The Love Sangha: Inaugural “Study Group” Strengthens Bonds, Deepens Practice
In December 2001, the WMC created a new mindfulness practice opportunity to enable members to deepen their practice through mindful study and discussion of personal challenges and insights in the context of Thich Nhat Hanh's book, Teachings on Love. The group met six times, every two or three weeks over the winter months. Each of the eight members committed to attending at least five of the six meetings, hoping to create a stability that would foster deep trust and sharing.
In late March 2002, the initial WMC study group decided to meeting for an additional six sessions, centered on Thay's latest book, Anger: Wisdom to Cool the Flames. In addition, a second study group formed to read and discuss the same book. The WMC plans to continue forming study groups periodically to enable members to meet in small groups focusing on a specific topic or text. If you are interested in finding out more about the study groups, please contact Steve Sidley, 301-897-3648 or stevesidley(at)aol.com.
A few members of the first study group share their thoughts on this new practice below:
From (name removed at owner's request):
The Love Sangha, as we now call it — although we have moved from Thich Nhat Hanh's book on ‘Love' to his latest one on ‘Anger' — has evolved from a book club discussion into an intimate circle of friends who share some of their most personal issues — from those relating to family, relationships and friendships to those related to death, love and religion. It truly embodies the spirit of a Sangha, as an extended family whose members help each other through their struggles resulting from life issues, always anchored in the three jewels, in the teachings of Thay, and in the spirit of engaged Buddhism in lay life.
We start each meeting with an opening silent meditation, we respect the Sangha's principles of bowing to listen and speak mindfully, and we are aware of one individual's need to explore a particular issue close to their heart and practice.
The intimacy and trust we have developed transcends normal Sangha practices: whether we are straight, gay, married, single, divorced, with children or simply with ourselves, in our 20s or our 60s, we share our life experiences through the prism of Thay's teachings in order to integrate the practice into every moment of every day of our lives. And each time we reconvene, we can report on our progress or on our challenges, and it is that humaneness that bonds.
Perhaps it is our commitment to our practice of mindfulness and to ourselves as a consistent group that makes this a sub-Sangha both rich in the breadth and profound in the depth of our practice, growth and awareness. We may speak for 15 minutes or remain silent for nearly the duration of the 2-hour meeting, but we are listening deeply and integrating the kaleidoscope of wisdom and insights that enrich our practice and our daily lives.
Often we laugh, sometimes we cry, but usually I see all of us smiling and sending the most loving energy to each other, and to all the other Sangha members and people we touch. Sometimes, we realize that words get in the way. It is the energy of love, of compassion and of understanding that bond us and enable us to spread this energy in the way that Thay teaches.
So from a book club we have developed into a family of friends and relatives, enabling us to expand that love and compassion into the broader Sangha Family. We realize that Thay's teachings on Love and Anger are interconnected, just as we are with all our Sangha Siblings. And this enables us to be both teachers and disciples to all whom we touch in lay and spiritual life.
From Bill Menza:
The WMC book discussion group has been a very rich experience for me. It is actually a kalyana mitta group — a spiritual friends group, where noble friends have noble conversations about the Practice of the Way in their lives. What has been most helpful for these noble conversations is that the group I have been in has remained stable and solid over a period of months. This has allowed members to really get to know and trust one another.
I think this has happened because the group dynamic has been stable, whereas if new member(s) had joined it, the group would have had to spend time establishing a new structure before it could proceed with deep conversations about real practice in everyday life. That is, members would have had to get to know the new member(s) and to learn to trust them.
Having the intimate connection in the group over a long period of time has also brought a great affection between members. Another benefit of this long term kalyana mitta group is that it has allowed members to do some rather deep sharing of their suffering or problems, which is usually seen only in Dharma discussion groups in long term retreats. Also, Thay's books — Teachings on Love and Anger — have been a most remarkable base from which the group could draw to speak about their Practice. These books are very rich, and a group could spend years discussing what they say about Practice. My experience with the group has been a force in my helping to establish a kalyana mitta group at the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax. You could say in summary that the discussion group has been a very deep practice which continues to grow.
From Barbara Newell:
Two of the most important things to me in life are the practice of mindfulness, and intimate friendship. Mindfulness practice is important because . . . well, for me, life is the practice. The practice is love. What could be more important than that? Intimate friendship is important because it is the most wonderful field of learning and support for watering that seed of love in me, for making my heart bigger.
I was very happy when a sangha member suggested a practice in which a small and consistent group of practitioners would meet very regularly and be able to share deeply about their lives. Community practice on Sunday nights at the Vihara, with its ever-changing kaleidoscope of faces new and old, is wonderful, and I would not want to give it up. Second body practice is another prism through which we may have a more personal interaction, and I have supported it wholeheartedly.
Yet there is something unique about a small group of people making a really firm commitment to be there for an agreed set of several meetings, to listen deeply to one another's most raw and tender struggles and joys. A level of trust can be achieved there that may not be reliably available in the other two practices. This is indispensable when we need to talk about our practice in some of the hardest or most sensitive situations in our lives, such as sexual relationships. It also can be especially important for practitioners who may not have many opportunities for these kinds of close, trusting conversations (such as with an intimate partner at home) in their day-to-day lives. I know that I personally have been able to share on deeper levels than I likely would have in the Vihara, and probably also compared to second body practice.
The study group of which I've been a part for the past six months has been so nourishing to me. It has been all that I had hoped: It has watered the seeds of trust and love in me and helped me find insights into the growing edges of my practice. I am so grateful.
Plum Village's Big Bell of Mindfulness
EDITOR'S NOTE: Several mindfulness practitioners from the Washington area were fortunate to have the opportunity to join Thich Nhat Hanh in June at Plum Village, his retreat center in France, for the Hands of the Buddha retreat. Carole Baker shares this snapshot from her time there.
In Plum Village, at Lower Hamlet (there are five), my dorm room was closest to the largest bell of the village. Other, smaller bells intended to announce scheduled events hang from small shelters or tree branches. This bell has its own square pavilion, raised above the ground, and it hangs from heavy, carved timbers that support a roof that ends in four upturned corners. The bell itself, black, thick, with Chinese characters on its outside and about the size of a beer keg, hangs in the center of a square pavilion. A six-foot curved pole hangs beside the bell on two wires, so to invite the bell to ring, one swings the pole towards a spot on the bell and then pulls the wires back out of the way.
At 5:00 each morning of the year, one of the nuns will address the bell, tap it a few times with the pole to "awaken" it. Then she begins about fifteen minutes of chanting, honoring all the buddhas and bodhisattvas one by one, inviting the bell to ring with each verse. So, every morning, in addition to the smaller, clanging bell that told us we had 10 minutes to get to the meditation hall for morning sitting, this big bell would give out its deep, rich BONG, BONG, BONG. Joseph Byrne, who lived at Upper Hamlet about 3 miles away, said he could hear the big bell every morning. I felt so privileged to be only about 20 feet from the big bell when the morning chanting began. I felt my heart go out to the Universe on the sound of this special, sacred bell. Because of it, I started every morning with a smile.