Religion & Spirituality

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Dharma Center celebrates 20 years

The path toward enlightenment in Yellow Springs has been a shared one. The 50-year history of Buddhism in the village teems with stories of residents coming together to advance the solitary practice of meditation:
— In the 1980s a dozen Yellow Springs residents living around the Livermore Street, Whiteman Street and Davis Street triangle meditate together every Sunday. The location changes weekly as designated by a flag posted in a yard.
— In 1993, a group of villagers and Antioch students get together to rent a Livermore Street house to hold meditations and host a student resident. The Dharma Center is born.
— Three different Buddhist traditions are housed under the same roof at the Dharma Center. Practitioners meditate together and separately.
— In 2003, the center raises $100,000 in three months to purchase the Livermore Street building.
— From the beginning, all events are free as the Dharma Center is supported entirely by member and community donations.
Now, in 2013, in the same spirit of cooperation, the local community of Buddhists is throwing a 20th anniversary celebration of the Yellow Springs Dharma Center.
The celebration begins with a 30-minute community meditation at 7 p.m. on Friday, May 3. A presentation of the history of the Dharma Center starts at 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 4, and is followed by an open house until 5 p.m. On Sunday at 11 a.m. is the traditional annual Buddha’s Enlightenment Day Celebration followed by a noon lunch. Sunday night at 7 p.m. a new film about Tibetan Buddhism in the West, When the Iron Bird Flies, will screen at the Glen Helen Building. The film’s executive producer, Amber Bemak, an Antioch alum and former Dharma Center resident, will attend to discuss the film. And on Thursday, May 9, at 7 p.m. a new calligraphy for the meditation hall will be given to the center by the Zen group’s teacher.
The public is invited and all events are free. Those planning on attending the Enlightenment Day Celebration should RSVP to Linda Potter at 937-572-9077 or lindap {at} woh.rr(.)com.
During a recent interview with some of the Dharma Center’s founders, collaboration was self-evident, a reflection of the Buddhist teachings which guide practitioners. Over its history, the center has grown organically to meet the needs of the community, they said.
“We responded to what the community wanted,” said Robert Pryor said of the center’s early years. “People asked, ‘What’s meditation?’ so we said, ‘Well, I guess there must be an orientation.’ People ask you for what they need and you meet that need — you don’t proselytize.”
Today there is still an orientation to meditation twice each month in addition to four-to-six week long meditation classes and book discussion groups.
Then, when local Buddhists found themselves traveling beyond the village for retreats, they decided to host them locally to “support each other’s meditation practice,” Pryor said. Thus began an annual Buddhist retreat in Glen Helen that rotated between the Zen, Vipassana and Vajrayana traditions that Dharma Center members practiced. Today there is a retreat every year for each tradition, held outside of town.
And when Dianeah Wanicek was approached in the local post office and asked if the Dharma Center had any program for children, the center started Dharma Kids, a weekly mindfulness practice for kids age 5 and older.
“In the Buddhist tradition, you don’t teach unless you are asked,” Wanicek said.
The community has responded to the Dharma Center’s needs as well. After a capital campaign to buy the building raised $100,000 in three months, additional donations dropped the house’s mortgage from $90,000 to just $15,000.
“The community was right there,” Donna Denman said of the campaign. “I had a lot of people that said, ‘Even though I’m not able to come, I think it’s so important that you’re there.’ ”
The Dharma Center is only supported by donations because its members practice the Buddhist principle of generosity, Katie Egart said. All of the center’s classes and events will remain free, she said.
“I feel like that’s one of our strongest values,” Egart said. “The door is always open for people to come and sit.”
Another community whose support was critical in the center’s founding was Antioch College, founders said. Students returning from Antioch Education Abroad’s Buddhist Studies program in India were looking for a place to continue to practice.
“The students at the college were really important in starting this center because they were very enthused and they wanted to live here rather than a dorm,” explained Pryor, the director of the study abroad program. Students lived at the Dharma Center until the college closed. Today that close relationship is being revived. Students frequent meditations at the Dharma Center and last year mindfulness classes were offered at Antioch.
The center also reaches beyond the Yellow Springs community. Egart and fellow founder Ken Simon have taught meditation in prisons, and the center helped raise money for Buddhist monastery school in Nepal for young girls at risk to be sold into the sex trade.
Explained Wanicek: “Our practice is not just on the cushions, it’s in our everyday lives.”
Reflecting on its history, Dharma Center founders noted how unique the center is. While most Buddhist centers have resident teachers, the Dharma Center is nonhierarchical and governed by its board, which uses nonviolent communication, consensus decision-making and other techniques inflected with Buddhist principles.
It is especially unusual for a Buddhist center to offer meditations in three distinct traditions — in this case Japanese Zen, Southeast Asian Vipassana and Tibetan Vajrayana. Dharma Center founders view this as adding a richness to their personal practice and connecting them to Buddhism’s origins.
“We all have roots in different traditions but because of the Dharma Center we can have feet and fingers in one and relate to the others so easy,” Wanicek said. “We don’t have these solid brick walls that separate us. The traditions are coming back together just like they were together in 700 A.D.”
The meditation hall at the Dharma Center reflects all three traditions with a Buddha statue representing Vipassana, a  Tibetan thangka painting and Zen calligraphy. There is also a Zen prayer bell used during meditation. That bell traces its roots to the earliest recorded Buddhist influence in Yellow Springs — a visit by two Japanese Zen monks in 1963.
For those who have never meditated, it’s not about “spacing out” or clearing the mind but working with the mind to be in the present moment, founders said. Ultimately meditation helps its practitioners become kinder, clearer and calmer and more authentically themselves, they added.
“The process of being able to meditate longer helps the mind open more and more,” Wanicek said.
At the same time, Buddhism teaches that “you already are, you don’t have to become anything,” Wanicek said. Added Denman, quoting a famous Zen master: “You’re perfect just as you are…and you could use a little improvement.”

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