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Ralph Steele

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ralph Steele is the founder of Life Transition Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico where he serves as the guiding meditation teacher. He has practiced Theravadin Buddhist meditation for over three decades and taught since 1987, including at such venues as Spirit Rock Meditation Center and Insight Meditation Society. He completed a year of intensive practice as a monk in Burma and in Thailand. Along with his interest in preserving the Theravada tradition, he is dedicated to making the dharma available to culturally diverse populations. He has also worked with youth around the country.

Ralph received his M.A. degree from the University of Santa Clara in Marriage, Family, and Child Therapy in 1979. He holds BA degrees in Humanistic Psychology, and Religious Studies with board honors. Ralph is also the Founder of the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Hospice Training Program at Northern New Mexico Community College. During his tenure as the Chair of the Board of Trustees of Southwestern College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he was instrumental in transitioning the EKR Hospice Program, from a two year Associate Degree program to a Master’s Degree program in Grief, Bereavement and Counseling. He is a member of the following organizations:

  • Spirit Rock Meditation Center
  • Insight Meditation Society
  • The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy
  • The American Academy of Pain Management
  • The American Pain Society
Spirituality runs in Ralph Steele's blood. The grandson of a minister, Steele's family has run a church for the past 150 years. A devout Christian upbringing is one of the things that Steele shares with Willis and Jarman—and the vast majority of African-Americans.

He also shares with them the experience of living as an outsider. Steele grew up on Pawleys Island, a then-isolated speck of land off the South Carolina coast populated by freed slaves from Sierra Leone. Steele grew up speaking Gullah, a Creole language formed from Elizabethan English and African dialects. He was 12 years old before he spoke English.

"It has always been a practicing Christian community," he said. "What that means is that when some Christians elsewhere started saying they were 'born again,' that never happened there because no one ever left Christ."

An Army brat, Steele's first exposure to the dharma came during his high school years in Japan, when he began to study martial arts. He remembers the day his instructor leaped up and kicked the rim of a basketball hoop.

"That's when my life began to change," he says. "Right then I knew that life was different from how you see things."

Like so many Vietnam veterans, Steele was nearly destroyed by the war. Along with physical and psychic scars, Steele brought home an addiction to heroin and a five-pack-a-day cigarette habit. He credits devotion to his martial arts teacher and to the discipline of martial arts practice with getting him through.

"It wasn't the martial arts itself," he says. "It was the teacher, the trust in the teacher." Back in the States, Steele enrolled at the University of California at Santa Cruz and signed up for a course on Buddhism—taught by a young black professor named Jan Willis. "I was pretty tough on him," Willis reports without elaboration.

Among the things he learned from her were techniques of meditation from the Tibetan tradition. "That helped, because I was simultaneously going down to Palo Alto VA hospital to deal with flashbacks," he says. "Meditation allowed me to begin to get some balance."

His Christian connection still strong, Steele would go on frequent meditation retreats at a Catholic hermitage in Big Sur, and, for a time, even considered joining the order. But his link with Buddhism was cemented when Willis went on sabbatical and Lama Thubten Yeshe came to teach in her place at UC-Santa Cruz. Not long after, the 16th Karmapa, head of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, came to town: "I went on a one-week retreat to prepare to meet him. When I went up to get his blessing, we had this exchange: I gave him a rosary and he gave me refuge."

Now a psychotherapist, Steele runs the Life Transition Institute in Santa Fe, a center built around the body-mind meditation practices pioneered by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. But Steele had several stops en route to New Mexico. He practiced briefly in Seattle, using Buddhist psychotherapy techniques, but he began to receive death threats and left for Portland, Oregon, where he spent many months with the renowned Tibetan teacher Kalu Rinpoche. In those days, the idea of teaching Buddhism never crossed Steele's mind. But then, nine years ago at a Metta retreat with Joseph Goldstein, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), Steele looked around and realized that he and one Vietnamese practitioner were the only non-whites in the crowd. Steele recalls that he said, "Joseph, something has to change," to which Goldstein replied, "Yes, but for now just do the practice."

Steele did. But eventually, during a retreat in Santa Fe, he told Jack Kornfield, another IMS co-founder, that he was ready to teach. "I saw myself starting to become a closet practitioner, and I didn't want to do that," he says now. And how does his Christian family back on Pawleys Island take his new role? "They all accept what I do. People walk their practice there. They have a deep understanding of what practice is."

Source: http://buddhistnow.blogspot.com/



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