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Eight Weeks of Engaged Buddhism: A Dharma Bum Temple Program

EBTP Cohort One. Image courtesy of Kassidy Evans

Since its founding in 2007, leaders of San Diego’s Dharma Bum Temple (DBT) have dedicated their lives to making Buddhist practice understandable, accessible, and attainable to Western practitioners. Free temple classes are hosted each week in order to expose people to the Dharma in a way that is honest and clear. The temple’s number-one priority has always been to create an environment in which visitors are comfortable enough to reflect and challenge themselves to be better every day through following the Noble Eightfold Path and practicing the six paramitas.

In the DBT’s early years, there was Dharma Bum Life, a program in which 15–20 community members would meet twice a week to meditate and discuss Buddhist philosophy, as well as attend retreats for 10 weeks. After seven years of running this program, the DBT stopped hosting it as a result of many new emerging programs that required time and attention. In 2023, community members and leaders noticed a space in which a reinvented Dharma Bum Life program would fit perfectly. With the help of a generous grant from the Frederick P. Lenz Foundation for American Buddhism, the Engaged Buddhist Training Program was born.

Leaders took significant inspiration from Dharma Bum Life, but also carefully mapped out the Engaged Buddhist Training Program so that it would be both educational and transformational for participants. In the years since the Dharma Bum Life program concluded, temple leaders have gained significant wisdom and understanding about the community, which they used to create an immersive and potentially life-changing experience. It was eventually decided that the Engaged Buddhist Training Program would be eight weeks long and consist of weekly group meetings and community service events, in addition to two retreats. Participants are specifically required to complete a minimum of two hours of community service per week, but many participants went out of their way to do more. While they have the option to attend pre-existing community service opportunities through the temple, participants often found opportunities that they felt passionately about, and the temple’s outreach and positive impact on the greater community broadened considerably as a result. Participants also complete book study and daily meditation practice in their own time. Finally, the eight-week process concludes with a formal Taking Refuge in the Triple Gem and Five Precept Ceremony.

When applications opened up to participate in the inaugural Engaged Buddhist Training Program in early 2023, community members were eager to be involved. Participant Jody Fells from the very first cohort was one of many who thought that the program might benefit him, and the lessons he learned were beyond what he expected.

Jody Fells. Image courtesy of Kassidy Evans

Jody is a queer veteran of the military, originally from Nashville, Tennessee. Over 20 years ago, Jody went into the ministry full time, and faced realities that ultimately drew him away from the church. In his experiences, he noticed church politics that did not encourage widespread love and acceptance. As a result, he took a step back from his faith for some time and was left with a longing for a new spiritual community.

When he moved to San Diego, Jody began reading books written by Thich Nhat Hanh and other Buddhist teachers. As he started to do more research, he eventually found himself on the DBT website reading about the Engaged Buddhist Training Program. As it turned out, the very first session was about to begin. Feeling that this was exactly what he needed in that moment, Jody applied and was promptly accepted into the program. He almost immediately found that, just like him, many others in the group began this journey with the shared goal of simply wanting to suffer less.

Participant Frank Delouise from a later cohort is a retired nurse from New York who moved to San Diego in 2006. Frank grew up in the Catholic tradition, and although he no longer follows that church’s dogma he has always found comfort in his understanding of the teachings of Jesus and now communes with a Lutheran church. Unlike Jody, Frank’s Christian experiences have largely been positive, and his faith has been sustained because of that. After moving to San Diego, Frank and his husband began practicing a specifically form of meditative prayer known as contemplative prayer. This practice essentially begins with the practitioner choosing a single word and while they sit in meditation, they recall and repeat their chosen word whenever their mind begins to wander. This in turn is meant to help calm the mind and essentially create space for the voice of God.

Frank Delouise. Image courtesy of Kassidy Evans

Because of his experience with this practice, Frank was already somewhat familiar with meditation before ever stepping foot in the DBT. What drew him into the temple was genuine curiosity and an interest in deepening his meditation practice, and he quickly found belonging in the DBT community. After about a year of regularly attending meditation classes, Frank signed up for the Engaged Buddhist Training Program in order to learn more about Buddhist theology and specific practices. He went into the program with an eager and open mind, but was not specifically searching for answers or attempting to end his suffering; he was driven by curiosity and a longing to learn more about the practice.

The weekly Engaged Buddhist Training Program sessions each begin with a meditation period followed by a brief discussion on the meditation practice. This time gives people the opportunity to ask questions and reflect on their week. The rest of the meeting is dedicated to learning the Dharma, and over the span of eight weeks participants learn about and discuss the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the six paramitas, and the five precepts. Through this, they obtain a solid understanding of the teachings behind the program, specifically those based on an engaged practice of the six paramitas.

Not only is the format of the Engaged Buddhist Training Program logistically skillful, but the conversations and activities that participants engage in help people of all backgrounds and levels of experience learn to live kinder and gentler lives. An important point that leaders make sure to emphasize in group discussions is that Buddhist practice is not about knowledge, but about action that will lead to a decrease in suffering for all people. It is better to apply the teachings than to simply know them. The Engaged Buddhist Training Program strips away the fluff and gets right into the meat and bones of daily life. As Frank recalled, “You can’t just go every Saturday, meditate once a week, and call it a day. You must extend that practice into action.”

This concept of action resonated with Frank and countless other participants, which made conversations, community service, and retreats all the more influential. Through vulnerability, concentration, and consistency, participants are able to not only learn about Buddhism, but begin to incorporate the Dharma into their day-to-day lives.

Food redistribution program. Image courtesy of Kassidy Evans

Additionally, retreats to the Hidden Valley Zen Center and Metta Forest Monastery provide opportunities for people to explore different Buddhist traditions. They also spend time with people who have dedicated their entire lives to a deep Buddhist practice. Retreats ultimately allow people to practice in ways they never have before, and many participants have said that they are the most transformative parts of the Engaged Buddhist Training Program. From having little to no knowledge of traditional Zen practice or Thai forest monks to then applying those traditions to their own practices, retreats are a revolutionary part of the program for many.

During his group’s trip to the Hidden Valley Zen Center, Jody was particularly struck by a profound conversation with a nun in which they discussed how people carry their traumas with them, both physically and emotionally. In this moment, in the middle of a Zen Center, Jody was forced to face the emotional and generational traumas that he had experienced throughout his own life while learning about how he can transform and let go of that pain. He recalls feeling physical pain, which the nun advised him to acknowledge and then lean into. For Jody, this was a day of both significant growth and immense discomfort, but it was worth it. As he says, this difficult day was also one of the most beautiful ones he had experienced in many years.

With this—as well as additional meditations and group discussions—Jody realized that he alone is ultimately responsible for his own actions and mental states. While there are many things that are beyond his and everybody else’s control, Jody learned to take ownership of what he is in control of, which are his own thoughts, words, and actions. Now, he carries that personal authority with him everywhere he goes. As a result, Jody has found that he is significantly less affected by outside and unpleasant influences, and is comfortable bringing all of himself wherever he goes.

EBTP Cohort One discussion with Jody. Image courtesy of Kassidy Evans

Finally, the two month-long program concludes with a formal ceremony in which participants take refuge in the Triple Gem and recite their vows to abide by the five precepts. Frank recalled initially being nervous over the phrasing of “taking refuge in the Buddha,” as he thought that this might contradict his religious beliefs. Nonetheless, learning what taking refuge in the Buddha actually means was an empowering realization for him. To someone who does not possess a previous knowledge about what “taking refuge” means in the Buddhist sense, they might assume that it equates to a form of worship. Yet in the Buddhist sense, one does not have to abandon their beliefs or values to take refuge in the Buddha, as it is really quite the contrary! To take refuge in the Buddha is to honor the Buddha’s teachings as well as acknowledge the fact that we all have buddha-nature within ourselves. We are all capable of being generous, patient, moral, and wise.

Once Frank learned that taking refuge in the Buddha is an acknowledgement of his own potential for goodness, he opened himself up to taking this refuge, as he already held himself to a very high moral standard.

Additionally, in taking vows, the wording that program leaders have participants use is very intentional. Rather than vowing never to cause harm or do anything bad ever again, participants vow to do their best to uphold the precepts. While the precepts are immensely important, it was decided that participants would feel more empowered with the understanding that it is okay to make mistakes, and it is more than likely that they will do things that don’t align with the precepts. Nonetheless, they should not feel shame, as they are simply doing their best to live compassionate lives. With that understanding, they should aspire to follow the precepts and live by the Triple Gem.

There is a certain kind of comfort and openness provided by the Engaged Buddhist Training program, which allows for immense growth and reflection. Not only are people growing during the two months they are actively involved in the program, but they continue to carry the teachings and practices they learn during this time with them long afterward. Ultimately, Buddhist teachings and practices are incorporated into Frank’s and Jody’s everyday lives and strengthen both of their personal practices. Although their personal journeys with practice and religion have differed, they both found value in the Engaged Buddhist Training Program.

EBTP Cohort One at the Hidden Valley Zen Center. Image courtesy of Kassidy Evans

Similarly, they both went into the program for different reasons, just like every other participant who has brought their own unique experiences. Nonetheless, they learned lessons that they likely never would have learned elsewhere, and they did this with a diverse group of practitioners who all just wanted to, in one way or another, better themselves.

Frank still does daily contemplative prayer, but now he splits his focus between the word of his choosing as well as his breath for a more well-rounded practice. When he settles his mind, not only is he making space for God, but also for self-awareness, which then translates into the way he interacts with the world. Since completing the Engaged Buddhist Training Program, breath has become far more important to him, and he is especially mindful of it in frustrating situations.

Jody has fine-tuned his practice and found a way to navigate the world with patience, compassion, and authenticity. As he stated: “The sum of my day is the interaction I have with other human beings, and whether I’m passing or failing the individual tests that each person presents me with. And as I’m going about my days, I’m finding that I’m passing these tests more often than not. When interactions get frustrating, I try to remind myself to just breathe through them.” What’s more, Jody credits his newfound heightened awareness to the DBT’s Engaged Buddhist Training Program. He states: “I have never experienced this level of clarity anywhere else.”

What was once Dharma Bum Life, the Engaged Buddhist Program comes from humble beginnings. In 2023, the temple successfully carried out the Engaged Buddhist Training Program three times, and they plan to continue to provide this opportunity to community members for many years to come.

Related features from BDG

Skillfully Bringing Buddhism to the West: San Diego’s Dharma Bum Temple, Part Two
Skillfully Bringing Buddhism to the West: San Diego’s Dharma Bum Temple, Part One
Delta Beta Tau at San Diego State University: The Nation’s First Buddhist Fraternity

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