Welcome to our Winter edition of Boundless the newsletter for the Salt Lake Buddhist Fellowship. Here you will find suggestions for practice, Sangha news, insights from Sangha participants and hopefully support in your practice. As the Buddha said, our spiritual friendships are the whole of the way.
We have contributions from some of our regular contributors and few new ones. So enjoy.
Practice Leader of the Salt Lake Buddhist Fellowship
I would like to start with a line from the Shorter Sukavati Sutra on why it is a good idea to cultivate a heartfelt desire to be born in Amitabha’s pure Buddha field. This Buddha field is an auspicious place where humans and Bodhisattva intermingle. The Buddha says it is good to aspire to be born there, “ They should do this because in that Buddha-field, they will be in the company of good people such as these bodhisattvas.” To be in the company of good people, that is the benefit, the value, the reason the sutra specifically gives for going to the Pure Land. I find that rather fascinating.
So what does this transcendent world, this mythic vision of the Pure Land have to do with my mundane everyday life? I am drawn to this line because it brings to mind the importance of spiritual community, of the Sangha. Both the Pure Land and the Sangha are places to be supported in our practices, cultivate compassion and gain wisdom and attain enlightenment. There is the old saying that it takes a village to raise a child and I like to think that it takes a Sangha to help me become a Buddha.
For many of us, we come to the Buddha through solitary paths; books, magazines, maybe film and some of us may even have a “Buddhist” friend. We live in an unprecedented time, where the Buddha’s teachings are available in all kinds of media. For thousands of years only monks read the Sutras, now a precocious high school kid in Grand Rapids Michigan, on his way to a part time job washing dishes at Denny’s, can be seen reading the Flower Ornament Sutra, or any one of the Nikaya Suttas. Buddhist books sell well and my first encounter with Buddhism was Zen Mind Beginners Mind by Suzuki & How to Cook our Life by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi. What was your first encounter? I wonder if it is uniquely western that the first time we set foot in a Temple or Dojo is sometimes years after our first, second or even third encounters with the Buddha. My first entry was 10 years ago and it wasn’t until another 5 years that it became a part of my practice. Many of those who come to our gatherings have never been and our meeting is their first encounter with communal practice. I hear from many of them, “it’s like coming home”. For many we start the path with the first two jewels, the Buddha and the Dharma. We sit balancing precariously on a two legged stool. I didn’t even realize that there was a third jewel!.
The importance of the Sangha should not be undervalued, it is the third thing that Buddhists take refuge in. As Eshu Martin has written, “The Sangha is where we cultivate relationships with other human beings, coming into genuine relationship with others who are engaged in the activity of awakening.” The Sangha is also an aid, it lights a compassionate light on ourselves to help us grow, to see ourselves as we really are. It is not a place of simple harmony but also a place of transformation. Martin sensei goes on to say,
“When we engage … we find that in spite of all of our efforts, again and again we rub up against one another in a way that makes us uncomfortable, in a way that makes us angry or upset. This practice doesn’t steer away from these kinds of interactions but instead binds us together so that by rubbing up against one another we become polished, smooth.
We find that by doing this, as we go forward into the world we don’t have so many rough edges. We’ve begun to engage in the practice of instead of making more rough edges, hanging onto our sharp points, we begin to engage in the practice of manifesting harmoniously with whatever it is that we come into contact with.”
We interact with each other in the practice and by doing so we are polished, smoothed out, transformed. This is something that could not be accomplished without the Sangha. The importance of the Sangha is illustrated from this quote that I love from Thich Nhat Hanh regarding the sangha,
“It is said that the next Buddha will be named “Maitreya,” the Buddha of Love. I believe that Maitreya might not take the form of an individual, but as a community showing us the way of love and compassion.”
In my personal practice the Pure Land is Here and now and the Pure Land is also a transcendent Buddha-field. In both pure lands, it is the company of good people of Kalyāṇa-mittatā, spiritual friendships in the practice of awakening that I aspire. The Sangha, your Sangha, however it manifests, is filled with the perfume of dharma flowers given as offerings in Sukavati. May we all go in harmony as a Sangha to the other side.
May it be so.
Have you ever seen a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis? It is, for lack of a better word, an awkward process, painful and filled with struggle. The newly formed butterfly emerges, misshapen and clumsy, looking nothing like the beautiful Monarchs and Swallowtails that fill my Utah skies in the late summer. Their life and death struggle, however, despite being so difficult, is what allows the butterfly to complete its metamorphosis and live in its new beautiful form. It forces the body to change, for the wings to become strong and for the final, essential internal changes to take place so that the butterfly can become what it is meant to me.
Yesterday was a day of transformation for me as well, though it is not remotely complete. It was late in the evening. I was cold and felt rather like misshapen and slightly run through the mill looking lump of almost-butterfly as I slowly walked through the icy rain towards the back doors to a church where I had been asked to attend a meeting. These were not the large and spacious main doors at the front that have pretty stone facades and drapes and smiling people to shake your hand and welcome you that grace the churches of the religious institution that I was brought up in.
These were the back doors, textured, security glass doors that had a glowing red card entrance and are, unless the right men are in the offices doing the work of the church, kept secure, locked. These “back doors” are usually where two types of people walk in and out of; the first group are those usually facing disciplinary action or the threat of said action, and the other is the men who, due to their lay callings, work and discuss matters of the church, and when deemed necessary, mete out what I still sincerely believe they think is God’s judgement to preserve the sanctity of the church and the soul of the person who has sinned and needs discipline.
I knew that a visit via this entrance was forthcoming. For over a year now, I’ve had a couple of discussions (where both groups - for the most part - strove to be polite and kind and to listen) and many surprise visits, usually later in the evening from representatives of this institutions trying to lead me back to the fold from where they felt I recklessly strayed. I’ve let them know respectfully that, No, I am not worshiping graven images, due to the statues of Buddha and Yuan Kin. Yes, I am finding profound peace, contentment and joy in my new Sangha community and Yes, that one can appreciate both the teachings of Jesus Christ and Buddha at the same time without jeopardizing the time space continuum or disrupting the consumption of Jell-O salads and funeral potatoes being prepared at any given state and time in the inter-mountain west. I joke a bit here, but honestly, as with all transformations, there was deep pain and grief, intense discomfort and at times, because I am human and a work in progress, the raw desire to become angry.
I was asked to come to this discussion with my husband to meet with the leaders of my natal church. My husband, being a pretty laid back guy (and knowing me quite well) wasn’t inclined to attend since this was my issue, not his, he since he hates dressing up, despises ties, and after 20 years of marriage knows that I can handle things on my own. This caused an issue on the other side, since in this faith, as a married woman, I needed to be attended with and represented by her patriarch, in this case, my laid back sweetheart. My coming and discussing things alone was not the way things were done. We had to have several back and forth text discussions until they relented and let me come as I was.
As I sat in this room filled with pictures of men, and listened to the concerns of two men (who are decent and kind in most situations and who I know care about me in their way and based on their understanding) accuse me of violating sacred vows and being disloyal, warm me of being cast into a whirlwind of sin, fear and suffering, and caution that due to my hardened heart and waywardness by not agreeing with the word of the Brethren of my church, who I was reminded are the only ones authorized to speak for God upon this earth, that I would, through sin, destroy all that I loved. While everyone did their best to be civil and respectful, this was still a very difficult and hurtful discussion as the deepest concerns and feelings of my heart were discounted as misguided, too simplistic or just plain wrong. The fact that I prepped for the discussion by studying how Amnesty International teaches people to deal with violations of humanitarian law and how to reason with those most unreasonable, is a statement unto itself.
As I sat there, I could not help but think back to another transformation much earlier in the morning. Around midnight a beloved sister in my sangha called and let me know her sweetheart was actively in the process of dying. She was grief-stricken and exhausted but called up reserves of strength and had stayed by his bedside for days, loving and supporting him in this difficult journey. I lost my father a few years ago and know how hard this passing can be, so I offered to come up and help and so we shared space together and as sisters and as a sangha of three seen and so many unseen, we breathed together, chanted together and with love and compassion undiluted, prepared her husband to pass from this life to the next.
Our gentle, yet steady and strong hands, massaged and washed her husband’s failing body, a tall and once powerful form wracked with pain and disease yet still brimming with stoicism, strength and bravery. My sister and I hugged each other, comforted each other and did the same to her darling husband and the love and spirit transformed the deathbed and sickroom into a truly holy place, a sacred chrysalis of compassion that prepared him and my friend what was to come next. It was so loving and sacred as three people in a half lit room, became one in breath, mind and spirit, until after a last breath, sigh and little shudder as the ephemeral coils of mortality fell off like cherry blossoms, she and I were the ones who remained in our mortal forms.
I thought of this sad, painful yet gentle parting as I was threatened with judgement, the loss of my family in the life thereafter and of great suffering in this one due to my sin by not supporting the Brethren when it comes to the treatment of our LGBT brothers and sisters and for choosing to follow the path of the Great Teacher and Physician. I found with profound relief and love, that though my friend was not sitting beside me in that room, she was there with me in spirit as I too had to endure the painful struggle of emerging from a chrysalis, albeit of a different nature and in that space, I found peace comfort and deep compassion, just as I was able to offer, in my own way, a measure of comfort and peace to my dear friend earlier that morning.
In the end, I was given three options (since being left alone was not on the negotiating table). 1.) I could recant my belief in Buddhism, repent for my lack of faith and support only what this church told me I could, 2.) I could be excommunicated for apostasy or 3.) I could request that my name be removed from the membership rolls. I tried to think of what Buddha would have done in my place, so I followed that I hope was the path of compassion and kindness and so let them know I would be requesting that my name be removed immediately. I also wished the men well, hugged them and told them I loved them, thanked them for their thoughts and time and let them know, with sincerity, that I knew (since there was a lot of testimony giving going about) that one day, they too would be a Buddha. (While this did not go over as well as I would have hoped, I have no regrets) and without looking back, I walked outside into the night and the rain, flexing my still weak, but yet strengthening wings, content in guidance that Buddha taught that in the end, only three things matter: how much you are loved, how gently you lived and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.
Namu Amida Butsu
Name withheld to protect the privacy and peace of family and friends.
Here is a really good short basic primer on meditation for beginners by David Nitchtern. Enjoy.
Silencing delicate whispers
Muffling sounds of anarchy,
Ebb and flow
Depth and richness prevail
As I listen for the shore’s subtle hum
Against anger’s reckless tide
My heart swells
Loss and hope
In an embrace so powerful,
The pain of uncertainty fades
Present, the now, conquers
When I first moved to Utah, I felt lost, I felt alone and I missed my family, I felt very far from home. The Sangha, both the physical gathering each Sunday and the fellowship are now home to me.
I am so grateful for the Sangha. I am so grateful for all of you! From all of you, from your words and everyday example, I learn to be more understanding, compassionate and accepting. The Sangha challenges me to be a better person, to not be satisfied with the status quo of my life, to be present in my life and to be an active participant in the Sangha, and the Community.
Through the Sangha, I have begun to wake up.
Through the fellowship of the Sangha, I am so grateful for the friendships that are born and for our connections.
I do hold the Sangha in my mind and in my mind’s heart, and I think of the community often.
Words cannot express my gratitude, for the Sangha. I am so grateful for you all.
Namu Amida Butsu
THE HIDDEN LAMP
Stories, Analysis and Practical Exercises Inspired by Awakened Women
The lamp of Buddhist women’s wisdom has been burning for centuries, but its light has often been hidden from view. Buddhist teachings emphasize that there is no male or female in any absolute sense. But culture and custom often said it was not possible to become enlightened in a woman’s body and there have been many bars to practice. This book addresses the too-frequent invisibility of female dharma teachers. These historic women are from all walks of life; abbesses and nuns of course, but also laywomen. We are treated to wives and daughters, servants and courtesans and plenty of sassy grand-mothers. The men in their lives teach, support and frequently challenge. There are stories of women who awaken and leave all their expected roles behind. And there are women who find enlightenment compatible with family life.
Quite a few of the stories deal with the stereotypes of women’s sexuality. Here, desirable women expound wisdom, without denying their gender or beauty. Seemingly useless old women astonish the masters, instructing with the means at hand; tea-cakes, humor or a well-placed blow. A sister knows exactly how to get her brother’s attention – necessary because even though he has died, he’s still being a spiritual show-off.
The content is arranged in four sections by general theme; “Stories of Seeking and Awakening”, “Being Human”, “Words in the Midst of Wordlessness” and “The Path of Practice.” Each chapter begins with a story, most are quite short. Then there is a reflection – a personal analysis and commentary. Female dharma teachers and writers were invited to contribute from a range of Buddhist traditions and backgrounds. I was delighted to see one of the contributors was local Zen priest Diane Musho Hamilton. Each explores how the story speaks to her own life, encouraging the reader to do the same. The chapter concludes with a short series of questions for deeper thought on our own, and practice. Here’s one of the stories:
SATSUJO SITS ON THE LOTUS SUTRA
Japan Eighteenth Century
A devout layman took his young daughter Satsujo with him whenever he visited Master Hakuin Ekaku. Though only a child, Satsujo was devoted to practicing the Dharma.
When she was sixteen, her parents were concerned that she would not find a husband, and asked her to pray to Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion. She did this day and night, during all her activities. Before long she experienced an awakening.
One day her father peeked into her room and saw her sitting on a copy of the Lotus Sutra. “What are you doing sitting on this precious scripture?” he shouted.
“How is this wonderful sutra different from my ass?” she replied.
The reflection on this story discusses the Great Matter that all is Buddha – including your ‘bawdy’ parts. Respect is good but revering the sutras too much can distance us from their meaning. Satsujo’s teaching was this: as long as you think awakening is located somewhere outside yourself – even in a sutra – your understanding will be very limited. The commentator draws meaning from Rosa Parks, who at a pivotal moment, famously didn’t get off her ass. She concludes by discussing the interconnectedness of all bodies and all life.
The practical exercise questions for this story include (along with a couple others) “What might a child or teenager know that an adult has forgotten?” and “What makes an object sacred?”
Buddhists all over the world practice in traditions where women’s voices can be rare. By sharing both historic and contemporary teachings from women, the editors hope to address this long-standing imbalance. These stories are for men as well as women. “In bringing forward the voices of women, the balance that Buddhism (and all religion) has always promised but so far not delivered is now possible. This collection is for everyone who is looking to complete the broken circle that exists in all our great religions – and in our hearts and world.”
The Salt Lake Buddhist Fellowship publishes this newsletter 4 times a year. We would love to have you submit to our publication. We are looking for anything related to your practice or your experience with Buddhism or with our gathering. Poetry, music, essays, book reports, video. We would love to publish your stuff.
This summer we are going to be doing a full day retreat. Keep your eyes open for details. Looking to have the retreat at the end of June.
In June we will also be offering a Ti Sarana Ceremony. The purpose of the ceremony is to function as a personal expression of an individual’s wish to confirm and deepen his or her commitment to the Buddhist path. Our confirmation ceremony does not necessarily imply that one becomes a follower of a particular approach or tradition but is a formal way to declare oneself a Buddhist. We will give more information as the time approaches.
Thank you for all that you do for each other and for the Sangha.