Dharma teachers from various lineages of all the major traditions met October 6 in Seattle at the Blue Heron Zen Center to share interests and concerns, compare teaching styles, and enjoy each other’s company. Jeff Tipp Ji Do Poep Sa Nim, resident teacher of the Blue Heron Zen Community, and Bill Hirsch, NWDA board member, led the ceremonial opening of the meeting.
One topic of importance to all was the challenge of preserving authentic Dharma traditions in the West while also adapting them to the needs and perspectives of westerners. Shih Shen-Ling of Tacoma’s Dragonflower Temple cited “the big buffet table” of Dharma choices in North America as a temptation for people to “almost create their own Dharma,” while Rein Konpo Kaales of Idaho’s White Cloud Zen Temple (see article below) related that his own commitment to a specific tradition occurred only after two decades of experimenting with various teachings. Bill Hirsch, a priest in the (Chinese) White Cloud Buddhist Society tradition, noted that requests for meditation instruction are becoming more frequent in his congregation though meditation has not been a Pure Land practice in the past.
Another challenge for teachers is finding a way to make the Dharma meaningful and attractive to young people. Shi Yung Hsi (Susan Andree) of Portland, Ch’an practitioner and Montessori schoolteacher, suggested that consistency in method and the use of core messages draws younger students in because they are “looking for basics.” Others suggested that concepts like “suffering” and “compassion” can be conveyed with simple language such as “life is uncomfortable” and “we’re all alike.”
The topic of youth and the Dharma led to a discussion of the role western Buddhists might play in encouraging second-generation Asian young people to remain attached to their religious and cultural heritage. Western interest in Buddhism can sometimes increase its prestige in the eyes of young Asian-Americans, several participants noted. It’s also possible to teach youngsters how to explain their religion to non-Buddhists. This has been the case at Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple, according to Minister’s Assistant and youth educator Jim Warrick, where the children of Japanese-American families have learned to explain the Dharma to Christian friends and others, not in abstract language but in terms of practical aspects such as kindness and compassion.
Many of those present at the meeting felt an obligation to participate in some kind of “engaged Buddhism” as a Dharma practice and as a form of teaching. Because the meeting coincided with a day of protests in many Northwest cities against the brutal treatment of monks in Burma, there was lively discussion of that topic. Others discussed their involvement with environmental activism and social welfare concerns. Joel Levey, of Humankind Clear Bead Sangha in Seattle, suggested using the NWDA website as a source or link to information about social action.
Naturally a very important item in the day’s discussion was teacher Mahasangha—enhancing cooperation among teachers from different traditions. Many participants were enthusiastic about the idea of a traveling speaker’s bureau and said they would welcome invitations to teach outside their own sangha. Guest teachers could be a boon to small sanghas that lack a regular teacher and to others curious about different versions of practice. As Ven. Adhisila of Portland pointed out, there are “teacher-less students” who would benefit and “student-less teachers” as well.
Teaching per se was an interest all shared. Individuals were curious about each other’s different styles of presenting the Dharma and, as a group, felt it would be useful to organize training in “actual teaching skills” beyond what they’d received from their own particular teachers. From this discussion arose the idea of adding a workshop component to future meetings.
Grateful for the opportunity to “stir the Dharma pot,” as one person put it, and eager to keep in touch with each other, the teachers present strongly favored a plan to add an online Teachers’ Forum to the Northwest Dharma Association website in the upcoming year. The password-entry Teachers Forum is a high priority for NWDA.
Next year’s Teachers Meeting is scheduled for October 4, 2008 – location to be announced.
Contributor: Julie Welch
All photos: Ven. Owen Adhisila