Lessons From Buddhism Part 1
On a random Thursday (or maybe it was a Tuesday) in my 11th grade American Literature class, the teacher invited a speaker to join us for the day. As he entered the classroom, I could see a glistening shaved head and he wore a brown robe. Throughout our units of literature, we interspersed a variety of perspectives in the humanities, from philosophy to world religions. Today’s class focused on the latter. Earlier in the semester, our teacher had brought a much younger man studying to be a Rabbi to speak about Judaism. Today’s speaker was a Buddhist Monk. I had never met a Buddhist (nor had I previously knowingly met a Jewish Person either), and I was fascinated by the religion. It felt, in our tiny, secluded, sterilized community, like a brief journey to another place.
In class, the monk directed each of us in a short meditation exercise. As the awkward 16 year old that I was, I can’t recall particularly engaging well or witnessing anything profound. But the simple exposure to the new idea was enough for me, and I found it fascinating, even if my colleagues all believed it to be weird. Though I would not engage in such a practice for over a decade, the tiny seedling planted in my brain grew into a mighty oak. Not only did I late take up the practice, but I based my life around the curiosity of learning about new places and new people. Other events that year also fed into the transformation, as have events since, but when I took up meditation practice this fall, I had a found, nostalgic remembrance of that class.
Diligently searching for a teacher job, this summer became more stressful than I originally intended. Whenever my search turned unfruitful after some time, I knew I would need some personal changes in my life to motivate myself. The first was rejoining a climbing gym nearby, which was much-needed motivation and practice. The second was a search for a new practice, one part religion, one part meditation. Living in Seattle, numerous places exist that offer meditation. Likewise, numerous temples, monasteries, and abbeys also exist in large quantities, from all creeds and religions. Because of this, options were nearly overwhelming. Early in the search, though, I stumbled upon a monastery closer to my house, the Buddha Jewel Monastery.
Hesitant at first, I missed the deadline for signing up. Luckily, though, I emailed the crew after the first week and joined soon after in the third week. The class ends tomorrow, and it has been quite the journey.
Buddha Jewel Monastery has a unique setup. It’s housed in a former church that consists of a large meditation hall, a small entry area, and numerous small and medium-sized classrooms, in addition to a large dining hall in the basement. The building is recognizable from the nearby vicinity by its large stained-glass triangular outside, which sparkles in the morning and illuminates the nearby street at night. While in the high ceiling of the meditation hall near sunset, one can see tremendous glistening orbs dancing along the wall. The setting for the meditation is tremendous.
Helping students establish the skills, meditation practice at Buddha Jewel is intentionally designed with three levels, and I am currently finishing level one. Within level one, students are guided through most steps of the practice, from each routine into the next. Routines and rituals are practiced daily and carried out with great intention. This is perhaps the most unexpected introduction part of me, as I was not expecting it. However, I have grown to enjoy many of them, sometimes chanting sutras in my brain on the way to school or bowing before a nonexistent Buddha statue before practicing some meditation on my own. As a person who normally thrives without rituals, it has been tremendous to finally incorporate some aspects of rituals that I somewhat enjoy in my life. I used to do this with sports often, and it has been an aspect missing from my life in the last decade.
Growing up in a Christian household, I could never have imagined my mother allowing me to practice Buddhism instead of Christianity on a Sunday morning. Because of this, my announcing of joining the class took her partly by surprise, though she is much more open-minded than she once was. In fact, she has been quite open to the basic idea, though she is still a devout Christian, and I am sure longs for my soul to be saved by Christ. With this in mind, it has been interesting learning a new practice and almost wanting to “become” a Buddhist after having been raised in a truly conservative area where nearly everyone was devoted Catholics. The religion never really stuck for me, and I feel no less happy for abandoning it in my twenties. Although I have been enjoying it tremendously, I would almost not even consider the Buddhism that I practice to truly be a religion in the sense that it does not guarantee me enlightenment, heaven, or some other goal. Though despite that, I also take the practice seriously.
When being compared to Christianity, though, I have discovered profound differences. Some of these explain everything from my personal distaste of Christian doctrine to my uncovering of a closeted Buddha mindset. For example, many of the principles within the practices of Buddhism are not only scientifically sound but fit closely within ontologies in which I study and believe, as well as ideologies. Ecological ideas are closely related to Buddhism, for example, and many are more closely related to that religion that, say, Christianity. Stewardship of the Earth is about as close as many Christians get. Unfortunately because of dogma, many of the conservative Christians in the US barely even get that far. Its as though politics blinds the true lense of religion. But I suppose a religion that only preaches obedience might do that to someone who already has a hard time changing anything--especially beliefs.
Numerous other facets of Buddhism are not only inspiring and enlightening (pun intended) but also fascinating. One such example is Zen practice. The branch of Buddhism that I have been practicing is related to Chan Buddhism, known as Zen Buddhism in the US. though the world Zen has been appropriated to have various meanings, the particular mode of Zen Buddhism that I practice features simplicity and mindfulness at the center.
Within the practice of meditation, I have discovered, mindfulness in Zen practice is vastly different from my original ideas about it. To begin with, the goal of mindfulness in Zen practice is quite different from my original conception. Without many contexts, one may often get confused about the difference between mindfulness and mind-fullness. Though often confused, these two ideas are not necessarily related or similar. Mindfulness, I have discovered, is the intentional practice of using one’s own mind to tactfully identify thoughts, letting them rise and then fall, while simultaneously allowing yourself to drift back to a stage without thoughts or distractions. The theory goes that if you can accomplish this task enough times and with enough awareness, you can become enlightened. In this way, mindfulness is like awareness; it is extremely difficult, requires tremendous effort on behalf of the practitioner, and can even be frustrating. The more I have practiced in the Zen way, though, the better I have gotten at it, at least when I am meditating.
Whenever I started some meditation practices years ago during Silent Meeting at Farm & Wilderness camps, I had a certain idea of what a particular goal of meditation could be. There I would meditate using a particular story in my mind: the water cycle. Imagining my thoughts as a droplet of water, I would visualize a place that I knew well--in this case the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont--and I would imagine a single drop of water falling from the sky, rolling into a river, then traversing the rapids, stirring into Lake Champlain, and then eventually finding its way to the ocean. Once at the ocean, I would imagine it evaporating, condensing, and then finding its way back. This meditation practice was extremely relaxing and fulfilling, and it was useful practice for the amount of time we spent at silent meeting. Sadly, it never became a full-time practice.
When I started meditating again this year, I quickly found myself drifting from this practice, and I have not used it at all in the past 5 or 6 weeks. Though it is an extremely relaxing practice, I have found focusing on thoughts coming and going to be a better practice, attempting to focus as closely as possible on the Buddha Mind, the state without thoughts. Though I fail often, I can generally succeed for at least a few minutes at a time. In our practice, we meditate for about 35-40 minutes, followed by a walking meditation that takes about 10 minutes. This format is ritualistic but helpful.
Overall, my journey with Buddhism is only just beginning. I am hoping to take the Level 2 class next semester. There is much to look forward to in the practice, and I know that if I can keep with the momentum that I will discover even more next semester.
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About the Author
Ethan C Smith is an educator, adventurer, and thinker who is passionate about education, ecology, and social class. He happens to also spend a great deal of time reading and thinking about history, literature, philosophy, music, the future, and coffee.