Dharma Brats

Emily King was walking down the slate-grey sidewalks of downtown Boston, on her way to the Trident Cafe on Newbury Street.

Waylon Lewis
1 November 1995

Emily King was walking down the slate-grey sidewalks of downtown Boston, on her way to the Trident Cafe on Newbury Street. It was a humid day, and the men and women who walked the streets wore shorts and tee-shirts and many, especially the children, had ice-cream cones in hand.

The young journalist who waited for her at the cafe was similar to Emily in many ways: he was 20 years old, a college student in Boston, an aspiring writer, and another “dharma brat,” raised in an American family devoted to the practice of an Eastern religion.

Emily’s family, he knew, had nearly 300-year-d roots in Boston, and like his own parents, hers had discovered and embraced an Eastern spiritual discipline in the turbulence of the 1960’s and early ’70’s.

He had already interviewed a young man in Santa Fe who had grown up within the confines of Zen Center in Rochester, New York; another who was raised in a family practising Tibetan Buddhism and now works for Chemical Bank in New York City, and a young man who decided to follow his parents and become a Buddhist himself.

Each of their stories was different, each felt their character affected in different ways by their unusual households, and each found their way through childhood, school and the beginnings of adulthood quite differently. But they shared something unique, something rooted in their birth and upbringing that lends them an attitude or view not found in others of their generation.
Emily, Josh, Jason and Noel are children bred of two greater parents: America and an Eastern spiritual discipline. They represent the first complete meeting of West and East, of America and dharma.

“Hi,” Emily had said, when she found me at a table near the street-facing windows, in the smoking section.

“Hello!,” I said, and stood and smiled, shaking her hand and then waving to the waitress passing in the distance. “Another cup? Thanks.”

I received my refill and Emily, a tall, pretty and somewhat pale girl with shoulder-length brown hair, ordered a little pot of tea. The cafe, despite the large windows, was somewhat dark and cool, full of books and paintings, people and smoke.

It was yoga practice that had brought Emily’s parents together in the wake of Vietnam, Nixon and the exploration of alternative lifestyles. Dave and Martha King raised Emily in Brookline, an affluent section of Boston, after settling down from, as Dave King puts it, “a life of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.” Dave set to work at a pizza house, while Martha set her sights somewhat higher.

“Too high, I thought,” Dave remembers with a smile. “Martha wanted to start an ecological furniture business. I said, ‘A what?’ And, ‘With what money?’ and figured my minimum wage job at the pizza joint would be paying the bills for Emily, who was born only a few months later on.”
Twenty years later, when Dave and Martha’s grown-up girl visits them in Brookline, she comes home to a sprawling mansion and a garage housing two elegant cars. The furniture business has flourished. Martha is, as she puts it, a “rich Liberal, once-hippie, CEO wife-and-mother” and could be considered, at 52 years old, an archetype of the ’60’s generation grown up.

But some things remain the same for Dave and Martha and other aging, once-rebellious baby-boomers. Martha and Dave still, as for the last 22 years, begin each morning with 30 minutes of yoga practice.

“Well, it really wasn’t strange to grow up the way I did,” Emily told me. “Dave and Martha made good money; we had a nice house, nice cars, went to the symphony and for picnics at Marblehead beach each summer.” Her parents practiced yoga each day, went to lectures by “this teacher or that,” had books about yoga, magazines, Eastern pictures on the wall, but “it all blended in. Only when I was older did I begin to assess yoga in a more personal, critical, and objective way.”
For most of her teenage years Emily observed a respectful distance from her parent’s practice of yoga. Her friends at school took “a light-hearted, curious point of view”-just wanting to know if she “did drugs or voodoothey thought it was a bit trippy, love-and-lighty.” Then, a funny thing happened just before Emily left for college at Wellesley in 1992.

“In preparing to say goodbye to my childhood, to living with mom and dad and pooch, I found that leaving also meant a departure from something more subtle, even fundamental in my old life. I decided that before I said goodbye to yoga, I wanted to know if I really knew what it was. And in reading and practicing a little of it, and talking with other children of my parents’ yoga friends, I made or discovered a sharp connection to yoga, one that I didn’t want to leave, but rather deepen.”

Yoga became a personal spiritual path that Emily is committed to even while at school, if only through reading or visiting her parents in Brookline. Her daily effort to “maintain a sense of joy and goodness” is rooted in her yogic practice.

“Yoga is obviously very body-oriented,” she said, leaning her tall frame against the cafe table. “Its exercises can help to synchronize one’s body with one’s spirit. There’s lots to it-it is almost silly to try to summarize yoga in a few sentences. But personally it serves as a practice to connect my crazy life with something constructive and spiritual.”

Illustrating her belief that yoga is something to be practiced genuinely and thoroughly, and not briefly discussed, she mentions that Jane Fonda and others have done exercise videos for it. “It’s somewhat popularized, which is good, but it can be bad, too,” she says, “if people approach it frivolously-just wanting ‘the goods’ without any respect. Then it just becomes more self-help, spiritual fluff.”
Yoga is no longer just something that she grew up with, something that her parents did, no longer “just an influence, in the way a hobby or ordinary passion is.” Emily now practices nearly every day for one to three hours. If she doesn’t have time, “I read, or do a few quick stretches in the morning, whatever will connect me to yoga on that day,” she says.

“You see, it’s become the essential way for me to communicate with IT.” Emily smiles when asked what she means by IT, then shrugs her shoulders. “That’s what the whole world has been arguing about for centuries: the definition and rights to IT. It’s personal, anyway. My practice of yoga is how I can try to deal with all my problems and stress and grow in a genuine, healthy, confident way. It’s just about being a curious, cheerful human.

“I really want to emphasize-and this doesn’t make me a very good interviewee-,” she grins, “that I don’t want to just talk about yoga. I want to say how I really am American too, not in the sense that I’m afraid of being black-listed or something, but that both worlds have continuously affected me in my life. I approach life as an American from a more independent, clear point of view, I think, and I approach yoga practice with all of my very American expectations, desires and problems.”

Emily finished her little pot of tea, and I finished my coffee. As she prepared to leave, grabbing her backpack and getting up to look at some magazines, I gathered my previous interviews and, with papers laid out all around me, a cup of coffee and a friend’s Powerbook, began working.
Emily, however, had not yet left the cafe and returned to say goodbye.

She saw all the papers. “Are these the other interviews?,” she asked.

Emily sat down again on her side of the now cluttered table. “Do you mind if I read one while you write?,” she asked. “I have an hour-and-a-half before the Red Sox game at Fenway.”

Pleasantly surprised, I handed her a small stack of papers. “This is the one with Josh Schrei,” I told her. “He’s in Santa Fe, New Mexico now, but he grew up with his parents at the Rochester Zen Center.”

Emily ordered another pot of tea and began reading, while I set to typing, smoking, drinking coffee and pacing around the street just outside. It’s a tough enough gig to be a “curious, cheerful human,” as Emily put it, tougher still when you’ve got an article to write.

In 1970, when Josh Schrei was born, his parents left their politically active life on the Oberlin campus, leading sit-ins and protests against the war in Vietnam, for an austere life of meditation and study at Philip Kapleau’s new Zen Center.

The center was situated like an island in a pond, its acres set in the midst of the industrial city of Rochester, New York. Josh grew up playing hide-and-go-seek with the children of other staff members in the beautiful Japanese gardens and halls of the center’s two main houses. He learned about meditation, enlightenment, the Buddha, and the “outside world” from within the sprawling confines of Zen Center. It was as wonderful a childhood as it was disillusioning.

His parents were among the few lay resident staff members at Zen Center. For the first years of the center, Josh told me, the staff was painfully ambivalent regarding the status of the center-whether to be purely monastic or more open, with resident families and visitors. Zen Center was a sort of spiritual New World, a place where students hoped to escape what they considered to be a world full of corruption, suffering and aggression. This attitude, a “dualistic attitude of nirvana versus samsara,” was also directed towards the children at Zen Center.

“We epitomized their dilemma, you see,” Josh says. “Children weren’t there for the same reasons everybody else was. We couldn’t meditate because the adults were hit by a stick if they fidgeted,” as is the zen tradition, “and of course they didn’t want to hit a jumpy kid with the stick.” Josh, his best friend Jake, and the other children at the center were also prohibited from eating breakfast or lunch with the adult students, as these meals were taken in formal zen style, kneeling on cushions on the floor, in complete silence except for Buddhist chants.

But Josh also identified with and found enthusiasm for much of the zen way of life. On his seventh birthday a zen student gave him one of the sticks used to hit a restless meditator. Inscribed on the stick was what little Josh considered his first koan: “Be kind to everyone.” He also received a zen monastic meditation manual, and in the manner of all “my other games, began training myself to be a buddha.” This was his only goal as a child.

Josh’s years in public school were “remarkably free of animosity.” The only, admittedly minor, exception was when at lunch-time a “zen clique formed,” taking over an entire table, because “we were all vegetarian. Growing up, vegetarianism was the most concrete evidence of my being Buddhist. And it was considered strange, weird-we had to justify ourselves on numerous occasions.”

When Josh was 13 years old his parents, courtesy of Zen Center, set off on a pilgrimage to see Asia’s notable Buddhist historical sites. As Josh was a year ahead in school, he was able to take the year off and join them. The trip was “wonderful, perfect”; they traveled through India and Sri Lanka and saw Bodhgaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment.

His parents, now zen teachers in their own right, moved with Josh to Santa Fe, New Mexico to lead a new group there. These were his teenage years, and free from Zen Center, bored in Santa Fe, Josh learned to love and explore the mountains and forests, Native American traditions, and, when he was older, some of the drugs of this southwestern state. “The zen I grew up with was so ethereal,” Josh recalls. “I needed something different, something to bring me back to earth.”

When he was 16 years old he made an enthusiastic connection to Tibetan Buddhism. “To see a lama laughing and giggling, radiating a sense of joy, struck a chord in me,” Josh said. This exploration of Tibetan Buddhism coincided with “a serious falling-out” between his parents and Philip Kapleau, still leader of Zen Center. Josh’s father had begun incorporating other forms of Buddhism into his teachings, and that, along with a peer’s underhanded competition for a leadership position, resulted in an angry letter from Kapleau. Josh’s father, the letter said, would never teach for the center again.

“Americans have a strange relationship with teachers in general. It’s like-,” Josh smiled, “-in the “Life of Brian,” the Monty Python film, when Jesus is talking to this crowd. He says, ‘Don’t look towards me, you’re all individuals. You can all think for yourselves!’ and the crowd repeats, ‘We’re all individuals, we can think for ourselves…’ People like to put a teacher on a pedestal-‘the guru is everything’-and if not, then they blame the guru. There’s some sense of projection. We hurl ourselves at teachers-‘I finally found the one who’s going to change my life’-then when it doesn’t happen the guru is suddenly seen as evil.”

Josh still appreciates his upbringing. “Zen is so strict and austere, yet at the heart of its teaching is spontaneity. There’s a zen koan that says, ‘Look-the world is vast and wide; why do you put the monk’s robe on at the sound of the bell?,’ and to me that is the basic question of zen altogether. If the world is without substance, why decide to live with so many rules and regulations? I wonder about that.”

The zen spirit of “constant questioning” can be forgotten, however. All too often, Josh relates, there was “never any middle ground. Zen can be so full of ideals; you have to be so perfect. I was constantly surrounded by ideas of perfection and spiritual enlightenment. I was infused with this idea since birth that I had to be perfect.”

Meditation is now a helpful element in Josh’s daily life. He tries to practice meditation consistently, in a style that includes elements of martial arts and Tibetan meditations, as well as zen. It is basic, simple and informal: “You observe your thoughts as passing like clouds through the sky,” Josh says. “With the world the way it is these days, any time you can take five or twenty minutes to be with yourself and relax, let go and not think about anything is extremely valuable. This world is crazy-we’re constantly being bombarded by sensory stimulation, we’re always in a hurry…

“Principles of compassion, awareness, loving-kindness, emptiness and impermanence are fundamental Buddhist ways of seeing the world,” and have been with Josh “in a visceral, subconscious way” since he was very young.

For the past two years, Josh has been touring a one-man show called “Kathmandu,” drawing heavily on his childhood experiences at Zen Center. Zen, he says, is so much “a part of who I am that I don’t think I could ever escape it.”

Finished reading my hasty transcriptions of the interview with Josh, Emily looks up and says, “Hey, that was really great! I think he’s a pretty thoughtful, good guy. Do you have any more interviews with you?”

“Sure,” I said, “I’ve got my interview with Jason, who’s in New York City. He’s hardly involved with Buddhism actively-his every hour is spent in Chemical Bank.”

“I don’t need to get to the Red Sox game for an hour.”

Jason Kiefer sits in a mostly darkened office-it’s nearly 9 p.m.-in one of the countless skyscrapers in Manhattan’s concrete-and-steel forest. Dressed in a shirt that three hours ago held a tie, and well-ironed but now rumpled dress pants, he finishes the remnants of a sushi dinner that was delivered more than an hour ago. Jason is somewhat pale; he has spent the last few years, sometimes averaging 12 hours a day, in the office of Chemical Securities market analysis division.
Jason at 24 years has completed two of the earliest, most rigorous stages on Chemical’s ladder, and is on his way to one of the top business schools in America, preferably Harvard or Stanford. He is the classic Hollywood picture of “a fine young man plugging away on Wall Street.

Busy as he is, Jason may think little about the American Buddhism of his childhood; nevertheless, his “personal philosophy is still based upon Buddhism. It’s what I grew up with.” Buddhism-its ideas, practices and personalities-were “all I knew.”

But Jason says, “I’ve always been anti-religious, at least in terms of theistic religions. You could call me anti-spiritual. I don’t believe in anything that science can’t explain, or acknowledges it can’t explain. I remember when I was four years old going up to my mother and asking, ‘If God invented the world, who invented God?’ She didn’t know the answer-and I’d still like to know.” In first grade, Jason was “the first in the history of the school to be exempted from religion class.” He grins, then asks me to hold on a minute as he takes an incoming call.

Meditation never appealed to Jason. First of all, he says, it was hard, boring work. Second, he has not seen how meditation applies to what he feels he misses most in his life: “Glee. There are too few times in my life that I feel completely, irrationally happy. Meditation is about examining and understanding the mind, and passion, happiness, is best when you don’t know, or care, why you’re happy.”

What his upbringing has given him, Jason says, is an understanding that pain, confusion and depression are rooted in his own mind, and therefore are workable. “I understand that suffering, at least mental suffering, isn’t somebody else’s fault. So I can drop it, or at least try to.”

What Jason is doing now, of course, requires a whole-hearted commitment of time and energy. “This is a world that few Buddhists enter,” Jason notes. “I don’t know why. All I know is that I have this ambition. I don’t know if Buddhism can give you that ambition, create it. It’s a source of energy and joy. I like what I do, though I wouldn’t do it if there wasn’t any money in it.”

Jason and I say goodnight and he gathers his things to leave the office. He’s been there since 7:30 a.m. and needs to get to bed. Tomorrow is yet another 12-hour day in the office of Chemical Securities Market Analysis Division in New York, New York.

“I like that one,” Emily says. “But poor guy, it sounds so boooring.”

“But he likes it,” I say, glad that she liked it. “Well, do you want to read another?”
“Yes,” she replies, “But-of-course. Who is this one of?”

“His name is Noel McLellan. He grew up in Boulder, Colorado and is now Buddhist himself. Hope you like it,” I say, and resume the task of transcription, from tape to paper to Macintosh.

Noel McLellan takes a rare hour off from his studies at the University of Colorado and his duties as assistant bookstore manager at a popular cafe downtown. He sits on the red-carpeted stairway that leads from the reception hall to the residents’ apartments above at Marpa House, a large Spanish-style villa and for more than twenty years a Buddhist community apartment house.

It was here in Boulder that Tibetan Buddhism as taught by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche first took root, here that his parents met and married, and here that Noel was born.

It was quite a scene in Boulder in those days. Many of Trungpa Rinpoche’s students, at his urging, cut their long hair and gave up tie-dye and drugs for suits, jobs and families. As meditation centers sprang up nation-wide, Boulder itself was consumed by the beginnings of The Naropa Institute, a Buddhist-inspired college where, as Trungpa Rinpoche put it, “East and West meet and sparks can fly.”

More than 200 people showed up for Naropa’s first shoe-string summer, featuring Trungpa Rinpoche and Ram Dass. The Beats also lent a hand-Allen Ginseberg, Gary Snyder, William Burroughs and many other poets and artists came to Naropa, where Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.

Noel is one of a core group of children whose age reflects the length of Buddhism’s stay in America, and so is called a “dharma brat” by some, in off-handed reference to a Kerouac novel. Dharma is a word that refers to the teachings of the Buddha. Brat, of course, refers to the fact that while most students take a circuitous route towards the buddhadharma, these children were born and raised in the community-and could therefore take their rich, peculiar existence for granted.

Asked what he thought was unique about growing up in a Buddhist family, Noel pauses and says, “It’s difficult to say because I don’t have anything to compare it to. But I think there was always some sense of trust that I don’t see so much elsewhere. A kind of faith. But they never pushed Buddhism on me. I did have a general sense of being Buddhist and when, one day, a friend came over and asked if I believed in God, I knew we didn’t, so I said ‘no.’
“He immediately began telling me I was going to go to hell, and I freaked out. I asked my parents, and they said, ‘No, no, don’t worry, you aren’t going to go to hell.’ But basically they really did their thing and left me alone.”

And here Noel mentions the “atmosphere” that was present throughout his childhood. “I remember always being very bored” by events at the center in Boulder. “Nothing much happened. It was very quiet. But at the same time, people were often very dressed up, and there was this energy, this richness, this power to it-it was always very charged.”

Asked about the primary difference between the Buddhist elementary school he went to and the public junior high school he later attended, Noel replies after a pause.

“Well, a story I always tell,” Noel says with a smile, “is when one day I had to bring Mr. Visser, our principal, a note. I think I was in some kind of trouble at the time, which at public school would mean you’d go to the principal’s office and be treated like a hassle. Well, Mr. Visser came out of his office and smiled, and bowed to me. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but later on I realized it was such a sign of respect, for my potential as a future warrior and good person, good Buddhist.”

Now that Noel is an adult, and has chosen to follow the Buddhist path of his own accord, he is confronted with the task of understanding how the buddhadharma could guide his life. “I’ve been thinking a lot about the whole idea of ambition. Sometimes when I’m at school I’ll look around, and I wonder what everyone is doing there. Everyone is there out of some sense of wanting to make it. That’s the high ideal of American society, but I don’t know if I care whether I make a ton of money…”

Noel is firmly dedicated to the path he has chosen: he practices meditation and studies Buddhism with the same mix of faith and relaxation that his parents showed him as a child. His path is purely a personal one, and so he views his life now and his future in the context of the teachings.

“We’re a unique bunch of characters to write about,” she says and smiles.

I smile too, appreciating Emily’s positive response, and the more salient fact that Emily, Josh, Jason and Noel’s experiences do seem unique: not just different, but worthwhile, vital and urgent in this time of change, suffering, progress and upheaval.

But as I sit contemplating that, Emily has asked me a question, which I ask her to repeat. “Want to join me and my friends at the Red Sox game?” Emily has asked.

“Yes!” I say.

It was one of the first games of the season. Fenway packed, the day still sunny, the atmosphere one of baseball at its best. Thoughts of my interviews with Jason, Noel, Josh and Emily floated through my mind (like passing clouds, as Josh had said). I looked around and wondered if indeed zen or Tibetan Buddhism or yoga have anything to contribute to such a crowd as this. I can recognize in the faces of the little children, of the bare-chested, tipsy men, of the mothers and even the ball-players, the humor, thoughtfulness, joy, compassion, boredom that each of my interviewees manifested.

I looked at Emily, thoroughly enjoying herself with her friends, as at home in classic Americana as she is with her spiritual discipline. And so it is with these “dharma brats.”

They are clearly a part of Generation X-they watch MTV, snowboard, study and socialize, experiment (perhaps) with drugs, dream of being rich, famous, falling in love. But there is another, once-exotic foreign influence in their lives. Whether yoga, zen or Tibetan Buddhism, their path is not only temporal but spiritual, and so while enjoying “Reality Bites” on video with friends and popcorn, they may see with different eyes and feel with different hearts.

Jason, Emily, Josh, Noel and young people like them unite two distinct influences-for centuries so separate-on a personal, fundamental, thorough level. If East meets West, and the sparks can fly, Noel, Jason, Josh, Emily and the rest of this rare generation are now the embodiment of that spark.

Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis

Born in Boulder, Colorado, Waylon Lewis is the founder of Elephant Journal.