Buddha considered dana (generosity) to be the first of the ten paramis (perfections of the heart/mind).
Our ongoing practice of gratitude
Our sangha is incredibly generous: people offer many kinds of gifts regularly and with such kindness. In acknowledgment, one of the practices we’ve begun at our board and teacher team meetings is to spend a few minutes acknowledging our gratitude for people who’ve contributed to Valley Insight in some way in the past month.
Thank you to our teachers—Peg Meyer, Lee Steppacher, Doreen Schweizer, and Karen Summer, Valley Insight’s guiding teacher—for sharing their knowledge of the Dharma with us, week after week.
Thank you to the members of the board for their commitment and service to our Sangha. I look forward to spending time with them at our meetings each month. Charlene Gates, Joel Lazar, and Sue McGilvray continued their service throughout the year. Gina Sonne and Mindy Schorr ended their service on the board this year, and while we miss them at our meetings, we were delighted to welcome Carol Rougvie to the board in the fall.
Thank you to the peer leaders who have worked with Lee Steppacher to help support the Tuesday sit this year—Sybil Buell, Charlene Gates, Adam Knowlton-Young, Bob Metz, and Penelope Prendergast. And thank you to Lee herself for stepping so beautifully into the role of guiding teacher for this longstanding group.
Thank you to Claudia Brandenberg, Connie O’Leary, Kate Schaeffer, and the other members of the Support Sangha, who coordinate assistance for members of the Sangha who need assistance during an emergency or illness or who might just need a ride to DHMC one day.
Thank you to Manny Mansbach, Jan Surrey, and Marsha Lawson, and Doreen for leading retreats for us last year. Thank you Deb Steele, Karen, and Peg for managing these so skillfully.
Thank you to Joel Lazar, Doreen, Karen, Peg, Lee, Carol Rougvie, Molly Grover, Willow Nilsen, Shideko Terai, our ongoing Racial Affinity group members, our eco-sattva group participants, and all those others active in helping us explore how to incorporate the practice of Engaged Buddhism into our sangha and our lives.
Thank you to Barbara Woodard for sending an informational poster to the prison in Berlin each month to remind the men of our meditation regular gatherings there.
Thank you to Joel Lazar, David Gumpert, Joyce Mechling, and Karen Summer, for organizing and leading our book group and film discussions. And thank you to all the individuals who served as session-facilitators for the bi-monthly gatherings.
I’m grateful to Teresa Thurston, our bookkeeper; Anne McKinsey, who maintains our website; to Geri DeLuca, Dorothy Gannon, and Doreen Schweizer, who produce our wonderful newsletter; and to so many others who help make Valley Insight the vibrant community it is.
Sangha Finances in 2021
Speaking on behalf of the board and teachers, we’re very, very grateful for those who supported our sangha financially in 2021.
Total Income: $38,391
There are two main ways in which people offer dana to Valley Insight. Many contribute to our Annual Appeal each fall. These one-time donations allow us to establish a base budget for the next fiscal year. In fall, 2021, 56 people donated a total of $17,801. Others choose to support us with a donation each month—in 2021, 23 people offered us a total of $6,063. Our income for the year includes $14,375 for teacher dana.
Total Expenses: $30,946
Our biggest “expense” this year was for teacher dana (we disperse it directly to teachers when we receive it, but for accounting purposes, it is counted as income to Valley Insight). Our other expenses include payment for our newsletter, website, and other administrative expenses, insurance expenses for community outreach (website, etc.); and various staffing expenses, including payments to our bookkeeper; to our guiding teacher, Karen Summer; and to our senior teacher, Doreen Schweizer, for teaching and administrative work that is not supported by dana. (FYI – Karen and Doreen, as well as the other VIMS teachers and visiting teachers, receive no reimbursement for their direct teaching and preparation time other than the donations given in the dana boxes. This is in keeping with the Early Buddhist Tradition.)
Here’s a glimpse of the financial support for Valley Insight for the year:
- We had 66 donors overall.
- 54 donors responded to the Annual Appeal with donations.
- 23 donors supported us with special or ongoing donations.
- 5 people donated $1,000 or more.
- 22 people donated $250–$999.
- 22 people donated $100–$249.
I’m grateful to everyone who is part of our sangha. When you attend our sits and events, you inspire others with your participation and your practice, with your words and your example. It’s so important to be reminded that there are others who are pursuing the path we share.
In the words of the Buddha, “Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades, he can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path.”
Upaddha Sutta: Half (of the Holy Life), translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu © 1997 [Link]
Thanissaro translated the word bhikkhu in this ancient text as “monk,” but the Buddha did not mean that it was just monks or nuns for whom spiritual friends were important—it’s true for all of us! And, if we weren’t aware of how important admirable friendship, admirable companionship, and admirable camaraderie are to nurturing our practice, haven’t these times of ongoing pandemic shown us all just how essential they are?
In-Person Sits and Events: Vaccination and Mask Policy
In mid-March 2020, we moved all our sits and other events to Zoom so we could continue to nurture our practice and provide a sense of sangha during lockdown. Many people have taken advantage of our virtual Dharma Hall since then and quite a few regulars live elsewhere and are able to be a part of our sangha through our online connection.
We didn’t want to lose the ability to offer an online experience, even as we planned a return to in-person events. So for months, a small group from our sangha planned how we can offer hybrid events (online + in-person). Earlier in 2021, a generous donor came forth to help to make that vision happen. Our goal is to offer the best experience possible for both those joining via Zoom and those attending in-person, recognizing that a hybrid format will require us all to adapt to a few changes to make it work.
Here’s where things stand as of September 12, 2021:
- We are experimenting with a hybrid model: some people will be meeting in person and others will join through our online Dharma Hall.
- The first hybrid meeting of our Thursday sit occurred on August 12 and they are continuing weekly.
- The Tuesday sit met twice as a hybrid, after which Lee Steppacher, the teacher, and the peer leaders decided to suspend the hybrid format and resume only Zoom sits for the autumn.
- The Monday sit will meet online for at least the next two months while the Hanover Friends Meeting House, where the sit has been held, is under construction.
- We plan to hold some events as hybrids; some will be in-person only; and others will be online only. For example, the fall book group, which will begin meeting on September 16, will be held online only.
While we were making our plans for gathering in person once again and exploring configurations of laptops and webcams to allow people to join remotely, the Delta variant emerged. Suddenly it became more challenging to do things in-person. We had to ask how we could help ensure the health and safety of people who attended in-person events while medical professionals and public officials are warning us about a renewed COVID-19 surge. Last week the Valley Insight board and teachers came to an agreement about what we’ll do for the near future, with the understanding that we’ll continue to monitor public advice and respond as we need to.
Vaccination and Mask Policy for Everything We Do in-Person as of August 22, 2021:
Valley Insight Meditation Society requires everyone who attends an in-person sit, retreat, or other Sangha event to be fully vaccinated; to maintain social distancing; and to wear a mask indoors at all times except while eating or drinking. People who are experiencing symptoms of respiratory illness (such as cough, nasal congestion, shortness of breath, sore throat, or fever) should not attend in-person sits or other events.
We’re aware that conditions are changing in our region regarding the rapid rise of the COVID-19 Delta variant and In consideration of the policy of not causing harm to our fellow beings, we want our events to be as safe as possible. We follow CDC guidelines and may change our requirements or cancel in-person sits and events if we need to. And we’re committed to re-evaluating our decisions as more information becomes available. We expect everyone to be guided by their concern for others and their own level of comfort when choosing whether or not to attend an in-person event.
Some explanation: We spent a lot of time talking about this policy. We know that there are many people in the sangha who are fully vaccinated. Some people feel comfortable being with others in a closed room for a period of time without masks; others do not. Some people are vaccinated but are very careful gathering with other people because of pre-existing conditions. Others are vaccinated but have children or grandchildren who are too young for vaccinations and they’re concerned about protecting them. Some people don’t want to be vaccinated at all for various reasons. Others can’t be vaccinated. We also know that right now, the areas of New Hampshire and Vermont where most of our sangha members live are COVID-19 hotspots.
We all believe that, in light of the precept of not harming others, the least we can all do is ensure that people who attend our in-person events can feel comfortable that others are also vaccinated and, when indoors, are wearing masks. And we are committed to offer a hybrid option for as many of our events as possible, so that people who don’t feel comfortable gathering with others in a group, for whatever reason, can join in.
If you have any questions or concerns about these policies or our approach to sits and other events, please contact one of the teachers or Michael Stoner, board president.
From the Board (Charlene Gates, Joel Lazar, Sue McGilvray, Carol Rougvie, Michael Stoner) and the Teachers (Peg Meyer, Doreen Schweizer, Lee Steppacher, Karen Summer)
And a reminder…
May we continue to find refuge in curiosity, kindness, beauty, space, breath, gratitude, and one another. This is a time to practice patience, restraint, and evoke a “settled back” feeling as much as possible. We are all in this together.
Mindful of Race: Update from Gina Sonne
By Gina Sonne
In 2018, Valley Insight invited Insight teacher Ruth King to speak to our sangha and to share her newly published book, Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out. With clarity, kindness, and strength as both a writer and speaker, Ruth King inspires all of us who are embarked on this exploration of racism. She identifies racism as a “heart disease” that we must heal from. I know that all of you, as members of the sangha, would find this book invaluable to your practice.
In 2019, a few people from the sangha began an affinity group that met once a month to go through Ruth‘s book. Then, in 2020, Ruth herself launched a new program based on her book. The program consisted of many small groups across the country meeting once a month, on Zoom, for three-hour sessions. We joined the program and followed Ruth’s monthly agendas as we explored our assumptions, experiences, and privilege in a systemically racist culture. We also met quarterly with Ruth on Zoom as part of the larger group.
Jim Bell, Claudia Brandenburg, Geri DeLuca, Doris Hampton, Peg Meyer, Carol Rougvie, Doreen Schweizer, and Gina Sonne all committed to this in-depth program, which offered us the spiritual guidance of the dharma as we opened to our positions in a racist society and nurtured our awareness of how we can help to change the system.
At our last meeting we agreed to continue meeting once a month to keep building on our exploration.
We encourage all of you to read Ruth’s book and to keep it as a guide on your journey toward deeper understanding and fruitful action in a racist world. If you are interested in talking about our experience/ and or the book, we invite you to get in touch with any of us.
Racial Affinity Group Update
By Gina Sonne
Valley Insight’s Racial Affinity Group has embarked on its second year with an expanded membership, an expanded range of focus, and a new name. In July, the group agreed to rename itself Mindful of Racial Equity (MoRE). Having grown this summer from three members to eight, MoRE meets monthly, and in September will join with other sanghas throughout the country in a year-long online Racial Affinity Group Development Program (RA-GDP). RA-GDP is a program organized and led by Ruth King, guiding Dharma teacher at Insight Meditation Community in Washington and author of Mindful of Race: Transforming Race from the Inside Out. In June 2018 Valley Insight hosted Ruth in the Upper Valley for a public presentation based on her book.
Ruth’s book considers the suffering caused by systemic racism from the perspective of the Buddhist Dharma. It also suggests some healing practices, including the “racial affinity group” model. In essence, such a group is made up of people from the same race and is carefully structured so that participants feel safe enough to be vulnerable and challenged. The group’s purpose is to explore individuals’ personal history with racial matters and to work to uncover “unconscious biases” that can limit our relationships with and understanding of people from another race.
The online Group Development Program offers self-formed racial affinity groups like MoRE a virtual immersion “cultivating an intentional shift from racial innocence and distress to racial literacy and harmony within community.” In brief, the program will consist of instructional guidance from Ruth, group coaching, mutual support within our own group (limited to the current eight members), and shared learning from the larger community participating in the program. (For details, see Ruth’s website.) MoRE members are looking forward to joining with other sanghas in examining our racial conditioning and becoming “clearer about how we can lessen the weight of racial ignorance and injustice––internally and externally.”
In the future, Valley Insight is looking forward to opening other opportunities for the sangha to explore the issue of racial affinity together.
New Guiding Teacher
December 03, 2018
With “great joy,” Karen Summer is stepping fully and wholeheartedly into the role of VIMS Guiding Teacher, a position she and Peg Meyer shared during the past year.
Karen began meditating in 1994 with Tara Brach’s Insight Meditation group in Washington, D.C. She became an active member of VIMS as soon as she arrived in the Upper Valley in 2000. Two years later, she participated in the meetings that resulted in the founding of Valley Insight’s Advisory Board and our subsequent non-profit incorporation. She was a strongly committed and very active member and leader of the board until she stepped down in 2014. She has always viewed service on the board as a tangible way to live the Dharma and to nourish Sangha.
While serving the VIMS community, Karen has been deepening her own understanding and practice by attending three- and five-day study retreats at BCBS (26 courses since 2000) and many seven- to ten-day retreats at IMS. Her deeper and longer meditations include two month-long experiences, one at the Forest Refuge in Barre and one at Cloud Mountain. She also did two three-week retreats at her home, which, she notes, were the most challenging because she needed to balance the benefit of the mind becoming very quiet very quickly with the isolation of not being with other people.
In Karen’s professional life, she experienced the heart-stirring rewards of direct patient care while working as a nurse’s aide at the “old” Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital. Even as her subsequent hospital-based critical care nursing experience fades with time, she finds that every day she still uses the lessons learned from years of co-leading outpatient psychiatric groups.
She spent her final career years as an administrative assistant with the Tuck School of Business where she sharpened her already formidable organizational skills by helping students learn to apply business skills to nonprofit management, business ethics and environmental issues. Those skills serve her well in her work with VIMS.
The fruit of Karen’s practice has long been flowing out into our collective lives. She has often substituted for other VIMS teachers, and, several years ago, at the invitation of the teacher team, she began facilitating VIMS introductory courses. She is currently the guiding teacher for the VIMS weekly Monday sit.
Increasingly, Karen embodies the Dharma she so loves. We are fortunate to have this home-grown, respected, kind, well-loved and deeply loving teacher as our VIMS Guiding Teacher.
Mindful of Race: A Visit from Ruth King
August 4, 2018
On June 25, Valley Insight was honored to have wise and compassionate Insight meditation teacher Ruth King visit our sangha and give a Dharma talk on her new book, Mindful of Race. Ruth’s talk packed the Norwich Congregational Church. Ruth calls racism a “heart disease” that can go unnoticed and untreated for a long time. She talked about the eye-opening experiences of encountering her own preconceived ideas, and the sometimes-challenging experiences encountering those of others, and then took questions from the audience. Ruth’s book is divided into three parts:
Part 1: Diagnosis: Understanding Habits of Harm––we discover the narrative we hold along racial lines;
Part 2: Mindfulness-Heart Surgery––we explore how to stay present to racial distress through mindfulness meditation;
Part 3: Cultivating a culture of care––Recovery, we shift our focus outward. We learn how to spread understanding, caring, and equanimity about race from our sangha to the bigger world outside.
Ruth King’s visit invited our sangha to open our heart-mind to investigate racism both internally and externally. In the weeks following, book groups were formed within the sangha to read and study Mindful of Race.
Observations from the Intersangha Meeting of 2017: The Past and Future of Secularized Buddhism
November 5, 2017
By Mindy Schorr
In April of this year I had the opportunity and pleasure to attend the 8th annual Intersangha Meeting of the Buddhist Insight Network (BIN) at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California.
The sixty-five attendees were made up of Community Dharma Leaders and sangha board members from Insight communities around the country. The purpose of the annual Intersangha gathering is to discuss issues pertinent to our sanghas and for representatives to come together to explore those issues, to learn together and from each other. The schedule, which was very full, included time for talks, sitting, walking, yoga or Qigong, networking, and fabulous meals on the beautiful 400-acre Spirit Rock campus. Breakout groups were organized so that sangha representatives could meet together to discuss areas of common interest, as well as issues challenge our sanghas.
Just being at Spirit Rock was exciting. Talking with other Insight practitioners about the dharma, about practice, about each of our home communities and our greater shared community felt very connecting. I was proud to be there as a representative of VIMS, and attending the meeting helped me to recognize the maturity and strength of our sangha in a way that I would not have otherwise understood.
The title of this year’s Intersangha gathering was “Dharma, Secular Mindfulness, and Science: Convergences and Collisions.” Kim Allen, the founding president of the Buddhist Insight Network, gave a presentation about the issue of teacher succession and teacher support. Gil Fronsdal, the keynote speaker, gave an informative talk titled “The Genealogy of Secularized Buddhism.” These two talks, more than any other conversations, deepened my understanding of where our Insight community is at this moment in time.
Kim discussed the reality that within the next five-to-ten years, most of the founding and senior teachers of the Insight movement will no longer be teaching. These founding teachers were taught by the Westerners who brought the Insight movement to the United States (Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Christina Feldman, Christopher Titmuss, and Ruth Denison). The new teachers then began their own local groups. There are now roughly 200 Insight sanghas, which range in size from small sitting groups to large organizations. And many more teachers have been trained through the Community Dharma Leaders and other teacher trainings. Nonetheless, the pulling back, retiring, and aging of the founding teachers is happening in sanghas across the country, and many are struggling to figure out how their organization will evolve.
VIMS’s guiding teacher, Doreen Schweizer, is one of these founding teachers, and she brought Vipassana (Insight) meditation to the Upper Valley. VIMS is fortunate also to have Peg Meyer and Karen Summer on the teacher team. As I talked with other board members from around the country, I recognized that we have one of the strongest teacher teams of any community of our relatively small size. And while we move through transitions and change, we are strong in our community and have leaders who are highly qualified to teach the dharma.
In Gil’s fascinating keynote talk, he shared his perspective on the interface of secular and Buddhist mindfulness, and reflected on how those separate practices influence each other and evolve. Gil noted that he has tremendous respect for the secular movement and for the sophistication and science that people are bringing to it. But he acknowledges that there is some tension there: if Vipassana is now being practiced by the secular world, what will happen to the dharma? Gil welcomes the secular mindfulness movement and suggests that it is possible that this movement may create a “seed bed” for receptivity and openness to Buddhist mindfulness.
Gil also observes that Buddhism is not just one belief system. There are various beliefs within Buddhism worldwide that have been largely culturally determined. This cultural determination is also true of the Vipassana movement. Buddhist thought and practice throughout the world also exist on a continuum of religious to secular. The more religious groups tend to believe in rebirth, the supernatural, faith, belief in what cannot be seen. Those groups are oriented toward monastics and mediated by clergy. The more secularized groups are not based on belief in rebirth and the supernatural; rather they emphasize our present life, and direct personal experience. Secular Buddhism tends toward the scientific, rational, empirical. There is more focus on the laity and the training of lay teachers.
This range from religious to secular has existed historically and is not unique to the American modern world. Gil gave several examples from Thailand, Sri Lanka, Korea, and China.
Gil proposes (and there is historical evidence that supports the claim) that certain conditions give rise to the movement toward rationality and secularization. These contributing conditions are:
1 Sufficient affluence/comfort
2 Leisure time; space for study
3 An educated population seeking a different approach to religion and understanding.
Gil sees the focus of the Vipassana movement as liberation and freedom from suffering, more than merit for rebirth, though the latter is certainly present. Vipassana is about direct personal experience that is available in the here and now, and it follows in a long tradition of interpreting Buddhism for our life and time and culture; he does not feel that Western culture has appropriated or disrespected Eastern forms of Buddhism. And finally, he pointed out that the Buddha was a rational man who emphasized direct personal experience over rites, rituals, and supernatural theories about rebirth. The Sutta teachings are more secular than religious.
Gil also observed that secularized movements are more fragile than religious movements, which frequently get maintained and provide a landscape from which secular movements may come and go.
I left the meeting feeling moved and happy about the state of our Valley Insight sangha. For those who are interested in attending, the next BIN meeting will be held in May, from the 3rd through the 6th, at IMC (Insight Meditation Center) in Redwood City, California.
Peg Meyer Graduates from Spirit Rock’s Community Dharma Leaders Program
We of Valley Insight are blessed to have a teacher as loving, ardent, and wise as Peg Meyer. Her embodiment of the dharma continues to deepen with her years of study and practice, and she joyfully and generously shares her understanding with us. For more than two years, Peg actively participated in the Community Dharma Leaders teacher training program sponsored by Spirit Rock in California. She was one of ninety-three chosen from applicants throughout the U.S. and Europe. Peg’s formal graduation was marked by a festive ceremony at Spirit Rock in April, 2017.
The program afforded her the opportunity to have a monthly conference with her mentoring teacher, Taraniya Gloria Ambrosia, as well as a regular monthly discussion with her study group. She chose to concentrate much of her time with this group on issues of diversity and inclusivity with the sangha. To meet the program’s requirements, every month Peg submitted essays and/or lesson plans on a full range of topics. She attended two ten-day retreats with the program each year, plus others of her own choosing. This has been a rigorous program. Peg appreciated the depth of teachings and worked diligently, whole-heartedly taking full advantage of the offering.