A new online Wildmind community

I’ve created a new online space for people who have a connection with me based on practice.

A lot of people have practiced meditation with me over the years, at face-to-face classes, online classes, Skype classes, through CDs and MP3s, through Wildmind’s online meditation guides, or via books I’ve written. I’m in touch with some of those people directly, but there are many people who follow what I post on Facebook, Wildmind’s blog, my personal blog, Google+, and Twitter, that I have no contact with at all. And perhaps some of those people would like to have contact with each other. And I’d like to have that — to create more of a sense of community. But how?

Google+ to the rescue

You may be on Google+ already. But if you’ve never heard of it it’s Google’s equivalent of Facebook. In many ways it’s better than Facebook, because there are no ads (and probably never will be), and because there are awesome features like “Hangouts” where you can have (FREE) videoconferencing with up to nine people. And most people find that the quality of what’s going on in G+ is better than in Facebook, although that’s subjective, of course.

So, Google+ has recently (just yesterday!) started a new feature called “Communities.” These are basically online moderated forums. Some are public. The Wildmind community is private, which means that only members can see what’s posted there.

Here’s the link to the Wildmind community. Of course you won’t see anything until you’ve joined.

How is it going to be used? Initially, I’m suggesting that it’s a place we can talk about our practice and get feedback and encouragement from others. As well as sharing what’s going on in our own practice, the community allows for discussion, which could include giving moral support and showing empathy, comparing notes about how we’ve handled particular problems, sharing useful approaches to practice that we’ve stumbled upon, etc.

I’m not seeing this as a “Bodhipaksa fan club” because I don’t see the focus as being on me. I see the focus as being on the community itself. But it’s not a general forum for people interested in Buddhism and meditation, but for people interested in Buddhism and/or meditation who have some kind of connection with me, even indirectly.

If you’re interested in this, then you’ll have to visit the community and request to join, because of the private nature of the group. And you’ll have to have a G+ account, of course, but that’s easy to set up. Just go to and follow the instructions.

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Dispute closes NKT’s Bexhill Buddhist centre

Maitreya Kadampa Buddhist Centre, Bexhill.

An extraordinary power struggle is tearing apart a Buddhist community in England.

While scouring the headlines for stories that might fit on Wildmind’s blog under the “news” category, I came across the intriguing headline “Dispute closes Buddhist centre,” discussing problems at the Maitreya Buddhist Center of the New Kadampa Tradition, or NKT, in Bexhill in East Sussex.

Unfortunately both newspapers that carried the story had removed the article. But a friend came to the rescue by pointing me toward Google’s cache of the story, and someone on Facebook sent me a link to a blog which presents one side of the dispute (read the blog from the bottom up).

First, a bit of background. The NKT were founded by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, and they’re one of the largest Buddhist movements in the UK. Probably in terms of the number of centers they have, they are the absolute largest, although some of the “centers” are no more than rooms rented for an evening class. They have a strong expansionist policy.

The NKT is also famous for the “Dorje Shugden Controversy,” which is, to my mind, a rather weird dispute about a Tibetan Deity. Dorje Shugden is a deity who has been worshipped in Tibetan Buddhism since the 1700s. However, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama came to the conclusion that Shugden is not an enlightened being but is a worldly figure, and he first spoke out against his worship and then issued a ban on the practice. Since Geshe Kelsang Gyatso is a firm believer in Shugden, this caused a bitter dispute between the NKT and the Dalai Lama. This puts the NKT in the unfortunate position of being opposed to one of the most popular and revered figures in the world.

This particular story, however, has nothing at all to do with the Dorje Shugden dispute, which is a phenomenon I find weird (it’s a dispute over a figure I consider to be purely imaginary). It seems to have to do more with tensions between an individual, and legally autonomous, local center of the NKT, and the central organization itself, to the point where the central NKT is attempting a takeover. Whether or not they have good reason to do that I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem that they have the legal right to do so, if indeed the local centers are constituted as independent charities with their own boards of trustees.

Bearing in mind that we only have one side of the story presented here, the Maitreya Buddhist Centre, which is a charity registered under English law and with its own board of trustees, ended up with a resident teacher, Kelsang Chodor, who made organizational decisions that were unpopular with the board. A teacher who was asked to stop teaching refused to do so, and when Chodor bypassed the trustees in some of his decision making he refused to meet with them. The newspaper article outlines the background and explains the build-up of the conflict:

A volunteer at the Maitreya Buddhist Centre claims “a traumatic and bitter dispute” has left this former haven of peace changed forever.

Now the building in Sea Road is locked with no sign of when it will be opened again.

Andrew Durling helped set up the meditation centre having been at the start of New Kadampa Tradition meditation classes in Bexhill.

He was one of the trustees when the charity was registered and was responsible for the oversight of administration.

The centre became established and thrived with up to 50 people a week attending regular meditation classes led by resident teacher Lam-ma and other teachers she appointed.

However since she retired there has been a breakdown in the relationship between NKT and the centre’s management team, and from there Andrew and others have struggled to reach agreement with the head office based in Cumbria.

One of the trustees claims that the central NKT tried to replace the board of trustees, which would seem to be an illegal course of action:

The Charity Commission has now replied to the submission made to it by the charity trustees of Maitreya Buddhist Centre many weeks ago. The key element of that reply was that the attempts by NKT head office back at the beginning of March to remove the existing trustees of the centre and to replace them with trustees of the NKT’s own choosing was invalid and a breach of the centre’s own constitution

As the newspaper article puts it, “This appears to have become a struggle for control between a handful of volunteers and the umbrella organization which has more than 1,000 branches throughout the country.”

The blog also alleges that the NKT made “repeated threats of litigation” against the center.

From an organizational point of view I find this fascinating, partly because the organization I’m part of (Triratna) is similarly constituted in such a way that individual centers are independent. But what’s difference we don’t have a “head office” that could attempt a takeover. The most that could happen if a center were, for example, to go off the rails, is that the center could be told that they could no longer consider themselves to be affiliated with the parent organization. This actually happened once, with our Croydon center, where the Order member in charge of the situation there had created a kind of personality cult based on manipulation and bullying. He wasn’t the only person involved, because he had created a kind of “gang” that maintained control using the same techniques he himself employed. After attempts were made to correct the situation through dialogue, Sangharakshita, then founder of the Triratna Order, told the board of trustees that they would have to change their ways or cease being affiliated with the rest of the Triratna Community. And things did change as a result, with the ringleader leaving both the Croydon center and the Order.

The Bexhill situation is also interesting to me simply because it’s got to the point where a Buddhist center is no longer functional because of internal politics. That’s quite an extraordinary situation, and I’ve never head of that happening before. I’m not sensing a lot of dialog going on, which is unfortunate. Of course we don’t really know what’s going on. I’ve only seen one side of the story, and even if I was aware of both sides it would be impossible to be certain of the facts. Unfortunately, as the newspaper reports, “The head office was approached several times for a comment this week but none was forthcoming.”

The NKT has quite a traditional authoritarian structure (traditional for Tibetan Buddhism, anyway), where monks and nuns are basically told where to go and when. The NKT tries to be highly centralized, with the guru making decisions for the local centres, but the local centers are (as I understand it) legally separate entities, and so ultimately the guru (or the central organization) has limited legal control over them. That suggests a fragility in the NKT. Two ways to hold a local center in place when it has problems with the central organization are dialogue and authoritarianism. In this case the NKT seems to have adopted an authoritarian approach, through wielding power.

This following excerpt from the blog reveals a fascinating twist in how this power is being used:

A website purporting to be the official site of Maitreya Buddhist Centre, using the charity’s registration number and using its registered address, is currently active. However, this website is entirely without the sanction of the current legally valid trustees and management team of Maitreya Buddhist Centre, and is in direct conflict with the website that has always been the real official site of Maitreya Buddhist Centre, a site registered with the Charity Commission. This fraudulent website has therefore been reported to the relevant authorities, including the police and the Charity Commission.

Creating an alternative website for the center — one not controlled by the trustees — is an extreme step, or mis-step. It suggests that the NKT is struggling, within an authoritarian mind-set, to bring one of its centers back into the fold of central control.

This tactic, of setting up an alternative website, is one I’ve seen the NKT use before, albeit in a different form. Several years ago, members of a Buddhist Center in England were surprised to discover that the NKT had set up a website using the name of their center, which was not in any way NKT affiliated. This was almost certainly a breach of trademark law as well as a breach of UK charity law. It was also rather unpleasant — a kind of spiritual “phishing” attempt. The situation, fortunately, was resolved through dialog between the two organizations.

Back in the Bexhill power struggle, the blog also describes a new management team being sent in to wrest control from the elected trustees:

It appears that Maitreya Buddhist Centre has now been ‘taken over’ and a new management team is attempting to take charge of the premises. This is as flagrant a violation of charity and company law as it is possible to achieve …

Generally, if the board of trustees is properly constituted, then an outside entity has no legal standing to take over the center. Even the parent body — the NKT — can consider itself to be only the spiritual, rather than the legal, head of the center. [This may not be the case with the NKT, although I believe that charities are meant to be independent and not under central control.]

It seems that having opted for an authoritarian approach, the NKT is finding that it’s not a viable option, or at least not a straightforward one.

I take no pleasure in reporting these events. The situation must be intensely painful for all concerned, and I truly hope that dialog and trust can be restored.

I wonder, however, whether dialogue is now even possible in Bexhill now that the authoritarian path has been chosen? Trust is more easily broken than restored.

This pain is evident both in the comments of Andrew Durling, one of the trustees, who has been at the epicenter of the conflict:

“Whoever ‘wins’ (so called) the situation will find there is nothing left. I am as guilty as anyone else.

“This bold experiment in bringing buddhist meditation to Bexhill has, temporarily at least, failed.”

He said the community had been irrevocably split, with some backing him and others supporting NKT, and added: “It is anyone’s guess whether it will be alright.”

It’s also evident in the comments of a woman who had been attending classes at the Maitreya Centre:

“They have taken my place of worship away from me. It isn’t a proper buddhist centre anymore.”

She added: “It is just awful.

“I won’t go back there, it’s a mess. I am really sad. I want to say – how dare you do this[?]”

As the Buddha said, “Spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life.” It’s worth remembering that as we witness this painful conflict.

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Why I call myself a Buddhist

Figure with weird bulging eyes, from a Tibetan thangka painting.

When I became a Mitra (friend) of the Triratna Buddhist Community earlier this year, I was surprised by the surprise of my non-Buddhist friends. They seemed aggrieved.

This was the general message:

‘We know you’ve benefited from meditation, and going on silent retreats. Although that’s not our idea of a holiday, we’re pleased for you. But why spoil everything by espousing a weird Eastern religion? Can’t you keep it secular? And if you have to be religious (though God knows why) can’t you stick to your own? OK, maybe not the Church. But what’s wrong with the Quakers? They sit in silence and meditate, don’t they?’

Fair enough questions. And I tried to answer them. I talked about the value of meditation, the common sense of the precepts. I talked about enjoying chanting, and finding ritual moving.

This was all true. But my explanation, even as I gave it, struck me as just so much hot air. After a lot of apologetic shrugs at dinner tables and in cafes, I realised that my decision to become a Mitra hadn’t been ‘thought through’ at all.

The commitments involved in becoming a Mitra – coming out as a Buddhist, promising to live by the precepts and choosing the Triratna Buddhist community as my spiritual home – didn’t feel like things I had ‘decided’ on.

Rather, all my experiences within the Triratna Buddhist Community had added up and reached a tipping point. I suddenly felt ‘at home’ with it all.

By experiences, I mean acts of kindness I’ve felt and witnessed. I mean the teachings of Order Members and the warmth or sometimes lacerating sharpness with which those teachings are delivered. I mean stuff I read in Buddhist books that speaks directly to personal problems I didn’t realise anyone else had. I mean the intimacy of joined voices reciting the seven-fold puja (one of the core rituals in the Triratna Buddhist Community) and the hypnotic beauty of the Heart Sutra, the poem at its core. I mean the pregnant sense of strangeness and mystery that often suffuses me when I sit in silence with myself or with others, at home, at Leeds Buddhist Centre, or on early morning meditations on retreat where you enter the shrine room in the dark, meditate while dawn gathers, and step out utterly and completely in the day.

I can no more justify or quantify this than I can tell you why somebody falls in love with one person – perhaps a person from a different background – and not another. My Mitra ceremony felt like a kind of marriage. Most marriages go through rocky patches, I know. I’m going through one even as I write this, not having meditated for a fortnight. But Buddhist practice gives me a home to come back to, a structure to see my struggles in the context of. That’s why I was happy to say ‘I do.’

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Impressions from a collective decision making process

When Sunada’s sangha in Boston had a big decision to make, they tried something different. Rather than taking a majority vote, they went for the challenge of finding a group consensus. In other words, they talked through a process where everyone contributed to envisioning a solution that all could support. And what a ride that was.

The decision to be made was this. Our basement level rented room got flooded with last spring’s heavy rains, and became unusable. Do we attempt to fix it back up, or do we move on? Although it was cold, damp, and dark, that basement had one big redeeming feature — it was affordable. Or should we rally our forces and look for a nicer street-level location, at potentially three or four times the rent? This latter choice would require a higher commitment from everyone. More time, money, energy, cooperation – really, more of just about everything. Were we ready for this?

I saw our crossroads as an opportunity, in so many ways. For one, it was a chance to put our commitment to Right Speech (i.e. truthful and harmonious communication) into practice in a real-life situation. In my tradition, the Triratna Buddhist Community, we hold sangha communication as central to practice. Each member is explicitly encouraged to grow into and express their own unique individuality. But at the same time, we commit to open and honest communication that builds community and cooperation toward a common good. As you can imagine, these two ideals can rub up against each other in practice and create some challenging learning situations.

In a consensus process, everyone’s views are taken into account. The idea is to openly listen to each other to look for common ground. It’s a long and messy process. To make this work, everyone needs to speak up – especially around disagreements. And working through conflict is a key part of the process. The goal is to reach a decision that everyone is willing support, even though it’s likely to be with differing levels of enthusiasm.

When we started, everyone had different ideas of what our options were, and how much risk we should take. And there were just as many different visions of what our future as a sangha looked like, and what sort of home would suit that vision.

There was much more to this experience than I can cover in this one post. For one, I won’t go into the specifics of how we managed the decision-making process. What I do want to share though, is what I personally took away, having been both a participant and facilitator.

  1. Don’t go in with strong views. It’s important for each of us to go into a discussion having sorted through the facts and considered our own perspectives. But it’s also really important to be willing to hear out other views nonjudmentally. Not just new information, but also other people’s preferences and emotions. (And that’s the difficult part!) This process can work only if everyone is willing to listen to everyone else, completely.
  2. Distinguish between facts and opinions. I did have a personal bottom line. I wasn’t willing to stay in a basement that had mold. Obviously that was a health hazard – and a fact-based objection. But I also didn’t find the basement very inspiring, and felt it dampened the energy of the sangha. That was an opinion. Don’t go down the rathole of arguing over opinions.
  3. It’s more important to listen than to speak. It’s really challenging to listen openly when someone is expressing an opinion we disagree with. Even if we’re staying quiet, it’s all too easy to be arguing against them in our minds, coming up with retorts, pulling up evidence to the contrary. I made it a practice to put myself in the other person’s shoes while they were speaking. I tried to hear what he was implying underneath his words, what assumptions were there, and so forth. It was really valuable in helping me to empathize with his needs and wants, spoken and otherwise.
  4. Don’t leave things hidden under rugs. Apologize quickly. Ask for clarification of anything that sounds like a judgment, criticism, or tightly-held opinion. Encourage quieter people to speak up (even if it means private conversations before or after meetings to get things out).
  5. Ask for clarification instead of arguing. It’s incredibly delicate to engage in conflict constructively. Even asking a simple question like “what do you mean by that?” can come across as argumentative if spoken with a strong tone of voice. I tried really hard to watch my mind and mouth. If I couldn’t find a place in my heart that was willing to hear the other person’s point of view without judgment, I tried to keep quiet. I didn’t always succeed, but I made a sincere effort.
  6. Leave space for everyone to express their feelings. After laying out the objective facts and options, there needs to be plenty of space for each person to say how he feels about it all. And to be allowed to do so without argument from anybody else. Although everyone wants to rely on facts to make the decision, often a difficult choice in the end has to be based on a gut feeling. And there needs to be room for the group to find its collective gut feeling.
  7. Trust the process. I was pleasantly surprised at how toward the end, we started to converge on an accord. As the facilitator, I didn’t make that happen. It happened naturally, because we had all listened to each other honestly and respectfully.

So what did we decide? We’re still mulling things over, so I can’t say yet. We still have a few things to check out, and we wanted to give everyone time to think about it. In the end, I think another order member and I will need to make the decision on behalf of the group. There was no one clear cut choice – not because of disagreements, but because the choice is so difficult. For everyone. But as one person said, he trusts us to keep everyone’s wishes in mind as we decide.

So it seems our experiment with consensus has worked well. And I feel as though our collective energy has grown a little stronger because of it. As hard as it was, I think it’ll be a great way to build sangha if we approach all our decisions this way in the future.

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Zen meditation (Valley Morning Star, Texas)

Joe Hermosa, Valley Morning Star: The pungent smell of incense wafts through a room shaded by thin reed blinds. In that room people sit in a circle on chairs and pillows strewn on the floor.

They discuss their thoughts following meditation.

The people are members of the Sangha of the Rio Grande Valley, a band of diverse people who meet, not always regularly, to meditate and discuss Eastern thought.

Their common thread is Zen meditation and the pursuit of mindfulness. Mindfulness, the shift of focus to the present, is the path to a more peaceful living, members of the group say.

Small pockets of people in the Valley are discovering alternative ways of healing, shunning a caffeinated life for a calmer existence.

Whether they practice Zen meditation, yoga and other forms of physical, spiritual or mental healing, they are finding there are outlets in the Valley to help them do so.

The Zen community is not large, said Mark Matthews, who founded the group 11 years ago. He said he did it in the hope of finding others with an interest in meditation as a way to improve life.

In the Rio Grande Valley, Zen meditation may seem as vague and unattainable as the gently curling smoke from a stick of incense. But its appeal has spread to some Valley residents.

Those who participate appreciate the dedicated few that keep the group alive.

Most members said they were surprised when they found others interested in Eastern thought in the Valley.

“Believe me, I thought I was the only one in Texas,” said Noe Reyes, the owner of a tree nursery in Edinburg. The most recent meeting was held at his home.

Reyes built a Japanese garden and a teahouse in part of his yard to give him a serene place to meditate, and has been meditating for about six years. He said it’s helped him control anger and stay calm in tough times.

“I believe that because of my meditation, I am more calm about things and I am better able to keep my cool a lot more than I used to under stressful situations,” he said.

Jennifer Klement, a member of the group for six years, said it was important to have meetings with others who practice.

“It is like a church: you need a Sangha, you need the support of others,” she said, and a place to discuss the teachings and the practice of meditation.

Sangha is a Sanskrit word that means a community, either lay or ordained, that practices Buddhism.

The group creates a small community of people with similar beliefs.

Some find the group by word of mouth, while others find it on the Internet.

The Sangha was founded by Matthews, a former Catholic priest, and Sister Mary Catherine Griffin, who were both inspired by a book called “Being Peace” by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk who has published books on peace, Buddhism and meditation.

“I devoured the book,” Matthews said. “It was so wonderful to be exposed to the practice of mindfulness.”

The group was started with a few core members, most of whom have left, though others have filled the spots.

The group has taken many different turns down its path, sometimes meeting every two weeks and at other times, meeting every two months.

“We kind of naturally meet,” Matthews said. “We go through cycles.”

Regardless of the numbers attending, Matthews said the group connection is important.

“It’s important to have a group of people who are practicing here. It’s a support. When we get together, we have questions and we can share those experiences,” he said.

Suzie Lovegren, who recently attended her first meeting with the group, said she was happy to find others who shared her commitment to meditation.

“I felt myself sitting less, and I wanted the support of others who were doing this,” she said.

“Support deepens your own practice,” she said.

Lovegren attended with her husband James, and three of her children.

The group focuses on the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh and the primary principles of Buddhism, which is the elimination of suffering.

They believe that by focusing on the present, happiness can be achieved.

Members focus their energy by deep breathing and clearing their mind of “all of the things that our minds do that prevent us from being in the present,” such as thinking about events in the past or future.

Matthews said some people may be hesitant to try meditation because they are not familiar with it or don’t know how to do it.

“Meditation is so simple,” he said.

“It’s really training the mind to calm down, to become peaceful.”

He said it was “very practical. It’s not very strange or mystical.”

He said it is not mandatory to sit in a certain position. The important thing is to focus on breathing in and out, he said.

Focusing on one thing helps one to relax and “find peace within oneself.”

Many group members said they were familiar with meditation or eastern thought before joining the group.

They continue to meditate daily, while meeting occasionally to discuss their practices and study a facet of Buddhist teachings.

[Original article no longer available.]
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