My daughter is writing her thesis on defining the traits of an entrepreneur. Some of those traits are; vision, willingness to take a risk, resiliency, management skills, the willingness to take the product to market, and adaptability. I think this is a helpful set of qualities to reflect on when talking about Buddhist women’s leadership. In fact, there are many people engaged in the development of new forms of Buddhist expression as Buddhism comes to the West. These forms are designed to interest people in new ways of thinking, or in business terms, bring a new product to market. I’d like to weave these traits into the following story of how the Hearth Foundation has been, and continues to be, evolving.
Although there are many things that can spark the creation of a new organization, most new projects arise out of some combination of the founder’s passion for something in particular and a lack of services or products in that area. The creator sees a need and decides to try their hand at filling that need. Each step along the Hearth Foundation path arose out of needs I experienced as a young mom, my love of being a mother and tending a home, and a dearth of spiritual services and literature to support those needs. I didn’t go about trying to form something new. Instead, feeling passionate about the beauty of the mothering path, seeing a glaring need for recognition and support for women who make this life style choice, I looked around for a teacher, or teaching, that would fulfill those needs without much success.
Finding no established community to turn to for support of my Buddhist home practice, I patched together my own support system using the Buddha’s teachings as a grid. I also drew from the goddess cultures that honor feminine spirituality, from Western mysticism and, when they were offered, I went on family retreats at Green Gulch Zen Center as well as a one week family retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh. This was in the early 80’s before the inception of Spirit Rock and other places that now offer family programs. I plugged my situation, being a mom and homemaker, into the remarkable grid the Buddha left for us; the four noble truths, the 8 fold path, the 5 precepts and other teachings. From that point on, I continued to follow what was being laid out in front of me. It was like walking in the fog, seeing just one step ahead, not sure if what I was seeing was real or an illusion, sometimes wailing, “Why me?” sometimes willingly- even blissfully. A deep love for my mother, who was a wonderful mother and homemaker yet felt demeaned in this role, and for all other mothers who went from being someone to being just a mother, kept my feet on the, sometimes lonely, path.
Research and development
Despite the scant supply of sangha and teachings unique to my home based situation, I couldn’t help but notice that my spiritual development was moving along in leaps and bounds as I changed diapers and moped the floor. Inspired by Gandhi’s autobiography, I decided to use my life as an experiment. My home became a laboratory where I applied the Buddha’s teachings to the everyday life of mothering and homemaking. Like a lab scientist, I experimented and took notes on the results I was observing. I cast a wide research net, covering many spiritual systems, in an attempt to find home based practices. There was not much written about mothering as a spiritual path in Buddhist, or other, religious literature.
I was trained as an artist and musician. Artists live an internally focused life. Before I became a mother I would spend hours in my studio and hours practicing my instrument. Meditation retreats share this quality of internal focus. I loved the quiet, the stillness, and found a life of internal focus fulfilling. Then, when I became a mother, I no longer enjoyed the luxury of being able to focus internally for long periods of time. I was forced to put someone else’s needs above my own. At this point I could have chosen to skimp on my mothering, but my love for my baby, combined with scant outside child support, led me to put aside art and a life of deep meditation for the immediate needs of my child. But the creative mind will not be squelched for long. In this case, the creative mind looked for expression in my understanding of mothering and how that coupled with Buddhism. The pain of giving up a more conventional artistic expression gave rise to a new and surprising form of artistic expression at home.
As these creative ideas about mothering and Buddhism began to flow they needed to be shared. But how? It became clear that the insights I was experiencing wanted to be written down. They came pouring out onto pieces of napkins, the backs of to-do notes, and any other writing surface I could get my hands on. What was emerging was a book. A book? I thought. Who was I to write a book? I wasn’t a writer, I was only a passable mom (there were moms with many more children than I had who performed their daily responsibilities with much greater skill) nor did I have authorization to teach on spiritual matters. I slogged through this internal doubting for the full 20 years it took me to write Buddha Mom. The challenges to develop this material were many. I had to learn how to write, I had to usher my child safely through childhood and adolescence with scant support, I was dealing with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome when it was an unknown disease, and I was a single mother. I just kept going with no assurance that my ideas would be received. The skills I brought to the table were an intimacy with the creative process, a strong maternal instinct, and a deep love and appreciation for Buddhist wisdom and practices. I stumbled around (I still do) trying to find the best words to describe what I was discovering in my little home lab. This experiment eventually turned into my book, Buddha Mom.
Once Buddha Mom was released women contacted me with their stories. Like me, they were searching for spiritual guidance for their home centered practice. This led me to develop online lay Buddhist practice classes that later became the core of Hearth. The teachings were formed out of the needs expressed by the women who were sharing their hearts with me. For example, one month 3 of our Hearth moms were dealing with a death in the family. That became the motivation for the Hearth series on death and dying in the family. The material for the Hearth lessons came out of the real life needs of the women who came to me for support. Wonderful, creative things come out of listening to our students, or clients, and letting them lead us. We may have some expertise in the teachings, but the people who come to us are the experts in what works and what doesn’t work.
My father and Going non-profit
Hearth didn’t become a non-profit until, a few years after the classes began, my father, an attorney specializing in non-profits, was dying in my home. He decided to incorporate and modestly endow the work. What I’ve learned from this is, if passion is followed, regardless of how crazy it feels or how incapable we believe ourselves to be to complete the task, if we let go of thinking we are in control, our life’s work will find us. Support rises up out of the blue. It’s a subtle dance- leading, but at the same time following. Hearth became a non-profit, not by my effort, but by the invisible hand of fate and by Hearth’s own validity.
My mother and a gas station
My mother used to say, if you’re going to be an artist you need to have a gas station. This was her pithy way of teaching me that in order to have the freedom to create art without compromising, watering down or skewing the work for profit, I would be well advised to have an alternate source of income. That way my survival needs would be met without interfering with the creative process. I feel the same way about spiritual work. The Buddha said that the teachings are to be given freely. I take this to mean that in order to be free, in order to walk the bodhisattva path, we need to be in a position to not have to compromise our values in order to survive. Some meet their financial needs with work outside their spiritual service; sometimes the spiritual work is endowed or receives grants. If and when our service as a spiritual teacher is in great demand we can let go of our day jobs and the funds will be there to support the work.
Hearth, after much consideration, decided to offer our lessons at no cost. This decision is born of personal experience. When I became a single mother I couldn’t afford the time or money for retreats, spiritual counseling and available group activities. This is also the case for many of the young families I minister to. Because of this I have been offering Hearth’s classes for free and online so mothers can come to class in their own time without any economic hardship. Since I have other sources of income I’ve been able to offer the Hearth classes without charge. But, I’ve been learning, people still need to have some skin in the game to stay engaged, be it money or donation of time. I encourage students to pay for what they receive from Hearth through service. One of my students created Hearth’s original website and administered it. One student became our registrar and welcomed new students. The organizational model I would most like Hearth to emulate is the AA model. In that model, receiving support is not dependent on a person’s ability to pay. The organization is de-centralized, with no corporate structure to maintain so it doesn’t get top heavy, and it sustains itself through it’s own members. For Hearth this vision is a work in progress.
Bringing the work to the marketplace
No matter how interesting the material is, an entrepreneur, even a religious entrepreneur, is in sales, whether they want to be or not. As is the case with other artists and spiritual teachers, sales is not my forte. This is something I still struggle with. But I’ve learned a few things. When Buddha Mom was released I gave talks at places like La Leche League and other mothering venues. It’s good to reach out to groups outside our Buddhist communities. Otherwise we are talking to ourselves and these valuable jewels are not being put to best use. There are many ways to outreach in our web connected world. Hearth has a website which houses our teachings, a list of parenting and homemaking resources and a monthly newsletter. We are looking at becoming more web savvy, as this is how ideas can be most effectively spread in today’s world. But even a vital web presence doesn’t make up for reaching out to people in person. When sharing with new communities it’s important to listen as well. What do the people need? What words turn them off? What words inspire them? What parts of the old ways are relevant and what parts are archaic and no longer fit into today’s culture? How does their religion of origin interface with Buddhist teachings? Many of Hearth’s students are Catholic or Jewish. We do not try to convert but, rather, add to their spiritual life. Hearth is always amending our approach and looking for new ways and words that resonate while remaining respectful of the cultures and expressions of the people we teach, and are taught by.
Making the path by walking
It’s an exciting time for Buddhism as it comes to the West. In many ways those of us who are helping translate Buddhism for Western audiences are entrepreneurs. In other ways our mission is quite different than that of the classic, business entrepreneur. Unlike the business entrepreneur, our goal is not to make a profit. This is an important distinction. Religion can easily turn into a business. I remember seeing ornate temples in Burma where people put gold leaf over Buddha statues as mother’s and children begged for food outside the temple walls. There seems to be a universal inclination for religious organizations to choose wealth and power over universal awakening. This human tendency has done as much damage as war or anything else we human’s have devised. It’s important to remember this as we import Buddhism to the West.
Like the entrepreneur, we need a vision of how the teachings might speak to a new audience. In that sense we are creating a new product. A good example of someone who does this well is Jon Kabat-Zinn. Using the healing aspect of the teachings on meditation he introduced meditation to many people who might never have been interested in the practice. He had both the vision and the ability to take that vision to market. Like the entrepreneur we need to be willing to bear risks, just as the new Bhikkhunis bear the economic risks of creating new support systems when the traditional supports are not available to them. We need good management skills in order to organize groups of people. I think here of Spirit Rock and how they successfully manage a beautiful place to practice and spread the teachings. Hearth aims to honor homemakers and supply spiritual support for home practice. Our bent is both mystical and practical. Our challenge is to make the teachings relevant and available, to let people know we are here, and to continue to build a team of bodhisattvas wanting to share with others who might be struggling alone.
To learn more about Hearth go to: http://hearth-foundation.org/