Blue Jean Buddha - Selections
The Perfect Buddhist Boyfriend
by Lillian Guild
I screamed it with the full force of my being, slamming the door behind him as he walked silently out of my study. “Oh, God, did I really just say that?” I thought. The walls seemed to reverberate with the word, pushing me into a little ball. I curled up and began sobbing. How had I gone from being so in love with this man to screaming at him? I hated who I was becoming in this relationship, and I resented him for it. Memories flooded back of standing in front of my father as a little girl, of me feeling worthless, paralyzed, unable to defend myself as he screamed Asshole! and Bitch! at me for some little thing or another. I began crying so deeply that my throat locked in pain.
Where was my dignity? What a disaster this relationship was. This wasn’t how I imagined it, having a Buddhist boyfriend; this wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
When I was in college, there was a debate in the religious community about whether one needed to date someone of the same faith in order to have a deep, meaningful relationship. At the time, I dismissed the whole idea. After all, wasn’t love supposed to transcend identity? My boyfriend was an atheist, and I saw him as more compassionate than some of my Christian friends who just talked about ethics all the time. But I often felt shy and self-conscious around him when it came to my Buddhist practice. At an early point in the relationship, I tested him by doing some morning prayers in Tibetan, lighting incense and candles, and quietly meditating while he sat in my worn recliner watching. As I was going down for a bow, I caught his smirk out of the corner of my eye. He tried to hide his amusement and disregard for my morning ritual, but it was too late. From that morning on, I rarely prayed in front of him. He was still in college when I graduated, and though we made promises to stay together, it quickly dissolved when I met Jasper, a muscular and handsome Buddhist who worked at the same nonprofit organization in Santa Fe as me.
Jasper became my first Buddhist boyfriend, and wow, did sparks fly! We meditated and chanted together, did yoga, and talked long into the night about dharma. It was like breathing pure oxygen. I felt myself growing as a practitioner. I felt supported and encouraged by him. I even felt our sex life was better because we liked to experiment with yogic energy circulation. We also brought a mindfulness to our relationship that made our time together very deep, very bonding. I began to ally myself with the other side of the religious-partner debate, believing that it was indeed essential to have a partner of the same faith.
About a year into the relationship, an older friend of mine, Donna, surprised me by commenting on how wonderful it must be to have a Buddhist relationship. Given how bad the relationship with her boyfriend was I could see why she’d think someone Buddhist might be better, but I still wondered why. Oh, she mused, you’re so calm and peaceful from all the meditation, you try to be wise and compassionate, you don’t focus heavily on yourself because you don’t think the self exists, you have control of your emotions.
So that’s how Jasper and I looked on the outside? But just because we aspire to understand no-self, to meditate, to be compassionate, doesn’t mean that we were or we do. If we were all those things, we’d be buddhas already! But Donna’s reasoning made some sense: having both been dharma bums for so many years, Jasper and I knew how to appear Buddhist. The right clothes were from dharma closets (free clothes left by wealthier retreatants), so they were just slightly shabby but not slouchy. The right hair was long and looked inexpensive. The right expression was serene or friendly. The right voice was soft and pleasing. The right speech never included anything negative, even if it needed to be expressed. The right sitting was on the cushion (definitely not a chair!), and retreats were mandatory. The right learning was to read the latest books, have a subscription to Shambhala Sun and Tricycle. The right worship was to have a nice altar, mumble prayers, and have some mala around the neck or wrist. And, the right partner was a meditating Buddhist. The problem was, I think we began to believe that these outward modes actually expressed some inner truth. In reality, many wounds festered. Our frustrations got hotter and hotter until that day, just a few months before we broke up, I screamed what previously had been unscreamable: “Asshole!”
I told Donna not to fool herself. Our relationship was just as violent, perhaps more so, than others I had seen. There was never any physical abuse, but we were constantly violating the respect and love we supposedly had for each other. Ironically, one of the biggest fights we had had to do with meditation practice. Jasper practiced a form of meditation that centered on cultivating compassion every morning and sometimes into the late evening. I’m not much of a meditator myself, but I did try to practice mindfulness of body, speech, and mind in everything I did. He needled me for not being able to sit on the cushion. I made fun of him for not bringing practice into his everyday life, for spending so many hours meditating. I preferred to wake up, check email, have a cup of tea, and listen to the latest news on NPR. He liked to wake up, do an hour of yoga, and then another hour or two of meditation. Because of our differences, we decided to keep separate rooms, which worked well until that one morning.
I had forgotten to get a notebook from his room the night before. He was doing the compassion meditation on a cushion as I entered the room as quietly as I could. Just as I was leaving, he exploded.
“Why are you disturbing my meditation when I’ve asked you so many times not to come into my room when I’m practicing?” he demanded.
I tried to apologize but in fact I felt stung. “I just needed to get my notebook. I’m sorry. I know you don’t like it when I disrupt your meditation.” He looked very angry and repeated himself.
I began getting pissed off and defensive. I made a nasty face and said, “Look at you, you say you’re practicing compassion, but in the middle of it you treat me like dirt. Where is your compassion when it’s needed the most?”
He was quiet. I walked out and closed the door. The whole day I felt tense and angry. When I got home later, we tried to patch things up but got into a huge fight instead. It ended by my screaming the last thing I ever wanted to hear myself sincerely call someone.
Granted, we argued about different things than your typical couple might, but the anger, fear, and grief were just as potent as with any couple. Power struggles, territoriality concerns, abandonment wounds, control issues—all the things that arise from a bad childhood—appeared within two months, just after our “honeymoon period” was ending. Even though we both strove for insight, peacefulness, and compassion, our practice manifested itself selectively. If anything, our practice might have forced our issues to the surface more dramatically and much earlier than in a conventional relationship because we were so intensely aware of every flicker of negative emotion. We were brave enough to confront the issue, knowing that an argument about who moved the plant to the other window was really a power struggle caused by not enough recognition as children. But even with our courage to be honest, with hours dedicated to cultivating communication skills, to try couples’ therapy, to admit when we were wrong, to try to be caring—toward the end, this Buddhist relationship was depleting, not enriching, us.
I began to think, after three years of passionate loving and arguing we spent together, that having a Buddhist partner was irrelevant. The kind of growth Jasper and I needed
is necessary with any mature couple. I began to think that spirituality was actually a bad impetus for a relationship, at least for me. It seemed that our self-perceptions as spiritual beings, as Buddhists, made our relationship worse.
Forcing ourselves to be “good Buddhists” was actually a façade, which covered our deeper anxieties and feelings. Things were out of balance. We’d be honest about less consequential things and blind to certain true vulnerabilities. At a subtle level we were perhaps using the fact that we were Buddhist to excuse ourselves from real respect, communication, listening, and love. Maybe we believed our Buddhist masks so much that we held each other to very high standards. When one of us would explode, the other was supposed to be a buddha, with infinite understanding and wisdom. And, just as Jasper was hiding from himself by sitting on the cushion, I was hiding from myself by not meditating.
To have a Buddhist boyfriend or not? Today, I think I had it wrong both ways when the debate was framed originally: It’s not that one needs to have a spiritual partner to develop a good relationship, but rather a good relationship can be a springboard for developing one’s self spiritually. Instead of Buddhism being the basis for relationship, it now seems to me that the fundamentals of relationship—love, care, kindness, respect, honesty—are the foundation of being Buddhist.
The Backward Step
by Paul W. Morris
“Given the cost of living, the ambient hypertension and the clattering grind, the decision to move to New York remains at least somewhat irrational, requiring a kind of quasi-religious commitment.”
—Kurt Andersen, from “My First Year in New York,”
The New York Times Magazine, September 17, 2000
My koan begins with a departure: I had to leave New York so that I could return to it.
Manhattan never held much allure for me. Growing up and attending school in rural New England, I always preferred bucolic spaciousness to urban sprawl and could never reconcile the city’s frenetic pace with my own need for a sedate environment. I was an infrequent and reluctant visitor ever since getting lost as a child on the sidewalks of midtown. Separated from my parents in the hurtling immediacy of pedestrian traffic, I panicked, feeling suffocated among the throngs of passersby, wondering if I’d be alone forever. Moments later, my father plucked me from the torrent and I was safe, able to breathe again. After such a brush with loss, I was in no hurry to return. But for the hordes of pilgrims journeying to the city every year, New York’s appeal is undeniable—it is the ubermetropolis, the alpha and omega of cities, and their dream of this Mecca is fulfilled once they make it their home.
I failed to understand this devotion and resisted moving to Manhattan for many months after graduating college. I was, however, devoted to my girlfriend and eventually moved one bitter January weekend to be with her. My obstinacy matched her fervor for the city. We agreed that I wouldn’t be long in New York, a year at most, then it was off to Asia, the West Coast, and graduate school, in that order. I longed to embody my undergraduate studies in sacred literature and live for a while on an island or atop a mountain, developing my practice without disruption before returning to the academy. At that early twenty-something, post-college crossroads, I believed myself capable of divining the entire course of my life, certain that I not only knew the Path but that I was making progress on it. I kept friends and family and the city itself at bay by insisting that New York was not part of the equation, that it was just a detour, a distraction. This is the secret toll the city exacts from its inhabitants: reinforcing a false construct that serves as a barrier separating self from other.
Several obstacles conspired against me from the start. I blamed a low, entry-wage publishing salary and a high-priced, cramped upper–East Side rental for my early discontent. My work itself was fulfilling—editing spirituality and Beat-related titles—but the days were long and the weekends consumed with reading manuscripts that ranged from New Age feng shui manuals to Jack Kerouac’s Some of the Dharma. I convinced myself that the job was the necessary balm to assuage the severity of New York life; if I couldn’t be a monastic, then I would settle for being surrounded by the words of those who, if not monastics themselves, had some proximity to a more contemplative life than the one I knew.
Despite the small size of my apartment, I was able to carve out a little refuge for meditating. On the cushion, my zafu, I could be elsewhere, anywhere but New York, controlling my breathing as I sat quiet and still. Returning again and again to my breath when distracted by stray thoughts, I was able to come back to the moment, retreating twice a day for twenty minutes at a time. If the occasional sirens or dump trucks captured my attention, then they were just more noise contributing to my monkey mind—thousands of thoughts passing through my consciousness as quickly as they arose—and it was okay. Although my practice probably suffered from my not having a teacher, I sensed my meditation was improving and that was enough for me to continue.
The subway was another story. The very act of commuting was physically and psychically exhausting. Crammed like cattle into cars that rumble along at industrial velocities, I would feel the pressure of more than mere bedrock weighing down upon me. Any progress I’d made on the cushion being still was gone in a blink, replaced by the imperative to move. My morning routine was as regimented as my sitting practice. I would rush to the subway, plunk down a dollar fifty, and shoot into the belly of Grand Central Station. There I would transfer for a crosstown train pumping me into the heart of Times Square before hopping on another downtown express that spit me out a few blocks from my office. On a good day, it would take me 40 minutes door-to-desk. On a bad one, it could take over an hour. If I synchronized the opening of subway car doors to align with the turnstile exits and went full-throttle out of the gates, I figured I could stay ahead of the wave of commuters crashing down behind me just enough to feel like I was in control.
Beyond the breath, though, there is no control. Everything is in constant flux, frustratingly elusive. Sometimes it was all I could do to filter out the kinetic thundering of the trains and forge a path ahead, shouldering my way through the crowds with total disregard for everyone else. I had to narrow my scope and increase my boundaries. Riding together, bumping elbows and stepping on toes, jostling back and forth, vying for a slippery handhold when hoping for a seat became futile, I was as inflexible as the next commuter, believing firmly she was invading my space or he was preventing me from getting to work on time. When I caught my reflection in a greasy window, I saw tightness in my face and stress in my posture. By the time I arrived at my office cubicle, exhausted before the day had even begun, I was glad to have my own area to occupy however meager it was. I was relieved to be alone.
Living in New York City instilled in me the need for anonymity. I became adept at blocking out the incessant external stimuli, the countless images of suffering I encountered every day. I wore into the sidewalk an unnatural and unimaginative groove that afforded me the illusion of getting by, of coasting through the city, but my skin was thickening and my mind hardening. Pretty soon there was no room left for anything other. I never made eye contact. I didn’t give to panhandlers. I would avoid the homeless sleeping half-naked on the sidewalks. Eventually, I didn’t have to avoid them—I’d stopped noticing them altogether.
I awoke four years later to realize I’d been living in Manhattan intractably, cynically, and with convictions too strong for my own good. I resented New York for preventing me from living the life I’d always envisioned for myself. When out of sheer frustration I forfeited my job as a book editor, I held New York accountable for my intolerance. When I allowed my relationship with my girlfriend to gradually expire after five committed years, I blamed my apathy on New York. Not even the opportunity to work at a Buddhist magazine, where at midday our entire office sat in silent meditation with the phones off the hook, had been a panacea. My zazen practice disintegrated in the myriad twinkling distractions the city offered. I sought solace more and more frequently in the Manhattan nightlife, preferring the barstool to the zafu.
In New York, where what you do for a living takes precedence over how you live, my reply to the most frequently asked question, “What do you do?” invariably lead people to inquire, “Are you a Buddhist?” I began to doubt the pivot of my life and could not, in good conscience, respond to the latter question with a yes. I was saturated by the pervasiveness of spirituality in popular culture. It became increasingly difficult to distinguish between authentic and commercial intentions. From Brad Pitt’s softness in Seven Years in Tibet to the shunyata-like teachings in The Matrix’s Kung Fu sequences, spirituality had been appropriated by Hollywood and corporate America. Advertising companies used wisdom traditions to sell everything from automobiles to alarm clocks, while the publishing industry cashed in on the hybrid effect, linking mysticism with dating, sports, and even money. Surrounded by so much meaningfulness, it all ceased to mean anything.
Caught in the rush of overstimulation, I believed New York had infected me with its vanity and avarice. It became the perfect scapegoat, a repository for all my ill will, the root of my increasing callousness. Stripped of identity of job and relationship, I made up my mind: As the final act of self-inquiry, I would leave New York City.
But leaving can sometimes bring you back, to yourself and to your home, more balanced, less rigid, better equipped to begin confronting the prosaic hurdles that present themselves.
And coming home can change your mind in so many ways.
I returned to New York after volunteering abroad, to take a number of part-time jobs—at a bar, on a boat, in a store. I tried to live in the city, being more mindful of the moment. A new New York began to reveal itself, one I hadn’t—couldn’t have—known previously. I stepped backward, got a fresh vantage, and saw it as the perfect place for practice, a center of gravity amidst the tumult. I varied my commutes. I went the long way to work. In no particular rush, I let the crowds swallow me, and I wandered aimlessly. I discovered that opportunities to practice right livelihood were present everywhere, each obstacle and encounter a challenge to actualize the dharma. There was even practice on the subway.
Breathing in the surrounding negative energy of the train car, I would detach with compassion, exhaling a hope that everyone be more relaxed. I didn’t shy away from eye contact either, instead considering it a chance to transmit a kind of photochemical loving-kindness.
Suddenly, I realized I had changed my mind about New York. I had become more flexible and consequently found an unexpected zeal for the city.
So I made it my home.
For me, upaya has its finest expression here. I was reminded of the city’s skillful means while walking home late one night. Absorbed in the hail of my own internal chatter, I was startled by a car horn from an idling taxicab and looked up to meet the eyes of a driver motioning to his mouth, lips, and teeth, grinning like a mad prophet. I smiled automatically, unconsciously, not as a result of his gesture, but at the silent exchange itself, at his concern for the dour expression I must have been wearing as I ambled along. No words were spoken, and yet I understood his intention to be compassionate. Whereas once I would have heard the horn and tensed for a confrontation, ready to stand my ground and claim the space I occupied, I was immediately grateful for this dharma lesson, my own personal udumbara flower. I’ve used it as a wake-up call to others several times since.
It occurs to me sometimes how I could have left the city permanently, to an island, a mountain, or even the academy, with an abundance of space and time at my disposal to meditate in peace. But Manhattan is my island now: the best place to practice precisely because it is the worst place to practice. The city is my teacher. It is my sangha and my monastic cell, my adversity and refuge, rife with unabated suffering and unlimited potential joy. Like me, New York is full of contradictions, a place where I can exist, in the moment, on the zafu or on the subway, minding my breath as I take my time unraveling its koan.
Climbing with Tara
by Ben Galland
It was a classic high sierra day in late August: warm sunshine, long days, and cool nights. I was up in the Tuolumne Meadows area backpacking with my mom. We camped at a lake at the base of the Mathes Crest rock formation. This rock formation rises straight up out of the ground about 1,500 feet and is sheer on both sides. It looks like a monolithic shark’s fin—a really big piece of rock. My mom and I were doing a little climbing in the area, and today was a rest day for my mom. When I woke, I saw her doing her morning meditation, and I was inspired to do some sort of meditation for myself, too.
I decided to go climb the fin. I grabbed a little daypack and threw in some snacks and a water bottle. I didn’t know how long it was going to take me, but I figured I would be gone for just a few hours. I headed up the hill from the lake to the base of the cliff. There I stood, with no ropes, at the base of this 1,500-foot monolith thinking to myself, good morning. I had climbed without ropes before so I knew what I was getting myself into. I had to really be in the present moment and not think about anything else but the handhold I was grabbing and the foothold I was stepping on. I practiced some rounds of controlled, deep breathing to get in my body. I had had some experience with meditation from growing up close to a Zen center and having a mother who meditated every day. As a little boy, my mom occasionally encouraged me to meditate in the mornings before I went to school.
I began to climb up the cliff, grabbing onto a handhold and squeezing it gently enough to hold on but not too hard as to clutch it. With every
step I took and hold I grabbed, I would take a deep breath and try to relax. I slowly made my way up the cliff using the movement of each hold as a stretch for my body. I would put one foot way out to the left and then would sit on it for a second and stretch out in that position for a breath cycle. This technique made me slow down and helped me relax.
I slowly made my way up this apron of rock with the sun shining warmly on my back. The wind blew gently, and the air was fresh and crisp. I continued to follow the cracks, little paths to the top of the cliff. After about an hour of climbing, I really began to feel the exposure of this piece of rock. I was about a thousand feet off the ground when I got to some looser rock on the route. I had to slow down even more because I didn’t want to grab anything that could come off in my hands and send me whipping over backward to the ground. O-o-o-k-a-a-a-y, deep breath out. I was beginning to get a little scared. Everything I was grabbing or stepping on was loose, and I realized that my holds could slide out from under me at any second. The higher I got, the worse the rock got. With 1,400 feet of air below me, I should have just turned back, but I was so close to the top that I really wanted to just get there.
I reached for another hold, but it broke off in my hand. Fortunately, I had tested the hold before putting all my weight on it. I took the hold and threw it down the cliff below me. I watched it fall for about 800 feet and then blow up into a million pieces as it smashed into the side of the cliff below. I was definitely scared at this point, and I began to freeze up. Everywhere I looked for a hold the rock was crappy. The granite was grainy and old, what climbers call “‘chaossy.”’ But I was only fifty feet away from the summit, and I really didn’t want to turn around. I was thinking that if I got to the top, I could climb down a safer way.
I grabbed a few more awful holds and threw them off the cliff, trying to clean out the rock from where I had just removed the hold, but it all just turned to sand. I would have to make do with what I had and pick my holds with great attention. Some of the holds I grabbed were loose, but I just eased onto them and didn’t put a lot of weight on them. I grabbed for the last hold and pulled myself up onto the summit block of the shark’s fin.
The view and the exposure were both spectacular and terrifying. I usually love to feel like I am sitting on top of the world, but not when the world could crumble down from underneath me. I looked down over to the lake below, and I could see my mother still doing her meditation. I then realized that I was in trouble. There was no other way down. I looked off the other side of the cliff, and there was nothing but very steep, overhanging cliff. The only way down was to go back the way I came. I was not happy but I was in no hurry. I began to pray like my mom had shown me as a kid, for when times got tough or just to say thanks for what we had.
I got into a lotus position on the summit of this 1,500-foot pillar of granite, at 10,000 feet in the High Sierra back country. I took a deep breath. I looked to the west and let the sun shine into my eyes and warm my face. I felt a breeze blow against my face and stir my hair. Then I remembered a teaching that a Buddhist teacher once gave me when I was practicing meditation a few years back. “Let your thoughts be like clouds, and let them pass across the sky with the wind.” I breathed deeply to let go of the horrible fear that was churning in my stomach. Thoughts were running through my head, even though I was totally safe at the present moment where I was sitting. I would have a moment of clarity, then I would stress again about my situation, and then I would catch myself and try to breathe deeply. I tried to let the wind blow my frantic thoughts across the sky and out of my mind. I knew that I needed to be totally present, calm, and grounded if I were going to make it to the bottom, so I sat in meditation until I got there—and sat, and sat some more.
The sitting helped but it wasn’t complete. Suddenly, I flashed back to my mom’s altar, and I saw her statues and images of deities. I asked Tara, the goddess of compassionate action, to come into my life and help me out. “Help me down off this mountain and help me to focus and help me let go of my fears right now so that I can be totally present for the descent,” I prayed.
I closed my eyes and took more breaths, and then I saw an image of the goddess Tara hovering over my body and the mountain, and she was smiling at me. As the wind blew and I took more deep breaths, her smile began to fill my belly with a warm, fuzzy feeling. I took another breath from this place in my stomach and as I exhaled, I began to smile myself. With every breath I took I began to smile more and more until my smile stretched across my face and I began laughing to myself.
It was at that point that I felt ready for the descent; my mind was settled and calm. It felt like I was dreaming as I moved over to the edge of this 1,500-foot cliff and turned around backward to climb down. My feet went right to the solid parts of the rock and so did my hands. I didn’t even have to think; I felt like I was a river, flowing down the side of the mountain, around and over the rocks in the way. One foot behind the other and one hand behind the other. I kept breathing and moving down, and before I knew it, I was through the roughest section of loose rock. I got back to the ground and was still smiling. My face hurt from the intensity of the smiling, which I had been doing the whole way down and hadn’t noticed. On the solid earth, I was so happy to still be alive and in the present moment.
I’m not sure what would have happened if I hadn’t taken time to calm my mind. But the one thing I do know is that Tara and meditation gave me serenity in the midst of a very scary situation that could have been fatal. Without a calm mind, maybe Tara wouldn’t have been able to appear, to help me become that river flowing down the side of the cliff. Nevertheless, as a result of that experience, my mindfulness practice and belief in Tara is stronger than before. Whether she really exists is not important; Tara saved my life.
How to cite this document:
© Sumi D. Loundon, Blue Jean Buddha (Wisdom Publications, 2001)
This selection from Blue Jean Buddha by Sumi Loundon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at http://www.wisdompubs.org/book/blue-jean-buddha.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.wisdompubs.org/terms-use.