After an intensive four-year program, a diverse group of 20 practitioners graduated from the Spirit Rock Teacher Training Program on September 11.
The Spirit Rock Dharma Teacher and Spiritual Leadership Program held an historic graduation ceremony on September 11. After an intensive, four-year program of training and study, the most diverse class in the program’s history was empowered to teach the dharma. Every single graduate self-identifies as a member of a nondominant culture, whether by gender, orientation, race, ethnicity, or ability. Ninety percent are BIPOC and fifty-five percent identify as LGBTIQ. It is perhaps the most diverse group of new dharma teachers in the history of American Buddhism.
The members of this graduating cohort, says program co-leader Kate Lila Wheeler, “are insightful, smart, aware, and loving. They are culturally rich. They’re strong in being able to find the truth within and say what they know, and humble enough to say what they don’t know. They are deeply committed to the dharma of liberation as classically understood, and how the dharma and other medicines can be of help in the current predicament of our world.”
This is the eighth cycle of Spirit Rock’s dharma teacher training program. Prior to this cohort’s graduation, the Insight Meditation community had more than 350 trained dharma teachers, but only about ten self-identified as BIPOC.
The idea of offering the highest level of teacher training in the Insight tradition to an entire cohort of practitioners from non-dominant cultures began with Buddhist teachers Larry Yang and Jack Kornfield at a Spirit Rock Teachers’ Council meeting in 2012. But not everyone embraced the idea. As Yang and Buddhist teacher Gina Sharpe wrote in a 2018 Buddhadharma article, it took four and a half years of difficult negotiations with the flagship organizations of their lineage to get the go ahead.
“BIPOC and marginalized communities know what they need for their leadership in complex cultural times,” says Yang. “When we are able to create that vision with minimal restrictions or impositions from dominant culture pressures, it becomes a manifestation of our lives, which as a trained artist I can say is an art form.”
The eighth cycle of Spirit Rock’s dharma teacher training began with three core teachers: Larry Yang, Gina Sharpe, and Kate Lila Wheeler. More recently, Rachel Bagby joined them to make a fourth. Guest teachers included Jan Willis, Jack Kornfield, and Sylvia Boorstein.
Most teacher trainings in the Insight tradition include textual study, meditation practice, and training in practical matters, such as how to conduct a meditation interview. The training that Yang, Sharpe, Wheeler, and Bagby developed for this cycle included all of those elements, but also covered things like facilitating a multicultural group, mandatory clerical reporting of suspected abuse, and how to “teach in our hotspots”—thorny issues such as what the life of the Buddha might have looked like from his wife’s point of view.
As graduate Nowliwe Alexander puts it, “Since the migration of Buddhism to the West and since retreat teacher trainings were created, this program may be the first that bridges both a high degree of cultural and social competency and classic dharma philosophy with such thoroughness. My hope is that this training will be the model for trainings in the future.”
At the online graduation ceremony, core faculty of the training and members of Spirit Rock leadership spoke words of support for the new Buddhist teachers. There was a sharing of blessings through a water pouring ceremony, and the graduates each recited their own personal vow that will guide them in their teaching careers. The 20 newly empowered teachers received and rang their own meditation bell, handmade in Japan in the same tradition as the bells of the meditation halls at Spirit Rock. They will be able to take their bells, personally engraved for them, wherever they teach.
“We often want to find ‘elders’ to show us the way,” says Wheeler. “I believe this group can be elders in a sense, even though they are relatively new as teachers. This is because of their deep understanding gained from life experience. BIPOC and LGBTQI+ can see the world, in many ways, more clearly than straight white folks can. They have negotiated our unequal world systems with wisdom, love, and courage. This group will change things.”
Watch a recording of the graduation ceremony below: