Do you know the Dalai Grandma? Otherwise known as Jeanne Desy, she’s the blogger behind the Dalai Grandma, one of my favorite Buddhist blogs. Refreshing and unpretentious, she writes on her blog about “the reality of an ordinary old age in America, deeply influenced by a Zen cat.” Today she muses on a common problem for Buddhist practitioners: what do you do if you don’t live near enough to a center to be involved in a sangha?

Zen Out in the Cold

snow buddha

It occurred to me recently that there are advantages in being an unaffiliated Buddhist as I am, though for years I certainly didn’t think so.  I yearned to work more often with living teachers, not just books and videos, and to be on site in a temple.  I wanted gongs and rituals and chanting, deep silence, clean expanses of polished wood floor.  I long for these things now, as I write in my messy study, where the wooden Buddha shares his altar with art projects, an African violet, and a cat. Sometimes I long for them when I sit with the Zen group that meets in my church, in Fellowship Hall, with the sounds of the choir practicing, children playing in the courtyard, conversations outside the big folding doors, near the sign that says “Meditation taking place—Please enjoy the silence.”

Other people I know feel the same way.  After sits, one man talks about a visit to a Zen center, how he would love to go there for six months or a year and really practice, away from the hassles of work and the wife and kids and not having enough time to meditate.   Another guy, who has taken the precepts in an involved ritual, shows me his beautiful hand-made rakasu and pouch.  He wonders whether he wants to become a priest—which would mean being in residence on the west coast, far from his wife and daughter.  These can be important stations along the Buddha way, but it seems to me they can also lead us away from living our own authentic life in the midst of it all.

I may have been more desperate than some people when I came to Buddhism; I had been blindsided by a diagnosis of cancer at age 54. I am a person who can imagine the whole theatrical performance as the orchestra tunes up—I was terrified.  So I began meditating with the intention of healing.  I did this as though my hair were on fire, read and memorized and studied, held meditation groups and day retreats, learned, chanted, and listened to tapes, never missing a day of practice.  Except for my husband Tom, I was almost alone in my enthusiasm in Columbus, Ohio in 1997.  And how many times I wished I had a teacher to help me with the enormous flowering of problems in my busy life at that time.

Since then, I’ve been on a number of retreats with two teachers who visit our area periodically, and these experiences have been tremendously helpful.  A peer-led Zen group meets twice a week in our church, and other Buddhist groups have grown up around town, as well as an interfaith council.  But I don’t make it to many sits or events.  Illness and aging have naturally led me to a quieter, more solitary life.

During the years when I was very active in local Buddhism, such a life was my other fond dream—to be freed from administrative duties and relationship tangles and be a hermit monk on Cold Mountain or in a cave in the snow.   There I would be free to write poetry, to live as a poet.  I’ve slowly come to understand that this is more suitable to my temperament, which is introverted, serious, and intense.  The art that is my core practice requires a quiet life with plenty of wandering-around time. 

I’ve come to see a real advantage, too, in having friends who don’t happen to be Buddhist.  Involvement in a sangha and a center can be an invitation to what Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called spiritual materialism: not just wanting to gain for yourself, but to gain visibly.  I’m an American; it is our nature to be competitive and ambitious.

Once, when we were traveling, Tom and I were able to observe a lengthy Sunday ritual in an important Zen Center.  I was used to sitting in Fellowship Hall in our church, or in the repurposed barn in Grailville, near Cincinnati, where we go for retreats.  Here I felt like an anthropologist from Mars (or at least Ohio).  So much competition to get in line for dharma combat! So many levels of robes!  So many precise ways to wrap them!  We found ourselves trying to guess at the monks’ seniority.

There is a great leveling effect in practicing in a rented hall in whatever clothes you’re comfortable in.  When your friends and neighbors are Unitarian Universalists and Christians and yogis and Taoists and Sufi, there is no temptation to be More Buddhist Than Thou.  You learn to talk about life in accessible everyday language, and to be modest about your practice.  (The Jizo in the Zen garden by the front door says enough.)  Buddhism becomes a foundation for living, not a lifestyle.  

Still, there would be no doing this at all without some supportive relationships.  Most obviously, Tom.  Then there are the teachers who blog and make themselves available on Facebook and by e-mail, and who are invariably kind correspondents if I ask for help.  I have other internet friends, yoginis and writers like Toni Bernhard, whose How to Be Sick has been important to me lately as I deal with the problems of life after a kidney transplant.  And the people who read my blog and sometimes comment.  I like my autonomous life, but at times I feel that without these people I would be gasping for oxygen.

When I started to practice, the Internet was still mostly about e-mail.  Now, after an amazing 15 years has passed, I keep discovering possibilities like Kannonji Zen and Lew Richmond’s Aging as a Spiritual Practice.  I have read and listened to countless dharma talks. I’m beginning to feel more comfortable.  Maybe I’m not so much out in the cold now as cradled in the net.


If you liked the post, come back next week, when we’ll have a blogger Q & A with the Dalai Grandma!

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