The Buddha’s Apprentices - Selections
By Hilary Miller
My parents walked slowly through the art gallery, studying each piece, even the ones that didn’t seem to have much to offer, with care. I trailed sullenly after them. An artist myself, I usually enjoyed looking at paintings and sculptures, but there was nothing here that even remotely spoke to me.
“Now can we go?” I begged my parents, sounding more adolescent than I would like to admit.
“Be patient,” my mom said.
My dad was more direct. “You know, in a situation like this, you should just walk and breathe.” He put his hand firmly under my chin and turned my head so that I was looking up at him. “This is true meditation,” he continued. I angrily jerked my head away. I hated it when my dad told me things about practice, as if he knew more about it than I did. I snarled back, “And do you practice mindfulness all the time?”
His response was simple and honest. I was still angry, but I felt quieter. As I became calmer, the moment left me with a revelation about my father. Suddenly, his advice about meditating no longer felt threatening.
My dad was my door to Buddhism—and a mirror of myself as well. I was twelve when he opened the door, though it took me a while to walk through.
We were driving home in his new Miata, still full of that newcar smell. His newly bought books were stacked on my lap. “What are they about?” I asked, for lack of anything better to say.
“Zen,” he said.
“Oh . . . what’s Zen?”
“It’s a form of Buddhism, a very pure form. It was created in an attempt to go back to the original teachings of the Buddha.” I looked with more interest at the glossy covers of the books. To me, Buddhism was what I had learned about in my religions survey class: all life is suffering so go sit on a mountain and meditate on ants. About two months later, I examined our bookshelves and found a row of about twelve books on Zen. A month after that, I actually opened one. It was radically different from what I thought Buddhism was. Many of the teachings just felt right. Still, I wasn’t comfortable with the bleak style of Zen my dad favored. It seemed like a stark practice, with Zen masters who, rather than speaking, gave their students a good whack or chopped a cat in two. Thus, I shied away from Charlotte Joko Beck’s spare writing on bare awareness and moved toward Thich Nhat Hanh’s emphasis on peace and love. It was after I read
Touching Peace that I really felt drawn to practice.
After eight months, I had an altar in my room, was meditating regularly, and I wore a mala, a Buddhist rosary, on my wrist. My parents and I never talked about it, but they must have heard my bell-ringing in the mornings and my chanting. An unvoiced acknowledgment hung in the air between us, and I was comfortable with that. I almost felt that, were I or anyone else to make a fuss about my Buddhist practice, it would become somehow less real.
But another thing went unvoiced: a silent conflict between my dad and me. I’m not sure if he was aware of this conflict, but there were times when I burned with anger. He would order me, “Go meditate,” and inwardly I would explode with fury. In fact, I probably should have gone and meditated at those times, like he told me, but I didn’t hear the message. My pesky ego wouldn’t be quiet long enough for me to think about it. All I knew was that he was imposing on what was mine. How dare he presume to tell me what to do in my spiritual life? I was practicing what he had only read about!
One time, I snapped at him, “You read all these books on Buddhism, but you never actually apply them to your life!” He looked at me and said, “You think they haven’t affected the way I think? The way I act?” I was startled into silence. I pushed the incident into the back of my mind, but it lingered there until finally, in the art gallery, it evolved into a realization about my father.
The words “I try” made me realize that my dad wasn’t just reading about Buddhism. It helped me to understand that he was a Buddhist in practice, too, just in a different way than I was. He never called himself Buddhist, and I don’t think he even thought of himself as one. But I’m sure that there were elements of the Buddha’s teachings that he grasped much more fully than I did.
After that moment in the gallery, I also realized I was becoming lost in the rituals, in all the pretty colors of Buddhism. My dad brought me back to simple practice, back to the everyday. Sitting on the cushion in my room, I worked past my anger and it became clear to me that he was giving me a gift. I tried to practice mindfulness, but often I forgot. Why should I resent his reminding me? In this way, he was my mirror.
The day following the incident in the gallery, we were walking and I asked him, “Have you ever considered meditating? You have the time, now that you aren’t working.”
He was silent a few moments. Finally, he said, “I’ve thought about it. But I still don’t know whether I can make that commitment.”
The path I walk is very much my own. Yet in that moment, it seemed to me that with our very different angles on Buddhism, my father and I had something to offer each other. In a strange and wonderful way, we keep each other in balance.
Hilary Miller, 14, practices Chan Buddhism and enjoys working with horses.
“Yes, I’m a Buddhist”
By Anne Skuza
“What happened that day may have been the result of karma…” blared a television documentary in my grandma’s upper-middle-class living room in Gdansk, a Polish port city on the Baltic Sea. My grandmother turned down the program and asked loudly, “Karma. Now that’s a Buddhist word, isn’t it?”
“Um, yes, I believe it is,” I said.
“I’ve heard that you’ve become interested in Buddhism.” “Well, yes, you could say that.”
“Hmph, never had much respect for that Buddha fellow. Always thought of him a disgusting, slothful pasha.”
“What makes you say that, grandma?”
“Wasn’t he a prince and all, never doing any work, having figures of himself made of gold?”
“Well, he was a prince at first, but then renounced that, choosing first the ascetic path and then the Middle Way.”
“Hmph, maybe so. Now don’t you go mixing with those foreign fanatics! Changing one’s religion never brought anybody any happiness. It’s unnatural.”
And with that closing remark from my grandmother I gave up any hope of visiting the local Tibetan Buddhist temple during my summer vacation in Gdansk.
My quest for enlightenment began nearly two years ago when I stumbled onto Dinty W. Moore’s The Accidental Buddhist at the public library, while looking for an appealing religious philosophy to replace the one I was raised in. The religion of many Poles, including my family, is Catholic, with a healthy smattering of ancient pagan superstitions. For many, including me, one is Christian solely because one’s parents and grandparents were Catholic, and not because of any personal conviction. I, a searching eleven-year-old, set out to break that mold by finding a religion I could truly believe in. I scoured the library but was disappointed to initially find nothing that spoke to me, except The Accidental Buddhist. I finished the book in one night of rapid page-turning and was instantly hooked. Once I checked out and read nearly every Buddhist book in the library: I read Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and Lama Surya Das’ Awakening the Buddha Within so intensively that the books were soon so worn they were almost unreturnable.
I turned to the Internet. In addition to finding down-to-earth advice and practical teachings, I was able to communicate with a Buddhist community greater than the virtually nonexistent one in my town. It comforted me to know that I wasn’t the only one searching for my purpose in life.
As you can imagine, my parents’ reactions to my explorations where similar to my grandmother’s. Initially they rationalized my new-found faith as just a passing phase, but as the months rolled by and I showed no intention of growing tired of Buddhism, they began to genuinely worry. Many Europeans and Americans imagine Buddhism as a relic of the psychedelic, drug-crazed ’60s and ’70s or look upon it as intensely foreign. My parents were afraid that I would shave my head, start taking drugs, or become a vegan. They were afraid that I would become the family weirdo, bringing nothing but embarrassment to the family name. But after a few difficult discussions, my parents finally recognized that no harm was coming to me and began to tolerate my beliefs.
Buddhism has played a positive role in my life so far. I’m less stressed, happier, and more content with myself. I’m better able to deal with my emotions. I’m not implying, though, that my life as a Buddhist has been all sunshine! Last winter, after reading a book on the transience of life, I felt as if my existing had no real point. I felt and spoke like a madwoman. Then I realized that since I worked so hard in my past lives to get a human reincarnation, I shouldn’t spend time negatively dwelling on it and wasting it; I should celebrate it. When I look back at that incident now, I realize that I went a bit too fast, especially without the guidance of an experienced Buddhist teacher, and that I was misconstruing the teachings on emptiness.
While I’ve been on the Buddhist path I’ve had my ups and downs—periods when I felt intensely Buddhist, and periods when I’ve felt detached from all religions in general. I’ve weathered those, however, and now feel at ease replying to those who ask, “Yes, I’m a Buddhist.” …Well, perhaps not to my grandmother. With her, I’ve learned to be less direct, so I have strategically “lost” a copy of Awakening the Buddhist Heart in her house. Not long ago, I caught a glimpse of her actually looking through it, perhaps reading about that pasha, the Buddha.
Anne Skuza, 13, was drawn to Buddhism after studying it in a world religions class in school.
The Fuss Over Suffering
By J. Mario
At first, I did not understand why Buddhism made such a big fuss over suffering. I was growing up in a comfortable, middle-class family and hadn’t personally experienced very much that I would identify as suffering. But the Buddha’s first noble truth became real to me my senior year of high school.
I had a full academic schedule and enough extracurricular activities to keep me busy well into the next decade. I was also beginning the daunting task of searching for the perfect college and the financial aid to get me there. In the midst of all this, I managed to find spare moments, usually before collapsing into bed, to practice some breathing meditation or say a few quick Kuan Yin mantras. My schedule was full, but I was content.
In late fall, I noticed that a good friend of mine was suddenly changing her appearance and attitude—she looked more and more distressed. Usually Caitlin* knew how to put on a good show, acting so cool and confident that I never would have guessed that a problem had been building for months. I asked her about what was going on. She confessed that she was depressed and having thoughts of suicide. She said not to worry because her parents were taking care of her. Caitlin begged me not to say a word to anyone because she didn’t want others to spread rumors or think badly of her. I agreed, reluctantly. After all, I reasoned, she was just coming off a medication that affected her hormones and, if her family was taking care of her, what choice did I have but to honor her request?
While Caitlin was struggling, my own home life was getting bad. My parents were going through a less-than-amicable divorce and things were tense. I tried to find a middle ground so that I could be loyal to both sides, but inevitably, things did not always work out that way. With Caitlin’s troubles and my parents’ divorce, I tried to manage by sincerely applying what I knew about the Dharma to both situations. I worked at keeping my bodhisattva vows and engaged in meditation daily. I became frustrated, however, because I didn’t feel as though I was making any progress. The idea of giving up the path crossed my mind more than once.
By early winter, Caitlin had become much worse, no matter how hard I tried to help her. She seemed determined to self-destruct. One evening, we were talking on the phone and she was distraught and angry at the world. In the background, I could hear her mother pleading to talk with her. Caitlin got angrier and angrier. Suddenly, at the peak of her anger and distress, while her mom had stepped out of the room to get her father, Caitlin threatened over the phone to kill herself. I pleaded with her continuously to reconsider, trying to buy time until her mother could come back to rescue her. (Earlier in the fall, Caitlin had tried to end her life but failed, so I believed it was crucial for me to stay on the phone to calm her down.) Suddenly I heard her cry out and there was a struggle. Her mom had reentered the room and saw immediately what was going on. She wrestled a razor away from Caitlin’s hands.
My heart ached for her but there was not much more I could do. Hanging up the phone, I lit a candle before my tiny image of Kuan Yin, Bodhisattva of Compassion, and prayed that everything would work out for the best. My daily prayers having steadily declined over the fall, it was now rare for me to even face the little altar in my bedroom, let alone utter a bodhisattva’s name. I think my prayer worked, though, as a few days later Caitlin was hospitalized and could finally receive the care she needed.
With Caitlin safe, I was able to refocus on my home life. My relationship with my family was in need of help. By early spring I lost count of the number of arguments and disagreements. I was very frustrated with the entire situation and felt like there was nothing I could do. I also didn’t care very much at this point about my spiritual life. I felt cut off from it and filled the empty feeling with tons of activities. I spent hours everyday after school in meetings for clubs and rehearsals for the drama society. I would go from there to dance class and return home late at night. Just before bed, I would do several hours of homework.
By mid-spring of my senior year, I was feeling so overwhelmed that I became aware of my real suffering. One afternoon, feeling especially miserable, I remembered the teaching about the six realms of existence. I began to understand why those on the lower paths don’t care to learn or practice the teachings—like me, they are too exhausted! I also began to grasp how profound the bodhisattva vows were. That short prayer I said to Kuan Yin many months before was more significant than I understood at the time. It expressed a pure aspiration from my heart for healing and happiness for someone other than me.
Around the same time that I came back to these teachings, a wise friend came into my life, my bodhisattva. I had known my bodhisattva for some time but it was not until this point in time that I started listening to her advice, or more accurately, I was able to hear her. She did not expound some great sutra or the teachings of an arahat. Instead, she simply quoted an old Beatles song, “Let It Be.” All of sudden I understood. I felt like the student who in an instant finally got the old master’s koan. From that moment things began to change. I did not wake up the next day totally free from suffering. Instead, I woke up remembering that we have the ability to change our karma and our minds.
It was through my friend that I was able to come into full contact with Kuan Yin. My friend’s compassion and wisdom helped bring me full circle out of the sorrowful place I was mired in and back to Dharma. In her, I could see the reflection of a million Buddhas. To my bodhisattva friend I am forever grateful.
Toward the end of the school year things were finally calm. Caitlin was in and out of the hospital and we eventually lost contact with each other. My family life improved and I was reinvigorated in my practice. I even began Buddha recitation again, which ironically had been my central practice and yet the first thing I stopped practicing.
At first I was resentful about the turmoil of my senior year, thinking I was robbed of something. The more I thought about it, though, the greater the gratitude I felt. I now realize that everything was really part of the Way.
When I reflect on what has gotten me from there to here, I think of two things: the Great Bodhisattva Vows that carried me through my senior year and the two phrases I now carry with me every day, “Namo Kuan Shi Yin” and “Namo Amitabha!”
J. Marion, 19, a practitioner of the Pure Land tradition, is a student at the University of South Florida, majoring in religious studies.
* Some names changed in this essay and throughout this book.