Confessions of a Spiritual Shopper

Don Morreale on checking out the Buddhist scene and finding what’s right for you. (It only took him thirty years to decide.)

Don Morreale
1 May 1999

Don Morreale on checking out the Buddhist scene and finding what’s right for you. (It only took him thirty years to decide.)

“How does one find one’s direction in life?”
“Haieeee! I don’t know. I don’t know.”
-the Dalai Lama answers a question at the Peace Jam Youth Conference

Come, come, whoever you are
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving-it
doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of
despair. Come, even though you have
broken your vow a hundred times.
Come. Come again. Come.

– Rumi

In the ten years since my book Buddhist America first appeared in print, I’ve received hundreds of letters and phone calls from people all over the world wanting to know where to meditate, who the best teachers are, what tradition to follow, and so on. These sound like simple questions, but they’re not. As Seneca, the Roman philosopher, said: “There is no easy way from the earth to the stars.” Anyone who’s ever tried it knows that the Buddha’s way is a zigzag path. It’s different for every person who sits down to meditate. The search for a center, a teacher, a tradition, is a part of the path and each of us must walk it for ourselves.

I’ve spent most of my nearly thirty years of on-again off-again, willy-nilly dharma practice trying to answer these questions for myself. I’ve studied in all three meditation traditions and practiced in centers and monasteries and urban temples and living room sanghas from southern California to northern Massachusetts, from Montreal to Rio De Janeiro, from the jungles of Thailand and Malaysia to the mountains of India and Taiwan. After practicing awhile in one tradition or another I’d come to the conclusion that this particular place/style of practice/method/teacher was just not for me, and I’d move on.

Now if you’re thinking that this approach sounds kind of flaky, you would be right. It is kind of flaky. For one thing, you never really quite sink your teeth in, and for another, when the going gets rough, rather than sitting there and facing it, the temptation is to pick up and move. On the other hand, such an approach may be unavoidable, given the fact that there are now upwards of eleven hundred meditation centers in the U.S. and Canada, and those are just the ones I managed to find out about and list in my book. This doesn’t take into account the several hundred ethnic temples in this country, nor does it include those Buddhist traditions where meditation is not the focus.

Dizzying, isn’t it? I’m reminded of a visit from some Brazilian friends a few years ago. We went into a supermarket where they were bowled over by the vast numbers of choices. In Brazil, they said, there might be one brand of cereal on the shelf. The choice was simple-“Cereal or no cereal”-not “Hmm, let’s see, do I want Coco Blasters, Crunchy Cornballs, or Floaty-Oaties today? Or will it be Nuttin’ Doin, Raisin Cane, or the ever popular Blueberry Bowl Busters?”

Perhaps, had I been born into a country with a single Buddhist tradition, things might have been different. Then again, maybe not. When I visited Thailand in 1986, I was astounded by the variety of teachers, practices, approaches, styles, customs. Some temples meditated and did not study; others studied but did not meditate. There were monasteries dedicated entirely to getting people off drugs. There were sects who wore blue denim paddy pants and saffron sashes and ran vegetarian restaurants. There were eco-activist monks who went around ordaining trees to keep them from being cut down. Every teacher had his or her idiosyncrasies. Some taught the intricate vipassana of the Mahasi Sayadaw, directing the awareness to touch points around the body. Others instructed us to repeat the syllables of the Buddha’s name while doing breath meditation: “Bhuuu” on the inbreath, “Thooo” on the outbreath. Still others taught us to visualize a bright pearl.

Not infrequently, one teacher would tell you that another was wrong, that his or her own method was the true and right one, and that if you would just follow it to the letter, enlightenment in thislifetime would be yours, guaranteed, no problem. I remember sitting in a hotel room in Nonkai on the banks of the Mekong River and feeling all of these competing methods roiling through my brain. Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore and returned to the simple technique of counting my breaths on the exhalation, which was the very first method I ever learned.

I did, however, manage to pick up a thing or two from all those years of wandering around in the shopping malls of buddhadharma. I gained a very clear sense of what wouldn’t work for me and also a small glimmer of an inkling of what would. I learned that I did better in solitary retreat as opposed to sitting in a hall with a group. I learned that I thrived around teachers with whom I could be friends and who trusted me to figure it out for myself, and withered around those who were too formal, or pushy or possessive.

I also learned something about tolerance, which seems to me to be in especially short supply when it comes to religion, to what we feel to be the absolute truth. To be sure, if we didn’t believe that our own tradition was the absolute best of all time, we wouldn’t be practicing in it. And that’s precisely where the difficulty lies: if my way is true, then your way must be false. If your way is true, then what am I doing in this tradition?

Somewhere along the line, I began to understand that choosing a way of practice is a matter of the heart, very much like falling in love. Sometimes it’s like falling in love with somebody your whole family thinks is a total loser. It’s a subjective thing. You’re involved. They are not. You’re looking at your sweetheart’s profound soul and delicate sensibilities. All they see is the spiky mohawk, the vacant stare, and that cross tattooed on the forehead.

Another thing I realized in my years of dharma bumming was that if I was going to get anywhere with my practice, sooner or later I’d have to make a choice, take a stand, “fish or cut bait.” As for me, I neither fished nor cut bait. Instead, I just sort of plunked along some more at the local Dharmadhatu and then plunked along some more at the local Zen center without ever actually committing myself fully to either style of practice. To further complicate matters, I already knew in my heart of hearts that what I really wanted to do was to practice Theravada vipassana. I just wasn’t ready yet to take the plunge.

Here’s a piece of advice my friend Betty gave to her teenage daughter when she was packing up to go study Spanish in Ecuador: “Keep both feet in the same zip code.” I always liked the sound of that. I thought it meant “stay focused” or something, but I wasn’t quite sure. So this morning I called her daughter, Claire, and asked her. “Oh no,” she said, “that’s not what Mom meant at all. See, when I was a kid, I used to walk around like a construction worker with my legs all over the place, and Mom was just trying to get me to be a little more refined and ladylike.”


The point is that, spiritually speaking, my feet were definitely not in the same zip code. I loved the energy and single-minded dedication of Zen, but was a little leery of what I had come to call “the guru thing,” the prerequisite that you commit fully to one teacher and practice with him or her to the exclusion of all others. Also there were guys with sticks who patrolled the zendo and bellowed out stuff like “NO MOVING!!!” whenever you shifted or scratched.

Meanwhile, across town at Dharmadhatu you could shift and scratch all you wanted. I liked the spaciousness of shamatha (tranquility) meditation, but the higher tantric practices-the mantras and mudras, the visualizations and prostrations, the devotion to the guru and so on-held no fascination for me at all.

Pinging around like a cosmic pinball among the many traditions, I found-much to my embarrassment-that I had become the exact embodiment of all the darker implications of my dharma name, which is “Ronin.” This name was given to me by Eido Roshi, my first Zen teacher and a lifelong friend and mentor. He even made a calligraphy to commemorate the event and explained that the characters he had chosen-“Ro” and “Nin”-together meant “Cheerful Persistence.” Now that, I thought, certainly applied to me. I mean, I’m nothing if not cheerful and, God knows, I do hang in there.

But there were other, less flattering connotations to the name which Roshi took pains to elucidate for me as well. In ancient times, he said, a ronin was a samurai warrior whose master had been defeated and was therefore no longer able to support his troops. Cut adrift, ronin were loose cannon, mavericks, free agents, guys who ran their own show-an interpretation which appealed to my sense of vanity and frontier individualism. My arrogant assumption here was that I didn’t have a master because I didn’t need one.

In reality, though, ronin were by no means masters of themselves. No indeed. Many of them were world class trouble makers who went around plundering and killing with no one to rein them in or to channel their testosterone towards a higher purpose. In modern Japan, Roshi told me, a student who flunks his college entrance exams is called ronin while he is studying to take them a second time, because he’s neither here nor there-neither a student nor not a student-but inhabits a kind of no man’s land, his feet in separate zip codes. Roshi liked to translate ronin variously as “screw-up,” and “unemployed,” which he often did to anyone who happened to be around. (It’s only now, in looking back, that I’m able to recognize and appreciate the extreme kindness he was showing me here.) So Ronin, then: a cheerful, persistent, unemployed screw-up.

Sometime after the first edition of Buddhist America came out, I just kind of threw up my hands and said, “Oh the hell with it.” This is not to say that I gave up sitting. But I stopped going to retreats, formally resigned from Dharmadhatu, drifted away from the Zen Center, and decided to just practice on my own for awhile. Every morning I’d go sit down on my cushion and wait to see what would happen next. I had no particular practice, no sangha around me to speak of, no teacher, no formal teachings of any kind. It was meditation without benefit of buddha, dharma, or sangha.

Which was kind of an odd place to be in when you think about it, because here I was, the guy who’d written the book on where to meditate, and I didn’t have a clue about where to go myself. People would write to me or call me up, and I’d do the best I could to direct them to a center either near them, or somewhere distant that had a decent reputation. But as for me, I wasn’t having any of it.

Somewhere during this period I went to work as a morning news jock at public radio KUVO in Denver. I got disentangled from a long and pointless romance and then established a pretty good one with a woman I’m still living with. I took off for an extended sojourn in South America. I came back and got involved with neighborhood politics. I got serious about making a living after all those years as a marginally funded dharma bum. I bought some rental properties and spent a lot of time fixing them up and renting them out, and I was keeping busy and more or less out of trouble. Then somewhere along the line I sort of woke up and realized that I didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing anymore. That I was, if not terribly unhappy, then at least ill at ease and out of sorts most of the time.

It had been seven years since I’d attended a formal Buddhist retreat, and I finally had to face the fact that my dharma practice as a lone wolf ronin samurai wasn’t working anymore, that this whole self-directed spiritual enterprise of mine had pretty much gone to hell in a handbasket. Compounding the error, I had written this book, which ostensibly made me an authority on the subject, thus making it all the more difficult for me to admit to myself, much less to anyone else, that I really didn’t know what I was talking about.

Now for a dharma bum, that’s not such a bad place to start from. In fact, it’s a dandy place, because it’s out of that space of not knowing, of not being filled up with yourown views and opinions about things, that realization can finally begin to flower. “Only Don’t Know!” as Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn constantly admonishes his students. There’s a wonderful saying in an obscure book of Chinese Zen epigrams called The Vegetable Root Discourses: “Life is like an earthen pot. Only when it is shattered does it manifest its emptiness.”

I signed up for a ten-day vipassana retreat at the Bhavana Society in Highview, West Virginia, and then proceeded to sit the entire course with a really bad attitude. I walked in there saying to myself, “Awright. If I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do it my way. If that means skipping a sitting and falling on my face for a nap, well, that’s what I’m going to do. And if it means that I don’t go in for an interview with the teacher, then so be it. And if it means spending an entire sitting period spinning out elaborate sexual fantasies, well, that’s my business.”

And so it went, slogging it out for the whole ten days like the Buddha’s own bad boy. By the end of the retreat, despite the bad attitude (or maybe because of it), I felt that I was back in the dharma’s loving embrace, and I knew I could do what needed to be done to get myself to retreats and to practice again with renewed dedication.

Not long ago, I went for a walk with my friend Patsie. “It took me nearly thirty years to just get a basic handle on the practice,” I told her. “It feels as though I wasted a lot of time.”

“Well, maybe so,” she said, “but on the other hand, if you hadn’t spent all that time noodling around, you might never have figured it out at all. That’s the way it works. First you try this, and then you try that, and finally, in some mysterious way, it all just comes together by itself.”

I’m happy to report that the spiritual shopping spree is finally over. I’ve found a practice that works for me, and teachers that I can relate to. I sit every day and go on retreat every chance I get. Having both feet in the same zip code has made all the difference.