Buddhist activity on small Lopez Island is growing fast, and is becoming a significant portion of the population.
The Lopez Island Buddhist group has grown to nearly 50 practitioners in just nine years. We practice the dharma together with meditation sittings two Sundays a month, and a weekly dharma book group.
Lopez, in Northwest Washington state, is part of the San Juan archipelago in the Salish Sea. The island consists of fewer than 30 square miles of rocky farmland, with a year-round population of 2,300. About 10 percent of the people practice some form of mindfulness practice.
Buddhist groups have been in the San Juans for many years and formal meetings have come and gone. Some people on Lopez Island have practiced for more than 30 years, while others are fairly new to the Buddha’s teachings.
Our group started in 2010 when five friends, who were interested in or already meditating, decided to meet weekly for a bit of time and meditation together – in effect to form a small sangha. Although we also shared readings and discussions, our focus was on meditating together and practicing the dharma. And so it began.
On Lopez we have a tradition called the “Lopez wave,” a quick salute that passes from driver to driver, driver to walker, and so on, in a wave of community connection. Like the wave, word spread about the Buddhist group and more people joined.
For some the sangha brought an opportunity to breathe fresh life into an established practice– a tremendous opportunity to be in sangha without having to travel to the mainland! For others the sangha served as an introduction to meditation and Buddhist thought. And, as is only fitting on what we call “the friendly island,” the sangha grew in a way that allowed for continuity and dedication to the teachings, no matter what the lineage.
In our close-knit community, acceptance along with an open-hearted approach to the Buddha’s teachings fits best, and continues to serve well. Our group also welcomes yogis (members) who live on the island part-time. A posting about the group is now in the regular events section of our local newspaper, giving contact information.
About a year after our start, with the number of yogis growing, the sangha needed a location that could sustain the meetings and provide areas for sitting meditation and walking meditation. One practitioner offered her home, and The Lopez Island sangha has been meeting there since late 2011.
The meditation/meeting room opens up to trees looking out over the Salish Sea. Trails lead through the forest for walking meditation. At most Sunday meetings, anywhere from five to 15 people gather to sit in meditation, with time for discussion of individuals’ practices and discussion of the Buddha’s teachings.
Our sangha has brought teachers to the island for one-day retreats, and sangha members who attend off-island retreats sometimes report on their experiences. Currently the meditation group is listening to short dharma talks and meditation instruction given by teachers including Steve Armstrong, Kamala Masters and Gil Fronsdal.
Some members of our group were eager to study the dharma in a bit more formalized way, and formed a weekly book group. The group selects a book to study together and people meet weekly to discuss it. Each meeting starts with a 20-minute meditation. Members who cannot attend every week read along and join in when they can. In Lopez style, several members have rotated in hosting the group.
The book group has been a boon as we now have the opportunity to be in sangha more than twice a month. Even better, it has allowed for insightful discussion of the books being read and the dharma.
As one yogi said, “The unique combination of meditation, study and dharma has cracked open the doorway into the room where I have kept things I don’t like about myself – mistakes I’ve made, etc. But, through increased awareness, it has helped me to forgive myself and keep from making the same mistakes again. Truly revelatory.”
And from another yogi: “Having lived far from any sangha for years, it seems a great luxury to have twice-monthly sittings and a chance to discuss and question. That feature of Buddhism and the ongoing challenge to be present has made a huge impact on my thoughts and behavior.”
For this reflection on our sangha, we posed questions to our members about practice and about the impact of having a sangha here on Lopez Island. We asked:
What has it meant to you to have a sangha here?
What motivates you to participate in the Lopez sangha?
Why is following the Buddhist path important to you?
How has your practice helped you in your day-to-day life?
Here are some of the answers:
“One of the great things about the group is that everyone is welcome to come, no matter what tradition they started in. I went to a couple of five-day retreats on Samish Island and Cloud Mountain with fellow sangha members, and was able to deepen my meditation considerably.”
“Our sangha is like a one-two crank to kick start an old car…. a book club and mediation session. Our Sunday meditations give me silence to work deeper on fundamental loving-kindness challenges exposed during our weekly book group. One without the other would not be as effective for me.”
“Going to meditation on Sunday mornings sweetly satisfied my cultural heritage as an Italian Catholic!!! Also it became something that created more spaciousness in my life. The full spectrum of the path came into view, the precepts, the vows, the ancestors, the interface with my real-life personality, ego softening, and thinning, integrating the view of the brahma viharas, awareness of emptiness and compassion. Now everything is becoming the path, the view, the walk.”
“I’m so grateful to have a sangha here on Lopez. I feel like it renews my commitment and enthusiasm for the practice on a weekly basis. I appreciate the connection with spiritual friends who share their insights and challenges on the path, and (I) enjoy the energy of sitting meditation as a group.”
“It has meant everything to have the wonderful Lopez Island sangha. Our group provides the literal and figurative space to spend time with my inner/true self. Interestingly, as a newer member of the Lopez Island community, it is a meeting that I find particularly pleasing to attend because I don’t need to bring an external self or persona; I just go and sit in the welcoming environment that has [been] established. I look forward to our meetings!”
“I attend the Lopez meditation when I can. I am looking for like-minded people who look inside themselves for wisdom. It is a struggle at times to be human. However, sitting with others who are truly searching for wisdom helps me tap into my own.”
And so something (and nothing) is happening on this tiny island home. Forming a sangha, holding it, and allowing all to experience the gift of the Buddha’s teachings is a formula small and rural communities can embrace.
In this age of what might be construed as challenging times, with its weakening morality and dearth of loving kindness, the sangha is truly a place of refuge.
Marney Reynolds was concerned there was no nearby sangha after she moved from Seattle, where she participated in Seattle Insight Meditation, to rural Lopez Island. But it wasn’t long before she starting meeting others on the Buddhist path. Ten years ago they formed a group to meditate and to discuss practice, and now that sangha of dedicated practitioners contribute to the health and well-being of Lopez Island.
Jan Wilson decided to start sitting meditation after practicing and teaching Iyengar yoga for 20 years. She feels much gratitude for the well-established sangha on Lopez, which provides support and loving connection with a group. With the sangha she has experienced two years of wonderful learning, understanding and practicing.
Anne Trench, an active member of Seattle Insight Meditation Society, is weighing moving to Lopez full time. She is grateful to have found a sangha home there.