My Bully Became a Buddhist

When Eric Steuer discovered his childhood bully was now a Buddhist teacher, he asked him the question he’d always wanted to: Why did you treat me that way?

Eric Steuer
22 January 2020
Author Eric Steuer (standing) shares a warm moment with his former bully turned Buddhist teacher Jeff Zlotnik. Photo by Jason Madara.

When I tell my dad I’m going to hang out with Jeff Zlotnik, he laughs. “Once, when you were a kid, I asked why you were so scared of Jeff. You said, ‘Because he’s so much bigger than me.’”

In reality, I was a head taller than Jeff. But he was so confident and aggressive that he always loomed large in my life. My earliest memory of him is from kindergarten. A bunch of us were playing in the sandbox, and I’d loaded up a Fisher–Price trolley with action figures. Out of nowhere, Jeff ran up, swiped the toy from me, and threw it into some nearby plants. He smiled, but it was a mean smile—Jeff’s signature smirk. It was the first time I remember feeling like someone wanted to make me feel bad. I went home and cried to my mom.

A few years later, during a soccer game, Jeff kicked the ball to me—a rare thing. I wasn’t exactly well-known for my athletic prowess, and Jeff’s vote of confidence made me feel especially good. But at the last second, I let the ball sail past my feet—right into the clutches of the other team. Jeff screamed at me, calling me an idiot. What hurt most was that I kind of agreed with him.

There were other incidents over the years—the time he told me I couldn’t sit with him and his friends at lunch, or when he picked a fight with me in the schoolyard over a girl we both liked. Honestly, none of it was major—just kids’ stuff. But I was a painfully sensitive boy and it had lasting effects. Jeff made me aware there were places I didn’t belong and groups I’d never be a part of.

So, I decided to stop trying to get Jeff to like me and observed him from the point of view of an outsider from then on. He joined the football team, while I made music and took drama classes. I had good friends, but I never quite fit in with the cool kids. I marveled at how Jeff and his crew seemed to have things all figured out, how they seemed to be free of the confusion and self-doubt I often felt.

Boy Scouts Eric (l) and Jeff (r). “None of the bullying was major,” says Steuer, “but I was a painfully sensitive boy and it had lasting effects.”

It was a surprise, to say the least, when I first learned that Jeff had gotten deeply into Buddhism. We’d been out of college for a few years when I heard a rumor that someone had seen Jeff shopping at the mall—fully decked out in an orange monastic robe. My mom told me that Jeff was living at a monastery in Taiwan, devoting himself to meditation and Buddhist study.

I was dumbfounded. What in the world led to this?

Part of me was skeptical that Jeff had become some sort of new person. I wasn’t alone. One of our elementary school teachers said, “I’ve worked with a lot of kids over the years, and you can see who they are at their core by the time they get to my class. I don’t buy Jeff’s ‘peace and love’ stuff one bit.”

I started hearing about Jeff’s various projects. After returning home from Taiwan, he had opened a temple free to anyone interested in Buddhism. He started The Meditation Initiative, a nonprofit that offers classes in places like prisons, homeless shelters, VA hospitals, and sober living centers. He organized a coed service fraternity, Delta Beta Tau, for San Diego college students interested in doing volunteer work.

Jeff and I started following each other on Facebook, where he was posting a steady stream of affirmations, calls for more kindness in the world, and reminders to friends about life’s preciousness. As I followed him online and learned more about his activities, I went from incredulous to intrigued. There was no doubt, it seemed, that Jeff had found his true calling, and that he was all in. On a whim, I sent him an email to ask if he’d be interested in spending some time together. I wanted to hear about his journey. He told me he was glad I’d reached out and invited me to visit.

Jeff greeted me with a big hug at the new home of the Dharma Bum Temple, the Buddhist meditation and study center he runs with his partner.

The temple is beautiful, about 6,000 square feet in a former 1927 Swedenborgian church with a perfect combination of wide-open convening spaces and small alcoves for reading and intimate discussions. It was important to Jeff to retain the church’s historical and religious features, so the large cross that adorns the entrance and the pews inside the congregation area remain intact. The temple’s new home was a result of Jeff’s tireless fundraising, which was such a success that numerous fundraising consultants wanted to tap him for his secrets.

“It was the greatest Buddhist practice I’ve ever done in my life,” Jeff said to me about it. “Because every single moment, there was something that needed to be done. And all that could be done in that moment was the one thing that was needed.”

As we walked through the temple, several people from the neighborhood dropped in. A longtime resident who had read about the temple in the newspaper said hello and signed the guest book. A homeless man stopped by to relax and ask some questions. Jeff told him the temple is open to all.

You just never know what people are dealing with inside.

There are also people who live at the temple, and Jeff took me around to meet them. They were of all shapes and sizes and walks of life. I talked to a mom in her fifties wearing a tie-dyed sweatshirt and a guy in his late teens, hunched over a sheet of paper drawing possible logos for the temple. Jeff told me the beauty of the community is that it’s filled with people who are leaders themselves—residents and other community members routinely teach meditation to anyone who shows up. His goal is to be completely dispensable, for it to be possible for the temple to run without him.

Jeff’s demeanor was calmer, much looser than what I remembered. He smiled a lot and often seemed to be on the verge of laughing. He listened intently when people spoke, then replied deliberately, always making eye contact. It was nice, but jarring, to see him in this environment—almost like something out of a dream. I told him so. He was not surprised to hear it. “When I tell the people here that, as a kid, I used to punch people, pick on people, and do those kinds of things, they’re shocked,” he says. “They can’t believe it.

“It’s weird, I know,” he says with a chuckle. “But you just never know what people are dealing with inside.”

Jeff Zlotnick.

At age twenty-seven, Jeff began to notice feelings of emptiness, dissatisfaction, and even depression. A friend was visiting a local Buddhist temple to take meditation classes, and she invited him to join her.

Jeff loved everything about the temple—the warmth he felt, the focus on wisdom, morality, and mindfulness. He told himself he would return immediately for more. “But life got in the way,” he said. “And I didn’t make time to go back.”

Then, a few months later, Jeff was out with friends. While waiting in line to get inside a club, an intense wave of sadness and panic washed over him. The next morning, nursing a wicked hangover and knowing he wanted something greater out of life, Jeff decided to return to the temple for another visit.

Jeff spent the next two years going to the temple almost every day, and even moved into a small cottage nearby. He meditated, read, and participated in community volunteer programs. He felt like he’d found his purpose. In 2004, Jeff packed up to live at Fo Guang Shan, Taiwan’s largest Buddhist monastery, where monks and nuns devote themselves to practicing kindness and performing charity.

“There’s this notion that Buddhist practice is all about sitting under a tree and talking about the infinite levels of the universe,” Jeff said. “But they were the hardest-working people I’d ever seen in my life. They put me on a path to be as compassionate in each moment as possible.”

After a year there, Jeff’s teacher told him it was time to go back home. “She said I needed to figure out how to integrate what I’d learned into the culture where I grew up.” Jeff returned to San Diego on a mission to use Buddhist teachings to help alleviate suffering in the people around him. He started volunteering in prisons and juvenile detention centers. He led meditation classes and began building a community at the Dharma Bum Temple. He was driven.

“I knew I was still a powerful person, someone who wanted to win,” he said. “But there’s nothing to win in Buddhism. So, I figured I’d use that part of my personality to make positive change, after having affected people negatively for a long time.”

A few years ago, Jeff had what he calls a come-to-Jesus moment about his past as a bully. It was at our twenty-year high school reunion. He’d arrived alone at the downtown San Diego hotel ballroom hosting the gathering. For weeks, he’d been looking forward to seeing what had become of our old classmates.

Early on in the night, someone Jeff had picked on pretty badly in high school walked up to him. “Hey, I saw on Facebook that you’re doing all this Buddhist stuff, and it’s really great,” she said. “But can you tell me why you were so mean to me when we were kids?”

Another woman approached next, beer in hand. She took a breath and downed a big sip. She wanted to know the same thing.

Jeff’s night turned into a series of conversations on this theme. He listened to people tell him that he’d hurt them. He didn’t make excuses; he just heard them out. And then he apologized as openly and honestly as he could.

I walked from group to group that night, hearing all kinds of people talk to each other about how strange and surprising it was that Jeff Zlotnik—yes, Jeff Zlotnik—now devoted his life to Buddhism, meditation, and helping others. Most people were fascinated by it. Some seemed amused. I heard one woman, whom Jeff had been particularly awful to, say she was “so proud” of him. I admired her grace, but for some reason, it also aggravated me. I didn’t want her to accept his apology so easily.

Steuer marveled that Zlotnik (above) seemed free from the confusion and self-doubt he often felt.

Later in the evening, Jeff took me aside and told me he was sorry if he’d ever hurt my feelings. I told him I appreciated the apology, but it was unnecessary—I barely remembered any of it. But the truth is that the apology made me feel small, as if the fact that I still cared about this ancient junk just meant that Jeff continued to have an unreasonable, embarrassing amount of power over me.

A couple times since then when we’ve gotten together, he’s brought up the conversations he had at our reunion. “I was surprised that anyone knew as much as they did about what I’d been up to,” Jeff says to me one day in the small library inside the Dharma Bum Temple. “I didn’t expect they would care.”

Me being mean to him wasn’t about his worth; it was about mine.

“But of course they care,” I tell him. And then I think to myself that if they’re anything like me, they’ve been paying too close attention to his story over the past few years, hoping that learning about the path he chose might help them glean some kind of understanding about themselves.

The next time I see Jeff, he shares a memory he’s ashamed of. When we were fifteen, he and some other boys roughed up a kid, someone we’d all known since we were little. They pushed and shoved him around, laughing at him in front of a bunch of other kids. Recently, he came in to the temple, briefly, just to look around. He and Jeff had a light, friendly chat—almost as if there were no awkward history between them.

At the time, Jeff didn’t think too much of it. But after further consideration, he has another take. “I understand why he came in to see me,” Jeff says. “So he could see that me being mean to him wasn’t about his worth; it was about mine. It wasn’t him; it was me.”

A young Eric Steuer.

Jeff spends a lot of his time these days with young people, going into high schools to talk about the benefits of meditation. He says kids fifteen to eighteen are his favorite to work with. Because they’re dealing with new stress and complexity in their lives, they have so much to gain by learning to focus and improve their emotional well-being.

He tells me about a recent visit to a school just a few miles north of where we grew up. From the floor of the auditorium, Jeff spoke to a large group of students about anger and his experiences discovering meditation. Jeff is a natural when it comes to public speaking, and he’s had tons of practice. The kids listened attentively.

Soon, he noticed a boy sitting off to the side, slightly apart from the rest of the group. Something about him felt familiar.

“Just the look in his eye, the body language,” Jeff says. “I could tell he was angry and really suffering.” Jeff shifted his focus, making frequent eye contact with the boy as he spoke to the gathering. He felt like he might be able to help with whatever the kid was going through—and maybe save some of the people in the boy’s life from being affected by his acting out.

“All of a sudden, I had this memory from when I was in school,” Jeff says. “I could see myself going up and tearing out these plants that one of my teachers had in the front of her classroom. For no good reason—just to get a reaction.”

After the talk, the boy stayed behind and approached Jeff for a one-on-one. “You kept looking at me,” the boy said hesitantly. “And I felt like you were looking right into my head.”
“I know exactly who you are,” Jeff laughed. “Because I am you.”

Jeff and I hang out again, this time in San Francisco, where I live with my wife and son. As usual, our discussion eventually leads back to the old days. I tell him that I recently realized I’ve been avoiding talking to him about one important thing: the effect he had on me when we were growing up. I’d been keeping the details about my own feelings pretty vague, slyly playing the role of an objective outsider whenever we get together to talk. I wasn’t sure he would even remember any of the specific incidents that I’ve been holding on to so closely for all these years. It was embarrassing to imagine bringing them up, only to have him reply with a blank look.

He encourages me to go through my list, so I do. The sandbox, the soccer field, the schoolyard. Just as I figured, none of them ring a bell. I am actually relieved, and I tell him that while I know that the events in my memories sounded like small things, they were huge factors in shaping how I felt about myself for a long time.

“Looking back on myself as a kid,” he says, “I can tell you that anything bad I said or did to you wasn’t actually meant to make you feel any certain way. I was doing it to make myself feel a certain way. Does that make sense?”

“Yeah,” I say. “It makes sense.”

I share the anecdote about our elementary school teacher, the woman who told me she believed kids were, at their core, pretty much who they’d always be by the time she met them. Jeff winces, and then laughs. “It’d be pretty sad if that was the case, wouldn’t it?”

But he quickly follows up with an additional thought. “I am the same person, I guess. It’s not that my thoughts are necessarily different—it’s that my actions are. Buddhist teachings haven’t changed who I am, but they’ve changed what I do.” He offers his favorite quote by the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, Roshi: “You’re all perfect exactly how you are. And you all could use a little improvement.”

Steuer’s son Franklin has ice cream with his new friend Jeff. “It’s a picture I never could have imagined when I was growing up,” says Steuer. “It’s a picture I’ll never let go of.” Photo by Eric Steuer.

After dinner at an Indian restaurant with my family in the Mission, we walk to an ice cream shop. Jeff buys a pistachio cone for himself and a strawberry cone for my son, Franklin. He’s four years old, just a little younger than when Jeff and I first met. The two of them sit on a bench in front of the shop, eating ice cream in the warm night.

Franklin looks so sweet, and I find myself thinking about how much I want him to stay this way. But I also want something else for him: the power to assert himself and not be so sensitive that he gets bowled over by people who are mean to him. Because people will, of course, be mean to him, and there’s no good reason that these moments should hang around in his head forever.

I snap a photo of Jeff and Franklin eating ice cream together. They’ve both got huge smiles—each has found a friend for life. It’s a funny picture, and for me it’s also strange and profound. It’s a picture I could never have imagined when I was growing up. It’s a picture I’ll never let go of.

Eric Steuer

Eric Steuer

Eric Steuer is a contributing editor at Wired.