The Story Is The Seed:
We’re putting you to work in the front office,” the woman said to me on my second or third day at Green Gulch Farm as a practice apprentice, a beautiful day in August of 2008.
For well over a year, I had plotted and planned how I was going to leave my desk job at a luxury watch company to move to Green Gulch and become a residential Zen student. I was so certain that I had changed my life, I couldn’t fully comprehend that I had been assigned the same sort of job I’d left earlier that year.
“She must mean just for now,” I thought to myself. “Later they’ll move me to the garden, or at least the kitchen.”
But soon it became very obvious that I was to work the front office and bookstore for my entire three-month apprenticeship.
“I can’t believe this!” I said to the tanto when she called me to her room for a practice discussion during morning zazen.
“I can’t believe I changed everything for the better only to end up doing the exact same work. Anybody can do office work!”
She shook her head no, definitely not. I was still disappointed. It didn’t help that everyone else in the community got to enjoy silent work practice every morning, while the bookstore manager and I had to answer phone calls or talk to visitors. All I’d wanted was to really engage and deepen my practice, but I was still stuck in an office where I’d always been.
Over time I’ve come to recognize this as a symptom of what I call “The Overachiever’s Lament,” a belief that if I can get this or that aspect of my life just right, I will have the perfect conditions for transformation. Then, and only then, will I really be able to make some change.
As a consequence of this pattern of thinking, I’ve never been much of an “activist,” at least not in the popular stereotype of that term—one who takes action against the system, someone who goes out and demands the perfect circumstances for a complete transformation of the world. It’s bad enough when I lament for myself, but to lament for the wider world seems like a self-defeating prospect.
The other reason I’m not a traditional activist is because of where I come from. I am the granddaughter of migrant farm workers who settled in California as what the United States government calls resident aliens. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, my parents gave me a very clear message: Just being who I am—a Mexican-American girl from California’s San Joaquin Valley—and going where I’ve gone—state-level competitions, a prestigious liberal arts college in New England—was in and of itself an act of social change, and at some level an act against the system.
Even now, my mother reminds me, “To really change the system, you have to get inside of it.”
But I can’t quite get comfortable with that idea, because I don’t trust my ability to see possibilities beyond the system once I’ve put my efforts into becoming a part of it. Yet, I’m also not comfortable with the idea of being against the system—after all, it’s my home, if not my highest or truest one. What I hope for, to borrow a phrase from conciliation and mediation scholar John Paul Lederach, is “something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist.” As it turns out, what I’ve wanted is something that looks a lot like the Buddhist Alliance for Social Engagement (BASE).
Plant a seed…
A few months after completing my apprenticeship at Green Gulch, I found a job at The Engage Network, a nonprofit based in Oakland, California. As part of my job, I was researching strategies for integrating the hard external skills of traditional political organizing with the soft internal skills of spiritual or contemplative practice. That’s when I discovered BASE on the BPF website. As I read about BASE, I felt I saw a similar spirit—an honoring of knowledge and skill and the highly personal processes and stories that germinate them. Those personal processes and stories are the seeds of what I’ve grown to call wisdom.
I was really excited about discovering BASE, and then equally disappointed to read that the program had been discontinued.
A week later I happened to meet the executive director of BPF at that time, Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, at a lecture we were both attending. I was eager to talk to her about BASE, and curious to know why it was currently on hiatus.
“Well, actually, we’re hoping to start up BASE again,” she told me. “Would you be interested in taking that on?”
I told her I was working full-time at a job I loved, and wouldn’t be able to volunteer more than a few hours a week—but Tyson, my fiancé, was just finishing up his first year of graduate study in religious leadership for social change, and was looking for an internship for the following semester. It turned out to be one of those synchronistic moments. In August of 2009 Zenju formally offered us the opportunity to revive the BASE program. Tyson took on the volunteer role of BASE coordinator, and I volunteered as his collaborator. The seed was beginning to germinate.
Spread some rich soil and compost…
Over the course of six months, we dug deep into the history of the BASE program, interviewing many amazing practitioners who had participated in BASE in a variety of ways, and collecting their narratives. Many of the people we met were influential not only to our personal practice, but are also leading figures in the wider movement of socially engaged Buddhism.
The first BASE program dates back to 1993, when a number of BPF members and affiliates were seeking concrete means to integrate Buddhist thought and practice with social change. At the time, there was no widely known program for Buddhists, though there was an interest in the BPF community. Diana Winston submitted a detailed proposal to BPF for what was to become the Buddhist Alliance for Social Engagement—something she stated was “in the ether, waiting to be born.” Winston was hired by BPF and, along with other staff, spent the next six months or so researching “faith-based service communities and programs… and political consciousness-raising and affinity groups.” Many socially engaged Buddhists were called upon for wisdom and support. These collective efforts gave rise to a “community-based structure integrating social action and social service with Buddhist practice.” By 1995 BASE was born.
The first BASE pilot started in the San Francisco Bay Area, with three local participants and five participants from around the United States, as well as a coordinator, mentor, and facilitator. To paraphrase Diana Winston, the defining BASE experience was people coming together—sitting, practicing, studying, acting when appropriate—to build sustainable communities. This was the ground from which we hoped to grow the new BASE program. But the much harder task proved to be moving from background theory to the actual practice.
Water well and watch it grow.
“What is your purpose?” I was asked during the interview for my current job.
I paused for a moment, a bit overwhelmed by the enormity of the question.
“Encouragement,” I said, “I’m here to encourage myself and others.”
I continued to reflect on my answer over the past three months helping Tyson launch this BASE pilot. I’m now beginning to understand that what I was really talking about was practice, the daily effort that creates the ground for planting seeds of deep and miraculous connection.
BASE is a structure for a practice of encouragement. It is about practicing being together in the world, sharing our stories and the numberless ways we are socially engaged, so that we may encourage the seeds of connection to flower. In spite of my struggling, it seems I ended up working in the garden after all. Growing a new hybrid of BASE was the collaborative effort of a core group of people who share a commitment to living our practice fully in the world, whether that means speaking out publicly against injustice or caring for ourselves with a blissfully unscheduled day.
This fall our BASE experiment will continue, and in preparation we are contemplating which parts of the program bore the most fruit, and which parts need to be pruned back. It’s too soon to say what the next harvest will bring, but we’re pretty sure it will start with a story.