What is a dharma group? What is it for?
A dharma group is intended to support the practice of its members by giving them the opportunity to meditate together, share their experiences and learn from the experiences of others. A group consists of roughly 5-12 people and meets regularly, for example 1-4 times a month. Once started, a group is closed in the sense that its members commit to participate actively for a set amount of time, and inviting new members requires the consent of every existing member. The closed nature of the group makes it possible for members to learn to know each other well and fosters an atmosphere where members can discuss their practice openly and confidentially.
A dharma group’s purpose can be simply to support the practice of its members in general, but a group may also have a more specific theme or focus. Some examples of possible themes include dharma and family life, dharma and addiction or dharma and environmental activism. A group could serve as a dharma reading circle. Some groups may target specific kinds of people, for example women, senior citizens or dedicated practitioners who have sat at least one retreat. A group could also aim to serve practitioners in a particular geographic area. It’s all up to the founders of the group.
Here’s an interview with American vipassana teacher James Baraz where he talks about the benefits of dharma groups (or as he calls them, Kalyana Mitta groups – roughly ‘spiritual friendship’ groups)
What happens in a dharma group meeting?
Typically a dharma group meeting starts with the group members meditating together. Afterwards each group member can tell the others how their practice has been going since the last group meeting. The discussion can then move to the specific theme of the group, if it has one. Finally everyone can say how they experienced the meeting, and perhaps the session ends with a moment of silence. The above is just an example, however; the structure and content of the meetings are completely up to the members of the group and should be tailored to each group’s needs and interests.
Experience has shown that it is a good idea for each group to be run by two facilitators. Many groups are peer groups where the main responsibility of the facilitators is to make sure that the meetings stick to the schedule and that the discussions stay on topic. In some groups the facilitators are significantly more experienced than the other group members and spend a considerable amount of time preparing for the meetings. In the latter case facilitators may, if they wish, ask for small donations from the other group members.
How do I start a dharma group or join one?
You can find contact information for groups that haven’t started yet or established groups looking for new members here. (The password is ‘dharma’.) You can also leave a note there if you’re interested in starting a group yourself, or you can leave a “group wanted” notice in case a group looking for members turns up later.
Be brave and start a group with a friend or on your own! There are many people interested in joining a group, but there is a shortage of people willing to start one. Once a group has been established, the person who started the group doesn’t necessarily have a higher workload than other members. By starting a group you can help yourself and many fellow practitioners.
Here are some examples of dharma groups at Spirit Rock in California: https://www.spiritrock.org/kalyanamittagroups
I have questions. Where can I find more information?
Spirit Rock’s web site has a comprehensive set of guidelines for dharma groups. You can also call Sampo Koistinen at 0440 513 176 or send an email with the subject “dharma group question” to firstname.lastname@example.org