A sense of zen in spreading in Williamsburg with a newly formed Buddhist meditation group, the Williamsburg Buddhist Sangha.
“Christianity is a part of American culture, but that’s not the case with Buddhism,” said Ben Thacker-Gwaltney, vice president of the Williamsburg Buddhist Sangha. “Especially in Williamsburg.”
Sangha is a Pali word meaning people who elect to be members of a group with similar interests for fellowship, Buddhist teachings and exchange, according to Lynn Hosegood, a local artist who is the group’s president.
Regular meditation groups have been around in Williamsburg for about the past 10 years, according to Thacker-Gwaltney.
Meditation groups are led by an instructor, but if that instructor leaves, the others have no guidance, said Thacker-Gwaltney. Because it’s so difficult to find instructors with an understanding of Buddhism, Thacker-Gwaltney and his fellow teachers decided it was time to form a larger community.
The Williamsburg Buddhist Sangha combined smaller meditation groups into one with approximately 50 members, according to Thacker-Gwaltney.
“I think humans are hardwired to be social,” Thacker-Gwaltney said. “We tend to pick up new hobbies through a community of people and religion is no different.”
A community-centered group for meditation is important, according to Thacker-Gwaltney. Beginning meditation can be a challenge for those who’ve never tried it, and it helps to have support and guidance, he said.
Even after 16 years of practicing meditation, Thacker-Gwaltney said he still needs a group to help him.
Thacker-Gwaltney has a background in religious studies. But he didn’t become interested in Buddhism and meditation until his doctor told him meditation could improve his physical and mental health. After trying the practice for a while, he found it made him calmer and kinder.
When he came to Williamsburg 10 years ago, though, he found there weren’t a lot of resources to help him continue his practice.
“The biggest challenge is that Buddhism is pretty new to this area,” Thacker-Gwaltney said. “There are very few teachers, and I have always missed having a more experienced teacher that I could look to for guidance. That’s hard to come by in Williamsburg.”
After meeting with a few people in the area who’d started meditation groups, Thacker-Gwaltney started studying to become a leader himself.
The small meditation group that Thacker-Gwaltney leads has grown over the past 10 years and now meets regularly on Monday nights at various locations, including Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists on Ironbound Road
The new group will hold different events with guest speakers, educational opportunities and regular meditation meetings.
Each meeting has three parts, beginning with a 10-15 minute session of silent meditation.
Sometimes these sessions can be guided through the spoken word, but they can also be an individual meditation session within a group, according to Thacker-Gwaltney.
Next, is the Dharma talk.
Dharma is a word meaning “Buddhist teachings,” according to Hosegood. These talks can also last around 10 to 15 minutes and Thacker-Gwaltney compares them to a less formal version of a sermon.
For this aspect of the meeting, leaders need to understand Buddhist teachings and be able to convey them, according to Thacker-Gwaltney.
The final portion is a reflection time, which includes discussion among group members.
The group held its first meeting on March 18 and is preparing for its first event, which will be a talk by Bhikkhu Jayasara, from The Bhavana Society in West Virginia. The gathering will be at the Williamsburg Regional Library Theater on June 2.
One goal of the newly formed group is to provide training sessions for teachers, in order to share skills and knowledge and provide better meetings for students, according to Thacker-Gwaltney.
“We are amateurs,” he said. “And the downside of that is that nobody has the professional training. But the upside is that we really share in the duties.”