An interview with Leslie Shelton, Sukhasiddhi’s new Executive Director
Tell me a bit about how you came to Sukhasiddhi.
I’ve studied Buddhism since the 1970s, taking classes and workshops and doing a lot of reading. For years, I watched for a teacher. Then I attended a Green Tara retreat at Spirit Rock that Lama Palden was teaching, and I thought: This is someone I’d enjoy studying with. I asked her how I could study with her and she said to come to a Wednesday morning class. At the time, I was working full-time and living in Santa Rosa, commuting to San Bruno every day, so it took me two years to be able to start.
I’ve been a practitioner for the last nine years—I came to Sukhasiddhi in 2010. I was intrigued by the opportunity to do the equivalent of a three-year retreat in daily life, so that’s what drew me in. I entered the Bodhi program—there wasn’t a Dharma Training program at the time—and I just completed the Shangpa program.
Over the last seven years, I’ve witnessed a flowering of Sukhasiddhi. When I began my career, there was just an opportunity to come to a class, and that made it hard for me to enter. Now there are many different ways to participate.
How did you come to take on the role of Executive Director?
It came up in conversation with Sandy and Joanne about organizational structure. I began my career as an administrator in higher education and then was Executive Director for the American Cancer Society in Monterey/San Benito Counties, where I learned to manage a complex organization. In the course of my career in higher ed and community organizations, I’ve created many programs from scratch, including an adult literacy program and a Community Learning Center for Latino families in the City of South San Francisco. Because of my work experience, they were looking at me joining the Sukhasiddhi Board and talking to me about creating an organizational chart to better see all the pieces of the organization.
I retired a year and a half ago after managing programs for over 45 years and went from being super busy at Sonoma State University to coming home to my cat. After having time to travel and paint, I felt it was right timing when they asked me. To contribute and be involved is of benefit to me as well as an act of service. It felt like an opportunity to share skills and experience that could be of benefit to an organization I cared about. I have a Doctorate in Educational Psychology and Transformational Learning, so the situation at Sukhasiddhi intrigued me: this is an organization that is going through transformation right now.
What do you see as the essence of your work here?
It’s a profoundly beautiful time for Sukhasiddhi even in the midst of change. It’s a time for recognizing the power of what Lama Palden and the teachers have done here. So many lives have been impacted. The Chinese symbol for the teacher is 1x10x10x100 because their impact is exponential.
We really saw this impact when we did discussion groups with sangha members to learn what they value about Sukhasiddhi. Again and again, people spoke of the opportunity for deep practice, the sense of community, the healthiness of the people in the organization, and the quality of the teachers, who are all highly skilled, well trained and accessible.
With all this goodness already in place, it’s a totally creative opportunity. My work is supporting the lamas in moving forward with their vision and creativity, and engaging the sangha as part of that. My question is: how can organizational structures support growth and creativity? When structures become too solid, they become a constraint.
Something doesn’t have to die to be reborn, but some of the structural constraints may need to be taken away. So, we are looking at what needs to have the flexibility to change, and that includes what we offer. If we offer too much and don’t have the support system in place, it won’t work.We are looking at what is sustainable in terms of our time and our resources as individuals and as a sangha.
This is a creative challenge and the reason we did the discussion groups: we wanted input to take collective action as a community. The meetings helped us all recognize the strength of the community itself. We’re not just one or two people. Look at the web that’s been created!