On the fringes of mainstream society lies a pool of thoughtful people looking for relief from daily stress, intermittent tragedy, and a lurking sense of unease. They don’t want to become Buddhists and probably never will, but they’re clear on the reality of suffering and its cause. They want to let go of their racing thoughts and self-destructive habits. There is little dust on their eyes.
I’ve been teaching people like this for years. I stick to plain language, but this isn’t stealth dharma; I talk openly of the Buddha and my past without calling myself a Buddhist. My time as a monk is at the core of who I am. I was trained to teach but didn’t like the way monkhood distanced me from ordinary people and everyday life. After eight years I returned to consumer society with no dharma props, and was sorely tested. The theory and esoterica withered while something simple took root.
Twenty years passed before I began teaching, another ten before I found myself once again in the company of old friends—at the Buddhist Teachers Council at the Garrison Institute last June. I stood alongside 250 venerable, lettered, and famous Buddhists, feeling cautiously at home.
After a day and a half of conversations, there was an extraordinary exercise organized by members of the next generation and led by Vinny Ferraro. A line was drawn, everyone stood to one side, and Ferraro guided us with a series of instructions, each starting with “Cross the line if…” After each one, people crossed, turned, and faced those who remained—or not. This was no parlor game. It tore down walls—between people, and between your own heart and mind. When Ferraro said, “Cross the line if you’re a Buddhist” my heart skipped a beat. Part of me simply thought I should cross; a deeper part yearned to rejoin my peers. I felt my long exile as a wave of emotion, and that was the decisive moment for me. As the crowd surged forward, I stayed put.
Mindfulness teaches you to resist what you feel like doing. As I resisted, I recalled that passage from the Kalama Sutta: “Do not be satisfied with hearsay or with tradition or with legendary lore or with what has come down in scriptures or with conjecture or with logical inference or with weighing evidence or with liking for a view after pondering over it or with someone else’s ability or with the thought, ‘This monk is our teacher.’”
This is where the Buddha’s words ring especially true for the disillusioned, the irreligious, and the skeptical. For the record, I’m all three. I draw a line between the Buddha, a man with something to say, and Buddhism, an institution with an agenda. What I didn’t acknowledge when I first encountered the dharma was my desire to belong to this ancient tradition. I rationalized my conversion with elevating theories of epistemology, psychology, and contemplation. On those topics I hung my hat and shaved my head, all the while blind to my motives. Just when I most identified myself as a Buddhist, I behaved least like a follower of the Buddha.
Now, here I stood facing my demons and my peers. My chest thrummed, tears welled. What irony! My identification with the crowd had lent me the courage to stand apart. The nostalgia I’d felt since arriving sharpened into an acute sense of loss. How far they’d all come, it seemed, and how much I’d abandoned. In that moment I recalled my students. With no need to belong to or believe in anything, they sought nothing but peace of mind. How many times had I reminded them that stress, tragedy, and unease didn’t set them apart? It took Ferraro’s emotional sledgehammer to drive that point back into focus.
The “Buddhists” looked back at me with kindness in their eyes. I didn’t have to cross the line to belong. I felt newly unjudged; my defenses fell. Only superficially were they dharma teachers, celebrity Buddhists. Underneath, they were human beings like me, vulnerable, driven by emotion, yearning for peace.
The creativity of Ferraro and the next generation startled and reassured me. We boomers, for all our pioneering success, were shaped by beguiling Asian forms and are in part mired in that romance. Ferraro’s lot is less bogged down in form, tradition and terminology. They helped me uproot myself again. They reminded me that my generation doesn’t have all the answers, and that the path of freedom begins in experience, not in theory—and certainly not with the mere desire to fit in.