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Sunday, September 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 55.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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The path home
Cheri Maples is ordained a dharma teacher

Credit:Andy Manis

A framed work of art hangs above the fireplace. It includes six words rendered in elegant calligraphy on four lines:

I have


I am


As Cheri Maples settles into a chair between the fireplace and a window that looks out across the street toward Lake Mendota, she exudes the sense of having found the sanctuary of home here on Madison's north side. But these six words are also imbued with spiritual meaning. Last month, she was ordained as a dharma teacher by Thich Nhat Hanh, the renowned Vietnamese Buddhist master, poet, author and human-rights activist. In this context, Maples appears to have arrived home to her mindful, peaceful self.

Her path home has been long and circuitous. She found the trailhead circa 1991, though she says her approach to the trailhead started the year before that, when she was getting sober. "I was an active alcoholic," she says. Recovering from that addiction may have been a prerequisite to what happened next.

Then a Madison police officer, Maples was off work with a back injury when she noticed an advertisement on her chiropractor's bulletin board. It announced a mindfulness retreat with Hanh. Maples drove to northeast Illinois to attend.

"There were 100 or 150 of us at this retreat," she remembers. "So I'm at the back of the room listening." Maples entertained doubts at first regarding her ability to reconcile what she was hearing with her duties as a police officer. She confided this to Hanh's assistant. "I don't understand," responded the woman. "Who better to carry a gun than a mindful police officer?"

The clarity of that insight made an impression, Maples says, and that was the start of the path she would follow to become a dharma teacher, designated to impart Buddhist teachings on the essential nature of being.

Last month at Thich Nhat Hanh's Plum Village monastery in France, Maples, 55, participated in a ceremony called the Transmission of the Lamp -- placing her in the 43rd generation of dharma teachers. "What it means is I can hold my own retreats in Hanh's tradition or in a nonsectarian manner," she says. "I intend to do both."

She plans to focus her efforts on the types of people with whom she worked in the criminal justice system, first as a Madison police officer who rose to the rank of captain and was once among the finalists to become the department's chief, later as an assistant attorney general and head of probation and parole for the state of Wisconsin.

A licensed attorney and clinical social worker, Maples brings a panoramic perspective to her current work as a consultant and trainer.

"I was such an unlikely candidate for this particular path for all kinds of reasons, being a cop one of them," she says. "I had no religous background. Dogma is a subtle form of violence, as far as I'm concerned."

But she believes that the path to becoming a dharma teacher "saved me from some of the more damaging effects of being a police officer." Maples cites "consuming violence every day" as perhaps the most injurious aspect. Professionals working at every level of the criminal justice system are, she says, consumers of violence.

As a dharma teacher, "I feel committed to helping people working in the criminal justice system heal those effects, and help the community understand more what the day-to-day life of a police officer is like," she says.

Peace and justice are at the heart of the gatha, or insightful poem, she composed for Hanh. Her "Police Officer's Gatha" emphasizes both those concepts, but also professes the value of mindfulness, duty, humility, honor, compassion, love and understanding in the provision of public safety.

"Public safety is a basic right," Maples observes, "like food and water."

As she elaborates on these convictions, Maples demonstrates the fearlessness of people who have the courage to be honest with themselves and the strength to live their core beliefs.

"Being a dharma teacher doesn't make me different from everyone else," she cautions. "Is life always joyful? No. I have a lot of pain and struggles."

True, she has enjoyed good fortune. "My children are the biggest dharma teachers in my life," Maples says.

But she is "just a person struggling to find my way and help other people find their way," she continues. "To me, any door that helps people to lead a more ethical and compassionate life is a legitimate spiritual door."

Passing through one such door, Maples has arrived at home.

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