Spiritual Travels: What Brought Me to Here, A Monk’s Training Log
This draft attempts to describe some of my strongest tendencies and activities primarily during my adult life. This initial effort may include assertions and observations that are fanciful, incomplete, or perhaps untrue. I have found that when I write things down and continue to work on them, it helps me to discover what is not true and occasionally what is true.
First, let me say something about my childhood and family before I write about my adult years. I have two brothers, one is five years older and the other a year and a half younger. I am quite close to my younger brother, not so much to the older one. My parents each worked full time or more while I was growing up. My dad drove a gasoline tank truck and also a school bus and my mother worked in a plastic factory and later for the telephone company. Neither of my parents were particularly religious. I don’t believe either of them ever went to church. They did think, however, that their children should go. So, we occasionally attended the United Methodist church in our small town in western Pennsylvania. I say occasionally because both of my parents worked hard and long hours and were very tired by Sunday. As observant children, we noticed this and would be especially quiet on Sunday morning, hoping they would sleep until it was too late for them to drive us to Sunday school. Very often this worked.
Both of my parents were loving and quite dedicated to raising their children. As a young boy, I viewed my mother as a tower of strength and quite fierce if she felt she or her family had been wronged by someone. In adulthood, my views of her changed. By then, she had destroyed her health with amphetamines, valium and cigarettes. I observed up close her overwhelming unhappiness and suffering, her brittleness…. she continued to be angry and fierce. But I no longer regarded these traits as strengths. My father was calm, steady, affirming and compassionate throughout my life…. a good man who loved without demanding a return on his love.
Near the end of college, I wholeheartedly embraced the belief that individually or by joining with others, I could exercise great control over what unfolds in life. If one was smart, hardworking and resolute, one could shape a better life for oneself and others…make changes that would be fundamental and long lasting. The causes of social justice, socialism, feminism, gay rights seemed right to me, so I jumped in with both feet.
I also believed strongly that anger, if channeled wisely, was a good source of energy for doing this work.
I held the belief that in doing work like this that my defeats would many, the victories few and positive change slow going. But we would win eventually because right was on our side.
So, in my early twenties, I began a life’s work that was centered on the pursuit of social justice, mostly working in the labor movement for the next forty years.
At first blush, it might sound like I was a selfless warrior for justice. Not true…. certainly not the selfless part.
However, it helped me to do the work because I believed that I was selfless and I projected that persona in order to get the many things I wanted for me in my intense and constant search for adoration, control, and pleasure……I then used these things to help me further solidify my persona…. I was on a merry go round that I showed little interest in getting off for many years. My immediate rewards just kept coming…yes, they were temporary, but they were renewable and intoxicating. And I did not bother to look at many other aspects of what I was doing nor the effects it had on others.
I seldom, if ever, searched for any deeper truth than what the fight for justice and equality seemed to offer. And that truth fit nicely into my constant pursuit of my underlying desires. I don’t mean to say that I did not believe in what I was doing… I did.
Looking back, I think that my serious defeats in life just piled up for a long time without prompting me to reflect more deeply.
Seeking pleasure played a key role in this regard, it distracted and deadened me…. drugs, alcohol, sex and adultery were my “off ramps” from the angry, intense, combative work in which I engaged. Unfortunately, these pleasurable activities “worked” mostly and helped to prolong my immersion in an angry, warrior work life. This, in turn, led me to seek even more pleasure…me jumping onto yet another merry go round.
Recently, I penned the following statement which I think is accurate regarding my created persona vs. the deeper truth of me. “I never offered a thing without a string…. even if the string was solely to validate to myself that I was a good person.”
Defeats and Letting Go
Defeats can reveal the truth if we desire it and are able to look upon those defeats with Buddha eyes. Looking back, at least three defeats in my life gave an indication that I had some buried desire to get off my merry go rounds.
The first defeat and letting go, was in my thirties, when my mother suffered with and eventually died from emphysema caused by cigarette smoking. I played a significant role in her initial diagnosis and ongoing treatment and care during her final dozen years of life. I vividly remember taking my turn trying to persuade her to quit smoking. I thought my effort was quite good. I was armed with accepted facts and argued a measured hope for a quality remaining life for her if she quit smoking. I also was honest, but compassionate, about her prospects should she continue to smoke. She neither heard me nor anything I said…. she simply could not. In overwhelming denial, she insisted that she would be fine, saying it as though she were trying to reassure and protect her young child. Without thought, my instant reaction was to let go of trying to “save” her. I don’t know why. Instead, I surrendered and tried to give my best care….to both her and my father…. without badgering, or ever raising the issue again. No control was possible…. get on with loving them.
The second impactful defeat and letting go occurred when I was 48 years old. My wife fell in love with another man. She informed me by telephone one day when I was at the State Capitol for my job. She was quite calm and supportive, and did not say that she was leaving our relationship. But she was clear as well that she was in love with someone else. I remember getting off the phone and crying. I then got a pen and paper out and began to write. The first thing I wrote was that this was an opportunity for me to look at myself, to become a better person. I did not possess the desire or instinct to ask or demand anything from her or tell her what to do. I was clear immediately that I had no control over what she was going through. I knew deeply that I could focus only on myself. For the next many months, she stayed in relationship with this man and me. I turned to writing poetry to try to deal with all that arose in me. I had never previously even read poetry. We began to talk with honesty and great respect for each other…. each of us trying to stay in what was rather than fleeing. I lost weight to the point that my clothes no longer fit. Jealousy ruled me, but I kept writing. I looked for the lies in my words, would find and discard them, and try to find what was true and of value. Long story short, as they say, we are still together.
Because of this crisis, my desire to control, my belief that I could control, was dealt a fierce blow. And my wife’s demonstrated ability to pursue her heart’s desire in the midst of great risk and heartache for both of us was a powerful teacher for me. I believe that this stretch of my life increased my capacity to endure and taught me to look within rather than seek to manipulate or control.
The third learning experience regarding defeat and letting go came within my role as a parent. Raising two children was a powerful, daily reminder both that people change constantly and that one’s control over matters is tenuous at best and quite possibly delusional. I understood this on a superficial level and tried to be mindful of it as I parented. But, I repeatedly failed. My desire to control often asserted itself. I tried but I could not keep up with the need of my kids to have more autonomy and independence. This ongoing struggle to let go and affirm rather than try to try to control was a teacher most days ….it still can be.
Everything is Dissolving
I chant this daily now, “Everything arises and ceases Everything is dissolving.” But for most of my life I could nether see nor believe such a thing. I regarded losing and defeats in my work life as
temporary. I (We) could overcome them with maximum effort and the right strategy. I believed that someday I (we) would win…would get to a better place…either incrementally or in a “revolution.” And that better place would be a solid platform on which to stand while working for even better things. Life, if lived well or correctly, was linear and my belief in my (our) ability to control and shape things seemed unshakeable. I believed it to be true because I (we) had intellectual arguments, theories and history that supported that belief…I failed to notice that it was still a belief based on a myriad of my thoughts and desires, not simply objective facts fashioned into persuasive arguments…. I rode that merry-go-round until I was nearly 60 years old.
Thank God for more failure and massive defeats.
As I neared my retirement from the labor movement, nearly all the considerable number of improvements I had been a part of winning while working for the union were under attack. Many of them would be lost by the time I retired. These included major improvements we had won in wages, healthcare, and working conditions for ordinary people and their families. Even the right of a union to exist on behalf of working people was being seriously challenged across the country…. that right to form and belong to a union has now been lost for millions of workers. Reversals and defeats of all kinds continue.
During this period, it seemed to me that we worked as hard and as intelligently as we ever had. But we had little to show for our efforts other than defeat and a declining ability to influence much of anything. What I had come to believe about control, change, and social justice work was shaken with tremendous force. For the first time, I stopped trying to figure out what we needed to do better and how to get back on track. That no longer made much sense to me personally……and I was worn out and nearing retirement. Allow me to be clear, though…. I did not lament that I was somehow wrong to have chosen to do this work. Nor was I inclined to make judgements about others who worked alongside me. We did the best we could…. that’s all. For me at that moment, to judge and try to fix things in yet another way did not lead in a direction I wished to go. Instead, I became interested in looking at my foundational beliefs that held all of this up. Many of my previously held views about the nature of change and control and anger no longer seemed right to me. Slowly, I opened to wanting to reflect on the nature such things and my own life differently.
In the midst of all this, my wife sought out and found a Buddhist teacher and sangha. As she talked about her experiences, I gradually became interested. After months of firing questions at her upon her returns from sangha, I finally I began attending. In the early going, I resisted many of the teachings, but I was captivated and buoyed by many others. Fits and starts, intellectual objections, laziness, enthusiasm, acceptance, relief and a slow surrendering swirled together for a very long time. Eventually, I managed to grab onto what my teacher offered as the only rule in this practice…. begin and continue. Even after I finished sewing my Rakasu as part of my lay ordination, I resisted the call of things that I knew deeply. I remember saying to my teacher at one point, “I am grateful for the sangha and get so much from your talks and practice, but I do not want to be a monk.” It makes me laugh to look back on that particular “but.” I resisted the undertow and swimming in deep water until last summer when two things occurred. The first was meeting Ayya Medhanandi Bhikkhuni at a retreat…. her teachings were wonderful, but I was thunderstruck by her manner and presence. In that place, at that moment, she personified devotion. Around the same time, I read a beautiful piece written about my teacher’s transmission to Master in which she is quoted, “I feel being a master is sinking further into the mud so the lotus may rise higher.” Both moments helped me to understand that at its core becoming a monk represents a deepening commitment to my practice. Nothing could be more joyous. I am grateful to all who have helped bring me to where I am.
Author: Zhong Fen li Bao yu Di, A monk in training.
Image credit: yao xiang shakya & Getsu San Ku Shin
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