Seattle’s Blue Heron Zen Community might not have a home at all, were it not for the community-connecting prowess of Northwest Dharma Association.

In 2004 Blue Heron, a community in the lineage of Korean Zen master Seung Sahn, had been fruitlessly searching for many months for a permanent zendo where their programs and sesshins could be held to support members’ practice.

At the same time, unknown to them, Ron Hansen, a local Buddhist practitioner, was just finishing construction of a Seattle zendo after years of work for a different lineage of Korean Zen. But Hansen’s teacher had decided it was time to pull out of the Northwest and sell the structure, which wasn’t proving so easy. Hansen reached out to Northwest Dharma Association, a linking of 137 Buddhist groups in the U.S. Northwest and Western Canada, for help in communicating his needs to the larger community.

 “The guy was desperate [when he called us],” said George Draffan, a longtime volunteer, now executive director of Northwest Dharma Association (NWDA). “Within a week Blue Heron also called us and said they were looking for a place to move into. They were the only two Korean groups in the Puget Sound area, and neither one knew the other was there.”

Blue Heron members bought the building, and now they practice in a structure specifically fitted out for Korean Zen practice, complete with heated floors.

“When this came about, the fact that it was in the Korean lineage—it was magical,” said Anita Feng, Blue Heron’s guiding teacher. “There were so many ways that synchronicity happened during that time, and it has continued like that over the years.”

Since 1989, Northwest Dharma Association has fulfilled a unique role in the region’s Buddhist community, improving connections and communication among Buddhist groups of all types, especially in large urban areas like Seattle, where disconnect is prevalent.

Just a few such umbrella organizations have been founded to date around the world. The extraordinary function they serve is imperative for a religion that does not have an overarching governing body or deep cultural roots in the West the way it does in Asian countries. Building such connections may also be especially significant in today’s U.S. political climate, which seems to have fostered divisions.

“When I moved here to Portland in 1993,” said Jacqueline Mandell, “Northwest Dharma was already in existence, so I came into the Pacific Northwest with the understanding that everyone was connected.” A founding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, Mandell now teaches in Portland, in the Tibetan Nyingma tradition. “Coming here felt great, in a very relaxed sense of familiarity,” she said. “It felt like the groups honored each other. Everything was very noncompetitive; we all wanted to learn from each other.”

In 2014, when the Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry decided to expand beyond its focus on Abrahamic traditions to include Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs for the school’s interreligious advisory council, all Assistant Dean Dr. Michael Trice had to do to convene a meeting of regional Buddhist leaders was turn to Northwest Dharma Association. “The Association was so open and welcoming—and willing to foster this relationship. I remember it being a real joy,” he said. “That meeting would not have happened without the NWDA and its clear advice about who to talk to and when.”

Venerable Tulku Yeshe Gyatso leads a calligraphy demonstration and workshop at Seattle University, 2014

One of the strongest analogue groups to the NWDA is the European Buddhist Union (EBU), founded in 1975. With nearly 50 member groups in 16 nations, the EBU is interlinked with the sense of political collaboration that led to the European Union. A key mark of success is that the EBU has established equal standing with other pan-European religious groups. In December 2016, for instance, EBU President Jamie Cresswell represented Buddhists at a meeting of the European Council of Religious Leaders in Brussels to discuss some of the social challenges facing Europe.

In the United States, efforts to establish organizations of Buddhist groups other than NWDA have been regional, and, so far, relatively modest. The Buddhist Council of the Midwest covers Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana, and Illinois; the Buddhist Council of New York is a clearinghouse for groups in the New York City area.

The New York council’s president, Dr. T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki, a priest in the Jodo Shinshu tradition, noted that the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center had catalyzed the expansion of Buddhist collaboration in New York. While religious groups were weighing in with thoughts about how to respond during the crisis, there were no Buddhist voices to be heard, because there was no unifying Buddhist organization.

“Buddhist people were concerned that nobody was represented who was Buddhist,” he said. “The Buddhist Council evolved to express our thoughts, voice, and concerns to the City.”

Despite that impetus, Nakagaki said, it’s been hard to get Buddhist groups to energize around the organization. He has used his years of connections among Asian groups to encourage New York Asian leaders to join planning and events, but he finds it harder to get contributions of time and energy from Western Buddhist groups.

He wryly concedes that this is a dilemma partly born of the Buddhist way.

“The voiceless voice, which Buddhists emphasize, isn’t heard here. We try to voice in a Buddhist way, as much as we can,” he said. “But in this country, unless there is a strong voice they do not hear.”

A similar problem faces Northwest Dharma Association. While the organization’s value is self-evident to anyone who has participated in its leadership, collaboration among Buddhist groups remains a secondary priority for many Buddhists in the Northwest.

“It takes an effort to keep the lights on, and people don’t have a lot left over for the big picture of mahasanga, the greater community.”

“Most of the sanghas are pushing a rock up the hill in their own traditions,” said Dr. Polly Trout, a lay Buddhist minister and the founder of Patacara Community Services, a Buddhist group in Seattle that advocates for the homeless. “It takes an effort to keep the lights on, and people don’t have a lot left over for the big picture of mahasangha, the greater community.”

Northwest Dharma Association seeks to bridge multiple differences—in some cases what seem to be canyons—between various manifestations of the Buddha’s teachings in the region. And it is a large region, stretching almost 2,800 miles from Anchorage, Alaska, south to Medford, Oregon. 

One of the largest divides is that between groups mostly made up of Western converts and those primarily comprising Asian immigrants. In fact, the U.S. Pacific Northwest and Western Canada are peppered with monasteries and temples established by incoming Asian Buddhists. Northwest Dharma Association has played a crucial role in bringing the region’s Western and Asian dharma groups into contact with each other, said Jason Wirth, a professor of philosophy at Seattle University who also codirects a Buddhist group there.

Wirth said he’s been very impressed by the depth of connections between Western and Asian sanghas in the Seattle area, something he doesn’t see elsewhere in the United States on his travels.

“These two ships pass in the night,” said Wirth. “Unless there are some mechanisms in place to bring them together, how else will they be in contact at all?”

Two Asian-born Buddhist leaders in the Seattle area very much agree.

Reverend Taijo Imanaka, head priest of the Seattle Koyasan Buddhist Temple in Seattle, said that NWDA had been a crucial factor in his campaign to attract Western people to his temple.

“Thanks to Northwest Dharma Association, we as a Buddhist temple originally from Japan now have plenty of opportunities to encounter Buddhist groups and temples from other cultures, other countries, including Western Buddhist groups,” he said. “I deeply appreciate the role Northwest Dharma Association plays for us.”

In recent years the events sponsored by NWDA to bring Asian and Western Buddhist practitioners together have included multiday sangha celebrations of Vesak (the Buddha’s birthday) and periodic meetings of teachers from various communities. The latter even connects Buddhist leaders from across the U.S.-Canadian border, who otherwise might not meet one another.

“I have appreciated coming to Seattle to Northwest Dharma teachers’ meetings,” said Eshin Hoju Godfrey, guiding teacher of Zen Centre of Vancouver, British Columbia. “A lot of online forums and get-togethers are pale imitations of people connecting face to face.”

Master Nguyen An, abbot of Seattle’s Colam Temple (right) and Master Kim Lee (left) lead a Vesak procession, 2013

Similar praise has been voiced by Ajahn Ritthi Thirajitto, the Thai abbot of Atammayatarama Buddhist Monastery north of Seattle. “I think the teachers’ meeting is very good,” he said. “I love it.”

Indeed, arranging unique multi-sangha programs and events that individual sanghas are unlikely or unable to provide has become a key role for NWDA. As Executive Director Draffan noted, “The events we’re trying to plan now are giving teachers the skills and support that they’re not going to get otherwise. For instance, Buddhist chaplains have particular challenges in hospital and prison systems and military institutions, and they’re not going to get Buddhist training for their work from their employers.”

As examples of these cross-tradition activities, a daylong contemplative care workshop was held in Seattle in 2016, and this year Northwest Dharma is planning a Buddhist Recovery Summit to address addiction issues, cosponsored by the Buddhist Recovery Network and other organizations.

In 2014, “The Arts as Buddhist Practice,” a daylong festival held in both Seattle and Portland, attracted a wide range of Buddhist performers and artists from the Asian immigrant and Western convert sanghas in each city. The events pulled in a strong attendance by practicing Buddhists as well as many others in the community.

“With the immense variation in its offerings, it was one of the most culturally complex events I’ve been to in Seattle, and everyone was happy about it,” said Professor Wirth. “I think the relationships that were built were significant. Sharing practice, sharing arts, and sharing the fruits of practice—that was a beautiful thing.”

The NWDA website (northwestdharma.org) is another unique offering, carefully crafted to help people connect with Buddhist resources across the region, and to knit together Buddhist groups. The website focuses on three areas: a listing of all the member groups, with descriptions, website links, and contact information; a continually updated events calendar that member group representatives can log into and edit; and a quarterly online Buddhist news publication, Northwest Dharma News. The latter’s vision is to cover current events from Asian and Western groups across the Buddhist community spectrum and from both sides of the Canadian border. The publication also covers Buddhists who are activists, as well as those involved in human services work.

“The newsletter seems like a really vital thing, in one way one of the most vibrant parts of the organization,” said Anita Feng of Blue Heron in Seattle. “We hear about each other, and it keeps us in each other’s consciousness.”

In Portland, Tibetan Buddhist teacher Jacqueline Mandell remarked that the publication helps to lace together the community, like a small-town newspaper. “It would have taken a lot more effort to get to know one another [without it],” she said. “Having a way to link together has been very helpful.”

The directory also functions as a one-stop shop for people seeking Buddhist practice groups. “I refer people to it a lot,” said Dr. Trout in Seattle. “Every week people talk to me about ‘How do I find a Buddhist group?’ I think the directory is a great way to engage people who are starting an exploration in meditation or dharma.”

Here’s the tricky part: While people are almost unanimously appreciative of the contributions Northwest Dharma Association has been making over the years, that praise doesn’t easily translate into financial or organizational support.

“Our situation is perilous. It’s always, ‘Do we have enough money? How many more months can we survive?’” said Timothy O’Brien, for years the organization’s sole paid staffer, now its administrative director. In 2000 NWDA formalized itself as a membership organization and clarified the roles of member groups. One of those roles is to contribute financially, but as of 2016 only about half the member groups are doing so. The organization also recently introduced an initiative, the “Mahasangha Mala,” to bring in individual donors; so far the group consists of 35 people who donate $9 a month each. Now NWDA is beginning to seek foundation funding.

O’Brien noted that one of the issues is how many people feel they’re Buddhist but practice without a sangha. Another is the degree to which people are accustomed to getting free information from the Internet. “Our news is distributed globally, people read it like crazy, but they’re not convinced they should pay for it,” O’Brien said. “We operate on a shoestring.”

Another problem is that when people join sanghas, they tend to focus most of their energy and dollars on those sanghas, said Tim Tapping, NWDA’s board president (who is also a software engineer at the travel site Expedia).

Northwest Dharma is “out on the edge” of organizational giving, he added. “People don’t get a tangible sense of benefit from being around the larger community,” Tapping said. “They think it’s a good idea, but it’s harder to wrap their intention and motivation around it.”

Reverend Imanaka of Seattle’s Koyasan temple noted that part of the problem might be how many temples, like his, are struggling to survive at all. The interests of third-generation Japanese in the Northwest have turned away from supporting traditional temples, leaving his temple stretched to pay the bills. “It sounds selfish, I have to admit, but the management of each small temple itself is already very tough,” he said. “First our temple has to survive; then we can do more to contribute to mahasangha.”

Professor Wirth also acknowledges the pressures, adding that supporting Northwest Dharma Association “asks you to be a really deep Buddhist, because you have to support something that’s not part of your own tradition,” he said. “We tend to take care of our house, not our neighborhood.”

New York’s Buddhist Council president Nakagaki agrees; indeed, he considers it essential that Buddhists become part of the national discourse, especially at a time when religious tolerance is arguably being undermined by the current U.S. administration. “Since we’re talking about interconnectedness, we should share our thoughts and values with other communities,” he said. “I think it’s important for Buddhists in this country to be more influential, to be recognized.”

In Seattle, Northwest Dharma Association is led primarily by a small cadre of leaders in their fifties and sixties who fervently believe it’s time to give the keys to a younger generation, but don’t yet see the path to accomplish that.

“Handing the organization to the next generation is the key thing that has to happen, which means seriously building capacity,” O’Brien said. “We’re getting old and can’t do this forever.”

Yet the organization must be preserved somehow, Wirth said.

“It’s worth fighting for,” he said. “If it were lost it would be an enormous loss, a deep failing in all of our practices.”

Look no further than the strong bonds between Northwest Buddhist groups to see why the organization matters for the future, said Portland teacher Mandell.

“There’s truly great harmony between Buddhist groups in the Pacific Northwest,” she said. “Years have been spent connecting groups, and all of that attention to the connection has paid off.” 

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