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Dharma teacher Cheri Maples: The healing impulse
Cheri Maples describes being designated a dharma teacher as one of the three highlights of her life.
Cheri Maples describes being designated a dharma teacher as one of the three highlights of her life.
Credit:Andy Manis

My interest in covering Cheri Maples this week stems from personal interest.

The news that Maples would be ordained last month by Thich Nhat Hanh, the renowned Vietnamese Buddhist master, caught my attention for several reasons, including this: About 15 years ago, when I was being diagnosed with and treated for a benign brain tumor, someone handed me a purple scrap of paper with four lines printed on it:

The refreshing moon of the Buddha is traveling in the sky of utmost emptiness. If the pond of the mind is still, the beautiful moon will reflect itself in it.

These lines are from Touching Peace, one of dozens of books Hanh has written. I've still got that purple scrap of paper. It is tattered, torn and worn to an extent that many of the words in the first two lines are no longer discernible, and some of the last two lines have likewise been obscured. But back when I was sick, I clung to it with the tenacity that someone lost at sea clings to anything that floats. I read it and re-read these 30 words until they were committed to memory, and revisited them over and over in silent recitation whenever I sought calm or strength or peace or patience -- or several or all of these things in combination.

I ought to note here that while I respect other people's spiritual beliefs, I've never subscribed to any particular religious faith myself. I suppose this makes me an agnostic twig on a family tree with Catholic, Southern Baptist and Atheist branches, along with other branches about which I'm ignorant. But I found what Hanh had written so compelling that I still call on the wise counsel of these 30 words with some irregular frequency. I would not presume to call myself Buddhist on the basis of carrying Hanh's words in my heart and mind, but they help to render me meditative and mindful.

During a three-hour interview with Maples at her home on Madison's north side, I observed firsthand what it is to carry Hanh in one's heart, mind and being. Perhaps best known as a former Madison police officer and assistant Wisconsin attorney general, Maples has redirected her life to become a private consultant and teacher intent on healing the trauma of people working at all levels of the criminal justice system -- people who confront violence with a frequency that renders them, as she puts it, "consumers of violence," as she herself was throughout her career in the criminal justice system.

How does one grow across the span of 17 years from a City of Madison police officer to become a dharma teacher? Much of the You Are Here column in this week's Isthmus is devoted to a short summary of the narrative. But perhaps the most concise and thoughtful explanation is contained in the gatha, or insightful poem, Maples composed for Hanh himself a poet -- in anticipation of her ordination:

The Police Officer Gatha, by Cheri Maples

Breathing in, I know that mindfulness is the path to peace.
Breathing out, I know that peace is the path to mindfulness.
Breathing in, I know that peace is the path to justice.
Breathing out, I know that justice is the path to peace.
Breathing in, I know my duty is to provide safety and protection to all beings.
Breathing out, I am humbled and honored by my duty as a peace officer.
Breathing in, I choose mindfulness as my armor and compassion as my weapon.
Breathing out, I aspire to bring love and understanding to all I serve.

This gets at the heart of the healing Maples, 55, hopes to facilitate as a dharma teacher, private consultant and trainer working with her former peers and colleagues in the criminal justice system -- police officers, attorneys and other people who are, she says, "consumers of violence" on an almost relentless basis, as she herself was, in ways both subtle and profound, through much of her career as a Madison police officer and captain but also as an assistant Wisconsin attorney general and in other posts.

Venturing to Hanh's Plum Village monastery in France, Maples participated in a ceremony called the Transmission of the Lamp on Jan. 9. During the ritual, Hanh, a 42nd-generation Buddhist teacher, welcomed Maples into the 43rd generation.

"What it means," says Maples, "is I can hold my own retreats in Hanh's tradition or in a non-sectarian manner. I intend to do both." She anticipates organizing health and wellness retreats for police officers, prosecutors, attorneys and others in the criminal justice system.

"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," explains Maples, who rose to the rank of captain and was a finalist to become chief before leaving the Madison Police Department. Licensed as both an attorney and clinical social worker, she has also structured ethics and racial-bias training curricula, was a top administrator for Wisconsin's Division of Community Corrections, was the first director for the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence and now presides on the board of directors for Dane County Timebank, Inc.

Her c.v. affords a panoramic perspective of the criminal justice system and the people who work in it. People she intends to serve as a trainer and consultant.

Drawing on her 20-year career with the Madison Police Department affords Maples particular affinity for her former colleagues on the police force. "Police have to be held accountable," she cautions by way of preface. But unrelenting public scrutiny puts police officers in an almost perpetual defensive posture, she adds. Her own experience bears this out: "For the first 10 years of my career, I believed the only way to fight violence was with violence," she offers. "There's a certain cynicism that develops, a kind of anger."

She struggled with these feelings, but now views them from a point of retrospective context. "I think in this country overall the military mission and the police mission has gotten confused," she continues. This has a corrosive effect on communities. "You go into these neighborhoods challenged by violence and residents perceive cops as violent and racist."

Maples believes one way to overcome these dynamics is to enlist residents to not tolerate violence. "What I've been able to do since I got out of the criminal justice system," she says, "is I've been able to work on some creative ways to create community capacity." This is a cornerstone of the healing process on which she focuses as a consultant and trainer, and hopes to build upon as a dharma teacher.

At some point during our three-hour conversation, I recognized that I was in the presence of someone who was as mindful and present as anyone I'd ever encountered, but also -- perhaps because of her mindful presence -- a human being in the way only humans can be. Someone who had lived life and was living it with the self-knowledge of fallibility.

Perhaps the recognition came when she said this: "I was such an unlikely candidate for this particular path for all kinds of reasons, being a cop one of them." Or perhaps it occurred when she acknowledged that "I had no religious background."

She explains that her father "grew up strict Catholic and my mother grew up strict Methodist and they both rejected it." They did, however, send Maples to Sunday school, and "I'd always believed Jesus Christ was an incredible man and the Buddha was an incredible man," and that other theistic entities also had valuable lessons to teach.

My column describes the first retreat Maples attended with Thich Nhat Hanh in 1991. "When I came back, my energy had changed," she says. "I kept thinking everybody around me had changed." But it would be more than a decade before she would decide to join the order. The following year, 2003, she brought Hanh to Madison to conduct a non-sectarian retreat for people working in the criminal justice system.

It was the model for what Maples hopes to do as she moves forward. She has internalized Hanh's teachings on meeting violence not with anger but with "fierce compassion."

Maples describes being designated a dharma teacher as one of the three highlights of her life. The other two: "The birth of my two sons, and getting together with my partner." These suggest the extent to which becoming a dharma teacher may have brought her joy.

Joy is perhaps most treasured when one is mindful of its absence. "Is life always joyful?" she asks. "No. I have a lot of pain and struggles." But amidst the struggle arise epiphanies such as this: "I think I spent the first 45 years of my life building my ego up," Maples says, "and I'm 55 now and I'm going to spend the rest of my life tearing it down."

Standing in the back of the room at that first retreat in 1991, did she have the slightest inkling that it might come to this? "I didn't have a clue."

But she was alert. During the Q&A with Hanh at that retreat, she remembers, "I noticed the he was changing his pronouns," alternating between he and she. "All these little acts of mindfulness were like waking up," she says. She remembers someone asking Hanh how he felt about same-sex relationships, and Hanh's reply that "it makes no difference. It's the quality of the love."

His lack of bigotry made an impression. So did his presence. "I am in the presence of Thich Nhat Hanh and have been in the presence of Thich Nhat Hanh," Maples says. "Thich does not want crowds of people pulling on his robes. He's a hermit. But he has this message to give to others."

Being able to impart or broadcast that message as a dharma teacher is, Maples says, both a privilege and gift. She describes her devotion to Thich Nhat Hanh as "a conscious act of love," but adds: "Being devoted does not mean not understanding that he's human. I can truly say that I'm a disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh, and that's a strong word for me to say."

Much of what Maples says is strong. Among her stronger statements during our three-hour conversation: "My aspirations are mindfulness, peace and justice, and that, as far as I'm concerned, leads to everything that matters to me personally, because all of that leads to loving better, to patience and generosity."

She is, she says later, "just a person struggling to find my way and help other people find their way."

She is also "an incredible Green Bay Packers fan." As a Buddhist, how did she react to Green Bay's loss to the New York Giants? "When it was over, it was over," she says. "I get that. It's not important. It's fun, but it's not important."

Perhaps her most powerful statement comes at the end of our conversation, as we are saying our goodbyes and I am about to leave. It is an unspoken statement of trust, confidence and shared humanity on her part. Except for an exchange of emails and phone calls to arrange a time, date and place for our conversation, this is the first time Maples and I have met -- yet she invites me to join her in a farewell ritual. We will bow toward each other, she explains, then embrace, and while embracing we will both breathe three times, and then we will step back from each other, and bow toward each other a second time.

Perhaps it was at this point that I recognized I was in the presence of someone who was as mindful and present as anyone I'd ever encountered, but also -- perhaps because of her mindful presence -- a human being in the way only humans can be.

When we stepped back from each other, the pond of my mind was still.

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