For this installment, we update the life of Chris Nettles who was first featured in this column in 2013; read the prior column (https://www.communitypsychology.com/chris-nettles/) before reading the following update. In 2013, he was an ABD (all but dissertation) clinical/community psychology graduate student at George Washington University (GWU). Upon receiving his doctorate, he worked for the American Psychological Association, variably as full-time staff and as a consultant. Having been ordained as a Tendai Buddhist priest in 2015, he moved to northern California in late 2018 to re-establish a Tendai temple and monastery, which had been lost to a wildfire, and to build a meditative community of Tendai Buddhists. Chris’ work fulfills the practice of community psychology, providing a unique exemplar of the field’s potential reach.
What does a community psychologist do?
Living Community Psychology highlights a community psychologist through an in-depth interview intended to highlight the personal and professional lives of those working in our field. The intent is to personalize Community Psychology as it is lived by its diverse practitioners. These past columns contain a wealth of life advice gleaned from over 60 profiled community psychologists, from graduate students to retirees, representing an invaluable resource for community psychologists.
*All columns are available online, at http://www.scra27.org/publications/tcp/tcp-past-issues
At the time of our first interview, as published in 2013, Chris was completing his Ph.D. coursework and internship in George Washington University’s clinical psychology program before tackling a dissertation. Having failed to be matched in APA’s internship process, in part because he was vying for one of the very few community-centered internships, he created his own, self-designed community/clinical internship. He depended heavily on the internship proposals developed by prior students of Bret Kloos at the University of South Carolina as well as Bret’s exceptional advice to him. His internship cobbled together placements at GWU’s counseling center, conducting a needs assessment on campus, The Evaluator’s Institute (Anne Doucette, Director) and at David Chavis’ community psychology practice company (Community Science), focusing on nonprofit capacity building. The entire experience was supervised by Sharon Lambert, GWU. The contacts, experiences, and skills he gained during that atypical internship constituted “the best move I’ve ever made,” he declared enthusiastically.
His dissertation (supported by an F31 grant from NIH and two excellent mentors at GWU) involved collecting his own data from nonprofits who served the LBGTQ communities and applying mathematical modeling to the data. The topic was on risk behaviors in HIV.
While a graduate student at GWU, he began working with the American Psychological Association (APA) on various projects. On one contract, he participated in aggregating the content of all psychometric instruments and tests into a massive database (now standing at 55,000). His specialty was combing through obscure resources at the Library of Congress. One of the oldest tests he found was an 18th century French instrument.
He also worked as staff for APA’s office of ethnic minority affairs, then headed by SCRA member, Tiffany Townsend. There, he managed an NIH grant that established an early career mentoring program in HIV research for ethnic minority scholars, matching them with senior research mentors. His paid APA work slowed progress on his dissertation. However, he needed the income and to remain in the D.C. area, and the repayment on his student loans was deferred while he was still in student status. His Ph.D. was obtained 8 years after he started at GWU, longer than the university preferred. However, he is proud of the outcomes of the mentoring program and made important contacts and professional relationships with the 25-30 mentees and their mentors.
When the NIH mentoring grant ended, late 2016, Chris left APA – only to be lured back a few months later to manage a two-year, $2 million cooperative agreement between APA and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation. The aim of this project was to help eligible clinicians implement ways to measure treatment outcomes, in order to maintain their reimbursement levels. “I liked the emphasis on improving practice and using data to drive care,” remembers Chris. Although the project was due to end in late 2018, Chris left full-time employment at APA in October 2018, continuing as a consultant to APA until January of 2019, to help close out the grant.
In 2015, the APA was beset by the fallout from the investigative Hoffman report, in which APA’s leadership had been found to have violated ethical principles in colluding with the CIA to promote torture. Chris notes that the work environment changed dramatically after that. He observes: “…the employee morale never really recovered since the Hoffman report was released.”
“By October 2018, I had been, off and on, at APA for 8 or 9 years. It was time to move on,” he says. And “move on,” he sure did! Here is where our account of Chris’ life takes a truly radical turn. The story begins when a teen-aged Chris was fascinated by an exhibit on the Japanese tea ceremony at the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas. Already a “museum fanatic,” this was his first exposure to Japanese rituals which are heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism. Later, as an adult, he became a member of the Zen Center of Denver until he moved to Washington, D.C. in 2006 for his Ph.D. studies. He was unable to locate a Zen congregation near his home in Arlington, VA (he was car-less for a decade), so he attended a Unitarian church instead. By sheer chance, that church began to rent space to a small group of Tendai Buddhists. Curious, Chris checked out this denomination and the small community of adherents. (He recounts an amusing story: Before finding the church space, the Tendai group had been meeting in a firehouse which they soon realized was incompatible with quiet meditation!)
Tendai Buddhism (“the most important school of Buddhism that hardly anyone has heard of”) was very powerful and influential in Japan for 1,000 years, beginning in the 9th century. It is currently the fifth largest denomination of Buddhism and is recognized for its preservation of Japanese history and culture. Its worldwide center is near Kyoto, Japan. Read about Tendai Buddhism at www.Tendai.org
Chris was drawn to this local, small, tight-knit community of Buddhists and to the meditative practices and celebrations that characterized the religion. After several years, Chris was asked by the community to pursue training as a Tendai priest. Around 2013, he applied for the intensive training program that would span six years (ten days per year) at the sect’s training center and main temple in Canaan, N.Y. near Albany. His spiritual community in Northern Virginia paid the expenses for the first 3 years of his training. This support from his community was a significant factor in his acceptance into the training program.
One or two new trainees are accepted into this monastic training program each year, so the training cohort includes approximately 10-12 at a time, from all over the U.S. Some of the trainees, like Chris, intended to become priests who would lead a congregation, but others would work as hospital chaplains or scholars. Chris describes the training as based less on “book learning” than on the “physical experience” of integrating mind and body. It is focused on developing good character. “Unlike the Western model of religious training, my training emphasized what you do, not what you know,” he explains.
The training was led by high-ranking Japanese and American monks; his spiritual teacher at the Tendai Buddhist Institute was and is Paul Naamon, then an academic at Bard College at Simon’s Rock and abbot of the Tendai Buddhist Institute. During the training period, outside stimuli (news, social media, phones, etc.) were prohibited. Each day he woke at 3 a.m., participated in rituals, did physical chores around the temple and took physically challenging hikes. “It’s often compared with boot camp,” he remembers. For example, the trainees would walk briskly to a running stream 2 miles away to gather water for the temple. (Interestingly, in 2010, Chris was given the Buddhist name, Junsen, which translates as “pure sparkling water.”) Or the trainees would undertake a 20-mile hike, at a brisk pace. At the end of his third year of training, in 2015 – the same year he earned his Ph.D. and was working on APA staff — he was ordained as a novitiate Tendai priest.
Around the time that Chris received his novitiate ordination, the group’s priest had resigned, and Chris assumed leadership of the congregation. Up until then, this congregation had been loosely organized. After consulting with the congregation and the North American leadership of the denomination, they decided to formally incorporate as a non-profit organization. Chris organized a board of directors and managed its formal incorporation in northern Virginia as a nonprofit, named the Great River Tendai Sangha.
Meanwhile, a Tendai monastery, occupying 160 acres on a mountain in northern California, was destroyed in the Valley Wildfire which started with a bad electrical connection from a hot tub in September of 2015 and raged for six months. A Tendai abbot had built the facility (a temple and lodging for resident monks) which had been consecrated in 2010. In 2015, the abbot died from cancer, followed by the wildfire. Other than the onsite presence of a caretaker, the land was untouched for 4 years. At the time that Chris had decided to “move on” from the APA, he was asked by his teacher, Paul, to relocate there to rebuild the spiritual center and, with another local priest (Paul’s former student, Sophie MacArthur, now a medical resident), to attract and lead a spiritual community. He left D.C. in October 2018 and drove cross country. The California Tendai Buddhists receive income from steam generated underneath the 160 acres of geothermal land they own and sold to CalPine, Inc. for electricity generation. Chris also earns side income from small contracts from the psychology world.
His immediate, short-term mission is to restore the land; burned trees are toppling over and an invasive species that is overrunning the land must be fought. He is living “off grid,” using solar power and hauling water to his tiny rustic cabin. He wakes around 4:30 a.m., hauls trash and clears vegetation. However, the land does not yet have any religious space, so he rented space in Middletown, 5 miles away, where he set up a small meditation room and where weekly group meditation meetings take place. In that space, he has also located his administrative offices. Right now, his office routines include building a website, managing finances, rewriting the bylaws, managing a Board, and preparing grant applications. He has connected with the local U.S. Department of Agriculture office, from which he hopes to procure an Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) grant for disaster recovery from wildfires. (50-60% of Lake County acreage has been lost to wildfires in the last several years.)
The second, longer-term mission for Chris and Sophie is to rebuild the spiritual community. The prior community was based in monasticism. Chris assesses that monastic model as having been “unsuccessful” because it required a significant commitment that people were unable or unwilling to make. Instead, they are working to rebuild under a “village temple model” which emphasizes a service-oriented approach to spirituality. Tendai Buddhism also has a strong interfaith tradition. Therefore, Chris and Sophie are making alliances with the larger interfaith community. They do not proselytize; instead, they aim to attract followers by their example of being useful at the local level, following the maxim of “lighting up one’s corner of the world.” In the six months since his arrival, a few new people have joined, and Chris plans to later train a few recruits to become lay leaders, a role requiring far less commitment than the priesthood. Another goal, not achievable until the land is better reclaimed in a few years, is to hold regular retreats on the 160 acres, initially providing camping pads for visitors. Since they will emphasize service, the hope is to enlist visitors to assist in the rebuilding effort. (In fact, the work from volunteers could count as the in-kind match required for any grant obtained from the EPIQ program at USDA.)
The focus of their community service is still taking shape, but Lake County has many needs. It is the third poorest county in California, with severe health disparities. Opiate and meth addictions are high, and the devastation from wildfires has dislocated many residents. On the strengths side of the equation is the solidarity of the citizenry, with an exceptional sense of community and a serving culture brought about by its adaptation to the frequent wildfires. Some residents, mainly commuters to the North Bay area, are wealthy, and because of its geology, with many hot springs, the area is dotted with spas and retreat centers. It is also an agricultural resource, with several active vineyards. Chris has reached out to nearby spiritual centers, including a few other Buddhist retreats, and recently joined and has become active in the local Rotary Club.
Another interesting aspect of Chris’ adult life was recounted in the 2013 column. Chris is an adoptee who connected with his birth mother, Susan, in 2001. Since then, he has reunited with his birth-father’s family. Happily, Chris has a close relationship with everyone. “I am blessed to have two large and loving families in my life.” Chris’ adoptive parents in Texas are in their 80s now. When asked about how his adoptive parents feel about his reunion with his genetic family, Chris recounts the story of how his adoptive father and stepmother met Susan for dinner when she, a flight attendant, had a layover in Texas. His adoptive mother asks Chris about Susan frequently, and she gathered photos of Chris as a young child for him to share with Susan.
Through his search for his biological family, Chris connected with his biological aunt, Moira, and she led him and Susan to her brother, Chris’ biological father. Chris and Moira have become very close. In fact, in the summer of 2018, Chris joined Moira on a visit to the south of France to explore the region in Provence where his biological grandmother (and earlier generations of their family) had lived. The beautiful ancestral village has Roman ruins, figs, olive trees, etc. and is on the Mediterranean coast between Cannes and Nice. A highlight of their trip was exploring the long-abandoned family farmhouse, where their ancestors had sheltered and hid Resistance fighters during World War II.
In 2018, he postponed his sixth and final year of training for the priesthood to travel to France. His full ordination was delayed a year, until June 2019 when he completed the required training. His first Buddhist name, “Junsen,” was then changed to what is known as a lineage name — “Junshin.” This lineage name is partly derived from his teacher’s name. (“Jun” translates as “pure,” “shin” as “truth.”) “That name connects me to a lineage of Tendai and Buddhist teachers going back millennia.”
Chris is convinced that his current efforts fully constitute the practice of community psychology. “In helping to rebuild a religious community after a natural disaster, I rely heavily on much of my community psychology training — developing strategic plans, grant writing and management, facilitating community discussions, etc. I constantly draw on my community psychology skills for community development and resilience. Because Tendai Buddhism is committed to interfaith work and to the idea of ‘lighting up your corner of the world,’ all this work is occurring through a lens of cultural competence and social justice.”
Chris participated on a panel on Buddhism at SCRA’s 2019 biennial conference and is always interested in connecting with other SCRA members who are Buddhists, who make spirituality a significant life factor or are interested in the intersection of spirituality and community psychology. His current life is deeply satisfying, and he is committed to living the rest of his life as a Tendai priest at the California temple. While acknowledging the massive challenges ahead of him, both physical and spiritual, he nevertheless jokes: “This project will probably take 300 years to complete so it is a good thing Buddhists believe in reincarnation. I can keep coming back lifetime after lifetime, until I get it all done!”
Gloria Levin, Glorialevin@verizon.net