I decided to explore my birthplace and research how Buddhism has taken root in Nashville, TN. Growing up in the suburbs of Nashville, I had no knowledge of any forms of Buddhism, let alone that there were even schisms within the religion, so I was curious what opportunities I missed to be exposed to Buddhist philosophies. I was surprised to find that there are actually a few Buddhist communities in and around the city, but I decided on One Dharma Nashville as the focus of my report. I contacted them via email, but unfortunately, they never responded, so this report is based on their impressive online presence.
The founder of One Dharma Nashville is Lisa Ernst who has practiced Vipassana and Zen meditation for twenty-five years. She was taught and given teaching authorization in the Thai Forest lineage of Ajahn Chah, Jack Kornfield, and Trudy Goodman. Jack Kornfield and Trudy Goodman are American PhD psychologists that have both trained under Zen and Theravada Buddhist masters. They have both been heavily influenced by Buddhism and have heavily influenced Buddhism in America, including being a founder of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy and InsightLA by Goodman, being a cofounder of Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts by Kornfield, and leading retreats at Spirit Rock Center in Woodacre, California by both. Lisa Ernst is now also a retreat leader at Spirit Rock Center and is the primary teacher for most of the classes at One Dharma Nashville which is a sister institute to InsightLA. Her other career is in the visual arts which is influenced by her experience with Buddhism.
One Dharma Nashville’s purpose is to make Buddhism accessible to any who it may interest and to develop a hardy and passionate base of practitioners in the Nashville and larger Middle Tennessee area. They hope to share their knowledge of meditation and Buddhist philosophies to any person who may benefit from its influence. One Dharma Nashville consider themselves an integrated Buddhist meditation and study community borrowing meditation practices along with adapted philosophies of the Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan traditions which they describe as once being geographically segregated in the East and now being digested concurrently by a western audience. The hope is to construct a modern Sangha on the foundation of lovingkindness, compassion, mindfulness, and other virtues sprouting from the discourse of the Buddha’s teachings. The community is open to those of all experience levels from those who immigrated directly from the source to those, like me when I was younger, who know little to none of the practices that are developed by Buddhist monks and practitioners.
Although much of their Sangha seems to consist of laypeople, this community places a heavy emphasis on meditation which is a historically monastic practice. Like other western Buddhist centers formed in the United States, One Dharma Nashville seems to focus more on the use of meditation as a way to diminish ailments in this life rather than as a tool for escape from samsara. Whereas forms of Eastern Buddhism take refuge in the three jewels of Buddhism, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, this Buddhist group uses the metaphor of a tripod to aim their mindfulness practice. The metaphor says that the three legs, meditation, mindfulness in daily life, and sangha practice create balance in one’s own practice and life.
The meditation leg assigns importance to reserving time each day to retreat from the chaos of modern life to meditate for ten to thirty minutes. It is pointed out that this is only one to two percent of the day and that if you do not have time for this then you are probably prioritizing other things such as television or social media. It is encouraged to recognize any thought that may appear in your consciousness, being aware of both the good and the bad and facing them with a compassionate heart. They believe this is the way to transform one’s life for the better. They then go on to emphasize the importance of taking retreats for committed practitioners and how extended time in meditation is the way to see past the fog of everyday life into deeper parts of oneself. They back this up with testimonials from a long-time member, the leader of the community, Lisa Ernst, and her teacher, Trudy Goodman. It seems that rather than the traditional goal of dissociating from the self and physical world, this form of meditation seeks a deeper connection to their hearts and minds. They strive to better understand their self through meditation and hope to use meditation to face problems that are avoided in everyday life. It may not exactly align with the original practice of Buddhism; however, self-enlightenment rather than ultimate enlightenment is something that is digestible through a western lens as it promotes self-improvement which is already a massive industry in America.
The next leg of their three-pronged philosophy is the goal of mindfulness in everyday action. They first explain that meditation and mindfulness are not synonymous, which can be a common mistake in today’s society, and go on to explain that what is learned in seated practice should be integrated into every day life. Mindfulness of the body is promoted as a method of connection with the moment and a way to not be swept up in the rapid pace of life. The body is said to be an anchor which can be used to create awareness in whatever environment you may find yourself. They directly reference the Buddha and quote him saying that mindfulness of the body is a path to enlightenment. This is interesting because as discussed above the forms of enlightenment sought after by the Buddha and One Dharma Nashville seem to be misaligned; however, this does most likely give them more credence with those already interested in Buddhism coming into the community and it seems that the same means can lead to these differing goals. It is also possible that one goal may lead to interest in the other so perhaps for some in the Sangha it could lead to a vehicle for ultimate enlightenment.
The final leg balancing this tripod mirrors one of the three jewels of Buddhism, the Sangha. They talk about how Sangha opens an opportunity to examine their biases and aversions and find ways to help the wider community around them by practicing compassion. It is claimed that practicing meditation together also permeates the room with a visceral energy of concentration that makes it possible to deepen each member’s individual practice. They go on to reference Seung Sahn, a revered Korean Zen teacher, who compared the Sangha versus individual practice and cleaning potatoes one at a time versus all at once in a pot. It is acceptable to clean them one at a time, but by stirring them together in a pot of water they will collide, helping clean each other and smoothing any rough spots making the process more efficient and rewarding.
These aims are furthered by the dharma talks done by Lisa Ernst at the end of each meditation meeting. She uses tales of Buddhist masters and interprets them as parables in order to extract some value or virtue that can be applied to the lives of her followers. One example is the story of the Tibetan yogi Milarepa where in the traditional interpretation he sings songs of praise to demons of the cave he stays in and then literally climbs into the hungry mouth of the final demon showing no concern to his physical form, but Lisa interprets these demons as his inner demons. She says that the story tells us not to run away from our inner demons but rather to embrace them because this is the actual cure. She ties this in to lovingkindness saying that if you are not prepared to show it to your demons, start with yourself and then gradually you will open up to the idea.
For those interested in hearing these lessons she offers introduction classes on Saturdays which begins with a lesson on meditation and mindfulness and ends in a short meditation practice. There are also meditation nights every Monday for whoever wants to come that which consists of sitting meditation, walking meditation, and then a short question and answer led by Lisa Ernst. One Dharma Nashville also offers more advanced classes some Thursday nights and you can even sign up for Mindfulness Meditation Facilitator training if you are already an experienced meditator. These meditation meeting are free of charge; however, there is a suggested minimum donation of ten to fifteen dollars. Signing up for a retreat or workshop which can be anywhere from a half day up to ten days is associated with a cost from what seems to be generally around fifty to one hundred dollars with the much longer retreats most likely coming with a greater cost. These can be paid for by check or Paypal.
It is interesting to see how Buddhism has been adapted to a modern, western audience. There is even a retreat focused around getting a good, Buddhist start to the new year, reminiscent of gyms who recruit those trying to be a better version of themselves each January. The use of Paypal to have a monthly donation automatically set up is another instance of modernization with the use of technology to ensure a successful Sangha. The most blatant change of course being the complete adaptation of the religion in order for it to appeal to western ideas of self-improvement and the shifting away from the spiritualism and leaning into the more rational domain of Buddhism. Buddhism has changed drastically as it has migrated around the globe, but in almost all instances it has promoted the betterment of the society that is built around it, putting good karma into the world, whether the practitioners believe in it or not.
Their Site: https://onedharmanashville.com/