It’s a beautiful sunny day (not all that common in the Pacific NW) ripe with suggestions of an approaching spring. As the awareness of winter soon coming to an end sinks in, I find myself reflecting on the past year. It was about this time last year that I started going to a Buddhist center. I had absolutely no idea what that would mean or how – or even if – it would change my life. It did: In a big way!
Prior to walking into Portland Friends of the Dhamma last March, I and my husband had zero experience with a Sangha (Buddhist community) or monastics. It was a bit like landing in a foreign country and barely speaking the language. There was a lot we had to learn (and still do!) regarding boundaries, language, etiquette, and so on. What is fascinating to us is that we both just took to it like ducks to water. There was a comfort and familiarity that propelled us forward. In spite of my neuroses trying to convince me otherwise, it seems like coming home. A new home that may be unfamiliar yet is filled with joy and gratitude.
In some ways, we just jumped in the deep end before we could give ourselves the opportunity to question or doubt. For example, the next thing we knew we were headed to California. We did a daylong retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center and then went to Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery for four days. Given that staying at a monastery includes following the monastic’s schedules (like hiking up a steep hill in the dark at 4:30 AM for morning meditation!) and certain rules (like the eight precepts), this was really unfamiliar territory. We laughed at ourselves wondering “we’re doing what!?” Yet, it all went wonderfully, and we both were extremely comfortable with the experience. I was very pleased to know that the roots of the center that we were attending were deep, solid, and reflective of the integrity that we were experiencing there.
Our visit to Abhayagiri motivated us to take advantage of the small branch that is nearby. Pacific Hermitage Monastery gives us the opportunity to have direct and up close contact with the three monks that reside there. We expanded our experience to include half day retreats lead by the abbot, helping with a community work day, and doing meal offerings.
Committing to regular support of Pacific Hermitage is not necessarily a small thing in terms of personal risk. Especially since I started doing meal offerings alone which can be intimidating in spite of how incredibly gracious the monks are. It is an excellent opportunity to practice with grounding, anxiety, and insecurity. Oh joy. Fortunately, it is also a wonderful occasion to experience the generosity of service – giving and receiving – that transcends the personal. Offering food and material items is meaningful because it supports the creation and sustainment of the Sangha. It serves the greater good and community at large. Consequently, it’s not personal.
As winter approached, I realized that there is a seasonal shift for the Sangha as well. The monastics go into winter retreat and the community itself seems to recede a bit. There is the opportunity to do meal offerings at the Hermitage, so I take advantage of that and maintain contact. Also, the season has prompted me to expand my participation with the center. For me, opening to more personal contact with the lay people at the center can be more intimidating than interacting with the monks. We do participate fully. Last year, we attended every monastic event (which was rich and abundant!) including tea time and helping with a major event for the Hermitage in White Salmon from set-up to clean-up. We also consistently attend most Friday night meditations and classes every other Sunday. But, that is not the same as one on one, or small group, interactions. So it is that I jump into the unknown again.
What does all this mean? My life has changed! Having direct access to teachers and instructions has deepened and broadened my practice tremendously. After having been self-directed for 30 years, I am filled with continual gratitude for the Sangha. For me, a year with the Sangha is like five years on my own. With the support of people – monastics and lay – I flourish more easily. I can finally rest in the awareness that my path is of value. Kindness is recognized, appreciated, and mutual; for that alone, I am eternally grateful.
As I look forward and continue to embrace the unknown, I am filled with hope and promise for greater peace and understanding. My commitment deepens both to my practice and the Sangha. I am able to serve in a manner that allows my soul to take the lead. It has been an interesting year, and I know that the year ahead will continue to push the envelope of my experience.
I invite you to stay tuned as I continue to seek out unfamiliar and unknown territories….
© Sallie Odenthal 2013