|Midwestern Dhamma Refuge
grounded in contemplative practice
for a peaceful, just, & sustainable society
Greetings from a record cold and snowy December in Norwalk. It's been a year of many changes - giant strides forward in accomplishing some pieces of Liberation Park's mission here, and some sad news and personal challenges for us, LP's current human denizens. Most of you may know that Santikaro is faced with a serious health condition this winter and is currently residing in Rochester, Minnesota to receive treatment. For more on events of the last month or to stay updated on his condition please follow his blog. In our absence we've been gifted with the local writing talent of Joe Orso, who stayed with his wife Adrianne at Liberation Park during the summer of 2009. For this season's newsletter he wrote us a lovely essay that conveys much of our hope and vision for this enchanted and enchanting valley of Dhamma. Joe's essay can be found below.
First a short update with the nitty-gritty of work accomplished for the year: Since our last newsletter we decided to take a leap of faith and give the go ahead to the various trades people to start in with the large project of placing utility infrastructure near the cabin and future community building. With generous help from all over, but especially from the Chicagoland area, we were able to come out the other side of our leap in fairly good shape and without accruing more debt - except one of deep gratitude to friend Bill DeRonne for his work catalysing this, and to every generous soul who made it possible. During August and September Liberation Park saw unprecedented construction. It was more than a little un-nerving to see the serene valley, even just this small portion of it, disturbed in such a way by heavy machinery. We made frequent apologies and sent Mountains of Metta to all the disturbed stones and plants and living creatures and breathed a huge sigh of relief when the last back hoe left and we could start the work of healing. For the record: the process of creating a septic field created the largest disturbance and was also the greatest financial burden. We had researched alternatives to septic fields that we believe are more sustainable, more affordable, and healthier in a myriad of ways, but ultimately were unable to convince the local zoning jurisdictions to be in agreement and even grey water plumbing could not proceed legally without the approved system. Many counties and states are friendly to alternate means of processing human waste and we whole heartedly encourage those in similar situations to consider those alternatives.
With Santi's illness, plans for 2011 are to focus on his healing and recovery. We will tend the valley and meditate a lot. Santi will not be traveling to teach for the forseeable future. Jo Marie and other members of our far flung sangha are making tentative plans to complete the cabin as a sanctuary of healing for Santi to return to. The good news is his appetite for talking Dhamma never seems to fail him, and he will be captive here with us at LP this year after returning from Mayo, so come by for a visit and some tea when he returns!
HUGE gratitude for all the well wishes, metta, prayer circles, ceremonies and gifts of dana that have arrived to see us through this time. Our hearts are particularly gladdened by our amazing families and close friends who are are in constant contact and are flying in from all over, in rotation, to be here with us and see us through. We are ever so humbled, grateful and renewed.
This tree at Liberation Park is like a gate.
It stands on the natural border of trees and bush that separate the front part of the land from the back part. As Santikaro explained when I first visited several years ago, the border loosely marks a shift from the more active region of LP into the quieter region.
On the front half of the 70-acre refuge is the barn, the shed, the tents, the cabin, the horses and the picnic table where people gather to eat. On the back half, on the other side of the tree line, the meadow of wild grasses, the stream, the surrounding woods and the absence of permanent human structures make a place where nature reigns.
I have come to feel an affection for this tree on the border, and I would like to tell a little about how she has been woven into my spiritual path.
A Dogwood, she lives just off the grassy path that leads visitors from the front of LP to the back. Her trunk shoots straight up so that you don't notice the high branches unless you stand at a distance. When my wife and I lived part-time at LP two summers ago, the tree became a kind of gate for us. We would often be returning to LP after several days of work and activity in the city of La Crosse. As we walked past the shed and tents and toward our temporary tipi home, backpacks and busyness would be weighing on our bodies. And then we would arrive at the tree and find ourselves becoming silent.
In front of us, the path opened up to a meadow where we knew skunks, deer, bats, owls and sweet mint lived, and where the two apple trees in the middle of the meadow reminded us of a vision of paradise. Pausing there, quieted by the space, we would take turns visiting the gate tree. Sometimes we would leave flowers in her bark. Other times we would just touch her with our hands or foreheads. After a couple minutes, we would continue walking.
We never talked about this. It just happened most times we came to the spot. But thinking about it now, I see what the tree did was to slow us. Our relationship with her became a reminder not to barrel across this land as if it were concrete, or as if we were the only beings present, but instead to be received by the land, to take note of the creatures, plants and air and to respectfully walk among them, not at them.
For my wife and I, neither of whom are Buddhists, this tree is just one example of the plants and creatures of Liberation Park who have been teachers in our effort to become re-inhabited by nature. On those 70 acres in Norwalk, Wis., we have also encountered the friendliness of skunks, begun a practice of foraging for wild food, fallen asleep to owls outside the tipi and once to a bat inside, and realized there is a difference between learning about the land and learning from the land.
As we pursue a two-part path of contemplative practice and reintegration with nature, the marriage of these two at LP makes the place an anchor for us. The land and creatures, the support of Santikaro and Jo Marie, and the friendship of other people we have met wandering the land there offer a sense of deep spiritual companionship in our consciousness. I imagine life without this place, and imagine a life more adrift and lonely in spiritual pursuits.
But at the same time, Liberation Park plays another role. While it anchors, molds, challenges and nurtures our individual journeys, I am beginning to see it doing the same in the larger community context.
I have written for a local newspaper for the past five years. The job has given me the opportunity to interview people who are pioneers in a burgeoning land movement. Through this, I have come to believe the Driftless Region where LP is situated Southwest Wisconsin, Southeast Minnesota, Northeast Iowa, Northwest Illinois is at the forefront of an emerging land-based culture that offers different experiences and values than the mainstream.
The Driftless is home to one of the strongest, if not the strongest, organic farming regions in the country. It is home to Organic Valley, as well as multiple Amish communities. Alternative education models have flourished here for decades. A folk school is getting stronger each year. Co-ops are the norm. Conservation institutions are strong. Individuals from economists to teachers to homesteaders have gained the trust of state and national audiences wanting to better understand environmental issues.
As I explore these people and places, the presence of Liberation Park among them reminds me where the focus of this grassroots culture ought to be. While the practical work of growing better food and developing better food systems or conserving land and integrating people with that land is essential, so is the narrative, philosophical and spiritual work of understanding what we are doing. And in that Liberation Park, along with other spiritual refuges, is an anchor for the larger community. Infused with the teachings of Santikaro and his teachers, the place offers not only a relationship with the earth, but a relationship with wisdom.
In conversations, Santikaro and the networks he is connected to have helped me see the importance of naming our deepest values as we work for social betterment. So while we talk about economics or climate change, we also have to talk about love, kindness, health, healing and wholeness. While we work for a transformation in politics, we must also work for a transformation of culture and a transformation of the human heart.
In doing this, our communal efforts become clearly integrated with our individual efforts. And in the midst of the work we do, we become reminded to slow down, observe, and move forward with a clear intention: to be liberated from suffering.
In Dhamma, With Metta,
Santikaro & Jo Marie
Santikaro's Blog for the latest updates on his condition and progress
To view more photos.