Autobiography Part 8: "Buddhism"

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In the last entry, it was the 4th or 5th day of intense sitting, my first Zen retreat back in 1988, and I'd had a big breakthrough in meditation. Just afterwards, during the pre-dinner break, I’d gone on a walk through the U.C. Berkeley campus, still enraptured with this perception of all things appearing and disappearing without hindrance. A young woman approached me, and I had a strong suspicion that she was a Jesus Person. That is, she had in her eyes the look of a True Believer, someone who'd stop strangers on the street to preach the Gospel and save souls.

I had a history of frequently being accosted by Jesus People. Maybe I had the aura of a seeker, or a lost soul. Maybe it was my Semitic appearance. Do Jesus People get extra points for converting a Jew?

Allow me a short tangent here to tell the story of my favorite encounter of this sort. At another time, there’d been this Jesus Person who was trying to get me to attend a weekly religious worship that his group held. The conversation went like this:

Jesus Person (JP): C’mon, this is very important, you really need to come to our service.

Me: I’m not sure… Tell me, what do you do?

JP: I told you, it’s a service.

Me: Yeah, you said that. But I’m asking: what do you do?

JP: We pray. We sing hymns. And we read from the Bible.

Me: Listen, it’s nice of you to invite me. Maybe some day I’ll stop by; I really do like to try new and different things. But I'll be completely honest with you, right up front. I don’t like the Bible.

JP: Would you like a Miller Lite?

(My mind reeled. I’d misjudged this guy totally! My head was filled with images of a church service with an open bar. Of a Bible discussion group that degenerates into drunken partying. Could this be real?)

Me: What?!?

JP: I said, “Would you like Eternal Life?”

(I didn’t want to be a jerk, but I just couldn’t stop laughing. Eventually I was able to blurt out, “No, no, no, I’m not interested in that,” and JP left me alone.)

OK, back to our story. The young woman on campus, the one I was sure was a Jesus Person, did walk right up to me. “Hi,” she said, “I’m a Buddhist!”

The universe has such a great sense of humor. I just love its ironic timing. For the first and only time in my life, I was about to get proselytized by a Buddha Person! What are the odds?

“Me too!” I gushed. “I’m a Buddhist too!” Maybe all those hours I’d just spent with my ass on the cushion had qualified me for membership in the club. Or maybe my mind at that moment was sufficiently mirror-like that I’d have responded the same way, regardless of what she’d claimed to be. If she’d said she was a Methodist, I’d probably have said, “I’m a Methodist too!” Likewise if she were a communist. Or Satanist. Or philatelist.

It turns out that there’s a huge variation among people who call themselves “Buddhist.” This Buddha Person (BP) explained that "Buddhism" to her meant congregational chanting of a mantra (something like “Namyo Ho Rengye Kyo”) in order to get whatever you want in life.

I think that chanting mantras is great... but how long can you do it? An hour a day? I prefer repeating mantras silently, since I can do that while commuting on the train, or other times when my mind isn't otherwise engaged. But even then, it's hardly a 24/7 practice. For much of my day, I'm at work, where I need to focus on computer code, not mantras.

I didn't like BP's definition of Buddhism. Why not practice something that's available everywhere, all the time? I tried to explain:

Me: What do you do for a living? You probably can't be chanting mantras while you're working, right?

BP: Right. I teach high school math during the day. I do my chanting after work.

Me: But even while you're working, you can still practice Buddhism...

BP: Oh no. It's a public school.

Me: That's not what I mean. If it's your job to teach math, and you're doing your best to help your students learn... that's Buddhism!

At the time, the words were just coming out of my mouth automatically. In retrospect, I realize that I'd gotten this kind of speech from the teacher at the retreat, Zen Master Seung Sahn (ZMSS), aka Dae Soen Sa Nim. Days earlier, he'd given a talk and Q&A, and it had included one of my favorite interchanges from him ever.

One of the questions had been from a Zen student who was a father. He explained to ZMSS that he'd been trying unsuccessfully to get his daughter to come to the Zen Center. His daughter had a friend who'd taken her to church, so now, the daughter preferred Christianity over Zen. "So my question is this," he concluded. "How can I get my daughter to understand Buddhism?"

In a flash, ZMSS replied, "Your daughter understands Buddhism better than you do!"

"I don't understand," said the father.

"True Buddhism," ZMSS explained, "means moment-to-moment, when you're doing something, just do it. If you go to a church... and when it's time to stand up and sing, you stand up and sing... and when it's time to kneel down and pray, you kneel down and pray... that's Buddhism!"

Anyway: it was time to say good-bye to the BP and make my way back to the Zen Center for dinner, followed by evening chanting and sitting. There were two days left in the retreat. In the next blog, I'll receive some more great pointers from ZMSS. And then there'll be an epilogue to try to bring this story full circle.