“If, while befriending someone, the three poisons increase, The activities of study, reflection, and meditation degenerate, And love and compassion disappear, Then it is the practice of the bodhisattvas to give up this company.” -The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva, verse 4.
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It was back in 2017 when one of my teachers, Lama Chuck, retired from the Rime Center. I just called him one of my teachers but I don’t think he ever liked me very much.
When he retired he said something that didn’t mean anything to me then, but it’s jumping out at me now.
You see, his replacement Matt didn’t know if he should call himself a Lama or not, or so it seemed. And Chuck said publicly, in front of everyone, “This is what my teacher told me. If you’re doing the work of a Lama, you are a Lama. Running the Rime Center makes you a Lama.”
In that moment Matt became Lama Matt.
I’m not, however, writing about Matthew Rice and Chuck Stanford here. Maybe some time I will, but not now. I just wanted to write about that one quote.
“If you’re doing the work of a Lama, you are a Lama.”
Today, right now, that quote is enormously meaningful to me. Because you can reverse it. “If you’re not doing the work, then you’re not…”
Twenty years ago I first started exploring Buddhism. I started studying and practicing without the support of a community. I had given up the religion of my family and at first I was one of those irritating atheists that judges religious people. Then I found Buddhism.
And it just felt right to me.
I don’t know if I believe in karma or fate or past lives, although my view of such things have softened in recent years. I just know that when I started learning about Buddhism it felt like something that was already part of me, like I was supposed to find it.
And for 9 years I practiced it by myself. I’m not by nature a very social person. I don’t really have close friends. It’s hard for me to feel like I belong anywhere. So joining a community scared the shit out of me. The truth is I still don’t know how to fit into one. So, I read every book I could get my hands on and I spent a lot of time meditating.
Eleven years ago I joined the Rime Center. I thought some of the trappings of Tibetan Buddhism were silly and I really wanted to practice Zen Buddhism. But the truth is I didn’t know what I wanted. I realize that now. But at the time I definitely wished there was a Zen Temple in Kansas City (there wasn’t and still isn’t)
I became a part of that community. I enjoyed practicing Buddhism with others and I was glad to be there and feel like I was part of something. I started volunteering in the children’s program (called Dharma School) and I eventually ended up running it. I took Meditation Instructor Training classes. I took Refuge Vows and got a Buddhist name (Kelsang Dakpa). I also took Pratimoksha and Bodhisattva Vows.
Vows are serious things and shouldn’t be taken or given lightly. I may write about those vows at some point, but not right now.
I started writing about Buddhism too. Not presenting myself as an expert, just as a sincere practitioner. I like to write, it’s the reason I got an English Degree in college.
Ten years ago I connected with a Zen teacher that lived here. He found me because of my association with the Rime Center. And he convinced me that a person could become a Zen Monk without changing their life very much. (in that organization they use the title zen monk. In most organizations zen priest is used instead)
Now, a few things are at play here. One is a person wanted me to be his student, that felt nice, like getting chosen first in sports as a kid (which never happened to me)
Why did I want to be a Zen Monk? Just because I had read “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki, “Hardcore Zen” by Brad Warner, and “The Way of Zen” by Alan Watts. I really think that’s it.
So I was convinced that 1) I could become this without changing my life much and 2) that I should do that. To give him the benefit of the doubt, I’m sure he would say he didn’t mean to convince me of either of those things.
So I went through Zen Monk training, such as it was. I took the vows to become a Monk in that tradition. It wasn’t an incredibly rigorous training and it was mostly online. But I can say that I learned a lot.
But some things about this organization and this teacher (which I won’t name here) didn’t feel quite right. And when he suddenly changed the rules on me, I knew it was time to leave. He said, “We’re going to start expecting monks to wear robes all the time” and I knew I would not do that. I didn’t really want to wear robes at all, let alone all the time.
So I left the organization. That rule was lifted really soon after I left, I think. But maybe things happen for a reason. There wasn’t much of a community to it anyway and during that period I had never quit going to the Rime Center. I don’t think that teacher is running a community now, but I could be wrong.
I still had this idea that he had planted in me though. I wanted to be a Zen Priest. I found some teachers on the internet that were willing and able (maybe even eager) to vouch for me.
The truth is I’m not doing the work of a Zen Priest, so I’m not one. I don’t have any students that are learning from me, I’m not doing Zen rituals for anyone, I’m not serving a Zen Community. And that’s what a Zen Priest does.
It’s the same with the word Dharma Teacher, which I’ve used at times to describe myself. I’m not doing the work of a Dharma Teacher. I have no students. I’m a Speaker and a Writer who is interested in Buddhism, but I’m not teaching anyone.
Lama Matt gave me the title “Gegan” which means Teacher in Tibetan. I felt incredibly honored when he gave me that title. It’s the word that gets applied to lay teachers. That is what I was when I was teaching at the Rime Center, a lay teacher. Although I certainly feel more connected to that title than Zen Priest, I can’t in good conscience use it. I’m not doing the work of a Gegan. That would be teaching Buddhism, which I’m interested in doing, but I’m not doing it. A teacher without students is not a teacher.
What work am I doing?
Occasionally I do teach meditation. I am doing the work of a Meditation Teacher, so I am a Meditation Teacher. I taught at a local library recently and not too long ago I taught at a store called Aquarius KC. I believe just about anyone can teach other people how to meditate. We tend to think there’s some great secret to it, but there’s not.
I’m also a Speaker and a Writer. I’m comfortable saying I am those things. I probably have more in common with Alan Watts than Thich Nhat Hanh, if I’m honest.
I’m trying to do the work of a Bodhisattva by studying, practicing, and cultivating virtue. I’m not going to say, “I’m a Bodhisattva” because that feels bigger than me. But I am an “Aspiring Bodhisattva”.
So that’s it.
I desperately wanted to be a Zen Priest for a little while. I have robes and everything. It’s weird and a little embarrassing to even look back on that now. I do an open awareness practice that is essentially the same as zazen, but I can’t call myself a Zen teacher or anything of the sort. Hell, I met some wise teachers like Dosho Port and Man Hae and this *really* should have confirmed for me that I am nowhere near being a Zen Teacher.
The truth about that is I trained with one teacher for a pretty short time, then I studied with some teachers on the internet. I wanted that to be more than it was. Emailing back and forth with a teacher isn’t really the same as training with them, no matter how much you do it and no matter how much they encourage you. I hope it doesn’t offend anyone that I said that. There are organizations out there that function on that premise. I see that in the modern world people are out there trying to have not only teachers, but also whole spiritual communities that exist online.
I don’t know how that works for anyone, I just know it does nothing for me.
I had a lot more training at the Rime Center, where I ran the youth program, went on dozens of retreats, sat with various teachers, and took many many classes.
I’m closer to a Rime Buddhist with some Zen influence than I am to a Zen Buddhist. And that’s very clear to me now. Maybe I just wanted to be cool and different from the Buddhists around me. I don’t know.
When a pandemic hit and I was struggling with all that uncertainty and isolation, it wasn’t zen teachings that helped me get through it. It was all those teachings I learned at the Rime Center.
Shantideva’s Way of the Bodhisattva has turned out to be the guide to my life. I used to study these teachings while at the same time thinking I was somehow better than them, above them. I was so deluded.
I stopped going to the Rime Center three years ago. And when the pandemic started to lift I decided to go back. And it was just like going home again even though it’s in a new space.
I still want to teach people about Buddhism, but I’m not sure if that’s an opportunity that will ever present itself in my life again. I’m not doing the work of a Zen teacher or of a Gegan, at least not right now.
But I’ll keep doing the work of an aspiring Bodhisattva. Every day I’m trying to do good in the world, to be more mindful, and to help others. That’s what life is about and that’s what I want to do.
In the meantime, I’ve found a way to turn my career into something where I’m helping people that need help every single day as a Union Representative. I don’t want to make that sound like more than it is, but I’m trying hard to listen and to fight for people that need someone in their corner. To me that is the great Bodhisattva action of putting some good into the world. And I have a wife and four kids. And a garden full of Buddha statues in my backyard, because I’ve slowly grown more devotional in my practice. I never thought I’d grow more devotional but I have.
I don’t know what the future holds for me, but I know I’m letting go of things that don’t serve me and don’t seem to be part of my journey.
The Governor of Missouri stated that all adults in my state will be eligible for the Covid 19 vaccine on April 9th. I can only assume other states will put similar things in place. That’s good news to me because I’ve been waiting for my turn. That’s not to say the Pandemic is over. I think some aspects of this will change our lives forever.
I think Coronavirus is to Millenials what 9/11 was to Gen X’ers like me. Or it is to Gen Z what 9/11 was to Millenials. It’s a watershed moment, we’re all going to remember what it felt like for the rest of our lives.
A great many people said things like “2020 is the worst year ever!” And to me it feels like 2020 is really coming to an end now, three months after the official end.
It’s been a roller-coaster for me.
I gave up on a meditation group I was trying to establish. It was costing me too much money to rent a space. Giving that up was hard for me. I really want to share meditation practice with people, but it is what it is. There are so many places people can go for that in Kansas City. If I could work for someone else as a meditation teacher instead of trying to make my own opportunities I think I’d like that. Some of this was because I really wanted a new spiritual community after I got uncomfortable in my old one (the rime center) a few years ago.
I traveled to Washington DC in March to meet with members of Congress as a representative of Federal workers. That was an amazing experience. I met then-Senator Kamala Harris, among many other people. The last time I was around a crowd was a rally on the lawn of the US Capitol. This was all for my labor union. I was elected to a leadership position near the end of the year. Representing workers that need help feels like a calling to me.
When I got back from that trip in March things changed. That sticks in my memory.
I found out I have the gene for a heart condition and I’ll have to see a cardiologist every year for the rest of my life, but I’m considered low risk as far as this dangerous condition goes. I call it “the other kind of broken heart”
Lots of people had bigger struggles with Covid than me. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to work from home for the last year. Alicia has as well. We know how lucky we are and how many people have not been lucky. If/when we have to return the transition will be hard.
Speaking of Alicia. We got married this year. We had planned a big reception, which we felt the need to cancel (we’re having a big first anniversary party in September) so we just had a small simple wedding. It was wonderful. I can say this relationship is the best I’ve ever had by far. I have the family I’ve always wanted.
We also bought a house in Parkville. (a cute little college town outside of Kansas City, if you’re not local). It took us a long time to find a house with enough space, we have four kids. But we did find a wonderful house and we love it here. I’m building a garden full of Buddha statues in the backyard. I call it “the Buddha Garden” but I’m hoping I come up with a better name.
I’m now meditating and burning incense every day, and working in the garden. I’m chanting too, which was always something that I didn’t like very much. I’ve been doing mantras dedicated to personal transformation.
And it all feels like it’s doing something for me.
I’m coming out of this Pandemic a better person than I was at the beginning. I have some optimism.
The truth is that I didn’t realize how much I valued having a spiritual community until I didn’t have one anymore.
I’ve not said much about this.
I went to a Buddhist Center here in Kansas City for 8 years. I did lots of volunteering and teaching. I led the Youth Program for a while.
I stopped going 3 years ago. It was hard for me. I don’t get comfortable in groups or places very easily and I don’t have a lot of friends. I don’t want to say, “I was mistreated” or something because that would be overstating what happened. I’ll just say that I felt a sense of belonging and it was made clear to me that that feeling was misplaced. I will add that the leadership didn’t agree with me regarding how much respect should be given to members and on the importance of good communication.
The whole experience makes me reflect on what I think communities need to do regarding things like how to deal with problems, how to make people feel valued, how to strengthen the community. These are difficult things to handle and many communities fall short. And the truth is my issue in that community has had an impact on me. I don’t know if I’ll be comfortable joining some other community in the future. I sort of tried to start my own so I wouldn’t have to and that didn’t work out. I don’t have a community that I really feel part of right now, although I have explored some of the other Buddhist communities in Kansas City, I don’t know if I’ll ever feel comfortable and like I belong. That’s just the way it is. Spiritual leaders have to be careful.
I used to wonder why spiritual friendship is so important in Buddhism. I’d say it’s important in most spiritual paths. This is not included in the teachings for no reason.
“And what is meant by admirable friendship? There is the case where a lay person, in whatever town or village he may dwell, spends time with householders or householders’ sons, young or old, who are advanced in virtue. He talks with them, engages them in discussions. He emulates consummate conviction in those who are consummate in conviction, consummate virtue in those who are consummate in virtue, consummate generosity in those who are consummate in generosity, and consummate discernment in those who are consummate in discernment. This is called admirable friendship.” – the Buddha, the Dighajanu Sutta.
Admirable friendship is another way of talking about community. On reflection I think the idea of “admirable friends” (kalyana mitra) resonates with me a little more than “spiritual community” or any of the various other terms we could use. It strikes more at the heart of why we’re doing it. It is good for us to spend time with people who are making the same efforts on the path that we are. It motivates and inspires us. It helps us stay on track and reminds us of what’s important.
But also, the question sometimes gets asked, “How do we make friends as adults?”
Ideally the sangha, or spiritual community, would be a good place for that too. I know I wouldn’t know any other Buddhists if I hadn’t gone to a Buddhist Center. I wouldn’t have met and married my wife if I hadn’t gone to a Buddhist Center.
I’ve heard it said that we become more like the people we spend the most time around. What does that mean we should do? Spend time with virtuous people. Spend time with people that you want to be more like. If we’re on this journey and it’s important to us, then it makes sense to engage with other people on the journey with us. The ideal situation is your whole household goes with you and everyone is exposed to good influences. Often it simply doesn’t work out that way and that’s okay.
What can someone do if there are no communities around to join? Or if the communities around haven’t felt right?
I don’t know. I don’t think there’s a good answer to that besides try to start your own.
But I’d say anyone that lives somewhere with Buddhist centers around should at least try to make the effort to get involved. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, run away if there are red flags. But trying is important.
This path isn’t just something to study and think about. It’s supposed to be a path we’re walking on. And we should try to figure out how to walk on it together whenever we can.
It’s about an hour away. I lived there because I went to college at KU. Some people say college was the best time of their lives. That is not true for me. But that’s okay. The best time of my life is now.
It was during that period that I became really interested in Buddhism. I started doing a lot of reading and study and I quickly learned that Zen was my favorite.
I’m telling you all this to tell you that I didn’t go to the Kansas Zen Center. It would have been simple for me to do when I lived in a place with a Zen Center and I didn’t go. But one day I almost did. It was 2003 ( I think) and I learned about it and I went there. But I didn’t go in. There are a few reasons for this.
One is that it was a house. I saw it was a house and for some reason that bothered me. I’ve learned that I’m not the only one, it’s actually pretty common that people are scared off when Buddhist temples are in houses. I don’t know why, really. Maybe something about a house is less welcoming. Also, it didn’t have a clear sign, or at least I didn’t see one. I know it has a big clear sign now. I told myself it might not be the right place and I’d be really embarrassed if I went to the door and it wasn’t. I had so much social anxiety. We tell ourselves nonsense sometimes, to avoid taking steps we know we should take.
Another reason is that I was really anxious. Going by myself to a place like that was too much for me. I’ve always had some anxiety problems, but those first few years after my mother’s death…whew they were bad. Being in an unfamiliar place, meeting people…scary. It would be some time before I’d come out of my shell enough to meet other Buddhists.
That sounds very silly to reflect on now, but if you’ve been around a spiritual community you know that people rarely go alone, at least the first time.
I didn’t have anyone to go with and that was a powerful excuse.
I’m emphasizing that because that’s an excuse a lot of people use and something communities are always going to struggle with probably.
How can we be so welcoming that people will be comfortable enough to come alone? I don’t have an answer fort hat.
Anyway, this is on my list of regrets. I should have gone in. I’ll never know how that would have played out. By the time I was ready, I didn’t live in a city with a Zen Center anymore, so I had to go somewhere else.
I met a lot of nice people at the Rime Buddhist Center. I even met my partner Alicia there. I’m building a life with her and that’s wonderful. I ran the Sunday School program for four years. I went through the Meditation Instructor Training Program. I even had the opportunity to teach a class there once (but only once). I got a lot out of my time there, so I could never regret it.
I made a lot of friends there, but maybe it was never really a good fit for me.
I don’t believe in magic and spirits. I don’t judge people that do, but that is simply not me. I’m not into offerings and I’m really not into visualization meditation either.
I tried to make the Rime Center fit for a long time. But ultimately a situation came where I didn’t feel welcome anymore. I wasn’t forced out but I was pushed just enough to make my days as the only zen guy at the Tibetan temple come to an end.
I don’t miss the Rime Center much but I do sort of wish my teaching efforts had the support and encouragement of some community in the city. And I think there is something to having a place to go and people to encourage you in your practice. I do wish I still had that.
But the truth is I’m a Zen Buddhist, not a Tibetan Buddhist. What I really want is to practice with people who are interested in the same teachings and teachers that I’m interested in.
This wasn’t hidden in the time that I went to the Rime Center. People knew I was a Zen Buddhist. Sometimes people would ask me really specific questions about Zen. Once in a while people from those days when I went to the Rime Center still do.
Sometimes people ask me what they should do if they live in Kansas City and they’re interested in Zen.
I don’t really have a good answer. I think the Kansas Zen Center is a good place, it’s just an hour away. I didn’t know until recently they have a group that meets at Unity Temple weekly. If you’re free Tuesday nights, I think it’s probably a good group. But that’s not the same as Kansas City having our own local center. It’s part of a community that’s an hour away, not here.
Do you want to study and practice in the Zen tradition with me in Kansas City?
Send me a message and let me know. Maybe we can figure something out together.
want to come meditate with me?
Monday Night Meditation
Nelson Atkins Museum – South Lawn
4525 Oak Street
Kansas City, MO
This is a public event. We’re meditating on the lawn of the Nelson Museum, just south of “The Thinker” statue. I’m going to give a short talk and a bit of guidance, then we will sit together. Tell all your friends.
Well, that’s not the start of it. The start of it is wishing Kansas City had a Zen Center. Then that goes into wondering why Kansas City doesn’t have one. Then, that goes into wondering if I could do something about it.
I don’t think about this because I have an abundance of free time that I want to commit to it. I don’t think about this because I think I’m enormously qualified to run a spiritual community. That level of responsibility would be scary to me.
The main reason I start to get that idea is because Kansas City doesn’t have one and I think that’s weird.
Smaller cities have Zen Centers.
St. Louis, Columbia, Lawrence, Omaha, and Des Moines all have Zen Centers. I’ve been to some of them and they’re nice.
But why in these smaller cities and not here?
There are a handful of (really small) zen groups here, but there’s no center.
(I’m not talking about a temple. The difference between a Zen temple and a Zen center is that a temple is designed to primarily serve monks and nuns and a center is designed to serve regular people like you and me.)
And I wonder why we don’t have one?
We’re a growing city with a (surprisingly) spiritually diverse population.
I didn’t intend to start a community and I’m not sure if I have.
I created Fountain City Meditation as a project because I was inspired to serve others by providing meditation instruction and encouragement. People need a lot of encouragement in meditation practice, I think. And if I can reach people that aren’t being reached right now, that’s even better. I think many meditation communities might not be as focused on encouragement as they could be. People need a support system for their practice and to me THAT is the central role of a meditation/spiritual community.
I was teaching in a Buddhist community here in Kansas City for a while and then one day I wasn’t anymore. That’s not something to get into here except to say that my inspiration to help and encourage others didn’t just go away, so I spent time thinking about what I can do.
I have considered asking some of the other wonderful communities here in town if they’d be willing to bring me on as a teacher, to work together. But so far I haven’t asked. I have a fear of rejection, I think. Teaching in an established community would be pretty great though. Insecurity is a weird thing.
I recorded an episode of my podcast Scharpening the Mind with my friend Daniel Symes on the subject of community because I think it’s an interesting subject. You can listen to that podcast here:
I tried to create a situation where people come meditate with a minimum of baggage. We’re outside, so some of the intimidation of entering a new place isn’t there. Some people just come once, and some people come over and over. Some people come alone and some people bring friends. Many of the people that come just do the sitting practice and leave, without talking to anyone. I think that’s really great because I’m happy to welcome the most introverted among us. I think a lot of really shy people stay away from spiritual communities because they’re nervous about meeting new people. I know that when I first became interested in meditation practice, I had some issues around being reluctant to go meet people.
You don’t have to meet anyone to come to Fountain City Meditation.
Also, there’s no religion or ritual attached to what we’re doing.
I call it meditation without baggage. My hope is that people who are devoutly religious (of whatever kind) and people who don’t like religion could be equally comfortable coming to one of these events. I’m hoping that by doing outdoor events I can attract people who, for various reasons, don’t really want to go to temples or yoga studios or other traditional settings. Going inside an unfamiliar place can intimidate people too.
There’s no membership, I’m not trying to sell anything and I don’t even ask for donations. The great thing about meeting in a public outdoor space is that it doesn’t cost me anything (there are downsides too, of course) so I don’t need to take donations. All I’m spending is my time.
That might not seem like a big deal, but I know some people stay away from communities because they feel guilty when donations are being accepted. I want to reach people that feel weird when they hear the word “donation”.
I wanted to create a situation where all the things that scare people off or make people reluctant aren’t present.
I’m not sure if I’m achieving that, but I do think there are people that are interested in meditation that aren’t being reached by traditional efforts.
If we’re a community, we’re a community full of non-joiners.
Non-joiners could use some encouragement too.
Is Fountain City Meditation a community? I think that’s not up to me.
My girlfriend told me a story about her grandmother.
She would have a Bible study group in her kitchen. People would come from around town and they’d just sit together and talk about their faith. This wasn’t the same as church, where people go to practice their religion in a specific and well defined way. This was more free. They were just relating to each other and talking about what they were trying to do.
I think that’s great.
It was having that in mind that inspired me.
I want Fountain City Meditation to be like that. Not a temple, not a place with strict rituals and forms. Some people don’t like strict rituals and forms. And some people are really afraid they’ll mess up and do it wrong. There’s no wrong way here.
We just come together and practice meditation and encourage each other. And we do it in my living room.
There are lots of places you can go to for meditation in Kansas City. But I don’t think there’s anything quite like this.
If you don’t like the idea of going to temples or meditation centers, you should come.
If you do like those things but you’re just looking for a little more encouragement and people to talk to about your practice, you should come too.
You don’t have to be Buddhist, you don’t have to be spiritual. You’re allowed to think all that stuff is silly. This is just about training your mind to be more fully present.
When you’re more fully present, you can transform your life.
Encouragement. A chance to sit together. A welcoming and friendly atmosphere.
My wish, above all else, is to make sure no one feels like they don’t belong, like they aren’t good enough, like they aren’t part of the in crowd, like they aren’t doing it right.
The world is a crazy place right now and I am scared.
Lots of people’s lives are turned upside down right now by current events and things are really hard to understand and hard to deal with.
This is a story I like to share.
A student went to Nakagawa Soen Roshi during a meditation retreat and said, “Master, I am feeling very discouraged. What should I do?”
And Roshi replied, “Encourage others.”
That story has meant a lot to me since I heard it. I think we’re best at encouraging others when we feel discouraged and it feels like there’s no hope.
I am discouraged. How can I encourage you?
Encouragement is central to this new project and I will not lose sight of that intent. I want to encourage you.
I teach online. I think if you’re reading this you know that. I reach people all over the world and it’s rewarding. I’m trying to figure out if I can serve my local community too.
Right now I’m envisioning “Fountain City Meditation” as a floating community, a group where we come together at different places and different times.
I want to provide opportunities for meditation practice and I want to encourage that practice. There are several meditation communities in town. I want to reach the people that aren’t feeling served by those communities. I know those people exist.
I used to belong to a Buddhist community as a very active member, I was around for years. I saw so many people come and go. Some people would come once or twice and then go. But others would stay for months and years and then just be gone. I don’t know what the disappearing people needed. I just know they weren’t getting it. I want to reach people that feel like they don’t belong anywhere. I want to reach people that no one is reaching and I want to encourage them.
(if you want to know why I left, just ask. I want to share with others and I want others to feel comfortable sharing with me. There are real human issues in life and no one is perfect)
I also want to reach people that maybe don’t feel totally lost, but are interested in something a little different.
So, this is my invitation to you, if you’re in or around Kansas City.
If you want a community where none of us pretend that we’re perfect or that we have it all together.
If you’ve ever felt like you don’t belong in a Meditation Center or Buddhist Temple.
If you’ve ever felt like you’re the only person in the meditation room who doesn’t know what’s going on.
If you really want a sense of community with your meditation group.
If you feel like you can’t meditate, or you’re not calm enough, or everyone will look at you like a fraud.
If you feel alone in a room full of people because no one in the community has reached out to you.