Lay Contemplatives Living Almost as Monastics
In the Middle of Active Urban Life

Written by: Tuere Sala

Ruby Phillips

Ruby Phillips
Photos by: Kathy Overstreet, Ursula Popp

(Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series about the growing phenomena of Northwest lay Buddhist practitioners living almost as monastics, as a way to deepen their lives in the dharma. Author Tuere Sala is among those living this life.)

In traditional Buddhism, a “contemplative” is someone who leaves lay life to become a monastic.  They are wanderers who leave the householder’s life[i]  to take up a homeless spiritual life[ii].

The monastic community lives noticeably different from the lay community, and yet there is such a symbiotic relationship between the two that one could not survive without the other.

In the West, however, Theravadin Buddhism remains primarily a lay-oriented practice, primarily operating out of storefront dharma centers and short/long term retreat centers[iii].

The identifiably religious aspects of traditional Buddhism is absent from much of the Theravadin practice among non-Asians in the West.  While some Westerners do enter traditional monastic life, the vast majority practice Buddhism as a secular philosophy, a way of life, a spiritual practice, or even a healing therapy.[iv]

I have been intrigued with how Westerners would take up a spiritual life as a contemplative.  If Western Buddhism is primarily a lay-oriented practice, is it possible to live a significant contemplative life as a lay practitioner, and if so, what would that look like?  Is there space in this practice for what I would consider an urban contemplative?

I posed these and similar questions to five people I know who, like myself, are attempting to live as urban contemplatives.

This article is a compilation of those discussions against a backdrop of the eight principles Buddha gave his step mother shortly after her ordination:[v] One would live a life of restraint, freeing oneself from habitual patterns, dismantling attachments, having few wants, content with life, content with solitude, persistent in practice, and easy to support.

Among these urban contemplatives is Ruby Phillips, a Seattle-based dharma practitioner who for many years has integrated deep dharma practice with social service and activism.

“Some of us have a calling to live with our spiritual practice at the center of our lives while at the same time, we highly value and honor service to all beings through our bodhisattva vow,” Phillips said.  “I could say I’ve lived this way for 20 years or my whole adult life.  These [principles] and practices have always been important to me.  Now I just live with more intention and clarity around them.”

Phillips is an active member of the People of Color and Allies Sangha and the Lotus Sisters sangha.

For Phillips, service and activism for human rights are dharma doorways to awakening.  She says the root of safety is knowing our deep interdependence.

“It is my intention to integrate the longing to live the dharma in everyday life while working to support people living in the margins,” Phillips said. “The availability of spiritual friends feeds the contemplative life.  Life is intimate.  A contemplative life takes away the fear of loneliness or being alone because you can be intimate with whomever you are with.  I live a very intimate life that includes a deep intimacy with self.”

Rita Howard, another urban contemplative, is a member of Seattle Insight Meditation Society and a practicing Christian.

“I like the term urban contemplative because it reflects our commitment to live in an urban setting, rather than in a rural or isolated environment away from everyone,” she said. “At the same time, it reflects an intention to live a prayerful, meditative and spiritual life.”

It is difficult for Howard to say how long she has lived a contemplative life.

“Everything is always changing.  I have 35 years of meditation practice, I have 25 years of yoga practice, and I have 10 years of a personal sabbath day practice,” she said. “It’s not about how long you’ve been practicing.  What’s important is having an intimate relationship with practice.”

Howard has established Saturday as her sabbath.  On that day she does not drive, spend money or use electronics.  She covers the clocks and disconnects from her to-do lists.  She tunes into herself as a human being and spends the day in contemplation.

“I have a commitment to my spiritual life and allowing it enough time and space to unfold,” she said. “It takes a certain amount of discipline and prioritizing.”

Devin Berry has taken the radical step of living a “homeless” life in Berkeley, and Sonoma and Mendocino counties in Northern California, where he also teaches the dharma.

Devin Berry

Devin Berry.

In the summer 2010 Berry gave up his apartment, sold most of his possessions including his car, and began to live a “homeless” life. He is a student of Thich Nhat Hanh and a Theravadin practitioner, and teaches and practices at the East Bay Meditation Center, in Oakland.

“People may look at the way I live and think I’m cheap or broke because I have very little,” Berry said. “I intentionally scaled down my life so I could go on more long retreats. I wanted out of the busyness, the rat race, where I always felt a little bit pissed off and a little bit irritated.”

Berry did his first three-month silent meditation retreat in the fall 2010.  Four years later, Devin still lives a very simplified life.

“When people ask me where I live it can get interesting because I live wherever I am at the moment,” he said. “So if I am at a retreat that is where I live.”

When Berry is not on retreat he house sits, sublets or stays with friends.  He is constantly trying to integrate the teachings by reciting loving kindness phrases during all his other activities, from working in schools, to teaching mindfulness to kids, to riding his bike.

“I live and breathe dharma.  It colors everything and is integrated in all things,” he said. “We live in a culture that thinks there is something wrong with not pursuing more, but I have all I need inside…There is just not much outside of me that I want.”

Jenn Biehn and Joan Lohman

Jenn Biehn and Joan Lohman

Jenn Biehn and Joan Lohman met in silence 21 years ago at a meditation retreat, and are active members of the East Bay Meditation Center.

“I live my whole day and night connected to the dharma,” Biehn said. “Life and the dharma are seamless.”

For Lohman, an inward inquiry or contemplative life includes a social justice action.

“When I go inward and reflect upon what it means to be an urban contemplative, I discover part of being urban and contemplative is being an activist for social justice,” she said.

Biehn adds, “We wake up with the dharma and look for structures that nurture and support our practice.  We use mindfulness tools to be able to be more fully with the challenges of urban life.”

Lohman and Biehn say they love being a couple on this path, partly because they have each other for encouragement and support.

Tuere Sala

Tuere Sala

Early in 2013 they created a three-month retreat at their home.  Every morning they woke to noble silence and remained in silence until 1pm.  They spent their mornings in sitting and walking practice.

As a result of their home retreat, they learned what adjustments would be needed to enable them to go on a three-month retreat together.  Now they rent out their home to pay for more retreats.  They also open their home for daylong retreats, teacher interviews and sangha meetings.  Their home has become a refuge for many other practitioners.

All five of these individuals have strong daily meditation practices; they regularly listen to dharma talks and most read dharma materials.  They all speak of living minimal lives around money and possessions.

All five allow their practice to challenge their ideas, judgments and opinions around life. They live secluded in large part, because of their devotion to practice and spiritual growth.  They all share a noticeable contentment with the choices they have made with their lives.

How and why they live with such contentment will be addressed in part two of this article.

[i]    We are laypeople who enjoy sensual pleasures, dwelling at home in a bed crowded with children, enjoying fine sandalwood, wearing garlands, scents…accepting gold and silver.  “In the Buddha’s Words,” edited by Bhikkhu Bodi, Wisdom Publications, Somerville, Mass., 2005, page 124

[ii]    DN 2

[iii]    “Innovative Trends in Euro-American Buddhism,” by Richard Hughes Seager.  Article published in July-September 2011 issue of Dharma World.

[iv]   Id.

[v]   Buddha’s step-mother, Mahapajapati Gotami, asked for guidance on how to recognize what was dhamma when living a solitary life.  AN 8.5

About the Author: Tuere Sala
Tuere Sala has practiced vipassana meditation for over 20 years. She has been a member of Seattle Insight Meditation Society since 2001, and currently serves as a local dharma leader. She has completed the Spirit Rock Community Dharma Leader program.