Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Disgraced Ex-Congressman Bob Ney Studying Buddhism at Indian Temple

Politics Daily
He's traveled quite a path. Former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) served six terms in Congress, then spent 17 months in federal prison for his role in the Jack Abramoff scandal. Now he is studying meditation at a Buddhist Temple in India. 

Ney, 56, told the National Journal in a phone interview that since September he has lived in a $10-a-day rented room in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama's headquarters-in-exile for more than 50 years. The ex-congressman quit drinking, dropped 60 pounds and spends his days meditating with monks and learning the Tibetan language.

Ney, who pleaded guilty to conspiring to defraud the government and making false statements, said he started to try to meditate while in prison to help him cope with the stress of being locked up. Something about it clicked with him, he said, and now he practices meditation daily. 

"You pick a quiet spot, as quiet as you can get," Ney told the National Journal. "You can do it any length of time you want. I usually do it about 10 or 15 minutes. And you focus on your breathing. ... Breath in, breath out. If you hear a sound, you acknowledge it and you just move on back to your breathing."

He said he plans to bring a Tibetan monk back to Ohio with him to train others in meditation. He wants to help the homeless, battered women and veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

"My life is good," he said. "I'm a very lucky person, and I'm just very happy -- very, very happy. I'm doing what I want to do."

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Ralph Steele

Ralph Steele is the founder of Life Transition Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico where he serves as the guiding meditation teacher. He has practiced Theravadin Buddhist meditation for over three decades and taught since 1987, including at such venues as Spirit Rock Meditation Center and Insight Meditation Society. He completed a year of intensive practice as a monk in Burma and in Thailand. Along with his interest in preserving the Theravada tradition, he is dedicated to making the dharma available to culturally diverse populations. He has also worked with youth around the country.

Ralph received his M.A. degree from the University of Santa Clara in Marriage, Family, and Child Therapy in 1979. He holds BA degrees in Humanistic Psychology, and Religious Studies with board honors. Ralph is also the Founder of the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Hospice Training Program at Northern New Mexico Community College. During his tenure as the Chair of the Board of Trustees of Southwestern College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he was instrumental in transitioning the EKR Hospice Program, from a two year Associate Degree program to a Master’s Degree program in Grief, Bereavement and Counseling. He is a member of the following organizations:

  • Spirit Rock Meditation Center
  • Insight Meditation Society
  • The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy
  • The American Academy of Pain Management
  • The American Pain Society
Spirituality runs in Ralph Steele's blood. The grandson of a minister, Steele's family has run a church for the past 150 years. A devout Christian upbringing is one of the things that Steele shares with Willis and Jarman—and the vast majority of African-Americans.

He also shares with them the experience of living as an outsider. Steele grew up on Pawleys Island, a then-isolated speck of land off the South Carolina coast populated by freed slaves from Sierra Leone. Steele grew up speaking Gullah, a Creole language formed from Elizabethan English and African dialects. He was 12 years old before he spoke English.

"It has always been a practicing Christian community," he said. "What that means is that when some Christians elsewhere started saying they were 'born again,' that never happened there because no one ever left Christ."

An Army brat, Steele's first exposure to the dharma came during his high school years in Japan, when he began to study martial arts. He remembers the day his instructor leaped up and kicked the rim of a basketball hoop.

"That's when my life began to change," he says. "Right then I knew that life was different from how you see things."

Like so many Vietnam veterans, Steele was nearly destroyed by the war. Along with physical and psychic scars, Steele brought home an addiction to heroin and a five-pack-a-day cigarette habit. He credits devotion to his martial arts teacher and to the discipline of martial arts practice with getting him through.

"It wasn't the martial arts itself," he says. "It was the teacher, the trust in the teacher." Back in the States, Steele enrolled at the University of California at Santa Cruz and signed up for a course on Buddhism—taught by a young black professor named Jan Willis. "I was pretty tough on him," Willis reports without elaboration.

Among the things he learned from her were techniques of meditation from the Tibetan tradition. "That helped, because I was simultaneously going down to Palo Alto VA hospital to deal with flashbacks," he says. "Meditation allowed me to begin to get some balance."

His Christian connection still strong, Steele would go on frequent meditation retreats at a Catholic hermitage in Big Sur, and, for a time, even considered joining the order. But his link with Buddhism was cemented when Willis went on sabbatical and Lama Thubten Yeshe came to teach in her place at UC-Santa Cruz. Not long after, the 16th Karmapa, head of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, came to town: "I went on a one-week retreat to prepare to meet him. When I went up to get his blessing, we had this exchange: I gave him a rosary and he gave me refuge."

Now a psychotherapist, Steele runs the Life Transition Institute in Santa Fe, a center built around the body-mind meditation practices pioneered by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. But Steele had several stops en route to New Mexico. He practiced briefly in Seattle, using Buddhist psychotherapy techniques, but he began to receive death threats and left for Portland, Oregon, where he spent many months with the renowned Tibetan teacher Kalu Rinpoche. In those days, the idea of teaching Buddhism never crossed Steele's mind. But then, nine years ago at a Metta retreat with Joseph Goldstein, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), Steele looked around and realized that he and one Vietnamese practitioner were the only non-whites in the crowd. Steele recalls that he said, "Joseph, something has to change," to which Goldstein replied, "Yes, but for now just do the practice."

Steele did. But eventually, during a retreat in Santa Fe, he told Jack Kornfield, another IMS co-founder, that he was ready to teach. "I saw myself starting to become a closet practitioner, and I didn't want to do that," he says now. And how does his Christian family back on Pawleys Island take his new role? "They all accept what I do. People walk their practice there. They have a deep understanding of what practice is."

From Baptist to Buddhist, One Woman's Spiritual Journey
Jan. 26, 2006
Tibetan Buddhist scholar Jan Willis grew up Baptist in the U.S. South but began her spiritual journey at Cornell
Growing up in the deep South during the 1950s and '60s left Jan Willis '69, M.A. '71, asking a lot of questions. Willis, who went on to earn a Ph.D. in Indic and Buddhist studies from Columbia University, sought answers to the roots of hatred and whether peace in the face of such hatred is possible.

Her search would eventually take her to Nepal and back and lead to her current position as professor of religion and the Walter A. Crowell Professor of the Social Sciences at Wesleyan University.

It all started, however, with a trip to Cornell University when she was still in high school.

Willis grew up in Docena, Ala., a small mining town just outside of Birmingham, which she described as the most segregated city in America at the time. Her father, a steelworker, was deacon at a Baptist church the family attended. "Racism was palpable" during her childhood, she said, and hate crimes against blacks -- including children -- were common. Willis experienced this firsthand when a burning cross was planted on the lawn of her family's home.

By the 1960s, however, the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. In 1963, while still in high school, Willis faced police dogs and fire hoses to join a march through Birmingham led by Martin Luther King Jr. "Who wouldn't march?" she said, adding that the experience had been empowering.

Another seminal event in Willis' life occurred during her junior year in high school, when Beatrice MacLeod, associate secretary of Cornell's Telluride House, a living and learning center near campus for exceptional students, visited Willis' school to recruit high school students for the Telluride Summer Program. Willis was accepted, and the program proved to be an eye-opening experience. "It was the first time I had left Alabama ... and the first time I'd been in a mixed-race learning environment," she explained. Although Brown v. Board of Education , the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing public school segregation, had occurred a decade earlier, many schools -- including the ones near Willis' home -- were still fighting integration.

The Telluride experience prompted her to apply to Cornell. She was accepted and returned to campus in the fall of 1965 as an undergraduate, becoming the first person in her family to attend college.

She originally planned to major in physics but soon realized she was more interested in philosophy. Her involvement in civil rights issues, however, continued throughout her time in Ithaca. She wrote the constitution for the Black Students Association (BSA) and was the only woman among its eight founding members.

During her senior year, members of the BSA took control of Willard Straight Hall, the student union, during Parents' Weekend. "We were responding to an episode where someone had burned a cross in front of the residence of 12 black students, an often-ignored fact," explained Willis, who, as one of the few women seniors in the BSA, was responsible for the women members' safety.

The takeover garnered much negative press for Cornell at the time, after the protestors were photographed carrying guns as they emerged from the building. But despite the presence of weapons, the surrender was a peaceful one, and BSA demands for black studies were subsequently met when both the Africana Studies Program and the Africana Studies and Research Center were created, Willis noted.

The era of campus unrest also was marked by protests against the war in Vietnam. It was around this time that Willis first became interested in Buddhism, having seen news footage of Vietnamese Buddhist monks and nuns immolating themselves to protest the war. "I wanted to know how someone could be brave enough to do that," she recalled. Her interest solidified when, while studying in India, she met several exiled Tibetan Buddhists. Despite the fact that they had recently fled from their home country following persecution by the Chinese, they struck her as being incredibly cheerful, she remembered.

More than 30 years later, Willis is considered one of the premier American scholar-practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism. She has studied with Buddhists in India, Nepal, Switzerland and the United States and has published numerous essays and books on the subject, including her memoir, "Dreaming Me: From Baptist to Buddhist, One Woman's Spiritual Journey" (Riverhead Books, 2002). She was recently profiled in Newsweek's "Spirituality in America" issue and in 2000 was named one of Time magazine's six spiritual innovators for the new millennium.

For Willis, however, the public recognition is not as important as the private benefits. "[Buddhism] has helped me in real ways to find what I was looking for as a young person in a world that was violent," she explained. "It showed me how to locate deep wounds that racism caused in my early life ... and having found them, how to heal them."

To this day, Willis credits her time at Cornell with having changed her life. "It was as if [MacLeod] reached down into the Jim Crow South and liberated me," she said. "I know how different my life could be if it had not been for that."