Mark Kogan Shawcroft has just started new local group in Bolsover, Derbyshire, after running a group in Sheffield. Recently I simply asked ‘how’s it going?’ Here’s his fascinating account of his first two months with the new group:
It’s going well. Larry and Greg, who used to go to the group in Sheffield, have been coming over every other week due to the distance, which is great as I did not think they would. Also a guy called Chris who used to sit with us about 5 years ago just turned up out of the blue. There are two local guys who have been coming every week and they seem keen. Also, there have been about 12 people who tried the group out. I am not sure if they will stay or not as it is early days.
We normally do two sittings and then do the Four Vows. Then we discuss something practice related. Last week I played a talk by Sensei and we have started reading the Eye Never Sleeps by Genpo. I am thinking of reading from Genpo every other week as we have a lot of people new to Zen who know nothing of the basics such as Four Noble Truths etc. So I am thinking of having some discussions / readings on form and ritual, the history of Zen, Precepts etc.
Bolsover is an ex mining village and is surrounded by a lot of similar places. It scores very high on deprivation and recently was polled as the unhappiest place to live in England! So maybe there is some real scope for change in this area.
I called the group ‘stonewaterderbyshire’ to try and attract people from nearby villages as the area had a reputation of being very insular and the local pit villages all used to fight each other. In many ways it’s an area that is trying to move forward.
Most of my friends in Sheffield thought that no one would come as this area is seen as very ‘backward thinking’. But that is not true; the people I have met that have come to the group are very honest and open, even when it comes to discussing their own thoughts and vices. They are very practical and aren’t big on bullshit so Zen seems like a good fit. The thing that I suppose is important to me is that we are making a connection and are hopefully becoming friends. When I used to sit in the zen group in the buddhist society in London it was all very rigid and cold and, although the sitting practice was very strong, the feeling of communion with your brothers was weak.
For myself, it’s the battle of keeping the form and keeping the sitting focused but also allowing enough freedom so that people can express themselves; I feel that creating a space of acceptance and understanding is also very important. I am thinking of suggesting that the group, small as it is, goes on a walk one Sunday to give people the chance to get to know each other a bit.
Currently we are just doing the Four Vows but I would like to introduce the heart sutra and bows at the end etc. But I am doing this slowly as sometimes asking new people to take responsibility can make them nervous.
It is going better than I expected and we are becoming a small satellite sangha. It’s early days and I have committed myself to just turn up and sit regardless and see what happens.
One final thing: I got an email from the local parish council who run the hall we use saying it was offering small amounts of funding for local groups. I applied to see if we could have the hall for free for a year to become established. I have had no reply yet but stranger things have happened….
Fingers crossed that Mark is successful in his funding bid. For anyone who is thinking of starting a local group there is so much in this thoughtful piece: how to get the ‘feel’ right for your area,? how to bring in new people yet keep the integrity of the sitting? how much formality and ritual to include? how to build a sangha? and what is the role of the facilitator or convenor? If you are interested in starting a local sitting group, then please get in touch with me as I am the local group contact. We also have a written guide on setting up a local group.