Sangha is an Oasis of Acceptance – Liaoran Bo Re Spencer Grey Kindred
Liaoran Bo Re Spencer Grey Kindred is a Hollow Bones priest, ordained in December of 2014, who has been part of the Hollow Bones family for more than thirteen years. He currently practices remotely with Zen River Sangha in Appleton, WI. Liaoran, pronounced “Leeow-ren,” was a name given to him by taiso when he took Jukai in June of 2013. We caught up with him to ask a few questions about his path to Zen and the exciting way his ministry is unfolding.
Describing his spiritual path as an ongoing exploration of the human condition, Liaoran has developed his understanding of the dharma through exposure to uniquely connected influences. Raised within a conservative Lutheran family, his first exposure to spirituality was rooted in an environment that de-emphasized the ego and discouraged praise. He credits this “somewhat dark” element of grim acceptance as an aspect that he now delights in, and one that resonates with the equanimity of Zen practice.
Liaoran was introduced to meditation practice during college, after he entered student life from what he describes as a sheltered upbringing that caused confusion and a struggle with personal thresholds and self-regulation, leading to substance abuse and unease. He was fortunate to meet a professor in an Eastern Religion class that he respected. Upon finding out that the professor was a Buddhist priest, Liaoran began joining him on Saturday mornings at 6:30 am, which required new choices for how Friday night was spent. His meditation practice offered opportunities to embrace the practicality and structure he was lacking, and the form of “sitting without thinking” felt like a sanctuary.
He continued meditation practice and spiritual practices that included exploration of subtle states and embodiment. In 2009, he joined Zen River Sangha after moving back to the Fox Valley of Wisconsin.
Other influences of this time also included paganism. Frequently misunderstood, the definition of paganism is simply that it is based on beliefs “other than Judeo Christianity” as defined in the 12th century. Paganism values personal responsibility, interconnection, and reverence for the natural world, and is a branch of spiritual practice Liaoran continues to practice and teach.
Today, Liaoran and his husband Lask live off the grid in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, on a 180-acre parcel of land, 178 of which is forested. They are engaged in biodiversity preservation work, as well as establishing a homestead that is purposefully rural and intended to serve as an example of what respectful and co-existent life can look like when our goals are true compassion, cultural exchange, and environmental stewardship. Their values emphasize the connection with community as they work toward raising awareness and understanding of our inherent interdependency on each other and the natural world. They plan to open their space to visitors of all faiths as a retreat, event, and teaching venue.
As a priest, Liaoran’s understanding of what it means to come to practice from a place of complete desperation and disillusionment serves as “grist for the compassion mill,” and allows him to serve as a living example of coming to Zen through turmoil and hopelessness. “Life can be messy and unexpected, but the oasis of acceptance that this practice offers is available to everyone, and our sangha community is uniquely able to assure those who arrive thinking that things are absolutely never going to be OK again that they will be ok.” This powerful and liberating message, he believes, is the recipe for making spiritual transformation possible in a world grappling with existential despair, and in a country plagued by high suicide rates. Indeed, the alternate perspective of “ego-suicide” is sometimes an answer that makes sense. When zazen and tools like Mondo are applied to observe the states of our mind, we become open to both radical acceptance and abandonment of the stories that inhibit pure awareness.
Liaoran’s ministry currently includes priest rotation at Zen River Sangha, performed remotely through a well-established online network, being part of the current Hollow Bones Priest Training Cohort who are in their second year of study, and occult teaching and consulting.
As Liaoran continues to explore his personal combination of traditional and innovative spirituality through Zen practice, he deepens his understanding of the dharma, and how it can be skillfully translated to meet people where they are and foster genuine connection.
Christine Henson is a volunteer writer and sangha member of Hollow Bones Zen.