Open Heart Practice Groups
Practice Groups are a new initiative which will allow people who don’t have an Open Heart group nearby to set up their own group to study Pemako Buddhism, practice together and slowly grow a local sangha. This always happens with the support of a mentor from the teaching staff.
In order for a group to qualify as an Open Heart Practice Group, the main purpose of the group must be studying and practising Pemako Buddhism, that is Guru Rinpoche's Pure Land Buddhism which affirms the trikaya nature of Buddha, the primacy of taking refuge, and especially by reciting the Guru mantra. In addition the group leader must have at least monthly contact with their teaching staff mentor.
If you’d like to know more and possibly get a mentor, contact Karl Eikrem by email firstname.lastname@example.org
How to start an Open Heart Practice Group
This page will give you some ideas on how to start your own Open Heart Practice Group.
You may feel daunted by the prospect of starting a group from scratch, especially if you are beginning with little experience of Buddhism or of running a group, but with the ongoing support of your mentor and the resources you might be surprised at how you will begin to feel more confident, how much fun it might be, and how much you will gain from the experience.
In order to have access to these resources you will already have contacted Open Heart/Karl Eikrem and been allocated a mentor – if not please do so. This will be an experienced member of Open Heart who will have experience of running groups and, more importantly, will share the culture of Pemako Buddhism. They will take you through the requirements of being a Practice Group Leader and help you with everything. When you’re ready they will help you to decide how you’d like to structure your group and get it up and running. They will help you to infuse your group with Pemako Buddhist spirit, and they will be there to support you as your group changes and grows and as issues arise that need dealing with.
What is an Open Heart Practice Group?
Traditionally, various buddhist groups around the world have all looked quite different. In our school of Buddhism, we are encouraged to adapt to whatever the local population requires. The Dharma has a long history of changing its presentation depending on what conditions it finds itself in. The structure and feeling of your own Practice Group will depend on your past experience and current interests, the kind of population in your local area, what premises are available, how much time you have and many more factors.
What all Open Heart groups have in common is an affiliation to our particular style of Pure Land Buddhism, the teachings of our head teacher Kim Katami and the specific culture of our sangha. This culture includes tantric and nonmeditation (dzogchen) practice, a warm welcoming of new members, a spirit of inclusion, deep and authentic friendships between sangha members, an emphasis on being honest about the reality of our limitations as human beings, and an experience of being supported by our faith in Guru Rinpoche. We encourage Practice Group Leaders and other group members to visit established groups whenever they can (including going on retreats) as a way of soaking up this culture and taking it back to their group.
Three things are necessary for a Practice Group to identify as an Open Heart Practice Group:
Groups are free to study texts from different traditions (both other Buddhist traditions and texts from others faiths and philosophies), but the main focus of the group should be Pemako Buddhism.
Why do people set up new Open Heart Practice Groups?
People start Practice Groups for many reasons. Sometimes this particular form of Buddhism seems to resonate with them (or as we would say, they might feel they have a ‘karmic affinity with Guru Rinpoche’), and they would like to gather a group of people around them who are also interested in learning about Pemako Buddhism and who they can practice with. Sometimes they have met someone who inspires them from this group and they want to receive some of the same teachings and experience that this person has received. Sometimes they are looking for a way of developing a community of like-minded people.
Whatever your reason, we expect that you and your group will find your way together over time, with the support of your mentor and the rest of the Pemako Buddhist sangha. We hope that you will begin to feel like you’re a part of a broader family, who will support you in your Buddhist practice and study. We also hope that the group will become a support and inspiration to those who attend it.
How do I become a Practice Group Leader?
If you’re interested in becoming a Practice Group Leader, the first step is to contact Open Heart and ask for a mentor (which you have probably already done). This mentor will let you know what the requirements are, and lead you through a process of learning more about Pemako Buddhism and your own relationship with Pemako Buddhist teachings.
This learning process includes extensive study of the provided materials (audio, video and text), having at least three sessions with your mentor, and possibly attending another Practice Group or center.
We take this stage slowly for three reasons – to ensure that your group is started with the spirit of Guru Rinpoche's Pure Land Buddhism, to form a strong link between the Practice Group and the broader sangha, and to make sure that you feel fully supported and competent.
How your group might develop
After some time group members may want to undergo a refuge ceremony where they officially take refuge in the five jewels – Guru Rinpoche, Pemako – Guru Rinpoche's Pure Land, Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha. This can be arranged by your mentor.
Group Leaders may or may not be interested in training to become Pemako Buddhist teachers. Individual members may or may not be interested in becoming Members of Pemako Buddhism or in becoming involved in the wider work of the order in other ways. We encourage all those interested in Pemako Buddhism to find their own way in the organisation and different people will come to different levels of commitment to the practice – we are happy for people to either remain loosely connected or to take deeper refuge.
Looking at practicalities
Your mentor will go through these following points with you, but it will be helpful to start doing some thinking and maybe making some notes in advance.
What is your starting position?
Are you inspired by the Pemako Buddhist teachings? Did you meet someone from Open Heart who had something you wanted? What is your history with spiritual practice? What is your history of running or attending groups? What do you hope for in running a group? What are you most afraid of? What will support you in this process?
What kind of group are you interested in running?
Is practice important to you? Study? Socially engaged action? Forming a community spirit in the group? Do you want your group to be informal or structured? Open to anyone or more selective in terms of who attends? How will you ensure that you enjoy attending the group, regardless of how many other people want to join you?
How often will you meet?
This will depend on how much time you have available and how quickly you’d like your group to develop. Monthly or fortnightly groups can take longer to develop than weekly groups, although it can be good to begin meeting less often rather than over-committing to something you will find difficult to maintain. How long would you like the meetings to last? Do you want to enforce a strict ending time or leave it more open? Either is fine – the most important thing is what you feel comfortable with as the Practice Group Leader.
Where will you meet?
Most Practice Groups meet in the home of the Practice Group Leader, or another group member, or move between the homes of members of the group. This keeps things simple and means there’s no need for an outlay of money as the group gets going. It also creates a nice atmosphere as you can welcome people by offering them a hot/cold drink, comfortable seats etc.
Some people begin instead by renting a room in a local church or community centre, or move to this when they run out of space in their home.
If you are hosting the group in your house we’d suggest you make sure that you have a friend with you (even if they don’t attend the meeting but stay elsewhere in the house). You might also want to get a little bit of information from potential new members by email before you give out your phone number or address. If you have a bad feeling, for one reason or the other, about a potential group member, don’t feel embarrassed about asking more questions, getting a second opinion or telling them you don’t feel comfortable about them attending. Generally it’s good to strike a balance between trusting that most people have good intentions and won’t be any trouble, balanced with not taking any unnecessary risks. Do talk to your mentor if you have any worries at all. If you intend to have vulnerable adults or children present, do talk to your mentor about this.
How will you fund the group?
If you meet in your home you might not need much money – just enough to pay for the tea and coffee and maybe print some leaflets or buy some service books. It’s good to encourage group members to think about donating money early on, and you might want to build up a fund which you could use to buy meditation cushions or rent a room at a later stage. In time a trusted group member could look after the group accounts.
Finding new group members
When you’re ready to, start to think about where you might find people who want to join you. You could start by writing a short description of your group and sending it on email to all your contacts, encouraging them to forward it to anyone they know who might be interested. Other options are:
You might have a friend who’s willing to support you by attending the first few meetings with you, whether or not they’re interested in Buddhism. Depending on your location, your mentor or other Open Heart sangha members might be able to attend from time to time.
It is very important not to pressure people into coming along – always make sure your offer is ‘open’ and don’t push it if people say no. This can be an easy trap to fall into if you are receiving great benefits from the practice and you want everyone to feel the same way! We have to accept that our practice will work for some people and not for others – our job as leaders is to help people to find their own way towards deepening their refuge, whether that’s in our group, another spiritual group or in joining an art class.
Sometimes it can take people a long time to decide to come along to their first meeting. They might need to see your advert 6 times before they build up the courage to come, or it might be a year before something in their life changes which makes it possible for them to come. Try not to feel discouraged if your efforts doesn’t seem to be having any effect. You might want to get feedback by asking new people where they heard about you.
Set the first date and make a commitment about how many times you’ll meet
As groups can take a while to take off, it might be helpful if you decide up front how many times you’d like to meet as you give the new group a chance to take off. It can take months of weekly meetings before the first few people ‘stay’, but when it happens others will follow. It might help if you view the meeting time as a chance for you to practice and study, even if you’re the only one who turns up.
There are various reasons for slow growth – it’s easier to join an established group than a small new one, joining a new group can be scary, Pemako practice and philosophy can be more ‘alien’ to people than simple sitting meditation, etc. Try not to take it personally and try to keep an open mind about when people will come along who also form a deep connection with the practice. Use this time at the beginning of your group to continue to deepen your own practice, and hand the rest over to Guru Rinpoche.
Enjoy your first meeting
You might be nervous or self-conscious – that’s okay. Some people will like Pemako practice and some will find other groups or practices that are more suited to them – that’s okay. You might make mistakes – that’s to be expected. The most important bit is turning up and welcoming others – the rest will come with time. We hope you’ll find a way of enjoying the first and subsequent meetings – if you are relaxed and enjoying it, others will pick this feeling up.
Develop a way to communicate with your group
It might be helpful to start a mailing list so you can keep in touch with people who express interest or who come along (always asking for permission before you add them). There are online packages like Mailchimp which allow you to write newsletters for free as long as you have less than a certain number of subscribers. Encourage your members to sign up for our main email newsletter.
Be open to the group growing and changing
There is a balance between keeping your Practice Group focussed on Pemako Buddhist teachings and allowing the group to grow as it wants to grow. When people ask to meet more regularly, consider meeting more regularly. Try to give people responsibility and ownership as soon as you can (i.e. doing the washing up or helping with advertising the group) – people like to be helpful, and it also helps the group to feel more like a community than a class. Keep in touch with your mentor and try to arrange visits to other Pemako groups whenever possible. It is important to give some leadership, but it is also important to give it away when people are ready and willing.
See the whole experience as spiritual practice
See everything that happens as an opportunity to learn about yourself and about the world. Make sure you get support if dilemmas arise, and make space for fun as well as for study and practice. Continue to be guided by Guru Rinpoche and remember that while being a provider, you’re not in charge, the master is!
A final word
Our personal spiritual well-being depends upon the health of the sangha as a whole, and a sangha brings together people with different experience, backgrounds and views. Inevitably there are sometimes clashes of opinion about practice, principles or organisation. That’s life. It happens. If this happens, try not to panic or take it personally, just remember that we are limited beings – we don’t always act with wisdom, patience and compassion and so we can’t expect others to do so either. When things get difficult speak to your mentor and continue your own practice of taking refuge in the Five Jewels.
We have received countless riches through being part of Open Heart. We’ve spent countless hours listening to each other, working on joint projects and practising together in various places, living rooms and gardens. Occasionally we’ve also been through some tough times together yet ultimately this has deepened the sense of fellowship and the feelings of love and fondness we feel for our sangha brothers and sisters. We hope that in time you might come to feel a little bit of this too.