My Basics of Buddhism class finished last week at the Rime Buddhist Center in Kansas City. I’d highly recommend taking the course if you are interested in becoming Buddhist, are spiritually/religiously curious, or just need an excuse to commit to get out of the house once a week for twelve weeks – which all three was the case for me.
Since learning the basics, I recognize my thinking about life and relationships matches well with Buddhism. I know my Buddha-nature is begging to come with the combination of cultivating wisdom and generating loving compassion. Ultimately meditation is critical and needs to be part of my life as much as food.
Yet, while I agree with so many of the Buddhist philosophies I cannot call myself Buddhist and cannot accept all of the vows. As part of the vows taken by a wanna-be Buddhist, Eight Mahayana Precepts are agreed upon. The first precept is not killing and this is a no brainer when it comes to humans, and even most animals for this vegetarian. Except in the Buddhist tradition not killing includes all sentient beings, from the largest whale to the smallest maggot. According to the teachings, one-act of killing can carry 500 lifetimes of karmic retribution.
I learned about these vows several weeks back and they were steady on my mind while I was out raking one day. The spring weather was finally getting warm consistently so I knew the conditions were finally right for the garter snakes to be emerging. The snake population in my neighborhood is so high it could fill a hundred reptile centers and still have snakes left roaming. I have wanted them gone since the first sighting. After four years of living in my home the surprise in seeing them slinking around the grass, sunning on the bushes, and climbing up my fire pit chimney has worn off. I no longer get the chills or feel the need to run screaming, okay maybe I do get the chills and stay at least five feet away. On this day out in the yard I pondered how a Buddhist would view the snake problem, accept them as part of nature and not be ill willed towards them? Sure enough, when my raking was nearly done I turned back towards what I had already cleared to see a garter snake freshly risen from his winter estate.
Feeling as if this was a test I had predicted for myself, I gave the snake a half-smile and decided it would be Buddha-like enough to help him move out of my raking path to the other side of the fence. I gently used my rake to encourage him to the fence line where he briskly slithered through the chain-link. Pleased with my acceptance of nature and assistance
The actual snake from my yard, picture taken from a safe distance away by camera phone.
towards my not so favorite creature I went on with my chore until I heard some rustling in the area I had sent the snake. What a miracle it would be if another animal had found the snake to make a meal out of. It would still mean good karma for me since I helped him with good intention, I figured as I made my way to the fence to check.
Peaking over, it was clear my original prediction was far from true. I had helped the snake move directly into the path of another snake waiting and ready to mate. My practice at being more Buddha-like was resulting in snake babies. Challenged and not defeated by the incident with the snake, I continued to try to make efforts in my daily life to consider what would a Buddhist do? And the challenges grew from an abundance of hated snakes to hundreds of seemingly insignificant ants. I first spotted one ant on my kitchen floor. Then a few ants on the floor. Then an ant on my kitchen counter and two in my bathroom.
In the Buddhist tradition, each living creature has a connection to you and through the cycle of death and rebirth each living creature has shared a past life. Meaning the ants, the snakes and my least favorite people in the world have all been my mother and have all been your mother in a past life. This newly learned belief was present on my mind while I wiped them clean off the counter and rinsed them down the sink, feeling slightly more guilty about a few deaths in the insect world.
I tried to keep my killing to a minimum, except this past weekend I couldn’t take it any longer. The ants must have sensed my trepidation and had infiltrated my kitchen, marching in one long line up my dining room wall and along a floorboard. All apprehension of killing living beings and any thought to the ants being my loved ones was lost in the excitement of wanting them all dead. I excessively laid out poison and gleefully spoke to my tiny relatives – “Drink up guys and bring your friends.”
Buddhist, I am not. And if I am reincarnated into an ant for my karmic retribution, I promise to stay out of your kitchen.
Other Posts Reflecting My Experience in the Class:
Who would volunteer to go visit a prison? Hardened criminals, manipulative and egotistical minded individuals locked away from society for good reason. Those people behaved badly and did things they knew were wrong, they knew better and should be punished. Why would anyone volunteer to go visit a prison?
I would, and I did go. For me, I don’t carry the typical view of Americans incarcerated like the description above. From years of working with youth, I have watched children learn from violence, addictions and unstable environments. I have seen them removed from their homes and placed in worse conditions in some foster-homes and group homes. I have noticed the pattern of getting in trouble with the law starting early in life when kids don’t have proper role models. I have observed the discrepancies which take place in how youth are dealt with based on race and socioeconomic backgrounds. I have been disappointed by the influence mental health has on effecting behaviors which get ignored in the judicial system. I don’t judge youth as being bad seeds, I can see the good in them and understand who they have become is a reflection of what they have been through. They way kids think, speak and behave couldn’t be any different. They honestly don’t know ‘better’ it’s the only way they know how to be.
It’s easy for us to have pity on children and have sympathy for the situations they have been through. Why does this stop with children? We accept kids don’t know better, and somehow by the age of 18 magically people should now know right from wrong, how to handle anger or cope with stress, how to create a substantial income legally or who to trust not to lead you down the wrong path? It’s hard for me to buy this, if their circumstances were different I know their actions would be different too.
In America we have established a system of ridiculing, harshly judging and locking up victims of unfair circumstances. Victims of abuse, addiction, trauma, poverty, learning disabled and mentally ill. Justifying the incarceration of hundreds of thousand non-violent offenders. Encouraging wealthy investors to build prisons and profit off the contracts to incarcerate some of America’s most oppressed population. This is occurring at such alarming rates we are leading the world in locking up our citizens.
From a class I recently took, volunteers were invited to attend a prison and visit with the inmates as a celebration of Vesak, a Buddhist holiday celebrating the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha. (For my first story on this click here.) On the day of the prison visit I felt nervous, not in fear it would be dangerous, it was more related to how I would manage my own frustration with the prison system and maintain equanimity through the experience. It wasn’t until I showed up for the ride to Leavenworth when I found out we would be going to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, the Department of Defense’s maximum security military prison. According to Wikipedia: Only enlisted prisoners with sentences over ten years, commissioned officers and prisoners convicted of offenses related to national security are confined to USDB. As I would later hear from the inmates, this is the most dangerous prison in the United States since all of the inmates are trained to kill.
To me, this visit suddenly took on another level of social justice problems. These inmates were more likely to be incarcerated for violent crimes, yet I still hang on to the notion they are also victims of their circumstances. Being in the military trains them to be violent, asks them to go to war and causes them to witness unimaginable trauma. It is impossible not to be effected by these circumstances, and many individuals are mentally unprepared to cope. The military has seen a substantial increase in the rates of domestic violence, assault, murder and suicide in the last ten years – directly related to tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Countless enlisted men and women joining the services to serve and protect their country end up with their lives ruined by war.
On the drive to Leavenworth I road with a fellow classmate and talked about gardening, TV shows and travel. We shared our anxiety about what we were going to see and I confided I desperately wanted to know the circumstances of each of their crimes and what lead to them, even though I knew I wouldn’t ask. We presented our id’s at the gates to Ft. Leavenworth and caravaned with other vehicles through the base up to the prison. It seemed to be the furthest possible location on the grounds passing officer’s homes, army barracks, a cemetary lined with identical and symmetrical tombstones, down long winding roads, dead-ends and finally approaching ‘The Castle.”
We entered into a quiet building about 7:15pm and climbed a staircase to a front desk manned by two guards in combat uniform. The lobby felt like a high school with lockers, restrooms and a seating nook overlooking the dense wooded area beyond the parking lot. We each had to be cleared with a background check ahead of time and present our identification to get a visitors badge. Our group of 15 people were escorted by another guard, entering only a few at a time. One giant glass door slamming locked behind us so the next giant locked door could open. After the breeze way another guard with a baby pimpled face asked if the first guard would need assistance escorting us to our meeting room. I was sure these two finished their varsity sports, attended senior prom and put in resignation at McDonald’s about 12 months ago before heading off to boot camp, completely unaware of the commitment they had made and how deeply it would impact their life.
We walked down a long corridor, passing metal doors with small glass windows to other wings of USDB, it reminded me of entrances to different sections of the state mental hospital where I used to work. There were some inmates passing us in the hallway, none were handcuffed or escorted, and I got the impression I wasn’t in danger being there. We entered a room, about the size of a classroom with two long tables set up for us to eat and visit. The prisoners we would be visiting were already in the room and waiting spread out amongst the folding chairs. I shuffled in shyly with the other guests, waiting for instructions which never came. Eventually assuming the responsibility to find a spot to sit down and introduce myself to those around me. My classmate and I sat down next to each other for some security and comfort. We overly smiled and shook hands with the prisoners across and next to us and then felt the awkwardness sink in unsure of what to talk about. I bit my tongue to prevent the question of “What did you do to get here?” from blurting out.
At the start I was painfully conscious of my body positioning and every word I uttered into conversation. We shared how each of us started taking the Basics of Buddhism class, both those from the outside and those from within the prison. We related on why we started a meditation practice and how the practice was going. The prisoners shared the need for meditation to help calm their minds down, cope with emotions and come to terms with being at USDB. During dinner I felt by apprehension fading and my body relaxing. Two of the prisoners I had met were born in other countries, one joining the Navy from his home in California and was last stationed in Hawaii, never imagining he would end up incarcerated in Kansas.
Another prisoner I spoke with told me about being from the East coast, stating he quit college half way through to join the Marines. He had been enlisted for almost a decade, traveling the world and completing three tours to war. We discussed the paths of life, influences which shape us and how everyone makes mistakes. “It would be boring to be perfect,” he remarked, “No one is perfect.”
“Everything is perfect,” I challenged his view. I explained my perception, nothing could be the way it is now without everything else which fell before it. Perfection is neither good nor bad, it is just as it should be. We couldn’t have been at the table meeting each other in USDB had any circumstance in his or my life been different leading up to that day, not good or bad, just perfect. The veteran agreed and said he has become keenly aware of situations in his life, choices he has made and what has lead him to where he is at right now. He feels it is exactly what was supposed to happen and put him in touch with life again. We talked about people who are aware of their past, intention and purpose.
“And then there are the floaters,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I was a floater for a long time too.” From the discussion I took that a floater refers to a person who is existing with indifference to themselves and the world around them. Someone who is oblivious to their impact or lack of impact on others. Individuals who don’t carry attachment to relationships and situations, rather busying themselves with getting by in life without thinking or place value too highly on material things.
There are victims of crimes and then there are the criminal victims of circumstance. Their actions are not legal and are not to be condoned, yet our judicial system is not creating a healthier society. The problem will continue to perpetuate as long as there are floaters unaffected by what is happening and stay disengaged from these conditions in society. We need to help each other wake up to stop judging criminals, change the criminal system and correct the errors which lead individuals to do bad things.
If this post peeked your interest and you want to learn more, here is some recommended reading:
In hindsight, maybe I shouldn’t have phrased the question to my mom in this way. As if any mom would plan on their offspring going to prison, a law-abiding, mid-western, suburban mother of three adult children with no criminal history might have an immediate stroke at the image of their beloved going to lock-up. So I quickly backtracked to explain, “Only for one dinner.”
Llama Chuck teaches my Basic of Buddhism class and facilitates Buddhism for prisoners too, once a year he gets to invite others to attend a dinner with the prison participants. He mentioned this outing for several weeks at class and encouraged people to sign up to come. I had considered it, thought it would be an interesting experience, though I wasn’t sure it would fit in my busy schedule of motherhood.
Class seven was about Equanimity and The Eight Worldly Concerns. Equanimity is the power of the mind being able to experience change and remain unmoved. As a mountain remains stable through snow, wind and lightning; equanimity can maintain the mind through trauma, accidents and emotional pain. In the Buddhist perspective it means accepting things as they are and not how you want them to be. In the moment of crisis it would be difficult to engage my Buddha mind even though I understand the concept. What is more challenging for me to grasp is how you can accept circumstances of the world and avoid apathy, indifference or detachment. How do you care, without caring to be truly identifying with equanimity?
The usual rhythm of the class discusses the chapter and then breaks into smaller groups to talk about discussion questions. The question of the day related to situations where equanimity would be best utilized and asked “How do you feel about inviting pain into your life?” No one in our group admitted to masochism and struggled with the term inviting pain. Once we agreed to think in terms of accepting pain as a part of life our group shared different sides of the spectrum, one individual reporting she avoids pain by keeping people at a distance in her life and not maintaining relationships while another woman stated she has noticed being ultra sensitive and feels she is in pain more than necessary. Our discussion turned to opportunities we do “invite pain” when we put ourselves in uncomfortable situations like helping struggling friends or volunteering. Spending time working at a soup kitchen or with hospice patients could be a way to practice equanimity, accepting things as they are without being apathetic.
At the end of class Llama Chuck reiterated his invitation to prison stating it was the last day to sign up. Going to prison sounded like a practice of equanimity for me. I am angered at the prison system in our country and the rate of incarceration for petty and nonviolent crimes, and because of my feelings towards the system I have detached myself in many ways. After his closing people began gathering their belongings. In that moment I knew it would be an opportunity to practice caring without caring. I needed one final push to nudge me all the way in to my decision. I looked forward to a classmate who I had socialized with for the last several weeks, a Spanish teacher at a local college. “Do you want to go to prison with me?” I nonchalantly inquired knowing if she denied I was not signing up alone.
“I don’t have to teach a class that night,” she thought for a second, “Sure.” And within seconds we were jotting our names on the sign-up sheet. (Sorry Mom, I’m locked-in to attend the prison dinner but I am not going to lock-up.)
The prison dinner is later this month and I will try to multiply my meditation practice to prepare to be equanimitable in prison. Afterall I am only going for a few hours as a guest, equanimity as a true prisoner would take much more strength of the mind.
In third grade I had the distinct realization my family was not like others. Obviously a little slow in my childhood, or just too busy with Barbies and baby dolls to notice, I finally had the clarity to understand how different my family was from my friends’. We did not go to church on Sundays and we ate a vegetarian diet. In that devastated moment I questioned why my parents would be sabotaging my chances at leading a normal existence. I can imagine my mom reassuring me in her usual calm and undisturbed manner, suggesting I can go to church if I choose and I can eat meat if I choose too. And so I did. I tried tasting meat and I attended Sunday school with friends a few times before deciding I wasn’t really missing much with either.
Into adulthood the urge to eat meat never reappeared and the desire to find religion, well that never presented itself either, except I am at a firm disadvantage when biblical trivia comes up in games or television trivia. Despite my lack of time spent in places of worship, my life was not absent of spiritual teachings. And as I learned more about religions in general, I found ideas based in the Buddhist traditions paralleled my own thoughts the most.
Still not identifying with any specific religion I decided to take a Basics of Buddhism class to learn about Buddhism, practice meditation and give mommy some required weekly time out each week.
Part of week three’s lesson covered the Four Nobel Truths relating to dissatisfaction and suffering. The Nobel Truths recognize how all beings desire happiness and peace even though the nature of the world is impermanent. In other words, what makes us happy and secure in this moment could be very different in the next moment since life is ever-changing. The Nobel Truths explain if you can recognize your attachment, delusion or craving for what is not present in your life you can relieve yourself from the suffering associated with it. Our thoughts revolving the attachment can perpetuate a negative emotion and the opposite is true by letting go of the attachment.
This principle can be applied to anything which causes suffering and it could be extremely useful if one could be effective at using it for major situations. Imagine if you could just let go of the attachment to a home following a foreclosure, a spouse following a divorce, or a loved one following a death. Imagine skipping out on the grief, despair and anger to move towards acceptance of what is present instead of what is missing.
Amazing, in concept, to have the power within my own mind to escape suffering. I’m not going to even pretend, after a few weeks of beginning to learn about Buddhism, that I could incarnate the patience and understanding of a Buddhist monk in the moment of crisis. I’m sure I would completely lose sight of these lessons and appear completely irrational should a tragedy occur in this moment, however, I have already had some real life application of this teaching.
Two days after my lesson on the Four Nobel Truths I was struck my the necessity to implement this strategy and acknowledge I was causing my own suffering. As so much of my learning is associated with my toddler these days she was also the target of this scenario. We had been shopping at a kids consignment sale, and with limited two-year old patience we managed to pick out a few toys and avoid the coveted riding toy area before we had to make it through the line to check out. The checkout line happened to be situated next to the long table of shoes. I’m usually not one to be interested in previously worn shoes and since my daughter’s Nana can’t leave a store without buying her a pair I hardly ever even browse. Except these red leather cowgirl boots caught my eye and I immediately envisioned these being beloved shoes she would want to wear with every outfit. I could picture red boots over leggings or with a jean skirt and a white t-shirt. She would be stylish and ready to hop on a horse at any moment. Excited by my finding I showed them to Parker and even offered her the choice in colors, and was thrilled when she agreed with the red.
When we got home I couldn’t wait to try them on, to watch the magic and celebrate our consignment sale find. The boots slid on easily and about as quickly as they were on she shook her legs to kick them back off. Without an explanation, she decided she would not wear them. It seemed the harder I urged, the frequency I requested and the more creative I tried to trick her into the boots only made her increase the stubbornness against it. After much frustration and disappointment I remembered the ideas of the Four Nobel Truths and recognized I was creating my own suffering by holding onto my attachment of the red boots.
We can spend a lot of energy being frustrated by things not going as planned, by failure or changes to our vision. And in some cases, if we really decide we don’t want to be unhappy, we can be mindful of what’s causing the suffering and let go of how we thought things should be. I let go of the red boots, I acknowledged my ideas of how adorable they would be weren’t worth the misery I was feeling with my toddler creating her own vision. I finally gave up on the boots and formulated the connection to the Buddhist teachings with this plan to write about it. When I set up the boots to take a picture, Parker suddenly regained interest. She pulled them from my picture set-up, sat down and pulled each onto their respective foot. I snapped a few pictures while she stomped and wiggled, then within minutes they were kicked back off again. After the little tease it was easier for me to remind myself to let go of the attachment – these little red boots were only meant to be a Buddha Boot lesson for me.