Empty Clouds Zen fills a need for Buddhist space in BG

From left, Caroline Dawson Dickinson, Phil Dickinson, Simon Morgan-Russell, and Pete DeWood


BG Independent News

Local Buddhist practitioners have moved to higher ground.

The loose group, Empty Clouds Zen, had been based out of the Common Good, near campus, for the past couple years, but when that went into hiatus this summer, they were cast adrift. 

Simon Morgan-Russell, one of the practitioners, said that posed a dilemma. The practitioners associated with the group — Phil Dickinson, Caroline Dawson Dickinson, and Pete DeWood — at first started inquiring at Bowling Green churches about finding space for 90 minutes a week. And they did find a church that would provide them room, said Morgan-Russell.

But as they considered it, he said, they realized “this is a good opportunity to push the boat out because if we were limited to an hour and a half, it wouldn’t allow us each to do our own thing. So we bit the bullet and found this place.” Each leads a different session during the week.

This leap of faith has paid off. 

Empty Clouds Zen now has its own space, suite 218 on the second floor of the old Huntington Bank Building, above the Four Corner Center, 130 S. Main St. Though on the second floor, it’s actually several flights of stairs up. Each landing has a sign to continue to go further up.

Morgan-Russell quipped that from the outside it seems a more fitting location for a detective’s office, inside it looks like anything but. Homey, welcoming with a space for cushions and a small shrine for Buddha. Their neighbors include a massage studio and other with holistic treatment practices.

“Having this space gives us more opportunity,” Morgan-Russell said.

On a recent Sunday morning the four founders gathered to talk about Empty Clouds Zen after a service of chanting, recitation, and a half-hour of meditation.

“A lot of currents led to this moment,” Dickinson said. “Different streams have coalesced into this place. The fact that there are lots of different communities of people who respond to the opportunities we offer shows there’s a need in a Bowling Green for a space like this.”

Each of them uses the space. Through those various sessions offered, they attract a variety of people. Some people attend just one session, while others crossover to others.

Each of the four has their own meandering path to this place. Dickinson, Morgan-Russell and DeWood practice in the Soto tradition. Dawson Dickinson, who served as the financial developer of Common Good, bases her practice in the   Yogic and Vipassana traditions.

Hers is perhaps the most direct. Her mother practiced yoga, so she was introduced to it as a child. She fell away during her teen years only to return when she was in her 20s. She worked in business, but traveling to and living in India made her realize that spirituality would be central to her life.

Phil Dickinson, her husband, was drawn to Buddhism as a teenager through his interest in the literary work of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and other Beat writers. His older brother also meditated.

He felt a spiritual longing. “The music stuff was, for me, a way to express a spiritual appetite. I tried to scratch that itch through rock ’n’ roll.”

He continued to study and came to realize “that’s not where it’s at,” though he continues to play in bands.

Dickinson moved to Bowling Green 30 years ago. That’s where he met Morgan-Russell when he moved here in 1994. Both are on the faculty at Bowling Green State University. 

Morgan-Russell had also come to Buddhism through a more intellectual route. For him it was an interest in Japan. He read books, displayed two Buddha bookends that his parents had, and meditated after a fashion.

When he was 40, he said, he started practicing in earnest, though he kept it to himself.

He and Dickinson were friends for 25 years — “they’re like a married couple,” Dawson Dickinson said — but it took them a long time to discover their mutual involvement in Buddhism. Morgan-Russell wryly attributed that to the fact that they are both English.

Empty Clouds Zen began with the two friends sitting and meditating together. Sometimes DeWood would join them. It was private. Then two years ago they started sessions at Common Good and opened it up to others.

DeWood said he also started with an interest in Eastern thought and spirituality. There were too many distractions. “I’d read  and understand it intellectually but I didn’t know it on the cushion.  Close to 10 years ago I decided to clean everything out, and I got sober. Then I started to do the real work on my life. All of a sudden it was ‘oh, all this stuff I was reading is true.’ I could see it working in my life. I decided this is going to be the most important thing in my life.”

He found teachers who helped guide him and merged a spiritual practice and a recovery model.  “It’s amazing when you start,” he said. “As the path unfolds you realize the everyday mundane stuff of life is part of it, too.” 

On Sunday evenings DeWood leads a meditation in recovery group.  “It’s loosely based on keeping meditation and prayer as part of your recovery life.”

This is not a 12-step program, nor the first place someone grappling with addiction should turn. It’s supplemental to other programs. “Most have been in recovery for a while,” DeWood said of those who join him in the group.

“When you just stare at the wall for 30 minutes as we just did,” Dickinson said. “You’re confronted with yourself. There’s no escape. You’re right there. All the familiar tics that make me me are repeated to myself, and I can practice letting that go and confronting what is.”

“When you’re younger you deal with the pain of change sometimes in unhealthy ways,” Dickinson said.

“One of the central practices in Buddhism is impermanence and embracing the change as a central truth of existence,” Morgan-Russell said. “What resonates for me about this practice is it never lets you off the hook. You always confront what’s real.”

Morgan-Russell said they are pleased that Empty Clouds Zen has attracted a wide range of people including undergraduates — the Mindfulness Club now meets at the Empty Clouds space — and graduate students. “Their practices are really astonishing to me,” he said.

Dickinson said that he wishes at that age he had someone to guide him. “Maybe I would have avoided some of the dumb things I did.”