Every Wednesday night, between 25 and 60 men gather in an austere cinderblock room just north of San Luis Obispo, positioning themselves on pillows or metal folding chairs for a half hour of meditation, followed by a talk on Buddhism.
The men sit in a circle facing an altar adorned with incense and a small Buddha. On one recent night, as one of their teachers gently instructed them to breathe deeply and quiet their minds, the men worked to tune out the noises the loud music and voices that drifted into their sanctuary. In this case, the noises were from the prison yard of the California Men's Colony.
This is one of the most thriving Buddhist groups in San Luis Obispo County, and it meets behind locked gates.
As Mike Sievert, assistant to the warden, observed the California Men's Colony Buddhist group for the first time, he marveled that there were no cultural or age barriers in the room.
"All that gets left at the door," responded Thomas Fox, who founded the group 12 years ago with a handful of other inmates.
# Another inmate, Robert Ripley, mentioned that when a transsexual member of the group died recently, the entire group attended a ceremony for him.
"We showed no boundaries in our caring for one another," Ripley said. "No race, religion, or sexual divisions."
The group is led by two local teachers Mark Bloodgood, founder of San Luis Obispo Zazen Group and Nancy Hilyard of White Heron Sangha who volunteer their time each week, and two priests from the Zen Center of Los Angeles, Nagy and Koan, who volunteer once a month.
During the priests' April visit, the meditation was followed by private interviews with Nagy for those who had questions about their practice. The others sat attentively and listened to Koan discuss peaceful ways to deal with suffering and disharmony in the world. The discussion was shorter than usual so that a visiting reporter could ask the inmates about their practice. The inmates weren't at all disgruntled by this interruption to their service, and, in fact, were eager to share the positive impact Buddhism has had on their lives.
"I think this group has really saved my life in many ways," Ripley said. "It's helped me deal with life in prison, deal with my own shortcomings, and with being introspective."
Ripley, who said he reads all the Buddhist material he can get, said the real benefit to Buddhism is "understanding where your own emotions are coming from and [learning] to be mindful of your reaction."
Laos Chuman, chairman of the Buddhist group, said he's learned to be more aware.
"I don't get upset over the small stuff. A lot sheds off me," he said.
Another inmate offered, "Everything I've done in life has been motivated by fear or anger. I didn't know that until I came here."
Ripley said that such a lack of awareness was what caused most of them to end up in prison in the first place.
"Buddhism calls on us to act aware," he said. "It also leads us to respond instead of react to situations. That response leads to less criminal behavior."
Fox credits Nagy with teaching them the necessary awareness.
"He taught us that every action and thought has ripples. That had the biggest impact on me," Fox said.
Fox, who's been in prison for 27 years, said that for the first decade he was "angry as hell." Now, even the guards recognize his peaceful demeanor and they send new inmates with anger problems to talk to him.
"That must mean I'm not the asshole I used to be," he said with a laugh.
Inmate Neil Stanford said, "This is the noisiest quiet time I get. It's about finding peace for myself so I can express it."
And express it, the inmates do. It was members of the CMC Buddhist group who came up with the idea for the prison hospice program, which trains inmates to offer supportive care services to dying inmates. And they're the first prison Buddhist group in the country to become part of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, a worldwide community working for peace and social justice.
The group's hopes for the future include a full-time monk, their own chapel, and multi-day retreats. Bloodgood said that studies show that retreats lower the violence rate in prisons and decrease recidivism. He mentioned a documentary, Doing Time, Doing Vipassana, that shows a 10-day retreat in an India prison and the impact it made.
Bloodgood said he's seen a complete metamorphosis in the inmates in the four years he's been volunteering with the group.
"I see a transformation in their ability to deal with their environment and their anger issues," Bloodgood said. "Many of them are lifers and they accept that. They use that environment as a monastic environment."
"I hope [the group] keeps going," said Mark Cadiz, one of the inmates. "It serves a purpose in the institution. And it serves a purpose for people looking for a new path."
Seekers have choices in SLO
Buddhists no longer have to leave to learn
One of the founders of BodhiPath Buddhist Center in San Luis Obispo laughingly remarked that their motto is, "The SLO path to enlightenment is faster than you think." Given the growing number of Buddhist groups in SLO County, there are indeed more paths to enlightenment than ever before.
"Originally you had to leave this area to get any kind of teachings," said Rosemary Donnell, founder of White Heron Sangha, one of the oldest and largest Buddhist groups in SLO County aside from the San Luis Obispo Buddhist Church.
"We have choices now," Donnell said. "It's pretty nice."
Donnell became interested in Buddhism in 1991 after attending a retreat led by Thich Nhat Hanh, a renowned Zen teacher, poet, and Buddhist leader. Hanh's teachings struck a chord with Donnell, who immediately thought to herself, "Oh yeah, this is what I've been looking for." At Hanh's suggestion, Donnell returned home and began meditating regularly with a group of friends. The small gatherings continued to grow, and today White Heron Sangha has close to 200 members and an average attendance of 40 people at its Sunday services. And it's no longer the only sangha in town. In addition to White Heron, which is nonsectarian, there are at least four other well-established Buddhist groups in the county two Tibetan and two Zen.
It's not philosophy that typically draws Westerners to Buddhism, but the Buddhist practice of meditation. James Coleman a professor of sociology at Cal Poly and author of a book on Buddhism rattled off a litany of reasons why the meditation aspect appeals to Westerners: "Stress, dissatisfaction, the pace of modern life, searching for something, socially alienated, spiritual yearning "
Ironically, in Asian countries where people are born into Buddhism, it's only the monks who meditate, Coleman said.
Westerners, meanwhile, are turning to meditation in ever-growing numbers.
"It's a whole subculture," said Peter Mugan Schellin, a Buddhist priest and member of White Heron. "It's going on everywhere. Now it's coming here, and that's really cool."
Learn by doing
While the growing interest has spawned a plethora of instructional books, DVDs, and classes, Schellin scoffs at the idea of a person learning to meditate from a book or by listening to someone for half an hour. The only way to learn, he said, is by doing.
"You have to get it through your thick American skull that you have to sit down and meditate," Schellin said. "After sitting on a cushion a while, things drop away and you start to get it."
Donnell said you know you "get it" when your mind doesn't have power over you anymore.
"You get it when you can laugh at your thoughts and say, 'Here I go again,'" she said.
Fittingly, Donnell has a license plate frame on her car that reads, "You don't have to believe all of your thoughts."
Those who do "get it" say there are immeasurable benefits to meditating, including stress reduction, feelings of inner peace and happiness, and control over one's mind. Clarissa Schaeffer, a member of BodhiPath, said that meditation has given her the power to use her mind the way she wants to.
"I am able to focus on activities, and I have a lot more space when negative emotions do come up," she said. "My whole mindset of what a problem is, is not the same. I don't see problems anymore. I see situations that may need attention."
Another benefit of meditation, according to Schellin, is "finding out who you really are and making peace with yourself and other people."
Before embracing Buddhism, Schellin said he was at a low point in his life and feeling suicidal.
"I had two [failed] marriages, I was going blind, and I was not even 50," he said.
On top of that, his relationship with his three children was strained. As Schellin tried to sort out his life, he was drawn to the Zen Center of Los Angeles. Schellin now has a close relationship with his family, which he attributes to Buddhism.
"It took work. It took healing. I couldn't have done it without Buddhism," he said.
What is it?
All of the different practices, benefits, results, and local opportunities bring up the question: Is Buddhism a philosophy, psychology, or religion?
For some, it is a combination of all three, whereas others regard it as strictly secular.
"You can treat Buddhism as a religion or you can be Buddhist and not be religious," Coleman said. "You can approach it as psychotherapy. By and large, the religious approach is the stronger one."
When asked about Buddhism, Koan, a Zen priest who volunteers at the California Men's Colony, said, "It's not about belief. It's about experience. Through practice you get the sense that everything is one."
He said that it's not just a matter of understanding intellectually, but experientially. But, he said, "it requires faith to stick around long enough to experience it."
Rev. Seikai of Pine Mountain Buddhist Temple in Ventura County, which has an affiliate group that meets in Morro Bay, also described Buddhism as experiential in nature. He said that while Buddhism is a religious tradition, "it doesn't rely on a rigid set of dogmas to define itself because it deals with so many different aspects of the human condition," including how to live peacefully and harmoniously in the world.
Seikai explained that through the Buddhist practice of meditation and the taking of precepts guidelines on how to live and mold one's personal conduct people are given the tools that empower them to make a difference in their own lives and in the world at large.
It's precisely this lack of dogma that appeals to many Westerners. According to Coleman, Westerners attracted to Buddhism tend to be highly educated, liberal people.
"Buddhism is a little out of the mainstream. It appeals to people who question traditional attitudes of their culture," he said. "Buddhism has an open attitude toward not believing anything in particular. It's a more open approach than some Western religions that think they have all the answers and everyone else is wrong."
Schaeffer said she was attracted to Buddhism because the Buddhist approach is, "Here's the teaching, but don't believe us because we're nice. Try it out, see if it works for you."
Freelancer Shawna Galassi can be reached through the editor at email@example.com.
A guide to the sanghas and centers
For Westerners interested in exploring a growing interest in Buddhism, here is a brief description of some Buddhist groups in SLO County and contact information
White Heron Sangha
This is a nonsectarian group, meaning the teachings don't follow a specific Buddhist lineage, and it is not affiliated with a larger Buddhist center or monastery. The services, which are member-led, begin with a half hour of meditation followed by a dharma talk (Buddhist teaching). People meditate in chairs or seated on their own pillows or mats. Once a month, beginning meditation instruction is offered an hour before the regular service. There are many small study groups that meet on a weekly basis. The website lists upcoming discussion topics, meditation classes, and retreats. Led by visiting teachers from various monasteries.
The group meets Sundays at 6 p.m. at Unity Church, 1490 Southwood Dr., SLO.
Cost: Free. (There's a donation basket in the back for those who wish to contribute to the cost of renting the room and other expenses.)
Info: 595-7760 or www.whiteheronsangha.org.
San Luis Obispo Zazen Group
This is a small Zen group established three years ago. Founder Mark Bloodgood described Zen as "more structured and ritualized" than other traditions. Some of the rituals include bowing, chanting, and meditating on black pillows placed atop black mats, with each person facing a wall. The group has two 25-minute sitting periods with a short walking meditation in between, followed by a book discussion. The group is affiliated with the Zen Center of Los Angeles and has regular visits from one of their priests.
The group meets in a private retreat center in Squire Canyon, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. Those new to the Zen tradition can arrange for instruction beforehand.
Cost: Free. (There's a donation request for retreats only.)
Info: 481-4768 or call 544-1444, and ask for Mark Bloodgood,
BodhiPath Buddhist Center
This group is part of the Karma Kagyu lineage, which is one of the main branches of Tibetan Buddhism. BodhiPath centers, located worldwide, provide meditation and philosophy instruction. The local center, which is one of 12 in the United States, was established by a Los Osos family in 2001. The center is located in a house in San Luis Obispo that was recently purchased by the group. The center offers weekly meditation and dharma talks, which are given by members or by visiting teachers schooled in the Kagyu lineage. Ten to 20 people typically attend Sunday meetings. This is a good group for people with children. There's a room for the children to gather while the adults meditate and listen to a dharma talk. And there are events that include the children, such as a recent life-release in which earthworms destined for fishhooks were purchased and placed in the garden around the center.
The group meets Sundays 10 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m., 3484 Gregory Court, SLO. There will be a visiting teacher July 15 and Aug. 22 through 31.
Cost: Donation. (There may be a fee when there is a visiting teacher present.)
Info: 748-8005 or 528-2495 or www.bodhipath-west.org.
Mahakankala Buddhist Center
This center is in the New Kadampa tradition, which is a Tibetan lineage. The center are located in Santa Barbara and offers classes in satellite locations, including San Luis Obispo. The class is taught by a nun from the center and includes meditation instruction and a talk, which is usually part of an ongoing series. All meditation is done sitting in chairs facing the teacher. The talk is followed by a question-and-answer period and paired discussion. An average of 20 people attend the classes, which have been offered locally for the past year and a half.
One of the teachers at the center said that New Kadampa Buddhism is mainly about "teaching people how to develop inner peace so in turn they can contribute to world peace."
Classes are held every other Monday from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Masonic Center, 850 Marsh St. SLO.
Info: 965-1813 or www.meditationinsantabarbara.org.
Morro Bay Meditation Group
This is a Zen group affiliated with Pine Mountain Buddhist Temple in Ventura County. Members meet once a week to meditate for 30 minutes, then listen to a recorded Dharma talk, which is sometimes followed by a discussion. Once a month a monk from the temple visits the group and offers a meditation workshop for newcomers. After the workshop, the group meets for an hour of seated and walking meditation combined with chanting, followed by a dharma talk and discussion. The group has been meeting for 20 years and has seven or eight core members. On average, 10 people attend the weekly services.
The group meets Wednesdays, 7 to 9 p.m., at the Morro Bay Public Library.
Cost: There's no fee, but it's traditional to make an offering.
Info: 704-2922, (254) 241-6102, or www.pinemtnbuddhisttemple.org.
California Men's Colony Buddhist Group
Mark Bloodgood of San Luis Obispo Zazen Group and Nancy Hilyard of White Heron Sangha volunteer their time each week along with two priests from the Zen Center of Los Angeles, who volunteer once a month. Those who would like to support the CMC group can do so by donating materials, money, or a subscription to a Buddhist magazine.
Info: Contact Hilyard at 474-1229 or Bloodgood at 544-1444 or 481-4768.
INFOBOX: Start dancing
Dance practice for the upcoming Obon Festival begins July 12, from 7 to 9 p.m. Other practices are July 19, July 26, and Aug. 2. Classes meet at the San Luis Obispo Buddhist Church Social Hall at 6996 Ontario Road in San Luis Obispo.
The festival, for celebrating ancestors, will come to the SLO Veterans Hall from 1 to 9 p.m. on Aug. 11.
For more information, call 595-2625.