Heart of the Treasure Valley: Ancient wisdom taught with modern awareness

kjones@idahostatesman.comJanuary 12, 2014 

Six years ago, Dana Marsh was ordained as a Buddhist teacher, but her focus is on the teachings, not so much the cultural trappings. “The important part is the practice transforming you. Are you more compassionate, kind? Do you have some equanimity in your life? Is there some joy, some love?” she says.

KATHERINE JONES — kjones@idahostatesman.com

  • COMPASSION AND INSIGHT CORP.

    The CIC is still in its infancy. It is a secular nonprofit that hopes to be an incubator for compassionate activities and provide tools for life. Some of the programs are:

    Æ Mindfulness training.

    Dana Marsh: “We don’t really teach kids how to live. We teach them how to make money. We teach kids how to be academically sufficient; we don’t teach them how to be happy, how to cope with stress, how to cope with life’s challenges.”

    Volunteers have been trained in mindfulness and are planning to offer programs at the center and in schools.

    Æ Toolbox Project

    This program teaches 12 tools for children to use, such as a breathing tool, listening tool, empathy tool — and the garbage can tool.

    “(For example), you had an argument with somebody or somebody may have hurt your feelings earlier in the day — let’s just throw that in the trash. Let’s just let that go, and kids really identify with that.”

    Æ Compassionate Boise

    This in-the-planning-stages program would gather input from the larger community about compassionate acts they’re involved in, with a goal of inspiring others to act compassionately. Ultimately, Boise could be designated as part of a worldwide effort.

    “There’s a lot of compassionate acts that are already happening here in Boise, but I don’t think you can have too much compassion. I think we can all find something else to do to be of benefit to other people, even if it’s as simple as picking up trash so that other people don’t have to view the mess, or smiling at the cashier, or being open-hearted when somebody doesn’t treat us well.”

    Æ Interested? Want more information? Check out compassioninsight.org or link to it through IdahoStatesman.com/heart.

In the back of the room, a crowd mingles quietly, talking softly and sipping tea in paper cups.

A volunteer checks the time, and the sound of a bell resonates through the murmur. Conversations taper as people make their way to seats and meditation cushions.

The focal point in the front of the room is Dana Marsh, who sits quietly beneath an image of Prajnaparamita, an embodiment of transcendent wisdom. Dana’s eyes are closed, her hands settled in her lap. Bringing her palms together, she recites a prayer in Tibetan, under her breath and mostly to herself. It’s the only sound in the silence.

She says: “It’s a prayer, I pray … that I teach the truth and that I benefit beings. That I let myself go, my ego go, and just be here to give people the dharma, the teaching of the Buddha. ...

“It’s my system to let go of myself, to be aware.”

Dana is an ordained Buddhist teacher, and in the Buddhist tradition, that makes her part of a teaching lineage extending back to and from the Buddha.

“They say without a teacher, you can’t wake up. I don’t know if this is true or not, but this is what is said. Because, you know, the mind is really tricky and the ego is really tricky. You need somebody to point out the path and help you when the path is unfamiliar. ...

“Like, you know, a guide in Africa is important.”

Her teachings resonate. Simple, clear, direct, she teaches ancient wisdom to a contemporary culture.

“Compassion and love. That’s who we are. If we stop and sit for a while and let everything go, that’s really what remains.

“That will be our experience, this openness to life. If you’re open to life, then you’re compassionate and loving.”

And, she continues, if you’re around people who embody those qualities, you respond to it.

“We just cry. Because you recognize it within yourself. It’s not because they’re so awesome, it’s because they are allowing you to recognize (the compassion and love) within yourself. ...

“You can’t see things if they aren’t in you. But sometimes there’s a lot that obscures us from seeing this. A lot — but with practice, with good fortune, we can see it.”

Dana has had a variety of careers over her lifetime (running the tubing rental shop at Barber Park, managing a Middle Fork rafting company, being a flight attendant), but teaching runs through her soul. She taught criminal justice and sociology at Boise State and the College of Western Idaho (“I’ve always had a care of some kind for the underdog, people who are challenged by life,” she says.), and then became a special education teacher, first at Boise’s alternative high school and, currently, at Capital High.

“Kids have a lot to teach us if we are just open to hearing it in the first place. Generally, if we hang around kids for a little bit, we’ll learn something about ourselves. But wow, sometimes they can be very challenging. …

“In my classroom, I try to … give kids some tools for life. Sometimes we’ll stop and spend some time breathing — just give them some instruction on how to pay attention to their breath — just stop. Sometimes we’ll just check in with ourselves. How are we doing here? What do we feel like?”

Those are lessons for everyone, Buddhist or not. When Dana was ordained in 2008, she founded Heart of the Dharma, where she is the teacher.

“People misunderstand (what it is to be a Buddhist) all the time. … It’s about being nobody, which means to let go of one’s ego. We’re not trying to become something special, like ‘be a Buddhist,’ because to be a true Buddhist is to be nobody. …

“We don’t need another belief system, in my book, so we can say, ‘Oh look, I am this,’ and then we behave atrociously. It’s much better if we just take the teachings into our heart, try to put them into action in our everyday lives — and that’s good enough. We don’t have to call ourselves anything.”

It’s hard to imagine that this self-assured teacher was not always this way, but her childhood was difficult and lonely. “I wanted a cow to be a horse,” she says, describing the relationship — albeit loving — with her father when she was growing up.

“Since then, I’ve realized my dad was my greatest teacher. … If it wasn’t for my father, I wouldn’t be a dharma teacher. I don’t think I would have met with this path; I don’t know, who knows? … But now I feel like, wow, he was really a blessing to me. He gave me just what I needed.”

Although it didn’t feel like it at the time — he was gruff; she was sensitive. He loved her, but not in the way she craved.

“I kept looking for something, seeking for something, wanting freedom from my own suffering — this mental state of ‘I’m not good enough, I don’t have what I need.’ I felt like I had this hole inside of me that couldn’t be filled.”

She’s now 55, but in her 40s and searching, she took a weekend retreat with Tibetan lama Anam Thubten Rinpoche, who remains her teacher. (His Dharmata Foundation is in San Francisco’s Bay Area.) “I practiced, practiced,” she says, and eventually, as he suggested, turned her meditative attention to that “hole.” (Her father was fighting leukemia at the time.)

“As soon as I placed my attention on it, it left. I discovered this insight: I never had this problem, there never was a hole. There was never anything that needed to be filled. I’d been complete all along; I just had to realize that for myself. … All I had to do was stop identifying with this sense of lack. …

“I’m sitting, doing nothing, watching my breath — and life is transforming.”

Laughter comes easily to her, and she smiles. “This (was) really quite amazing. So I kept at it.”

Dana sits in meditation every day for 20 minutes in the morning before school and 20 minutes in the evening. She goes on retreats two or three times a year and, during the day, tries to pay attention to her thoughts.

“Where are they leading me? And do I really want to go there? Because I’ve discovered I have a choice about where I want my mind to go.

“I don’t always make the best choice. (There’s that laughter again.)

“I get hooked by a thought — ‘This is too much’ or ‘Life is falling apart’ or whatever — and then I remember, I can just let that go. I can just come back to the present moment and be with what’s happening right now. That’s so transformative. ...

“When you can make a choice about something … there’s opportunity there for freedom.”

On Sunday mornings and Tuesday evenings, the sangha, the “community,” meets for meditation and teaching. Dana’s talks are sprinkled with the humor of someone who knows human foibles, balanced with the earnestness of her experiences.

“The goal is not to get rid of thought — we are thinkers; this is what we do. But there is a different way to view thoughts … in a ‘rest area,’ in the gap between our thoughts. …

“As we sit in meditation, our mind will think wild thoughts. Just come back to the path, to the breath. Thinking — back to the breath; thinking — come back to awareness. Over and over and over. We’re training our mind to come back to awareness again and again and again.”

She refers to great people from all traditions who have embodied human goodness: Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., Anam Thubten, St. Francis of Assisi, Mother Theresa, Thomas Merton.

“We are amazing human beings, just a little confused. But it’s possible to cut through the confusion — that’s why we meditate.

“It’s a two-way street, this practice. It takes both of us. I can only share and then, as the Buddha said, you have to take the medicine. He can write the prescription but then you’ve got to go out there and fill it. …

“So here’s (the) prescription: ‘Sit in the morning. Sit in the evening. Pause throughout the day.’ You have to take it into your heart for it to be fulfilled.”

She laughs again and bows to the community gathered before her.

“Thank you for your practice.”

Know someone living “from the heart”? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email kjones@idahostatesman.com.

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