Leslie Hubbard: Expanding Horizons

May 8, 2014
Leslie Hubbard: Expanding Horizons
Leslie Hubbard

Meditation and dance teacher, former Buddhist nun, MDiv candidate, and CSWR Assistant Proctor Leslie Hubbard has a knack for looking over a situation, identifying what is missing, and finding a way she can make a contribution.

"I first learned about the CSWR after being accepted to Harvard Divinity School," she says. "I was looking for how I could maximize the benefits of Harvard as part of my whole lifestyle. I found the CSWR's website, and reading about the different events that go on here and the commitment to community was just very inspiring."

She was also interested in the CSWR's junior fellowship program and researched past junior fellow projects to learn what she could offer. She proposed the series "Beyond Words," workshops in meditation, dance, and visual art across religious and cultural boundaries.

"I brought in people who taught dance, who were musicians, who did performance innovative art as part of their religion," she recalls. "And my friends from the monastery came and talked about loving kindness and meditation."

The point of the series was not simply to listen and to receive, but to experience and take part. A side benefit of the series, Hubbard says, was that it “brought out the artists at HDS, and it sparked their creativity.”

Contributing to a community was something Hubbard wanted to continue doing, after living in community for eight years as a Zen Buddhist nun, first at Plum Village in southern France and then at the Blue Cliff Monastery in Pine Bush, New York.

She had already taken the bhikshuni precepts (full ordination vows) and was about to receive the Lamp of Dharma Transmission to be a monastic dharma teacher, when, in 2011, she went to Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh to request his permission to leave the order. Instead, she wanted to continue on a path to become a lay dharma teacher so that she could augment her Buddhist practice with graduate studies in Buddhist history, philosophy, and languages in a university setting.

"I felt I was at a point where I was about to receive the ordination to be a dharma teacher," she explains, "and I thought, 'What kind of a dharma teacher am I going to be if I don't have the formal scholarly aspects of the  training?' "

Eight years earlier, Hubbard had been completing her undergraduate degree in choreography and dance performance at the Rotterdam School of Dance in the Netherlands when her adviser asked her which of the offers to join renowned dance companies in Europe she was going to accept. Her answer: "I am going to ordain as a Buddhist nun."

That response may have startled her adviser, but it was a natural choice for Hubbard to make, as she assessed the steps she had taken in her own life around mindfulness, health, and wellness. She began training as a professional dancer from the age of 10, attending school part time in order to focus on ballet.

“It was a great blessing that I had that stability in my life, because it kept me very disciplined and very focused,” she says. “But, I wanted to perfect what I was doing as a dancer, and that involved being aware of what my mind was doing.”

She began studying yoga, and with disciplined practice coupled with boundless energy, she was teaching yoga by the time she was 20. A natural next step was Buddhist meditation practice, which Hubbard first experienced in Tibetan Buddhist retreats she attended with her mother.

By the time Hubbard finished her degree program in Rotterdam, she had been exploring Buddhist concepts on nonself and interbeing through choreography and performance. She had also attended retreats at Thich Nhat Hanh's community at Plum Village.

"It was exactly what I felt I wanted. You’re supported to practice meditation, but you are also being of service to the community, or to the world, and you are sharing the purpose of your life with other people."

Even though physical exercise wasn't part of the daily routine in the monastery when she was first ordained, Hubbard knew that for the sake of her own health, she needed to pursue her yoga practice.

"Soon, people noticed how healthy I was, and how strong, and some of the nuns who had back problems and knee problems came to me and asked if I could teach them yoga. So I started helping them."

Later, a "Yes!" moment for her came when, during one of Thich Nhat Hanh's large retreats in Thailand, exercise sessions that included tai chi and yoga were added to the schedule of activities, and Hubbard was asked to teach.

"I remember standing up, and there were 800 people in my yoga class!"

The sessions were so popular that it then became routine to incorporate yoga classes into the longer retreats and into the monastery's daily schedule.

Hubbard entered HDS as an MTS student, taking classes in both modern and classical Chinese, courses on Buddhist scripture, and Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies Janet Gyatso's course on the body and Buddhism, in preparation for doctoral work. 

She also continued to teach yoga, meditation, and dance. Her experience teaching classes at Harvard Business School led her to think more broadly about options for Buddhist lay ministry.

"Bringing more wellness into the corporate world," she realized, "could have a huge impact"—on employees' lifestyles, on companies' ethical practices and consideration of global practices. She decided to switch to the MDiv program and is contemplating working toward her MBA after she graduates from HDS.

In the meantime, she plans on taking HBS courses on building and sustaining enterprises and on authentic leadership. She is putting her organizational skills to use by serving as assistant proctor, because she wanted "to support the Center in a more practical way."

And, she will be teaching a meditation and yoga class just for residents.

"I just feel completely nourished here. What is so great," she explains, is that "the way the Center is physically designed, you always see people. Whenever I leave, I walk by people's apartments, or we get coffee together in the kitchen, and we share the computer room...There is that natural formulation of friendship just by living here." 

—by Kathryn Dodgson

This article appears in the Spring 2014 edition of CSWR Today.