By Erika Webb
Despite the cold and rain, 16 people left the cozy comfort of their homes the night of Jan. 29 to attend the regular meeting of the Volusia Buddhist Fellowship in DeLand.
The glow of a single lamp at the front of the room, the wafting scent of incense and the calm -- to a question mark -- man in a black robe set the tone for renewal.
People rushed in from the chilled darkness, sat down and exhaled, ready to hear the message.
"It's a great relief to learn that it's not all that important that I'm not happy," said Steve Tonjes of DeLand.
The jaunty white-haired man began attending the fellowship three years ago. The grin on his face and the spring in his step punctuated his statement.
Sensei Morris Sekiyo Sullivan was a young teen in Texas in the 1960s. One among throngs longing to be the fifth Beatle, he glommed on to the spiritual pursuits of George Harrison and John Lennon. He dipped a toe into Transcendental Meditation.
"I was trying to learn how to meditate, was experimenting by probably about 13," Rev. Sullivan said.
His family moved to Florida when he was 15 and he started reading books about Zen Buddhism.
Without teachers, he had to find guidance through the written word.
While studying philosophy and religion at a Central Florida community college in the mid-1970s, he read more about Zen Buddhism.
"I grew up Baptist, but realized it was not really resounding with me," Rev. Sullivan said.
In 1989, he visited a Unitarian church in Orlando. The minister there had attended retreats with Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh and was leading a meditation group on the revered monk's Order of Interbeing practice tradition.
It was less about beliefs and more about practice, Rev. Sullivan discovered.
"I remained kind of a night stand Buddhist for quite some time," he said.
The nonsectarian Volusia Buddhist Fellowship was started in 2003.
"It was started by someone else," Rev. Sullivan said. "He wanted to leave and travel. He was not really a credentialed teacher and I wasn't either, but in 2004 he just kind of handed me the key one day and said you're in charge."
The idea back then was just to meet and meditate.
"Because I was the guy unlocking the door at the church, people asked me questions so I tried to learn more," he said.
Once weekly he leads a group at Tomoka Correctional Institution, which has grown to include around 30 members.
"The guys there have a lot of time on their hands to think of questions. They're trying to figure out where they went wrong, where they are and where they want to go," he said.
The freelance writer and journalist understood the need for answers and strayed from his professional methodology to find them.
He ordained as a Theravada monk and studied Vipassana meditation in Kissimmee.
In Thai Buddhism monks are "very traditional," Rev. Sullivan explained.
"I was ordained in the Thai order, but I had a wife, a car, a mortgage, dogs, all those things, so I knew I couldn't remain a monk," he said.
But he managed to spend some vacation time in retreat as a monastic.
"I thought it was good, but not what I needed in terms of community service," Rev. Sullivan said.
He earned his Sensei (teacher) credential from California-based Bright Dawn Center of Oneness Buddhism.
He "woke up" in his practice and immersed himself.
"Because of its more broad-brush nonsectarian approach to Buddhism, it helped me meet the needs of the community in DeLand and at Tomoka," he said.
Two years ago, Rev. Sullivan published his first dharma book, "Wisdom; Compassion; Serenity: First Steps on the Buddhist Path." He also published "Loving Heart, Peaceful Mind," a workbook to accompany retreats and workshops combining Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy and meditation.
Buddhism isn't bossy. The teachings of the Buddha can be applied to life, whether or not one is Buddhist.
"Any religion is part belief system and part practice," Rev. Sullivan said.
Beliefs are "there" and "integral," so Buddhism inverts the two, commencing with practice.
"People want to deal (effectively) with the everyday stress in their lives," he said. "They might be Baptist or Jewish but they want practice."
He gets invitations to speak to students in World Religion classes at area high schools, colleges and universities.
"Every time I do that, someone comes up to me and says (something like) 'can I do that and still be Catholic?'" Rev. Sullivan said.
Of course, he tells them.
Buddha is not a deity.
Followers of his teachings simply want what he is said to have found on his earthly path.
"Do good; avoid doing evil; purify the mind of processes that create trouble for yourself or others," Rev. Sullivan said. "That doesn't conflict with any religion."
He talked to the group about the record breaking attendance at this year's Change Your Mind day Jan. 25 at White Sands Buddhist Center in Mims.
"There were over 200 people there throughout the day," he said.
Then he told a story about a king who sought the Buddha's help to lose weight.
When the king fell off the weight loss wagon and returned to the Buddha, "gorged and panting," the teacher told him: when you've had enough your afflictions become more slender.
Enough of anything, Rev. Sullivan explained.
"All things the ego clings to impede spiritual progress," he said, including the need to be right, perfectionism and anger.
Renunciation is giving up candy to get gold, he explained.
The true goal on the spiritual path is to transcend suffering, which is caused by stress, he said.
Transcendence starts with working on what goes on in the mind.
Observing thoughts, keeping what works, letting go of what doesn't, takes practice.
"Right speech and right action naturally develops into wisdom," Rev. Sullivan said.
Before the 20 minute meditation he advised the group to envision a ping pong table with a ball in the center.
The table represents the mind; the ball, attention.
If the table legs wobble the ball will bounce around, he said. If the table is steady the ball will remain still.
The idea in meditation is to focus attention on the breath and calm the mind's incessant non-productive chatter.
Maya Heath, of Deltona, said some she's met on the path of spiritual seeking have been "absent-minded, vegetarian airheads." Here, she's found a connection.
Happenstance rather than resolution led her to the meetings at the beginning of the year.
"I found a book in a thrift store on Buddhism and thought, 'I have to have that,'" Ms. Heath said.
Awakening the Buddha Within is not "one of those weird, religious, teachy books," she added.
A trip to Honolulu when she was six years old planted the lotus seed.
Raised in a fundamentalist environment where negative reinforcement ruled, she was impressed by a young monk who guided the tour of a temple in Hawaii.
"Here's this gentle man saying, 'it's all the same mountain' when someone mentioned tolerance," Ms. Heath said. "He said, 'we believe the human soul is a lotus seed that starts in the mud and grows and grows until the water clears and (the flower) breaks the surface finding the light of truth the soul was drawn to.'"
Meetings are at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of West Volusia, 116 S. Clara Ave., DeLand, at 7 p.m. every Wednesday and at 5 p.m. on the last Sunday of each month. Visit www.volusiabuddhist.org for more information.