May 10th this year was the 8th day of the 4th month in the Chinese calendar: the birthday of Siddhartha. It is a holiday in South Korea where I spent a year absorbing Korean culture into my identity, so I decided to honour the holiday by performing 108 bows to Buddha, refraining from killing anything (even bugs), eating completely vegetarian meals, and eating every last grain of rice from those meals. I had hoped for a sunny day so that I could go to a park and bow in front of the small statue of Buddha I keep on my desk, but I live in Halifax. So it rained.
A quick Google search led me to the Shambhala Temple where the bemused secretary (after telling me about the temple’s free meditation lessons) said that I could use the Buddha in the lobby if I wanted. They did not have a full statue (and I did not expect them to), so I began in the lobby, thumping my knees into the linoleum floor until the next secretary on a shift change suggested that I use one of the shrine rooms. She told me that I could light candles and incense and close the door. It was all mine.
I suppose that I looked crazy enough that they assumed I knew what I was doing, but I really didn’t. On Skype, a Korean friend had sent me instructions of how to bow properly, and I was doing my best, counting in my head whenever I reached the final kneeling stage of the bow.
The shrine was a great improvement over the lobby. My back was sore after the 69 bows I had already done, so the break was welcomed. I lit incense in front of the large portrait of Buddha and found a cushion for my knees. I placed my fingers together as if in prayer with my hands pressed against my chest and my elbows back, and inhaled through my nose.
“Hi Buddha,” I said. “I’m James. Happy birthday.”
I bowed and continued from 70. At 88 I had sweat on my hands. At 108, my thighs were killing me and my back was stiff. I stayed with my head down and tried to recall a teaching from Beop Jeong’s book May All Beings Be Happy, probably the most expensive book I own (because the monk asked for its publication to cease after his death).
I couldn’t think of anything specific, but remembered some of the teachings that proved I was no Buddhist. Anti-materiality. Denouncement of experience through literature.
I sat cross-legged for a while, then stood to enjoy the incense, then inspected all the tapestries on the wall. When was I going to have an entire shrine to myself again?
Finally, I put out the incense, thanked the secretary, and wobbled home on my trembling legs.
But my flirtation with Buddhism didn’t end there. Yesterday, I decided to take the secretary up on her offer of free mediation lessons and returned to the temple. I had to jog (against the wishes of my sore thighs) to arrive a little early. Some people did not do this and arrived during the lesson, throwing off the group. In particular was the young man in a white wife-beater and baggy jeans. His clothing did not faze me, but his voice did. His loud observation (“Oh, the room is really full”) made me realise immediately that those were not going to be the last words out of his mouth. His disregard for politeness in that one simple line of commentary made me fear for the soft-voiced (and perhaps a little nervous) instructor—himself a young man. I did not expect him to have the personality to control someone who might challenge his authority in the room—someone who might interrupt…
And he did. He commented on sitting posture in more detail than was necessary for a first-time lesson. He mentioned his previous teachers and their instructions for how to position the head—before our instructor had reached that part. He spoke to the instructor as if they were having a one-on-one conversation together. You know the type if you’ve ever attended a college or university class with a discussion component. He was the person who had to speak to validate his presence in the room. The person whose lack of confidence blinds him to the fact that everyone else is irritated. He could read this and not know it was about him. (Except maybe the wife-beater and baggy jeans part—that might clue him in).
When the time came for seven minutes of silent meditation, I feared that he would interrupt that too, but he didn’t. And I was able to turn my thought to my breath and away from distractions, as the calm voice of the instructor suggested even though I was not particularly good at it. My “soft vision” played tricks on my mind with the stripes on the shirt of the man in front of me. I thought about writing this post. I thought about the discomfort of the 8-year-old-boy sitting a few rows ahead of me. I thought about whether or not to close my eyes. I cut off the thoughts and brought them back to my breath, but my “playful mind” would quickly find something else to do. So I tried counting each exhale.
This is what I did when I bowed
to Buddha for his birthday.
It’s the same thing.
It’s a chilling sound and worth going to a meditation lesson just to hear it. The vibrations sent those pleasant chills down my spine that I was used to experiencing only at the thought of a memory of overwhelming joy—the tingling that makes the following calm all the more restful.
But the young man broke that calm by dominating the discussion, and I avoided him at tea.
There was a talk afterwards suited to my story. Another instructor spoke about kindness and connectedness, and she told us to open ourselves to others to relate to them rather than closing them off. “There can be no kindness without connectedness,” she taught. “Kind is not the same as nice. You can speak sharply to a child to make sure a lesson takes hold in their mind (such as when almost walking in front of a car) because you care about them.”
I know that I was closed off to the young man, because I do not believe that it is my responsibility to be open to him. His personality is so at odds with mine that I would be uncomfortable interacting with him. I would be playing the game of selecting the next trivial question to ask in the conversation without any desire to remain a part of it. Twice, in yet another discussion period that he dominated, he mentioned that people should not judge someone based on appearances and get to know the real person. “Some people do not make a good first impression.”
So at some level, he knows that he does not make a good first impression and yet he blames others for not taking the time to get to know him. I am actually surprised that for all the mediation he has apparently learned that he has been unsuccessful in grasping the lesson from my very first day: you cannot be connected with others unless you are connected with yourself. “And that’s where meditation comes in,” said the instructor to him. “Do you connect with yourself?”
I saw smiles in the room from others who had been frustrated with the young man—smiles that knew that the you was not just generally applied to the group, but for him. I do not know his history or the reasons for his insecurities, and I do not want to. I want to spend my time with people whose company I enjoy and with whom I can have experiences to make me continue becoming. Connectedness to all is a beautiful ideal, but I admit my reluctance to reach out. So I learn again that I am no Buddhist.