Wednesday, October 1, 2008

By request: How I became a Buddhist (and why I'm trying to un-do all that).

Sam requested this one.

I have to reach back to high school to find the very beginning of what (I believe) led me to Buddhism. I went to a Catholic High School that was jointly led by a very progressive Benedictine Friary and Convent. Religion courses were required content every year, but by the time I enrolled (10th grade) they were through with teaching Catholicism, the courses were all comparative religion courses, and remember this was the 70s, before the Christo-fascists had achieved their domination of religious life in this country, so they were all earnest examinations of the common threads that run through all religious disciplines.

When we got to Buddhism in my sophomore year, the cleric teaching the course, a Friar (we called him "brother"), took us all into one of the chapels. We pushed the pews out of the way, sat on the floor, lit a candle, and he taught us to meditate.

Simple enough, right? I'll bet everyone reading this has had someone "teach" them to meditate this way at one time or another.

Well, this very first time meditating, on the floor of that chapel in my high school, I had what we Japanese-oriented Zen Buddhists call a "kensho" experience. I suddenly had the experience of non-duality, realizing a taste of the true nature of reality, truly "seeing" for the first (and only, so far) time in my life what is really happening in front of every one of us all the time.

I can't describe it, any words I put to it automatically become false as soon as they are uttered. It is a "what color is a sunset?" question. It can't be answered, can't be described, can't be discussed, etc. Those who have had a taste of this know why, but they can't really transfer that realization to anyone else.

In the way that you can say a sunset is "orange," I can say that the experience was profoundly comforting and satisfying, but just like calling a sunset "orange" when there are so many other hues present, not to mention the contribution of the blue of a clear sky in the east, the white of puffy clouds, etc etc, etc, similarly the words "comforting" and "satisfying" are puny and impotent.

I didn't meditate again for 7 years, but I sure thought those Buddhists were on to something. I also read everything by Alan Watts, who does a really good job of covering the intellectual life of Zen. There's an Alan Watts podcast service now which I highly recommend to anyone who likes hearing a lively philosopher discuss his work, even if zen buddhism is not a passion of yours.

In 1981 I was a taxi driver in Austin. I was a bad taxi driver, or I should say I was a good driver for everyone except myself, my customers and the dispatcher liked me well enough, but I didn't make any money because I lacked the cut-throat competitiveness that being successful in that line of work demanded. We didn't work on street-hails, we were dispatched, and we were dispatched over CB, so my calls were intercepted frequently by other drivers and I did a lot of driving around discovering that the person who called for a cab had already left. I also was tricked by a number of hookers and other hustlers out of money and into dicey situations.

I soon found that my best strategy was just to stay in downtown Austin and wait for a call that I could get to quickly. The dispatchers liked this, there wasn't a lot of dispatch from downtown, but when they needed one they had me and they knew I would get there in a hurry. This left me with a lot of time on my hands so I began reading.

I read The Three Pillars of Zen by Phillip Kapleau, mostly while sitting in my cab under the canopy of an old gas station in downtown Austin (a site which is now a large bank). This book, published in 1965, was one of the first books (in English) to discuss Zen Buddhism not as a mysterious and opaque philosophy, but rather as a way of living. I didn't do anything with my practice at this point, I was more interested in chasing girls and finding unique and unusual ways to alter my consciousness back then, but I did resolve at this time that if I ever found myself needing a religious practice this would definitely be it.

Over the next 20 years I would meditate off and on, usually to increase the esteem some bra-less beauty had for me (so I could seem all spiritual and stuff to coax her out of the rest of her clothes), but I never had anything I could honestly call a practice until (I followed yet another woman into) a meditation course in New York in 2003.

This was with the Friends of Western Buddhism Order in New York City. Vajramati, a very pleasant English gentleman, was my teacher. I can't explain why this stuck, the woman I was in pursuit of only stayed for the first class of an eight week series, but stick it did, and I have meditated essentially every day since.

As my practice matured I found it helpful to study. At first, I studied the FWBO literature earnestly, thinking that would be my path, but I quickly became disenchanted with the mysticism and complexity of it. Because of my roots in Zen I came back to Zen study. I came back to "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" and began to sit in zazen, the zen way of sitting, rather than in the way that the FWBO sits, and my practice began to deepen quickly.

Things went along fine, I was sitting at home alone on a regular basis, and I was reading voraciously every book I could find on zen, trying to find a teacher. I then came to Steve Hagen, the author of "Buddhism Plain and Simple," and I found his approach very resonant with my thoughts.

I don't like mysticism, I don't like religious-ness. I don't like hierarchy, formality or pretense. I much prefer simplicity and humility. I felt like I had a taste of much of practice except that I had never done so at a zen center. I arranged to sit a one-day sesshin (meditation intensive) at San Francisco Zen Center in the summer of 2006 that forever altered the course of my practice. I had a terrible time, but I realized that zen was for me.

Sitting with others made a palpable difference in my practice. I had heard a lot about different experiences that people go through in the course of practice but it was all theory to me until I began sitting zazen with other people. Suddenly all this stuff that people talk about--visions, hallucinations, bodily sensations, out-of-body experiences, etc--manifested in my practice. Ultimately, none of that is as significant as it sounds, it's all jazz, but having the experiences finally caused me to feel like I was a part of something.

The next turning point was regularly listening to the dharma talks broadcast as pod-casts from Steve Hagen, whom I now regard as my teacher. Steve and I are a lot alike intellectually and emotionally. We are both matter-of-fact scientists at heart, impatient with bullshit no matter how well it is dressed, and this makes him a very effective teacher for me.

Once I began to really study with Steve it all fell into place, or it all fell apart, depending on where you sit. (insert rim-shot here) I acquired a lineage, a tradition of teachers and teachings, and I really began to see things as they really are.

One important thing upon Steve and I agree is that we both regret becoming Buddhists. We don't regret our practice, we don't reject the opportunities to teach that the identification as a Buddhist sometimes presents, but we regret ever thinking that we had to form ourselves around something particular. That is, someone who is a Buddhist is not a Christian.

That's utter Bullshit. Total, complete, transparent bullshit. Look for a Buddhist, look for a Christian. If you really see, there's no there there. There's a lot of belief and thought around all that, but that's something very different from reality.

So, these days I don't talk about being a Buddhist and I am hoping that some day people will forget that I ever called myself such a thing. I still study the Teaching, and I always will, but my view of it requires that I reject "-isms" of any kind. I most like talking about the Dharma (the Teaching) without using any Buddhist terminology whatsoever.

I don't mind other people calling me a Buddhist, don't get me wrong. If it helps to do so, please do, but I do not apply that label to myself. Doing so is just grist for more disappointment and delusion.

I have plenty already.

Hope that was what you wanted, Sam.

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