“It is possible that the next Buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next Buddha may take the form of a community-a community practicing understanding and loving kindness, a community practicing mindful living. This may be the most important thing we can do for the survival of the earth” .
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh has passed away at the age of 95. He’s been in poor health for many many years and this is no surprise. But it’s still incredibly sad.
He was an amazing Buddhist teacher and a big inspiration to me. Two of my teachers died in 2021, Lama Chuck Stanford and Zen Master Wonji Dharma. Both of those deaths hit me hard. And now at the beginning of 2022 Thich Nhat Hanh has passed away. Three deaths in rapid succession. The world is changing. All things are impermanent.
I’m reminded a little of when my parents died, over 20 years ago now. 3 years apart and both from different cancers. This isn’t the same as losing a parent (or two), not even close. But it’s still…. something.
I never met him and I’ve never practiced in his community, but Thich Nhat Hanh has been a big inspiration to me. The first book I read on the subject of meditation was “The Miracle of Mindfulness” way back in 2000. And his book “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching” is still, in my opinion, the best introduction to Buddhism that there is.
He was one of the most well known Buddhist teachers in the world. He was born in Vietnam and he became a monk as a teenager, in the 1940s.
In 1966, he became a Zen Master.
He traveled the world as a peace activist throughout the 1960s, and in 1967, his friend, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize saying, “I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of [this prize] than this gentle monk from Vietnam. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.” He wasn’t given the award—it wasn’t given to anyone that year.
He was denied permission to return to his home country in the 1970s, so he moved to France.
He founded an organization called “The Order of Interbeing,” and spent his life spreading Buddhist teachings and advocating for a peaceful world.
There’s a story that gets told about the death of the Buddha. It’s said that his cousin Ananda was at his side and had time to ask two final questions.
Ananda asked, “Do we have to follow all the rules that you set out?” And the Buddha replied, “Just follow the important ones. Don’t worry much about the minor ones.”
(Ananda forgot to ask which rules were the minor ones)
Then Ananda asked, “Who is going to lead us when you’re gone?”
And the Buddha said, “Be lamps unto yourselves.”
It was up to his followers to figure out how to go on. And when our teachers pass it’s up to us to figure out how to go on too. We can get through losses like this. And we will go on.
I think he was aware of just how much people put him on a pedestal. He was almost worshiped. The fact that there even are celebrity Buddhist teachers is a strange thing. Sometimes it feels like a bit much and I wonder if it felt like a bit much to him.
He wrote over 100 books and he taught many many students. There is little doubt that he had a large impact on modern Buddhism.
Thich Nhat Hanh stated that the way forward is to strengthen our bonds of community. We need each other just as much as we need teachers, maybe more. I believe he would like that to be part of his legacy, although of course I don’t claim to speak for him.
Teachers arise and pass away. It’s up to communities to (hopefully) carry on.
Don’t be sad he’s gone. Be happy he was here. We’re all better off because this great teacher existed.
“When relying on the sacred spiritual friend, our faults become exhausted
And our good qualities increase like the waxing moon.
It is the practice of bodhisattvas to value such a sacred spiritual friend
As more precious than their own body.”
–The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva, verse 6.*
What is a spiritual friend?
In this context it’s someone with the qualities that we want to embody ourselves. We have the ability to choose who we spend time with. The truth is that if you’re spending your time with people who are trying to be wise and virtuous in their own lives, then it’s a little harder to be a jerk. When we spend time with people that are trying to grow and are encouraging us to grow, that is a great value. And the flip side is if we’re spending time with people that are rude or mean, those qualities will grow in us.
Nagarjuna said, “Through relying on a spiritual friend, pure conduct will be completely perfected.”
There’s a story from the Buddha’s life that I want to share with you.
The Buddha’s assistant Ananda (who was also his cousin and best friend) went up to him and said, “You know, I’m beginning to think that half of the path is just spending time with spiritual friends.”
And the Buddha said, “No Ananda, it’s the whole path.”
I love that story. It really gets at what matters. Being on this growth journey alone is incredibly difficult. It’s so easy to get off track without friends. In the same way people seem to have an easier time getting to the gym and working out when they have a buddy. In the same way support groups really help people that are battling addiction. We don’t need to do this alone.
The spiritual community can be like a support group. Or even just one friend who is trying to grow like you are can be a great help.
I wanted to practice without that community aspect. I am, by nature, more than a little introverted. Social gatherings aren’t my favorite thing and meeting new people isn’t my favorite thing either. It takes me a long time to get comfortable with other people. And I’m telling you that because I am certain many of you struggle with that as well.
I tried to practice Buddhism without a community for a long time and I really regret that. That’s not to say those years were wasted but I could have had so many more opportunities for learning, practice, and encouragement if I had just been willing to utilize what was around me. But I was too busy thinking I didn’t need the support of a community because I didn’t really want to meet people. That seems so silly now. But I know plenty of people think that way. There are a lot of people interested in these kinds of teachings that do not take that crucial step of engaging practice in a community.
But now I think what the Buddha said to Ananda is correct. It is the whole path.
What I recommend is finding a Buddhist community where you live. That being said if there’s not one within an hour of where you live, there are other possibilities. Plenty of people in this world are looking to improve themselves. There are countless Bodhisattvas all around and we just have to seek them out. Go volunteer at a charity. That’s a good way to meet virtuous people a lot of the time.
The people we spend time with can water the seeds of good qualities in us.
There’s another meaning to “spiritual friend” in this context. It can also mean teacher. It’s good to have a teacher. It’s good to have someone that’s been working at this stuff longer than you that can advise you and maybe point to trouble spots.
But in my personal opinion having a community is significantly more important than having a teacher to look up to. The truth is we can all learn from each other.
“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. *
The motivational speaker Jim Rohn said, “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
I don’t think this is literally true. It doesn’t sound like it’s the product of some sort of scientific study. BUT I do think he’s getting at something important and in line with what we’re studying here. Who you spend time with has an impact on you in various ways.
My son told me about an incident in school where some he was hanging out with some friends and one of them got in trouble. So what happened? Everyone got in trouble. He expressed exasperation about getting in trouble when he’s not the one that did anything. That can happen to any of us. The message is pay attention to who you spend time with. Don’t spend time with the people who are getting in trouble all the time, because that will spill over onto you.
Atisha says, “One should give up friends who arouse negative emotions and rely on friends who increase virtue.”
We can choose to devote more of our time to being around people that inspire growth. It’s our job to grow and who we spend time with plays a role. This is not to say that you should cut off many of your friends, but I know I’ve seen a common situation in my own life. There was a period where I spent a lot of time with someone who was always making fun of other people and saw the world in a very negative way. And I started to emulate some of that. This was not intentional on my part, it just started to happen. Being around that person was changing me. I don’t see that person anymore. Being around people who don’t want to grow inhibits our growth.
Shantideva says, “Being in the company of childish beings will cause me to praise myself and belittle others.”
So, being around certain people causes the three poisons to increase. What are the three poisons? They’re three things that often get in our way and causes us to suffer. Attachment, Aversion, and Ignorance. I like to describe them as obsessions. We are obsessed with the things we want, that’s attachment. We are obsessed with the things we want to get away from, that’s aversion. And we don’t see things clearly, that’s ignorance. Sometimes these are called greed, hatred, and delusion. It’s different words for the same concept. If you know someone who’s invested in nurturing these three things in themselves, you’re probably already aware of it. We can try to help someone in that situation, it may even be you. What we don’t want is for someone we spend time with to inspire us to nurture the three poisons.
Instead, we want to nurture our practices of study, reflection, and meditation. These things are safeguards against the three poisons and they help us to generate love and compassion. And the truth is a bad influence can get in the way of these practices. Because, again, if we’re spending a whole lot of time with people that don’t want to grow, it can sap our motivation.
The Nirvana Sutra says, “The bodhisattva’s fear of bad company is not like the fear of a mad elephant. The latter will only trample the body, but the former will destroy the purity of both one’s mind and one’s virtue.”
We are training in Virtue and Wisdom. Good conduct as well as clarity and awareness. That’s what this is all about.
So, this is why the Buddha said that community is very important. Of course it’s important to have a sacred space to go to and a teacher (or teachers) to learn from. But it’s also important to have a community. This is a place you can go to spend time with people who have some of the same personal growth goals that you do. If we spend more time with people like that, then we they can inspire and motivate us.
So we can just think about this when we’re doing anything really. “Is what I’m doing helping me accomplish my growth goals?”
That’s not to say we have to be focused on that all the time. But it is to say that we should be mindful of how much energy we’re putting into transforming ourselves.
Being free from distraction, the practice of virtue spontaneously increases;
With brightened awareness one feels confidence in the Dharma;
To adhere to solitude is the practice of the bodhisattvas.”
the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva. Verse 3.*
We need to be aware of where we’re going and what we’re doing. Sometimes in life we just do things and don’t give it much thought. The truth is that everything can be part of our spiritual journey. Actually everything is, whether we like it or not.
What do we mean when we say things like “Abandon negative places”?
Sometimes in life we feel trapped. In a job, in a relationship, in a social group, whatever. Rarely are we as trapped as we think we are. None of that really bind us. In the song “Already Gone” by the Eagles there is the line: “So oftentimes it happens that we live our lives in chains and we never even know we have the key.”
I love that line. It really says what I’m getting at. You are not trapped. You can empower yourself to get out of anything. That’s what we’re talking about here. Staying in a situation that doesn’t serve your growth gets in the way. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for to get ourselves out.
I’m being vague on purpose here. I can’t tell you what is or isn’t a negative place. I can’t tell you if your job or your friendships or your relationships are toxic. But you know. With just a little introspection you know exactly what situations would be good to get out of. Also, it’s true there are some outlier situations where people are really trapped. I do need to go out of my way to mention that. Speaking just for myself, I’ve felt like I was trapped and been wrong before. I have usually had more power to get out than I believed I had.
I think we can add habits to this too. What are the habits that keep us away from our spiritual journey? And then what habits can we add to our lives that inspire more practice?
The Ornament of Sutras says:
“The place where intelligent ones practice
Is well supplied, an excellent dwelling place,
An excellent soil, endowed with good companions,
And graced by yogic bliss.”
Several years ago I got divorced and I was really struggling. I stopped trying to cultivate mindfulness and virtue and just sort of wallowed in my struggle.
Then I started going to a Buddhist temple all the time, the Rime Center. I wanted to spend some extra time dwelling in a sacred space and also meeting good companions, people with the same spiritual goals that I have.
If you go less often to the places and situations that get in the way of your spiritual journey, then that can really help. If you go more often to the places and situations that help inspire your spiritual journey, then that can help too. I want to compare it to filling your diet with vegetables so there’s less room for chips.
And it doesn’t have to be a temple, of course. Plenty of people feel motivated and inspired by going out to the woods or something. Your mileage may vary, but I think you probably know already what things and places work for you.
I still like to go to the Rime Center to feel inspiration, but I also have a statue garden in my backyard that I can go to for that. Where do you go?
Nagarjuna said, “One remains in a place that is conducive and relies on holy beings.”
The Buddha said that having a community is important. I think he was right. Getting together with other people that have the same goals as us can motivate us in a way that nothing else really seems to. Some people want to put that aside because they’re introverted. I am sympathetic to that, I used to be quite introverted myself and I still am sometimes.
The Buddha’s student Ananda said, “You know, I think spiritual friendship is half of the path.” And the Buddha replied, “No, Ananda. It’s the whole path.”
I don’t, however, need to appeal to authority really. I can point to my own life. In the past I spent time with people who looked down on and made fun of others often. And then I stopped. And I could really see my own personal growth, just from getting out of those situations.
That’s really what it comes down to here. Spend time with virtuous people. You don’t have to go to a temple or join a group to find them. You just have to pay attention to the people in your life and dedicate time to the ones who have qualities that you think are positive. That’s it.
Obviously we still have a lot of work to do on our personal growth, but spending time with positive people really puts you ahead.
Spend more time in the places that inspire you. Spend more time with the people that inspire you.
That is how to unleash your potential.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — –
*all quotations are from “Illuminating the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva by Chokyi Dragpa
“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.