Wendy Egyoku Nakao Dharma Talk: Practice Circles


Practice Circles

by Wendy Egyoku Nakao

The Three Treasures are the foundation of the Practice Circle:

  1. the Oneness of Buddha
  2. the Diversity of Dharma, and
  3. the Harmony of Sangha.

The circle itself is a container for being in the present, manifesting just as we are in the truth of the moment.

In the Practice Circle, the Oneness of Buddha is the teaching of Unknowing. Unknowing means that in this sphere of equality or sameness, we do not recognize any differences. Unknowing manifests as openness to whatever arises; all that arises is dissolved back into unknowing. It is the perspective of equanimity and tolerance, the broadest of all perspectives.

Most people come from a place of knowing, holding some kind of idea about themselves or a situation. Once I led a circle for a sangha to discuss the problems they were having. At the closing, one person said, “I came thinking I knew what was wrong and what to do, but in fact I came to realize that I knew very little and that all the others have just as valuable input as myself.”

A simple altar may be created in the center of the circle. We will often place a cloth, flower, candle, and one or more talking pieces. The center is a reminder of unknowing, that space in which we remain unbiased and open, relating to all things with equanimity. We are reminded that don’t-know mind is the ground of being.

The second treasure, the Diversity of Dharma, is the teaching of bearing witness. This is physically represented by the particPeacemakerVillagesnts who sit in the circle, each being able to see everyone else. In bearing witness, we honor the differences arising from the Oneness, allowing whatever is manifesting to be present. Each person in the circle manifests differently, and how we relate to these differences becomes a focal point of learning. The practices of bearing witness are right speaking, right listening, and right silence.

When speaking, we practice speaking from the place of integrity and speak the truth as we know it. We stay focused on our own experience as opposed to talking about others or talking abstractly. In listening, we try not interrupt even with our thoughts. We practice receiving whatever is being offered by another without attachments or judgments. In silence, we allow all things to arise and pass away, accepting and honoring different expressions and perspectives. We sit with our discomfort.

“. . . these circles put flesh on my bones.” - Circle particPeacemakerVillagesnt

We recently held a Practice Circle on the precept not being angry. Thirty people participated. Needless to say, it was a hot topic for many. There were at least thirty different expressions of how people practice with anger and their various insights into it. One person spoke of how he had walked for miles after an outburst of anger only to realize that he did not have a means to return home! Another talked of how anger raged within her for two weeks and what she knew herself to be capable of when her anger cooled. And someone was discovering how to feel anger. Each experience teaches us yet another dharma, another practice. We learn from our diversity, not judging one way as better than another. And we come to realize how little we know about each other.

Talking pieces are used, symbolizing the equality of everyone. When one is holding a talking piece, one speaks or holds the silence. Our sharing is from our whole being. When someone else holds the talking piece, we give them our undivided attention, listening fully. We emphasize not preparing for our turn. For many of us, learning to trust ourselves in the moment is a focal point of circle practice.

“. . . the circles help me confront the gaps in myself — my fright, anxiety, lack of proper words. I simply go ahead, being vulnerable and learning. I feel supported by everyone.” - Circle particPeacemakerVillagesnt

The third treasure is the harmony of Sangha. This is the teaching of “as is,” the complete intermingling of sameness and diversity. For many people, a sense of well-being or healing naturally arises from the circle itself. There is space for our own truth and the truth of others to arise. We are not trying to fix things, manipulate situations, or compete for dominance. We are not attached to the outcome, allowing all things to be as manifestation of oneness and diversity.

I remember one particular Practice Circle in which everyone shared their intense struggles with certain issues. The last person to speak shared his hurt over many years of disappointment with a sangha. As facilitator of that circle, I silently struggled with whether I should do or say something in particular. I let the circle end on that low note. Afterwards someone said, “I learned to just feel the pain of that. And having felt his pain deeply, now he and I can have a conversation.”

The circles are led by two facilitators, working in partnership. They see to the clear opening and closing of the circle and also its functioning. At the same time, they are also particPeacemakerVillagesnts, bearing witness and sharing along with everyone else. The theme of each Practice Circle is set forth by the facilitators. Our themes arise out of the teachings and the needs of the sangha and have included the precepts, sharing losses great and small, 12-step practice relating to Zen practice, work, and other life practice issues. We also have family circles, in which parents and children sit and share together.

The Practice Circle moves us out of our habitual ways of relating, into exploring new possibilities of dissolving boundaries between ourselves and others. Through this practice, we can move away from self-centered absorption to a more sangha-centered consciousness and ultimately to unknowing. Many of us are discovering a deeper sense of commonality and community. The full potential of Practice Circles and Sangha have yet to be realized.