A place of calm

Local Buddhist faces fear and opens Sky Creek Dharma Center

IN THE MOMENT<br>Jasper Lerch, one of the founding members of the Dharma Center, is the bell ringer—he helps with timing—during a meditation meeting of the Slowly Ripening sangha.

Jasper Lerch, one of the founding members of the Dharma Center, is the bell ringer—he helps with timing—during a meditation meeting of the Slowly Ripening sangha.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Sky Creek Dharma Center
120 Three Oaks Court
From Chico, go north on Cohasset Road, and turn left on Ryan (the next street after the entrance to the airport). Take a right on Marauder, and turn left on Three Oaks Court. The center is at the end of the street.
Phone: 893-8088.

Be helpless, dumbfounded,
Unable to say yes or no.
Then a stretcher will come from grace
to gather us up.

So let us rather not be sure of anything,
Besides ourselves, and only that, so
Miraculous beings come running to help.
—from “Zero Circle,” Rumi

The idea of starting a dharma, or teaching, center was something that Amos Clifford had been mulling over for a long time. He hesitated to take the risk until he read a poem by 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi.

Clifford speaks calmly and from a deep place inside himself, likely the result of his 16 years of meditation practice.

“The Rumi poem spoke to me about the tension between faith and fear,” Clifford explained in his typically thoughtful and unpretentious fashion.

In the months prior to starting the new Sky Creek Dharma Center in January (dharma is the Sanskrit word meaning “the teachings of the Buddha that lead to enlightenment"), Clifford—a single parent who also owns a business that makes software for schools and nonprofit agencies—had also been engaged in an ongoing conversation with himself, and with his mentor, widely known local Zen Buddhist Lin Jensen, “about what would be a deeply meaningful way to live.”

But it was Rumi’s poem “Zero Circle” that helped him decide to take on the considerable job of head facilitator and live-in caretaker (with his 16-year-old daughter, Jamie) of the dharma center—a 3,000-square-foot home north of Chico on spacious grounds next to Mud Creek, which this time of year is rushing right along. In addition to Clifford’s living space, it has a large, well-equipped kitchen and, next to that, a former living room with vaulted, beamed ceilings, a large brick fireplace, hardwood flooring and windows looking out on the back yard. This is the meditation hall.

Since Clifford decided to take the risk, things have fallen into place nicely. After one prospective facility fell through, he found the current one, which is just far enough from Chico’s traffic and noise to create a sense of being a genuine retreat center but close enough to reach quickly. And the house’s owner, former Chico Mayor Georgie (Willis) Bellin, has gone to extra lengths to work out a comfortable lease-purchase option arrangement and make needed upgrades to make it liveable.

Such events are “inconceivable” when someone is afraid to take the risk, Clifford said, but “when they occur, they are like the ‘miraculous beings’ in Rumi’s poem. Then we can begin learning how to fall willingly into the unknown with the faith that a ‘stretcher will come from grace to gather us up.’ Rumi encouraged me to take the leap.”

Soon others were jumping on board to help with the center, including Chico State business professor Tracy McDonald, a leader of the local Heart of the Lotus sangha, as well as long-time meditator Jasper Lerch. Another founding member of the center, Lerch leads the early-morning meditation and is responsible for extensively refinishing the floor in the center’s meditation room.

Along with Clifford, McDonald and Lerch are on the steering committee that, among other things, is moving the center toward becoming a nonprofit.

MEDITATION ROOM<br />Slowly Ripening, which follows the teachings of Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, meets once a week at the Dharma Center.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Clifford, sitting on a meditation cushion in the peaceful meditation hall, made reference to the local Buddhist sanghas, or practice groups, that each practice Buddhism from a different tradition. Slowly Ripening follows the teachings of Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh; Heart of the Lotus follows the Vipassana tradition; and Chico Zen Sangha is in a Japanese Soto Zen tradition. All are respectful of the others, and there are some people, Clifford among them, who attend two or more of them.

“The vision is that they will all share the use of this place,” Clifford offered. “In Chico, there are at least five established Buddhist groups, and they have all historically been without a home. … We have groups ‘testing’ this place: Does it feel right to them?”

For at least 15 years, sanghas have met in living rooms, churches, yoga centers, anywhere they can find a home base, but never before has there been what amounts to a Buddhist community center that offers a permanent place for groups to meet on a regular basis and where their cushions, bells and books—and the spiritual energy they bring into the room—can remain 24-7.

McDonald’s sangha, following Slowly Ripening, is “99.9 percent sure” at this point that it will make the move to the Dharma Center as its regular meeting place.

Clifford and others are looking to purchase the center when the lease runs out next spring. It won’t be cheap, but Clifford said donations, fundraising events and renting out the space will go toward the purchase.

RESIDENT BUDDHIST<br />Amos Clifford is the Dharma Center’s live-in caretaker, but he insists that the center is less his home and more a center for everyone.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Like Clifford, McDonald hopes other sanghas in town will move over to the center. She speaks of the center’s providing a ‘larger sense of community for Buddhist practice” in this area. She is excited for the center to host events such as retreats, weddings, bar mitzvahs, even ‘house concerts"—events that may not necessarily be Buddhist but will ‘help to keep the space sacred.”

Past events have included a Tibetan bells house concert and a retreat led by John Travis, a widely known Vipassana teacher of the Bay Area’s Spirit Rock Meditation Center, who is also McDonald’s teacher.

Clifford also hopes to start a meditation group for younger people. He said he’s observed people in their 20s often leaving a sangha and never returning after they sit with what is almost always a group of people twice their age.

“It’s a common experience,” Clifford observed. “People are interested in meditation, and they don’t know where to go.” The dharma center encourages people of all ages, with or without meditation experience, to sit with one of the groups that meet there on a regular basis.

Lerch agrees with Clifford.

“The center is a place to practice [meditation] with like-minded people,” Lerch observed with a calm smile. “There’s a power in practicing with other people. … It’s like playing with a band. There’s a collective energy, an ecstatic joy … like five motorcycles riding together down the road.”