Boisean teaches the way of the American Buddhist

by Dana Oland, Idaho Statesman, Jan 20, 2008

Dana Marsh became of one the few ordained Western American Buddhist teachers last month. Now, she's ready to offer her first retreat.

Boise, Idaho (USA) -- "We have the Buddha nature inside all of us," Dana Marsh says, smiling. "We just have to sit and it will uncover. Pay attention and we can recognize it."

She sits across the table sipping hot tea, draped in bright red and creamy white. Her home is comfortably uncluttered but not spartan: a little Zen, but not too much so.

With her broad smile and bare feet, she is the picture of stillness. A naturally cultivated calm radiates from her. It is a calm that once eluded her but now is part of her daily Buddhist practice.

"My whole life has been on a spiritual - quest sounds too New-Age-ish - but journey or path," she says. "Buddhism hit home. It touched my heart and opened me up right away. It wasn't something I was searching for, but I was searching for something, for a meaning to life."

Marsh is a newly ordained Buddhist teacher. It is somewhat rare for a Western woman to become a Buddhist teacher, but it is part of the emerging American Buddhism movement that is highly inclusive and progressive.

Marsh meditates twice a day and meets once a week with the Heart of the Dharma sanga, one of Boise's many Buddhist groups. They meditate and discuss various Buddhist teachings.

Marsh's transition to Buddhism came after her father's death from leukemia and lung cancer.

Going through his death and suffering shook her deeply. She began re-examining everything and exploring new paths. That took her to an aikido class.

Aikido is a defensive marshal art that uses empty space to avert an attacker. That idea of emptiness took some getting used to, but after awhile it became comfortable.

"Emptiness doesn't mean nothingness. It's the great awareness," she says. "Everything arises out of emptiness. Without it there would be no change."

Curious, she tried a weekend retreat with Tibetan lama Anam Thubten Rinpoche, who became her teacher for six years. He runs his Dharmata Foundation in San Francisco's Bay Area, where he lives, but he has been coming to Idaho for many years to teach an emerging school of American Buddhism. It is a take on the practice that seeks to adapt the Eastern philosophy to the Western mindset.

"That means not making it so mysterious and full of mysticism and ritual, but still teaching the heart of what Buddha taught," Marsh says.

The belief in America is that you must work hard to achieve change. We set about a task to fix a thing and when that's done, we come up with a new task.

That's not the way in Buddhism, she says.

"When you're resting in what's called the natural state of mind (during meditation), there is no task to fix. When we strip the concepts and beliefs away, sit and relax, this luminous awareness arises. You realize it was never gone. It was just covered up," Marsh said.

The fact that a new form of Buddhism is emerging is nothing new to the practice, Anam Thubten said.

"If you know the history of Buddhism, it has gone through many changes," he said.

It started in India then kind of died there. Then it was reborn in Tibet and other countries and became something slightly different as it blended with a variety of cultures. Now there are several different schools of Buddhism, from Mahayana to Zen, that put an emphasis on different qualities, from mindfulness to compassion.

This is just one more transition, Anam Thubten said.

American Buddhism puts emphasis on human values, truth, intellectual inquisitiveness and love.

"My goal is to bring Buddhism into the modern world," Anam Thubten said. "Perhaps we will see many Westerners become teachers like Dana. Then you'll find there will be Easterners who will come here to learn it," he said.

Anam Thubten asked Marsh to become a teacher of the dharma (the teachings of Buddha). It wasn't something Marsh sought but he saw that she could touch people's lives and help them relieve their suffering, he said.

"Dana is a good hearted human being, intelligent and inquisitive. She has this free, open mind that is not looking to hold onto any mistaken concepts over reality," he said.

And it is a good fit. Like the approach of American Buddhism, Marsh is down-to-earth and practical.

Put simply, Buddhism is a way of training the mind, Marsh said.

"Some people think Buddhism is a religion. It's not, really. The main point is to get rid of all concepts and beliefs so you can see everything purely and in its natural state," she said.

That natural state is our relaxed essence that shows you that the answers you seek are inside you.

"It's like a dusty mirror. All you have to do is brush the dust off and you find your true nature reflected there," she said.

Marsh wasn't always this calm, she said. A special education teacher at Mountain Cove, the Boise School District's alternative high school, she works with kids with "heartbreaking issues," she said. Add that to raising two children of her own, and it was a recipe for a frequent meltdown.

"I wish my daughter was here to tell you, but I could not handle stress. I would get frustrated very easily when things didn't go the way I thought they would. That would result in tears, frustration and general unhappiness," she said.

When she started meditating, she began to see that she was the one making her life stressful.

"That (realization) gives you the chance to calm your mind, to get in between the thoughts, then you have the choice of how to react," she said. "Buddhism is so simple. Let go of the thoughts, the judgments, the ego. There's really nothing else to do after that. It just takes practice."

Buddhist meditation retreat with Dana Marsh

The Cabin, 801 S. Capitol Blvd., Boise

10 a.m.-5:30 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 26

Free, donations accepted. To register, contact Marissa Keith at 921-4062 or