Celebrating silence

All of the retreats share one key commonality: silence.

Silence is a universal language — the language of the spirit. And for 25 years, the Southern Dharma Retreat Center in Hot Springs has been offering people a place to converse with their own souls in that primal tongue.

From the beginning, those visitors have spanned a broad spectrum. Indeed, that diversity, notes Retreat Manager Jason Clark, is part of what makes Southern Dharma a special place. Since its inception, the center has welcomed spiritual seekers of all faiths.

“By 1978, a few meditation centers had popped up, but they were mainly following a guru or teacher,” says Clark. “This was the first one that was independent. It was just started by a couple of ladies who cared about meditation.”

The two ladies in question, Elizabeth Kent and Melinda Guyol, met in the San Francisco area in the late 1970s. Guyol was working on a master’s degree in counseling and psychotherapy; Kent was working on the early issues of Yoga Journal, among other ventures. The pair’s shared Southeastern past helped draw them together (Guyol was born in Knoxville, and Kent hailed from a small town near Pensacola, Fla.). Both heard a call to head back East.

So, armed with Kent’s recent inheritance (which she was determined to put to good use) and a common dream of opening a bookstore, they left the Bay area and began searching for a Southern locale with an alternative flavor and people with a yen for good literature. They burned a trail from Florida to North Carolina, covering 12 cities in two months. But every town they stopped in already had a good bookstore. They also found that the South is really hot in the summer — except, of course, for the mountains around Asheville.

Undaunted, the two women went back to the drawing board, trying to figure out what to do next, and that’s when inspiration hit. Or maybe it was just an idea that had taken root somewhere along the way and now suddenly made sense.

“I’d gone to a lot of retreats in California, and when I moved back [East], that was something I wanted to keep in my life,” Kent explains. “Having had a fairly powerful experience with meditation, we decided to get the land and give it a try.”

Many paths

In December of 1978, the Southern Dharma Foundation became a legal entity; shortly after, Kent and Guyol bought a 135-acre farm on Hap Mountain that became the Southern Dharma Retreat Center.

It was at once a bold and almost whimsical move. “The hint of incongruity in the name “Southern Dharma” amused me,” writes author Sara Jenkins in her book This Side of Nirvana: Memoirs of a Spiritually Challenged Buddhist (Fair Winds Press, 2000). “In the early 1980s, the southeastern U.S. was largely a dharma-free zone, at least in the narrow sense of the word.” Dharma, in Buddhism, refers to spiritual teachings and practice.

And though the retreat center does use Buddhist language — terms like dani (referring to both the donations of teacher time and other charitable donations that keep the place afloat), bodhisattva and vipassana sprinkle the current brochure — the range of retreat offerings reveals a distinctly ecumenical spiritual vison. Visitors to Southern Dharma can choose from Buddhist monk Bhante Yogavacara Rahula‘s “Mindfulness Meditation with Yoga” or “Encounters with Women Mystics,” led by Sister Evelyn Mattern of the Christian Community. Jewish educator Heena Reiter and dancer Latifa Kropf offer “A Contemplative Shabbat Retreat,” and local Zen teacher Teijo Munnich melds East and West with “The Dharma Teachings of Buddha and Christ.”

The idea of including practices of all faiths was there from the beginning, remembers Kent. “The first retreat was in 1982,” she says. “About 20 or 25 people came. It was without a teacher: We had our own schedule and our own work periods.”

Soon after, however, teachers began to arrive, donating their services. Even today, teachers receive no payment for the retreats they lead. “Cheri Huber (a California-based teacher of American Zen) was here very early, and I think she actually got her start here,” recalls Southern Dharma Director Dagmar Nickerson. “She came several times a year into the ’90s.” Other early retreat leaders included vipassana teacher John Orr, now based in the Triangle area; Jacqueline Schwartz of the Insight Meditation Society; and Teijo Munnich, spiritual director of the Zen Center of Asheville.

“The first ordained woman rabbi, Lynn Gotleib, taught here. Rabbi Rami Shapiro came later on,” continues Nickerson.

“It was planned to be an eclectic center,” Kent explains. “There’s no one path, no one guru. It’s a meditation center.” And though some Westerners may find meditation an alien concept, Kent notes that it has long been a fundamental practice for Christian mystics, too.

“There are a lot of different traditions that come from Buddhism, but they’re different denominations. We figured one tradition or one teacher couldn’t make it. Different strokes for different folks,” says Kent, adding, “The practical reality is that having a lot of teachers draws more people.”

Despite the eclectic nature of Southern Dharma’s offerings, all of the retreats share one key commonality. Silence is observed throughout the retreats, except during group discussions and meetings with the teacher. “Silence was always part of it, because that’s the way I’d experienced retreats,” Kent explains. “Silence is in keeping with the whole idea of meditation and going within.”

And 25 years later, says Nickerson, that stillness remains one of Southern Dharma’s biggest drawing points. “We live in such a busy world. But Southern Dharma has no car or truck noise. It’s conducive to silence, and that’s what Southern Dharma tries to keep in its tradition.”

Still evolving

A lot has happened in the quarter-century since Kent and Guyol first laid eyes on the Hap Mountain farm. With the help of volunteers, the meditation hall was built, and then the dorm. Once the Center was up and running (around 1986), Guyol left. She now lives in a monastery in California.

Kent, however, chose to remain in the area, explaining, “It’s been a lifelong thing.” Southern Dharma, she reports, “continues to have a life of its own. Of course, I’m still involved, though I’m not directly on the board. My main involvement is with the community that’s gone up around Southern Dharma.” She’s talking about the Practice Community at Southern Dharma, which so far includes five cabins that individuals can buy to use for private meditation retreats. Kent is hoping to sell four more cabins.

“It’s not the same as Southern Dharma,” she explains. “It’s a separate entity. It’s a retreat space; people don’t live there all the time. Several people can own one cabin on a time-share basis.”

That development reflects the center’s continuing evolution over 25 years. “It’s one of the oldest [meditation centers] in the country,” notes Clark. That’s certainly something to celebrate, and Southern Dharma plans to commemorate the milestone in style with a host of retreats featuring core teachers, new offerings and a one-day get-together in September designed to reunite participants and teachers from early retreats.

Don’t break out the noisemakers, though — it’s not that sort of party. As with all of the center’s events, serenity is key. That doesn’t mean the going’s always easy, but it does testify to the power of vision. As Kent wrote in her essay “Southern Dharma: A Personal History,” “Southern Dharma was founded … by two ordinary women with a lot of energy, a fair amount of idealism, and the willingness to take a chance on a dream.”

For more information on the Southern Dharma Retreat Center’s 25th-anniversary events, call 662-7112, or check out www.southerndharma.org.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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