It can be hard to see past one’s presuppositions, but I’ve never known a case when it wasn’t worth trying. Ideas about the world easily go stale; the world, however, does not. It is always alive with possibilities. Although studying and practicing Buddhism may well alert us to the problems of holding ideas that have worn out their welcome, it doesn’t immunize us from doing so.
Buddhism in the West is a dynamic and multifaceted project, but it is often seen, including by Buddhists, in terms of simple categories and stereotypes. For all its positive contributions, Buddhist publishing has done more than a little to reinforce these errors. Tricycle is no exception. We have, though, seen in recent years, largely through the participation of our online community, that much of the standard thinking about who practices Buddhism and how they practice is quite stale and needs dismantling.
Readers of the magazine may have noticed that we have been taking steps toward that end. Here is another. We have reached out to three members of the Tricycle community who in some way or ways—ethnicity, geographic region, health issues, age—don’t fit the image of a Western Buddhist put forth in the popular press or, for that matter, in the Buddhist press. We asked them to lift a corner to reveal parts of the Buddhist experience that often are hidden. Hearing their stories, we can better appreciate the richness of the community life we share.
—James Shaheen, Editor & Publisher
By Meara Claire Hayden
I didn’t really want to go. Meditation seemed ridiculous to me; something that my mom does at 5:30 in the morning. And to go to a retreat where you do nothing but sit there for an entire week—it seemed like there was scarcely anything that could be less appealing or a bigger waste of time.
It was September of my freshman year of high school, and I was 14 and not particularly happy. I hated my school. The kids all seemed to be cut from the same apple pie; if anyone was thinking for themselves, they certainly didn’t speak their minds out loud. I was attempting to create my own group, but I felt unhappy all the time, and I just didn’t fit in.
This was about the time when my 16 -year-old brother, Miles, who I didn’t consider the world’s best role model, was pushing me to go to one of the teen meditation retreats he attended. They were put on twice a year by Inward Bound Mindfulness Education (iBme). He told me about the amazing group of people and how easy it was to be accepted just for who you are. That sounded good, but the idea of sitting there for close to seven hours a day, doing nothing, didn’t. But I figured it was something new, an out from the Wonder Bread suburban education mill at my school. So the day after Christmas in 2009, I got onto an Amtrak train in Philadelphia with my brother and set off for the lower left-hand corner of Virginia.
We got there a day early, and the only other person in my cabin was another girl who had arrived early too. Taylor wore all black and had short black hair with dyed-blond streaks. I took an immediate dislike to her, but being the extrovert I am, I bounded up and introduced myself . She gave me a barely disguised glare, clearly wanting as little to do with me as I did with her. Later, after we had become best friends, Taylor told me that she had pegged me as a preppy-cheerleader type; I thought she was some sulky Goth chick.
The retreat began with mindfulness meditation (vipassana). It was painfully frustrating for me. “Watch the breath,” I was told, “Where is your attention right now?” intoned the teacher. In my mind I replied, “Well, it’s on your voice, because you are speaking to me, you idiot.” The day went on, and my frustration continued to grow as I watched thoughts continue to come up and strangle my awareness. I got angrier and angrier with myself, watching my thoughts take hold no matter how hard I tried to push them away.
Enter metta. At the end of the evening, I was introduced to lovingkindness meditation. Unlike the misery of vipassana, metta was like putting on comfy pajamas and sitting in front of a warm fire. It was easy to sit there and just love. Everything. The exercise started by extending metta toward someone easy. I began with my family. It felt so fantastic—we were using the “fruit basket” method—handing each member of my family a perfect, glowing mango, with a smile and kind words. As the teacher moved along, I could feel my heart growing more open, and I felt every part of my body begin to smile. By the time she got to the entire world, I was about ready to burst with the happiness of it all, and I was astonished to find out that a half hour had already passed. Metta seemed to make all the thoughts of “I am not good enough” and “My life is not worth living” seem silly and selfish.
Sending love to the person next to me, part of the metta meditation, became increasingly easy as the week went on and I discovered the extraordinary personalities that had come together for this New Year’s week. Unlike the stifling atmosphere of my high school, everyone at the retreat—teachers and teens alike—were so different from one another and yet so accepting of the differences. There was a girl close to my age who was pregnant. Another girl’s father had died recently. One boy my brother’s age was getting married. There were gay, straight, and bisexual people from all different backgrounds and places, a lot of them coming from really difficult circumstances. The chance to be with people who were so accepting of their differences was something that would draw me back to more retreats.
Back in Pennsylvania after that first retreat, the magic of the week slowly faded back into the crushing monotony of school. The only bright spot was when I discovered that Taylor—now a good friend—went to school in the district directly adjacent to mine. What’s more, I was already playing music with a bunch of her friends, including her future boyfriend (also to become one of my best friends).
The post-retreat comedown is something the teachers try to prepare you for, but just knowing it was coming didn’t really help that much. After my third retreat, I decided to do something about it. Taylor was doing her senior project on the meditation retreats, and she was planning her own meditation night for teens. The event—which we put out to all our friends on Facebook— was to consist of a period of vipassana, a shorter period of metta, plenty of food, and a dharma talk. Taylor asked for my help in putting the evening on. I was to lead the metta, which Taylor abhorred. Almost 20 people—all local teenagers— showed up. And to our surprise and delight, they all loved the evening and asked for more. We had expected it to be a one-time event, but we quickly responded with plans for a second evening, and then a third. Now we have these groups every other week, and we are creating our own sangha to support us in our practice.
Our practice is completely different from what I have watched my mother doing at dawn every day. About a month ago I sat with her for the first time at the Village Zendo in New York City. I found that Zen practice didn’t suit me very well. While everyone seemed very nice and accepting, I didn’t understand the way they did things. I came to feel that while it is all very well for my mom to inhale Dogen and cut a harsh path toward awakening, at 16 I want something completely different.
My mom would like it if Taylor and I had teachers and recognized the 2,500-year-old Buddhist traditions, but we want to keep our group just teenagers. We are trying to create not a group of “Buddhist converts,” but a group of kind, supportive people in our generation. In these groups, anyone who wants to lead a meditation or give a talk is encouraged to do so. We are beginning to have open discussions where we are really learning more about each other and ourselves.
People tell me that this is not the way that Buddhist meditation is usually practiced—that it should be much more structured and that teachers with a lot more experience should be giving dharma talks and leading us in meditation. But this is America in 2011 and my teenage friends are not interested in enlightenment. We are just interested in getting through these difficult years with somewhere safe to be ourselves without fear of being judged and forced into social boxes. Maybe in the future I will be more inclined to do “serious” practice in a formal tradition. But for now this is what my friends and I want. And you know what makes it all worth it? Hearing the voice of someone who comes to our group for the very first time saying, “I am shy, and I don’t usually like speaking, but here I feel as though everyone really cares about what I have to say, and I am really interested in opening myself to meditation.”
Not What I Thought
By Patricia Mushim Ikeda
We were silent. I concentrated on driving the unfamiliar streets of Chicago. Besides, it wasn’t my place to initiate conversation. We had just left the Thai Buddhist temple we’d visited all afternoon. The main shrine room of the former church still had wooden pews, which now faced a gigantic gold Buddha figure flanked by two tree-like candles of similarly impressive proportion, in gold candle holders. The small group of resident bhikkhus had been warm and hospitable, had served us tea, given us a tour, and shown us the printing press on which they were printing inexpensive copies of Buddhist tracts. In time, they said they were going to meditate, and they invited my teacher, a Korean Zen monk, to join them. Although I was wearing grey Korean Buddhist clothing, was a temple-dwelling renunciant with hair cut short, and had logged plenty of hours in our own meditation hall, the bhikkhus declined to invite me to meditate with them because I was a woman. I was completely new to their traditional way, and I was completely shocked. There was absolutely no unfriendliness on the part of our hosts; they were simply following the rules. My teacher politely declined the invitation. He later explained that he did so because, if I couldn’t join the meditation session, then he didn’t want to do so either.
The silence in the car was broken when my teacher remarked, “Those candles looked like big phallic symbols.”
No kidding, I thought to myself.
“Frankly,” he continued, “they were the only thing I could relate to there.”
He sighed, opened a bag of snacks that Mrs. Kim, a laywoman devotee had given to us, offered me something to eat, cautioning me to keep both hands on the wheel, which meant I couldn’t actually eat anything, then closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep, while I drove back to our center in Michigan.
That particular little pilgrimage to Buddhist centers in Chicago took place in the mid-eighties. Observing the emergence of North American Buddhism was one of my teacher’s main interests, and through accompanying him as an attendant on a number of journeys, I picked up the interest as well. I was never able to form a stereotype of what “a North American Buddhist” looked like, because wherever I went my preconceptions went down the drain. This included the idea that Buddhist practitioners might, in general, be more kind, quiet, and ethical than other people who didn’t do what we Zen students called, as though it were both self-evidently important and slightly esoteric, the practice. My education in disillusionment continued as I was exposed to an ever-wider variety of North American Buddhist communities that, in part, catapulted me across the ocean to an eight-month stint in monasteries in South Korea. There, a large and intimidating American nun told me brusquely that the monastery was no place for wimps.
“Some Koreans can be abusive, to one another as well as to foreigners, and the monastic sangha is full of all kinds of people, good and bad, honest and dishonest, enlightened and unenlightened, smart and stupid,” she said.
“Surely that can’t be true!” I remember thinking. But it was. This whole Buddhist thing, which had started out being about my becoming calm and wise and perhaps even fully awakened (whatever that meant) for the benefit of all sentient beings (whoever they were) wasn’t what I had initially thought. As it turned out, none of it was what I had thought. And that has kind of become the point.
Now that I myself do Buddhist teaching, mainly at the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, California, I sometimes say to dharma students, “It’s a big, bad Buddhist world ‘out there,’ with a lot of wonderful adventures to be had in it.” My students come primarily from communities with deep wounds and histories of exclusion and oppression. I myself am a Japanese American woman, and partly because of experiences stemming from that, I’ve been very concerned with issues of diversity and inclusiveness in North American Buddhism. In 2001, in an essay in Inquiring Mind entitled “Stories We Have Yet to Hear: The Path to Healing Racism in American Sanghas,” I wrote:
One of the ways that access to Buddhist practice and community has been constricted for [U.S.] people of color is that a dharma language has not yet been developed that speaks to issues of privilege, power, race and ethnicity. I’ve heard these questions asked: “Are different forms of language and teaching needed in order to acknowledge the experiences that people of color bring to Buddhist communities? Do we need new forms of skillful means (upaya) in order to welcome and empower people of color in dharma halls and centers?”
My answer, based on recent experience, is yes. In the past few years I have noticed that dharma teachings that often go over fairly well in a white middle-class audience are met with dissatisfaction and distrust, or even active resistance, by people of color.
So this brings us to a point of both potential disappointment and potential excitement. What, after all, happened to oneness? If we point out and even deeply investigate the ways in which our human experience, our culture, our beliefs, attitudes, perceptions, and views are not the same, are in fact shockingly different and multiple—if we plunge our hands and faces into this incredibly uncomfortable mass of sheer difference, not knowing what is going on, not understanding what people are saying, reducing ourself to an ant gazing up speechlessly at the Tower of Babel, what then?
Maybe it’s not such a bad place to start. We are different—and the profound listening, the careful observation, the patient “being with” that is so needed to penetrate another’s experience instead of standing outside and judging that experience as “other,” are all things that do not come easily to most of us. They cost us time and attention, and even more than that, they may place our cherished image of our cherished self in jeopardy. Being with someone whose experience has been very different from my own can be scary. Can it really be that this is how you see me, that this is what you think of me, that this is how you judge me, based on your past experiences or your projections of people who look like me? The risk of connection can carry this price tag: I may have to change in ways that I hadn’t counted on when I first decided to try hanging out with someone from another Buddhist lineage, or someone whose teacher I don’t respect, or someone whose experience of the world is shaped by very different social factors than those that shape my own. E. M. Forster’s famous injunction “Only connect” sounds like a good idea, until I feel my worldview begin to quiver just a little, like a mountain range viewed through the heat of a great desert.
Still, as a consequence of my practice, I feel pretty connected most of the time, to myself and to others. I feel connected to things that are natural and unnatural, good and bad. I am quite often joyful. As a student of the dharma, I believe that what we call difference in the negative sense of the word is only a perceived lack of connection, and that difference offers the potential to create or manifest connection in a new and fulfilling way. The farther I need to reach to make a connection, the more I grow.
By Maude Wolfe
I live in a small town on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. In 2005, this littoral place, with its ever-shifting boundaries on the edge of land and sea, was almost swept away by Hurricane Katrina. After the storm, I shuddered with the recognition that my life as I knew it was gone. The same was true for my circle of friends; there was no one whose life had not been dramatically changed by Katrina. Amidst sudden and thoroughgoing uncertainty, I contemplated isolation and community, vibrancy and desolation.
Oddly enough, in the immediate aftermath of the storm, I felt a momentary surge of what felt like freedom. I felt privileged in a particular way. It seemed like a tremendous opportunity to practice, to put my beliefs to the test. However, this feeling soon wavered under the weight of the tasks and decisions at hand. Separated from my home, workplace, and community, what endured most apparently of the identity “Maude” were daughter, wife, and sister, and in a matter of weeks, the needs, real and imagined, and desires of these essential roles became a tangled knot.
Homeless and freed from most possessions, I envisioned a renovated life in which, resting on the foundations of mindfulness, a more powerful and capable selfhood would emerge. I was determined to act with wisdom and equanimity; I sought the capacity to attend to my own needs and the needs of others with masterful agency. I had just enough mind training to have an inkling that this whack on the head could be the vehicle to awakening. I wanted desperately to talk with someone who could appreciate these hopes with kind and sympathetic regard. And I wanted some specific instructions in how to bring them to fruition.
Prior to Katrina, I had studied Buddhism, both as an academic interest and as a framework for living. There aren’t many dharma centers or opportunities to study with a teacher in Southern Mississippi, although the nearby cities of New Orleans and Mobile offer more. But I have chronic fatigue syndrome, and this requires a continual juggling of those tasks necessary for daily life and often constrains or interferes with everything else. Much of the time, I simply can’t do things that most people take for granted.
For a short time, I did attend a Tibetan Buddhist center in New Orleans. Having been influenced by the writings of Anne Carolyn Klein, Tsultrim Allione, and Pema Chödrön, I was drawn to what I understood of Tibetan Buddhism’s appreciation of the divine feminine. To my disappointment and surprise, however, I wasn’t comfortable at the Tibetan center. What seemed like a coquettish competition for the resident lama’s attention disturbed me. I found echoes of the hierarchy and circles of privilege that were common in the Christian church groups I knew growing up. My wariness of the group’s insular politics eventually trumped my desire to connect. I returned to my reading, now with an emphasis on Zen, and I envisioned a more solitary practice. But after Katrina, my longing for connection with a community of practitioners was rekindled.
In the weeks right after the storm, there were many volunteers who worked long hours and endured terribly harsh conditions to bring us aid and comfort. Many of them stayed for years. To this day, their efforts still astound me. Since the overwhelming majority of them were Christian, I was frequently asked what church I belonged to or invited to join them in praying to Jesus. I noticed in myself a small but significant recoil in response. I shouldn’t have been surprised that here in small-town Mississippi, they assumed that I too was a church-going Christian. Yet I found an unexpected edge within, an unwillingness to stand out, to be revealed while feeling so vulnerable. I felt guarded about my own hard-won battle to deconstruct much of my own conditioning as a Roman Catholic. They were eager to connect; I was not.
After a couple of false starts in Louisiana and on the North Carolina coast, my husband, my terminally ill mother, and I arrived in late October 2005 in the mountains of western North Carolina. Over the coming year, we settled into the routine of part-time jobs and caregiving. As in Mississippi, many Christians stepped forward to assist us. Again, I felt guarded and protective in my difference, and I experienced that sense of isolation known to many caregivers. From the time we arrived in North Carolina, I sought a community of Buddhists, but those I contacted did not embrace and engage with us Katrina survivors as did the Christians. I was desperate to connect; they seemed aloof.
Our jobs, though pleasant, did not provide sufficient income, and there were no better prospects in the foreseeable future. Realizing that our window of opportunity was rapidly closing and that we were facing financial ruin, we reluctantly made plans to return to Mississippi to reclaim our home and our jobs. In mid- December 2006, as we prepared to leave, we were in a car accident, hit from behind and sent spinning across two lanes of oncoming traffic until we slammed into the back of a parked pickup truck. It was a cold water splash in the face. I realized how numb I had become, entangled in grief, fear, and fatigue. Our homecoming in January 2007 fell short of being celebratory, marred as it was by grief for my mother, persistent health problems, and a ravaged landscape. At times, those constant reminders of loss seemed like evidence of my own failure to find a powerful personhood. I often revisited the decisions I had made since Katrina, thinking that another choice taken at a particular juncture would surely have resulted in a better outcome than this.
In 2009, I came upon Tricycle’s announcement of its threemonth online Zen retreat, “The Big Sit,” and I signed up. Within a few months, a handful of people reached out to me. I did not anticipate the powerful effects of these connections. Together, we created a discussion group, a safe space in which to tell our stories, to share the risk of revealing ourselves, and, with all eyes on the dharma, to speak of what is meaningful. We craft our communication mindfully, respectfully, and kindly, or at least we do our best to. We share news, books, jokes, music, pictures—all of which brings connection and provides an opportunity for insights. We are adherents of varying traditions, and debates will flare up on occasion. But the generous nature of the group has safely contained the most heated discussions, and this has been a great learning in itself.
These friends are the compassionate mirrors who allow me to examine every angle of my experience. Supported by their wisdom, I explore new territories and deconstruct the limits I find there. It is their fingers that point at the moon, and their voices that shout “rip tide!” when I am heading for unfriendly waters. To know such companions are as close as fingertips on a keyboard is a great comfort. To see myself reflected among them is empowering. My sitting has become consistent; my yoga practice, regular; my self-talk, less castigating.
I met a few of these dear companions last year in New Orleans. Remarkably, there was no difference between being in their presence online or at Café Du Monde, where we rendezvoused. My first sight of them brought forth the same warmth I had known all along, but with a sprinkling of powdered sugar and a mug of café au lait.
The experiences I’ve had of connection and of disconnection have demonstrated to me the importance of the sangha. They have led me to contemplate the meaning of that word in 21stcentury America, where most Buddhist practitioners are householders. With technology, sangha can be something global and inclusive, something that embraces but also reaches beyond groups whose accessibility is determined by location. Sangha today can connect the able-bodied with the chronically ill, monastics with householders, those who live in cities with those in rural areas, members of one tradition with those of another, those who are affluent with those who are struggling to get by. All that is required to join this community is Internet access and the aspiration to embrace and engage with others who share the same aspiration. With all eyes on the dharma, such a sangha radiates in its rightful place among the Three Treasures, a beacon shining with the metamorphic power and grace of connection, even when the weather misbehaves.
Illustrations by Olivia Angelozzi
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