I’m a Buddhist who doesn’t play especially well with other Buddhists. Buddhism often attracts the granola crowd and that’s not my thing. I may be striving to wake up and achieve perfect peace, but I’m not interested in dewy-eyed, soft-spoken conversations about one love and constant compassion.
My life is loud; I dig horror, mayhem, blood, and guts. My humor is aggressive and unapologetic. The quest for enlightenment will hopefully quiet my mind, ease my suffering, and fill me with kindness, but my personality will probably never exude these things. I may work for the benefit of all sentient beings, but I’m going to do it with heavy metal, trash talk, and fart jokes.
I do, however, have a wife that I play with very well, if you see what I’m saying. We get along. I love her more than science and religion can measure, and she understands me. She totally gets that I can watch Cannibal Holocaust, howl delightedly at all the gore, and then go meditate. She’s seen me put down Salem’s Lot then pick up the Dhammapada. Doesn’t twitch an eyelash. Considering how important Buddhism is to my life, and the fact that it actually saved my life, you might think I’d want to pair off with a fellow Buddhist. Or at least someone who was Buddhish. But I chose to go a different way and it’s worked out extravagantly well for me. Here are the top five reasons I enjoy being married to a non-Buddhist:
1. She’s on the outside
If I were hitched to a fellow Buddhist, we’d both be trapped in the same bubble. It’d be hard to maintain an objective view of what we’re doing.
It’s easy for me to get caught up in balancing a serious practice with a worldly family life, and striving to wake up. My wife and I don’t have children, but our relationship is of utmost importance. Her job is also very important since, without it, we couldn’t pay our bills and enjoy all the delights of modern life, like one day off a week. My day job is slightly less important, not in terms of the cash it brings in, but more because I want it to go away.
With no children to care for and a vocation I’m looking to exit, it’d be very easy for me to slip totally into the Buddhist world. Meditation and practice make me feel better. They make bartending and pretty much everything else more bearable. But every time I find myself retreating into that and shirking the outside world, my wife is there. When I try to enclose myself in my bathysphere of Buddhism and seal off the rest of the world, she taps politely and asks just what the fuck I think I’m doing. We can’t afford for me to be a full-time Buddhist. Literally—I have to pick up extra bar shifts sometimes to make ends meet. I can’t sink into practice and try to push everything else out.
2. She keeps me grounded
Sometimes I get so caught up in my practice that I can’t see the forest because I’m banging my stupid head against the trees. When that happens, it’s because I’ve lost the handle on what I’m doing. Buddhism is such a part of me, such an inherently deep constituent of who I am, that I often forget it’s there. It forms my worldview and my frame of reference for nearly everything. Because of that, it’s easy to get short-sighted or even blinded by the very thing designed to open my heart and vision.
Last year I decided to become the world’s most hardcore meditator and I hit a wall pretty quickly. Due to poor planning on my part, I didn’t see any issues going to sitting 630 minutes a week from 120 minutes.
When I crashed and burned, I tried to keep at it. I understood that discomfort and pain needed to be observed and overcome just like everything else. So I tried to tough it out like Buddha when he gave Mara the old middle finger under the Bodhi tree. I sat there shivering and sweating like a junkie with the flu, trying to juggernaut my way to enlightenment.
I’d stagger from the shrine room like Patrick Swayze had just tossed me out of the Double Deuce and wander the house like a war-shocked refugee. Eventually, my wife would nudge me and then wonder out loud just what the hell was wrong with me.
When I told her I was all shaky and stuck, she had helpful advice. “Take the rest of the day off.”
“Really? I don’t have to go to work?”
“No, dummy. Please go to work. Just take the day off from meditation. Maybe tomorrow, too. Breathe a little. Get some space.”
It hadn’t occurred to me to back off. I probably would have kept hammering away at it until I freaked out entirely and sprinted naked through the neighborhood howling “I’m Maitreya, bitches!” or “Kneel before Zod!” Whichever seemed least appropriate. But once she pointed it out, it seemed simple. I didn’t sit that night or the next morning. I took almost 36 hours off and it helped immeasurably. Next time my ass hit the cushion, I was relaxed and ready.
She has an uncanny knack for shrewd helpfulness. Last February, I got home from a three-day retreat that helped kick off my hardcore meditation stint. I was waxing eloquently—and no doubt profanely—about the stability I’d enjoyed and the diligence it fostered for my endeavor. I sat on the couch and gave several deep, contemplative sighs that signified my incipient peace and well-being.
My amazing wife listened to all this and congratulated me on cultivating such equanimity on a weekend away from all normal concerns. Then, with tears in her eyes, she took my hands and gently told me that our cherished cat had died while I was gone. It was the best possible way she could have done it. In the midst of my joy brought on by retreating from the world and watching my own mind, she reminded me that life was still carrying on as usual. She didn’t take the easy way out and wait until the buzz wore off. She injected the news straight into my heart while it was relaxed, open, and willing. It didn’t wash away everything I’d done that weekend. Instead, it was a beautiful reminder of the very reason I practice.
3. She’s doesn’t need no stinkin’ Buddhism
I’ve caused a great deal of pain in this life, both to myself and others, and I embraced Buddhism as a practical means to curtail that. I didn’t need it to outline the whole idea of ethics and compassion for me, nor did I need guidelines to force myself to be good. But its explanation of how our suffering is self-generated and deeply connected to hatred and delusion was revelatory—my bad attitude and dickish behavior perpetuates my own misery.
My baby never had those weights dragging her down. She moves through her life with intelligence and compassion, and she’s an elegant spark in the lives of many people. I’m lucky enough to be one of them.
She may not agree with me that craving is the cause of all suffering. I doubt she’d accept that the Buddha’s path of wisdom, morality, and insight is the best way to destroy that suffering and wake up. And that’s because she doesn’t even seem to need that shit.
She’s kind for no reason at all. She’s smart, temperate, and forgiving in all situations, regardless of how vicious the circumstances. She’s warm and understanding with people I dismiss as douchebags when the reality is, I’m the douchebag. Everything the Buddha ever taught about letting go of anger, she has mastered to a degree that I one day hope to attain through practice.
And she does it effortlessly. Without meditation to examine her habits, without metta to raise love in her heart, without any fear or hope of life beyond death, she’s just this good.
She’s my guide and teacher every day.
Keep in mind this isn’t an argument for everyone to marry a non-Buddhist. I won the lottery here and I know it. Good luck doing the same.
4. She helps focus my practice
I don’t think I’m a very socially engaged Buddhist. That’s certainly a goal, but I’m not there yet. Something I do know for sure: my practice is no longer just about me. Despite my mostly Theravada foundation, I’ve realized my outlook is decidedly Mahayanan. My Buddhism is a fusion of “get your own ass to enlightenment, posthaste” and “strive to ease the suffering of all beings.”
Working in the service industry, it’s awfully easy to forget that last part, as well as the fact that murder is frowned upon. This business seems designed to show you people who are casually awful all day, and it jacks up your desire to make them suffer. Maybe spill a Diet Coke on a suede jacket.
But I can’t let that happen. Because I’ll get fired. And also because it’s wrong.
Sometimes I feel like I’m practicing to armor myself against the world rather than save it. Like I retreat into my shrine room to make myself capable of dealing with people rather than capable of helping them.
Then I see her, and all my armor falls away. She doesn’t know exactly how I use Buddhism to selfishly concentrate on myself just to get through the day. And I can’t do that with her. She’s most of my world and I can’t exclude her from anything.
From the depths of my adoration, I realize that letting her in is letting everyone in. She’s trailblazing a path through my loud-mouthed exterior to all the secret tender haunts inside. And if I let my compassion include her, if I can deepen my kindness so I work for her happiness before my own, then I can expand those to include all the freaky strangers I’ve never met.
She’s not a testing ground, but she is a focus. I’m marmalade in her hands, and I always remember that’s because I’m silly in love with her. I may not be merry-go-round dizzy about the rest of the planet, but this is a start. She’s opened a gate, and now it’s possible for me to drop my armor and greet guests as they come inside.
5. She thinks this is all hilarious
And I have to agree. When we got together more than a decade ago, I was more or less rocking the Shambhala style. More because I’d put in a good five years, like military service. Less because I’d gotten fed up with the bureaucracy of an incorporated Tibetan Buddhist system. I was ready for something simpler and more direct, without all the intricacies of Vajrayana.
About a year after we got married, I abandoned all that and dismantled my widly complex shrine.
No one in the house was more upset than the cat.
That cat was all up in that shrine like a serpent in the rainbow. She adored it. When my soon-to-be-wife and I first dumped all our valuables into the same place so we could wallow in sin, the cat moved in on Buddha. Her name was Tico, his name was Siddhartha, and they’d obviously met before. Seriously, there was no keeping them away from each other. Buddha didn’t make many moves, because he was a statue. Tico, however, went hog-wild. She climbed right up, lapped his water, and gave him the business end of all her cat-butt rubs. She settled in and made herself right at home. Any time I went in to light Buddha’s candles and incense, Tico was there. When I sat down to meditate, she curled up on his face and purred like he was the only one that revved her motor.
My wife thought this was the bee’s knees of humor. “She was obviously a Buddhist nun in a previous life. Look at her. She wants to meditate with you.”
Before I moved to Vipassana, I spent some time practicing and studying Zen. I regaled my wife with zany Zen tales of awakened masters and their weirdo students. “He cut off his arm!” I’d say.
“That’s seriously stupid,” she’d reply. “Wait, is that where they get that ‘one hand clapping’ thing?”
And then we’d laugh like somebody spanked our giggle-bits.
I wholeheartedly believe that awakening is not only possible, but probable. Right now. Right here. But it’s also important not to take it all too seriously.
My wife once told me “If you ever come out of that shrine room and announce, ‘Well, that’s it. I’m enlightened now,’ I’m going to laugh my ass off.”
Truth be told, if I ever actually get enlightened and feel the need to rush out and tell someone, you should all be laughing.
[This story was first published in 2016]