Buddhism in the Valley

contemplating the local meditation scene

Amanda Schaefer, photos by Jesse Johnson |

Eau Claire’s Buddhist Sangha meets every Tuesday at Yoga Center of Eau Claire for meditation and dharma discussions.

Breathe in (whoo), breathe out (whee) … clear your mind of all …Crap, I hope I remembered to turn my cell phone off.

I’m definitely a novice when it comes to meditation. But there are people in the Chippewa Valley who practice Buddhism regularly and with much more focus.

It’s hard to define what a Buddhist is. There are many different kinds of Buddhism, and various levels of practice. The schools aren’t as rigidly discrete as sects of other religions. Rather, they flow and influence each other. But there are basic precepts that Buddhists follow. They include the detachment from the illusory temporal world, enlightenment through meditation, and compassion for all living things. These, among other teachings attributed to Buddha, are collectively called “dharma,” and a group of Buddhists is called a “sangha.” In Eau Claire, there is a Buddhist sangha that meets every Tuesday night at the Eau Claire Yoga Center on Water Street for meditation and dharma discussions.

The group was started around 15 years ago by Rita Gross, who taught religious studies at UW-Eau Claire at the time. The group includes members of various ages and backgrounds, as well as different Buddhist perspectives. “We all have our own personal Buddhist ‘heroes’ who inspire us – the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn, for instance,” said member Buckley Lot Cloud. The sangha provides a space for practitioners who follow all types of Buddhism to practice and discuss the dharma.

But just what is “practice?” For the Eau Claire Buddhist Sangha, practice includes a mixture of zazen (sitting meditation) and walking meditation, where the group slowly and mindfully walks around the room, breathing evenly with each step. There is a meditation leader who explains how to meditate to any newcomers, and rings a bell (a small brass bowl) to signal the beginning, middle, and end of the meditation. The group then listens to a dharma talk (recorded or from a guest speaker) and discusses it. Outside of their Tuesday night meetings, the group keeps in touch via e-mail and holds various Buddhism-related events and meetings, priding itself on bringing religious diversity to the Chippewa Valley.

Just north of the Chippewa Valley, in Ridgeland, is another Buddhist group. Led by a monk named Yeshe, the group is dedicated to the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, which follows the teachings of the Karmapa, believed to be an emanation of the deity Avolokiteshvara. The current Karmapa is the 17th incarnation of this emanation. Yeshe’s Ridgeland meditation center is connected to the larger Kagyu school through a monastery in Woodstock, NY, where Yeshe visits with other monks and teachers once or twice a year.

Yeshe holds a variety of practices at his center. Along with sitting mindfulness meditation, Tibetan Buddhism incorporates chanting and ritual. “The thing about Tibetan Buddhism is that it always gives you something to do, “Yeshe said. His group has mediations where they chant a ChenRezig (an important Tibetan deity of compassion) and to White Tara (the deity of health and longevity) prayer. The chants, which are always recited in Tibetan, are meant to help all beings free of suffering and the practitioner achieve Buddhahood and ultimate compassion. A certain amount of ritual is incorporated, with the use of musical instruments, as well as the bell and dorje, which are small metal objects that are important symbols in Tibetan Buddhism. The meditation leader holds these objects in certain positions (mudras) during distinct parts of the meditation.

With the low population density, both groups face the same problem – finding people to join the group. But many are starting to realize the accessibility and benefits of Buddhism, namely “that it helps you let go of your negative thoughts and conflicting emotions,” Yeshe said, at least partially explaining why its popularity is growing in the Chippewa Valley.

    Keep track of the Eau Claire Sangha through its website at EauClaireBuddhistSangha.blogspot.com or every Tuesday at Yoga Center of Eau Claire, 412 Water St. Check out the Hay River center at www.Kagyu.org/kagyulineage/centers/usa/usa-hay.php or every Sunday at 10am, where they practice chen rezi, white tara, and medicine buddha.