Why I am a Buddhist, part 2

Most cats are Buddhists.

Most cats are Buddhists.

(Part 1 here.)

I went abroad for junior year, so no more meditating with the professor and his group. I tried to do it on my own, with miserable results. I’ve dealt with major depression all of my life (my mother’s death, mostly). Sitting down alone and focusing on my breath while suffering from untreated depression was A Big Mistake. ‘Nuff said.

After I finished up at university, I moved to San Francisco. The famous San Francisco Zen Center was founded by Shunryu Suzuki in 1962, and was one of the first Zen templesĀ  located outside of Japan. Suzuki-roshi gave the talks that became the classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. But there was something wrong there. My impression of that place and the people who went there was subtly tainted somehow, and I never went inside, though I often passed the lovely brick building on Page street. (Recently I read the book Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center by Michael Downing, which explains or at least describes what had happened there just a few years earlier; I’m amazed that I picked up on it.)

But I kept thinking about Zen, and the things I had read.

I deliberately chose not to read a whole lot about it, though. I understood that it wasn’t something I could get from a book, but that reading a lot of books about it might give me that impression. I would become an expert, a know-it-all, and never learn anything. The notion of beginner’s mind was about all I had understood from Suzuki-roshi’s book, apart from the concept of mindfulness, of being present in the moment. That’s another idea that I instinctively understood was true and important. I often practiced just being present in the moment, doing whatever I was doing, not thinking about the future or the past or daydreaming or whatever. There were other Zen places I could have tried in San Francisco, but I was still fighting the idea of labeling myself or joining any kind of organization, particularly a (semi-) religious one. And I was also doing other things.

Eventually the depression got so bad, I turned to my old books from that now-long-ago philosophy class, looking for something, anything, that would help. Zen masters are proverbially serene, and I wanted some of that. Buddhism’s insistence that there is no self confused and angered me: if there’s no “me,” then why am “I” hurting so much? Yet, when I finally tried just letting the depression be, something happened. It didn’t banish the depression overnight, but I believe I would never have come out of that episode if I hadn’t had this insight.

It took a few more years, and a move to another coast, for me to go to a zendo and begin a practice. As I still couldn’t do zazen by myself, I had to find a group to join, as uncomfortable as that made me. Resisting the pull of something I felt was true because it had an “ism” attached to the end of it was absurd, though, and eventually I realized that. And anyway, this is one “ism” that understands that what’s important is not some doctrine you believe in, but what you do. It still troubled me to join up, but I thought, it’s the price I have to pay for what I believe I can learn here.

And maybe being uncomfortable with a group is something I can work on.

I tried a couple of places before I settled on the one where I go now. It has a stronger Japanese flavor than most American places have. In fact, the Abbot himself is Japanese, so, while definitely modified for American culture, it is still very traditional. This intimidated me at first, and I liked the challenge of it. Having more cultural differences keeps me from getting used to it. After two and a half years, it still feels strange to me. It helps me keep my beginner’s mind.

And from the first time that I heard the Abbot speak, I knew I was in the right place. He’s not perfect, either, but I can tell he gets it. I definitely have a lot to learn, and this guy seems to know something, so okay.

It’s been hard. Sitting meditation at home still doesn’t work for me, so I have to go and do it with these people. Sitting with a group makes it possible for me to sit for long periods of time. And sitting for long periods of time makes it possible for… well, that’s another topic. Let me just tell you, it’s worth it.

It takes time and it takes discipline. I knew I would be more disciplined if I took a vow, so I went ahead and committed myself to it. I took the precepts and officially became a Buddhist about a year and a half ago. It does help me be disciplined. And I have learned a lot.

And being part of a group still chafes. But now I know, it’s the places with the most sensation that need the most work.

One Response to “Why I am a Buddhist, part 2”

  1. absurdbeats Says:

    I’m not so much for sitting (leads to sleepiness) and I doubt sitting in a roomful of people would help me (self-consciousness about sleepiness), but goddess knows I could use more discipline.

    Practise. I think that was what Joko Beck called sitting. Practise at mindfulness, practise at detachment, practise paying attention—yeah, I could use more practise at all of these things.

    Anyway, I kinda get why you’re a Buddhist, but I kinda don’t, either. Maybe this is one of those cases wherein you have to do it to know why you’re doing it—and thus not doing it is not knowing why you would do it.

    No, I’m not trying to be cute. I have certainly been interested in Buddhism in the past, but I couldn’t sustain it. Perhaps the short-circuit was due to my difficulties with sitting, but that seems only part of the reason; the other part almost certainly was asking Why am I doing this, again? (Hence the whole you-have-to-be-there comment, above.)

    One, last, scatter-shot: The importance of resignation. You said you were only able to get through your depression once you let it be. Now, resignation isn’t the same as ‘letting be’ (although I think they’re at least cousins), but giving up can be incredibly liberating.

    I gave up on my parents. I remember the moment when I did so, over twenty years ago, and how, amidst yet another crushing of emotions, I gained a bit of breath.

    I’ve never regretted giving up on them. I also don’t think I’d have any kind of relationship with them today had I not done so.

    Anyway, I look forward to your explanation of why zen over other forms of Buddhism. . . .

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