Penny Alsop is an ordained Buddhist chaplain in the Zen Peacemaker and Prajna Mountain order. She studied with and was ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax at the Upaya Zen Center. She received Jukai and the name, Inzan, Hidden Mountain, from Roshi Halifax. Previously she took refuge vows with Pema Chodron and Bodhisattva vows with Khandro Rinpoche. Both gave her the name, Nyingje Sheltri, Compassion Crystal Sword. A profoundly grateful mother to Sophia Grace Alsop and proud native Floridian who embraces her Southern heritage, she has had incarnations in this life time as a llama wrangler, back-country guide, ski instructor, urban gardener, small business owner and nonprofit founder. She volunteered as a meditation instructor with FCI, Tallahassee, a women’s federal prison in Tallahassee, Florida for twelve years. She is a Hospice volunteer and partners with Bella, also a Hospice volunteer and gracious, ninety pound, black Labradoodle. Penny is currently working in southeast Florida with a nonprofit organization whose mission it is to provide behavioral health services, mental health and substance abuse treatment, to individuals with no other resources to secure these services. Penny remains committed to finding ways to help the ease the rigors of transition from prison for formerly incarcerated women and to assist in the mighty effort it takes to find employment, housing and the will to keep trying.
Q: Some of your work has included a Zen Chaplaincy and work with Hospice and inmates with a women’s federal prison. What motivates you?
PA: I would say that I have a strong motivation as a human being who is grateful for her life and secondarily, as a contemplative. From this foundation, many different permutations of being of service have arisen. Some of these forms seem more important than others; helping to ensure that low-income individuals and families have enough to eat seems more important than my commitment to be friendly at work, for instance.
In actuality, I think that everything we each do matters very much. That I have been inspired and have responded to the call to offer myself as a chaplain, a meditation instructor to incarcerated individuals, and to be with the dying for instance, is not any more important than the countless ways we all have easy access to the words, actions and thoughts that when tended to properly, result in our doing good, doing good for others and ceasing to cause harm.
These three things are what is called the pure precepts which members of the Zen Peacemaker Order maintain; but I think that everyone, regardless of their traditions, are fundamentally motivated in this way. We all recognize, on some level, the need to be engaged with our world and each other. We all have a call to respond. If we are fortunate enough to hear that imperative and if the conditions of our life allow, it is our responsibility to each other to put things in motion to be of service and to help to alleviate the suffering of others, including animals. I think that most of us to do respond though it may not be obvious or sexy.
Q: You founded the Damayan Garden Project? How do you feel when you are gardening? How do you feel about the growth of the 501(c)(3)?
PA: This question is a little sad for me to answer because of late, I have not been able to garden. Though just recently, I was at home for a change. I’m often away. The weather was extraordinarily beautiful. It was even cool, which is unheard of in Tallahassee in July. I spent an entire day just piddling in the yard; mowing, trimming, making little water fountains for the birds, creating rock borders and such. At one point, I couldn’t get the weed eater started so I used hand clippers and for about an hour, I trimmed the lawn with those clippers. I remembered being in India and seeing women do this kind of thing with scissors! I didn’t go that far, but if you’d seen me, as I’m sure several of my neighbors did, you might have thought I was taking attention to detail a bit too far.
Being outside with plants, water, sky and dirt between my toes and under my fingernails is pure joy. When I was able to help create gardens for folks and especially when I saw the delight that comes from tending to the production of food that often times can be shared with others; well, there’s little that compares to that kind of happiness for me and it seems, having been a part of the construction and maintenance of hundreds of personal, school and community gardens, many others.
Damayan is the nonprofit organization that I founded in 1990 to help alleviate food insecurity in the low-income population of counties in and near Tallahassee, Fl. That it is still going strong, is a testament to how important, necessary and utterly fulfilling it is to be a part of community gardening. I’m especially interested in urban farms these days. It’s a perspective that is particularly meaningful to those who are in food deserts.
Damayan is still doing very good work. Of course, that makes me happy and mostly, I am grateful for all the effort of so many people who have ensured that those who need this assistance or who would otherwise benefit, are receiving this help and that those who are offering that help, get to do that. It’s a good thing, all around.
Q: You wrote: “I do this work because it’s needed. That’s the easy part to see. What’s harder is saying I can do it. I will do it. Then you start.” What have you started lately?
PA: Ha, ha, I have to laugh at this question! For many years, I lived in a state of “starting.” I’ve started all manner of things, including a llama farm (one the more fun things I’ve done). That’s one of my strengths, getting things going. It’s been harder for me to keep up with the maintenance of a project that has come to fruition than it is to pull something together out of nothing, or out of chaos. After some years of great personal upheaval and the ensuing grief, I was unceremoniously thrust into conditions where I had little choice but to take a more measured approach to the whirlwind of ideas that constantly float through my mind. I’d had to manage my depleted energy, in other words.
Right now I am working with a nonprofit organization, which is in its infancy, so it is a start up of sorts but not of my doing. I was lucky enough to be asked to help get it up and running. The Southeast Florida Behavioral Health Network is responsible for managing a multimillion dollar contract with the state of Florida to ensure that behavioral health services, mental health and substance abuse treatment, are available to citizens in five counties in southeast Florida who have no means or resources of their own to get this assistance. I’m removed from the direct services but have been instrumental in building the infrastructure. Fun. Hard. Good.
What’s brewing in mind for my next effort involves the manifestation of my Buddhist chaplaincy in a very tangible, hands on way and it includes, at least, these things: abandoned animals, eggs, coffee, construction, chickens, bread, business, bees, honey, art, gardening, tiny houses and formerly incarcerated women. We’ll see how all that comes together, soon. Likely, though there’s no guarantee, what comes into being will be the basis for how I live the rest of my life.
Q: What advice would you give to an earlier version of yourself?
PA: Oh, gosh, I have so many earlier versions to choose from! Here’s one that may be helpful to recall. It’s the version that misunderstood that I had to work very hard to be kind. Turns out, if one brings rigidity to the practice of kindness, it produces the opposite, which is a type of aggression and in my case, it manifested as distance from others. Ouch, that hurts to say.
I have a much more relaxed view of how to be kind as a result of observing how I held too tightly to an image and lost the actual experience of connecting with others, right where they were. I think it’s important to be on one’s toes, attentive and aware, of course, and, I think that this can be done with some relaxation. Naturally, then there’s the danger of getting too relaxed, at least this is true for me. I can get a bit lazy.
Fundamentally, my practice is about being on the razor’s edge between not too tight and not too loose, as our Buddhist teachers often remind us. In my life, trying too hard, even to be kind, has not been beneficial.
So I would say, dear Penny, maintain your practice with a sense of relaxation and humor. I would also remind that version of Penny (and the current version which has already changed since I first started responding to these questions), that though life is short and death is sure, there’s time.
Q: Life is beauty and pain. Tell me about pain in your life.
PA: Oh, good gracious. You’re really digging in deep here, aren’t you! First, I must say, that pain and painless are states of mind; both very real and maybe not so real. So right off, I encourage anyone who may be reading this to consider that as a possibility.
I have a very intimate relationship with pain; some at the most excruciating degree that a western, middle class (though I grew up poor) woman can experience. I won’t go into the details of all that but I will say this about what I have learned about pain and its close neighbor, painless. Right around the corner of pain is painless; and vice versa. One does not exist without the other, and as I’ve said, these are fundamentally states of mind.
The greatest benefit I have derived from this particular journey is the realization that without a judgment of an experience, there is just an experience. More pointedly, I have found, that it is wholly possible, presuming that one has enough to eat, is fundamentally safe from outright harm and has clothing and shelter, however meager, to let both work on one’s mind and heart as a mode of transformation and insight.
To use the more common vernacular, painless isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Though, without deep stretches of painless states, one will be debilitated and unable to work with one’s circumstances. Additionally, if one’s basic needs are not being met, working with pain isn’t very possible. Which is one reason why it is crucially important for us all to be actively involved in any way that we possibly can to be of service to others where these fundamental needs are not being met.
I have had the great, good fortune to have worked closely with some eminent Buddhist teachers. Pema Chodron is one with whom I have spent time. Pema is responsible for giving me the practices, encouragement, support and sense of humor needed to work with pain. What I mean when I say, “work with” is that I have benefitted from approaching, rather than distancing myself from pain; getting to know the feelings, thoughts and judgments that accompany this very visceral experience. This is no easy task and it can, in my opinion, be dangerous if the proper view and requisite support isn’t in place, if the pain is excruciating. Still, I would say, go for it. These painful places are chock full of gems I would likely not have found anywhere else. I imagine that the same is true for most of us.
Q: What question did I miss? What else should I know about you?
PA: Thank you for this opportunity to be part of your project and thank you for what you’re doing. I appreciate the time, effort and curiosity that it takes to do create and maintain your site.
I love Madeline Albright’s quote that, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Her message is sucker punch to the gut of complacency and distancing from the fact that we need each other and women, in particular, should develop a sense of responsibility to one another.
So I would say that there’s nothing so important about me, it’s a “we” thing. We cannot separate ourselves from each other, try as we might out of a misperception that we are disconnected from one another and thus we erroneously think we must maintain that distance.
I would say that what I have to offer is the encouragement to dive into your life, with all its grimy, loveliness and get to know things as they are, with the people, plants and animals with whom you are in contact. Don’t turn away. Let your experience touch your heart in such a way that a tear comes to eye. Find the people, places and situations that allow you to dig deep; those who offer, without a repayment plan, solace and infusion of energy and very importantly, joy!
Pema, my root teacher in the Buddhist tradition, once said to me, “Penny, get in there and work with people. Get your hands dirty.” I would like to end on that note with the same encouragement to you.