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What would Sid do?
Before Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment at age 35 he was a
confused twenty and thirty-something looking to learn how to live a
spiritual life. He had an overbearing dad, expectations for what he was
supposed to do
with his life, drinks were flowing, lutes were playing, and the
women were all about him. Some called him L.L. Cool S. I imagine
close friends just referred to him as Sid.
Many people look to Siddhartha as an example of someone who attained nirvana, a buddha. But here we look at a younger Sid
as a confused guy struggling with his daily life. What would he do as a
young person trying to find love, cheap drinks, and fun in a city like
New York? How would he combine Buddhism and dating? We all make mistakes on our spiritual journey; here is where
Each week I’ll take on a new question and
give some advice based on what I think Sid, a confused guy working on
his spiritual life in a world of major distraction, would do. Because
let’s face it, you and I are Sid.
Have a question for this weekly column? E-mail it here and I’ll probably get to it!
Q: I’ve been going to a meditation center for the last few months and enjoy it. I like meditation a lot and feel like it’s been helping me with work, relationships, and more. The other week I met a “senior” practitioner who has been meditating for more than thirty years and he was a gnarly individual. He was cranky, rude, and I found myself not wanting to emulate him AT ALL. Am I going to end up like that? HELP. – anonymous
I think everyone who has hung around a Buddhist community for long enough has probably met the person you refer to in your question. You came to that meditation center to learn something
about being kind and calm and then you encounter that guy or lady who
just shatters your impression of what meditation should do over time.
When practitioners officially take their refuge vows to become Buddhist they say that their normal sources of comfort aren’t really doing it for them and that the only things they can really rely on are:
1) the Buddha as an example of someone who awakened from confusion thus showing us that we too are able to attain enlightenment
2) the Dharma as the teachings he gave us that show us how to get there too and
3) the Sangha as the community of fellow practitioners who support us along that path
More often than not everyone’s cool with the first two of these three jewels but then we hit that part of the vow that talks about the sangha and you can see people start to cringe a bit. Really? Do we have to rely on these guys? Some of them are jerks! Undoubtedly the answer is “yes.”
There’s a whole range of ways that the sangha supports you though. One person might watch your dog while you go on retreat, another give you good advice about your posture, and another might just push all of your buttons so you have to work with your own frustration. All of those people are valuable.
We are not asked to make everyone in the sangha our bff, just look to see how he or she can support our path. As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche says in the article linked to above,
“The sangha is the community of people who
have the perfect right to cut through your trips and feed you with
their wisdom, as well as the perfect right to demonstrate their own
neurosis and be seen through by you. The companionship within the
sangha is a kind of clean friendship–without expectation, without
demand, but at the same time, fulfilling.”
These individuals are traveling on the path, just like you. They are still confused, still trying to make their habitual trips work for them, and still trying to get over them to become better people. Often when someone makes a disparaging remark about a senior student to one of their peers I’ve heard the response go, “Well, you should have seen them thirty years ago. They’ve come a long way.”
Ages ago LIFE magazine featured a picture of the Dalai Lama drinking a coke and included the caption “The Dalai Lama takes a break.” That is a very funny thing to say about a figurehead of Tibetan Buddhism who has vowed to not enter nirvana in order to return lifetime after lifetime to exert himself on behalf of others. While the Dalai Lama may have enjoyed the taste of a soda he was likely applying the same quality of precision in being with that experience as he would when meeting foreign dignitaries. In other words there is no such thing as “taking a break” from mindfulness for an individual like that.
Now let’s contrast the Dalai Lama with your “gnarly individual.” One person has spent their life applying themselves to mindfulness and compassion, the other maybe not so much. They both could be practicing meditation but which one is looking to the view of applying these teachings to their daily life? Which one is practicing mindfulness of speech? Which one is taking joy from their practice?
We can take individuals such as His Holiness as role models. We can also look to some of those individuals who have been on the path for thirty-plus years as role models. Yes, some of them can be jerks but others have become incredibly kind, wise human beings. I really hope you will get a chance to meet some of them too. Like the Dalai Lama they conduct themselves in a way that is very worthy of emulation.
As for people that we experience as jerks in our spiritual community they can be good motivation to apply ourselves to our own practice. I’ve never seen meditation (if practiced correctly) make someone a worse or more confused human being. So as sangha members we can encourage others’ practice by applying ourselves to our own.
I think if Sid were visiting a meditation center today he would not give into despair upon meeting a confused, long-time practitioner. He would be incredibly kind to that individual and focus on his own practice with support from spiritual friends whose opinions he trusted. How would he know a spiritual friend from a gnarly individual and what would he do when he found it? Let’s turn to Ngulchu Thogme, 14th century meditation master, for the last word:
“When in reliance on someone, your defects wane
And your positive qualities grow like the waxing moon,
To cherish such a spiritual friend even more than your own body
Is the practice of a Bodhisattva.”