Recent comments by presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann have stirred up the discussion about gay marriage once again. While speaking to a group of high school…
The house was filling with white light from the humid, but serene Sunday afternoon. I was sitting at kitchen table listening to three women and a gentleman from the Detroit Lotus Sangha, a Zen Buddhism group, talk through the remainder of their lesson together. They talked about practicing a Mindfulness Day as I munched on the deliciously tangy split pea and tomato soup that Gwen, the host, offered me.
Nancy, one of the women at the table who is a recently retired special education teacher from Troy, Michigan, told me that she first came to the Sangha (a Buddhist word for “community”) about a year ago. After going on a retreat she came home and discovered the group. “I was sort of hooked,” she said. “Jaye, the owner of the studio where the Sangha meets, the members … They seemed to have integrity. And I felt comfortable there. Being there with them was gratifying and inspiring.”
The Detroit Lotus Sangha was founded by a Vietnamese gentleman named Si Mo about four and a half years ago. They meet every Sunday at a martial arts studio in Ferndale, Michigan. They have about one dozen regulars week-to-week and 40 members altogether.
The Detroit Lotus Sangha follows the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, the most well-known Buddhist in the West next to the Dalai Lama. Thich Nhat Hanh is a Zen Buddhist teacher who has written over one-hundred books, many of which are in English. He was nominated by Martin Luther King for a Nobel Peace Prize for his work towards non-violence during the Vietnam War.
Zen Buddhism is a section of the Mahayana school of Buddhism whose goal is to alleviate the suffering of all beings and social engagement from a non-violent perspective. “I’ve read a lot of Eastern Buddhist philosophy, which can be kind of obscure and difficult to understand. What Thich Nhat Hanh has done is he has written books with the Western perspective in mind. It makes it practical and extremely accessible for people like you and me to practice,” said Jaye.
Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the first real leaders for what Gwen referred to as Engaged Buddhism. “We aren’t a group of people just sitting on our cushions contemplating things.” Nancy, who is sitting on the other side of the table, stood up to show me the text on her Detroit Lotus Sangha chocolate-brown shirt: “Compassion is a verb.”
“Well, it’s actually a noun,” Nancy said, “but that’s what it’s all about. It’s becoming aware of suffering around us, finding ways to alleviate for other beings and ourselves, and it’s about the call to nonviolence and social justice.”
One of the ways that the Sangha engages in social justice is by working with local charities. One of the local charities they will be working with soon is a farmer in Detroit. They will help prepare fields, plant organic crops, and distribute food. They also work with FernCare, a set of clinics for people without health insurance, and at the year’s end they donate to a fund that Thich Nhat Hanh established for post-Vietnam war children.
Gwen has been regularly meditating since late 2000. She found Thich Nhat Hanh’s books in 2004 and then found the Sangha just a few short years later. “His books made Buddhism so much more doable. It provides meditation techniques and everyday practices to help with negative emotions.”
“It’s not just about sitting until your legs go numb. It’s about becoming more peaceful and involved in social movement in my life,” said Jaye. She said that for her the Sangha is an important part of her practice for building relationships with other people and hearing their struggles, thoughts and ideas to better themselves with.
Buddhism is a nontheistic religion, with roughly 350 million followers across the globe, making it the fourth largest religion in the world. Zen Buddhism is a part of the Mahayana school of Buddhism. The main goals of Mahayana Buddhism are: to do no evil, to do good, and save all beings.
There are three main sections of beliefs for Buddhists: the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the Ten Grand Precepts.
The Four Noble Truths
Buddhists believe in a set of four principles called the Four Noble Truths that explain the universe and all that is in it. Barbara O’Brien, a practicing Zen Buddhist (but not one of the Thich Nhat Hanh tradition) and writer for About.com says this: “The Buddha’s teachings on the Four Noble Truths are sometimes compared to a physician diagnosing an illness and prescribing a treatment. The first truth tells us what the illness is, and the second truth tells us what causes the illness. The Third Noble Truth holds out hope for a cure.”
- The truth of suffering (Dukkha) – Most of the time, the first truth is translated as “Life is suffering.” But dukkha, the word used for “suffering” in this case refers to anything that is temporary, conditional, or passing. So, another way of looking at this is “Life is temporary.”
- The truth of the cause of suffering (Samudaya) – This truth means that suffering comes from a craving or thirst. We go through life trying to desperately find something to quench those cravings to fill the holes in our souls. We try to do this through things like relationships, food, clothing, power, etc. However, as much as we try, we are never satisfied. Humans have a tendency to latch onto things, whether they be material or ideas about the world. When these things come up empty and don’t satisfy our thirst, we only thirst more.
- The truth of the end of suffering (Nirodha) – Barbara O’Brien put it succinctly: “The Buddha taught that through diligent practice, we can put an end to craving. Ending the hamster-wheel chase after satisfaction is enlightenment.”
- The truth of the path that frees us from suffering (Magga)
The Eightfold Path
The last of the Four Noble Truths refers to a path called the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path is a set of principles that lay out the way to enlightenment. Since Buddhism is more of a orthopraxy religion than orthodoxy, they focus on right action instead of right belief. Thus, the Eightfold Path serves as an impetus and a way to equip you with a focused heart and mind (click any of the following items to learn more about them):
- Right View
- Right Intention
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Right Effort
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Concentration
The Five Mindfulness Trainings
Gwen told me, “I think one of the misconceptions that people have about Buddhism is they think anything goes, like we have no moral compass. We aren’t here to condemn anyone, however we do have a set of principles regarding things like sexuality remaining within the bounds of a committed, loving, long-term relationship that has been made known to friends and family, being careful of the kinds of movies that we watch, being mindful of what we eat, etc.”
“Basically we try to avoid junk food of any kind, whether that be ideas, food, how we spend our time online, entertainment—that sort of thing,” Nancy added. The set of principles that she and Gwen were referring to is contained in the Five Mindfulness Trainings (other sects of Buddhism may have more or less depending on the group).
The Five Mindfulness Trainings are expressions of the principles of The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path:
- Reverence for Life – Any form of killing to any living being is causing suffering to others, therefore causing more strife, emptiness, and harm to others, which is strictly against Buddhist goals and principles
- True Happiness – Somewhat related to the Reverence for Life, true happiness comes from helping eliminate and reduce the suffering of others
- True Love – The recognition that sexual desires and healthy, true love are very different things, one must strive to find the latter that can fill and express the former
- Loving Speech and Deep Listening – Words can damage or heal, and so the goal is to have loving, kind, and compassionate speech. Along with giving healing and warm words, one should also receive words from others in the same manner
- Nourishment and Healing – This is the principle that Nancy was speaking of when she said they try to avoid consuming junk. Toxins of all sorts are all around us, and the way to the clearest mind and spirit are to diligently fill our bodies and lives with things that promote health and clarity, not bog us down and make us sick.
I asked Gwen and Nancy if the “not killing” principle lead to vegetarianism for Buddhists. Nancy said, “It does a lot of the time. Whatever people are—vegetarian, vegan—they end up eating with more awareness.” Gwen added, “However, Buddhists leaders recognize that the principles can’t be followed 100%. Even as vegetarians by boiling vegetables we’re killing hundreds of micro-organisms.”
How Buddhism Principles Are Practical for Everyone
Gwen said, “It might be useful for your readers to know that you don’t have to be a Buddhist to meditate. Dharma, which means ‘doctrine, teacher,’ or ‘the way to enlightenment,’ can be used to harmonize. In fact, Thich Nhat Hanh said if your beliefs don’t lead you to Buddhism, then ‘Be a better ____.’ Be a better Christian, be a better Muslim. He wasn’t trying to convert anyone.”
In Thich Nhat Hanh’s book “Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism” he says the following:
Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist teachings are guiding mean to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for.
This quote was significant to Nancy because it means they value Peace, even elevating it above the survival of their own religion.
The Detroit Lotus Sangha is currently working through another one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s book called “Anger”. Jaye said, “It’s not about how to suppress anger, but how to not cause ourselves and others suffering from it. It’s not just ‘Don’t be angry, so cut it out,’ but finding out why we’re angry, learning to process those emotions, and trying to not let it run rampant.”
“Today [at the Sangha] we used the word ‘pause’,” Nancy said.
“The idea is: just stop. Stop the talking. Stop the thinking. Stop and be present. Breath,” Jaye said.
“Otherwise,” Nancy added, “we have a tendency to give into Habit Energy.” (Habit Energy is any kind of emotional pattern we fall into, such as the Habit Energy to be anxious.)
Jaye had to leave before the interview had concluded, but I asked Gwen and Nancy how practicing Buddhism has affected them as a person.
Gwen said, “I am much calmer now. I used to be very high-strung, compulsively working all the time. Now, I try to express things in a much more loving, compassionate way.”
Nancy struggled to come up with the words, but then she said something really beautiful: “I can’t say I’ve arrived, but I think I’m more aware of my challenges. I’m not perfect, but I’m better than I used to be. Does that count for something?”
When I first walked into Gwen’s house I was immediately struck by the group’s kindness. They offered me food, allowed me to sit at the table with them while they finished their lesson from earlier in the day, and there was great sense of serenity in the house as we talked.
One thing that made my heart warm was the fact that all three women at the table were quick to admit their own flaws. They didn’t pretend to have it all together, didn’t try to convince me they had all the answers, and didn’t try to ignore real life. Gwen, Nancy, and Jaye emphasized throughout the entire conversation that they were trying to be better.
When Jaye left, the three women exchanged tips on how to set aside time for meditation. They spoke sweetly to each other and were completely honest about their lives and schedules. This kind of conversation spoke to me because it’s the kind of honest, constructive, and supportive conversation I want in my own life.
I do plan on reading some of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books because I want to emulate many of the principles in my own life. I am so grateful for Gwen’s hospitality and the warmth and openness that she, Nancy and Jaye showed me. I look forward to learning even more the example that they lead in their lives.
Thanks to Gwen, Nancy, Jaye, Dave, Sean, and the Detroit Lotus Sangha for being so generous and for talking with me.
Next, hear from an interfaith leader in Detroit, Michigan and find out how you can take this knowledge and put it into action in our final article coming up.
Photo credit: Flickr / DieselDemon (Buddha), George Lu (Lotus), d nelson (Thich Nhat Hanh), Edward Dalmulder (snowy Buddha), Wikimedia Commons (Dharma Wheel), Flickr / abhikrama (His Holiness the Dalai Lama), devadath (Buddhist temple), ferdy001 (Ringing the peace bell)