In the late 1990s, Zen teacher P’arang Geri Larkin had been planning to open a retreat center up north, and had even purchased some land on which to build it. Already a popular Buddhist author, P’arang had just returned from a pilgrimage in Korea with the man who thus far had been her teacher, Ven. Samu Sunim [“sunim” is an honorific for Korean monastics; it literally means “no rank”]. Samu Sunim had been part of the first wave of Asian Zen masters who began putting down roots in America in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Sunim would open Zen temples in Toronto, Ann Arbor, Chicago, Mexico City, and, eventually, New York. Once she had completed her training in his Maitreya Buddhist Seminary, P’arang continued to teach and help out at several of them, most typically Ann Arbor.
By this time, P’arang counted among her good friends Jackie Victor and Ann Perrault, who had taken P’arang’s “Building a Business the Buddhist Way” class in Ann Arbor not long before opening Avalon International Breads in what is now “Midtown” Detroit, but will always be the Cass Corridor: a then unheard-of location for a new business in the area, and a choice that would serve as a model and inspiration for entrepreneurs in the city right up to the present day.
They were having lunch one day when Jackie said to P’arang, “Y’know, if you wanna retire, you should start that retreat center up north. But if you wanna do some good, you should open a place in Detroit.” How you gonna argue with that?
Almost immediately, P’arang sold the up-north property, and began looking for a home for Dharma in Detroit. She enlisted the help of some young Zen practitioners from the Ann Arbor temple, myself included. I had been commuting out to Ann Arbor from Detroit’s Forest Arms apartments for about five years by then, attending services and retreats, volunteering on work days and at the annual children’s summer camp, and even living there on the weekends for a time as part of a training program they offered. My main teacher in those days was Ven. Haju Sunim, one of our first American women Zen masters, and a steady, radiant Dharma light still shining brightly and inspiring all of us in Ann Arbor.
P’arang’s search for space in Detroit led to the First Unitarian-Universalist Church on Cass Ave., where the new, independent Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple began sub-leasing the large “Yoga Room” and a little office. Still Point’s very first Sunday services in the spring of 2000 coincided with the first day of the Still Point Zen Buddhist Seminary, as well: during her tenure, P’arang would train a handful of America’s next generation of Zen teachers. We early “Dharma Students” still speak fondly of our weekly walks over to “Café Mobile” – the Mobil gas station a block away, where we’d fetch coffee every Sunday between the morning services and Dharma Student meetings.
It would be another year before Still Point found its present location on Trumbull and Canfield. We’d no longer have to rent a separate space for our seasonal multiple-day retreats, and residents could now live at the temple as well: Still Point took its cues from the earliest Zen centers in the country, which tended to follow an Asian monastic model in which a teacher or teachers would live at the center, working and training alongside what were often college students without family obligations. It would be hard to overstate our enormous good fortune in those years that another young student of P’arang’s, Ango Neil Heidrich, agreed to be our abbot for what ended up being the next four years. The embodiment of sincerity, Ango worked tirelessly, teaching in the way the old teachers taught, through constant examples of care and attention (even today, when we have a big project to handle, we try to get Ango back to help us with it). It’s also hard to overstate just how hard everyone worked to get this new temple and its young sangha (community) going in those first years.
In 2003, I was ordained by P’arang as part of Still Point’s first wave of lay Dharma teachers (poep sa nim in Korean). Two years later, she would retire from full-time teaching, installing me as Still Point’s Guiding Teacher in a public ceremony.
The transition was probably difficult for everyone. Still Point no longer had two full-time teachers in residence, available 24/7. I moved into the south side of the building with my family, and had probably less time and availability than some people had been used to. The sangha was forced to grow in a lot of ways, and grow it did. The whole process was very much aided by Brahana Sarah Addae, who served as Senior Dharma Teacher during the first year of my tenure, and Anatta James B. Wilson, who served as Abbot the following year. Anatta had once been the head of public works in Oak Park, and in his year as Abbot did tons to not only shore up our record- and book-keeping, but also to mentor me in the administrative side of things.
There’s really nothing like Dharma friendships (“They’re everything,” said the Buddha), and I was helped tremendously and in every way by the Dharma brothers and sisters who had trained with me under P’arang, and the others who were now training under me. To this day, one of Still Point’s great strengths is its diversity of teachers – over the centuries it’s been known to happen that under a single teacher, particularly one who is charismatic, it can sometimes be hard for sangha members not to feel as though that teacher’s own expression of the Dharma is The Dharma; but the Dharma is expressed in and through each of us as we actually live, as parents or siblings, as friends and fellow workers in societies that still aren’t devoid of class hierarchies, racial inequalities, gender prejudices, and the ten thousand joys and sorrows of the phenomenal world.
It wasn’t just because she wanted to open a temple in Detroit that I was drawn to practice with P’arang. She is and will always be my root teacher because she was as serious as they come about practice: when it was time to sit, she sat. Likewise prostrations and cleaning up and all the rest. But during informal times, she laughed louder than any of us. There was no rigid attachment to some sort of stiff Zen stereotype. She was a complete human being who practiced with utmost sincerity. And it was this, more than anything else, that informed how I wanted to teach, and how I would help guide Still Point into whatever it decided it needed to be.
Perhaps the most visible change from our early days have been our more recent attempts to include children as much as possible, based on the needs of our sangha families. During her tenure, P’arang implemented the fairly radical practice of including children in the precept-taking ceremonies every two years. And following many iterations of “Sunday School”-like programs for children, we now have an all-ages Family Service in the main meditation hall (seonbang) every Sunday as well. Ideally, Sundays will one day include child care, so parents can more seamlessly participate in the adults-only service that follows, but this will depend on our finding a larger space in which to practice (something we’re in the process of looking for).
Our “Intensive Practice” program has also undergone profound shifts over the years, and its current incarnation as the “One Sangha Training Program” is now one of our more popular offerings, addressing the needs of some practitioners for more structured training beyond our typical services and classes, without the level of commitment required by the Still Point Seminary. One Sangha has also been a great way for people who are curious about the seminary to get their feet wet, so to speak, and transition to the rigors of training as Dharma Students.
From its beginnings, Still Point has had as a primary goal providing individual members and visitors the necessary training and support to return to their lives as bodhisattvas acting with compassion and wisdom as each sees fit. Our members are lawyers representing the otherwise voiceless; teachers putting in endless days nurturing our children; ICU nurses; artists; healers; assembly-line workers; and prisoners. Our members are recovering addicts, psychotherapists, and poets, each asking in his or her own unique way how to make this world a better place than the one we found ourselves in together – which in the end may be the only thing worth asking.
Over the years, we’ve participated as a sangha in vacant lot cleanups; soup kitchen caretaking; and tree plantings with the Greening of Detroit. We have hosted many visiting teachers: Tibetan lamas; Theravadin teachers like Frank Levey and Amma Thanasanti Bhikkhuni; and Zen teachers like Gilbert Gutierrez and Brad Warner. Our doors are open as well to school classes of all ages, from local middle schools and colleges, to the high schoolers who recently visited from Boulder, Colorado. We have a rich Prison Dharma program, with senior students and teachers corresponding with prisoners nationwide, offering Dharma materials, and even venturing inside with increasing regularity.
One of our recent outreach efforts involved a partnership with the amazing Ruth Ellis Center in Highland Park (with grant funding from the University of Michigan’s Arts of Citizenship Grants in Public Scholarship). The Ruth Ellis Center offers a range of services for LGBTQ youth, many of whom are homeless and otherwise unsupported because of their gender identities or sexual orientations. In the Summer of 2014, we offered a six-week meditation course as part of their Summer Internship Program in what may end up being a pilot program to offer ongoing weekly meditation services at their drop-in center.
It would be easy to say, because it’s true, that we welcome people of all faiths, all gender identities, sexual orientations, ethnicities, and political persuasions. The historical Buddha spent his whole life not teaching us how special he was, but how special each of us is, endowed unequivocally with an awakened Buddha-nature not at all unlike that of Buddhism’s original teacher. You don’t have to identify as a Buddhist or anything else to practice with us; it’s enough to practice with sincerity and to ask yourself what is true for you, and how you yourself might move through life with a bit more wisdom and compassion, neither of which has ever been the exclusive property of any single tradition.
It would be easy to say that we welcome all people, but far more accurate to say that we embrace you, in part because we realize that our own practice is upheld and enriched by the diversity and experience of the sangha in which we practice, and we feel incredible, boundless gratitude for Still Point’s beautiful diversity, to say nothing of its sincerity – both of which somehow, impossibly, seem to grow with each passing year.
Koho Vince Anila